Commands of Christ

Beware of Leaven

Where is this command found?

“Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.”

Matthew 16:6

Applying This Command

Leaven is a fermenting matter, such as yeast, that causes fermentation in bread dough or a liquid, resulting in expansion. The chemical definition of ferment or yeast is “a substance in a state of putrefaction, the atoms of which are in a continual motion.” This motion creates a heat that causes yeast to be active at room temperature. Leaven can also be the fermented dough that is used as a “starter” in sourdough bread. This starter is acid in nature, and some of it is kept for the next round of bread baking. In this way, one starter can continue in use for many generations.

The term “leaven of the Pharisees” refers to the deceptive and pernicious teachings of the religious leaders in the days of Jesus. When Jesus gave this command, His mind must have been on the confrontation with the Pharisees described in the previous chapter, but the mind of the disciples was on the bread that they had forgotten to bring with them. Thus, they thought Jesus was referring to actual bread. The doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees contained a mixture of God’s truth and man’s traditions, which in effect made void God’s Law. Their teachings were motivated by secret sin and hypocrisy.

Prior to giving this command, Jesus encountered a group of scribes and Pharisees who were from their doctrinal mecca — Jerusalem. They asked Him an accusatory question: “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2). Jesus did not debate the Scriptural or health benefits of washing hands before eating. This is a tradition that has its roots in the Levitical laws of purification, and many mothers say to their children before a meal,“Did you wash your hands?”

The doctrinal leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was that they majored on minor points, while they violated major points of the Law with their own traditions. Jesus gave them a case to prove His point.“Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? “For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. “But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (Matthew 15:3–6). The danger of the leaven of the Pharisees is that it spreads quickly, permeating the entire thought process of an individual or a group, and it corrupts hearts and minds to the true meaning of God’s Law and of Christ’s commandments.


Bible Verses for Meditation

In addition to meditation on Matthew 16:6, meditating on the verses below will provide you with further insight and understanding of Christ’s command: Beware of Leaven.

Luke 12:1

“In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”

I Corinthians 5:6–8

“Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Luke 11:39

“And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.”

Colossians 2:8

“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”

II Corinthians 6:17

“Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.”

Related Episodes

From the Podcast

Dive deeper into the command Beware of Leaven with these episodes from the Commands of Christ podcast!

Study Question

Q: Why did God kill Ananias and Sapphira for simply lying but did not kill the man in the Corinthian church for committing gross immorality? (See Acts 5 and I Corinthians 5.)

A: God swiftly judged Ananias and Sapphira with instant death, because they secretly conspired together to lie to the Holy Spirit, not just to Peter. (See Acts 5:3.) Their sin of hypocrisy was a “leaven” that would have spread throughout the church.

On the other hand, the immoral man in the Corinthian church was openly sinning. His punishment was excommunication from the church and being turned over to Satan so that his sinful nature would be destroyed and his spirit saved in the day of the Lord. (See I Corinthians 5:1–5.) For this man, church discipline would be sufficient chastisement for him to turn from his sin and repent.

Throughout the Bible, leaven is a symbol of corruption and of perverseness of heart and life that must be rejected. (See Matthew 16:6, 11–12; Mark 8:15; and I Corinthians 5:7–8.) The very nature of leaven requires that it be removed entirely since even a small amount of leaven will permeate an entire batch of dough.

In the Old Testament, God gave instructions to the nation of Israel to cut off any man who ate leavened bread during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. (See Exodus 12:15.) In the New Testament, God instituted church discipline to deal with any member who willfully allowed sin to reign in his life. If unchecked, his leaven of sin would soon permeate the entire church.

The only way to escape the leaven of sin is to not permit any compromise of sin to dwell in our lives. If we excuse a little sin, it will grow in our lives and soon affect our attitudes toward God and others. Eventually, it will thoroughly permeate our thinking and corrupt our hearts and minds.

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