“Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees”—Matt. 16:6
Why should the disciples of Christ have needed such a warning? Did they belong to the sect of the Pharisees or of the Sadducees? Had they not associated themselves with Christ? Were they in danger of the leaven in spite of that? And, if so, was the danger confined to the disciples of our Lord's day, or are we possibly in danger of the same leaven? To answer this question we must first enquire who and what the Pharisees and the Sadducees were.
Historically, both these sects took their rise among the remnant of Israel who were restored to their own land after the Babylonian captivity. After the early fervour of the restoration had died away, and the revivals in which the people confessed their sins and turned again to God seemed to have ceased, many of the more influential Jews lost faith in their separate calling and compromised in greater or less degree with the heathenism around. Others, condemning such unfaithfulness, sought support amid the prevailing weakness in a firm adherence to the law and a rigid exclusion of every non-Jewish element. These two tendencies gave rise to the two sects of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
The Pharisees were essentially the religious party. More than that, they were the separate party; the very name Pharisee means “separate one.” Their ideal was that of a select body in the midst of the Jewish people, a nation within a nation, marked off from the rest at least in matters of outward association and outward practice. They did not (as the Sadducees did) conform to the secular world around them; they held aloof from the culture of Greece and the politics of Rome. Even in their decline, when their separation had become more and more purely outward and formal, they were devoted to their religion; they compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, and when they had found him they made him like themselves, only more so (Matt. 23:15). But, though separate and aloof, they were highly respected by the public; to be “as touching the law, a Pharisee” was the highest religious commendation. And, however we may explain it, we find them possessed of a more explicit belief in the resurrection of the dead and in certain other elements of the future life than had been expressed by any of the prophets before them. In that sense they had much light.
What, then, was wrong with them? They were opposed to Christ, it may be answered. But why were they opposed to Christ? They did not suddenly change their character when He appeared among men? No; the word of Christ simply exposed the hollowness which, hitherto unseen, was already there. Let us look at the character which Christ exposes, and so seek to understand the “leaven” against which He warns us.
First of all, the Pharisees were satisfied with themselves. “They trusted in themselves that they were righteous and made nothing of all the rest of men” (Luke 18:9, New Trans.). Hence, of course, the preaching of repentance, whether by John the Baptist or by our Lord, left them unmoved; they had no use for it. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick… I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Matt. 9:12 -13).
This self-complacency sprang from a deeper root; they lived much before men – “All their works they do for to be seen of men” (Matt. 23:6) – but they had little sense of the presence of God. A sense of that presence, whether in grace or in judgment, would have given them a truer estimate of themselves. “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth Thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). If they had known the presence of God they could never have been “satisfied with themselves.”
Thus satisfied, they were inevitably opposed to the grace of God as shown in Christ to poor fallen men. “The Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2). “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39 ). They could contemplate without a pang the stoning to death of a sinner, until stopped short by the challenge, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Did they pray? Yes, long prayers; they loved to pray “standing in the synagogues, and in the corners of the streets.” Did they give thanks? Yes, they thanked God that they fulfilled His will; “I thank Thee that I am not as other men are… I fast twice in the week” (Luke 18:11 ). But they lacked that reality of soul, that “truth in the inward parts,” that sense of the presence of God, which would have led them to enter into their chamber, and shut the door and “pray to thy Father which is in secret.”
And in spite of their attention to their religious duties they failed to carry out the elementary moral duties. Leaders they were, but, failing to see that “out of the heart” (not from without) proceed evil thoughts and every other evil thing, they became blind leaders of the blind: they easily gave a religious sanction to an act of filial impiety, and made the commandment of God of none effect by their tradition (Matt. 15). They dwelt on relative trifles, devoting themselves more and more to the elaboration of detail, and forgetting the large principles of right without which nothing can be pleasing to God. “Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgement, mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23 ). “If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:7). Indeed, the Lord rebuked them on the ground of plain common sense and common kindness. “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep?” (Matt. 12:11-12).
The Sadducees were also a religious party, but they stood rather for the worldly side of the religious profession; to them fell the high offices of the temple, with a leading part in public affairs (Acts 4, 5). Their beliefs were less exacting and their practice was less strict than those of the Pharisees. As regards their beliefs they “say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit” (Acts 23:8; Matt. 22:23 ). It is natural, therefore, that while they did not come into such constant and open conflict with our Lord as the Pharisees did, they were violently opposed to the power of the Spirit and the testimony of the resurrection as afterwards set forth by the apostles. As regards their practice, unlike the more strictly constituted Pharisees, they accommodated themselves easily to the secularising influence of the Greeks and Romans. To “take nothing of the Gentiles” was not their ideal; no harsh restrictions for them!
The Sadducees were rationalist and intellectual; if they had difficulties they put them politely before our Lord (Matt. 22:23 -33). Compared with the Pharisees, they were secular and negative; and for that reason they were singularly ineffective; they made no real mark even as a religious influence among men. Of the Pharisees our Lord could at least say that, if their works were rarely right, their words often were: “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do ye not after their works: for they say and do not” (Matt. 23:2). He could hardly have said as much of the Sadducees. They were not ambitious of the discomforts of a devoted life; we do not read of them that they compassed sea and land to make one proselyte. If the Pharisee thanks God that he is not as other men are, the Sadducee thanks God that he “makes no pretence” to any special devotedness!
It will now be apparent that in speaking of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees our Lord was warning His disciples against two dangers which have always been present among those who profess the name of God, and perhaps never more clearly so than in our own day. And the object of this paper is not to describe two extinct Jewish sects; it is written in the conviction that a large number of young Christians at the present moment (and perhaps some who are no longer young) are in imminent danger of the one leaven or the other. On the one hand religious self-complacency, on the other the practical ignoring of spiritual realities, on the one side lack of self-judgment, on the other the lack of self-sacrifice; which of us is safe from one or the other? Can we look at the two types, with the Lord's warning in our ears, without being hit by the question, “Lord, is it I?”
Is it possible that I am at heart a Sadducee? That I so accommodate myself to the institutions of men—their social habits, their politics, their literature—as to lack any living sense of the Holy Spirit's presence in the church and the power of God connected with it? Perhaps I have “difficulties” as to how far I am called upon to forego things that are naturally attractive to me; if so, am I letting such questions drag on without ever bringing them to an issue, and so robbing myself of the present blessedness which is in the heart of God for me? And am I sure that my difficulties are wholly unconnected with a desire for worldly advantage and a natural reluctance for self-sacrifice? The readiness for self-sacrifice is a great practical test of the depth of our sincerity.
But perhaps through the mercy of God we are comparatively free from association with the world and its institutions; we are outwardly separate, and find our companionship among those who call on the name of the Lord. If so, the most subtle danger to which we are exposed is the leaven of the Pharisees. How easily we lose the reality of God's presence, and therefore the sense of our own nothingness, and hence the sense of His grace (in which alone we can stand); thus our standard of holiness and of righteousness declines, and instead of judging ourselves we become content with ourselves, resting in what we are (or think we are) instead of what Christ is. Once we repented, but now we have gone back on it, we build again the things we destroyed, we take pleasure in ourselves and judge others, we thank God we are not as other men are, we are full, we are rich, we “reign as kings”—glorious in our own eyes (1 Cor. 4:8). We rejoice in excellency of speech, forgetting that “the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.” We have ceased to understand that “blessed are the poor in spirit”; we have gone so far as to make the cross of Christ of none effect (1 Cor. 1. 17). We pity the Sadducee, the religious worldling, and without knowing it we have succumbed to the leaven of the Pharisees. May God open our eyes!
Leaven typically denotes that which is merely human at work in divine things. Its effect is to puff up. It works silently, and unless we are awake and watchful it is some time before we notice the resulting bigness. It is a solemn reflection that there is in every human teacher ( every one, without exception) that which, unless held in check by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the light of the cross of Christ, is capable of working havoc with the ministry, and with those who come under it.
Someone has said, the more holy you are, the more you fear! Let us fear the subtle beginnings of leaven. If we have ceased to fear it, it is surely because we have already begun to succumb to it.
In the last stage of the history of the professing church on earth, as typified in Laodicea, both kinds of leaven have made fearful progress; they seem to have joined forces (Rev. 3:14-22). “Thou art neither cold nor hot”—there we see the Sadducee, without love for Christ or ardour for His cause. “Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked”—there we see the Pharisee, pleased with himself, and blind to his real condition. There is no true feeling, no genuine self-judgment. Leaven not only inflates, but renders insensible.
But is there no remedy, no grace to meet such a state? There is abundant grace, and the remedy will be found ready to hand; but let us not shirk the question—is there in truth a crying need for it? Is the leaven indeed within us and among us? If this is confessed in the presence of God, the immediate object of this little paper will have been gained, for God will not fail to bless the repentant, the self-judged soul. It is His delight to bless us, nay, even to exalt us; but He cannot bless us if we are seeking our own pleasure, and He can never exalt us if we are exalting ourselves. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).
“As many as I love I rebuke and chasten ” (Rev. 3:19). The Laodiceans appear to have felt themselves happily immune from either. But if we are insensible to the Lord's rebuke, we shall not really know His love. “Be zealous, therefore” – that to the Sadducee – “and repent” – that is more to the Pharisee, though in truth both enjoinders are addressed to both. Am I going to assume that neither is addressed to me? – that I have no need of the Lord's warning? If, however, we are humbled by His rebuke, we shall be even more so by His gracious appeal, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.” Cannot we all, if we are needy, begin there and become listeners to His voice, and let Him into our hearts and take Him into our company, that He may take us into His? There neither lukewarmness nor self-complacency can exist.
May God bless us, and preserve us from every evil way, for His own glory!