The Leaven of the Pharisees | 1998-2

Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Matthew 16:6

Both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus used the metaphor of “leaven” (yeast) to warn the disciples against the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Leaven was a common symbol for evil in Jesus’ day, and could, therefore, be applied to many kinds of wickedness with the thought that even a small amount could go a long way and have an insidious effect.

Jesus brought a serious charge against His disciplies when He said, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? — but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees?” (vv. 8-11).

Manipulation or Obedience

We do not have to guess at those erroneous teachings with which Jesus took issue with the Pharisees and Sadducees. He had denounced them for their demand of manipulative signs instead of believing in the abundant evidence He had already supplied concerning who He was. But now the disciples are perilously close to the same unbelief as to the person of Jesus and His miracles. The Lord sought to train His men to think deeply about the revelation He was giving them. He was grieved that their tiny faith brought them to such an unimaginative conclusion. To follow the thinking of the Pharisees and Sadducees would cause them to miss the truth that Jesus was Himself “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:18). To follow their thinking would be to seek to restrict and control the very Messiah whom they claimed to believe in.

Scripture or Tradition

The Pharisees were the more prominent Jewish group in Jesus’ day. Descendants of the Hasidim (pious ones), they believed fanatically in a righteousness which comes by law. They actually became so obsessed in seeking to render explicit what was implicit in the law that they resorted to artificial means of exegesis. Their devotion to an external holiness prompted rigid codes for dress and diet. The Pharisees stubbornly held to a number of inherited traditions, which, although not found in the written law, they held as a part of the law given to Moses on the Mount. So they proposed two parallel divine revelations: the written law and the oral tradition, and they taught that these were equally important and equally authoritative.

Politics or Revival

The Sadducees were a small but influential Jewish group in Jesus’ day, and they originated during the Maccabean dynasty. The high priestly families during the time of Jesus were identified with the Sadducean party. Most of the Sadducees were well educated, wealthy and aristocratic. They were conservative in theology and found themselves unpopular with the Pharisees because they collaborated with the Roman authorities. The Sadducees rejected the tradition of the elders, and they did not believe in a resurrection.

Jesus as Messiah and Savior would, of course, confront both the Pharisees and Sadducees head on in His teaching ministry. The Pharisees would be offended when He denounced them as hypocrites because they placed authority in tradition instead of in the Scriptures (Matt. 15:3); because He told them that they tried to worship God with their pious lips while their unclean hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6-7); because He sternly condemned their sins of self-righteousness, externalism, and hypocrisy (Matt. 23:25-28).

Jesus had at least three grievances against the Sadducees: they did not believe in the supernatural; they were ignorant of the Scriptures; and they did not know the power of God (Mark 12:18-27). Contemporary Sadducees are clever in their ridicule of the supernatural, and most of them think they are doing the Church a great service in trying to fortify their people against the fanatical, the extreme and the bizarre doctrines of those who take seriously the teachings of Jesus and His apostles concerning the supernatural forces of good and evil. Our Lord would warn all against their “leaven.” He said, “Watch out that you are not deceived” (Luke 21:8). The Apostle Paul warned, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

Many Christian leaders are so locked into tradition (cultural, denominational, congregational, personal) that they are blinded to the nature of the tragedies they face in their ministries. With all of their knowledge and training, they have somehow remained ignorant of the workings of the supernatural. Most of the time they do not recognize it when it is before them. They have many ways of explaining it away. What is worse, they are ignorant of both the Scriptures and the power of God.

Casualties in a Spiritual War

But let me hasten to say that I do not believe the majority of men and women who pastor our Western churches are false shepherds or false prophets. They are not “predators in our pulpits,” for the most part. The average pastor prays to become a better and more effective leader, wanting to deliver God’s Word to his people, hoping for renewal in the Church body and seeking to be open to divine direction for a more effective ministry. But believe me, it is this great majority that Satan has set out to deceive. He calls their attention to some silly, wild preacher who has a strange fascination with evil spirits, who sees a demon behind every bush, every pew and every pulpit except his own, who identifies an unclean spirit attached to every bad cold or bout of depression. With this distraction, skepticism of the supernatural is deepened, and it is easier to conclude that the actual work of evil spirits was limited to the times of Jesus and His apostles.

Satan will keep pastors and evangelists and teachers reading the kind of books and listening to each other spout their doubts about certain Scriptures until they see absolutely no need for engaging in spiritual warfare. And one of his most effective strategies is to simply keep them preoccupied with administration, counseling, visitation and putting out the fires of opposition and criticism so that every day and every week are prayerless ones. Such otherwise intelligent leaders would never dream that they are themselves already casualties in a spiritual war.

Our Lord understood clearly and taught repeatedly the clash of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, the kingdom of righteousness and the kingdom of evil, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. Satan recognized the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a challenge to him and his kingdom. Though Satan is not omniscient, he knew that with Christ’s entrance on planet earth his domain was being invaded and he realized that the stakes were high. So he attacked Jesus in every possible way — when he could not buy Him, he decided to kill Him. But he never knew until it was too late that his plot to kill Jesus played right into the plan of a Sovereign God to give His one and only Son as a ransom for sinners. It was the voluntary death of Jesus Christ on the cross that decisively and eternally defeated Satan and his hierarchy of evil. There, said the apostle Paul, Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities” and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15).


Dear Christian friends, let us recognize Christ’s call to us to enforce the mighty victory over Satan and evil that He won at Calvary. Until Christ actually returns Himself to destroy Satan and his minions, we are given authority to discern his strategies, disclose his purposes, deny his authority, defeat his operations and deliver his captives.

It requires Spirit-filled prayer warriors in any church or community to prove that Satan does not have unlimited power and freedom on planet earth to attack God’s children, seduce our loved ones or hinder revival. Far too long the Church has cut itself off from its source of power and wisdom and has been content with its sorry substitutes. This accounts for its spirit of apathy instead of a spirit of authority. Now this is about to change. A new call is sounding. A new wind is blowing. A new fire is burning. God is giving millions of His children an ear to hear the Spirit’s urgent call to prayer warfare. We shall not be stopped by the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but we shall return to the Upper Room for the wind and fire of the Spirit and a fresh anointing to boldly declare the glory and power of God in these critical times!

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