If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 16. As we have already seen, Matthew 15, 16, and 17, the central chapters in the gospel of Matthew, record a turning point in the ministry of Christ. The crowds continue to follow Him. But now even the crowds openly reject His message and His claims to be Messiah. They continue wanting to be healed by Him; they continue to want to see the miracles that He performs; but they turn their backs on His teaching. Now the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the religious leaders of Israel, are now more than ever openly opposed to Christ, and clearly plotting to embarrass Him, to marginalize Him, and worse. We see these things in these passages before us.
Last week we saw the end of the great Galilean ministry and the beginning of what was called the retirement ministry in Matthew 15:21. We saw the repetition of the miracle of the feeding of thousands. Even as Jesus had fed the 5,000, so also He fed the 4,000. We talked about the spiritual significance of that.
Today we focus on the first 12 verses of Matthew chapter 16, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and He issues a stern warning about the dangers of false teaching, and the pernicious influence of evil character in religious leaders. So let's hear God's holy word beginning in Matthew 16:1. This is the word of God.
Our Lord, this is Your word. We ask that, by Your Spirit, You would open our hearts to receive it, to understand it, to embrace it, to live it. We pray that You would remove the obstacles of our heart -unbelief, pride – that we might see wonderful things in Your law. And we ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In Matthew 16 verse 1, Jesus and His disciples have arrived back on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. They have moved back into that region which is more Jewish, although all of Galilee was mixed with both Jew and gentile. They have moved from the site of the Decapolis which was predominantly Gentile, and back into a more Jewish region. And as soon as they arrived, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the opponents of the Lord Jesus, are waiting to see if they can hatch some plot to embarrass Him.
I. The heart is the great barrier to faith, not the evidence.
And in this passage today, even as we see Him confronted by His opponents, we learn a vitally important lesson about the obstacle, or the obstacles, to saving faith. And we receive an important warning about false teaching. And I'd like to direct your attention to this passage for a few moments. Look at verses 1 through 4 to begin with. Here we see Jesus rebuke unbelief. And we learn a very important truth; that is the truth that the heart is the great barrier to faith, not the evidence. It is not evidence which is the barrier to faith. It is the heart which is the barrier to faith. Jesus makes that clear in this exchange with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
It is interesting, isn't it, to see the Pharisees and the Sadducees working together, jointly, with the common purpose of embarrassing the lord Jesus in this passage. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were part of a very divided Judaism of their day. In fact, there were many different groups within the Pharisees. But the Pharisees and the Sadducees themselves did not get along. The Pharisees were very popular with the people. They were a holiness movement. They wanted to see revival brought to the nation. They wanted to see God's blessing fall down upon Israel again. But they thought that the way that they were going to purchase that blessing of God was through strict and precise obedience to the Torah, to those 5 books of Moses, and to the law given by Moses, and to the oral tradition of the rabbis about that law. And they thought that through this means they could secure the blessing of God again on Israel.
The Sadducees were an entirely different ilk. They were very powerfully connected with those who were the rulers of the land. They were Helenized; that is, they were very much influenced by the Greco-Roman culture of the day. And they attempted to blend their Judaism, both religious and cultural, with the cultural components of the Greco-Roman world. Many of them were very pro Roman, and were part of what the priestly class. That's why, from time to time, you will hear them referred to as the “high priests” even though there was only one high priest. They were part of the party that was propped up by those who were occupying the land. And they were very much hooked in to the political leaders.
The Pharisees, of course, were looking for a heavenly kingdom, but they were seeking it by law, and frankly by formalism, ceremonialism, and legalism. The Sadducees were worldly minded, and they saw the reward for obedience to God's law in terms of material prosperity and worldly power. In fact they did not even believe in the resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, the physical resurrection. They believed in many of the prime supernatural truths of the Old Testament. The Sadducees had dispensed with that, and saw God's blessings wholly in earthly and temporal categories.
But now, jointly, these troops are working together against the Lord Jesus. These religious leaders by coming to Jesus and saying, “show us a sign from heaven,” are tacitly dismissing all the signs that Jesus has already performed, many of which have been done in the sight of them or of their colleagues. And so they are asking Him for a more spectacular sign. Specifically, they asked for a sign from heaven. Perhaps they are thinking about a sign from heaven like the manna which came down in the wilderness in the days of Moses. Or perhaps they are thinking of a sign like Joshua’s sign when he prayed to the Lord, in Joshua chapter ten, and the sun stopped so that Israel could conduct a mop up action against the enemies of the Gibeonites. Or maybe they are thinking of a sign from the skies or from the heaven like Elijah's sign. You remember when Elijah prayed on the mount with the prophets of Baal, and fire came from heaven and consumed the altar and the sacrifice that he had built up to the Lord, thus putting the prophets of Baal to shame. They are saying, “Jesus, show us a sign from heaven. Show us a heavenly sign, a sign that cannot be duplicated by impostors. One that will prove to us that You are the Messiah.”
But you need to understand that they were not interested at all in Jesus' response. There would have been no response that Jesus could have made to their demand, their disrespectful demand, that would have been satisfactory to them. There was no real openness in their hearts, to being convinced by any sign, by any evidence, by any proof, that Jesus was the Messiah. And Matthew makes that clear to us by telling us 3 things.
First of all, will you notice that Matthew tells us explicitly that their purpose was to put Jesus to the test. In verse 1 of Matthew 16, we are told that they came to test, or to tempt, Jesus. And this is precisely the kind of thing talked about in Deuteronomy when it says, “do not put the Lord to the test.” This is not a friendly test. This is not a test at the end of geometry to spur you on to further study, and to show how well you have done. This is a test to make Jesus look bad. Their desire is to embarrass Him, to shame Him, and hopefully, to disprove Him in front of the multitudes. They're not there asking for this for their own spiritual welfare. They are there asking this to try and make sure that the crowds do not follow Jesus any more.
Secondly, notice that Matthew repeatedly stresses that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were working together, in verse 1, in verse 6, in verse 11, and in verse 12, the Pharisees and the Sadducees are mentioned jointly. Now Matthew knows, that anyone who knew anything about the Judaism of the day, and especially his original readers, when they see the Pharisees and the Sadducees working together, they are going to know that they are up to something. No good can be happening when the Pharisees and the Sadducees are working together on a project. Clearly, they have a sinister agenda because they are already factionalized themselves.
And finally, Matthew has already told you what the response of the Pharisees is to an undeniable, heavenly sign. You remember back in Matthew, chapter 12, verses 38 and 39, after Jesus had been casting out demons, what did the Pharisees say about Him? Well, “He casts those demons out by Satan. That's where He got the power from.” So no matter what sign Jesus does, they accuse Him of doing that sign by the power of Satan. So we've already seen what they would have done no matter what sign Jesus showed them. They were determined to trip Jesus up, and there is no reason to believe that they would have accepted any sign offered to them.
And so Jesus responds to them with a stinging rebuke in verses 2 and 3. He basically tells them that they are better at recognizing the signs of the weather than they are recognizing the spiritual signs set forth in the word of God, and being confirmed in His ministry. Now this is a great irony, because Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders of Israel. And He is saying, “you know, you men have taken the time, you have gone to the bother, to analyzing the weather so that you can tell in very nuanced ways, in general, what is going to happen. In fact, you can look at a red sky in the morning, and a red sky in the evening, and tell that it is predicting something different, even though the sky looked basically similar. You have all this expertise in natural signs in the heavens, but you don't have a clue about the epoch-marking spiritual signs that are being done in my ministry.” He is basically saying, “you guys would make good weathermen, but you make lousy theologians.” And that is an incredibly, incredibly, significant remark to make about the spiritual leaders of that day.
Now by the way, Jesus is not criticizing weather reports here. You can still watch the weather channel. So breathe a sign of relief. That's not His point. His point is: these are people who are supposed to be devoted to what? To the Spiritual, to the word of God, to leading the people to understanding unseen realities. But it turns out that they're really good at telling people about common sense, seen realities, but they are really bad at leading them in unseen realities. Listen to what Calvin says. “Christ, therefore, asks them why they do not recognize the kingdom of God when it is manifest by no less clear signs. For this showed quite clearly that they were too devoted to earthly and transitory interests, and despised what concerned the heavenly and spiritual life.” These were religious leaders who didn't have a clue about how to coordinate the clear signs of Jesus' ministry with the teaching of the scriptures. And consequently they were blind guides to the blind.
And so Jesus goes on to say in verse 4, that He will only give them one sign, the sign of Jonah. Now, He's already mentioned the sign of Jonah in Matthew, chapter 12, verses 39-41. He uses that same phrase, and He explains a little bit of what that means. The sign of Jonah, of course, refers to His death and His resurrection on the third day. Going back to the experience of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed up by the whale, and emerged on the third day, so also Jesus would be raised from the dead. And so the sign of Jonah it is, that they will receive. Jesus’ resurrection is at the very heart of the gospel proof that He is the Messiah. And isn't that an interesting sign to give to both the Sadducees and to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were devoted from this day forward to making sure that Jesus was killed. The Sadducees didn't even believe in the resurrection. And yet the sign that Jesus was going to give them, was the sign of His power over death, and His power of resurrection. Listen again to the words of William Hendriksen: “What a sign this death and resurrection would be for the Pharisees, who were concerned, who were constantly planning Jesus death, with no fear that He would ever be able to conquer death. And what a sign it was for the Sadducees, who did not even believe in a resurrection. That would be the sign given to them that He was, indeed, the Messiah.”
Now there are many applications of the truths set before us in these passages. But I would like to think with you about 2 or 3 things. First of all, note again that it is not the evidence that is keeping the Pharisees and the Sadducees from believing in Jesus as Messiah. The evidence is crystal clear. The spiritual signs are as bright as day. The problem is their hearts. It is not the evidence that keeps people from Christ. It is our darkened hearts that keep us from wanting to bow the knee to His lordship.
Isn't it interesting, that you have this man who has performed miraculous sign after miraculous sign, and these people come along, and they say this, “We don't want to look at the signs that You have done. We want You to do something that You haven't done. We want to pick what You are supposed to do, in order to prove to us that You are who You say you are.” Now just suppose for a moment that Jesus were the Messiah, would you want to talk to the Messiah that way? “Well, Messiah, I don't like the signs that You have chosen to do. I can pick out a better sign than you, the God of Israel, could have come up with. In fact, I can come up with a lot more convincing signs. So you do something that you haven't done already.” These people were despising the spiritual advantages that He had already given them in saying, “We don't like those. We want You to do something else.” And that is always the way of unbelief. It says, “What you have shown me so far in the word is not adequate. I want You to show me something else.” For you see, the problem is not, however, the facts. The problem is not the evidence. The problem is not the data. The problem is the heart. The heart is hard, and it doesn't want to take in the truth.
There is another thing we see in this passage. These men were not fools in the sense of being ignorant or unlearned men. They were fools in another sense. In the sense that their hearts were hard towards the lord, and that they were walking in a way in a way of unwisdom. But these men had great human wisdom, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They had tremendous capacity for learning. They had wisdom about the natural order, but none of that necessarily transfers into the realm of the spiritual. A man may be brilliant in the things of this life, and absolutely blind with regard to spiritual things. A man may have great knowledge about a particular field, and yet He may be utterly hopeless in His knowledge of eternal things. And that is a very, very important thing for us to learn.
And again, Jesus repeats His words in this passage about the sign of Jonah. And that reminds us that Jesus is of a habit of repeating the truths which He teaches His disciples over and over again. He brings forth truths again and again in order to impress those truths on the hearts of His disciples and His followers. And so again He says, “You will have no sign from me but the sign of Jonah.” These Pharisees and Sadducees come seeking for signs of the kingdom from Jesus, when the kingdom was already among them. And Hendriksen says, “In asking for a sign from heaven, these men did not realize that the sign from heaven was standing right in front of them.” Surely this is a fearful warning to us about the dangers of hardheartedness before the truth of the word. That's the first thing we learn in this passage. The heart is the great barrier to faith, not the evidence.
II. Christians should take great care in who we follow.
And then, if you will look at verses 5-7, you will see an exchange between Jesus and His disciples. And He issues a warning to them about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but they misunderstand the warning that Jesus gives them there in verses 5-7. And there Christ charges us as believers to take care in who we follow. Jesus warns us to be careful about the spiritual leaders that we choose to follow. Jesus and the disciples are now going to return to the east or the northeast side of the lake, but the disciples have forgotten to obtain bread. And so, in this context, Jesus gives them a warning, a warning about leaven. He is using that term in a metaphorical sense. But they take Him literally. They think that He is rebuking them for not having gotten bread for the journey.
And so, let's look at what the significance of this exchange is. Jesus still had on His mind this recent engagement with the Pharisees and with the Sadducees, and He has in view giving His disciples a warning against the teaching and the spiritual character of the Pharisees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were venerated. Perhaps the Pharisees would have been a party that would have been more popular amongst the people from whom the disciples were drawn. Matthew tells us explicitly that the disciples had great regard for the Pharisees. You remember on a couple of occasions, the disciples have come to Jesus and said, “Lord, don't you realize that you have offended the Pharisees?” Clearly that was something that bothered the disciples, because they had grown up on rabbinical teaching. They had respected greatly the holiness movement started by the Pharisees, and it was hard for them to take in that Jesus was saying, “these men are leading the nation to its doom.” And so Jesus is saying, “be careful about the leaven of the teaching and the character of the Pharisees. Though they have an outward form of piety, yet they are whitewashed sepulchers. They will lead you to doom and to destruction. And though they teach many things that are true, yet that truth is mixed with error.” And so He uses that image of leaven. It gets in there, and it leavens the whole. And so the idea of leaven indicates the subtle nature of the false teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees. It was mixed with truth. It was disguised with outward piety. It was attractive when you heard it. And Jesus is saying, “be careful about that teaching.”
Note that Jesus insists that the disciples, even His disciples, must be discriminating about who they follow, who they admire, who they emulate. And if Jesus warns His disciples, the men upon whom He is going to found His worldwide mission, if He warns His disciples to be careful about who they listen to, and who they admire, and who they follow, how much more ought we to be on guard about who we listen to, who we learn from, and the doctrine that we take in.
Thomas Brooks addresses this problem in His book, Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices. He actually has a section at the end of that book called “seven marks of a false prophet.” And in that passage, he gives character qualities of those who are actually leading people astray from the truth. First of all, he notes that they are menpleasers. That is, they are very concerned to tell you what you want to hear, not necessarily what you need to hear. They want to say things that are pleasant to you. They never want to offend you, even if it's for your own good.
Secondly, he says that those who are false prophets will reproach faithful ministers and ministries. They will call into question the faithfulness of good ministers of the gospel. And they will bring reproach against their character and their name.
Thirdly, he goes on to say, that false prophets will preach from their own imaginations. They will always be coming up with some new idea that nobody else has ever discovered in the history of the world, although there is a whole generation of heretics for the last thousand years who has taught the same thing. They have got some new idea that will revolutionize everything in life, something that you've never heard of, and nobody's ever heard of in the evangelical church, either.
Fourthly, he goes on to say that they will major on the minors. Instead of focusing on the weighty matters of law and gospel, they will go to some peripheral issue, and they'll tie you up with verbiage and teaching about it until your head spins.
Fifthly, he goes on to say that, they will cover their heresy with pleasing rhetoric. That is, what they say will go down smoothly. It will go down like a spoonful of sugar. But it is poison that is being hidden by their words.
He goes on to say, sixthly, that they care more about winning followers than they do seeing their followers grow in grace and righteousness. They are more concerned to pad their own egos by getting many followers, than they are seeking after the spiritual good and interests of those who are following.
And finally, he says, they are those who use their followers for financial gain. He has an interesting phrase. He says, “they care more about their followers' goods than their good.” In other words, they are not so much concerned about their follower’s best interests as they are about their followers giving them money.
And all of these he gives as signs of those who are false teachers. And unfortunately, we know people in our own experience who have come from evangelical churches, and they have gone astray. Perhaps they've gone off to undergraduate school, and they have been exposed to a religion department that has denied the essentials of the orthodox faith. And they have gone on into the service of ministry in some capacity, with absolutely anti-Christian views. They are in the Christian ministry, but they have adopted anti-Christian views, that they have learned at the hand of some liberal professor. Or perhaps they have grown up in an evangelical home, and they have gone to an evangelical seminary, and they been fed on the truth of the word, and then they go off to do post graduate study. And when they come back, they now have a truth that the church has never heard of before. They are going to correct the whole evangelical world. They are going to give some insight that has been lost to orthodox Christianity for 2000 years. They have got the truth, this sort of Gnostic impetus that they have, and they are going to set us straight. We've seen it happen over and over. In my decade of teaching, unfortunately, I’ve seen that happen to students. We must be on guard against those who pervert the truth of the word.
III. Christians must avoid false teaching.
Now Jesus goes on to say, in verses 8-10, to His disciples. He reprimands them for misunderstanding what He is saying, and He tells them that the reason that they have misunderstood what He has said is because of their lack of faith. Because He reminds the disciples that He can do anything, and He can provide for everything they need. The Lord first responds by reminding them of His recent, great, miraculous displays in the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000. He said, “Don't you remember the 5 loaves that I used to feed 5,000 people? And don't you remember the 7 loaves that I used to feed 4,000 people? Do you think that I would be getting upset at you about not bringing bread? Do you not think that I could provide for your every need?” And so by the phrase, you men of little faith, He is putting His finger on the source of their misunderstanding. The Pharisees unbelief had blinded them to the clear signs that Christ had given, that He was the Messiah. But the disciples weak faith had blinded them to the meaning of His statement, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” They thought that He was rebuking them for not bringing bread. Or maybe they thought that He was saying, “O.K., now that you have forgotten to bring bread, you dummies, at least don't go buy it from the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And Jesus is saying, “No, no, no. You've totally missed my point. And the reason that you have missed my point is that you don't believe that I am able to provide for you. You're back there worrying about temporal provision. I don't need you to provide for me temporally.” He is saying. “I’m going to take care of you in that way just like I have in the past. I'm concerned about you spiritually.” See, Jesus didn't come to be served. He came to serve. He wasn't rebuking His disciples for not serving Him adequately. He didn't come to be served by His disciples. Who was the one in the upper room down on His knees washing their feet? He wasn't in this for what He could get out of them. He was there to bless them. And so His rebuke had to do with them not understanding the meaning of what He was saying.
And so He repeats that saying in verses 11 and 12. He reiterates that important warning, and He reminds us again that Christians must avoid false teaching like the plague. By repetition and emphasis, Jesus manages to get through to the disciples the main point. The teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees is pernicious. It's spiritually harmful. It ought to be avoided. As Calvin says, “All those are to be rejected who mix inventions with the word of God, or who impart something alien, however honorable their rank or their title.” Calvin is saying, “I don't care what your degrees are, and I don't care what the title is in front of your name. If you don't teach the word of God, I don't want to hear what you have to say.” And Jesus is saying to His disciples, “You be careful to listen only to those who teach the authoritative word of God.” They do not take away from it. They do not add to it. And in particular, He is warning His disciples against the kinds of errors of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees, in their precisionism, tended to undercut God's law by the tradition of men. And they reduced religion to ceremonialism and formalism. Whereas the Sadducees had so mixed the truth with their cultural hodgepodge, and had been so impacted by rationalism, that they had denied and taken away from certain truths of the faith. Jesus is saying, not only to the disciples but also to you and me, that as believers, we must take care not to dabble in unsound spiritual teaching. It has adverse spiritual consequences. It has eternally adverse spiritual consequences. Spiritual unbelief in a leader always has a moral component to it, and that moral component is infectious. And Jesus says, “you stay away from those who teach falsely.” G. Campbell Morgan once said, “Unbelief is not a failure in intellectual apprehension, it is disobedient to the clear commands of God.” That is what Jesus is warning the disciples: not to imbibe by listening to these venerated men, who yet were leading Israel to their destruction.
And that message is just as important for us in a day and age where Christianity is surrounded and penetrated by those who no longer embrace the great apostolic truths of faith. We must hold fast in a time of unbelief. Let us pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the truth of Your word, and we ask that You would cause us to be on guard against false teaching, so that we might drink of the pure milk of the word, and so be built up in the faith. We ask these things through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.