Jesus said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (verse 1) Now I would suggest that when Jesus gives us a warning it is worth our while listening to what he had to say. When we break down this particular warning there are three (maybe more) lessons we can learn about livin’ by leavin’ leaven alone.
1. The lesson about the Pharisees
Who were the Pharisees? They were the leaders of one of the major religious sects of the Jews. They were the custodians of the law and supposed to teach it to the people as part of the Old Covenant temple worship. They were supposed to be the religious teachers of the time to help the people learn about the ways of God and how to live a godly life under the law.
However they failed often at these things for they were proud and arrogant. They focussed more on looking good than being good. They also twisted the law of god to suit their own ends. They sought status from their position and the admiration of men rather than the blessings of God. For this reason alone Jesus could have said to beware, but there were many other reasons too, which can be seen best in Matthew 23.
2. The lesson about the Leaven
Leaven is a piece of bread dough that has been activated by yeast. Whenever bakers made bread, they would put aside some of the activated dough to be able to activate the next batch.
Leaven like yeast causes bread to rise when it is activated. The bacteria in the yeast spread throughout the dough until it is fully activated. When left aside it then rises in readiness for baking. The bacteria in the yeast generate carbon dioxide gas which then expands making the bubbles in the dough and causing it to rise.
Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. He is not talking about bread but is comparing something about the Pharisees to leaven. He tells us elsewhere that the leaven of the Pharisees is their teachings. (Matthew 16:12) So when we look at the teachings of the Pharisees using the lens of a comparison to leaven, we get some insight into why Jesus was warning his disciples.
Leaven puffs up bread. Many of the Pharisees were proud and arrogant and so they too were puffed up. Leaven generates gas. The Pharisees were also full of bluster and hot air. Leaven works its way through dough until it is all affected by the yeast in the leaven. The Pharisees teachings would likewise pervade a person’s mind and heart until they are fully infected by false or misleading teachings. Leaven is an additive to bread making it different from what it formally was and making the bread dough fully leavened and homogenous. The false teachings of the Pharisees change people too, but not for the better as they become homogenous with the Pharisaic teachings and become like them.
There may be other aspects to the effects of leaven that could be added. Perhaps you can think of more and add them to the comments section.
3. The lesson about Hypocrisy
If there was anything that Jesus disliked more than anything else it was hypocrisy. People don’t like hypocrites either, and the easiest way to lose trust and destroy relationships is to be a hypocrite.
The Greek word for hypocrite means an “actor.” An actor is someone who is not being true, instead they are “fakin’ it.”
Jesus said of the Pharisees that they speak but do not do, and that is hypocrisy. Their words said one thing but their actions said something else. They were false, sheep in wolves clothing and putting on appearances. They seek advantage through deception and trickery by appearing to be something different to what they really are.
How can you see through the hypocrisy? Jesus gave the answer for that too. He said, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) So don’t blindly accept what anyone says. Give them time and watch carefully to see whether their actions and behaviours match what they say. Then you will see the hypocrites and those who are true for what they really are.
Applying these lessons today
There are teachers and teachings today in the church that could be considered “Pharisees” and “leaven.” There are many teachers in the modern church who look good on the surface but are actors or hypocrites for their purpose is not the work of the Lord but to seek their own advantage. There are also many teachings in the modern church that have no basis in the Bible or scriptures. This is leaven and should be avoided.
What is some of the leaven you have seen in the modern church? For the benefit of all readers add some of these things to the comments.
(Picture sourced from stock.xchng www.sxc.hu taken by Ayse Kongur)