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The Life of Jesus - Series 6: Episode 12

Jesus challenges false teaching

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 16:1-12
Mark 8:11-21

Jesus warned against the teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. They deny his Messiahship and were a bad influence permeating the nation - just like yeast.

Jesus warned against the teaching of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. They deny his Messiahship and were a bad influence permeating the nation - just like yeast.


Hello and welcome to Series 6 and Episode 12 entitled ‘Jesus Challenges False Teaching.’ We're going to be studying from Matthew 16: 1 - 12, and there's a parallel passage in Mark's Gospel.

Introduction and Recap

This is the last episode in Series 6. It's an opportunity for us to look back over the series and all the things that have happened at this particular point in Jesus' ministry - because things are going to change quite dramatically in Series 7. Series 6 describes the third tour of Galilee that Jesus undertook both on his own, with his disciples, and also having sent them out independently in pairs to travel around and to preach towards the beginning of this particular tour (as recorded in Matthew 10) It's been a very dramatic tour but it's the third tour and, in fact, it's the final tour of Galilee that Jesus conducts because, as we're going to find out shortly, Jesus is now going to change his focus from Galilee towards Jerusalem.

The first tour, in Series 3, was really the launch of Jesus' ministry. He came on the scene with a big explosion of excitement (with miracles, healing and teaching in synagogues and so forth) and we described that very carefully in Series 3. Then, having appointed twelve Apostles as his special delegated representatives, he gave all the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount in Series 4, which is a very important part of the building up of the Kingdom community that Jesus was undertaking. This provided all the ethical and religious and spiritual framework for the new discipleship community. In Series 5, we had the second tour where the Twelve are established in their role - they're travelling closely with Jesus, observing him, learning from him. Here in Series 6, they've had some time operating independently, travelling around and preaching.

The atmosphere in Series 6 has intensified. There's been an intensification of support for Jesus among some people. This was represented particularly by the Feeding of the Five Thousand and we looked at that carefully and several times I've commented, subsequently, on the significance of that event because at the end the people got so excited at that time - a very large crowd gathered, the largest recorded number in Jesus' ministry - they want to make him king by force. (John 6:15) They wanted him to come and take over the country. Popular support is rising, political aspirations are being attached to Jesus which are not things that he's wanting but nevertheless that is taking place on the one hand. Some people are getting frustrated that he doesn't take over the government, - take over from the local king (King Herod Antipas), take over from the Romans in Jerusalem and so forth - but he's not doing that. There's a great deal of popular support, some degree of frustration and some people dropping off supporting him. On the other hand, the storm clouds have been gathering. Two particular storm clouds that we can identify in Series 6. The first one comes from the local king of the Galilee area, King Herod Antipas. We've mentioned him on many occasions before: we mentioned that his headquarters was in the city of Tiberias, which was right there on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee, very close to Jesus' headquarters a little bit further north in Capernaum. Herod Antipas has not made any direct moves against Jesus but he has made a direct move against John the Baptist. First of all, he imprisoned him and then subsequently, as we saw here in Series 6, he suddenly decided to execute him under pressure from his wife, Herodias. The storm clouds are gathering. What is Herod Antipas going to do next? This popular movement that's surrounding Jesus is simply getting bigger and bigger and, although it's not overtly political, it's very easy for it to turn political; or perhaps he might imagine it would turn violent or the crowds would invade his city of Tiberias and call for his overthrow - all sorts of scenarios might be running through his mind. There's no record of any of these things happening, but Herod Antipas would be concerned. That's one storm cloud.

The other storm cloud that has arisen is the ever increasing hostile attention and decisions and determinations of the religious establishment - and they're represented, generally speaking, by their activists the Pharisees. Other parts of the religious establishment are represented as well, such as the Sadducees, and we'll discuss these groups in our episode today. Already, as recorded in Matthew 12: 22 to 24, and the subsequent passage, there's been a formal denouncement of Jesus from the religious establishment as a false messiah operating under the power of evil forces, and not under the power of the Holy Spirit, and the confrontations continue. There's a very strong confrontation we recorded, in an episode just a little back in time from the moment we're describing here, where the Pharisees came and confronted Jesus about a number of issues of obedience to the Law and accused his disciples of disobeying the Law of Moses. In fact, that wasn't true but they're really challenging Jesus very hard. There's a storm cloud coming from the religious establishment. This is originating from Jerusalem, from the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin); they're sending representatives to Galilee; they're trying to undermine Jesus; and they're trying to turn people away from him. Two storm clouds: the political storm cloud from Herod Antipas, potentially, and the definite storm cloud of opposition that's coming from the religious establishment. These are some of the background events.

So complex is all this process that Jesus took some time out. He went to Phoenicia and then to Decapolis and performed some miracles there in two separate Gentile territories to the north and to the east of Galilee. We've just seen these events, and the miracles associated with them, and as our story starts today, Jesus is returning from the Decapolis, east of the Sea of Galilee, back over into Jewish Galilee, on the western side, and very shortly after that there's another big discussion about false teaching. We're going to read Matthew 16: 1 - 12. Let's read the previous verse - Matthew 15: 39, as well - because this describes the connecting moment when Jesus had fed the 4000, which was the second half of the last episode and then what happened at the end of that particular occasion. Starting the last verse of Matthew 15:

A Sign From Heaven

‘After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. 1The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. 2He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ 3and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. 5When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7They discussed this among themselves and said, “(It's) because we didn't bring any bread.” 8Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9Do you still not understand? Don't you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11How is it you don't understand that (I'm) not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’

Matthew 15:39-16:12, NIV

Pharisees and Sadducees tested him by asking him a question. This is a regular occurrence and it happens again - they're coming and they're really pushing. This is the storm cloud of religious opposition that is building up in strength. This is not the first time that they ask a question about having a sign from heaven and not the first time that Jesus had actually pronounced on this particular question. For a moment we need to go back in the text to Matthew 12, to remind ourselves of the previous direct confrontation where these similar issues were discussed. In Matthew 12: 24, the Pharisees, after a particular miracle

‘... when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”’

Matthew 12:24, NIV

This is their pronouncement on Jesus, as a false messiah. Then, in verse 38, after Jesus had made a robust reply to that statement:

‘Then some of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given … except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”’

Matthew 12:38-40, NIV

You can see the similarity between that incident, some time ago, and this similar question here and Jesus, in verse 4, is very clear: ‘“none (no sign) will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”’ What is meant by the sign of Jonah? The story of Jonah is one of the major prophetic stories of the Old Testament. Jonah was an Israelite prophet and you're probably familiar with the story (and we discussed it when we looked at the incident in Matthew 12). There's a small book of Jonah in the Old Testament that describes the story vividly. He was called by God to go from Israel to the regional superpower at the time, Assyria, and their capital city Nineveh. He decided he didn't want to do that. He was frightened; he fled in the opposite direction; he went westward rather than going eastward; a storm came and, eventually, he ended up being thrown off the boat in the storm and being swallowed up by a huge fish for three days before the fish vomited him out and he ended up on the land. That's the story described as a real-life event in the Old Testament and verified as such by Jesus, by the way. The significance of this is, as described more fully by Jesus on the previous discussion, that

‘“as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”’

Matthew 12:40, NIV

That incident is a kind of symbol or metaphor for the death and then the resurrection of Jesus because Jonah experienced what can only be described as a kind of coming back to life, because obviously one would assume he would die in those circumstances - it was only the miraculous provision of God that kept him alive. Jesus, in a similar way, will die and be apparently, permanently dead and then suddenly, miraculously come to life on the third day. Jesus is saying to the religious leaders there, “If you want a sign, the big sign to you, the final indicator of who I am - my real identity - will be my death and my resurrection - the sign of Jonah.”

The physical miracles, the remarkable things that Jesus did, had not persuaded them. In fact, they had argued that he had used an evil power in order to perform these miracles. Jesus is not trying to persuade them through those types of miracles because they've been prejudiced against the reality of them and they have attributed them to a source other than the power of God. The point about this sign here is, it's greater than all of those things and, this particular sign can't be performed by Jesus in his earthly life because he would have died at that point. The sign of Jonah is a sign of a greater power than just Jesus himself - the power of his Father, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity of God working together. Jesus physically dead but raised again to life, is a dramatically greater miracle than any of the miracles of his earthly ministry. That's the sign that Jesus said will be given to that generation. He calls them a ‘wicked generation’ because they've hardened their hearts. What he means by the generation is the people of the country who are influenced by their religious leaders. That's not everybody, by any means, but the religious leaders still had a huge amount of influence.

Three Dangerous Influences

After that brief conversation, which Jesus cut short, he then enters into a discussion with his disciples as they're crossing over from one part of the lake to another and they've forgotten to bring some bread on board for the journey that they're going to take. Jesus uses the analogy of yeast to describe the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and Mark 8: 15 which is the parallel account and also adds in that Herod and the followers of Herod are also in Jesus' mind so we're going to comment on that in just a moment. Jesus identifies three types of dangerous teaching and influence: that of the Pharisees and Sadducees and the Herodians. Yeast, generally speaking, is an image in the Bible for negative influence spreading from one place to another. Just as yeast in dough will spread throughout the dough, will have an equal influence all over the dough, and cause the bread to rise, so yeast, in a negative spiritual sense, will infect the whole of whatever is being described. It will affect the whole of the nation of Israel, in fact. This negative teaching of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians is going to have a negative teaching throughout the whole nation and Jesus says, “Be warned! There's something very negative coming from them and something that must be resisted.”

In order to work out what he's talking about, we need to draw some evidence from different parts of Scripture and the Gospel accounts and we find that there are distinctives of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians that Jesus would have had in mind. Let's think, first of all, of the Pharisees. There are a number of things that they are particularly criticised for by Jesus. Luke 12: 1 says Jesus said ‘“Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”’ The first and fundamental problem with the Pharisees is they said one thing and they did another. They concentrated on external religious activities while, internally, there was moral corruption and double standards. That's the first thing that Jesus explicitly criticises them for.  In Luke 16: 14 Luke comments on the Pharisees when Jesus was telling a parable related to the use of financial resources and money. Luke 16: 14, comments: ‘The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.’ The second criticism: they love money. Hypocrisy - double standards - and secondly, they love money - they were motivated by financial gain. Even though they made a big thing about giving money away, tithing and being generous to the poor, they actually loved money. The third criticism is that of legalism. In Mark 7, we've had a discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus (which we commented on in Series 6 Episode 12) and Jesus accused them of legalism by which he meant the legitimate Laws of Moses, which they should obey, were being added to by their own human traditions and laws, and being imposed on others as if they were the Law of God. Mark 7: 8, says: ‘“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”’ That's Jesus speaking to the Pharisees - “You've let go of the Law of Moses and you're holding onto human traditions” - that's legalism. The final element of the teaching of the Pharisees is their outright rejection of Jesus as Messiah as indicated in Matthew 12, verse 24, which we looked at just a moment ago. There are many reasons why the teaching of the Pharisees is dangerous. It's like yeast, it's going to go all the way through the nation of Israel, corrupt the nation of Israel, and persuade many people not to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.

What about the teaching of the Sadducees? We've said less about the Sadducees than the Pharisees so far; they appear a bit more prominently in the events in Jerusalem at the end of Jesus' life and we'll have reason to discuss them in a little more detail then. They were another religious group who were influential in the religious establishment. They had members of their group on the ruling Sanhedrin and many of the Sadducees were also priests. This particular religious group had a significant disbelief in the supernatural. They even doubted the afterlife, which was the fundamental conviction of Judaism at the time and seems a very strange thing to say. For example in Matthew 22: 23, Matthew writes: ‘That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.’ They doubted the physical resurrection; they doubted the existence of angels; and they had a disbelief in elements of the supernatural. They also joined with the Pharisees in denouncing Jesus as a false messiah.

We've mentioned the Pharisees; we've mentioned the Sadducees but as I noted in Mark's account of this same event he adds that Jesus mentioned Herod and the Herodians, which are the followers of King Herod Antipas and other members of the Herod family. Why should we be concerned about them? Herod had just executed John the Baptist for a start so Herod Antipas is a danger to Jesus and his followers because he can turn against them as someone who, although fascinated by Jesus, was not a follower and felt deeply threatened by Jesus. Mark notes, very interestingly, as an early comment on the followers of Herod Antipas (known as the Herodians) in Mark 3: 6 right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry: ‘Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.’ This is the earliest reference to a plot to get rid of Jesus in all the Gospels and the interesting thing is the Pharisees are associated with the Herodians, in this particular respect. Here is a political faction, motivated by maintaining the political status quo, which had the capacity to turn against Jesus because he was a perceived threat to their political power. At the same time, we also know that there were members of Herod's establishment and of his army who were deeply influenced by Jesus - we think of the centurion from the Capernaum area and of the women who followed Jesus as recorded at the beginning of Luke 8 (one of whom is described as the wife of the ruler of Herod's household). We know that influential people around Herod are following Jesus but we also know that most of his political followers are warning him against Jesus as being a threat.


Having said all that and understood what Jesus was talking about, let's think for a moment and reflect what kind of applications we may make from this intriguing passage. First of all, just to summarise, these types of teachings involved, first of all, the refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah - that's the Pharisees primary opposition to Jesus. Secondly, religious scepticism - that's really the position of the Sadducees and thirdly, political opposition - from the Herodians. The interesting thing is to think: how can these realities apply in the modern world, in my country or in your country? We all live in different parts of the world, under different political systems and in different cultures and so our response to that question will be very different depending on where we live. I want to say that these challenges still exist today very firmly. Jesus can be misunderstood and his identity resisted at a religious level and there are many religious systems that would ask questions, or be sceptical, or even opposed to the idea that Jesus is the unique, divine Son of God and Messiah, Saviour - someone who has the ability to forgive sins and creates new spiritual life and someone who rules over this whole world and ultimately that rule will be manifest when he returns in power. All the major religions of the world, outside Christianity, will have fundamental questions about those claims. Scepticism, such as that of the Pharisees, is very common in our modern world. The Sadducees were sceptical of certain elements of the supernatural reality. That scepticism has developed a lot further in the modern world - particularly where Western culture has been influential. We live in an age, in Western life, of scepticism - scepticism about religion, scepticism about the supernatural. Also, thinking of the Herodians, all over the world politicians, those in power, dictators and rulers, will persecute Christians - they will oppose Christians and see them as a threat. That's happening as I'm speaking. I've read news in the last 24 hours that tells me of imprisonment, persecution and attacks on churches that have taken place in several continents. I've been reading about it just as I've been preparing this talk. It's a reality in our world, the Herodian tendency to oppose the spiritual truth for political reasons is still present in our world.

Therefore, we can learn some things from what Jesus is saying. We can take encouragement that he understood these types of issues and he saw very clear examples in groups he was dealing with in his time and in his culture: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians and, indeed, others who are not mentioned here. The Church needs to be on its guard and we need to affirm, very clearly, first of all, the identity of Jesus when other religious traditions would modify or undermine that identity - would dilute it in some way. The Church needs to be very clear, Jesus' uniqueness is very profoundly stated all the way through the New Testament and all the way through the Gospels. Secondly, we need to be very committed to the view that we believe in the supernatural activity of God today by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don't want a form of religious scepticism to creep into the Church. We believe in God's power today operating in similar ways that it operated in Jesus' time because he gave his Holy Spirit to his followers. Finally, we need to be cautious and careful when the state wants to take control of the Church. An ideal situation for the Church of Jesus Christ is to be free from direct control from the state and to be very wise in handling itself when the state seeks to exercise undue influence over its organisation, its life, its finances, its belief and its proclamation of the Gospel. We need to be aware of the yeast (the influence) of groups like the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians in modern society. You'll find ways of making application of this teaching in your culture and in your country, as I can in mine, and we should take courage - Jesus saw all these things coming and equipped the Church to deal with them. Thanks for reading.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What does this study tell you about the resurrection?
  • Discipleship
    1. It is easy to be influenced by scepticism and feel deflated, inadequate and even believe you are wrong. How can you deal with self-doubt and be strong when faced with scepticism?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Jesus accused the Pharisees of double standards, loving money and being legalistic. To what extent could this be said of any church leaders today?
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