In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warned His apostles:
Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The disciples didn’t understand His warning, thinking it was about a forgotten loaf of bread. Of course, Jesus spoke of something spiritual, not physical.
Missing The Point
This isn’t the first time His use of physical elements to speak about spiritual things was misunderstood. Keep in mind, that is the basic definition of a parable, the use of physical elements to convey a spiritual truth. It was common for people to miss the spiritual application of things Jesus said. There are several examples, back-to-back in John’s gospel.
The Pharisees heard Jesus say,
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. (John 2:19)
They thought He spoke of the Jerusalem temple. The gospel writer reveals that He spoke of His body (John 2:21).
In John 3:3, Jesus told Nicodemus,
…unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
He was confused—how can a man enter his mother’s womb when he is old? Of course, the Lord spoke of a spiritual birth, not a second physical birth.
In John 4:10, Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about living water. She thought it was some physical water He might give her (4:15). He used water as an image for life. And then later in John 4, the disciples were confused when Jesus said,
I have food to eat of which you do not know. (John 4:32)
They had gone into the city to get food—had someone brought Him food before they got back? He explained:
My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. (John 4:34)
False Teachers and False Teachings
Coming back to our text in Matthew 16, Jesus answered their thought that He spoke about bread. He identified their lack of understanding as a lack of faith. They were not seeing with spiritual eyes, but physical. Why would He be concerned with a loaf of bread? He fed thousands of people more than once with just a few fish and loaves, with plenty to spare. By this time, the Lord expected they would look at things with a spiritual perspective, even in His teachings. They did not.
His warning was about false teachers. The Pharisees and Sadducees taught their own doctrines, not God’s (Matthew 15:1-9). Jesus did not want His followers to be deceived by those who exchanged the truth of God for their own traditions.
The image of leaven was used by Jesus in Matthew 13 to speak about the spread of the kingdom of God. Though the kingdom had very small beginnings, it was quickly spread throughout the whole world. The same picture is used to speak of false teachers and their doctrines. Jesus would later speak of the Pharisees as those who would go over land and sea to covert one soul—they were zealous for their falsehoods, but the end result was that the new convert became “twice as much a son of hell” as the teacher (Matthew 23:15). He didn’t want His disciples to be unaware of the danger the Pharisees posed.
Lessons To Learn
What shall we learn from Jesus’ reference to the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees? There are a few things to take note of:
- As powerful as the truth is, and as great its ability is to spread—error also can spread as though it were infused with leaven. Paul said a false message will spread like cancer (2 Timothy 2:17). Leaven will work on whatever mixture it is put into, whether good or bad, so we must be aware of the content of the message.
- No teacher is above examination. Jesus was not telling them to go and investigate the teachings of strangers who had come into their land; these were the religious teachers who regularly taught in their synagogues, whom they had grown up listening to. The Bereans checked to be sure that what Paul taught was Scriptural (Acts 17:11); we should do the same. John tells us to test the spirits, for not all come from God (1 John 4:1).
- Finally, may we be more inclined to look with spiritual eyes. I don’t mean we should spiritualize everything in life—God didn’t give you a parking spot near the door, someone vacated it and you happened to get there before anyone else. Don’t spiritualize the trivial as some do, but certainly do learn to walk by faith and not by sight.