The Yeast of the Pharisees


Do you ever say something that leaves your listeners boggled because they totally lack the context?  I know when I try to make the connections between what we had been talking about and the new topic I blurted I sometimes take my friends on a long, convoluted ride.

Jesus sometimes said things that His listeners felt like we completely out of context.  For instance, in Matthew 16:6, He gave His disciples a command: “Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Now, the disciples didn’t get what He was talking about and figured it was Jesus’ way of scolding them for forgetting bread. And eventually they had to learn Jesus’ warning was about watching out for those teachings.

Just as Jesus’ disciples didn’t grasp it then; I suggest we still aren’t understanding His warning now. So let’s discuss what this means by talking about yeast, the Pharisees, and the yeast of the Pharisees.


Our pastor this week gave us a great sermon on yeast. I swear, that sentence makes me laugh, but it is true. He was talking about Passover and the importance God put on getting rid of all the yeast they had. To us, this might seem just like a strange ritual since we can just go to the store for packets of yeast. We start each yeasty creation with new ingredients.

Ancient people did things differently. Because of the limited availability of yeast, they would save a portion of the dough from the daily bread to use as the yeast for the next day. That meant that they were using the yeast of breads past in all their new loaves.

This makes it more impactful that God commanded the Israelites to get rid of all the yeast in their houses before fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land. Because the yeast they had was the yeast from their slavery. And God didn’t want any of them eating slave yeast and slave bread now that He had freed them.  He had new mana to introduce them to.

And there is also more symbolism there. God wanted to start fresh with His people. He was making them a new nation, giving them new laws, giving new holidays to celebrate, even giving them a new calendar to use! God was doing something new in His people, so He didn’t want them bringing any of their old ways of living and thinking into their new life. So in that way, getting rid of the yeast symbolized no longer letting old ways of thinking and acting grow in you any more.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees in the New Testament are hard to identify with. Not because we aren’t like them in our present day, but because Jesus called them out so much. And certainly, Jesus wouldn’t ever lump me in with that group! He couldn’t have that bad of things to say about me! I mean, just look at the righteous life I’m living! See the way I want to obey all His laws and help others stop sinning as well! I mean, I not only shun evil, but I condemn it! So the things He says about the Pharisees are cautionary tales for someone else, surely!

Hopefully you heard the irony in that paragraph. Because dollars to doughnuts, the Pharisees didn’t think God would call them out either. Because they put so much emphasis on righteousness. In fact, they worked out more and more rules about what righteousness meant. Obviously, it was really important to them that they get this righteousness thing right. And they had convinced everyone that they were.  This was why it was so shocking when Jesus said to his disciples, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). They all knew those guys worked tirelessly on being right! They were so good at it! Not only that, the Pharisees listened to Jesus’ teachings (see John 3:1 & 2). That’s why He had opportunities to call them out. Which stung them hard, because surely, with all their hard work to be righteous, God wouldn’t call them wrong!

So what was so wrong about the Pharisees? I mean, it is important to do godly things.

The Problem with the Pharisees

The Pharisees worked so hard to be righteous (or right) that they missed the heart of God! Since they worked so hard to maintain their “clean” status, they kept themselves away from those considered “unrighteous” in their eyes. They were so offended that Jesus would associate with “sinners” because they really would like to think of Him as one of them. Like Nicodemus said, they knew He was from God because of the miracles that confirmed it. And they were doing what God wanted, right? That’s what their righteousness meant.

So when Jesus did things they certainly wouldn’t do, like hang around those making poor life choices or letting his disciples violate their traditions, they got all sorts of bothered! It promoted dissonance in them as someone they wanted to identify with (hello, miracles!) was doing the sort of thing someone like them should be condemning! And being with the sorts of people He should be rejecting! Because that was the only way they knew to be right- keeping away from any of the wrong in the world, not letting any of it on them. To do that, they had to refuse associating, refuse relationship, refuse listening or any sort of compassion.

The Yeast of the Pharisees

When Jesus talks about the yeast of the Pharisees, I believe He is talking about this disproportionate focus on righteousness (or right-ness). This was one of the things that He wanted His people to avoid bringing in to this new thing He was establishing. Now, I am not saying that God isn’t interested in our having righteousness. He talks all about it throughout the New Testament. But the new thing that was to make us reject the old yeast is Imputed Righteousness, the righteousness we are assigned. Christ’s very own righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). He didn’t just take care of our debt, the wages of our sins, but He gave us a new status- His righteousness. My righteousness is that of Christ. Not because of anything I have done, but because of everything He has done.

Now, you may right now be thinking, but God wants more for us than just the inward status of righteousness Christ assigned to us.  Living righteously is something He desires as well. I absolutely agree with you. The problem comes in when we use the Pharisees’ way of being righteous- working really hard to be right, do right, talk right, believe right, and think right in everything, all the time. GAH! But if that isn’t right, what we are supposed to do?!?

Achieving Practical Righteousness

I love how Pricilla Shirer put it in her Armor of God study. She said that righteousness is not something that we drum up, that we work really hard for, but instead it is something that God releases in us. And it is the Holy Spirit’s job to chip off of us anything that doesn’t match the righteousness that we have within. We achieve practical righteousness by joining with the Holy Spirit to let Him change us from the inside out. This is not our own efforts! It doesn’t require giant willpower from us! It requires something more difficult- yielding ourselves to what the Holy Spirit wants to work in us. To be vulnerable to how He wants to change us. To allow Him to point out where we are wrong.

Beware the Yeast

This is what I suspect we are missing. That we as a Christian culture are so focused on being right that we do not let ourselves be vulnerable to the Holy Spirit showing us where we are wrong. Sometimes we do that by excusing our sin- sometimes by condemning others. Trying to fight for right ideas instead of fighting for lost souls. Disregarding the hurt our words and actions are causing because our cause is righteous and their thinking is wrong because they are sinners. The more we get our identity caught up in being right (which is easy to do when society is screaming at us that we are wrong for following Christ), the more we lose our identity of being hidden with God in Christ. And this is how we fall victim to the yeast of the Pharisees. Working so hard to be right that we convince ourselves that the hurt we cause is justified. Or even refusing to conceive of the reality that our online comment could ever hurt anyone since I don’t find it damaging.

Now, consider: Jesus’ command to be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees was not given to the Pharisees- it was not given to the unsaved- it was given to us- followers of Christ. How are you obeying that command? Are you examining your own actions to see if you are valuing being right over all else?

Search for Yeast

As we begin a new year, as the God commanded the Israelites every new year, look through your house for yeast. Examine your beliefs and actions. Are you through your political ideals, theological views, perspective on sexuality or gender, understanding of science, or even parenting strategies drawing you into valuing being right over being like Christ? Because Christ didn’t win sinners by insisting they were wrong (even though they were and He knew it). On the contrary, just being around Him and His transforming, all-consuming, overwhelming love organically made them look at their lives and want to change.

So let’s be on our guard against the yeast of the Pharisees- trying to do everything to drum up our own righteousness, even by tearing down others. And submit to Christ’s righteousness and the work of the Holy Spirit to make us more and more like Him. Because our righteousness is as filthy rags and can’t change the world like Christ’s does.

2 Replies to “The Yeast of the Pharisees”

  1. You have missed an important finer point. It wasn’t that they were legalistically trying to attain righteousness as much as the fact that their Talmud had superseded the actual Torah. The comment about the disciples not washing their hands refers to a Talmudic regulation of using a certain two-handled pitcher, washing the hands in a certain order–all supposedly toward your righteous standing. These are not in the Torah at all. They had made stuff up, call it “torah” (Yes, they do call the Talmud “torah.”). They were even counting something so commonplace as mint leaves, and so minute as cumin seeds toward their tithe–while preventing the common person–because the rich had the time to attend to the Talmud–a correct understanding of the Kingdom of YHWH. Christians are vulnerable to that with their Sunday “sabbath” and their deleting of things in Scripture, not additions. (Deut 4:2, 12:32, Rev 22:19).


    1. Absolutely they were doing this. But why? So they made sure they were righteous enough. Many in the Christian faith add things to God’s rules also, saying that they are an extrapolation. For instance, my husband grew up in a church that said boys couldn’t wear shorts. Why? To be righteous. To be good enough. Jesus was proposing a different way- infusing us with His righteousness and slowly transforming us so the outside matched the inside


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