Matthew 16:1-12 – Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees


In Matthew 15:21-39, we witnessed some of Jesus’ amazing ministry among the Gentiles, as Jesus delivered a daughter from demonic oppression because of he mother’s faith and a huge crowd (4000+ people) heard his teaching and saw Him perform miracles. One of the important themes of Matthew’s Gospel is the movement of God’s salvation from Israel alone to all the peoples of the earth.

After such a productive season of ministry among the Gentiles, Jesus returns to find unbelief among the religious leaders.

Willful Unbelief (vv. 1-4)

Who are the Pharisees and Sadducees? (v. 1)

A group of Pharisees and Sadducees asks Jesus again for a “sign from heaven” to prove who He is. These two groups are an unlikely pair, as they have very different views of Scripture. Pharisees are the religious conservatives of the day, but they add a system of man-made laws to the laws given by God in Scripture. The Sadducees reject these man-made laws but also do not believe in some of the supernatural elements of the Jewish faith, such as angels and the resurrection. They come to Jesus because they see Him as a threat to their political power. The word translated “test” here is the Greek word peirazō which was also used in Matthew 4 when the devil came to “tempt” Jesus. It is clear that they are not sincerely curious about who He is.

Jesus on the Weather (vv. 2-3)

Jesus talks about the fact that the Pharisees know how to interpret the weather based on the appearance of the sky, but they are unable to perceive who He is, the Jewish Messiah come at last. The irony is that these are some of Israel’s top Bible scholars! This is an indictment of their willful unbelief more than their incompetent scholarship. They refuse to acknowledge Him as Messiah.

Sign of Jonah (v. 4)

Matthew 12:38 also speaks of the sign of Jonah. Matthew isn’t including this because he’s trying to be exhaustive. He’s demonstrating that the people who should have seen and known Jesus best missed Him entirely, contrasted with the Gentiles of the previous chapter, who receive Jesus and place their faith in Him.

What does the sign of Jonah mean?

With the mention of Jonah, Jesus is forecasting his own resurrection. Jonah was a prophet who was in the belly of a fish for three days due to HIS disobedience, but Jesus is the perfect prophet who went into the heart of the earth for OUR disobedience. Jonah was spit up by the fish after three days at the command of God, but Jesus raised to life as victor over sin and death.

It is possible that Jesus also mentions Jonah because he was  a prophet who showed that God’s plan for salvation would extend to all peoples.

Why not produce a sign?

They have seen many signs and wonders, healing (Mt 12:10) and casting out demons (12:24), but they scold Jesus from healing on the Sabbath or worse, attribute his power to cast out demons to God’s enemy, Satan. The Pharisees and Sadducees want Jesus to dance to their tune, but He refuses. Jesus does not have to prove anything to anyone in order to get them to believe in Him and trust Him. We see here a clear picture of willful unbelief. If we cross our arms and try to test Jesus, we will miss Jesus just as they did. A better idea is to be honestly curious, to read God’s Word for ourselves and examine what it says about Him. When we come to Jesus in sincerity and humility, he will not turn us away (Jn 6:37).


II. Dull Disciples, Little Faith (vv. 5-11)

Disciples Forget Bread and Jesus Warns them About the Pharisees and Sadducees (v. 5-7)

The disciples forget to bring bread. Normally, they carry some with them as they engage in itinerant ministry with Jesus. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to talk about what just happened with the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they are stuck on the thought of their forgotten bread.

Jesus Addresses Their Lack of Faith (v. 8-12)

“Little faith” is a tag that Jesus uses of the disciples here and four other times in Matthew. He describes their lack of faith like this:

1. They do not perceive

They saw the miracle of the feedings but they did not see how Jesus was trying to show them who He is. The miracle of the feedings demonstrated that Jesus is our provider and we trust in Him: for salvation, for our physical needs and emotional needs!

2. They do not remember

The disciples quickly forget what Jesus has done in their midst. Instead, they fixate on the cares of this world.

3. They fail to understand

The disciples frequently fail to understand who Jesus really is. This will change in the second half of Matthew 16 as Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Take note of how Peter discovers this!

As Southerners, Jesus is frequently referenced in our culture. We have churches on ever corner, Christian t-shirts and bumper stickers. Our Chick-fil-a restaurants frequently play worship music in the background as we eat. Yet, our faith is often small and anemic. We place our trust in our jobs in our relationships, in our skills and strengths. When the bottom falls our of our lives, we are devastated. We need to recognize that we need Jesus and are dependent on Him on an hourly basis!

III. Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (vv. 12)

Jesus describes leaven (or yeast) to describe the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Before the first Passover, the Jewish people were instructed to cleanse their homes from all leaven so that the bread could be unleavened. Their bread often became leaved through airborne spores, which normally was desirable but was not what God wanted for the observance of the feast. It was easy for yeast to infiltrate and spread through the dough. We see this in Jesus’ positive use of leaven in Matthew 13:33 and in Paul’s use of the phrase “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” in reference to false teaching that has infiltrated the churches in Galatia (Gal 5:7-9).

Leaven is small but once it makes its way into dough, it transforms the nature of the bread, causing it to puff up and rise. His point is that a little of their teaching will go a long way towards the corruption of His disciples.

What is the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

The two groups have different teachings, so what does Jesus mean? The Pharisees taught people to keep God’s commandments perfectly by adding to them. In doing so, they missed Jesus entirely. He never seemed to be righteous enough for them. The Sadducees, on the other hand, denied the supernatural. They treated Scripture like a buffet, picking and choosing what suited them. For differing reasons, both parties ended up focusing on political power, worldly riches and external works of righteousness.

There is a danger of adding to (Pharisees) and subtracting from (Sadducees) God’s Word. In doing so, we set ourselves as editors over what God says about Himself. When we distort God’s Word, we lose the Gospel! Adding and subtracting from the Gospel negates it. Jesus is cautioning His disciples against unbelief, which he sees in its beginning stages in their forgetfulness and lack of understanding.


Jesus is in our midst. We need God to help us to see Jesus for who He is. A Christ-centered view of life  transforms the way we see the world around us. We begin to see everything as being created for His glory instead of simply for our comfort.


Study Questions

  1. Trace the theme of God’s plan for the salvation for the Gentiles by reading the following passages: Matthew 2:1-12; 8:5-13; 12:18-21; 15:21-28; 28:19-20. How does each of these passages bear out this theme?
  2. The Pharisees and Sadducees see Jesus as a threat to their way of life. In what way does Jesus “threaten” the way we live apart from Him?
  3. Discuss some times when you have been more focused on “bread” in your lives than seeing Jesus for who He is. How can we better “perceive”, “remember” and “understand” Jesus?
  4. How does adding to and subtracting from the Gospel distort it? What are the Gospel distortions you can see in your own life?