BEWARE OF THE YEAST
Mark 8:14-21 NET.
14 Now they had forgotten to take bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 And Jesus ordered them, “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod!” 16 So they began to discuss with one another about having no bread. 17 When he learned of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you arguing about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Have your hearts been hardened? 18 Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you pick up?” They replied, “Twelve.” 20 “When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you pick up?” They replied, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
As we have been looking at the commands of Christ in the Gospels, a certain pattern has emerged. Usually, an event takes place, or a certain person or group has encountered Jesus, and out of that encounter, we get a command from Jesus. But today’s text is different. In today’s text, the command comes first. The only introduction to the command is that Mark includes the fact that the disciples had failed to bring enough bread with them for the boat trip. They had only brought one loaf. You must remember that the loaves of bread in those days were not long like the loaves we are used to. The disciples are not talking about this at first. They started thinking about the fact that they had not brought enough bread because Jesus blurted out his command out of nowhere. His command was: “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod!”
The twelve misunderstood this command, and it led to an argument (16-17).
Most of the time when we Christians argue with each other it is over our interpretation of scripture. It is easier for us to take sides in an argument than it is for us to look deeper and find a resolution. The twelve heard the words of Jesus and the first thing they concluded was that someone among them had done something wrong. They wanted someone to blame.
Jesus had not said that they had done anything wrong. He was warning them to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. Yeast is something that is put inside a lump of dough to transform it into something else. Jesus did not say that the twelve had already been changed. He was warning them that it was possible. He was commanding them to protect themselves from outside influence.
But the disciples misinterpreted the words of Jesus, and it caused them to turn on each other. I think there is a reminder here for all of us who do theology. It is so each to draw lines in the sand and identify everyone who disagrees with us on doctrines as our enemies, just because they do not dot their I’s and cross their t’s like we do.
Some people criticize denominations because they think denominations exist because of this problem. But historically that is not the case. Most of the denominations developed as a way for Christians with certain theological beliefs to unite with each other while accepting and respecting those who hold different views.
When Penny and I were college professors, we served in a college that had been begun by our denomination. But we served students and churches from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds. We helped all our students see the history of the development of all church groups and theological positions.
The real problem that Jesus is addressing here is not denominations. The problem is also not that he is blaming certain disciples for failing to collect enough supplies for the trip. The problem was that all the twelve had failed to understand the spiritual significance of the miracles that they had recently experienced.
Jesus reminded them of how he had miraculously supplied their physical needs (18-21).
On two separate occasions, Jesus had taken the meager supplies that the disciples had procured and turned them into a miraculous example of his abundant provision. He had fed the five thousand from a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fishes. Then he fed four thousand from seven loaves and a few fish. After each miracle, there was a large amount of food left over. What the twelve should have understood from these events is that it does not matter how much you start with. When Jesus blesses your efforts, the result is going to be more than enough.
The apostle Paul had learned this lesson. He had been called by God not to stay in one place, but to go from place to place, preaching the gospel, leading people to Christ, and starting churches in places that had not yet been reached. He had only a few people and churches that provided for his needs as he did his missionary work. But it was always enough.
Each of these disciples needed to learn this lesson because (except for Judas) each of them would also be called to missions work that would require them to attempt much more than they had prepared for. Those twelve people in the boat with only one loaf of bread are a symbol of how their lives would be lived. They are on their way. They do not have enough. But because Jesus is in the boat with them, their “too little” will result in too much.
But what did Jesus mean by that command? We really cannot tell from the immediate context because Mark only makes clear that the disciples misunderstood Jesus, and Jesus did not explain himself.
We know from Matthew’s version of this story that the disciples eventually realized that the yeast was false teaching. Jesus was warning them that they could be wrongly influenced by groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, so they needed to keep their theology pure and not taint it with heresies and false teachings of others.
But Mark does not mention that conversation. I think it is important for us to ask why Mark included the story where he did and the clues that he did include in his Gospel. I know that now – after all this time – we have the other Gospels to consult, but there were probably lots of people who only had Mark’s Gospel and they had to figure out what Mark meant by only looking at what Mark wrote. So, what could Mark have meant by the yeast of the Pharisees?
The yeast of the Pharisees implied here is probably the “prove it to me” attitude (8:11).
Earlier in his Gospel, Mark included this verse: He said, “The Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven to test him.” Jesus had proven that he was who he said he was by many indisputable miracles. But the Pharisees looked at all that evidence and essentially said that it wasn’t enough. It was not enough that multitudes believed in Jesus. The Pharisees had to be convinced themselves. They said that they would not be moved by anyone else’s testimony. If Jesus was the Messiah, he would have to prove it to them.
There are lots of people who have the same attitude about Jesus right now. They may have had friends or relatives or teachers or co-workers who believe in Jesus. But the testimony and practice of those people are not enough. Like Thomas, they will not believe unless they see the proof of the resurrection themselves.
“The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But (Thomas) replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!” Eight days later the disciples were again together in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and examine my hands. Extend your hand and put it into my side. Do not continue in your unbelief, but believe.” Thomas replied to him, “My Lord and my God!”” (John 20:25-28).
It was wonderful that Jesus appeared to Thomas and gave him undisputable proof of his resurrection. But it is tragic that lots of people continue to have that attitude today. I’ll tell you why. First, Jesus calls that attitude continuing in unbelief. Second, the Bible tells us that Jesus is coming back, and he is going to judge every person that has ever lived. There will be a significant number of people who Jesus is going to send into the fire which will result in permanent death. But those people will say to Jesus that they had not been convinced. But Jesus will tell them that he had given plenty of evidence of his existence. They were not convinced because they chose to not be convinced. They chose to continue in their unbelief.
He is also going to look at all those goats and point in the direction of the other group – the group of people who he had directed to his right side. These are the ones who had committed their lives to follow Christ, and most of those people will have never seen Jesus. They believed and were blessed because of their faith in the one whom they had not seen.
If you are an unbeliever today, I challenge you to find a genuine believer and ask him or her to share their faith with you. I’m not asking you to get them to prove that Jesus is real. I’m asking you to seek proof of Jesus’ reality from the faith of those who believe him. If you are honest enough with yourself, you will know that’s all you need. If Jesus has ever changed anyone’s life, then you must repent of your sins and come to him before it is too late. Don’t let your stubbornness keep you from the gift of eternal life.
The yeast of Herod implied here is probably his brutal use of authority (6:17, 27).
Herod had decided to contain the influence of John the Baptist by imprisoning him – just because he was powerful enough to do so. There are lots of people who are working hard to erase the gospel from the world, and they are using the powers of government to do so. History tells us that when such things begin to happen, it eventually leads to persecution and death of Christians. That is what happened under Herod. He originally meant only to imprison John, but he wound up beheading him.
Our culture is turning against Christ and the gospel, and it is only a matter of time before its distaste will result in destruction. When those in authority turn against the truth it inevitably results in bloodshed and brutality.
The only way for us as individuals to deal with that reality is for us to decide that we will not allow the truth to be hidden away by those in power. We need to hold our leaders accountable for crossing the line. We do not have a good track record in doing that. When those in power say a person can marry whatever they want, and parents have the right to kill their unborn children – and Christians do not object – then the yeast of Herod is already in our bread.
Jesus’ command to his disciples was to watch out and beware of that yeast. For us, that means we must take a good look at what we believe and teach, and practice to make sure that it is genuine Christianity. We cannot assume that everything we have been taught is true. Neither can we assume that what is acceptable in our society today is appropriate for citizens of Christ’s coming kingdom.
We must learn to be positively discriminating — not prejudiced against a person because of their skin color, but careful not to hold a belief just because it is popular or someone in power supports it. If we are too timid to do that, then we are part of the problem, not part of the solution. When our loaves are filled with the yeast of Pharisaical doubt and Herodian corruption, it will be very hard for the world around us to find Jesus in us. He calls us to be salt and light in this world – to influence it. We need to stop letting the world influence us.