Matthew 16:12, "Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees."
This morning, two concepts that perpetuate themselves never cease to amaze me: 1. how relative the Bible stays day after day and year after year, and 2. how much man tries to discount the Bible and talk about how "how out of date" it is. Polar opposite concepts, yet they continue to this day. When reading the Bible, friends we are approaching a Book that is still just as fresh and vital today as it has ever been. The old stories of real people, what they thought, and what they said then are still important now. To repeat an adage from theatre, "Same story, different players." How often do we see the same failures of the Bible repeated today? How often do we also see the same blessings realized today? More importantly, how often do we see the enduring and unchanging nature of God and His promises today as they were faithfully recorded then? On this 400th anniversary year of our English Bible translation (King James), may we appreciate its value for us today and delight in the inspired word of God's continued relevance in our lives.
Our study verse concludes a dialogue between Christ and His disciples. As the story unfolds, Christ warns them of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They assume He is chastising them for failing to pack some bread to eat on their journey. He discerns their thoughts and reasoning with each other and quickly reminds them of two miraculous occasions in the recent past: feeding of the 5,000 and feeding of the 4,000. His point drives home for them the idea that He is able to sufficiently provide for them and even abundantly more so. They are then brought to the realization in our verse of what the Lord really meant by His warning. His warning did not revolve around natural matters (literal bread), but rather revolved around spiritual warfare (ideas that attack the truth).
As a younger Bible student, I used to wonder how people in the Bible could think and act the way they do. For example, I would wonder how the children of Israel remained so steadfastly stiffnecked in the face of all of God's rich care and providence to them. Then, as an older Bible student, I realized that I was equally – if not more – guilty for failing to honour God and thank Him for His rich care and providence in my life. Scripture affirms this should be our lesson. (I Corinthians 10:1-13) Equally often as a younger student of the Bible, I would wonder how the Pharisees and Sadducees could act so brazenly in the face of Christ and the power of His miracles. Truly, some of them did so out of a hard and stony heart with a goat's nature that had not ability or desire to come to Christ. (John 10:25) However, some of God's children (among the Pharisees and Sadducees) did so for other reasons. (John 12:42-43)
Again, as an older student of the Bible, I realized that I was prone to act like a Pharisee or Sadducee in my daily walk and behavior. Therefore, Christ's warning against their leaven/doctrine/way of thinking still applied today as a warning for me as much as it did for them in those days. Truly, we do not have bands of men who are known by the moniker of "Pharisee" or "Sadducee." Yet, their doctrine and thinking is still alive and well. If we are to succeed in performing the avoidance of that way of thinking – per Christ's warning – it behooves us to know what it is and how we can end up there. Therefore, let us try to briefly examine those points to see how we can succeed in being aware of the mindset and walking from and not to it.
A Sadducee denied many powerful spiritual things. He denied the resurrection. He denied the existence of angels and spirits. (Acts 23:8) A Pharisee denied that he was subject to the same kinds of problems that others had. His life was a life of mastery (by his own doing), and others should aspire to be more like him rather than vice versa. (Luke 18:10-14) Their doctrine can be playfully seen in some cute twisting of their titles: the Sadducee denies the resurrection, which is why he is so "sad you see," and the Pharisee thinks he is better than everyone else, which is why he is so "fair I see."
People today have never seemingly been quicker to deny powerful miracles or extraordinary deliverances. When amazing stories of providence come across the news waves, denial of God's gracious hand is quickly offered with preference to things like "luck" or "chance." In a world of increasing cynicism, people deny any extraordinary benefit to attending church regularly, if at all. Nothing truly special happens there anyway, or so they think. The Bible is not an extraordinary book, and thoughts on the "after-life" – most do not talk about heaven and hell anymore but refer to life after death as either non-existent or something nebulous that no one can really tell or talk about – range from hugely cynical to mere hyperbole.
Also, due to the increased technology and other advances of medicine, etc. man today also believes himself to be part of the "smartest generation." As an aside, one of my favorite tactics to destroy this house of cards is to ask, "Do you have any idea what men like Einstein, Newton, or others would have been capable of doing with supercomputers and the technology of today?" It is a fallacy to believe that we are the smartest because of these things, for the great men of yesteryear (even in a natural way), might have doubled or tripled our output (and in my opinion likely would have) with the means that we have today. Man today is not wiser and better than he ever has been, though he actively promotes the thought that he is.
The combination of the dismissal of supernatural blessings and self-perceived superiority of modern man declares for us that the doctrine of these two old sects is still alive and prospering today. Therefore, we conclude that Christ's warning for His disciples then is still quite relevant for us today. Knowing not only what these two ideologies believe and that they still play a dominant role in current, everyday thinking, how does a disciple of Christ succeed in warding off these detriments and avoiding these pitfalls? Is it as easy as simply saying, "I refuse to believe what I hear in the world."? Is it as plain as saying, "I will think of myself as poor, undeserving, and look forward to the resurrection."?
The answer is simply no it is not nearly that easy. Too often times, these ideologies plague us before we realize that they are upon us. If a Sadducee is sad due to a denial of supernatural power and blessings, we can very easily be a victim of that mindset when we are troubled and sad (despondent and without hope) in this old world. Truly, the pains and sorrows of life do come. Sorrow and travail of soul does manifest itself in our sin-laden walk. However, being the victim of a pity party or actively living like one has no hope is exactly what falling prey to the doctrine (leaven) of the Sadducees brings about. If a Pharisee is fair due to an undue amount of stock being placed in self, we can very easily be lifted up with pride or self-worth when we see things going well in our lives and seem to not be in need. Periods of prosperity come from time to time. Happy seasons do arrive sometimes like the seasons of the year. However, we are victims of the doctrine of the Pharisees when we discount our need of God and do not thank Him for His rich mercy and grace upon us.
The disciples were victims to both doctrines in our lesson. They forgot the rich power of God manifested in their recent travels from Christ feeding the multitude twice. That great scene should have provided for them every reason to continually acknowledge the power of God and His supernatural ability to bring things to pass that we cannot comprehend. They also worried about His perception of them from something they had not done (and perhaps wanted to conceal). We will be lacking at times in our service to God. We will fall short of His great mark that He set. However, we should not spend our time around Him thinking, "What are we going to do? How do we explain this one?" Rather, we should come to Him often, freely confessing our failings, begging His forgiveness, and humbly asking Him what He would have us do. When sorrow and/or comfortable pride reign in our daily lives, let us refocus our sight on His marvellous power and wonderful works. May we take true comfort in the power of His might and seek to honour Him and His work by humbling ourselves under His mighty hand. Truly, the rich Book still contains a gold mine of relevance for us, and may our lives heed it well.