YEAST OF THE PHARISEES
Jay Schmidt - San Francisco Church of Christ
"Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch
out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod."
Jesus' warning to his disciples 2000 years ago still
applies to us today. The yeast of the Pharisees created
both critical and hypocritical hearts that Jesus ardently
opposed. He confronted the Pharisees time and again
to show them that their merit-based system of thought
and their complete dedication to fulfill every detail
of the law had become an end in itself and was in
fact preventing them and others from entering the
kingdom of God.
A Pharisee was a member of the sect of the Pharisees.
This sect seemingly began shortly after the Jewish
captives returned from exile. The Pharisees recognized
the books of the Old Testament as well as an oral
tradition which was passed down through the centuries.
The Semitic word for Pharisee literally means "separated
ones" or "separatists." Several explanations
for this are possible, the most plausible being that
the Pharisees were determined to separate themselves
from the rest of the nation as pious people who followed
the exact prescriptions of the law. They separated
themselves from those lawless - and therefore godless
- people who did not follow the law in exactitude.
Their strict observance of the law led them to believe
that they were the true people of God who were preparing
themselves for the coming Messiah. In fact they strove
to distance themselves from the rest of the nation.
It is from this separation that the sect is said to
have derived its name.
The Pharisees sought for recognition and praise by
displaying an outward form of piety and by basing
their righteousness on good works. They were nationalistic
and opposed the imposition of the Romans while steadfastly
upholding their ideals of a theocracy. They were bitterly
opposed to Jesus and were the recipients of many rebukes
I. Mercy or Sacrifice?
In Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7, Jesus quoted a
portion of Hosea 6:6 which says, "For I desire
mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather
than burnt offerings." This passage clearly unfurls
the emphasis that God desires for our lives as opposed
to what the Pharisees thought was necessary. The verse
shows that God desires love, self-abandonment, compassion
and heart. He does not seek ritualistic observances,
rote knowledge, unfeeling prayer, robotic giving and
hard-hearted piety. God is moved by relationship not
religion. The Pharisees focused themselves so much
on ritualistic cleansing and purity that they stopped
associating with the average Jew. It was easier to
remain separated and ritually clean than it was to
mingle and be constantly concerned with purification.
Separation was a way of life for the Pharisee.
II. The Outside of the Cup
One of the great passages in the Bible on Pharisaism
is found in Matthew 23. In the "Seven Woes"
speech, Jesus unloaded on the Pharisees with both
barrels. One special passage of note is verses Matthew
23: 25-27. Jesus castigated the Pharisees for their
emphasis on outward appearance. Everything they did
was for attention and respect. They normally did not
deal with their hearts because the heart was not something
that could be seen. Yet one of the threads of Jesus
teaching throughout the Bible is that what is done,
said or even thought is merely a manifestation of
what the heart is really like. Jesus drove this point
home in Matthew 5:27-30 in His teaching on adultery
and Matthew 7:15-23 in His teaching on a tree and
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,
you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and
dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence."
Focusing on the outside of the cup will not cleanse
the inside of it. What sense does it make to only
clean the outside of the cup which is only seen and
not clean the inside of the cup which is to be used.
If the inside is not clean, it will pollute whatever
comes inside of it. If we focus on actions instead
of the heart, the actions will change. The heart will
not. This is the difference between behavior modification
and repentance. Their hypocrisy lies in the fact that
they trumpeted their outward piety while generally
ignoring the heart, which only God could see. The
Pharisees did not put their hearts in check. While
all appeared to be under control on the outside, sin
was running rampant in their hearts. They indulged
themselves in their hearts and then kept their hearts
to themselves. They were unrelatable and, not surprisingly,
Often a person who is "pharisaical" is
a graceless individual. Rigidity and legalism are
often associated with a pharisaical heart. Certainly
this is buttressed by the fact that a person who is
not dealing with their heart on a consistent basis
will not experience the deep cleansing of God's mercy
and forgiveness and will not be able to extend that
same grace and forgiveness to others. Grace experienced
is grace given.
"Woe to you, teacher of the law and Pharisees,
you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which
look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are
full of dead men's bones and everything unclean."
Jesus also called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs.
This one really hurt them. It was customary on the
15th day of the Jewish month of Adar to chalkmark
graves lest those who stumbled on them incur ritual
pollution before Passover. These chalked graves were
referred to as whitewashed tombs. Jesus calls the
Pharisees "whitewashed tombs" for two reasons.
First, a whitewashed tomb looked good on the outside.
It was something easily noticed and even admired.
But there was no life in it. Only dead men's bones.
Secondly, a whitewashed tomb was to be avoided at
all costs. No one wanted to become unclean before
the Passover. Spiritually speaking, association with
Pharisees was harmful. There was a heartlessness that,
like yeast, worked its way through those around it.
Having grown up steeped in religiosity, I know how
easy it is to be heartless. It is easy not to love
people, even God. Religion teaches us what to do,
not who to be. That is why after four years of Bible
college, I could know much about the Bible but be
no closer to God. Heartlessness creates an anxiousness
to please but not a desire to love. In Mark 2:16,
the Pharisees demanded to know why Jesus was eating
with tax collectors and "sinners." Their
works-based righteousness disallowed them from associating
with "lesser" people and therefore precluded
them from understanding what compassion and, ultimately,
mercy was. I am constantly aware of the battle I fight
everyday to love people. Religiosity does not lend
itself to compassion and mercy, yet to excel in these
areas is to participate in the ministry of Jesus.
III. Caring or Method
He said to them, "You are the ones who justify
yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your
hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable
in God's sight." Luke 16:15
Finally, the Pharisees' approach to God and men was
a methods-based approach. To be justified before God,
the Pharisees prescribed an almost fanatical compliance
to the law. Loving God became a series of steps instead
of a heart condition. They were constantly looking
for new ways to follow the law more closely and new
ways to alleviate the gnawing fear that they may have
overlooked something crucial. This approach to salvation
leaves little room for God's mercy and depends almost
exclusively on individual effort. It creates the distress
of never quite being able to please and of never being
good enough for God.
My heart is always looking for The One Thing To Do
that will help me get closer to God. I hope if I pray
this prayer, do a longer quiet time, or read a certain
book that I will get over the hump and become all
that God has surely intended me to be. As Isaiah so
bluntly explained, the Bible then becomes for me,
"Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on
rule; a little here, a little there" (Isaiah
28:13). Jesus was merely concerned with caring about
people. This is difficult to do for a Pharisee because
the primary focus has always been self.
IV. The Motives of the Pharisee
The first part of Matthew 23:5 sums up what drives
the heart of a Pharisee: "Everything is done
for men to see." Gaining approval, affirmation
and respect is at the core of the Pharisee. Theirs
is not a heart quick to please God. Their motives
reflect a heart condition which is primarily focused
on winning approval, however begrudgingly given.
Verses five through seven of Matthew 23 give a glimpse
of what specifically motivates the heart of the Pharisee.
1. The Outward Show of Piety
Verse five states that they make their phylacteries
wide and the tassels on their garments long. Phylacteries
were little scrolls of parchment or paper. On these
slips of paper were written with great precision the
following four paragraphs of the law: Exod. 13:2-11;
13:11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21. These little rolls
were sewn up in leather and worn on the forehead and
left arms. The Pharisees sought to widen these phylacteries
so as to appear more holy and zealous for the law.
Real holiness though, can never be displayed by outward
Secondly, they made their tassels long. God told the
Jews in Numbers 15:38 to make garments with carefully
appointed fringe to remind them that they were a special
people. Naturally the Pharisees wanted longer tassels
to indicate how much more special they really were.
2. The Desire for Position
The Pharisees loved to be the center of attention.
Surely at a banquet someone must sit in the place
of honor. It was not the place of honor that was the
problem. It was the love of position. The love of
having to be noticed. The lack of humility and the
unabashed glory seeking. Moreover, this was being
done in synagogues where the focus was supposed to
be on God, not on men. The Pharisees had fallen in
love with themselves and had fallen out love with
3. The Desire for Role
Finally, they craved the public respect that came
to them. It was not just respect in and of itself.
The greetings and the title of Rabbi was desired by
the Pharisees but what they really enjoyed was to
have that attention given to them in a public forum.
It was the fact that it was done in the marketplace
for all to see. The market place was not just the
center of commerce in the ancient world. It was also
the social center as well. People came there to commune,
to fellowship, to learn. The Pharisees loved to be
publicly mentioned. It helped make their austere life
Pharisaism is a heart condition. It affects the hearts
of older disciples who have been around for a while
whose joy and zeal have been replaced with pessimism
and sterile repetition. It affects young disciples
who grew up in religious environs where tradition
held primacy over the Bible. It is yeast that works
it way into the lives of people causing us to believe
that it is more important to perform for people than
to have passion for God.
God wants us to need Him. He wants us to understand
that He continually showers us with His mercy and
love. The more we understand this, the greater this
mercy and love will emanate from our hearts to those
around us. The sacrifice naturally follows.