Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod — Sermon for Wednesday of Trinity VII

11 Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with [Jesus], seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him. 12 But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” 13 And He left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to the other side. 14 Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. 15 Then He charged them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? 18 Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.” 20 “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?” And they said, “Seven.” 21 So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?” — Mark 8:11-21

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
[Congregation: Amen.]

Dearly beloved by the Lord:

On the heels of the miraculous feeding of the Four Thousand, the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with [Jesus], seeking from Him a sign from heaven. Although not eyewitnesses to the multiplication of bread and meat, nevertheless, the Pharisees were well aware of Jesus’ reputation; they were well aware that Jesus had done many signs and wonders. (John 11:47c). The plentiful provision for the Four Thousand was simply the latest in a long list of signs which Jesus had done, all of them pointing to the fact that He was greater than any of the bygone prophets of Israel, greater even than Elijah.1 Indeed, these signs and wonders pointed out that Jesus was the One of whom the prophets had foretold. But still, the Pharisees were not convinced. They would not believe what they had seen and heard, and so they [sought] from Him a sign from heaven in order to [test] Him, to entrap Him, to prove to themselves and to the people, once and for all, that He was not the One of whom the Scriptures prophesied. They should have known. They should have realized. They should have believed. In the miraculous feeding of the Four Thousand, they should have seen their forefathers’ history—God providing bread and meat in the wilderness for His people.2 Yet like their forefathers, they grumbled and complained and tested the Lord. They wanted more. But to them no sign [would] be given; no sign except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 16:4b), which is to say: the One will be sacrificed for the many3, and that One, after being in the belly of the earth for three days, will rise from the depths, in order that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name. (Luke 24:47a).

However, it wasn’t just the foolish Pharisees who did not understand. Neither did the Disciples. Their lack of understanding was not in that they did not believe these signs and wonders, as the Pharisees did, but that they did not understand the significance of these signs and wonders, their meaning and their purpose. For after Jesus’ latest encounter with the Pharisees, when they had again gotten into the boat and [gone] to the other side of the lake, realizing that they had only one loaf [of bread] with them, completely misunderstood Jesus words to them: “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They surmised that Jesus was chiding them for their lack of foresight, their lack of good stewardship. After all, there had been an excess after the feeding of the Four Thousand—seven large baskets of leftovers. Surely they should have been wiser stewards and packed more than just one loaf. Jesus, they presumed, was reprimanding them for not recognizing this. God had provided, yet they had lacked the wisdom to properly ration from that gracious surplus. But they did not understand. Jesus was not rebuking them for this, He was warning them of something far greater.

What is the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod? Is it simply unbelief? No, it is something much worse. The Pharisees were known for their elaborate system of works-righteousness, whereby they thought they made themselves righteous enough to be found acceptable by God. The Sadducees, that is, those who aligned themselves with Herod, were known for denying certain simple and plain truths taught in Scripture, most notably: the resurrection from the dead. The leaven of both of these groups, then, was the false teachings they put forth as the truths of God. While both unbelief and false doctrine have the same end result, false doctrine is far more dangerous because, unlike unbelief, false doctrine leads more than just the adherent away. If a person does not believe in God, that’s one thing; if a person believes something about God which is contrary to what God has said, they are apt to profess it and teach others to believe it, leading more than just themselves into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice (SC. III: Sixth Petition). Yes, both come to a sad and lamentable end, but do you not see how false doctrine is far more dangerous than unbelief? Unbelief deals with the individual; false doctrine deals with the group, the collective, the people gathered together because of that doctrine. Indeed, this is why false doctrine is so damaging: people often gather around the false teacher because of what he is teaching. And false doctrine has a way of eroding orthodox, or true, doctrine.

Consider the examples of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees, as a group, started off because they saw the depravity of the people and desired to try to live more in-line with God’s word. Over time, their attempts at living in-line with God’s word spawned additional laws, 613 in total4. These additional commandments then became their primary law, with God’s word being secondary. Likewise the Sadducees. Their origin is even less detailed. Somewhere along the way, certain educated men reasoned among themselves that when the Old Testament Scriptures spoke of resurrection5, they were speaking figuratively and metaphorically. “No one has come back from the dead”, they reasoned, “Scripture is just being figurative, here.” Both camps, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, didn’t develop overnight. Years and years of false teaching developed these two factions within the ranks of Israel. Yet, by the time of the New Testament, both groups had sizable control and influence on the whole of the people.

It is the same in our day. The most divisive event in the history of the LCMS was Seminex in 1974. The false doctrine that brought about that event, however, had been brewing for decades. The after-effects are still being felt. Just last year, certain churchmen again attempted to bring into question God’s clear word regarding creation.6 They have since recanted their position, and yet one wonders how much more time remains until such false doctrine is subsumed into the core attitude of the LCMS. In forty more years, will the LCMS believe and hold fast to the doctrine of a six-day creation? Will her preachers defend this position and exhort against all others? That is not even the case today! Or what about those within the ranks of the LCMS who purport that the Law is of no use to the Christian? They flaunt their failure to keep the Law and offer themselves as examples to follow. They teach others not to care about the Law. And how do they teach that? Through man-made laws and specific criterion. In order to “prove” you don’t care about the law, you must act “this” way, you must do _____, fill in the blank. An antinomian, that is, one without the law, is nothing other than a legalist in different wrapping. How long will the Law remain within our ranks? How long before the pressures of an unrighteous and irreverent society have their way, and the good and holy Law of God is cast aside in favor of the works of the flesh7? More and more pastors, together with their parishioners are receptive to the teaching of these individuals, attending their workshops en masse and hanging on to everything they write and say.

The point is, false doctrine has a way of eroding orthodox, or true, doctrine. This is what Jesus is warning His Disciples of. This is what He is warning you of. Take heed, be on your guard, the leaven of works-righteousness and the leaven of rationalism have a way of seeping in, and thereby ruining the whole lump. Adding one’s own merits or works in with the merit and work of Jesus makes how one is made right with God conditional on the individual’s merits and works, and, worse, it belittles the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross. Regarding one’s own reason and understanding as essential for understanding God’s word makes God and His word subject to reason and understanding, and, worse, it denies and calls into doubt the truthfulness of God.

Be on your guard. The leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod, the leaven of works-righteousness and the leaven of rationalism, abounds—it’s everywhere. False doctrine is the chief way in which the devil lures the Christian away from God and into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Learn, then, to be discerning. Or, as the Apostle says, “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1c). And in order to do so, you must know the Scriptures; you must know what God says. Test what you hear and what you read against Holy Scripture, that the doctrine to which you cling may not become tainted and the victory Christ won for you does not slip from your possession. And as you go about, carefully discerning what you hear and read, be mindful to find yourself in the boat, the Church, with the One who not only multiplies grain and seed into incalculable amounts of bread and meat—enough to provide for you, and all the world, your daily bread, but who also is the One bread, the only Bread, the Bread of Life (John 6:35b8) and salvation. He has taken care of everything. There is nothing for you to add to Jesus’ sacrifice, your reasoning does not need to perform any mental acrobatics; Jesus lived, died, and arose for you, to make you His own, to present you holy and blameless before the Father, and to have you in the boat, with Him, unto all eternity.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
[Congregation: Amen.]

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

1 See: Mark 8:28. Many claimed Jesus to be either a reincarnation of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the Old Testament prophets. Yet He is, as St. Peter confesses (v. 29d), the Christ; the long-awaited Messiah foretold in Scripture.

2 See: Exodus 16:11-14, 35.

3 See: Jonah 1:12, 15. Consider also: John 11:49-50, where Caiaphas, the high priest, says: “it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people.”

4 The Mitzvah: 613 commands; 365 “thou shalt nots” and 248 “thou shalts” – all dealing with categorizing and prioritizing how to lead a holy life. For a complete list of the mitzvoth, see:

5 Like: Job does in Job 19:26-27.

6 “The Age of the Earth and Confessional Lutheranism” Concordia Journal. Summer, 2017.

7 Galatians 5:19-21e: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like.

8 While not capitalized in the NKJV, the capitalization utilized here is to express this as a proper noun—in that it names or identifies a specific individual, specifically, Jesus.

Nota Bene: Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture is from the New King James Version.

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