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The Leaven


And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and 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.

—Matthew 16:6, 12

The leaven of the Pharisees:


The doctrine of the Pharisees may be summed up in three words, they were formalists, tradition-worshippers, and self-righteous. They attached such weight to the traditions of men, that they practically regarded them as of more importance than the inspired writings of the Old Testament. They valued themselves upon excessive strictness in their attention to all the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law. They thought much of being descended from Abraham, and said in their hearts, ‘We have Abraham to our father.’ They fancied because they had Abraham for their father that they were not in peril of hell like other men, and that their descent from him was a kind of title to heaven. They attached great value to washings and ceremonial purifyings of the body, and believed that the very touching of the dead body of a fly or gnat would defile them. They made a great ado about the outward parts of religion, and such things as could be seen of men. . . . These things, and many such like things, the Pharisees did. . . .

All this time, be it remembered, they did not formally deny any part of the Old Testament Scripture. But they brought in, over and above it, so much of human invention, that they virtually put Scripture aside, and buried it under their own traditions. This is the sort of religion of which our Lord says to the apostles, ‘Take heed and beware.’

—J. C. Ryle, Knots Untied (Banner of Truth, 2016), 367–368.

The leaven of the Sadducees:

The doctrine of the Sadducees, on the other hand, may be summed up in three words,—free-thinking, scepticism, and rationalism. . . . They believed that there was no resurrection, no angel, and no spirit, and tried to laugh men out of their belief in these things, by supposing hard cases, and bringing forward difficult questions. We have an instance of their mode of argument in the case which they propounded to our Lord of the woman who had had seven husbands, when they asked, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife shall she be of the seven?’ . . .

All this time, be it remembered, we may not say that the Sadducees were downright infidels: this they were not. We may not say they denied revelation altogether: this they did not do. They observed the law of Moses. Many of them were found among the priests in the times described in the Acts of the Apostles. Caiaphas who condemned our Lord was a Sadducee. But the practical effect of their teaching was to shake men’s faith in any revelation, and to throw a cloud of doubt over men’s minds, which was only one degree better than infidelity. And of all such kind of doctrine,—free-thinking, scepticism, rationalism,—our Lord says, ‘Take heed and beware’.

Ibid., 368–369.

Why it matters to us:

I believe that our Lord delivered this solemn warning for the perpetual benefit of that church which he came on earth to found. He spoke with a prophetic knowledge. He knew well the diseases to which human nature is always liable. He foresaw that the two great plagues of his church upon earth would always be the doctrine of the Pharisees and the doctrine of the Sadducees. He knew that these would be the upper and nether mill-stones, between which his truth would be perpetually crushed and bruised until he came the second time. He knew that there always would be Pharisees in spirit, and Sadducees in spirit, among professing Christians. He knew that their succession would never fail, and their generation never become extinct,—and that though the names of Pharisees and Sadducees were no more, yet their principles would always exist. He knew that during the time that the church existed, until his return, there would always be some that would add to the word, and some that would subtract from it,—some that would stifle it, by adding to it other things, and some that would bleed it to death, by subtracting from its principal truths. And this is the reason why we find him delivering this solemn warning: ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.’

Ibid., 369.

Posted 2017·07·05 by David Kjos
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