Category Archives: Gospel of Matthew

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

Of Right Eyes and Right Hands

 

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. Matthew 5:27-30

In the passage cited above, our context is the opening chapter of what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount.  Here, our Lord is instructing His disciples (the Twelve; see verse 1) by correcting the faulty teaching of the Jewish religious leaders concerning the law.  To this, He adds several points of interpretation and application of the Law of God.  It’s important to understand that Jesus is neither changing the law, nor is He reinterpreting it, as some have asserted.  He is, however, restating the law and providing much needed clarification to the original meaning and intentions behind the law as opposed to the erroneous teachings of the law by the Scribes and Pharisees.  Their focus on external (Matt. 23:26) deeds had created a culture of legalism.  Jesus’ exposition exposes these errors and provides for us a clear understanding of how the law is to be applied.  Additionally, we must note that in His exposition on the law, our Lord is not abolishing the Law, rather He fulfills and upholds (see vs. 5:17-20).

His first point of explanation concerns murder and while the physical act is certainly in view (6th Commandment), the spirit of the law indicates that anger in the heart towards a brother is worthy of equal judgment in the eyes of God.  Despite so many thinking that Christ has added or reinterpreted the law, His explanation is precisely what the law teaches.  The 10th Commandment, Exodus 20:17, states, “You shall not covet….”  One cannot covet by external actions; instead this is an act purely motivated by sinful desires of the heart and should’ve clued the religious leaders to the “heart” of the law.

Moving to the next section of the sermon, we arrive at our passage cited above, where our Lord turns His attention towards adultery, with a specific application of lust.  Here we see the 7th Commandment in view, as Jesus applies it directly to the heart and the intentions of men.  Just as the act of physical adultery is worthy of punishment in the eyes of God for violating His law, so too is adultery of the heart, or lustful intentions of the heart.  The error of the Jewish religious leaders was to strictly interpret this commandment to apply only to the married (adultery) and then only to the physical act.  In viewing this in such a strict manner, it actually created a liberal application and opened the avenue for unbridled fornication.

Within the same passage, we have what might be summarized as The Principle of Elimination.  It’s an extreme illustration of how to deal with those members that offend, presumably as it relates to lust (remember the context).  The first offending member is the right eye.  With the eye, we are told that should it offend, or lead the rest of the body into sin, eliminate it by plucking it out.  Clearly this is meant to imply that the eye is the window or the avenue through which objects of lust enter.  By plucking it out, the avenue for this access is eliminated.

Next, the right hand.  Should it offend, or act out in sin, eliminate it by cutting it off.  The implication here may be broad, but certainly it includes any physical manifestation of lustful intentions that the hand (or actions) might bring about.  In order to avoid this, Jesus says the offending member should be cut off.  Each instance of elimination is summarized with the following statement, “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”  In summary, should gangrene (sin) infect the hand, cut it off before it spreads to the rest of the body.

While it’s important to understand that Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples, or by extension those who read His words today, to run home and begin plucking out their eyes and cutting off their hands, we needn’t dismiss the seriousness and extremeness of this language.  Given our Lord’s previous words, that both murder and adultery are matters of the heart and not just physical actions, we know restraint should be exercised before we go plucking eyes and sawing off hands.  This was the error of Jews, Origen, and many of those who enlisted in the ranks of the monastery, each of whom engaged in some form of self-flagellation.

However, if we consider that Jesus’s focus is on the heart, what do we make of this figurative language that focuses on the physical body, i.e. offending members?

First, we shouldn’t neuter the passage of its shocking implications.  Jesus is being extreme for the purpose of saving our souls at the expense of our bodies, that point should not be missed.  Aside from actually maiming our bodies, which would still leave an active and sinful heart, I do think that there is a principle of elimination at work here, as we previously mentioned.  This principle states that if something is causing us to sin, we should radically eliminate it, stopping short of physical harm to ourselves or others.  Yes, this still leaves a heart whose desires need changed, but it also removes opportunities to feed the flesh and opportunities to act out desires of the flesh.

In Romans 13:14 we read, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  This idea of provision here refers to plans, accommodations, etc.  It is these avenues or opportunities for sin that I’m suggesting our Lord has in mind for us to eliminate, i.e. to cut off.  Meanwhile there is work to be done, heart work, and that work is not completed by removing temptations or opportunities to sin from our lives.  That work is completed by the ongoing sanctification of the Holy Spirit to purify the heart, change desires, and set a course of passionate pursuit for the Almighty God.

It is with Him that we must plead for our hearts to change; that the Lord would, “create in us a clean heart” Psalm 51:10; that He would continue to work in us, “both to will and to work and to do His good pleasure” Philippians 2:13; that “He who began a good would bring it to completion” Philippians 1:6.

What avenues in your life need radically eliminated?  This may look different for each person, but if there are specific areas that are causing you to sin or be tempted to sin, don’t wait.  Cut. them. off.

Then seek the Lord pleading for Him to continue to purify and cleanse your heart of idols.

Soli Deo Gloria