And He was giving orders to them, saying, ‘Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ Mark 8:15
Every woman who’s ever baked bread from scratch knows that without yeast, the bread will come out flatter than a pancake. Yeast is the secret to making bread rise. Interestingly, it takes only a little yeast to make dough rise and produce a delicious, fragrant loaf of bread. There’s nothing quite like the aroma of fresh bread in my kitchen.
In the verse above, Jesus uses this natural image to teach a spiritual lesson. It’s not surprising since He had just fed 4000 people with just 7 loaves of bread! When the disciples first hear this warning, they misunderstand and think He wanted them to bring onto the boat enough bread for all of them. Instead, Jesus is taking advantage of what they just witnessed to teach them an important lesson.
Since it only takes a small amount of yeast or other leavening agent to transform an entire lump of dough, Jesus warns His disciples – and us – that it takes only a little bit of what the Pharisees and Herod have to offer to ruin a person.
Ruin a person? Isn’t that a big strong?
Well, no. The leaven of the Pharisees was hypocrisy, a rigorous religious legalism which they imposed on others but which they would not keep themselves. Their emphasis was on external correctness regarding rituals and the traditions of men. This emphasis emphasized a ‘works’ mentality and taught that only by keeping every rule to the extreme would a person be righteous in God’s sight.
Jesus described the Pharisees and those who were their disciples as ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.‘ Matt. 15:8
We could say it this way: religion, defined as external performance of one’s beliefs, had become more important to them than relationship with God. That is not to denigrate the doing of good works but rather to underscore that what God is looking at is our heart, our motivation.
Jesus made the concept very clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is just one of several examples: You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matt. 5:27 Sin begins in the mind and it is possible to sit in church week after week and go through the motions, but have your heart far from God. THAT is what the leaven of the Pharisees produces in a life. It looks good on the outside but inside is what Jesus referred to as ‘dead men’s bones.’
What was the leaven of Herod? Herod was meticulous in keeping the laws of Rome while he, himself, lived an immoral and debauched life. The leaven of Herod involves an exalting of civil law above God’s moral law – that is, putting man’s law above God’s law. The deeper issue is fearing man more than fearing God.
The Bible says that the fear of man is a snare but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted. Prov. 29:25
Seen through that lens, the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod have the same root – fear of what other people think and allowing that fear to dictate our behavior. The Pharisees intimidated the people into a suffocating, legalistic rule-keeping; Herod intimidated the people by threatening them with cruel Roman reprisals for breaking Rome’s laws. In both cases, the people were held hostage by fear – the fear of how they appeared to others and fear of what men would do to them for transgressing.
The Gospel offers a different message: LOVE, not fear, is to be the motivation of all we do – love of God first and foremost, and love of others. Jesus said, But go and learn what this means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Matthew 9:13
Simply stated, hypocrisy is pretending to be something you’re not. Hypocrisy is closely related to fear of man because that fear of what people think is often at the root of a hypocrite’s decisions and behavior.
Paul wrote to the Galatians: It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Gal. 5:1
Allowing the opinion of others to dictate your behavior is a form of slavery. Brothers and sisters, we have been set free from ALL slavery to love the Lord our God with a passionate and abandoned love.
Let us ask the Lord to turn His searchlight on our souls and if He finds any hypocrisy or fear of other people’s opinions, let us ask Him to forgive us and to cleanse us from every vestige of entrapment.