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Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees

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“Leaven of the Pharisees”—it’s a curious phrase. Why did Christ feel compelled to warn His disciples to avoid it? Would you recognize this “leavening” if you saw it today? The answer to these questions is important, not just for the Passover season, but throughout the year.

What is this “leaven of the Pharisees”? You will find a direct answer in Luke 12:1 Luke 12:1In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, so that they stepped one on another, he began to say to his disciples first of all, Beware you of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.
American King James Version×
. “In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.’” Hypocrisy is here described as the leaven of the Pharisees, but as we will see later, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Hypocrisy Defined

“Hypocrite” comes from the Greek word hupokrites and refers to someone who is acting, pretending. It was the custom of Greek and Roman stage actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice. These actors, concealing their real faces and changing their real voices, were called hupokrites, or hypocrites.

Jesus likened the conduct of the Pharisees to actors—men pretending, playing a role. The Pharisees of Christ’s day were a powerful leadership body who claimed to be more zealous and more righteous than the rest of Jewish society. They set themselves up as models of what was right and godly, yet in Christ’s eyes their example was actually destructive. In Christ’s estimation the conduct of these men had a corrupting effect upon those who followed their example—a leavening effect, if you will.

The Sermon on the Mount and Instruction on Hypocrisy

It is interesting that early on Christ forcefully addressed the issue of hypocrisy. You might call Matthew 6:1-18 Matthew 6:1-18 1 Take heed that you do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. 2 Therefore when you do your alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Truly I say to you, They have their reward. 3 But when you do alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand does: 4 That your alms may be in secret: and your Father which sees in secret himself shall reward you openly. 5 And when you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Truly I say to you, They have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly. 7 But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not you therefore like to them: for your Father knows what things you have need of, before you ask him. 9 After this manner therefore pray you: Our Father which are in heaven, Hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, Your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For your is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. 14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15 But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16 Moreover when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to fast. Truly I say to you, They have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; 18 That you appear not to men to fast, but to your Father which is in secret: and your Father, which sees in secret, shall reward you openly.
American King James Version×
a primer on identifying hypocrisy. The hypocrites give offerings for the purpose of being seen and admired (verses 1-2); they pray to impress men with their voices and their words (verse 5); and they do all they can to look miserable when they fast so they will be admired for their sacrifice and pitied for their discomfort (verse 16). Christ’s message to His disciples was simply: If you do it this way, men’s admiration will be your total reward since I will not be looking or listening.

Most people who profess to be Christian get the point. This is elementary. How often do you see someone blow a trumpet to announce his offering or look so tousled, unshaven and unkempt that you have to ask, “Are you fasting today?” But the leavening effect of hypocrisy is far broader.

Hypocrisy and Malicious Intent

Most of us are familiar with the situation described in Matthew 22:15-18 Matthew 22:15-18 15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out to him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God in truth, neither care you for any man: for you regard not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What think you? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt you me, you hypocrites?
American King James Version×
. The Pharisees brought to Christ a coin bearing Caesar’s image and asked Him if it was appropriate to pay taxes. The Jews of Christ’s time hated the Roman occupation. To say yes, it is OK, would alienate the Jews. To say no, you should not, would be treasonous and open to prosecution by the Roman government. Jesus said, in verse 18, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?” Here hypocrisy was the masking of their malicious intent.

Verses 15 through 18 make it clear that the intent of the heart and the appearance were different: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying ‘Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us therefore what do You think?’” Here is a clear example of malicious intent. With smiling faces and flattering words they sought to injure Christ. Paul, who had been a Pharisee before his conversion, could easily see the connection between leaven and malicious intent. In his letter to the Corinthians, written at the Passover season, Paul exhorted, “Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8 1 Corinthians 5:8Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
American King James Version×
, emphasis added). But there is more to the story of the leaven of the Pharisees.

A Second Form of Leaven

Most people who profess to be Christian get the point. This is elementary. How often do you see someone blow a trumpet to announce his offering? But the leavening effect of hypocrisy is far broader.

In Matthew 16, Scripture shows that the leaven of the Pharisees goes beyond hypocrisy. Following the miracle of the fishes and loaves, the Pharisees confronted Jesus as they sought a sign. He called them hypocrites to their faces and offered no sign but the sign of Jonah. Later He warned His disciples, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6 Matthew 16:6Then Jesus said to them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
American King James Version×
). The disciples did not at first understand what He meant. Christ called the Pharisees hypocrites in verse 3, but the disciples didn’t automatically assume a connection.

It is quite likely the disciples were initially blinded by a guilty conscience. They thought they had received a subtle scolding because no one had remembered to purchase food for the group (Matthew 16:7 Matthew 16:7And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread.
American King James Version×
). Christ explained that He wasn’t dependent upon whether they remembered to buy groceries. After all, hadn’t He just fed a huge multitude with seven loaves and a few fish? With their guilty consciences relieved, they hit upon His true intent, which is described in verse 12, “Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

The leaven of the Pharisees is more than hypocrisy; it is also their doctrine. But how or why is their doctrine equated to leaven? We will find as we go along that there is an inextricable link between the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the doctrines of the Pharisees.

Doctrine and Hypocrisy

The clearest connection between the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and their doctrine is seen in Mark 7:1-9 Mark 7:1-9 1 Then came together to him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. 2 And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashed, hands, they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. 4 And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables. 5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not your disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands? 6 He answered and said to them, Well has Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7 However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do. 9 And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.
American King James Version×
, where the Pharisees complained about the disciples eating with unwashed hands. It should be understood that the traditions, or rulings, passed down generation to generation by the wise men of the Pharisaical persuasion took on the power of law. To the mind of a Pharisee the sayings of their elders were as binding as the Scriptures. In fact Christ implies they were even seen as more binding than the law of God if the two came into conflict. To Christ this was hypocritical. How can a body of men who claim to be the most righteous observers of the law of God create traditions that nullify the law of God and still claim righteousness? This didn’t make sense. Christ saw their doctrines, in this case, as hypocritical.

As we continue in Mark 7, we can see the conflict. The Pharisees came to Christ and challenged, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the traditions of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” (Mark 7:5 Mark 7:5Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not your disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?
American King James Version×
). Christ responded, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and in vain they worship Me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mark 7:6-7 Mark 7:6-7 6 He answered and said to them, Well has Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 7 However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
American King James Version×
).

Christ continued His rebuke in Mark 7:8-13 Mark 7:8-13 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do. 9 And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition. 10 For Moses said, Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever curses father or mother, let him die the death: 11 But you say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatever you might be profited by me; he shall be free. 12 And you suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things do you.
American King James Version×
, giving examples of traditions passed down by the elders that directly contravened the law of God. His final summation was that in many areas of advice, ruling and even law they had put aside the law of God preferring their traditions instead. To Christ this was hypocritical of a body that claimed superior righteousness since the laws of God are righteousness (Psalms 119:172 Psalms 119:172My tongue shall speak of your word: for all your commandments are righteousness.
American King James Version×
).

Modern Illustration

The conflict between the traditions of the elders and the law was not just a circumstance of Christ’s day. The Pharisees of Christ’s day were in effect the predecessors of the rabbinical system that came to power after the destruction of the temple. Following the banning of Jews from the Jerusalem area, the rabbinical schools moved north to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and there created the basis for modern Judaism. The system of teaching based upon tradition has continued since that time.

A few years back before the Passover, Jeffrey Weiss wrote an interesting article in the Oregonian detailing the effect of the traditions of the elders upon the standards for determining what is leavened. Mr. Weiss shared an interview with the rabbi-in-residence at Manischevitz, the world’s largest manufacturer of matzo. Before getting into specifics, Mr. Weiss wrote, “Thousands of years of rabbis have come up with long explanations for how to observe that seemingly simple commandment” (referring to the command in Exodus about leavening).

Mr. Weiss described how the Manischevitz plant is closed for a month before Passover for a complete cleaning where cooking equipment is literally taken apart and scoured and reassembled before the production of Passover matzo begins. He also described the meticulous way the matzo is made, making sure no leavening intentionally or unintentionally contaminates the matzo.

At the end of his article the reporter then described the many ways in which people observing the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread try to get around the strict obedience to the no leavening law. Herein we find a most interesting “law.” Mr. Weiss asked Manischevitz’s rabbi-in-residence about what appeared to be a contradiction to the biblical law regarding no leavening during this season. “‘And how about many of Manischevitz’s kosher-for-Passover processed mixes for cakes, cookies and other goodies? One of the ingredients is sodium carbonate—baking soda. Isn’t that a leavening?’

“‘It may look that way,’ Rabbi Horowitz said. ‘But appearances can deceive.’

“The rabbis decided that matzo once certified as kosher for Passover can never be de-Passoverized. Not even by later contact with leavening. All of the Manischevitz mixes start with Passover matzo meal that—by definition—can’t be ritually contaminated by baking soda.

“‘Most people don’t understand that,’ Rabbi Horowitz said.

“‘It’s not a question of what it looks like,’ he said. ‘It is a question of what the rabbis call it.’”

That article echoes the words of Mark 7:8 Mark 7:8For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do.
American King James Version×
: “For laying aside the commandments of God, you hold the tradition of men …”

As we move toward the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, may we learn from the cautionary words of Christ—beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. During our days of self-examination and introspection, may we determine all the more to worship God with a sincere and honest heart, coupled with a respect for both the letter and the spirit of His Word. UN

This article first appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of the United News.