“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 16:11-12 ESV)
The Passover celebrations, though joyful, were held in an atmosphere of deep reverence in the homes of the Israelites. The removal of the leaven and the cleansing of the house preceded the eating of the Passover lamb. This was never done lightly or casually. Similarly the grain offerings of the Israelites had to be free of leaven – “the grain offering… shall be eaten unleavened in a holy place… It shall not be baked with leaven… It is a thing most holy” (Leviticus 6:13-17 ESV).
The purging of the leaven from homes and the unleavened grain offerings reminded the Israelites of 3 underlying principles: 1. those partaking of the Lamb had to make a special effort to keep themselves pure from all sin and worldliness, 2. the presence of the Lord in their midst was not to be taken for granted, and finally, 3. to be truly free (and Passover was celebration of their deliverance from slavery) they had to separate themselves from the culture and ways of the nations around them.
So, in our lives, homes and in the church, we ought to be vigilant about keeping out all defiling influences, however subtle or harmless they may appear. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV).
Jesus warned His disciples against the yeast of the Sadducees, the other religious party within Judaism of that period. Composed of the aristocratic elite and wealthy merchants within the Jewish society, their sect included the high priest Caiaphas and members of the Sanhedrin that sentenced Jesus to the cross. It is worth looking at their beliefs to understand what Jesus meant.
The Sadducees believed in the scripture as the final authority on matters of faith and belief. While this might seem like a good thing – a very protestant approach – in reality they promoted a very worldly interpretation of the Bible. They did not, for example, believe in eternal life, resurrection or judgement. They possessed what modern society might call a rational, even, humanistic approach to religion. They lived their lives with no thought of the hereafter, and believed that as long as they kept to the outward observances of the law, God would be pleased to bless them. They lived for their own pleasure, being concerned mainly with amassing wealth and guarding their position in society.
What happens when the yeast of the Sadducees creeps into the church? Paul in his letter rebuked the Corinthian church for being contaminated with the leaven of spiritual compromise. He warned them against 1. their tendency of being led by the wisdom of this world rather than the pure teaching of the gospel, 2. the gossip, quarrels and divisions between them, 3. lying, greed and corruption, and 4. their tolerance of sexual immorality.
“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God”(1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV).
It is not hard to see the parallel between the Corinthians church and modern liberal teaching in nominal Christian circles today. Too many mainstream protestant churches have distanced themselves from their evangelical roots to embrace the liberal secular culture, while some charismatic churches have fallen into the trap of the prosperity gospel. One group tolerates, even celebrates, sinful practices like same sex marriages; while the preaching of the prosperity gospel tends to divert the attention of Christians away from ‘running the race marked out for us’ to living for the treasures of this world. God is presented to the minds of the gullible as an indulgent grandfather rather than a holy God, or as a heavenly Santa Claus rather than the Refiner of our faith and character. False shepherds rise up and use religion as a tool to gain wealth or exert control over others. The lives of believers are rendered powerless, as they are taught to conform, rather than confront the standards of society. “They will hold to an outward form of godliness but deny its power. Stay away from such people” (2 Timothy 3:5 ISV).
Whatever justification the proponents of such false and hypocritical teaching may give, the word of God is very clear – we cannot celebrate our redemption from slavery to sin and partake of the Holy Lamb, while harbouring this leaven within our souls. Its defiling influence will not be restricted to one or two individuals, but will spread throughout the congregation, crippling the faith of many and bringing the church to its knees – as we see happening in many modern churches.
“Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV)
How do we cleanse out the old leaven? Again the Corinthian church sets an example for us – they responded to Paul’s correction with godly sorrow and repentance. They acknowledged their sin with fear and trembling, and resolved to be rid of every wrongdoing in their midst. They worked with great zeal setting their house in order, disciplining and later – after he had repented – restoring to fellowship the one who had sinned. Theirs was an amazing transformation, as Paul gladly acknowledged (2 Corinthians 7:8-12).
Just as ungodly leaven spreads through the church, equally a life transformed by holiness impacts people and events. Remember the unleavened grain offering that the Israelites were commanded to bring – “it is a thing most holy… whatever touches them shall become holy” (Leviticus 6:13-18 ESV).
Once we get rid of the old leaven from our lives, then we are open to the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit. As we partake of the Lamb, His holiness will pervade our spirits, homes and churches; everything we touch and everything do, will be affected by the indwelling presence of God. So, we become not only fit for heaven, but also salt and light within our communities.
We must periodically come before God, in a spirit of repentance and humility, to cleanse our hearts of the defiling leaven of sin, legalism or every form of spiritual compromise. Let God search our hearts and minds, and cleanse us with the blood of His Son, so that we may once again experience the freedom and victory through Jesus.
Father, thank You for delivering us from slavery to sin. Indeed Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Help us to keep ourselves free of every contaminating influence from the world around us, and celebrate with joy the victory You give us. In Jesus’ name.