A Warning from Jesus
In Matthew 16:5-12, we read of a discussion that took place between Jesus and his disciples one day as they crossed the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Jesus said to his friends, “Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
The disciples did not understand Jesus. Since they had forgotten to pack bread for the journey, they assumed he was scolding them for failing to bring food. But Jesus quickly corrected their misunderstanding, helping them see “that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 12).
We can notice three things about the danger to which Jesus alerted his disciples. It was a strange danger, a subtle danger, and a serious danger.
1) A strange danger.
It must have sounded bizarre to the disciples to hear Jesus warn them about the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In 1st Century Israel, these two groups were viewed as opposites. The Pharisees were a largely middle-class group of religious fundamentalists. They took the words of Scripture literally and stood in opposition to the colonial rule of Rome. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were educated, affluent elites. They were closely allied with the priestly class and the Herodians and would have been viewed by the Pharisees as Roman sympathizers. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees were dismissive of much of Scripture’s teaching. Acts 23:8 says, “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.”
How strange that Jesus would speak of these two groups as having the same teaching. [The Greek word for ‘teaching’ (didache) in verse 12 is in the singular.] Today that would be like saying: “Watch out for the political philosophy of the Republicans and the Democrats” or “Steer clear of the theology of the progressive and the conservative churches.”
In what sense could the Pharisees and the Sadducees be said to have had the same “teaching”? The answer is that neither group treated Scripture as authoritative.
The Pharisees disregarded the authority of Scripture by adding to its teachings. They imposed rules on their followers that are nowhere found in the Old Testament. In Mark 7:8, Jesus condemned them by saying “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
The Sadducees disregarded the authority of Scripture by subtracting from its teachings. They dismissed those parts of the Old Testament that pointed to the existence of a supernatural realm. Jesus condemned them by saying “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matt. 22:29).
Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have seemed to us to be very religious people. Both groups invested lots of time in the study of Torah. But neither of these groups truly treated God’s revealed Word as authoritative. Each group had a low view of Scripture. The Pharisees demonstrated this low view by adding to the Bible. The Sadducees did so by subtracting from the Bible. But each group was guilty of the same thing. They were ignoring Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 4:2, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”
2) A subtle danger.
Jesus compared a low view a Scripture to yeast. When yeast is worked into a lump of dough it is essentially invisible. Yet, over time, even a small amount of yeast causes the entire batch to rise. What starts in a small and imperceptible way eventually leads to significant change.
So it is with a deficient view of God’s Word. Though we might openly affirm an orthodox doctrine of Scripture, without noticing it we can slowly begin to treat the Bible as less than authoritative in our lives. Neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees would have viewed themselves as people who had drifted from Scripture but, without realizing it, they had.
Here are some questions to ask to see if we are subtly drifting from God’s Word:
- Do I attend a church that believes the Bible to be God’s inspired, authoritative word?
- Am I regularly reading God’s Word and hearing it preached?
- When is the last time the Bible confronted me about an attitude or habit in my life that needed to change?
- Do any of my views of ethics or morality clash with the surrounding culture because of how God’s Word has shaped my thinking?
- How frequently do I find myself comforted by truths that come from the Bible?
- Have I ever changed my position on a matter of Christian doctrine out of deference to what is taught in Scripture?
- Am I open to hearing biblical teaching that comes from outside my theological tribe?
- Do I feed my soul on God’s Word (Deuteronomy 8:3)?
- Do I delight in God’s commands (Psalm 112:1)?
- Do I tremble at God’s Word (Isaiah 66:2)?
- When is the last time I felt like God’s Word was piercing my heart (Heb. 4:12)?
- Do I hold firmly to the historical apostolic teachings of the church (2 Thessalonians 4:15)?
- Is my interaction with Scripture helping me get to know Jesus better (John 5:38-40)?
In a classic paper on Matthew 16:5-12, Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) wrote:
“False doctrine does not meet [people] face to face, and proclaim that it is false. It does not blow a trumpet … and endeavor openly to turn us away from the truth.... It does not come before [us] in broad day, and summon [us] to surrender. It approaches us secretly, quietly, insidiously, plausibly, and in such a way as to disarm [our] suspicion, and throw [us] off his guard.”
Another way of saying that is that unbiblical teaching works like yeast. It works subtly to draw us away from the Word of God.
3) A serious danger.
It is helpful to remember the context in which Jesus delivered this warning. Whom did Jesus warn to guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees? Was he speaking to a group of pagan Roman soldiers? Was he addressing a gathering of tax collectors? Did Jesus give this warning to hard-hearted Herod or people-pleasing Pilate?
No. Christ spoke this warning to his disciples. These were people who had left everything to follow Jesus (Mt. 4:19-20). They had received authority to drive out demons and heal diseases (Mt. 10:1). They had endured public ridicule for the cause of Christ (Mt. 12:2). They had witnessed firsthand the miracles of the Lord (Mt. 15:29-39).
If even people like these needed to be warned not to drift from the authority of God’s Word, how much more people like us? The danger Christ spoke of here is clearly a very serious one.
Noting that even the twelve Apostles needed to hear this warning, Ryle wrote:
“[T]he most eminent servants of Christ are not beyond the need of warnings, and ought to be always on their guard. [T]he holiest of believers ought to walk humbly with his God, and to watch and pray so that [they] won't fall into temptation, and be overtaken with sin…. These things ought to make us humble and cautious. They tell us to distrust our own hearts, and to pray to be kept from falling.”
So let’s heed the warning that Jesus gave to his disciples. Let us beware of either adding to or subtracting from the Word of God. Let’s allow Scripture to function as the authority over our lives.