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The Danger Of Legalism & Liberalism

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When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? 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 16:5-12 ESV)


After rowing their boat to the other side of the lake in today’s passage the disciples had worked up an appetite. But they realized that they had forgotten to bring bread and could not satisfy their hunger. Even after spending two years with Jesus watching Him perform miracle after miracle the twelve disciples’ had little faith. They still primarily thought on a physical, not spiritual, level.

The fact that they had no bread was of no concern for Jesus, as He points out. Jesus had feed the five thousand and the four thousand with just a small amount of loaves, something the disciples amazingly had forgotten. Certainly, Jesus could meet their immediate needs right then and there.

We have many earthly needs. And while God is willing and able to satisfy them, He often uses our condition to attempt to meet a greater need – a spiritual one. That is exactly what Jesus does in this passage. He turns the disciples’ physical need into a spiritual lesson.

Jesus tells the disciples not to be so concerned with physical bread but to watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. We previously learned, through a parable, that leaven makes dough rise [Matthew 13:33]. In Israel the term “leaven” was often used figuratively to represent an influence – usually (but not always), a negative one.

The influence of the Pharisees was hypocrisy [Luke 12:1]. Their brand of alleged godliness was based on self-righteous legalism. It was more important for the Pharisees to adhere to, and impose upon others, outward nit-picky behavioral rules without addressing one’s internal character.

The influence of the Sadducees, on the other hand, was extreme liberalism. They disregarded much of God’s word, specifically the supernatural (e.g. angels) and the afterlife (e.g. heaven, hell). They lived for what this earth had to offer and nothing more.

Many of us grew up in a denominational church were rules were stressed but a relationship with God was not. Or, we grew up in a home were materialism and earthly pleasures were emphasized while spirituality was ignored. Both of these approaches to life are wrong.

It’s certainly easy as human beings to fall into the trap of legalism or liberalism, which is why Jesus tells us to watch for them. The Greek word here is ηοραο (pronounced: hor-ah’-o) which means “to be on the look out for; to anticipate”. Such false doctrines exist and we should not be surprised to encounter them. But we must not believe them.

Following any teaching other than that set down by God in the Bible is playing with fire [Jude 23]. In fact, years after the events of this passage, Paul would write to the churches in Galatia and Colossae warning them about their legalism and liberalism, respectively.

The biggest problem man has is the depravity of his heart, which needs replacing [Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Mark 7:21]. Controlling others through power, as the Pharisees did, doesn’t address a person’s heart issue. Neither does following an “anything goes” approach to life, as the Sadducees espoused.

Only God’s word – exactly as it is written – can do that.

Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me about this post.

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