Signs and Leaven

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This morning we are starting a new series of studies in Matthew's Gospel - the Gospel that focuses on Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. And we are carrying on from exactly the point where we left off last Autumn.

If you believe that the Bible is God's Word written, it is good to go through the Bible systematically. True, it is also good to take issues and then find what the bible says or teaches about them. And we do that too. But going through the Bible systematically is a necessary balance. For one thing it means you can't avoid the uncomfortable subjects or the controversial subjects or the politically incorrect subjects. Well, this morning we have, at one and the same time, teaching that is uncomfortable, controversial and politically incorrect. It is the subject of false religion. It is about religious teachers who are wrong.

This is an issue for every age. Jeremiah in Old Testament times, speaking for God, says:

"I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name" (Jer 23.25).

And there were warnings about false teaching in the early church. After Christ's death and Resurrection we are told in Hebrews 13.9:

"Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings."

"Strange teachings" were the problem in the church of the middle-ages - hence the need for the 16th Reformation. And there were "strange teachings" in the church in the 19th and 20th centuries with the authority of the bible being denied. The result has been clergy and others denying the virginal conception of Jesus, his resurrection, his second coming, his atonement, his deity and the fact that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Instead they say that all religions are legitimate ways to God.

And, of course, there are "strange teachings" outside the church. Take the two religions that are currently in the news - Judaism and Islam. Graciously but firmly we have to say that according to the bible both Judaism and Islam have "strange teachings". In the case of Judaism there is the denial that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of Old Testament hope as Matthew shows he is. In Islam there is the denial that Jesus was crucified - something at the heart of the Christian good news. Yes, both Judaism and Islam are strong on the moral law. Last week I heard on the Radio a Jewess brilliantly arguing against a foolish Anglican bishop who was wanting to legalize cannabis. And I myself have been attacked on TV for arguing that the bible teaches homosexual sex is wrong with support coming, significantly, from Muslims. Indeed, the basic moral law (what some might call "natural law") can be understood by those who only have the law "written on their hearts" (Rom 2.15). And the law is good and necessary and has to be preached. So we thank God for all those who stand up for his standards. But the law is to be our schoolmaster, to be "put in charge to lead us to Christ" (Gal 3.24).

So, graciously but firmly we have to say this to both Jews and Muslims: "While you can be firm on morality, you have both missed what is central - the good news about Jesus."

The law by itself is not good news. It underlines how bad we all are; how we all break it; and how we all need saving. So if God judges you in eternity in terms of how good you have been - how you have kept the law - there is no hope. You will be pronounced "guilty". But the good news of Jesus is this: he died for sin to bear the judgment you and I deserve. Yes, he really died on the cross. History makes that clear, no matter what the Qur'an says. And on the cross he bore our sins and paid the penalty (namely death) and in exchange granted us eternal life.

So I say to Jewish friends: "because you don't accept the good news about Jesus, you are rejecting God's word by taking away from it. You take away his word given under the New Covenant (or New Testament)." Then I say to Muslim friends:"because you too don't accept either that Jesus was crucified or that he is the 'one and only' - God's unique and final word - you too are rejecting God's word but by adding to it. You add the teachings of Mohammed, which however much you may respect them, in places contradict both the spirit and the letter of the Bible."

Now to say that people can be wrong in matters of religion and that religious leaders can be in error in what they teach is not politically correct today. But, as we shall see, Jesus not only said that, he issued a strong warning about it. So much by way of introduction.

Our passage for this morning is Matthew's Gospel chapter 16 and verses 1-12. And my headings are ASKING FOR A SIGN, PHARISEES AND SADDUCEES and THEIR YEAST.


Look at verses 1-4:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' 3 and 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. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then left them and went away.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were religious leaders quite opposed to each other. So they are unlikely bedfellows. Here they are united in a common hostility to Jesus Christ. As today people of radically different views will work together to oppose the progress of the gospel. But these people, we are told, were not serious. They were "testing" Jesus - verse 1. Jesus in chapter 16 is now obviously in Jewish territory. In chapter 15, by contrast, he was in Gentile territory where he met an openness to what he said and did. So we read in 15.31:

"The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel."

However, these religious leaders want a better sign than those healings that took place on earth. They want a "sign from heaven". A number of such signs (Jesus later predicted) would precede his second coming - Matthew 24.29:

"'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'

These religious leaders were demanding a sign of that sort for Jesus to prove himself. There are always a number of people like the Pharisees and Sadducees who ask for more evidence but are never open to conviction. That is why the idea that if there were more miracles today, there would necessarily be more conversions, is so wrong. Jesus said on one occasion that if people will not heed the message of the Bible from Moses and the Prophets, "they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Miracles can help confirm the truth; but they won't change stubborn hearts.

Perhaps there is someone here this morning and you are wanting proof for Christianity. But are you sure anything would convince you? It is perfectly possible for people today still to belong to what Jesus calls, verse 4, "a wicked and adulterous generation." These are people, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who demand proof but are not open to conviction. They are spiritually blind. What they need is not more evidence but the Holy Spirit to open their spiritual eyes.

So how does Jesus respond to these Pharisees and Sadducees? Does he offer them a sign? No! Instead he implies that they should be using their minds to do some thinking. He says, in effect, "you are intelligent enough to put two and two together with regard to the weather. You know that when evening comes and the sky is red, it will be 'fair weather.' But when in the morning the sky is red and overcast, you know 'it will be stormy.' So why are you not able to use your minds to understand more important things like the 'signs of the times'? Why are you not able to understand that to look for a political Messiah to fight the Romans is sheer folly. And to fan such messianic expectations will lead [as it did in AD 70] to disaster with the complete destruction of Jerusalem?"

Jesus seems to be suggesting they should have put their minds to bible study. They should have applied themselves properly to Moses and the Prophets, not least to Isaiah and his predictions of a suffering servant. That was the Messiah God was sending, not an Osama bin Laden type of political revolutionary.

Jesus reply in effect is this: "if you genuinely want to find out the truth, don't look for signs, rather think about what God has already said and done in the past and then apply that to the real world."

And when you do that you will find that there is a fit between the truth of God's word and contemporary reality. When a society obeys God, on average there is blessing. When it disobeys God as we in the West have been doing, for example, in defiant ways for the last 40 years, God's blessing will be withdrawn. That is the consistent message of the Old Testament. And history would indicate that that was true. As Proverbs 14.34 says:

"Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people."

However, in verse 4 of Matthew 16 Jesus promises one sign:

"A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah."

What is the "sign of Jonah"?. The Jewish interest in the book of Jonah, we know, focused on the great fish that God provided for Jonah's rescue. So the Pharisees and Sadducees would have interpreted it in terms of Jonah's deliverance. Jesus is, therefore, saying that, like Jonah, he will undergo a deliverance that will be a sign of his divine commission - and that deliverance, we know, was the Resurrection. That is the great sign for atheists, agnostics and people of other religions and philosophies. That is the great difference between Christianity and all other faiths and philosophies. Their leaders and founders have died and been buried. But Jesus is alive and is reigning.

When Mohammed had literally just breathed his last and died, Omar, we are told, rushed out of the tent with his sabre drawn. He threatened to strike off the head of anyone who dared say the prophet was no more. But, of course, Muslims never seriously claim that their prophet is still alive. In fact when the devout Muslim fulfils the fifth of his religious duties and makes the pilgrimage to Mecca, what does he often do? He visits the mosque at al-Madina where the prophet was buried in the hut of his wife. In Jerusalem, however, there is the empty tomb.

The Resurrection is the great sign of the truth of Christ and all the proof that is necessary. We must move on.


Now, Jesus was warning his disciples about these people. Look at verse 6:

"Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

And look at verse 11:"Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

This warning is so important that Jesus repeats it twice. So if Jesus, the divine Son of God, thought it so important, you should pay special attention to what he said. Three simple questions.

One, what are they warned against? The disciples may have thought they were being warned to treat the bread of the Pharisees and Sadducees as if it were Gentile bread and so polluted. Of course, not. After the miraculous feeding of the crowds, the twelve disciples should have had no anxiety about any food so long as Jesus was with them. No! Jesus was warning about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees - verse 12:

"Then 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."

Two, who were warned against this doctrine? Not people on the fringe but the inner core of twelve disciples, including Peter, James and John - those pillars of the church. It is to such people that Jesus says, "Be on your guard". So if they needed to be warned against false teaching, so do you and I.

And, three, what precisely was the false teaching? In simple terms the Pharisees were self-righteous formalists - the traditionalists who were fond of rules and rituals. You can read about them in the beginning of Matthew chapter 15 and chapter 23. The Pharisees added to God's Word a whole lot of their own traditions as essential. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the sceptics, the radicals the theological liberals. They, if you like, subtracted from God's Word. They only really accepted the full authority of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They were, therefore, selective in the way they handled their Bibles. Nor did they believe, we are told, in Acts 23.8 in the resurrection or angels or spirits (while "the Pharisees acknowledge[d] them all"). And like a lot of sceptics and theological liberals they mocked those who did believe. They asked silly and difficult questions. On one occasion they questioned Jesus about the case of a woman who had seven husbands who all died. They asked him: "At the resurrection whose wife will she be of the seven?" (Matt 22.28). Jesus then pointed out that their assumptions were so wrong.

Now Jesus knew that within 40 years both the schools of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees would be no more and overthrown with the sack of Jerusalem. And the Jews would be then scattered, literally, over the face of the whole earth. o why did Jesus give such an emphatic warning?

Surely because the basic problem is a recurring problem - namely one of adding to, or taking away from, God's word. We have seen that Islam adds to God's final revelation which we have in the bible of the Old and New Testaments, while Judaism takes away from it. Also within the Church there have continually been heretical teachers that have taken away from biblical truth, while others have added to it. So Jesus says, "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.


Notice how Jesus describes this false doctrine - this taking away and adding to. He describes it as yeast - yeast that is used in breadmaking. That is such a significant metaphor or picture. Yeast is tiny in amount compared to the dough being used. So Jesus says that the first beginning of false doctrine can be quite small. But like the yeast it then works its way quietly and silently. Little by little it changes the whole. Then everything is turned upside down. I've seen that with clergy who start to deny the truth of the bible in one area, and before long they deny it in others, and then end up hardly believing anything.

I must conclude. How practically do you stand firm?

First you need to make sure you are not like the Pharisees or Sadducees to start with. Who thinks that they can be right with God by their own good works - the heresy of the Pharisees? You just can't. The force of sin is so strong. It is like a dangerous current that is sweeping you out to sea. However hard you swim the current is stronger. But Jesus on the cross dealt with sin once and for all. Why not trust him this morning for the acceptance and forgiveness he offers and the new life his Holy Spirit will bring?

Or perhaps you are sceptical - like the Sadducees; you've rejected the Bible and, therefore, Jesus. Why not think afresh about his resurrection - that "sign of Jonah"? And remember it is possible to be always asking for evidence but never open to conviction.

But if you are a disciple, be continually watchful. Jesus gives this double warning. Don't think you are too good to need it. Jesus warned the disciples who were apostles - the foundation of the church. If they needed the warning, so do you. So watch out for those who take way from the Bible and those who add to it.

And don't be hood-winked. False teachers don't normally appear like witches out of Macbeth or Frankenstein monsters. The bible says they can come as "wolves in sheep's clothing" or as "angels of light".

So, Jesus says, "be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

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