Bible Study Tools / Sin

Why Did Jesus Warn “Beware of Leaven?”

by David Palmer
Photo by mohamed hassouna on Unsplash

During His ministry Jesus often used the term “beware”. He told His followers to beware of men for they will deliver you up to the councils, and scourge you in their synagogues. Beware of false prophets that deceive. But there was another warning He issued, something He told His disciples to beware of, and the first time He warned them, they didn’t get it. “Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. Then He charged them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have no bread” (Mark 8:14-16).

The disciples at this point did not perceive what Jesus was really getting at. Bread itself was not the point. Leavening was! “How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 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” (Matthew 16:11-12).

“Leaven translated as sour dough, is the remnant of dough from the preceding baking which had fermented and become acid” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary). “A small portion of fermented dough used to ferment other dough and often symbolizing a corruptive influence” (Holman’s Bible Dictionary).

By analogy Jesus used three symbols of leavening - the Pharisees, the Sadducees and King Herod. Leaven of the Pharisees represented hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). The name “Sadducees” means “righteous ones” but, in fact, they were leavened with self-righteousness and false teaching. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (Luke 20:27, Mark 12:18). The leaven of Herod represented political and religious worldliness under the influence of the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Our world has been permeated (corrupted) with the leaven of the devil. And when Jesus referred to the sin of leaven, He was referring to sins of the heart. “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11). “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man” (verse18).

Leaven has corrupted the true teachings of the Bible. Indeed too many religions, while claiming to be pious are, in fact, leavened with misguided traditions. Jesus had to address just such a concern among the Pharisees. For instance, the Pharisees meticulously cleansed the outside of their cups and dishes. However, inside they were filled with greed and self-indulgence. Jesus explained that external cleansing was not sufficient. Furthermore Jesus taught: “even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:28-29). Misapplied and misunderstood traditions like permeating leaven can cause division even in the Christian church.

Paul dealt with a leaven problem within the congregation of the church at Corinth. An individual was committing incest, and in responding, Paul compared the problem to leavening the entire church. “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you” (I Corinthians 5:2). “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (Verse 6).

Each year when we observe the Passover we recognize that Jesus is indeed: our bread of life (John 6:35, 48); the true bread that came down from heaven; that He was without sin; the unleavened bread of life.

Following Passover, we observe the “Days of Unleavened Bread”, an observance symbolizing the putting away of sin, as we remove all leaven products from our home. But we are also commanded to eat unleavened products symbolizing taking in more of Jesus Christ. When we partake of unleavened bread, that bread becomes part of us. We ingest it into our physical body. It is a portion of the fuel that keeps the body functioning. When we observe the Passover and eat of the body and drink of the blood of Jesus Christ, it is spiritual fuel. To eat His body is to ingest into our hearts and minds more of an unleavened Saviour. We are continuing the covenant made at baptism, that we accept His sacrifice for our sins.

Observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread is our reminder of a spiritual commitment that will one day allow us an opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God.

We are reminded by the apostle Paul that we are to keep the feast, that we are to put leavening out of our homes for seven days and to eat unleavened bread. But Paul meant more than just eating physical bread. “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. “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 5:7-8).

As we approach the spring Holy Day season, the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread, we are admonished to beware of leaven, the puffed up self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the false doctrinal concepts of the Sadducees, and the diabolical political chicanery of Herod.

We are to “to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness;” and substitute “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”, with the guiding hand of the true Bread of eternal life, Jesus Christ of Nazareth!

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