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Episode 81 - The Leaven of the Pharisees - Opening Up the Gospels

In Episode 80 we found Jesus ministering in an area called the Decapolis, the region to the east of Galilee and Samaria. There we saw Him heal a man and feed four thousand people. I emphasized the point that the people living in this region were Gentiles and they too had heard of Jesus’ fame and power. And just as in Galilee, Jesus encouraged those who were healed or witnessed His miracles to not say anything, but the people spread the word even more. As we’re progressing through the Gospels, we’re seeing that even the Gentiles could benefit from God’s covenant with Abraham if they acknowledged Jesus’ identity and they too bore the fruits of repentance. Well in this episode I want to look at the next several scenes we see recorded in the Gospels involving the Pharisees and their teaching. We can’t be sure, but it seems like these events are happening in the summer of 28AD. Remember, Jesus’ two year ministry takes place between about April of 27AD when he cleanses the temple and April of 29AD when he is crucified. Let’s look at our map and figure out where we are. Right at the end of the last episode we saw Jesus and His disciples get into a boat and head from the Decapolis over to Magdala, which as you can see is on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. It’s in this area where we see Jesus get into yet another conflict with Pharisees and Sadducees. Let’s read from Matthew 16: “And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.” (Matthew 16:1–4 ESV) So the Pharisees and Sadducees are once again opposing Jesus and seeking for a sign from heaven. They want him to validate His claims of being the messiah by performing some undeniable, triumphant sign. Remember, the Jewish prophets said that a son of David was going to come, crush his enemies, and restore the kingdom to Israel. These guys are saying “Jesus, if you really are the one, prove it with apocalyptic signs. Then we will believe.” Now these Jewish authorities had all heard of Jesus’ miracles and signs before, and some of them were likely even witnesses to them. However, as we’ve seen so often, they refused to repent and believe. In response to the testing from the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus gives a comparison between signs in the sky and the signs of the times. Everyone in His day knew that red clouds in the morning indicated rain and red clouds in the evening indicated good weather. Even we have a similar saying in modern times: “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.” However, the Jewish authorities, the ones who claimed they knew and understood the Law more than anyone else in Israel, could not discern or understand the signs that Jesus was performing and the teaching He was giving that proved His identity as the Messiah and God of Israel. Their hearts were hard, and as we looked at back in episode 38, Jesus was exposing that hardness at every turn. Jesus goes on to say that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign”. One of the things Jesus and the Pharisees were surely thinking of was the generation of Israelites in the wilderness who came out of Egypt. They too were called an evil generation, a generation who had petitioned God for manna and tested Him in the wilderness. They all died there because of their unbelief, according to Hebrews 3:19. Also in a passage in Deuteronomy 32 known as the Song of Moses, the Lord calls rebellious Israel a crooked, perverse, and twisted generation. Also, Numbers 32 says: “And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone.” (Numbers 32:13 ESV) Jesus goes on to say that the evil generation will only be given one sign, and that’s the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was put in the belly of a whale for three days because He did not believe and obey what God spoke to him about Nineveh, so Jesus will be three days in the grave because of Jewish unbelief. Though there would be a small remnant, the nation as a whole wouldn’t bear the fruits of repentance, and they themselves would be the means of Jesus’ death. Does that make sense? I’ll talk a bit more about the sign of Jonah when we get to Jesus’ Perean ministry. Well, let’s continue the chronology in Mark 8: “And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”” (Mark 8:13–21 ESV) So Jesus and the disciples head back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and as we’ll see they are heading towards Bethsaida. And they had forgotten to bring bread with them, and based on what Jesus said to them, they think Jesus is mad at them or something for forgetting. Jesus said to watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Was he talking about real bread and real leaven that they would get from the Pharisees? The disciples are confused, but Jesus basically says “guys, don’t you remember the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000? I’m not upset that you didn’t bring any bread… I could get us some if we needed it, and we don’t need any yeast from the Pharisees. I’m talking about the doctrine of the Pharisees. Beware of it – it’s utter hypocrisy.” He asks them if their hearts are hardened too, and says the same thing about hearing and seeing that He said to the unbelieving crowds when he was giving a bunch of His parables in Matthew 13. Are the disciples blind and deaf to Jesus’ signs and proofs of who He really is? Now when Jesus talks about leaven here, he’s talking about bad teaching that keeps people from repentance and faith. Matthew finishes his narration of this section with a key verse: “Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:12 ESV) What the Pharisees were teaching the people would not lead to a repentant heart. They had missed the heart of the Law and the commandments God gave. This is why Jesus’ rebukes towards them are so severe. They were the shepherds and leaders of Israel and they were leading their sheep astray by their teaching. Let’s keep reading from Mark 8: “And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”” (Mark 8:22–26 ESV) Jesus and the disciples are now in Bethsaida and a blind man comes to Jesus. He takes Him by the hand, walks him outside the city, makes some mud, and puts its on his eyes. The guy says “I see people but they look like trees, walking.” And then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and He could see everything clearly. Now, what’s this all about? Most of the time, we read this out of context because we just don’t take the time to get the context. Some people use this to say that even Jesus couldn’t heal completely sometimes, and He needed to pray again and so we should do that too. I think that is mistaken – we’re talking about the God of Genesis 1 here, the one who upholds all things, the one who creates bread and fish out of nothing, the one who calms storms with a word, and the one who lays down His own life and takes it up again. When we read this verse in context, we remember that this healing happened just after He said “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” Jesus is offering a physical sign to the disciples of what their spiritual eyes were like. Just as the man could only see men walking around look like trees, so too the disciples had spiritual eyes that were dim and obscure. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t have enough power to make the miracle work all the way. The Gospels testify the complete opposite from start to finish. There was a purpose to what He did, and there was a reason why He took the blind man outside of the town so that the multitudes wouldn’t be thrown off by why the man couldn’t see the fist time. This was a lesson for the disciples. Though they could see a little bit and had some perception and understanding of who Jesus really was, their understanding and the eyes of their heart would be opened and would one day see Jesus clearly. Does that make sense? Now from here we are going to see Jesus and the Twelve head north to Caesarea Phillipi, which is about 30 miles from Bethsaida. On the road, we’ll see Peter say something very very important about Jesus, and that’s what we’ll look at in the next episode. Until then, here’s a few points for your meditation this week: 1) Think about the confrontation with the Pharisees and how the disciples must have been feeling. Yet again Jesus is making them mad, then he goes on to warn them one more time about their teaching. 2) Ponder what it was like for the blind man to receive partial sight. What did he say to his family and friends after he had returned home? What was it like that evening and the next morning that he awoke, able to see?