Unleavened Religion

Unleavened Religion

Friday’s Column: Brent’s Bent

The misunderstanding of the disciples recorded in Matthew 16.5–12 and Mark 8.13-21 has always amused me. Jesus warned them about the leavening of the Pharisees and Sadducees as they sailed away from Magadan, where He had just encountered some annoying members of those religious sects. According to Matthew and Mark, the disciples assumed Jesus was disappointed that they had forgotten to bring bread. Instead, Jesus reminded them that He had recently fed a total of 5,000 and 4,000 men with only a few loaves and fish. In Matthew’s account, the disciples finally realized Jesus was referring to their teaching when he repeated that they should avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Luke tells us that Jesus had also given a similar warning to the people (Cf. Luke 12.1-2).

Pharisees and Sadducees crop up in every era, and it is vital to identify the error we should avoid. Thus, let us think about the fallacies against which Jesus cautions. We begin with the issues that characterized the Pharisees. The original Pharisees, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “to separate,” were strict observers of the elders’ traditions. The Pharisees separated themselves by refusing to assimilate into Greek culture. Though laudable, the Pharisees eventually revered their traditions as sacred as the Law of God, which Moses received on Mount Sinai. 

We can find similar practices today in creeds, catechisms, disciplines, and papal decrees. These traditions, however, need to be more trustworthy. Stories can be altered, manipulated, and distorted to the point where the original narrator would not recognize them. The only way to avoid this is to keep the divine inspiration flowing throughout the distribution process. God only put such safeguards in place for His Word. Traditions can also be harmful to God’s Law. The ancient Pharisee, for example, interpreted the Law according to his rules, rendering it null and void. And so, the Pharisees would do things like pay tithes on items in their herb garden while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law (Matthew 23.23; Luke 11.42). Jesus called them experts at setting aside God’s commands to keep their traditions (Mark 7.9).

And what of the Sadducees? The Sadduccees’ origins are up for debate. The Sadducees claimed descendancy from a priest named Zadok, who anointed Solomon as king (cf. 1 Kings 1.39). On the other hand, the Sadducees were most likely the followers of a man named Zadok, who had been a pupil of the Pharisee Antigonus of Sokho. Zadok misinterpreted what Antigonus of Sokho said to mean there was no afterlife. (According to Antigonus of Sokho, one should obey God out of love and reverence rather than expectation of reward.) The spreading of Zadok’s beliefs to others formed the Sadduceean sect. The Sadducees were similar to the Epicureans, except that the former believed God created the world and governed it through his providence. 

The Sadducees were wealthy and boasted of superior intelligence. Herod was a Sadducee who led the Galilean Sadducees. As a result, the group is also referred to in the Gospels as Herodians (Mark 3.6). The leavening agent introduced by this sect is probably called pseudo-intellectualism. Sadduceeism exists not only in the past; we can also find it today under different names such as atheism, deism, agnosticism, positivism, rationalism, and Erastianism. We typically observe these beliefs in opposition to modern Phariseeism.

But what do the Pharisees and Sadducees have in common? To put it briefly: hypocrisy, lack of knowledge of God’s Word, and hostility toward Jesus. Jesus more effectively exposed their hypocrisy than I could, so I will let His condemnations stand in my stead. So, let us first observe how both groups failed to understand how the prophecies of God fit into the divine plan. They were not spiritually enlightened enough to see the signs that God was giving through Christ. As a result, they did not benefit from Jesus’ teachings in the here and now or the hereafter. (This is especially true of Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 24 about the Romans destroying Jerusalem. Cf. Matthew 24.15, 28.) If the Pharisees had been less concerned with tradition and the Sadducees with looking smart, they could have saved themselves by actually listening to Jesus’ words. But today’s society is just as blind to God’s Word and, therefore, blind to vital information.

Second, there was another thing upon which Pharisees and Sadducees could agree. They both opposed Jesus and could put aside their differences to crucify Him. The proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” has been around for a long time; scholars traced the earliest known use of the phrase back to a 4th century BC Indian Sanskrit. And unfortunately, even those who advocate opposing errors frequently join forces to fight God’s truth today. The Pharisees act piously while ignoring God’s goodness, and the Sadducees claim scholarship while opposing God’s truth.

When we consider the errors Jesus found in the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, we can appreciate the importance of His warning. The Bible emphasizes the pervasiveness of leaven. Any substance you add it to will be altered. For example, accepting sinful behavior in Corinth introduced a type of leaven (1 Corinthians 5.6). A Christian had married his father’s wife! Even the heathen, according to Paul, would not do such a thing. As a result, Christians must discipline the sinner to correct this error. And, according to Galatians 5.9, a little false teaching, like yeast, can leaven the church. In this context, Paul refers to the Judaisers’ negative influence on the Galatian saints. Paul expressed his surprise that a false gospel could easily persuade them in Galatians 1.6-7. In Galatians 3.1, Paul even says it is as if the Judaisers bewitched them.

The leaven of Phariseeism and Sadduceeism can cause us to be hypocritical, remove the boundaries of belief, and lead us to false doctrines. Their teachings can demoralize us and make us feel hopeless if we don’t have faith. We must also be aware that false teaching can discourage our temperament and behavior, even leading to blasphemy. If you recall the context upon which I based this article, Jesus separated Himself from the Pharisees and Sadducees by crossing the sea, which may be a good symbol of the great chasm between the righteous and the wicked. We must also distance ourselves from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees today. Let us be more like good King Josiah of whom God said walked righteously without departing to the right or left (2 Kings 22.2).

Brent Pollard