If you’ve been a reader of my blog for long, you should know that I’m not a sensationalist. I try to avoid always capitalizing on current events for content. And on the occasion when I do take a stab at a current event, I do my best to keep the gloves up (although I might’ve slightly failed on that count with one or two political posts this year). This morning when I was reading Matthew chapter sixteen I had a wow moment that I feel compelled to share with you, and it might throw some people under the bus, proverbially speaking.
I read the first twenty verses and as I took notes it occurred to me that within these verses Jesus identifies the greatest threats and the least threats to the Church. Let me zoom in on the two key verses that brought this to my attention.
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Matthew 16:6 ESV
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18 ESV
Let’s deal with Matthew 16:6 first. Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. What does that mean? First of all, what is leaven? Leaven is the yeast that is used for baking bread. If you know anything about baking, you know that yeast is what causes the bread to rise. And it doesn’t take much. A little yeast goes a long way. The yeast consumes the sugars (found in the starches) in the flour, and the byproduct is carbon dioxide gas (and trace amounts of alcohol), which inflates small pockets of air throughout the dough, causing the dough to rise. Leaven is an internal influence. It happens from within.
Pharisees and Sadducees were two prominent groups among the Jews, and between them they controlled the vast majority of the religious, social, and political power granted from the Romans. The Pharisees were what we would label as the fundamental conservatives of Judaism. They believed that the Scriptures were 100% true, supernatural and all. They believed the Prophets. They were expecting a Messiah. They believed in the resurrection of the dead at the final judgment. They believed in eternal judgment apart from God for the wicked, and eternal bliss in God’s presence for the righteous. But they had relied on their strict observance of the Law and Prophets to become their salvation.
On the other hand, the Sadducees are a little harder to define. They were conservative in that they accepted the Law of Moses, but they were liberal in that they rejected teachings like the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul, and to some degree they rejected beliefs about angels (although there are angels in the Law of Moses!). Perhaps the best way to describe the Sadducees is that they accepted the Law of Moses, but wanted the freedom to interpret the Scriptures in whatever way suited them.
Compare them to today. We have the camps of fundamentalist, ultra conservative, suit and tie, King James only, believers within the Church who are comparable to the party of the Pharisees. We also have camps of red-letter-only, if-Jesus-didn’t-teach-on-it-directly, social justice, revisionist believers in the Church who are comparable to the Sadducees. Fundamentalists insist on a very strict, inflexible way of interpreting Scripture and living out the faith publicly. Revisionists embrace Jesus’ teachings, but take excessive liberty in how to interpret the writings of the Apostles and how the faith should be lived in public.
Jesus says that we are to beware of both of these extremes. In Matthew 16:1 it reads that both of these parties came together to test Jesus. Fundamentalists and Revisionists do exactly the same thing. They trap you. The fundamentalists will accuse you of being too lax with your discipline, too loose with your lifestyle, too easy on sin, and goad you into a system of works-based acceptance with God. The revisionists will trap you by saying you’re too rigid, too narrow, too small-minded, and mock you for believing that the Scriptures do call some things sinful that the world has embraced as normal.
Jesus calls these two positions out as dangerous and that we should be wary of teachers who embrace them.
Now, down in verse 18, Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (16:16). In his response to Peter’s confession, Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Hell itself will not prevail against the Church. That statement is diametrically opposed to the fear that I’ve heard so many people let slip from their lips in the past few years. So many Christians are worried about attacks from outside the church. Religious freedom has been a rallying point for many. For the record, I support religious freedom. Also for the record, religious freedom isn’t what defends the Church. If we lose our religious freedom, the Church will endure. Jesus said that HE HIMSELF would build his Church and the gates of Hell won’t be able to do ANYTHING about it. If the gates of Hell will not prevail, neither will any man-made government. Neither will any persecution. Neither will any sword or famine or pestilence. Come to think of it, I think that’s in the Bible (See Romans 8:38-39)
The problem isn’t what’s attacking us from the outside.
Rather, Jesus warned us about what’s attacking us from the inside.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-20 ESV
I was going to drop some names here, but I’m going to keep the gloves up. Let’s just leave it at this. Beware of the leaven. Leaven spreads. Leaven puffs up. There are both Pharisees and Sadducees – Fundamentalists and Revisionists – alive and well in today’s church. And they are far more dangerous to the Church than the gates of Hell ever could be because they destroy us from within. Hell may never advance against the Church, but the Church can hinder herself, crippled by the internal destruction caused by the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. For the sake of the Church, please be discerning.
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16 ESV