Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

102. The Leaven bf the Pharisees (Matt. 16:1-12; Mark 8:11-21)*

Again, the progress across the lake of the now famous little vessel was noted by watchful eyes. So it was not long before Jesus was approached by the Pharisees who had provoked the earlier altercation after the discourse in the synagogue at Capernaum. Now they were joined by a group of Sadducees, the Jewish high-priestly party, who were becoming just as anxious as the Pharisees about the activities of Jesus. Doubtless the excited talk after the feeding of the five thousand, about making Jesus king of the Jews, had seriously disturbed them. And not then, only, for it is possible to infer (Mk.8:15) that Herod, who was guessing Jesus to be John the Baptist risen from the dead, was also behind this latest move. This is understandable, for Herod thought himself to be King of the Jews.

Adversity and fear make strange bedfellows. This was not to be the only time that such an unholy alliance would go into action against Jesus. Less than a year later all these vested interests were to join together to accomplish their evil work thoroughly (Jn.18:3; Mt.27:62). The death of Jesus was to make Herod and Pilate into friends (Lk.23:12). Similarly in later days, Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem were to gang up against Paul (Acts.23:6-10); and likewise Epicureans and Stoics in Athens (17:18).

A Sign from Heaven

The present campaign consisted of pressing for a sign from heaven, and they did this "arguing with him" (Mk.8:11). The point appears to have been this: You, Jesus, claim to be the Messiah. But the Scriptures declare that Messiah's day is to be heralded by the appearance of Elijah. Don't tell us that John the Baptist was he, because we know that he wasn't. Elijah's ministry ended with a manifestation of the heavenly Glory, but John ended his with his head on the block. And the same argument applies to you, Jesus. If you are the successor of a prophetic forerunner, your great work will be ushered in, as Elisha's was, by the manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, "the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof". So, show us the same sign from heaven, so that we may know and believe.

More than this, had they not heard John the Baptist proclaim: "Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Spirit" (Jn. 1:33)? 'Then if you are he, Jesus, your abiding Spirit power should enable you to feed the whole nation every day as Moses did (cp. Jn.6:30,31); but you do nothing of the sort, therefore you are not Messiah, and, like you, John also was a false prophet!'

Their attack was now at full power.

These cunning men had noted the Lord's constant efforts to avoid sensationalism in the good works he did. His second temptation (Mt.4:5-7) had made this a settled policy for all his ministry hitherto. And now the temptation was being renewed, was in fact being pressed with a persistence which sorely taxed his spirit (cp. Ex.l7:3,4,7; Ps.42:3,10). For, at that very moment there were twelve legions of angels eager to do his bidding. It needed only that he should will his own self-vindiction, and there would be seen such a display of heavenly majesty and power on his behalf as would put these carping adversaries in fear for the rest of their lives. But this must not be. The marvellous powers of the Holy Spirit were given him as a witness to the character of his mission, and not to bulldoze small-minded opposition out of the way. This temptation was one of the most acute Jesus had encountered, and his half-audible prayer to heaven for help was heard, and marvelled at, by the bystanders.

"Why" he asked, "does this generation seek after a sign?" Why indeed? Not out of any earnest seeking for truth, nor in any plea to have genuine doubts set at rest; but in order to score a debating point, and so that this man of Nazareth, whose sandals they were not fit to unloose, might so commit himself that they could triumphantly discredit him before the people.

A Different Kind of Sign

His reply gave them a sign from heaven of a kind they had not expected. Would they see the Shekinah Glory of God? It is there in the fiery splendour of a majestic sunset telling them that after the Son of man has slept and risen again there will be a day of wondrous blessing—this is what the gracious loveliness of his present ministry betokened, if only they could read the signs aright. But if their bitter opposition still continued, then that morning of resurrection would be for them one of dull red sky and threatening appearance, a day of heavenly glory but also a day of drastic divine displeasure. So let there be an end to their pretended puzzlement regarding his own character and his claims! They already had all the signs they needed.

There was more to this argument which lie now put to them. When Israel came out of Egypt, the same Shekinah Glory (the very sign from heaven which they were now asking for] was darkness to the Egyptians but light to the people of Israel —a portent of marvellous divine deliverance to Israelites unable to help themselves. Similarly, it was no accident that Jesus hit on this present reminder of the Glory of God in the sky. The same kind of majestic splendour in the heavens could herald a day of calm and loveliness or of foul weather with the very elements at war against puny man. Then let them learn to read the signs already available to them.

Angry Jesus

"An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign." It was a strange description to use. By it, was Jesus telling them that he knew right well that they had been encouraged in their present attack by evil and adulterous Herod (Mk.8:15)? Or was his mind still running on the Exodus, and how in the wilderness the people had disowned "this Moses" in order to redesign their own religion with its lascivious adulterous worship of the golden calf (Ex.32|! That shameful episode had ended with the threat of the utter withdrawal of the Shekinah Glory from the camp of Israel (Ex.33). It was only the fervent pleading of Moses which saved Israel from complete and final rejection. As it was, the Glory was now associated with his tent outside the camp (Ex.33:7). In harmony with this acted parable, Matthew rounds off ft section of his gospel with the abrupt words "and he left them, and departed." It was in effect, the end of the Galilean ministry.

Jonah - a Sign

But the Lord's last word to them was this "There shall no sign be given to this generation, but the sign of the prophet Jonah." No sign from heaven, but instead a sign from hell-his own death and resurrection. From every angle was the most incisive thing Jesus could have slid to them, for not only would his resurrection provide the complete vindication of all hi claims, but also the outcome of it would follow the pattern of Jonah's experience. After his death and resurrection, he went to the great concourse of godless Gentiles, calling them It repentance, and was blessed with a marvellously whole-hearted response to his warning: "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Now Jesus was, in effect proclaiming the same message, but was getting little sign of repentance to hold off this threatened judgment.

There was an even greater fitness about the sign of the prophet Jonah to this malevolent affiance of Pharisees and Sadducees. The former, like the churches of the present day, believed in the immortality of the soul. The latter disbelieved in any kind of after-life. They had no room for the Old Testament doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Thus, Pharisees as good as denied that Jonah went into the belly of the whale; and Sadducees denied that he came out of it! Within a year the death and resurrection of Jesus exposed both errors.

At this point Mark's record has, more briefly: "There shall no sign be given unto this generation." This simply puts emphasis on the fact that the sign of the Lord's death and resurrection was to be without effect on these unbelieving men: "neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

Saving the Disciples

Forthwith Jesus went on board the boat once again and crossed to the other side from which he had only just come. The reason for this is easy to discern. No matter what the cost in terms of personal inconvenience and dislocation of his own plans he must shield the twelve from the damaging influence of these clever and evil men. There are examples enough of the Lord's watchful care for his "little flock" (Mk.7:24; 7:13,15; Lk.5:30,31; Mt.l2:l-9). At this time, when the faith of the twelve was in a specially precarious condition, such concern was most necessary.

During the crossing Jesus said nothing to the disciples about this encounter because some of them were needed for the handling of the boat. But when they were ashore and he could have the full attention of them all, he began to impress on them, with repeated emphasis, that they "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees."


The disciples, mindful of their Master's denunciation of the Pharisees' attitude to the Mosaic food laws, were puzzled. Had he not lately said to them that what a man ate was of no consequence? Then why this apparent change of attitude, spoken with such emphasis? They had re-embarked hastily, and were short of food either because the seven baskets of fragments left over from their Lord's recent miracle had been given away or because, overawed by Pharisee criticism, they had deliberately left that Gentile food behind. So they could only conclude that Jesus was warning them against buying their next stock of food from anyone who gave allegiance to either of these religious groups. As though Jesus was one to indulge in petty faction and party warfare!

It was true they had only one loaf with them— "and what is that among so many?" they doubtless queried. Indeed, if they had eyes for the symbolism of the situation, that one Loaf was more than adequate Bread for all. But just as formerly (Mk.7:17) they had taken their Lord's words as a parable, when he spoke in strictly literal terms, so now when he adopted a readily understood figure, they tried to take him literally. In a surreptitious way and without unanimity they talked it over among themselves, and only succeeded in adding to their own bewilderment.

Jesus was aware of what was going on, and took them to task about it: "O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves?" Here once again was his most censorious reproach: "Little faith!", deploring this time their lack of insight into the meaning of their Lord's words and miracles. Could they not appreciate the symbolism behind his miraculous feeding of both Jews and Gentiles?

Patient Instruction

He went over the facts as one might patiently reason with little children: "Five loaves for five thousand. How many baskets of pieces left?... Seven loaves for four thousand. How many baskets?" And like children they gave him answers, groping uncertainly for his meaning.

Here, in miracles like these, was the demonstration of his authority. And these also were parables of his work and purpose. Then were they going to match the purblindness of his adversaries and doubt him because there was no sign from heaven? How slow they were to see that he was warning them against being corrupted by the cleverness of these enemies who would stick at nothing in a determination to discredit him and wreck his work!

These were hard days for the Son of God. The people seemed to appreciate him only for the physical and material blessings they could get from him. The rulers, more openly hostile than ever, were incessant in their varied attempts to undermine his standing and authority. .Worst of all, the confidence of his specially chosen followers had been shaken to its foundations, and so far all the careful efforts he had made to nurture their faith and to fill out their understanding seemed to have achieved little. Was there no way of stopping the rot?


"Do ye not yet perceive nor understand?" he reproached them; "have ye your heart yet hardened?" Was their faith in him still paralysed with the same spirit of disaffection which had broken out after the feeding of the five thousand?

"Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?" He had just given them a reminder of their own important part in the feeding of the multitudes, and also in gathering up the fragments for the benefit of others later. But they could only fulfil the vital role intended for them if they had complete confidence in him and real insight into his work and mission. His final reproach was: "And do ye not remember?" It was (and it is) blameworthy if the disciple experiences an outstanding instance of God's Providence and forgets it, or remembering gives little heed to its meaning.

It was a sorely discouraged Jesus who now took his little band of uneasy dispirited doubting disciples into retirement once again, this time into the northern region of Caesarea Philippi, there to be refreshed and again discouraged (Mt.16:17,23).

The sequence of events in this part of the ministry is probably so recorded because it became an acted prophecy of the experience of the twelve in later days when faced with a similar Judaist onslaught. Unable to cope with strong self-confident criticism they retreated from preaching to the Gentiles to whom they had been sent (e.g. Gal.2:12), and rested content with the One Loaf they already had; and it was left to Paul to save the situation when it was almost past repair.

There is remarkable relevance to this part of the ministry in a paragraph of Jeremiah's prophecy:

"Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes and see not; which have ears and hear not... this people hath a revolting and rebellious heart... they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they seta trap, they catch men... Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord" (5:21-29).

And see also Ezekiel:

"Son of man, thou dwellest in the midst of a rebellious house, which have eyes to see, and see not; they have ears to hear, and hear not... son of man, remove by day in their sight... I have set thee for a sign unto the House of Israel... And the prince that is among them shall go forth (Herod banished by the Romans)... They shall eat their bread with carefulness... and the land shall be desolate" (12:1-20).

Notes: Mt. 16:1-12

Tempting. The temptations of Ch. 4 are renewed in this chapter: v. 4,8,16,23-25.

A sign from heaven. It is promised that one day they shall have it; 24:30; 26:64. This demand for a sign from heaven was made three times (Mt.12:38; 16:1; Ik. 11:16,29). Realising that this was not Jesus' intention, they made this challenge a good scoring point in argument.
Quite unwarrantably omitted by RV because of slavish adherence to Sinaitic and Vatican MSS, yet in the face of massive witness from almost all the rest.
Lowring; s.w.Dan. 2:12.

Hypocrites. Pretending a lack of understanding concerning Jesus' works which they didn't have; and also hiding their present alliance with Herod.
This verse repeats 12:39. Is there a problem here?

He left them, and departed. This tautology emphasizes that Jesus now recognized that there was to be no -f progress with the nation, but only with the faithful remnant he could gather round him. Hence, in v,16-19, there is emphasis on personal confession, the establishing of an ecclesia, and authority vested in his apostles.
The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Very different men with one evil intent—the corruption of the Lord's bewildered disciples.

Mk 8:11-21

Seeking.. .tempting. The verbs indicate sustained aggression in argument.
Sighed deeply. What is essentially the same Greek words comes in Rom.8:26,23; Ads.7:34;l Cor. 5:3,4; 15.
The leaven of Herod. Had Herod recovered his nerve (6:16), and was now set on getting rid of Jesus also?

He charged them. He said it repeatedly.
Jesus links concern about food with lack of spiritual insight!

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