Watch out for the leaven!
“And straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, and came into the parts of Dalmanutha. And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. And he left them, and entering into the ship again departed to the other side. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf. And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?”
We have before us a very solemn portion of Scripture. The Lord Jesus came into a place called “Dalmanutha“ preaching the gospel. We are told that he came there by ship. What a blessed opportunity the people of that region were given! The Son of God came into their midst with his disciples with the gospel of free grace and salvation. But the opportunity and privilege afforded them in God’s good providence was despised. Not one person in that place seems to have availed himself of the privilege set before him. Instead, our Master was confronted by a group of self-righteous religionists who wanted to argue doctrine with him. Because of their folly, the Holy Spirit tells us that the Lord Jesus turned around, got back into the ship with his disciples, and sailed away. What a solemn passage of Scripture this is. May God the Holy Spirit be our Teacher and open it to us, and open our understanding to it. May he be pleased to effectually instruct our hearts and use his Word to convey to us the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“And straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, and came into the parts of Dalmanutha. And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. And he left them, and entering into the ship again departed to the other side” (vv. 10-13).
When the Lord Jesus saw these Pharisees and heard their religious caviling, “he sighed deeply in his spirit.” What a sweet testimony this is of our Savior’s humanity. Our great Savior, as he walked through this world, was a man subject to all the sorrows, griefs, and passions we experience, except sin. He who rules the universe and makes intercession in heaven as our Great High Priest is God in human flesh, a man touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 2:14-17; 4:14-16).
Yet, it cannot be imagined that our Lord’s sighing was any indication of frustration on his part, or that he both willed the salvation of these Pharisees and willed it not! He spoke plainly when he called them a generation of vipers who could not believe and could not escape the damnation of hell (Matthew 23:1-33). Though, as a man, his heart was grieved by their unbelief (as ours should be), our Savior fully acquiesced in his Father’s sovereign will (Matthew 11:25-27). May God give us grace to imitate him, ever bowing to his sovereign and absolute will of predestination; yet, having hearts full of tenderness, even toward the most obstinate, self-righteous, and unbelieving sinners. And let us ever seek grace from God the Holy Spirit to magnify and rejoice in our heavenly Father’s distinguishing grace. Did he not make us to differ, we would all be just like these Pharisees; and we would all perish with them (1 Corinthians 4:7; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
Though our Lord Jesus “sighed deeply in his spirit,” because of their unbelief and hardness of heart, he shows us plainly that nothing is more disgusting and contemptuous to him than smug, religious hypocrisy and self-righteousness. These Pharisees, presuming themselves to be righteous, had no need for the grace proclaimed by the Son of God and the redemption he had come to accomplish. To them the gospel of grace was an affront. Who needs grace, when you are righteous? Notice four things here.
“They began to question him.” — They did not ask questions to learn, but to discuss and debate, to show how much they knew. We are warned again and again to avoid such people (1 Timothy 6:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9). There are many who are ever learning, but never come to the knowledge of the truth. They play religious games, trifling with the Word of God, with less reverence than our modern Supreme Court does the Constitution of the United States. They think they are smart, spiritual giants; but they are really spiritual morons and pigmies. Our Lord refused to answer their questions. He would not stoop to debating with them about holy things. The sooner we learn to follow his example, the better.
Paul told us later, “The Jews, (lost religious people), require after a sign. The Gentiles, (lost irreligious people), seek after wisdom.” Both groups reject the authority of God and his Word. Both pretend that they would believe, if you could give them either a sign from heaven or intellectual proof. But they deceive themselves.
The Lord Jesus refused to give them a sign. He said, There shall no sign be given to this generation.” Many signs had already been given on earth, signs that could be easily investigated; but they would not receive them. There was a public sign from heaven at his baptism in the descent of the dove and the voice of God being audibly heard (Matthew 3:16-17). If they had attended John the Baptist’s ministry, as they ought to have done and could have done, they might themselves have seen the sign. Our Lord’s miracles of mercy were all performed in the most public manner. Not one of them was ever disputed by anyone. But those whose faith is built on signs and miracles never have enough signs. We see this in the fact that afterward, when the Lord of glory was nailed to the cross, these same men were still demanding a sign. They said, “Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe him.” Matthew Henry correctly observed…
“Thus obstinate infidelity will still have something to say, though ever so unreasonable. They demanded this sign, tempting him; not in hopes that he would give it them, that they might be satisfied, but in hopes that he would not, that they might imagine themselves to have a pretence for their infidelity.”
The Scriptures tell us here that, “He sighed deeply in his Spirit.” Here is the God of glory sighing, sighing deeply in his spirit, groaning as one in painful vexation of soul. Then he said, “Why doth this generation seek after a sign?” — That generation so unworthy to have the gospel brought to it wanted a sign! — That generation that so greedily swallowed the traditions of the elders, without the confirmation of any sign at all, wanted a sign! — That generation, which, by the calculating of the times set and revealed in the Old Testament, might easily have perceived that the time of the Messiah had come, wanted a sign! — That generation, which had seen such great wonders and miracles, as were given to none before or since, wanted a sign! What an absurdity! But religious men, without life before God, are always absurd beyond imagination in their objections to divine revelation.
God has spoken in his Word. It is the height of presumption to demand signs and proofs from the Almighty. “Shall a man teach God knowledge?” Our Lord denied the demand of these pompous Pharisees. With disgust and contempt he said, “No, I will not give you a sign!”
Oh, what a solemn word that is. — “He left them!” He left them in the darkness of their own light! He left them in the corruption of their own self-righteousness! He left them in the ignorance of their own brilliance! He left them forever!
If God Almighty is kind enough, good enough, merciful enough to speak to you by his Word, by the gospel of his grace, and you are fool enough to spit in his face, despise his grace, and refuse to believe the record he has given of his Son, the time will come when he will leave you alone. And if God ever leaves you to yourself, you will be left to yourself forever!
“Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD: They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices. For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them. But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.” (Proverbs 1:23-33)
“He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.” (Proverbs 29:1)
The Leaven of the Pharisees
Our gracious Lord warns us once more to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. — “And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod” (v. 15). “Take heed, beware,” lest you partake of “the leaven of the Pharisees,” lest you embrace the tradition of the elders, to which they are so wedded, lest you be proud, hypocritical ritualists like the Pharisees.
This was not an isolated warning. It is given to us numerous times. Matthew adds, “and of the Sadducee.” Mark adds, “and of Herod.” The Pharisees were religious conservatives. The Sadducees were religious liberals. Herod was an infidel. Our Lord warns us to ever beware of the leaven of these three groups. We are not left to guess what our Lord means by this warning.
The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is the leaven of false doctrine. False doctrine is any doctrine, liberal or conservative, Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, any doctrine that makes salvation dependent upon you. The Pharisees and Sadducees were two distinct, doctrinally different religious sects among the Jews. The Pharisees were self-righteous religious ritualists and conservative, theological purists, a form of religion which appeals to many. The Pharisees’ religion would appeal to most of the people we know. The Sadducees were self-righteous religious liberals, just as ritualistic as the Pharisees, but theological liberals, the smug intellectuals who were tolerant of anything except the dogmatism of the gospel. The Sadducees’ religion is the religion of people who think they are smarter than God and more diverse thinking than hell.
Herod and those like him were self-serving, self-righteous worldlings, self-serving materialists, infidels who believed nothing and stood for nothing except that which would advantage themselves. They were pragmatists.
Our Lord warns us to beware of the leaven of false doctrine, because “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” That statement is used twice in the New Testament. Both times the one making the statement is the apostle Paul. We find this statement first in 1 Corinthians 5:6. — “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” The leaven here refers to sin. The Spirit of God is warning us that like a little yeast in a large lump of dough will gradually spread through the whole lump, so the tolerance of any sin is disastrous. We must never be satisfied with anything less than perfection. Our goal must always be to “sin not” (1 John 2:1).
Paul tells us the very same thing about false doctrine in Galatians 5:9. — “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” If we tolerate anything, be it a work, an experience, a feeling, or even a decision, if we tolerate anything, be it ever so small, as a condition we must meet in order to be saved, we cut ourselves off from Christ and from the grace of God in him (Galatians 5:1-4). Salvation, from election to glorification and everything between, is the work of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. The voice of the world, the whole world, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herods, constantly says, “That’s too strict. That’s too dogmatic. That’s too bigoted.” But remember, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”
False doctrine, like leaven in the dough, always begins with something small, almost undetectable. It moves through and permeates with great subtlety, but with deadly efficacy. The same thing is true of sin and worldliness. The deceitfulness of riches, the care of this world, and the lusts of other things, like leaven in the lump, begins with such small, insignificant compromises that they are hardly detectable until their work is done.
This passage also demonstrates the fact that as long as we are in this world we will have a sinful, fleshly dullness to all things spiritual. Read verses 14 and 16-21, and understand that the strongest believers in this world are terribly weak and full of unbelief.
“Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf...And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?”
The most godly of God’s saints in this world are only sinners still. The most learned and well instructed of God’s people are still dull of understanding. Abraham sometimes trembles. Lot, the righteous man, sometimes makes sinful choices. Job, the perfect man who fears God and eschews evil, will on some occasions curse the day of his birth. Noah, that man who found grace in the eyes of the Lord, may be found in a drunken stupor. Moses, the meekest man who ever lived, will strike out at God himself with his rod in a fit of anger. David, the man after God’s own heart, will, when left to himself, commit adultery and then murder to protect his image. Bold Peter will wither before a maiden, cuss, and deny the Master he loves above anything. The Apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas, loyal, faithful friends, loyal, faithful servants of God, will, when weak and in the flesh, part company and never walk together again in this world.
Like the Lord’s disciples here, we are often overwhelmed with present cares and distrusts, because we do not understand and remember what we have known and seen of the power and goodness of our all glorious Savior. Matthew Henry wrote, “When we thus forget the works of God, and distrust him, we should chide ourselves severely for it, as Christ doth his disciples here; ‘Am I thus without understanding? How is it that my heart is thus hardened?’’’
Why does our God so plainly sets before us such weaknesses, sins, unbelief, and dullness of understanding in the lives of his beloved people? Here are seven obvious reasons for such revelations.
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 Matthew says, “he came into the coasts of Magdala” (Matthew 15:39); but there is no conflict between Matthew and Mark. Dalmanutha was a place within Magdala, just as Danville is a city within Boyle County, Kentucky.