We can understand the failure of the Pharisees and Sadducees to perceive the signs of the times. They were unable to understand because they would not understand. It is exactly why people are unable to believe on Jesus Christ today: They do not want to believe. What really is incomprehensible is the dense minds of the disciples. To reapply the title of a movie, the Pharisees may have been spiritually “dumb,” but the disciples were “dumber.” They were dumber because they had every reason to understand.
After leaving the unbelieving leaders of the nation (Mt.16), Jesus went back across the Sea of Galilee, taking His disciples with Him. He had withdrawn from Galilee before when He had traveled north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Now He left again. He was headed for the region of Caesarea Philippi, which was about as far from Jerusalem as it was possible to get going north. This was the last of Jesus’ withdrawals before His final return to Jerusalem, where He was crucified.
What was Jesus thinking as He and the disciples made their way across the lake again? It becomes clear from the story. He was still pondering the unbelief and hostility of the religious leaders. They should have believed on Him, but they would not. Moreover, they were doing what they could to keep other people from believing. We know Jesus was thinking along these lines, because He suddenly spoke up with a warning for the disciples. “Be careful,” Jesus told them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Jesus was warning them about the dangers of the legalism of the Pharisees and the modernism of the Sadducees.
What were the disciples thinking as they crossed the lake with Jesus? The answer to that question is obvious from the story too. They were thinking about food. The problem was that they had forgotten to bring along the necessary bread. Mark says that they had only one loaf. So when Jesus said, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” all they could think of was lunch. Their thinking must have gone something like this: “Yeast! Yeast is used to make bread! We don’t have any bread! We forgot to bring bread!” They figured it out: “Jesus must be upset with us because we didn’t bring enough food.”
With all that had happened, how could they still be so dull as to miss what He was teaching?
As for bread itself, why should they be troubling their heads about that? Wasn’t He able to take care of them with or without bread? Why couldn’t they trust Him and leave it all in His hands?
Yet even that was not the worst failure on the disciples’ part. They had been thinking about food and had failed to trust Jesus for it, but what was worse was their failure to understand what He was saying about the religious teachers. He wasn’t talking about bread when He said, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Couldn’t they see that? He was talking about the Pharisees’ doctrine. Matthew says that when He told them He was not talking about bread, they finally understood “that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their adherence to the traditions of men rather than the actual Word of God. They had been adding human legalisms to God’s revelation, which is why they were unable to accept the Lord when He came.
What about the Sadducees? If the error of the Pharisees was to add to the biblical revelation, the error of the Sadducees was to take away from it. They dismissed the miracles. Even worse, they dismissed the Bible’s basically other-worldly outlook. They did not believe in a resurrection of believers. All they really had to live for was success and prosperity here and now.
These two errors are always present in the Church as well as in religion generally, which means they are a constant danger. One error is to try to live by law rather than by grace. It is the error of people who take their relationship with God seriously but do not understand the depths of their own depravity. They imagine somehow that they can add to Christ’s work by their own good works or keep themselves in a state of grace by their worthiness. Paul encountered this error among the Galatians and warned them against “beginning with the Spirit” but then “trying to attain your goal by human effort.” Paul argued that living by grace and trying to live by works are two incompatible systems and that salvation is by grace alone.
The other error is just as insidious. The Pharisees were intensely religious and erred by adding to the Gospel human understandings of what religion should be. The Sadducees were not religious, but they erred by rejecting anything that was too other-worldly or too demanding, as was Jesus’ teaching. This error is more common in our day than legalism. We do have legalists, both in the Church and out, but most people in our day imbibe a modern approach to everything and live as if this world and what it has to offer are all that ever really matter.
Jesus warns against both views, and He is warning us as well as the disciples when He says, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” We can miss the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ as much by legalistic as by modernistic unbelief. The only Gospel that will do us any good is the Gospel of justification by grace alone because of Christ alone, which is received by faith alone.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org