The religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought that they were so good that they did not need the grace of God to save them. As far as they were concerned, as long as they kept to their rituals and ceremonies, they were righteous in the sight of God. Nothing has changed in over 2,000 years. The Lord uses the situation to ask the disciples nine questions that would hopefully cause them to see the difference between true and false doctrine.
The solemn warning
“Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf. And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven” (Mark 8:14-20).
The disciples were confused about Jesus’ statement about the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Herodians. Their minds went straight to their stomach instead of their spirit. The Lord was referring to the false teachings and corrupt practices of the religious leaders, as is made clear in Matthew 16:12, “Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” The self-righteous formalism of the Pharisees and the carnality of the Herodians were an abomination to God. The Pharisees made great outward pretensions of sanctity but inwardly they were corrupt and unholy. The Herodians were immoral sceptics and only thought of worldly position. Jesus was cautioning His followers to be always on their guard against falling into the same snares.
It only took a couple of centuries for the church to forget this warning. Up until the third century Christianity suffered severe persecution, but as soon as it was adopted as a state religion in Rome, all kinds of false doctrine and practices were introduced. False teachers have done far more damage to the cause of Christ than persecution could ever do. Formalism and carnality is part of the established churches of the United Kingdom, but they should not be found in God’s true church; unfortunately they often are. The leaven (yeast) of false doctrine and carnality will grow until it distorts even the truth that taught in the church. This leaven continues to increase until the very character of Christianity is changed. In such churches, when the Bible is quoted, the text is abused, “They that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).
We ought to inspect our own lives to make certain that no leaven has crept in. If we did this as individuals, then it is less likely for false doctrine and carnality to get a foothold in the local church. “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). We should no more tolerate a little false doctrine or immorality than we would a murder or theft. Once we admit evil, no matter how small, into our hearts, there is no telling how far it will lead us astray. Not only would we infect our own lives, but we would contaminate the whole church. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). Like leaven, falsehood spreads slowly and quietly until it affects everything it touches.
The slow witted
“And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?” (Mark 8:21).
In the previous verses Jesus indicates the reason why they did not understand what He was referring to. Their hearts were hardened by unbelief according to the parallel text in Matthew 16:8, “O ye of little faith.” It still had not fully dawned on them who Jesus truly was. They still could not see things from a spiritual perspective. Their eyes were dim and their minds were dulled by the flesh. “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:5-7). “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
We may be tempted to congratulate ourselves that we are not involved in either false doctrine or carnal practices, but we need to be careful that high-mindedness does not take root in our hearts. Though we might know much of the truth of God, we are not yet perfect in understanding, “And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2).
Though the disciple’s thoughts went straight to their stomachs, Jesus used their misunderstanding to illustrate an important truth. As believers we can trust Him to provide everything we can possibly need. If He, as Creator, could feed the multitudes, then He is able to sustain us too. “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).
Do we trust in the Lord or our own righteousness? “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Can we not simply accept that He will never see us helpless and hopeless? Let us eradicate the religion of the Pharisees from our church by clinging to “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude :3).