Tonight we will study just the first twelve verses in Matthew chapter 16. Within these verses we have Jesus teaching his disciples a valuable lesson about discernment.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the Jewish elite, the wealthy men of strong knowledge, reputable birth and affluent means. Ideally, these groups would have been first to recognize Jesus as the Christ and follow Him. However, their minds and attentions were not on the things of God, but rather were consistently on other more worldly matters such as social status and the like. In our passage tonight, these men ask Jesus to show them a sign from heaven, presumably to prove that He was the Son of God.
But Jesus quickly reveals their hearts by telling them that they know how to read basic weather patterns in the sky, yet cannot see that the Son of God is standing before them. He then rebukes them by saying that the sign that they will end up seeing is the sign of the prophet Jonah. This is meaningful because Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh was that God would destroy it because of its ungodliness. And indeed Jerusalem was destroyed around 70 a.d. by the Romans. Could this have been what Jesus was alluding to?
Jesus uses this interaction with the Pharisees and the Sadducees as an opportunity to teach His disciples. He warns the disciples to beware the leaven, or the influence of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus’s meaning was that the disciples should avoid agreeing with them and to not take on their beliefs or be influenced by them. Because, as stated earlier, the hearts of the Pharisees and the Sadducees were not in the right place and their speech and actions showed it.
However, this lesson was at first lost on the disciples. They thought that the leaven Jesus was talking about was the ingredient for bread which causes it to rise. Jesus was speaking figuratively, but they didn’t get it. They thought He was talking about actual bread. Jesus used leaven as an example to show that to absorb just some of the influence of these Pharisees and Sadducees would make a dramatic influence on the disciples’ beliefs and opinions. This influence on character can be compared to how leaven works in bread to make it grow and expand, it transforms it. Even just a very small bit of leaven can cause a great change while preparing bread. Jesus was telling them to beware this influence.
But the disciples thought they were supposed to avoid the actual bread from the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus then becomes impatient with them for not getting it, especially in light of how the disciples had fed thousands with so little bread and fish in the recent past. (Remember feeding the 5,000, then the 4,000?) The disciples could have recognized that Jesus was not talking about actual leaven or bread, but that He meant the cumulative negative influence of the spiritual impostors that were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
There are two separate things we can learn from this passage tonight. The first is that the negative influence of questionable values can have great consequences. For us today, this means truly examining the character of those we choose to spend our time with and ask, “Does this person have a godly character?” Sometimes we will find that even though entertaining and comfortable, the company of some people ends up affecting us negatively and actually distances us from God. Be aware.
The second application has to do with seeking. At the beginning of this passage, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were seeking a sign that Jesus was who He said He was. Do you think they were sincere? I think they probably were. But their problem was that their hearts were not oriented on the truth of that which they were seeking. Sometimes there thing that we seek is starting us right in the face.