Expository Sermon on Matthew 16
Bellevue SDA Church 5/12/2018
©2018 by Maylan Schurch
(Sorry, due to technical problems the audio for this sermon couldn’t be unloaded.)
Please open your Bibles again to Matthew chapter 16.
This is another sermon in a series that I have called “Red Print.” In this series we’re looking at the words Jesus said to people while He was on earth, and we’re trying to discover ways those words can apply to us.
I think I’ve mentioned in sermons before that my mother didn’t really love cooking. But she loved her husband and four kids, so over time she discovered what our favorite foods were, and would cheerfully prepare them for us.
Most of the time we bought bread at the store, but there were several years when mom would once in a while bake bread from scratch. And that’s when I could open the refrigerator door and see several packets of Red Star yeast about three inches square. I knew that the yeast was mixed into the bread dough, and afterward the big lump of dough would have to spend a lot of quiet time in the cool oven for the yeast to do its work. The oven was the safest place for that rising dough to be, to protect it from my questing finger which would have ripped a chunk of dough so I could chew on it!
The old name for yeast is, of course, “leaven.” And leaven shows up several times here in Matthew 15. And Jesus uses it to make another of His mysterious, hard-to-figure-out comments. These were comments that He considers extremely important for His disciples to hear, but His habit was not to simply spoon-feed these ideas. He said things that people had to think about for awhile.
What brought this “leaven” subject up was a boat trip across the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus and His disciples were on board. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus took His turn at the oars. When their boat finally reaches the other side, these guys are hungry, and they start inquiring about who brought the picnic basket. And quickly they discover the bad news.
Matthew 16:5 [NKJV]: Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread.
And then, through the growls and the mutters of the disciples cuts a clear voice. It belongs to Jesus, who is always ready to provide a teaching moment.
Verses 6 – 7: 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.”
The disciples totally miss the point. And maybe we can’t really blame them. I mean, if these guys have been toiling for hours across the lake, getting hungrier and hungrier, longing to bite into a chunk of bread, and getting all growly and grouchy at each other for forgetting the foodstuffs, maybe, when Jesus brought up the subject of bread-yeast, maybe it was natural to think that He, too, was hinting that He too was annoyed.
Anyway, He knows what they’re muttering about, so He gives a bit of clarification.
Verses 8 – 12: 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.
So. What is the leaven, or yeast, of the Pharisees and Sadducees? And is this leaven something we should be on the alert for this coming week?
We just read that the disciples finally figured out that when Jesus mentioned the leaven, He was speaking of the doctrine – or teaching – of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Last week in Matthew 15 we were reminded of how the rabbis had created an astounding number of religious rules, which weren’t in the Bible but which were supposed to help people follow the Bible better. But instead, these hundreds and thousands of rules discouraged people, and Jesus said that these “commandments of men” often took the place of God’s real words, and distorted them.
As I read through Matthew 16 several times this week, I came to the conclusion that part of this pharisaic attitude is dangerously real today, right now. We can be trapped by it. Let’s go back to the beginning of the chapter and see if we can spot what it is.
In fact, the Pharisees and Sadducees themselves show up, right at the beginning of the chapter. Watch carefully what happens.
Verse 1: Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven.
Now, if we didn’t know these gentlemen so well, from other parts of the Gospels, we might say, “Okay, this makes sense. Jesus claims to be sent from God, so maybe these religious leaders are right. Maybe He should indeed prove it by showing some dramatic sign in the sky.”
But we’ve read the end of the story, so we know what these guys are really after. For example, a few chapters further, in Matthew 22:15, we see their true motives: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk.”
If you follow the national news at all, you’ve heard many examples of how people on one side of an issue will often hunt through the recorded words of somebody on the other side, and when they discover an incriminating comment, they will immediately broadcast it as widely as possible.
And that’s what the Pharisees were trying to do with Jesus. They wanted to get Him under oath at a trial, and bring forth witnesses who heard Him say this or that, so that He could be convicted by His own words.
We might say, “Well, if Jesus did show them a sign from heaven, wouldn’t that be enough to convince them?”
Nope. Over in John 12 there’s an intriguing scene in which Jesus is praying aloud in the presence of a group of people. Jesus says, “Father, glorify Your name.” Here’s what happened:
John 12:28 – 29: Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.”
So there we have a definite sign from heaven. A voice spoke from the sky. But did you see what happened? Nobody said, “Oh, that is the voice of God. Now we believe that Jesus is both the Messiah and the Son of God.” Instead, the people who stood close by decided it was thunder. Others speculated it might’ve been an angel. So a sign from heaven has only limited value, when people are spiritually lethargic and deceived by the devil.
And that’s what these Pharisees and Sadducees were. As they followed Jesus around, they saw Him performing miracles – healing people, opening the eyes of the blind, straightening the limbs of the lame, even raising people from the dead. And the ordinary people knew that these were signs from heaven, because when these things happened, they immediately glorified God. Back in Matthew 9:8, just after Jesus healed a paralytic man, here is the people’s response: “Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.”
But the Pharisees saw the same miracles, and refused to believe.
Okay, let’s see if we can spot some ways this pharisaic leaven can be a problem for us today. The Pharisees asked for a sign from heaven, and rather than mildly denying their request, Jesus becomes very agitated. Listen to how He responds to their request:
Matthew 16:1 – 4: Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed.
And from other parts of the Gospels we know that the “sign of the prophet Jonah” was that Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish, and Jesus would spend parts of three days in the grave.
So what is Jesus saying to the Pharisees here? Jesus saying, “You are able to look at the sky and predict the weather, but you can’t understand the signs of the times.” In other words, Pharisees, the time has come for the Messiah to arrive and to save His people, and you are absolutely clueless.
When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus for a midnight conversation, Jesus found him clueless as well. He didn’t seem to know the first thing about how the Holy Spirit moves the heart toward salvation.
Here’s what I think the leaven of the Pharisees is in this chapter. What I’m about to tell you is actually the only sermon point in this sermon. I’ll tell you what it is, and we can see how it works out in the rest of the chapter.
Here’s what I think the leaven of the Pharisees could be: An unwillingness to see God at work on earth.
In other words, this could be spiritual lethargy. Back in Matthew 13:15 Jesus quoted the Old Testament about this lethargy:
Matthew 13:15: For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’
And what is so chilling is that the reason for their dullness of heart, and their inability to hear, and their closed spiritual lives, is probably because of the work of people like the Pharisees. If the Pharisees had looked beyond that cloudy sky that they were good at forecasting the weather with, if they could look beyond that sky into the heart of the God of heaven, and open their hearts to Him, then they would have been able to lead the people back to a right relationship with God.
But instead, both leaders and most of their followers were trapped in “leaven lethargy.” They were unwilling or unable to lift their eyes beyond the human perspective.
Back when my father passed away in 1994, my mom let me pick out some of Dad’s work caps. These were basically baseball caps which he had acquired over the years. Some of them he bought at garage sales. Others were given to him by dealers in farm supplies. The idea was that if you could get a farmer to wear a cap with your product’s logo, wherever he went he would be a little billboard advertising your wares.
So I brought several of Dad’s baseball caps back here to Washington with me. One of the finest of these caps had a logo which meant absolutely nothing to me. All it said was “Re-power with Sealed Power.” So whenever I wore it around, I was advertising a product which I knew nothing about.
The reason I bring up these caps is that some of them had very wide bills which would really project far out beyond your nose. I guess the idea was that a farmer needs to shade his face from the sun, as completely as possible.
And when you had one of those large caps on, you could basically see the horizon and nothing above it. And if you became a bit lethargic and allowed your head to droop, you would be in danger of walking into something. I remember wearing a cap like that on one of Shelley’s and my morning walks, and I smacked into one of those multiple mailbox cabinets. I had let my head droop too low, whereas if I had kept it high and looked up, I would have seen what I was running into.
With this in mind, let’s take another quick look at Jesus’ conversation with His disciples about bread. Remember, they are probably really hungry, and probably annoyed with each other that nobody thought to bring along the picnic basket. But notice how Jesus lifts their eyes.
Matthew 16:8 – 10: 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?
Do you see what Jesus is saying here? He’s telling His disciples, “Lift your eyes. You’re so obsessed with forgetting that basket of bread, that you have forgotten that you are in the presence of Someone who can create bread for a whole hillside of people. What you really need to be worrying about is allowing the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees to keep you in a state of spiritual leaven-lethargy, which prevents you from seeing God at work here on earth.”
And after they travel a bit, Jesus comes back to the same basic idea.
Verses 13 – 14: When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
So what is Jesus’ lesson here? Notice, He is going over the same ground. He asks the disciples who people are saying that He is. And they reply to Him that everybody is describing Him in human terms. Some are suggesting that he is John the Baptist come back to life, some say use Elijah come down from heaven, and some say He is Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.
Notice – everyone seems to be wearing my dad’s baseball caps. Everybody can see to the horizon but no higher.
But watch what happens next.
Verses 15 – 17: He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
So Peter has been able to lift his eyes above the horizon. He’s not perfect by any means – as he will discover in just a few verses – but he is able to see beyond what the ordinary people in the religious leaders can see, that Jesus has come from heaven.
And it’s key to remember what Jesus said to him next. “Peter,” Jesus said, “you didn’t say this from your own understanding. It was God who revealed this to you.”
And that is so very crucial to remember. Back in John chapter 1, when Jesus is calling His disciples, most of them follow Him because they sense that He is the Messiah. But only thoughtful Nathaniel is closely enough in tune with God enough to be able to look into Jesus’ face and proclaim that He was the very Son of God:
John 1:49: Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Oh, how Jesus must’ve longed for more people to be in such close connection with His Father, as Nathaniel was.
Still once more in this chapter Jesus drives home the point He has been making about looking beyond ourselves and into the heart of God. Let’s pick up the story at verse 21.
Matthew 16:21 – 23: From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”
Isn’t that chilling? A few verses back, Peter had received a direct revelation from God about who Jesus was. And now he has clamped that spiritual-lethargy baseball cap on to his head, and his vision is now limited to a human viewpoint.
And in the almost savage intensity with which Jesus replies, we sense the fear that one of His friends might slide into the grip of His enemy Satan.
Look at the last part of what He says to Peter: “you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” That is spiritual lethargy, which comes from allowing yourself to see only the human side of things, rather than eternal side.
And then Jesus offers a very direct challenge to His disciples. Here is what needs to happen in your life, and in my life, so we can escape from “leaven lethargy”:
Verses 24 – 26: Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
You see what Jesus is saying here? In order to shake off the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, that spiritual lethargy which keeps our eyes upon only the things of this earth, we need to decide if we want to follow Jesus.
If we do want to come after Him, we need to deny ourselves. We must say, “Not I, but Christ, be honored, loved, exalted.” We need to turn our lives and our futures over to God, and ask Him to guide us closer to Him. Just as He took up His cross and struggled with it up the road to Calvary, we need to hoist our crosses upon our own shoulders and drag them after Him, willing to devote our lives to Him.
I believe that this means that we must become self-sacrificing in imitation of Jesus. We should submit all our plans to Him, and let Him lead us where He wants us to go.
Because one day, we will indeed be looking up – up to the sky, up to gaze at the One who is traveling back through those skies to us. We’ll either be looking up with fear, or with joy. Notice how Jesus urges us to lift our eyes beyond what’s happening here.
Verse 27: For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.
My dad was not only a wearer of baseball caps while he worked on our farm. He was a singer – not a public performer, but a soft and gentle singer of hymns he loved.
And our closing song was one of his favorites. I’ll never be able to sing this song without hearing his soft baritone, crooning humbly and trustingly to the Savior he loved.
Let’s allow this song to be our response to the words of Jesus we have heard this morning.
Nothing between my soul and my Savior,
Naught of this world’s delusive dream;
I have renounced all sinful pleasure;
Jesus is mine, there’s nothing between.
Nothing between my soul and my Savior,
So that His blessed face may be seen;
Nothing preventing the least of His favor;
Keep the way clear! Let nothing between.
Nothing between, like worldly pleasure;
Habits of life, though harmless they seem,
Must not my heart from Him ever sever;
He is my all, there’s nothing between.
Nothing between, like pride or station;
Self or friends shall not intervene;
Though it may cost me much tribulation,
I am resolved, there’s nothing between.
Nothing between, e’en many hard trials,
Though the whole world against me convene;
Watching with prayer and much self-denial,
I’ll triumph at last, there’s nothing between.
–Charles A. Tindley