The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees

On the evening beginning the 14th of Nisan, we take the Passover, as instructed by Christ and the apostles. We do it at the same time and in the same manner that the Church of God did it in the first century (1 Corinthians 11:23–25).

a pile of yeast

As we take that bread and wine, we remember the magnitude of the sacrifice that Christ made to enable us to be cleansed from our sins. The Passover evening is different from other gatherings of the Church in that it is a somber occasion, when we remember the gravity of that final evening that Jesus spent with His disciples. Shortly after that Passover meal was over, His suffering began, and then ended with His death the following afternoon. As the sun was setting, ending that Passover Day, Jesus’ disciples hurried to place His body into the tomb before the high Holy Day began at sunset, Nisan 15 (Leviticus 23:5–7; John 19:31).

At sunset beginning Nisan 15, we enter into God’s Holy Day, and the mood is quite different from that of the Passover the night before. The First Day of Unleavened Bread is a feast day and begins with a joyous feast, “The Night To Be Much Remembered.” In that day, we rejoice, remembering that we have been cleansed by Christ’s shed blood and made “clean every whit” (John 13:10, KJV).

Having been cleansed of our sins by the sacrifice of Christ, we remember that we are commanded to keep the leaven of sin out of our lives. Paul instructed the Corinthians on how to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Corinthians 5:6–8).

We “keep the feast” of Unleavened Bread, just as the Apostle Paul instructed both the Church in the first century and the Church today.

In keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread, God is having us act out an important part of this wonderful plan—so that we do not forget it. We keep leavening out of our homes and diets for seven days. A very important lesson of this Feast is that the guilt of our sins has been washed away by our Passover, Jesus Christ, making us justified and unleavened in God’s sight. But in order to remind us that sin can find its way back into our lives, we continue to keep leaven out of our homes and diets for the full seven days. So, the Days of Unleavened Bread also remind us to lead repentant lives throughout the year.

Finding hidden leaven during the Days of Unleavened Bread can be a good reminder to be vigilant about hidden sin. In a personal example, one year during the Days of Unleavened Bread, I took my family out to dinner. I thought that a custard and berry dessert on the menu was sure to be unleavened (and delicious too), but when I scooped up a bite with a spoon, I discovered that it had a thin layer of leavened cake hidden inside the custard and berries. Clearly, putting the leaven out is one thing, but keeping it out is another! As we have these experiences, we remember that sin, like leaven, can hide in unexpected places.

A great lesson of the Days of Unleavened Bread is that, having been cleansed by Christ’s sacrifice, we must be vigilant to keep the leaven of sin out of our lives.

The Leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees

Often the leaven of sin is in what we do, but sometimes it is in what we think. Jesus pointed out to His disciples a source of spiritual leaven that they might not have identified.

Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread.” But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to 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 doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:5–12).

Christ also cautioned His disciples against the leaven of hypocrisy (Luke 12:1), which often goes hand in hand with doctrinal error.

Christ is our bread—our spiritual food—and our source of doctrine. He supplies all our needs, and we feed on Him. Just as a little bread—like righteous doctrine from Christ—fed a multitude (Mark 8:3–9, 17–21), a few apostles spread the Gospel of the Kingdom of God around the ancient world. In our time, a few ministers using modern technology can spread God’s truth to billions of people. All of the Church’s literature and media are free and accessible around the world. 

But false doctrine remains a dangerous form of spiritual leaven. Like leaven, it starts with a small error and grows into a major spiritual problem. A little error can leaven a lot of truth. A big problem for these Jewish leaders of the first century was the leaven of false doctrine. They used their traditions to circumvent God’s commandments.

Christ identified the leaven of false doctrine as a type of sin. One of the things we have to put out in this season—and keep out throughout the year—is false teachings.

The Days of Unleavened Bread are a good time to look at the subject of this leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees: false doctrines.

Identifying False Doctrines

As we approach Passover each year, we often hear a sermonette about what constitutes physical leaven. Similarly, before we can put out the leaven of false doctrine, we must be able to identify it. So, it’s good to remember where false doctrine comes from. “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:9). Doctrinal deception is the Devil’s specialty.

To understand the disputes that Jesus had with the Pharisees and Sadducees, it’s important to understand who they were. Their views of the law were quite different. Both were well educated but had different approaches to their faith. Here are some basic facts about them.

The Pharisees believed that the law was to be interpreted by the rabbinical tradition. They also believed in the resurrection, whereas the Sadducees did not. When a Pharisee said that Jesus broke the Sabbath law, he meant that Jesus violated the traditional Pharisaic interpretation of the law. The Pharisees sometimes used their traditions to circumvent the intent of the law when they found it convenient. But Jesus corrected them when their tradition was in error, resulting in much animosity against Him. Generally speaking, Jesus had conflicts with the Pharisees over matters of their interpretation of the law, while the Sadducees were incensed when He told them that He was the Son of God. Modern Judaism is an evolution of the Pharisaic tradition as recorded in the Mishnah of the second and third centuries AD.

The Sadducees were the descendants of the Aaronic priesthood through the sons of the high priest, Zadok, who didn’t go into apostasy and idolatry. They were of the priestly class. The word “Sadducees” (Seduqim) is thought by some to have been derived from the name Zadok. Among the major differences with the Pharisees was that the Sadducees believed that the law could only be interpreted by the Aaronic priesthood. The Sadduccees also denied the truth of the resurrection, as well as the existence of spirits or angels. In Jesus’ day, they controlled the Sanhedrin. In the Living Church of God, we count Pentecost as directed in Scripture, as did the Sadducees, whereas the Pharisees advocated keeping Pentecost every year on a fixed day of the month, Sivan 6.

The Adversary’s Playbook

Satan often influences people to sin by two chief means: temptation and deception. Where the Church is concerned, he often prefers deception. A person who yields to temptation and sins as a result may feel guilt and repent. But a person who sins in deception thinks that he or she hasn’t done anything wrong, which makes repentance less likely. You can imagine how much Satan likes that! For example, deception regarding the calendar is a fine way for Satan to sow confusion about God’s Holy Days, with different people keeping them on different dates.

In 1 Timothy 2:13–14, the Apostle Paul instructed the Church that although Adam was tempted, Eve was deceived. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” Some misunderstand Paul’s admonition and think he is saying that women aren’t as smart as men and that his comments were a product of the culture of his day, which saw women as inferior. That is incorrect.

But keeping in mind Eve’s mistake, note what Paul said to the Church in Corinth: “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you [the Church] to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2–3).

So, false doctrines come from the adversary—the father of lies—and he especially likes to target the Church with doctrinal deception.

We Got It Right the First Time!

Another way to identify false doctrines is to recognize that they conflict with the faith once delivered.

Because of the adversary’s attacks, true doctrines are something we must struggle earnestly to keep, reflecting the same righteous concern as Jude: “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). His concern was spurred by the teachings of “certain men [who] have crept in unnoticed” (v. 4)—like a little leaven, which can leaven the whole lump.

The apostles didn’t give one set of doctrines to the Jewish Christians and another to converts among the Gentiles. And they didn’t teach one belief on one occasion and something else on another occasion. They delivered one faith “once for all” (Jude 3). Paul praised the Gentile Church in Thessalonica because they “became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 2:14).

Both the Gentile and Jewish members of God’s Church kept all ten of the Ten Commandments and believed the same Gospel of the Kingdom of God. By keeping God’s Sabbaths and Holy Days, the Greeks in Thessalonica were not trying to be Jewish; they were obeying God.

Beware of people who say that they have “new truth”—it’s usually old errors. The Church’s doctrines have been researched and thoroughly vetted for decades under Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong, Dr. Roderick C. Meredith and now Mr. Gerald Weston, and we are convinced that we have God’s truth. With God’s help, we want to go deeper and broader in our knowledge and understanding—but we should beware when someone wants to go differently.

The Apostle Paul cautioned the Church in Corinth to be constantly vigilant for those who preach doctrinal error. “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:4, ESV). Here’s an action item: Don’t put up with it!

Peter also was aware of the spiritual danger of ongoing doctrinal attacks on the Church. He counseled the churches to maintain growth in their knowledge while resisting deceptive changes. “You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:17–18).

We always want to grow in grace and knowledge, and from time to time, a member may think we’ve made a mistake. Or perhaps he believes he has found something new that we should look into. When that’s the case, there’s a procedure that should be followed. Don’t advocate your idea among the congregation; rather, discuss it with your minister. But be prepared for him to engage in helpful analysis. The minister may have seen your idea before and, as a result, may have a ready answer with scriptures or related doctrines that you haven’t considered. That’s often the case. Or, if you both think that the idea needs to be considered further, it can be sent on to his Regional Pastor and possibly the Personal Correspondence Department.

If so, be patient in waiting for a response. If it’s worthy of further investigation, the Council of Elders does consider study papers and thoughtful commentary.

God’s Truth Is Precious

God’s truth sets us apart. Jesus said, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17). He also said that we are sanctified by our faith in Him (Acts 26:18) and by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16).

People love to reason about religious matters, and often their conclusions precede their rationale. The ancient Greeks believed that they could create spiritual knowledge by reasoning—as do their spiritual heirs, many of today’s theologians. But God reveals His truth:

As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:6–8).

Often, the leaven of false doctrine is used by individuals seeking to form their own little church group. They need a different doctrine or two to distinguish them from others in order to corral the sheep they need to support their small ministry. Those who have done this typically have several characteristics in common:

•  They assert some unique doctrine or “revelation” that distinguishes their splinter group from others.

•  Their evangelistic work is ineffective, and few new people join their group. So, they seek to take sheep from other organizations and fellowships rather than evangelizing the world.

• There is often a high degree of control of the group.

Christ warned us about these false ministers when He said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:15–20).

In the ministry, we have dealt with many of the same doctrinal questions for years: the proper dating of the Holy Days and calendar issues, private prophetic interpretations and many others. These issues come back year after year, decade after decade, as new people discover old errors. The Bible teaches us that Satan stalks about the fringes of the flock “like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Those who regularly search the Internet for doctrinal issues probably do not appreciate the precious truth we have and may find themselves within that lion’s range of attack.

The Apostle Paul knew that the leaven of doctrinal error would be a major problem for the Church, so he exhorted Timothy, “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:1–4).

A big reason that members turn aside to the leaven of false doctrines is that they don’t value the truth they have.

The Ministry and the Church Maintain the Doctrines

God said that He uses His ministry and His Church to maintain doctrinal integrity. The Church is the bulwark of the faith. The Apostle Paul reminded the evangelist Timothy, “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14–15).

The ministry has both the responsibility and authority to maintain the doctrinal integrity of the Church. Even in the world, we don’t give a person the responsibility to do a job without also giving the authority that is required to accomplish it. Failing to do so would defeat our own purpose. And God is far wiser than we are.

Paul explained in his letter to the Church in Ephesus why offices of authority are so important:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, [why?] for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, [for what goal?] till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting (Ephesians 4:11–14).

God uses His faithful ministry to preserve the truth in His Church. That’s a big reason why the Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” And we’re required to judge who is a true minister of Jesus Christ, and, again, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). But what are our obligations when we identify a true minister of Christ? We gladly accept the authority and service that Christ provides through His ministry and His Church. Sheep flee a wolf but follow a shepherd.

The Church encourages its members in the faith, and we are supportive of one another in the faith. Paul wrote, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24–25).

The ability to effectively teach sound doctrine is one of the qualifications for an elder. Again, Paul wrote that an elder should be found “holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

The ministry is instructed: Teach what you’ve been taught and make the truth plain. Christ uses His faithful ministry to keep His Church on track doctrinally and to keep this leaven out of God’s Church.

Keeping Out the Leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees

So, what are some things we can do to keep out the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees during the Days of Unleavened Bread and the rest of the year? Here are a few:

First, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Next, be vigilant to identify the leaven. Paul cautioned Timothy, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1–2). We are in those “latter times” now.

Also, value the truth you have and be prepared to contend for the faith. “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (Revelation 3:11). Also, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

Holding onto God’s truth requires constant vigilance. God’s truth is precious. Value and protect it! Let’s “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered” (Jude 3). Having been washed by Christ’s sacrifice and made unleavened in God’s sight, let’s put out the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, which is false doctrine. And let’s strive together to keep it out throughout the coming year.

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