Yesterday at BBC, we continued our study of Matthew 16. Pastor George preached a sermon called, “Teachers Who Fail and Students Who Pass” from Matthew 16:1-12:
The Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Jesus, they asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. But He replied to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” And He left them and went away.
And the disciples came to the other side of the sea, but they had forgotten to bring any bread. And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They began to discuss this among themselves, saying, “He said that because we did not bring any bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
In Matthew 15, Jesus and the disciples traveled to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon where they come across the remarkable faith of the woman with a demon possessed child and Jesus feeds a crowd of 4000. In Matthew 16, Jesus steps back into Jewish territory and is immediately greeted by the skeptical Pharisees and Sadducees who demand a sign from heaven.
However, these religious leaders aren’t looking for evidence, they have already made up their minds to reject Christ. When we understand the religious culture of the time this uniting of the Pharisees and Sadducees is a striking event. Normally the two groups were at odds with each other. Pharisees prided themselves on being separate from the culture and adding extra laws to God’s commands. The Sadducees were theological liberals who rejected miracles, angels, and the afterlife and were politically involved with Rome. But when it came to Jesus, these two groups were willing to put their hostility aside because he was the greater threat.
In this passage, we first see the teachers who fail. They display their arrogance by asking Jesus for a sign from heaven. There was a common teaching in their day that only God could perform a sign from heaven. Much like Satan’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, the religious leaders test Jesus in order to get him to subject himself to their authority by performing signs on their terms. This test was designed to trap Jesus either way. If he didn’t perform a sign they could say he was a charlatan. If he chose to give them a sign when they asked, they could claim they were his religious superiors.
They also display their ignorance. Jesus points out that they rely so well on primitive technology to predict the weather, yet the Messiah is standing in front of them and they miss it. This is particularly amazing when their position and knowledge is contrasted with the faith of the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 who had so little information about Jesus and yet believed.
Jesus puts their defiance on display by comparing their condition to that of the Ninevites of Jonah’s time. This would have been a grave insult to the religious leaders because Nineveh was not only a pagan, gentile nation, but the Assyrians had long been Israel’s cruel enemies. However, when the sign of Jonah appeared to Nineveh (which was Jonah himself who had escaped death), they repented immediately. The religious leaders have the One who will defeat death standing before them and they refuse to believe and repent. Their future sentence is also on display. Jesus no longer tries to plead with them–he simply walks away. Mark 8:12 further indicates that Jesus “sighed in his spirit” on behalf of these unbelieving people.
In contrast with the religious leaders, the disciples are granted spiritual understanding. In verses 5-12, they all get in a boat and experience something all too common in the last few chapters–they forgot to pack a lunch. Not worried about this, Jesus issues a warning against false teaching: “Beware of the leaven of the pharisees.” At first, they fail to perceive Christ’s teachings. He warns them not to ingest the false teaching of the Pharisees but because they are focused on their physical hunger, the disciples miss the point. They somehow forgot that Jesus provided for the 5,000, and later the 4,000 with just a few loaves and fish. At first, their lack of faith causes them to misunderstand the truth of his words.
Jesus demonstrates in his conversation with his disciples how dangerous false doctrine is. The single greatest threat to the church is false teaching. Just as a little yeast can permeate much dough, a little false teaching can spread rapidly and endanger the whole lump (Matthew 13). Most of the New Testament epistles were written at least in part to correct some form of false teaching or doctrine (Gal. 1:8, Jude 3-4, 2 Tim. 2:16, 1 John 2). Even one of the twelve in the boat with Jesus would eventually be swept away by the false teaching of the Pharisees.
Just as Jesus warned the disciples, we should be on guard against false teaching and should seek to protect ourselves and the church by “earnestly contending for the faith” (Jude 3-4). We shouldn’t be surprised when Christianity faces opposition from the world but should praise the Lord for giving us spiritual understanding. Lastly, we shouldn’t allow earthly concerns and worries to distract us from spiritual truths but should trust the one who knows and is able to provide abundantly (Matthew 6:31).