A few years ago, I found a brand new, in-the-box bread making machine at a Goodwill store. Of course I bought it. My family enjoyed fresh bread for weeks until I lost the beater and the machine went into the closet. I found the bread-making process fascinating, especially the action of the yeast on the nature of the dough. A very little bit of yeast added to the dough at the right time and allowed to do its work under the right conditions will change the taste, texture, size and behavior of the bread completely.

This is why God chose to use leaven throughout Scripture as a picture of sin in the life of the saint. A little bit of sin, given time and the right life conditions, can change the saint in every way.

In Matthew 16, Christ has a particular and particularly virulent strain of sin in mind. I won’t copy the passage here because of its length, but please take a moment to look it up and read through Matthew 16:1-16. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Finished? Good! As we begin the chapter, we see Christ confronted by an odd coalition of enemies—the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two schools were theological opposites and bitter opponents under most conditions. The Sadducees were the materialists of the day. They rejected the supernatural and saw the Mosaic Law as a good moral code. They did not believe in life after death, spirits or angels. To them, the whole purpose of the Torah was to produce a good society. The Pharisees were the conservatives of their time. We would have much in common with them. They believed all Scripture was divinely inspired, inerrant and authoritative. They accepted that after death was judgment and rewards. They loved the law so much they added to it all kinds of man-made proscriptions and prescriptions. Only opposition to Jesus Christ could unite these bitter enemies.

After rejecting their request for a sign from heaven (as though there hadn’t been every possible sign given), Christ left these doubters and took His disciples across the lake. It seems from the tone of the passage that Christ continued to be preoccupied with the confrontation during the voyage and wasn’t really paying attention to the journey. The disciples on the other hand were preoccupied with what was for them a much more immediate crisis: They had no provisions.
As they were landing the boat and discussing their lack of bread, Jesus turned to them and made a very odd comment, “Take heed, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” Of course, the disciples, hungry and upset, immediately thought He was trying to tell them something about their forgetfulness. Perhaps He didn’t want them buying bread when the opposition was around.

Jesus was very frustrated with His people and rebuked them strongly for their misunderstanding as an indication of their lack of faith. He reminded them of the times (one very recent) when He provided large groups with plenty from little, then repeated His warning against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Then they understood He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

It’s interesting He’s warning them against the doctrine (singular) of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Of all the theological differences that divided these schools, what teaching could they share that would be of such concern to Christ? Although the Pharisees took the high road, and the Sadducees took the low road, they all ended by focusing on earthly concerns. The Pharisees wanted all to see their heavenly piety in their outward actions and appearance without experiencing an internal/eternal change. The Sadducees saw the moral life as an end in itself with no eternal consequences. Both camps lived for this world and its concerns.
I can understand Jesus’ frustration with His disciples when they missed the point to such a degree. Overcome by immediate hunger, they failed to understand the spiritual meaning of His words. At that moment, even in the very presence of Christ, their bellies were their gods. We find this so often in modern Christianity. Our Christian culture is leavened with practical, everyday, feel-good spirituality that produces no inward transformation. Holiness is a forgotten concept, and the fish symbol and silver cross replace Christ-likeness and inward submission.

Rather than looking for “Seven Steps to a Better Marriage” or “Leadership Principles from the Gospels,” we must allow God’s Word to change who we are internally and eternally; better marriages and godly leadership will naturally blossom. Paul didn’t delineate the “ornaments of the Spirit,” something hung on externally; rather he listed for us the fruit of the Spirit, natural external evidences of an internal change.

Pastor James Burke spent his teen years in South East Asia with his missionary family before returning to North Carolina to earn a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Piedmont Bible College. After several years serving in youth and music ministry while also working as an international marketing coordinator, he accepted the call to pastor Grace Brethren Church in Riner, Va., and has led this church since 2003. He has a passion for practical exposition.

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