If you let in a little bit of pride into your heart your whole life, family and church community could be spoiled.
This is the lesson of Mark 8:15.
And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
Jesus gives the disciples a 3-fold warning. Caution, watch out, beware.
When you see a watch out for rattle snakes sign on a hiking trail, you take notice. When Jesus gives you a warning, Christian, take notice.
The warning he gave was not about snakes, but yeast. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. The word leaven is repeated in the Greek, which I take to imply that we are dealing with two classes of danger.
Leaven is an agent used to make dough rise, yeast is the most common. A single celled organism which consumes sugar and starch, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol through fermentation. The carbon dioxide gas spreads through the dough, making it rise. When making bread dough, one adds yeast and then sets the dough in a cool place to prove over a period of hours.
Jewish culture: the feast of the Passover required unleavened bread, it symbolized the urgent need to flee Egypt in haste, unleavened bread was made when there was no time for the process of leavening. Jewish tradition had developed a highly specific set of rules for leaven. You were not allowed to have any leavening agents in your home on the day of Passover.
Each Passover, families observed a ceremony of searching for leaven: The leaven has been carefully removed from the house by now, but pieces of bread are set out in conspicuous places, the head of the house gathers the bread and ties it up in cloth, and then recites the statement: “Let all leaven that is in my premises which I have not seen and which I have not removed be as of no avail and be as the dust of the ground.”
In the Bible, leaven most often has a negative connotation, but not always.
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
The main principle is straightforward. You can find it in Galatians 5:9 – a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.
There is something about the Pharisees and about Herod that is like leaven. A little bit of what they have can sneak in and ruin a whole batch.
Two types of danger.
The leaven of the Pharisees is explained twice in other gospel accounts.
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”
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.
The Pharisees’ teaching and the hypocrisy it produces are leaven.
Together you can describe them as religious self-determination. The belief that I’m good, because I’m observant. Because I’m obedient and pure.
The Pharisees fundamental concern was purity. Their basic stance towards the world was separation. Evil is out there, we on the inside our pure.
Jesus told them that they had it backwards. Evil isn’t out there, but it is on the inside. That means that a system based on externals, based on the washing of hands and observance of rituals can never make a person clean.
The more a person claims to be clean in a system like that, the more the image they present becomes distanced from reality. Hypocrisy multiplies.
This is the leaven of the Pharisees.
The leaven of Herod is not as clear. Herod was the king of Israel, a man who derived great power, wealth and comfort from aligning with the Roman government. He was more of a secular ruler than a religious one.
The scholars I’ve read typically see the leaven of Herod as a either an individual self-determination: I’m good because I’m me, or a political self-determination: I’m good because I belong. Because my party is in power.
7 Signs you have been infected with the leaven of Herod by Dr. Joseph Mattera
- You believe a political leader is the key to restoring your nation
- You believe your political party represents the Kingdom of God
- You’re more committed to political change than practicing and promoting the spiritual disciplines
- Your primary focus is on external change more than the proclamation of the Gospel
- You give more financially to political causes than to the Church and the advancement of the Gospel
- You get more excited about attending political rallies than assembling with your local Church
- You use the Bible more as a political handbook to promote specific policies than as a tool for self-transformation
8 Marks of Self-Righteous Religion, adapted from Tim Keller
- I obey-therefore I’m accepted.
- My motivation is based on fear and insecurity.
- I obey God in order to get things from God.
- When my life circumstances go wrong, I am angry at God or myself, since I believe that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life.
- My prayer life consists largely of petition and it heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of my environment.
- My self-view swings between two poles. If/when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people. If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel insecure and inadequate. I’m not confident. I feel like a failure.
- My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work/ how moral I am, and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral.
- Since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufactures idols. It may be my talents, my moral record; my personal discipline, my social status, etc. I absolutely have to have them so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I may say I believe about God.
The leaven of the Pharisees became an instant threat in the life of the newly established church in the first century. The spread of the gospel was followed closely by the influence of what we call “Judaizers”, vocal influencers who sought to bring the Jewish law back into the Christian community. The book of Galatians is Paul’s answer to that influence.
The impulse to add human effort as a basis for righteousness was so powerful that after a few hundreds years, the church as a whole lost the message of justification by faith for a thousand years.
Watch out indeed.
The 1 Solution to the leaven of self-righteous pride is the unleavened truths of the gospel.
There are 5 truths that preserve the purity of the gospel from the leaven of pride.
- The just wrath of God. (Habakkuk 1:13, Psalm 34:16)
- The total depravity of humanity. (Romans 3:23, Mark 7:21-22, Isaiah 64:6)
- The absolute demands of the law. (James 2:10, Matthew 5:27-28, Galatians 5:3)
- The atoning sacrifice of Jesus. (1 Peter 3:18, Isaiah 53:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:21)
- Justification by faith (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8-9)
These truths attack our pride. They are difficult for an independent and rebellious heart to accept. But once accepted, they change everything.
The pure unleavened gospel message is righteousness in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed in the Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.
Just as the Jewish family searched the home for the presence of leaven before the Passover, let us search our hearts, our families and our church for the leaven of pride.
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown