Theme: Knowing the Times
This week we see the dangers of legalism and modernism still among us.
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
What was Jesus thinking about as He and the disciples made their way across the lake again? It is perfectly clear from the story. He was still pondering the unbelief and hostility of the religious leaders. They should have believed on Him but they would not. Moreover, they were doing what they could to keep other people from believing. We know Jesus was thinking along these lines, because he suddenly spoke up with a warning for the disciples. “Be careful,” Jesus told them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v.6). Jesus was warning them how dangerous the legalism of the Pharisees and the modernism of the Sadducees was.
What were the disciples thinking about as they crossed the lake with Jesus? The answer to that question is obvious from the story too. They were thinking about food. The problem was that they had forgotten to bring along the necessary bread. Mark says that they had only one loaf (Mark 8:14). So when Jesus said, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v.6), all they could think of was lunch. Their thinking must have gone like this: “Yeast! Yeast is used to make bread! We don’t have any bread! We forgot to bring bread!” They figured it out: “Jesus must be upset with us because we forgot to bring enough food.”
In Mark’s account we are only told that Jesus sighed at the unbelief of the Pharisees and Sadducees. But I think Jesus must have sighed even more deeply here as he realized the level on which the twelve disciples were still thinking. With all that had happened, how could they still be so dull as to miss what he was teaching?
As for bread itself, why should they be troubling their heads about that? Wasn’t He able to take care of them with or without bread? “Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?” (vv.9-10). If Jesus had been able to feed these two great groups of people so that they were not only fed but had baskets of food leftover, wouldn’t He be able to see that this small group of twelve had what they needed to be fed and kept healthy? Why couldn’t they trust Him and just leave it all in His hands?
Yet even that was not the worst failure on the disciples’ part. They had been thinking about food and had failed to trust Jesus for that, but what was worse was their failure to understand what He was saying about the religious teachers. He wasn’t talking about bread when He said, “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Couldn’t they see that? He was talking about the Pharisees’ doctrine. Matthew says that when He told them He was not talking about bread they finally understood “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 might think, since the disciples finally understood that Jesus was warning them about the Pharisees’ teaching, that what Jesus was warning them about would be clear. But if we are to judge from discussion in the various commentaries on Matthew, the specific matter He was speaking about is not so obvious. What was the specific nature of this wrong teaching?
D. A. Carson approaches this question from the context of the gospel, which is probably the best way to start, and he sees the problem as “an attitude of unbelief toward divine revelation that could not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah (vv.1-4) but that tried to control and tame the Messiah they claimed to await.” He says that is why the next section of the chapter (vv.13-20) is so important, because there “Peter makes the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, not on the basis of manipulative signs, but by revelation from the Father.”1
Craig S. Keener, another contemporary writer, thinks the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees was cynicism, adding that “the disciples’ passive unbelief (v.8) suggests that the threat of Pharisaic leaven is closer to them than they would have guessed.”2
R. T. France’s view is similar: “It was the insidious effect of the attitude revealed in the request for a sign that Jesus warned his disciples against.”3
Finally, in a parallel passage in the third gospel, Luke calls the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ error hypocrisy (Luke 12:56).
1 D.A.Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol 8, Matthew, Mark, Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p.362
2 Craig S. Keener, Matthew (Downers Grove, Ill., and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp.268,269.
3R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), p.251.
About what did Jesus warn his disciples?
Summarize the failure of the disciples in this chapter.
How do the various commentators interpret Jesus’ warning to his disciples?
When have you failed to realize a lesson the Lord was trying to teach you?