The Leaven of Error
Matthew 16:5-12
And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread.

After an encounter with certain Pharisees and Sadducees at Magadan, Jesus warned his disciples against their teaching. This is not written for their sakes alone, but also for our admonition. From Luke's account we may infer that Jesus likewise warned the people (see Luke 12:1). Every age has its Pharisees and Sadducees, and it becomes us to note -


1. Those which distinguish the Pharisee.

(1) He plumes himself upon his orthodoxy and superior sanctity. The ancient Pharisee was scrupulous in observing the ritual of the elders, and refused to eat with sinners. Hence his name, from the Hebrew word פדש, "to separate." But the reputation of orthodoxy is no security against error. The apostate Greek Church is called "orthodox;" and her Romish sister claims infallibility. These and their kindred are the Pharisees of our times.

(2) He is zealous for Church traditions. The ancient Pharisee pretended that his traditions came to Moses on Mount Sinai together with the Law, immediately from God, and concluded that they were of equal authority. Several of these traditions are mentioned in the Gospels; but a vast number more may be seen in the Talmud. Corresponding to these are the "apostolical traditions" and papal "decretals" of the Romanists.

(3) Such authority is worthless, to say the least. For any simple story passing through half a dozen hands will be found to receive so many new complexions and additions, and to suffer so many distortions and omissions, that the original narrator could scarcely recognize it. Church traditions are in this respect no better than others. Perversion and distortion could only be prevented by plenary inspiration continued throughout all the links of transmission.

(4) But it is worse than worthless. The ancient Pharisee set his tradition above the Law of God by making it the interpreter of the Law, and thus by it the Law was made void (cf. Matthew 15:1-9; Luke 11:39-42). The vicious effects of the traditions of our modern Pharisee upon the Gospel corresponds. What single truth of God is there that has not been distorted by this process?

2. Those which distinguish the Sadducee.

(1) The Sadducee of old derived from Sadoc, a disciple of Antigonus Sochaeus, who lived about three hundred years B.C. Antigonus, in his lectures, taught the duty of serving God from filial love and fear rather than in a servile manner, whence Sadoc concluded that there are no rewards after this life. His followers proceeded to deny the existence of a spiritual world, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the providence of God (see Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:8). They differed little from the ancient Epicureans.

(2) Sadduceeism is not limited to ancient times. We have it still under the names atheism, deism, agnosticism, positivism, rationalism, erastianism. They are, in many respects, the opposite of Phariseeism. The one is the reaction of the other. Hence they are associated evermore.

(3) As the Pharisee boasts superior piety, so does the Sadducee affect superior intelligence. Sadduceeism is fashionable through the concessions of ignorance to this affectation. Herod was the head of the Sadducees in Galilee. The "leaven of the Sadducees" is otherwise described as the "leaven of Herod" (cf. Mark 8:15). Herod's courtiers, of course, were Sadducees. The conceited amongst the vulgar would sympathize with boasted intelligence, that they might, in turn, be credited with an intelligence which they did not possess.

3. Those common to both.

(1) Failure to discern the signs of the times. The prophecies of Scripture were lost upon them. The events of providence were to them without significance. Their intelligence went no further than discerning the face of the sky. With all their boasted piety and affectation of sagacity, Pharisees and Sadducees were alike in this condemnation. Note: The neglect of the study of prophecy is neither creditable nor innocent.

(2) Opposition to the truth of God. As Pilate and Herod became friends in their hostility to Christ, so did the Pharisees and Sadducees sink their differences to oppose him. However fiercely errors may wrangle together, they will evermore combine against the truth of God.

(3) Herein the Sadducee is open to the same impeachment of hypocrisy as the Pharisee. Pretence in devotion is the hypocrisy of the Pharisee; yet he opposes Christ, who is the impersonation of goodness. Pretence of a free and impartial search after truth is the hypocrisy of the Sadducee; yet he also opposes Christ, who is the impersonation of truth.


1. Error is like leaven, subtle in its influence.

(1) As the "kingdom of heaven," in the parable, "is like unto leaven," so is the kingdom of hell. Many interpret the parable to describe the subtle working of error in the lump of the Church, rather than the secret working of the truth in the lump of the world (cf. Matthew 13:33; 1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9).

(2) Its subtlety lies in its hypocrisy. "Think not that false doctrine will meet you face to face, saying, 'I am false doctrine, and I want to come into your heart.' Satan does not go to work in that way. He dresses up false doctrine like Jezebel. He paints her face, and tires her head, and tries to make her like truth" (Anon.).

(3) Christians are not proof against this subtlety. They are often such as have no great forecast for this world. Here the disciples "forgot to take bread." Mark says they had only one loaf in the ship (Mark 8:14). In nothing is the veracity of the sacred writers more plainly seen than in the unsparing fidelity with which they record the proofs of their own infirmity. Their very simplicity would expose them to the subtlety of error. It was therefore needful to warn them.

(4) In the false concern of the disciples concerning the bread, we see already a Pharisaic care for externals, and a Sadducean forgetfulness of the supernatural. "It is because we took no bread." Men blame themselves most for carelessness in externals, which is just that in which God blames them least. We may blame ourselves for a forgetfulness for which God does not blame us, while he blames us for a forgetfulness for which we blame not ourselves. They did not remember the miracle of the loaves. If through thoughtlessness we come into straits, even then we may trust Christ to bring us out of them. The experience of the disciple is an aggravation to the sin of his distrust.

(5) For lack of faith it is easy to fall into errors of doctrine. "Why reason ye among yourselves? We waste much precious time in profitless reasonings. Reasonings are profitless when they are apart from Christ. "O ye of little faith." There are degrees of faith. Little faith may be the germ of great faith. Want of faith is accompanied by want of quick spiritual discernment.

2. The influence of error is demoralizing.

(1) It makes the Pharisee a hypocrite. The ancient Pharisee, with all his affectation of sanctity, was but self-righteous; he was proud, unjust, selfish, and worldly. The semblance of piety was the mark of wickedness. The modern Pharisee is like him.

(2) As superstition demoralizes the Pharisee, so does scepticism demoralize his complement. When the restraints of belief are removed, the rein is thrown over the neck of appetite and passion and every propensity of the evil heart. Extremes meet.

(3) Creed has greater influence upon temper and conduct than men are commonly aware of. Doctrines act in the soul like leaven; they assimilate the whole spirit to their own nature. False doctrine is like evil leaven souring the temper, and swelling and inflating with pride. Unsound faith will never beget sound practice. Zeal for purity of doctrine is essential to godliness.

(4) Error tends to blasphemy. "It is because we have brought no bread." The disciples here judged unworthily of Christ, viewing him through their own low medium of unbelief. Men are prone to make themselves their standard for Christ rather than making him their standard. As we can view Christ only in our thoughts, the spiritual alone can think justly of him.

3. The issues of error are disastrous.

(1) Christ cannot abide with perversity. After suitably replying to the Pharisees and Sadducees at Magadan, "he left them, and departed" (ver. 4). A sinner abandoned by the only Saviour is in a melancholy case. Thereupon he warned his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees, viz. lest it should land them in a similar state of abandonment.

(2) Christ separated himself from them by crossing the sea. Was not this action parabolic? Did it not suggest that "great gulf fixed" by which the righteous are forever separated from the wicked (see Luke 16:26)?

(3) The caution to "take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees" suggests that their doctrine is especially pernicious, like poisoned leaven. The disciples should beware of any doctrine coming through such hands. "Come forth, my people, out of her, that ye have no fellowship with her sins, and. that ye receive not of her plagues" (see Revelation 18:4). - J.AM.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread.

WEB: The disciples came to the other side and had forgotten to take bread.

The Human Jesus
Top of Page
Top of Page