“‘Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in a food offering presented to the Lord. You may bring them to the Lord as an offering of the firstfruits, but they are not to be offered on the altar as a pleasing aroma. Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.
– Leviticus 2:11-13
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
– Matthew 16:5-12
When you just read the New Testament and come across this passage about being beware of yeast, you get confused and frustrated. Why doesn’t Jesus just spell it out? Why is it always “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill?
But reading and understanding the Levitical instructions for grain offerings helps to make sense of His warning.
I have heard sermons about how in preparation of the Passover, the Israelites were in a hurry, not able to wait for the bread to rise, thus the lack of yeast was symbolic of preparing the way of the Lord before anything else. Also, the grain offering was a reminder of God saving them from the tenth plague and the yoke of slavery in Egypt.
I have also heard sermons about just the tiniest bit of yeast corrupts the entire batch of dough. This brings corruption into the equation. The common practice was to preserve a bit of leavened dough in order to place it into the next batch, allowing the fermentation process to continue with the next batch of dough.
When I think of yeast issues, I think of my old nuclear days. When something became contaminated, you had to determine the type of contamination. One type of contamination was easily removed. The contamination was just on the surface and could be washed off with a weak acid, like oxalic acid. But if it was other types of contamination, the entire thing would have to be disposed. It would be one of those “For want of a nail” things. For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail. (Ancient Proverb with many variations). In this case, for want of a little cleansing from contamination, the whole thing was lost. By the way, contaminated people were never disposed.
Matthew Henry states that yeast is associated with grief and sadness of spirit. Honey is associated with sensual pleasure and mirth. Both yeast and honey were suspected of being used in pagan rituals at the time, especially in the land of Canaan. Both yeast and honey were commonly used in the fermentation process of the day. Mead is fermented honey in various forms. Ensuring that yeast and honey were not in burnt offerings ensured a symbolic separation from worship of other gods.
Matthew Henry also addressed the salt issue. Salt was expensive, but necessary for preserving meats as well as flavoring food. When a burnt offering was offered, would it not make sense that God would want the flavor of that aroma to be salted? The covenants between men of that time were sealed with banquets. There was salt on the table to season the food. Thus, when the Israelites presented their offerings to God, as a sign of God’s covenant, salt must be part of the offering.
Notes in an old study Bible says that yeast is always symbolic of evil in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, yeast is more symbolic of “malice and wickedness.”
So, in reading the Old Testament, you get the ideas of corruption, evil, grief, and sadness of spirit (depression) when you think of ‘yeast.’
Upon hearing Jesus say ‘yeast,’ it is natural for the disciples to think “Crap! We forgot the bread” when they were halfway across the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus laments of their little faith. I wonder what Jesus’ purpose was in mentioning the disciples’ lack of faith. Was it admonishment to get their attention? Was it putting them in their place, for they had so much left to learn? Or was it a mental trigger, that when the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, they would remember those ‘little faith’ moments and yell, “Now I get it!”
But now, let’s link yeast with Pharisees and Sadducees. These religious leaders were people of rules. They kept the rules handed down from Moses, when they were convenient. But they came up with more and more rules.
I hope the NFL has finally fixed the “What is a catch?” rule. One person drops a ball in the end zone, and they spend the off-season creating a screwy definition of ‘catch.’ That is misinterpreted, so they add more details to a faulty definition the following year. After a few more iterations, the rule then had so many clauses on it that it took a team of lawyers to decide what “IS” and what “IS NOT.” And still there was argument. American football fans can lament along with me on how the game for several years has been marred. Some say ‘become unwatchable,’ but I won’t go that far.
The NFL rule is a modern example of what the Pharisees and Sadducees did. They kept adding ‘what if’ clauses to protect themselves, while making it impossible for others to follow the rule.
But in all of that, the rule became more important than the relationship with God. The grain offering of Leviticus 2 was offered to show our love and devotion to God, as a pleasing aroma to Him. Rule following promotes religion for religion’s sake. There is no soul in it. There is no connection to God in it. There is no relationship in it.
Look at the things that Jesus established. The Sermon on the Mount is conceptual, relational, and dripping with Love and forgiveness. Jesus didn’t establish baptism, but He participated. He was baptized, and His disciples baptized others. Jesus presented the Last Supper to His disciples, a simple symbolic representation of His sacrifice. Simple. Easy to understand.
Now we have huge buildings, called churches, many that are largely empty. We have ceremonies upon ceremonies. Some denominations have prayer books. Some denominations have detailed instructions in the bulletins. Some seem to be free-wheeling, but there is a structure nonetheless. And that is just in worship. I could go on with creeds, governance, etc.
Could we be guilty of seeking comfort in the yeast of the Pharisees?
Let us be careful. There is comfort in the structure of our worship, but let’s worship God on a personal level, free from the structure, within our hearts, souls, and minds. Let’s not have rules for the sake of having rules, religion for the sake of religion. Let us all focus on Jesus, His sacrifice to save us, and His love and strength, which sustain us.
Soli Deo Gloria. Glory to God Alone.