by Joshua Arnold, CLA Graduate
“‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” (Matthew 16:6 ESV)
Far too many individuals, including numerous professing Christians, buy into the lie that each of us can earn our way to heaven through our works of righteousness. So long as our good deeds outweigh our bad ones, they tell themselves, then God will be obligated to reward us. However, the Bible is directly opposed to this idea, for it maintains that God is holy and righteous (Psalm 11:7, Isaiah 6:3), and therefore he cannot tolerate any sin, no matter how small or great (Romans 3:23). Even one transgression, then, is enough to deem us unfit for heaven (James 2:10), and no amount of good deeds can provide atonement, for they are regarded by God as “polluted garments” (Isaiah 64:6). If we are to be reconciled to God, then we cannot look to ourselves for deliverance. Fortunately, God has already provided a solution through his Son Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross. Only when we turn to him and acknowledge how undeserving of his mercy we are can we truly receive the salvation we so desperately seek.
A Confrontation with the Pharisees
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark recount for us a peculiar discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees, which is initiated by the religious leaders when they ask him for “a sign from heaven” (Matthew 16:1, Mark 8:11). At first, this may seem like a strange request, as Jesus had already performed various miracles in their sight which served as confirmation that he was “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Yet we are told that the Pharisees and Sadducees had ulterior motives, for they were seeking to test Jesus. However, aware of their intentions, the Lord instead exposes them for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness: “‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times’” (Matthew 16:4). Though they professed to follow closely after God and to be very knowledgeable of his law, they rejected the very One whom he had sent to fulfill it. They worshipped God with their lips, but their hearts were far from him, and therefore their worship was in vain (Mark 7:6-7). Jesus concludes his discourse by saying “‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah’” (Matthew 16:4). After he finishes speaking to them, he departs for Bethsaida.
The Sign of Jonah
It is remarkable that Jesus would so willingly compare himself to such a disobedient and rebellious prophet as Jonah. Having been commanded by God to preach to the people of Nineveh, Jonah instead fled in the opposite direction to Tarshish, fearing that God would have mercy on such a wicked and violent people (Jonah 1:3, 4:2). Yet through a series of divinely orchestrated events, God caused a great fish to swallow him, and he was trapped in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Though God would have been just to allow Jonah to spend the rest of his days inside the fish, he instead granted the wayward prophet a second chance to fulfill his calling. This time, however, Jonah obeyed, and at his preaching, the people of Nineveh repented. In response, God withheld his judgment toward them, which angered Jonah to the extent that he asked God to take away his life (Jonah 4:3). However, God used this opportunity to teach Jonah a very important lesson, which is this: No one is deserving of the mercy God shows them. The only obligation God has towards sinners is to punish them for their iniquity, and he would be perfectly just to do so. Nevertheless, God desires that such people should instead turn from their wickedness and live (Ezekiel 18:23, 2 Peter 3:9).
There are, of course, a few similarities between Jonah and the Son of God. Like Jonah, Jesus Christ was also sent by God to warn sinners of their need for repentance. Additionally, as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so also was Jesus laid in a tomb for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). However, in comparing these two individuals we also note a great contrast: While Jonah ran away from wicked sinners, Christ runs toward them. Though Jonah would have rather died than see sinners repent, Christ died so that sinners could repent and thereby be pardoned of their sins. Only through the finished work of Jesus, the true and better Jonah, can this great gift of mercy be obtained.
Our Need for the Bread of Life
After his encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, we are told that Jesus boards a boat with his disciples to travel across the Sea of Galilee. During their journey, the disciples realize that they have forgotten to bring bread and that they only have one loaf with them (Mark 8:14). Given the discussion he had just had with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus attempts to use this opportunity to instruct his disciples: “‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’” (Matthew 16:6). By this he meant to be wary of their teaching (Matthew 16:12). The Pharisees and Sadducees believed themselves to be close to God through their devotion to his law. By professing to be able to see clearly regarding the ways of God, and yet rejecting his Son who walked among them, they revealed themselves to be truly blind (John 9:39-41). Thus, through their teaching they became “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14). Jesus was warning his disciples against falling into the trap. Yet his message falls on deaf ears, for at that moment the disciples are only concerned about their current situation: “And they began discussing it among themselves, saying ‘We brought no bread’” (Matthew 16:7). This response is especially strange given the context of this particular narrative. By this time in Jesus’ ministry, he had fed two very large crowds with only a few loaves of bread, one crowd numbering five thousand men and the other numbering four thousand men (these numbers excluded the women and children who were also present). Not only that, but after everyone had eaten their fill, there was still food left over. It would have been a simple matter, then, for Jesus to multiply the one loaf which they already had available.
However, the disciples do not turn to Jesus, but instead keep the matter to themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus is aware of their discourse and rebukes them: “‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?’” (Matthew 16:8). Afterwards, Jesus inquires of the disciples, “‘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?’” (Matthew 16:9-10). What a troubling thought! These men had been traveling with Jesus, learning from him, and witnessing the signs that he performed. They knew very well what Jesus was capable of, and that he could help them if they asked him to. And yet, amid their desperate circumstances, the disciples thought it best to handle the matter themselves, though they had no hope of amending their situation on their own.
Unfortunately, many know of the saving power of Jesus but still reject him in their heart because they expect their good deeds to deliver them from judgment. The Bible warns us that so long as we rely on our works to save us, as the disciples looked to themselves for bread, we will have every reason to be as worried as they were, for we will ultimately fall short of God’s righteous standard. We have no power to make even one of our hairs white or black (Matthew 5:36), much less to rescue our souls from hell. Only through Jesus Christ, the bread of life (John 6:35), who fulfilled the law of God and bore his just wrath toward all sin, do we have any hope for salvation.
A Dire Warning
Regardless of how morally upright we believe ourselves to be, the scriptures are abundantly clear that none are righteous in the sight of God (Romans 3:10), and therefore no amount of good works can earn his favor. We must take great care, then, lest we, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, should be deceived by our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). Do not play the church game, professing Jesus to be your lord on Sunday while sin reigns in your heart the rest of the week. This is a dangerous game to play, for no one wins except the Devil. If you would truly be set free from your wickedness, repent and believe in Jesus Christ, for it is only through his finished work, and not our good deeds, that we can obtain a right standing with God.