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YEAST OF THE PHARISEES – Matthew 15:29-16:13

With the possible exception of Matthew 13:33 (and parallels) where Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like yeast in a large batch of dough, every mention of yeast in the New Testament is negative – referring to bad teaching or bad behavior. Why?

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducess. – Matthew 16:6 (See also Mark 8:15 & Luke 12:1)

A little yeast works through a whole batch of dough. – Galatians 5:9 [The context is the use of the law as a binding, legal force.]

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. – 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 [The context is rebuke of the church for their attitude toward the man who had his father’s wife.]

When you consider what Paul said in Galatians 5:9 and 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, it is also easy to view Jesus’ parable about the yeast in the lump of dough as being an evil influence in the body of Christ. If so, it would also call to mind Paul’s warning to Timothy:

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Piletus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. – 2 Timothy 2:16-18 [Note: this is immediately after the well-known verse, 2 Timothy 2:15 and stands in stark contrast to it.]

What did Jesus mean when He warned His disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees?

As always, context is important. Jesus had just fed 4,000 men, besides women and children Matthew 15:29ff). Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees may not have been present for that miracle. They had, however, witnessed many miracles. Yet, they came to Jesus asking Him to show them a sign from heaven (Matthew 16:1).

Jesus responded by saying that, though they could interpret the signs of approaching weather, they could not interpret the signs of the times (Matthew 16:2-3). They were better at forecasting the weather than they were at understanding the spiritual conditions of the world around them!

Jesus Himself was the “sign of the times.” The miracles He had performed in abundance were signs enough. The first time these people (or at least others like them) had wondered about what Jesus was doing, He gave them a sign. In Matthew 9:1ff, He had healed a paralytic man to show that He had power on earth to forgive sins. Sign after sign followed. Yet, here they come demanding still another sign!

Is it any wonder that He turned them away, saying:

A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. – Matthew 16:4

By calling them a “wicked and adulterous generation,” He grouped them with Israel and Judah in the days prior to their exile when they committed adultery with other gods, forsaking the true and living God of Israel. Their obsession with their traditions (preferring them over the commandments of God) effectively created an idol of their oral law. Their hounding of Jesus came because He was a continued threat to their traditions.

Jesus, having just come across the lake (15:19), got back into the boat and left. He did not stay to continue listening to them harangue Him. He had said all He wanted to say to them at this time, so He left.

The disciples, however, forgot to bring bread.

What had happened to the seven basketsful of bread and fish they had picked up? Did they give them to some of the crowd to take with them for their journey home? Had enough time transpired that they had already used them? We are not told. Presumably, they could have replenished their supply while they were on shore – but did not. That led them on a side-track when Jesus said to them:

Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

They thought this was because they had forgotten to bring bread (though Mark 8:11 does say they had 1 loaf with them in the boat).

Jesus reminded them of how He had fed 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish – and they had taken up 12 baskets full afterward. He also reminded them of the 4,000 He fed with 7 loaves and a few fish – and that they had taken up 7 baskets full after all had eaten.

Then they understood that He was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:13

What was their teaching? It was that the oral traditions of the elders was of greater importance than the clearly stated commandments of God. (See Matthew 15:1-20)

In Luke 12:1, in a different context, Jesus also said, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” The particular teachings of the Pharisees, which focused on outward shows of piety and devotion to God, fostered hypocrisy. There is little practical difference in the disciples understanding that their yeast was their teachings and Jesus’ statement that their yeast is hypocrisy.

Why do we need to be on guard against outward piety and hypocrisy? To ask the question should be to answer it. These things rob us of inner spiritual vitality and authenticity. They mean that our service to God is all external and not of the heart. Further, these things have a way of spreading to others in a fellowship of believers. When leaders, especially, “toot their own horn,” many times with a show of false humility, this infects others in the body – like gangrene.

When gangrene sets in, amputation is often the only way to save the rest of the body. Yet, many local bodies of Christ are infected badly. Is this one reason that many congregations are dying?

If this is true of the local church, can it also be true of “the brotherhood” at large as well? If so, how can we recover? The answer is that we cannot – except by going back to the Great Physician who can heal us from all of our diseases, including spiritual gangrene!


  1. How many “signs” does Matthew record prior to this demand for a sign? (It may be impossible to get a precise number, for on many occasions He healed all who came to him.)
  2. Why do you think the Pharisees and Sadducees would not recognize the signs He had offered in the past?
  3. What did Jesus mean by “signs of the times” that his critics could not discern?
  4. How is yeast appropriate as an illustration of the way evil and bad attitudes work through a body of believers?
  5. In what way was the teaching of the Pharisees and their hypocrisy like yeast?
  6. What in the church today might be comparable to the yeast of the Pharisees?

NEXT: Matthew 16:13 – 17:13 – JESUS, SUFFERING SERVANT

PREVIOUS: Matthew 15:1-28 – Polar Opposites: Pharisee & Phoeniecian


One Response

  1. […] PREVIOUS: YEAST OF THE PHARISEES – Matthew 15:29 – 16:13 […]

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