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The Leaven of the Pharisees -- Mark 8:11-21

by Travis Dean

March 12, 2011

 

Please bow your heads with me for prayer:

          Father, we pause for a moment before opening Your Word. May we experience what You want us to experience in this time. May I say what You want me to say. And may those listening hear what You want them to hear. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

It was the Great Meteor Storm of 1833. On November 12 and 13 for nine hours a tempest of falling stars broke over North America. The sky was marked in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. Those who witnessed this event said that the number of meteors was equal to that of snowflakes during a light snowfall, except those snowflakes were burning torches. Some people were frightened half to death. Some believed that Judgment Day had come. Practically everyone east of the Rocky Mountains witnessed the event, in spite of the fact that it took place in the middle of the night. If they were not awakened by the glimmering light, they were awakened by the cries and screams of those who were. To this day this sign in the heavens remains one of the greatest on record in modern times.

 

In our story today the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign from heaven.

Let’s begin with a summary of this story:

          When the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from heaven, He refused. Instead, He left them and went back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus warned His disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. The disciples thought He was telling them to not buy bread from Phariseean bakers. But Jesus was actually warning them against the Pharisee’s dangerous spiritual influence. Jesus then referred His disciples back to the miracles of the loaves and fish to illustrate that His frustration was not due to their shortage of bread but their lack of spiritual eyesight.

 

So, what did Jesus experience in this story? First of all, He experience being tested. Mark 8:11 says, “The Pharisees came out and began to dispute with [Jesus]…” The last encounter that Jesus had with these religious leaders took place in Mark 7. There they had come to Jesus asking why His disciples were eating with unwashed hands. In both cases they were trying to discredit Jesus’ ministry. As they were disputing with Jesus (we are not told what this discussion was about), they express a desire to see Him perform a sign, or miracle. They don’t want just any miracle. They want a miracle “from heaven”. They had already seen or at least heard about lots of miracles that Jesus had already performed. No one could deny His miracles of healing. No one could overlook His teaching, which was endowed with an authority from heaven. No one had ever accused Him of even one sin. Andy yet in spite of all these supernatural signs, they ask for a different sign – “a sign “from heaven”. And yet even this kind of sign had been attested to at least three different times in Jesus’ life. First, there were the angels in Bethlehem, who appeared to the shepherds the night Jesus was born. Then there was the star in the East, which the wise men had followed. And third, there had been the voice of God and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove which had come down from heaven at His baptism.

 

It is possible that the Pharisees had never seen any of these signs, and yet neither had they seen the signs from heaven that had been performed in the days of Moses, Joshua, and Elijah. Manna had miraculously come down from heaven in the days of Moses. Joshua had commanded the sun to stand still. Elijah had called fire down from heaven. And now the Pharisees confront Jesus with a request for a sign like one of these, to prove that He is at least as great a prophet as these were. Mark says that this request from the Pharisees was a test. Mark 8:11 says they were “testing Him”. Just like Satan had come to Jesus in the wilderness and put Him to the test. “IF You are the Son of God….” Perform some miracle to prove it. Well, Jesus didn’t perform any miracle for Satan in the wilderness, and neither does He perform one for the Pharisees in this story. So, how does He respond? Mark 8:12 says, “He sighed deeply in His spirit”. You may remember Jesus sighing as He witnessed the deaf-mute man in Mark 7:34. The word means to groan under suffering. The same word is used here of Jesus, except it is in the intensive form. His groaning has intensified. The unbelief and hardness of heart in the Pharisees’ hearts is repulsive to Jesus.

 

Notice in Mark 8:12 Jesus’ words, “Why does this generation seek a sign? (They had already seen so many!) Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” Jesus refused to give the Pharisees a sign from heaven. It was not necessary. They already had plenty of evidence that Jesus was the Son of God.

 

Well, second, Jesus experienced leaving Galilee. He left quite abruptly. It’s a similar picture to the last time He was in Nazareth. He couldn’t do any miracles there because He couldn’t find any faith. And so He just left. It’s the same here in the town of Magdala, where Jesus has just come ashore. There’s nothing He can do for them. So, He and His disciples get back in the boat. They go back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Later in Mark 8:22 we will read that they ended up in the town of Bethsaida. Mark adds the detail in verse 14 of Mark 8 that, when they left Galilee, “the disciples had forgotten to take bread”. That had been in such a hurry to leave, they forgot they were almost out of bread. They only had one loaf left. This would have been quite upsetting to the disciples, as Jews were not supposed to buy bread from non-Jews. And they were headed back to the land of the Gentiles (non-Jews) on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

 

Third, Jesus experienced warning against the Pharisee’s influence. In Mark’s account it seems like the conversation between Jesus and His disciples in verses 15-21 took place while they were in the boat. But in Matthew’s account of this same story in Matthew 16:5, 6 it is clear that this dialogue took place after they had come ashore. In Mark 8:15 Jesus charged the disciples concerning the “leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” This was an analogy. Today we have many different kinds of leaven: baking powder, baking soda, yeast, and others. However, in the days of Jesus the Jews only had yeast. They used it for making bread. So, that is the type of leaven that the disciples would have pictured in their minds. There are at least three characteristics of yeast that Jesus could have been thinking of when He used this analogy. First, yeast is hidden in the dough. You can’t see it. The true spirit in the Pharisee’s teachings was also hidden. Behind their teachings was actually selfishness and pride. Another characteristic of yeast is that it spreads throughout the entire batch of dough. The destructive influence of the Pharisees had also spread throughout Judaism. Jesus was constantly battling this influence as He trained His own disciples. Hardly anyone in all Israel had escaped their harmful influence. A third characteristic of yeast is that it causes spoilage. There are many kinds of yeast. Some types are fungal and other types are actually a mold. In the same way the Pharisees’ teachings defiled and ruined the Jews.

                             

Jesus also warned against the “leaven of Herod”. He also had a corrupting influence. We found out in a previous story in Mark’s gospel account how He tried to please John the Baptist and his new wife, Herodias. He was trying to serve two masters. He wanted the freedom to be worldly and still calm his conscience.

 

So, Jesus warned the disciples of the harmful influence of the Pharisees and or King Herod. Last of all, Jesus experienced revealing spiritual blindness. In Mark 8:15 Jesus charged (or “ordered”) His disciples. The way He addressed them shows He was really concerned about them. It gives us the idea that they had not agreed with Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. It seems that they had wanted Jesus to perform a sign from heaven, so the Pharisees would believe in Him. They really wanted Jesus to gain the approval and acceptance of the Pharisees. How else could He ever hope to be accepted by the Jewish nation? But notice Jesus’ charge to them, “Take heed!” A better translation might be, “Open your eyes!” In other words, “You think that these religious leaders are godly and spiritual. You think that they would believe in Me if I had performed another miracle for them. But you’re blind to their real motives and purposes.” Then Jesus says to His disciples, Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees….” In other words, “Watch out for their hidden pride and their hearts which are spiritually destitute.”

 

Well, in Mark 8:16 the disciples respond to Jesus’ warning by reasoning among themselves. They privately discuss what could possibly have Jesus so worked up. Notice their conclusion. “It is because we have no bread.” They are way off base. They have not understood Jesus’ warning at all. They think Jesus is upset about them not having brought any bread. And the best interpretation they can come up with is something like, “He doesn’t want us to buy bread from Phariseean bakers!”

 

Jesus heard their whispering and knew exactly what they had concluded. And in verses 17-21 He asks the disciples a series of nine questions. He begins with the question, “Why do you reason because you have no bread?” In other words, “This is not about bread! You’re missing my point!” In His third question He asks if their hearts could still be hardened after all this time they have spent with Him. It seems that they still don’t understand that His great concern has always been about spiritual things. In verse 18 He asks them if they really are that blind and really that deaf, just like the Pharisees and those blinded by their teachings. “Do you not remember?” He asks. It wasn’t that long ago that He had multiplied the loaves and the fish. And He reminds them of what happened - “When I broke the loaves, how many baskets of leftovers did you collect?” He’s calling their attention to the great surplus of food that He provided. The message He’s trying to get across is - “A shortage of bread is not a problem! That’s not what I’m concerned about here. What I’m concerned about is that you’re being influenced by the Pharisees and Herod!”

 

And so the story ends rather abruptly with Jesus revealing to His disciples their spiritual blindness. Now, how does this story reveal Jesus as our example? First of all, He is revealed as our example in that He did not give another sign. A scenario similar to the one in today’s story is pictured Matthew chapter 12. I invite you to turn there with me. We will read verses 38 and 39. (Read) Jesus refused to gives the scribes and Pharisees the sign they’re looking for. But He does mention an alternate sign that they will be given - the sign of the prophet Jonah. He goes on to explain what He means in verses 40-42 of Matthew 12. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, so Jesus would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. He’s referring to His death, which would be followed by His resurrection three days later. He then builds on this by saying that this sign is the ultimate sign, because He is One greater than Jonah, even greater than Solomon! Jesus refused to give the Pharisees another sign, because He knew it wouldn’t do any good. He also knew that the most convincing sign was yet to come – His own death and resurrection.

 

And so He reveals that a healthy Christian is someone who realizes that Jesus Christ is the only sign that can awaken faith in the heart. There are a lot of signs mentioned in Matthew chapter 24. They are often referred to as the signs of the times. Much time is often spent keeping up to date on these signs. Many evangelistic sermons are preached about them to keep people alert that Jesus is coming soon. But as important as it is to know the signs of the times, none of these can awaken true faith. There is only one sign that can awaken faith in the heart. It’s a sign given in Matthew 24. I invite you to turn with me there and we will read verses 29 and 30. (Read) The signs from heaven that the Pharisees wanted to see will come. The moon, stars, and heavens will testify of Jesus’ coming. But the ultimate sign is the sign of the Son of Man. Jesus Himself is the greatest miracle of all. His life, death and resurrection alone can awaken true faith, a faith that will endure to the end.

 

When the great sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for us entered into my heart, a whole new faith was awakened. When I realized the unquenchable hope I have because of Jesus’ resurrection, a faith arose in my heart that has proved itself invincible. Because of that faith, I would lay down my life for my Savior. This faith, the faith that is awakened in the heart by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only kind that will endure to the end.

 

A second way in which Jesus is revealed as our example in this story is that He recalled His past miracles. His disciples were quite upset with themselves for forgetting to buy bread in Galilee. They were worried about only having one loaf of bread with them. And Jesus asked them, “Do you not remember? When I miraculously provided that meal for the thousands of people, there was a great surplus.” The idea that Jesus is communicating is that these miracles if taken to heart would have calmed today’s fears. Perhaps they had only breathed a sigh of relief, “Whew! We made it through that one.” They didn’t internalize the truth in that miracle. That miracle cried loud and clear that Jesus is all they needed. But they were too distracted to hear this. And so the next time they needed bread, their faith did not do them any good.

 

And yet Jesus reveals that a healthy Christian is someone whose focus is on what God has done. It’s someone who doesn’t always need another miracle for every new difficulty. The stories in the Bible are meant to be taken into the heart. They’re not meant to simply help us squeak through our current situation. They have been recorded to prepare us for whatever the future might bring.

 

At one time or another I’m sure most of us have owned a vehicle that might be termed, “a gas hog”. It might go ten miles on a gallon of gas. I spent a lot of my life feeling like “a grace hog”. It seemed that all the miracles that God worked in my life had very little effect on my faith. I was always struggling through every difficulty. My past experiences seemed to do little to help me with my current situations. And then the Lord showed me it’s not about what I need to do. It’s about what God has done. Most of the time I would read the promises in the Bible and think, “Yeah, but….” Or, “That sounds good, but it’s not that simple.” What I’m supposed to be doing versus what I am actually doing is depressing and burdensome. But what God has done is liberating and life-changing. If the disciples would have done this, they would have come out of those miracles amazed, declaring, “Wow! That was awesome! We don’t need lots of bread. We just need Jesus!”

 

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there was quite a bit of conflict between Jesus and His disciples. They often were not on the same page. But you know, the great thing is that they never gave up on each other. Oh, I know the disciples thought about it. And Jesus was definitely tempted to. But the disciples realized there was nowhere else for them to go. And Jesus kept focused on who they would become.

 

There’s nowhere you can go in this world to escape conflict. But there is somewhere you can go to escape rejection. Jesus has promised to never leave you or forsake you. In your relationship with Him you will never feel rejected. If you do, it’s from someone else who’s trying to pull you away from Him. Through the up’s and down’s of life, Jesus will stay with you. He has paid a high price for you and He’s not about to let you go.

 

Our closing hymn talks about how Jesus paid it all. He has bound Himself to us by a tie that can never be broken. Please join me in singing the hymn, “Jesus Paid It All”.

 

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