Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
February 1, 2015
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 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. When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
— Matthew 16:1-12, ESV
I am indebted to the late, great pastor James Montgomery Boice for the title of today’s sermon. In his commentary on Matthew, he likened the Pharisees and Sadducees to that old expression, dumb and dumber. When I read it, images of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels were conjured up in my mind. I tend to laugh and scoff at the Pharisees and Sadducees when I read about them in Scripture. But in Jesus’ day, people took them quite seriously.
They arrive on the this scene at the turn of a new chapter, literally in Matthew’s Gospel and ultimately in the overall gospel story. This conflict signals Christ’s virtual withdrawal from public ministry (vs. 1-12), which is followed by a public confession of faith by Simon Peter (vs. 13-20), which precipitates Christ’s painful walk to the cross (vs. 21ff).
What the Pharisees and Sadducees did to Jesus here is not amusing. What they would go on to do, conspiring with a traitor and a timid Roman governor to arrest, crucify, and kill Jesus, is obviously not very funny, either. And the influence they still hold on many in the church today is no laughing matter at all.
Though religion gets a deservedly bad wrap in our day, not everything about religion is wrong. Sincere adherents to all major religions use their respective faiths as platforms to please their God or gods, improve the quality of their lives, make sense of sickness and death, and do meaningful service for other human beings. While I recognize only one religion as the right way to a relationship with God, I appreciate the contribution that all religious people have made to promote peace, advance education, alleviate suffering, and fight for human rights.
Yet religious scoundrels have always been among us. Tribal cannibals have killed, cooked, and eaten people at the feet of their wooden gods. Radical Islamists are killing men and enslaving women to suit their skewed view of Allah. And no one has done more damage to Christianity and the values it inspires than the charlatans and hypocrites in the church. Religion can shed a wonderful fragrance like fresh flowers, or it can spread stench and death like rotten fruit.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were rotten fruit. They show us what is wrong about religion. Sadly, their tribes are still alive and well today, and here are some general reasons why their kind of religion is wrong.
Religion is wrong when it is arrogant and demanding. The Pharisees and Sadducees arrogantly demanded that Jesus show them a sign, or miracle. Who were they to tell God what to do? They really thought they were above the carpenter’s son from Galilee, in spite of our Lord’s perfect character and conduct. They thought they were better teachers, better leaders, and better suited to be at the front of the religious line in Israel. How disgusting! There is a big difference between a confidence and arrogance. I believe, confidently, that Christianity is the only way to God. I also believe, also quiet confidently, that the reformed, baptistic way of expressing faith and worship is the best expression of a biblical faith. However, I do not believe for a microsecond that I am a better person than a Jew, Muslim, Christian from another denomination, or any unbeliever for that matter. I have no right to demand that my voice be louder or my rights held higher than theirs in any way. Christians should copy Elijah, without the killing of course, and let everyone’s voice be heard. At the end of the day we will see whose god is God.
Religion is wrong when it misuses an unholy trinity of power, money, and sex. It is well documented throughout the Gospels that the Pharisees and Sadducees used their religion to advance their own power and control over people and make themselves money. It think it is implied that they, like their modern compatriots, used religion to go after illicit sex, also. Woe unto those who parade into churches and give out exaggerated voting guides or take up collections for political parties. Woe to those who make their way behind the pulpit or in front of the television camera only to make money. Woe to those who use their positions of church leadership to seduce others into sexual immorality. It happened then, it happens now, and at the end of time the hottest place in Hell awaits those who have used religion to prey upon others instead of pray for others.
Poisons that Plague the Church
That’s enough with some generalities, let’s get more specific. Who were the Pharisees and Sadducees and what did they believe? What effect do their beliefs still have on people today? Are there poisonous people in the pulpits and pews of the church?
The Pharisees were self-righteous legalists. They believed in the basic truths about God, the intrinsic inspiration of God’s word, yet put themselves above both. They were laymen and leaders of their synagogues, much like certain kinds of deacons in a misguided Baptist church. They enjoyed getting the most recognition in their places of worship, no doubt due to the benefits it bestowed upon their social and economic standing. They preached a gospel of works, which is no gospel at all. They developed a long list of extra-biblical rules and regulations to follow and force upon everyone else. They looked down upon others who didn’t do things their way, and were willing to assassinate character, or a certain character named Jesus, to get their way. The poison of the Pharisees has flowed throughout history and still pools beneath our feet today. Racism and classism in the church, black and white, are the reasons behind much of our contemporary racial strife and class warfare. Prohibitionists and dress-code schoolmarms who try to enforce rules found nowhere in the Bible are the reason why generations of young people have fled rather than flock to the church. Pharisaical church leaders who appear prim and proper on the outside but are full of hate, lies, and stupidity on the inside are just as much a threat to the gospel today as they were a threat to the life of Christ in His day. Their leaven, or poison, still plagues us.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, were smug liberals who joined hands with the Pharisees to fight against Christ. They barely believed in God, denied they supernatural and afterlife, and promoted only small parts of Scripture that they liked. They lived in a religious culture and soon learned that religion was the way to cultivate power and influence. They took advantage of other people’s bodies and could have cared less about their souls. They, too, saw Jesus as a threat to their sacred status-quo and were more than willing to join with the Pharisees in slander and conspiracy against His life and legacy. And they, too, are still with us. Why would anyone want to be a member or leader of the church who believes little or nothing about biblical, historic church doctrine? For earthly power and prestige. Why would anyone attack a pastor for preaching words in keeping with Scripture and sound doctrine? Because the word of God is a sword that strikes at the heart of man’s pride and sin, and Sadducees would rather hold on to power than repent and believe. Their leaven, or poison, still plagues us.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were poisonous enough apart, but together they made a deadly concoction. Going forward in Matthew’s Gospel, they lead the charge to crucify the Lord Jesus Christ. Going forward in our day, they herald the false doctrines of legalism, liberalism, so-called word of faith movements that make demands of God to serve us with health and wealth, and pious parochialism that excludes almost anyone who disagrees with them about anything. Don’t taste their leaven or drink their poison. If you do, spit it out quick. One bad apple can spoil an otherwise sweet spirit in Christ’s church.
What to Watch For
The principle way to spot rotten religion and poison in the pews is by governing your life and church with the authoritative and inspired word of God, the Bible. Hold yourself and your elders accountable to live and lead not by tradition, not by personal preferences, not by political persuasions, but by the living and breathing word of God. At the end of life, all people will be judged by God, and God will judge everyone by the same standard, the word of God.
In this passage, Jesus rightly castigated His enemies here by mocking their ability to abide by primitive weather signs while failing to rightly divide the word of God. Neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees really knew how to exegete and apply Holy Scripture. I am sure they did not even get Jesus’ words about Jonah after Christ had risen on the third day. The Lord also gently rebuked His own disciples for caring more about earthly bread than the bread of life, which is the teaching from God’s word about God’s Son. We certainly do not want to be Pharisees or Sadducees, but we don’t want to be unprofitable disciples, either, so let me list some things to watch out for.
Watch out for other people, particularly people of other religious faiths or no faith at all. Don’t just watch them for what you can find wrong. Watch for the good, for the common graces of love, justice, fairness, and peace. You can be tolerant without compromising your personal, evangelical faith. You can get along, find common ground, and work together to make the world a better place by not being a dumb Pharisee or Sadducee, or a dumber disciple.
Watch out for the leaders and teachers of your church. Chain them to Scripture and the best biblical practices found in church history. Don’t unfairly criticize them, don’t pass out letters or leaflets against them, and don't try to remove them if their life and leadership reflects sound doctrine, even if the doctrine disagrees with your own. If it grates on you badly enough, then remove yourself rather than trying to remove them. But if you are all Christian, you should be able to find more to agree upon than argue about. If you get out of the ditch of disagreement and stay on the solidity of common ground, you will enjoy your church and fellow Christians more than ever before.
Most of all, watch out for yourself. Look in the mirror. Do you see a dumb Pharisee, overly strict and self-righteous? I have seen this in myself on more than one occasion, and I changed and am still changing. Do you see a dumb Sadducee, lacking faith in the word of God and the sovereignty of God to make good out of bad? I have, and I grew and am still growing. Do you see a dumb disciple, wasting time on so many lesser things rather than spending quality time in the word of God and worship? I have, I still do, and I hope to change that image as time goes by. We all have the capacity to be good fruit, and we all can become rotten. We all have the capacity to bless our world, our church, and our lives with the love and truth of God, and we all can produce poison. Let us watch out, wise up, and not waste any more of our lives being dumb and dumber.