The Church’s Greatest Peril


Matthew 16:1-12

Text Comment

The Lord’s time in Gentile territory, related in the last two paragraphs, has been concluded and the tension between him and the religious leadership, which at least in part provoked his withdrawal from Galilee in the first place, now is picked up again.

v.1       The Pharisees and Sadducees, remember, were the two principal religious parties in first century Judaism.  Together they represent official Judaism.  Interestingly, they hated each other.  Their religious conceptions were diametrically opposed to one another. On one point, however, they were in complete agreement:  their antipathy for Jesus of Nazareth.  This was not the first time, and would not be the last, that two enemies united in an unholy alliance to combat a common foe.

Their request for a sign was not sincere; they were hoping either that he wouldn’t be able to produce one or to trap him into saying or doing something that would discredit him with the people, among whom Jesus was very popular.  They might well have known that he would refuse their request because he had already refused similar requests for such a performance, as we read in 12:38ff.

v.3       There is some serious doubt as to whether vv. 2 and 3 belong to Matthew’s original.  They are missing from the more authoritative early texts of the Gospel.  As the text stands here, the Lord contrasts his countrymen’s ability to predict the weather by reading the signs in the sky with their inability to discern the meaning of the great signs that they were witnessing in Christ’s ministry.  They could predict the weather but couldn’t see what should have been obvious to anyone:  that God’s kingdom was present in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

v.4       The Lord has already replied to a similar request for a sign with this same enigmatic reference to Jonah.  It is, of course, a reference to his resurrection on the third day, as we read in 12:38-40, but it is part of God’s judgment that these men who have turned away from God and been unfaithful to his covenant should not have this explained to them.  On the other hand, it would have done no good to explain it.  These men had already been favored with repeated demonstrations that should have placed the matter beyond all doubt.  As Jesus said on another occasion, these men would not believe even if a man came back from the dead.

v.6       The Lord used the occasion of a discussion among the twelve about having forgotten to take food on their trip across the lake to make a point.  Clearly the Lord is saying that those who follow the Pharisees and the Sadducees are in great danger.  And he uses “leaven” – the piece of last week’s dough with the fermentation in it – to liken the Pharisees and Sadducees’ teaching to something that is insidious, that works its way unseen into a life but produces considerable effects.

v.7       As we are wont to say nowadays, at this point the disciples are not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  They think the Lord is still talking about their missing lunch.

v.8       We might have expected the Lord to say, “You of little understanding…” but he says first “You of little faith…”  The understanding comes in the next verse.  Faith is the key thing.  If you have faith you will not be tricked by the religious teaching of the Pharisees or Sadducees.  Their weak faith resulted not only in their misunderstanding the Lord’s metaphor – speaking of false teaching under the figure of leaven – but, as we will now see, kept them from having learned the lesson of the two miraculous feedings.

v.9       Their misunderstanding comes from weak faith. Many think understanding comes first, but it is the other way round.  As Augustine put it, “I believe that I might understand.”

v.11     His point is that, given his miraculous supply of food on two recent occasions for immense crowds of people, they should have figured out that the Lord was not worried about the fact that they had forgotten to bring lunch; that he was talking about something higher, more important.

Now, plainly, what we have here is a warning about false teaching, the false teaching given by the two principle religious parties in the Judaism of that day.  It is highly interesting and very important that the Pharisees and the Sadducees represented then and do still today represent the two poles of religious, or theological error.  It is intriguing, in a way, that the Lord spoke of the “teaching” of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, as if they taught similar things, for they did not.  They were united in their unbelief in Jesus, in their misunderstanding of the Messiah’s role, but in regard to everything else they were in fundamental disagreement.

The Pharisees were, we might say, the religious conservatives of their day.  They were the people who held to the inerrancy of the Bible, the sovereignty of God, the seriousness of the issue of human salvation.  But they were legalists who imagined that it lay within their power to offer to God a righteousness sufficient to earn entrance into heaven.  They were, however much they may have also spoken of God’s grace and God’s covenant, they were, at bottom Pelagians, “do-gooders,” whose view of life and salvation amounted to an emphasis on pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were, in our parlance, the theological liberals of their day.  They hailed, as liberals often do, from the upper classes, the social and intellectual elite.  They had a reputation for being “know-it-alls.” They had questions about the authority of parts of the Bible.  They were always doubtful about the supernatural.  They didn’t believe in angels, for example.  They didn’t even believe in the resurrection; in fact, they didn’t believe in any kind of personal survival after death whatsoever.  They believed that man had the power to choose good or evil and that God exercises no influence over human actions.  [Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. ed., ii, 404ff.]  We might call them religious humanists.

So when Jesus warned his disciples about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees he was as much as warning against all theological error, or, better, theological error of both types, the type that falls short of the truth and the type that goes beyond it.  But he is also saying, in rebuking his disciples’ little faith, that access to the truth and real understanding of God and salvation, comes through faith in Christ.  Without that, no one is going to get it right; everyone will go astray and, after all, what difference does it make what route one takes to the precipice?

Now what is striking and so important about this paragraph, this exchange between the Lord and his disciples, is that it links his warning with the rest of the Bible’s emphasis on the great danger posed by false teaching.  From the beginning and up to the present day the church has prospered when she has been taught the truth and has languished and perished when she has been fed on error.  It is not too much to say that the history of Christianity in the world, the history of the advance and the retreat of the kingdom of God has been the history of the contest between faithful and unfaithful teaching in the church.  The church’s great peril has never been the opposition of enemies in the world, but of betrayal by her own leaders, and especially her own teachers. Christianity’s great danger today in not posed by Islam or by secularism, but by false doctrine within her ranks.

Whether we are thinking of false prophets in the Old Testament church or the early heretics to which the New Testament itself bears witness, or the Marcionites and Gnostics of the second century, the Arians of the fourth, the Pelagians of the fifth, the corrupt priests of medieval Europe who sought to sell Christ’s salvation for money, the enlightenment rationalists of the 18th century, or the liberal anti-supernaturalists of the 18th and 19th century, it was error delivered by Christian ministers from Christian pulpits that dealt one blow after another to the body of Christ. If you interrogate the Scripture and ask why it has so often been so that the largest part of the membership of the church in the world has been either merely nominal – Christian in name only – or openly and outright hostile to fundamental teachings of the Bible, the answer that comes back again and again is that it is false teaching and false teachers that have eaten the heart out of Christian faith and Christian life.

Like leaven error spreads insidiously through the whole body.  Over time entire churches have been lost and the Christians of entire countries and regions of the world.  You have only to think of our own Presbyterian world.  At the time of the Westminster Assembly in the middle of the 17th century Presbyterians were a major force in British Christianity.  By the end of the century, little more than a generation later they had all but disappeared.  What caused the death of that great church?  In part it was persecution, but more than that, it was false teaching, spread abroad among its people and its congregations.  At the end of the Revolutionary War there were more Presbyterians in the new republic than adherents of any other Protestant denomination and that church grew and exercised a mighty influence in our nation and around the world.  But by the early 20th century it was already in steep decline and has been ever since.  Why?  Because false teaching was introduced like leaven into those churches and soon they were infected with the fatal disease of unbelief.  Already in the 1920s you could have a preacher say in a prominent Presbyterian pulpit in New York City that he had never met an intelligent Christian who believed in the virgin birth, say it and be applauded for saying it.  Beware of the leaven of the Sadducees!  That is precisely what the Sadducees of Jesus day would have said and they would have said it in the same smug, self-satisfied spirit.   And what has happened in the Presbyterian church has happened in all the great churches of our land.  It is the brave man or woman who imagines that it will not continue to happen in our generation and the next.

Who are the heroes of Christian history?  Well, to be sure, some of them are those who took the gospel to the unevangelized world.  Others are those who lived a sterling Christian life, who embodied Christ-likeness to a remarkable degree.  But most of them are those who fought and even died for the truth and usually they fought for it against its enemies within the church.  We speak of the terrible struggle of Athanasius’ battle against the heresy of Arianism in the 4th century by describing it as Athanasius contra totem orbem but, of course, it wasn’t the world that was seeking to do Athanasius in, it wasn’t the world that fought against him, but the leaders of his own church.  And so with Luther and Calvin, so with the Puritans and Scottish Covenanters, so with modern stalwarts such as Machen.  It wasn’t the world that opposed them or sought to silence them; it was the church and the teachers of the church.

Even when the gospel is reborn in a time or place, as we pray it will be reborn in ours, it is invariably the Pharisees and Sadducees of that time and that place who rise up to resist it with might and main.  So did the churchmen of the 16th century when the Reformers brought the truth of God’s word to bear on the church once again; so did they in the 17th and 18th century when revival broke out all over Europe and North America.  It was churchmen who coined all those dismissive names by which those who had been captured by the grace of God were called:  “Puritans,” “enthusiasts,” “Methodists,” and the like.  They stood in the tradition of the first century Jews who contemptuously dismissed the revival movement that had broken out among them as the work of Nazarenes, a term of abuse formed from the name of the no-account town from which Jesus hailed.  It is the brute fact of history that the chief opposition to the message of salvation in Christ has come from within the church of Christ.  I don’t say that unbelievers, the world, necessarily would believe or embrace the Christian message, but, by and large, they were more indifferent than hostile.  The real enmity came from within.  Preaching the gospel has been war at all times and in all places and most of the bullets have been fired from the rear.

Don’t ever forget that it was the church that rejected and then murdered the Savior of the world and, in doing so, was sure that it was doing the work of God.  How is that possible?  False teaching.  Teach sinners to think wrongly about God and man and salvation and they will hate the truth and kill its prophets and all the while think they are doing God a favor.

I have been reading a fine new biography of St. Patrick and have been reminded by that book of all that this saintly man did for the conversion of the Irish; how much he sacrificed, how much he suffered, how much danger he faced.  You know we would know almost nothing reliable about his life and work if he had not near the end of his life written his Confession, a letter addressed to the bishops of Britain who had taken umbrage at a letter Patrick had written to a British thug and his henchmen who had raided Ireland and stolen for sale as slaves a number of Patrick’s Christian converts.  Patrick, the bishop of Ireland, had written his famous letter, The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, condemning them for what they had done, warning them of God’s wrath, arguing that the kidnapping of Christians by so-called Christians was an offense against everything holy, and pleading for the release of his captive sons and daughters.  His letter, one of the great performances of any Christian minister in defense of justice and mercy, provoked outrage among the bishops of Britain because they saw it as interference in their affairs, no matter the crime that their subjects had committed against Irish Christians.  They trumped up other charges against Patrick and summoned him to Britain to face the music.  He sent his Confession instead, a magnificent account of his ministry in Ireland.  How many times has this happened?  Small and worldly prelates attacking faithful Christian ministers and, if given their way, bringing an end to their gospel ministries.  Even when doctrine is not explicitly the issue, the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees is still abroad in the church.  Of course, those British bishops would not have done what they did had they been better taught and seen to better teaching in their churches.

The Gospels tell us that one of the chief motivations behind the murder of Jesus Christ by the churchmen who persuaded Pontius Pilate to order his crucifixion was jealousy.  They were envious of the Lord’s power, his popularity, the authority of his teaching, and the goodness of his life.  Mark tells us that this envy was so obvious that even Pilate knew that it was this, not some higher motive, that was behind their demand that Jesus be put to death.  But lying beneath that envy, was a false understanding, a heresy that put them at odds with Jesus, that made them his enemy, that closed their minds to the possibility that his extraordinary powers, his captivating teaching, and his wonderful love and compassion for people were, in fact, from God.

That is what false teaching, what theological error can do.  It makes a person so blind that they cannot see the light of the noonday sun.  They can still read the signs and predict the weather; they can study sub-atomic particles and invent remarkable technologies, but they can’t see God even when he shows himself to them and can’t hear him even when he thunders his presence.

But now, you ask: what does this have to do with me?  Why is the Lord’s remark about the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees important for me?  I have another set of problems.  I have a marriage, I have children, or I have a job that is causing me pain and difficulty.  Or I have my own personal struggles and trials to endure.  I am sick, or sad, or weak in some way.  I have enough worries; I don’t need to concern myself with Christian theology, I’ll leave that to others.

Ah, but it is not so easy to dismiss this as the problem of others.  What false teaching does is finally to produce a situation in which every Christian is affected, is harmed, is troubled, in which every Christian life is diminished or imperiled.  You may, to be sure, manage to consider this someone else’s problem and concern for a time.  But not forever.  Error, of course, has already decimated American churches and cut the heart out of their spiritual life.  There are people in hell today, instrumentally speaking, because their parents did not stand for the truth when it came under attack in their churches.  They grew up under a teaching that insinuated killing error into their minds and not only did it kill them, but it has killed their children and their children’s children.

And even when a particular Christian remains faithful, what becomes of him or her when the Christian world around is infected with fatal disease?  I have spoken to Christians in France who are bitter because they love their children and their now adult sons and daughters cannot find Christian young people to marry because the believing church is so pitifully small and dispirited.  Here is the bitter fruit of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees:  Christians living single and lonely lives because they can find no one to marry.  We don’t always make the connection between something so conceptual as false teaching and something so practical as finding a mate, but the connection is real and direct.  I have spoken to Christians in Germany who are aware of how diminished their lives have become because they have so few Christian friends and cannot even worship in a congregation where most of those present are real believers.  Do you love your children?  Do you want them to enjoy a Christian marriage?  Do you hope that your grandchildren will grow up in a lively, faithful Christian church and have the gospel commended to them by the fellowship of committed, earnest Christians among whom they grow up?  Do you want them to have good Christian books to read and Christian conferences to attend?  Well, then you must care about the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  You must care about it and care about it now.  You can’t wait until it has already gained a foothold before you think it something deserving of your attention.  There are parts of the world today that once were thriving centers of Christian life and activity and are now spiritual wastelands.  You don’t want to live in a wasteland, do you?  You certainly don’t want your children to live in one?

I saw in a magazine sent to the church the other day a list of what some writer or editor thought to be the 50 most influential Christians in the United States today.  On the list were some very fine people; people we ourselves look to for faithful teaching and leadership in the American evangelical world.  But there were also on that same list a good number of names that should have a chilling effect on anyone who loves the truth of God’s Word and wants to see that truth still controlling the life of the Christian church a generation from now.  We are never far away from the introduction of error, serious error, killing error.  No period of church history has been free from its insidious effect, no time of gospel advance has not been troubled by opposition from within the church, and no generation of Christians have not found error rising in the church that mirrors the prejudices and the convictions of the surrounding culture.

It surely should be no surprise that, in our day, the forms of unbelief that are now presenting themselves in the church, working through its intellectual life like leaven, are precisely those ideas that are not only congenial to modern Western culture but the chief tenets of its secular theology.  In a age of sexual liberation many in the church are suggesting that the church change its sexual ethics, heterosexual and homosexual, and that it tolerate abortion.  In an age of relativism and tolerance, it is only to be expected that more and more so-called Christian teachers are urging the church to abandon its so unmodern insistence upon the exclusive character of the gospel and to admit that it is not just the Christian road but many roads that lead to God and eternal life.

Francis Schaeffer used to say, “Tell me what the world is saying and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying ten years later.”  Too often, too predictably, that is a prophecy confirmed by history.  “Be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”  The Lord may not have said a single thing that has more to do with the long-term spiritual life and health of the church than what he said to his disciples that day.  Fact is, there will be no eternal life where it is no longer believed and taught; there will be no Christian holiness of life, no joy in the Lord and his salvation, no blessedness of life that comes from faithfully following him, if people are not taught that Christ and Christ alone is the way, the truth, and the life, are not taught his Holy Word, are not taught the way of life as he revealed it to us once for all by his prophets and apostles.

It is not an easy thing to beware of the leaven of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees at the same time.  It requires being alert to dangers from both directions as the same time, falling short of the teaching of the Word of God and going beyond it; refusing to believe what it clearly teaches and adding to its teaching the traditions of men.  Both are deadly errors; both are easily insinuated into the spiritual body of the church and both work like leaven, secretly, gradually penetrating the body of Christ until it is thoroughly infected.

There is a sense, of course, in which the disciples here are being addressed by the Lord in their role as the leaders of the church.  There is a special responsibility that belongs to ministers and elders to maintain the biblical fidelity of the church and its teaching.  But it is also true that the disciples here, as everywhere in the gospels, are representative Christians; they stand for each and every believer.  To you all the Lord says, “Be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”  What does that require of you?

  • That you be concerned to know the Word of God, to be familiar with it’s teaching so that you can compare what you hear from others to this standard, this benchmark.
  • That you keep yourself alert to and aware of the challenges to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints that are arising in our time and culture.
  • That you be an advocate of God’s truth in your speech and your life. Heresy has never been effectively opposed by Christians who seem to be indifferent to the truth of God’s Word in their own lives and living.
  • And, finally, to be careful to instill the truth and a love of the truth in the hearts and minds of your children. If enough Christians did only that, the future would look much brighter than perhaps now it does.

This sermon on the Lord’s warning about the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees has not told you how to have a happy marriage or prosper in your family life, or even how to grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus.  But it has told you how to know whether such things will even be possible for you and for your children.