Beware of Leaven


At the conclusion of the Book of Revelation, our Lord Jesus Christ offers a strong warning against all who would add or subtract from His words of prophecy just given to the Apostle John.  This warning promises that should one venture to add, then the accompanying plagues of the prophecy will be added to them.  If one ventures to subtract, then God will ‘subtract’ his share in the tree of life and the holy city.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. Rev. 22:18-19

An equally forceful warning  accompanies the Law or Torah section (First 5 Books) of the Old Testament, specifically in Deuteronomy 4:2.  Here Moses is reviewing the details of God’s giving His law to Israel and precedes it with this sharp warning,  You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.”

A similar warning is given in Deuteronomy 12:32, as Moses recounts God’s commands for worship and against idolatry, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

One final passage, similar in nature by establishing the sufficiency of Scripture against the errors of adding to and subtracting from the Word of God, occurs in the Wisdom portion of Scripture,

Every word of God proves true;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.” Proverbs 30:5-6

Collectively, these passages (and others) offer strict prohibition and warning against tampering with the Word of God regardless of the book.  While the warning occurs in specific books and historical contexts, due to the pervasiveness of the warning it establishes a principal to guard against adding or subtracting from any of God’s Word.

Sometimes we weigh this warning more heavily against adding to God’s Word, as in the case of those who believe God’s revelation continues in the form charismatic gifts.  However, we must remember that equally important is that we do not subtract from it either, as with those who pick and choose what they want to believe.

This biblical principle establishes Scripture’s divine authority, it’s sufficiency, and it’s completeness.  It is simply not an option to add to or subtract from God’s Word.

In practice, we not only are guilty of violating this when we pick and choose doctrines to believe, but also when we allow tradition or preferences to supersede the Word of God.

In the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry, we find two clear examples for the violation of this biblical prohibition, the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Two distinct religious groups existing in first century Israel, each guilty of adding and subtracting to the Word of God, respectively.  The Pharisees were well known for the addition of tradition and their own additional commandments to the Word of God.  Conversely, the Sadducees were well known for the subtraction of God’s Word, holding only to the Torah, while denying such crucial doctrines as the resurrection, angels, and spirit (Acts 23:8).  Though they were often antagonistic against each other, we need to be reminded that they found a common enemy in Christ our Lord and conspired to murder Him.

With the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry we are introduced to these two groups with the familiar, stinging rebuke, But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew 3:7-10

While John paves the way for the hostility that pure and undefiled religion would have towards the false systems of the Pharisees and Sadducees, throughout Christ’s earthly ministry, these two groups, along with the scribes, also draw His ire and attention.  Passage after passage we see them continually attempting to provoke and question Christ while He limits their understanding and often follows up discussions with them with a rebuke.  One such rebuke occurs in chapter 16 of Matthew.  While the latter half of the chapter often garners the most attention, its the first half that sets the context out of which Peter’s confession and our Lord’s pronouncement to build the church becomes striking.

In the opening verses of the chapter, once again the Pharisees and Sadducees come together in order to test Jesus.  As was His custom, Jesus rebukes them with a piercing indictment, An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.” Matthew 16:4

As He and His disciples arrive on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realize that they have forgotten to bring bread.  This simple statement in Matthew 16:5 is profound.  First, because Jesus had literally just fed the four thousand and the five thousand before them (Matt. 16:9-10).  Second, because Jesus would take their lack of bread and use it for an analogy to warn against the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6).  Third, because they actually did forget the bread and were showing their lack of faith (Matt. 16:8).  Fourth, leaven has a significant meaning in the history of Israel (Exodus 12:7-12).

It’s this second (and fourth) point that we want to draw our focus to.  In Matthew 16:6 we read of the warning to watch or beware of the Pharisees and Sadducees leaven,

Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 

The key to understanding this verse is determining what Jesus is referring to as “leaven”. 

Using His analogy of bread, along with the historical significance of leaven, we can piece together what the implications of this strong warning are.  Historically, Israel was commanded by God to eat unleavened bread as part of the inaugural Passover meal.  Partaking in leavened bread was serious enough to warrant being cut off from the community of Israel (Exodus 12:19).  During the Exodus, later in chapter 12, we see that their escape from Egypt was so abrupt that their bread by necessity was without leaven.  Maintaining the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a reminder of God’s mercy and the haste of escaping Egypt, without delay for even bread to rise.

In the New Testament, certainly this meaning was understood, but also the principle of unleavened bread took on a spiritual component.  Sometimes, as in Matthew 13 it is used positively to  refer to the spreading and enlargement of God’s Kingdom from such a small amount.  Other times it is used negatively, as in our verse from above.  1 Corinthians 5 informs us that a little leaven, leavens the whole lump, speaking to its pervasiveness and that it’s indistinguishable from the dough.

Having seen the meaning and use of leaven, we turn now to how our Lord is applying it in the case of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Remember that both were guilty of violating the principle of adding or subtracting to and from God’s Word.  Both had influential, public ministries, and both claimed to represent true Judaism.  Herein lies the application.  Leaven refers to the doctrine of either group, or anyone really, which departs from Scripture, while on the other hand claiming to represent truth.  In doing so, it has a profoundly negative effect on the genuine truth, as leaven would to dough.  In other words, this is the height of hypocrisy (Luke 12:1-3).  There is little more dangerous than error that masks itself as truth, or half-truths.

Writing in his helpful commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry asserts that the Sadducees leaven in his day was Deism and Atheism, while the Pharisees leaven was Popery.  It may well be true that these were critical issues of the Puritanical Period, but the principle, to the heart of what leaven means, is those things which creep into orthodoxy and distort it.  In other words, our Lord’s warning to His disciples is not to be on guard against leaven from the outside, for instance the world, or false religions, but precisely how leaven functions, when its inside and joined with the true dough.  It then may spread and infect the whole lump, overtime, going virtually unnoticed.

What areas has leaven made its influence on you personally?  What about in the “church” today?  If leaven has made it in, would we be able to notice it?  The danger with leaven is that it becomes completely indistinguishable from the dough. If we could notice it, are we willing to do anything about it?

Soli Deo Gloria

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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