“The Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, demanding of Him a sign from heaven to test Him. But sighing deeply in His spirit, He said, “Why does this generation demand a sign? I assure you: No sign will be given to this generation! ” Then He left them, got on board the boat again, and went to the other side. They had forgotten to take bread and had only one loaf with them in the boat. Then He commanded them: “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” They were discussing among themselves that they did not have any bread. Aware of this, He said to them, “Why are you discussing that you do not have any bread? Don’t you understand or comprehend? Is your heart hardened? Do you have eyes, and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the 5,000, how many baskets full of pieces of bread did you collect? ” “Twelve,” they told Him. “When I broke the seven loaves for the 4,000, how many large baskets full of pieces of bread did you collect? ” “Seven,” they said. And He said to them, “Don’t you understand yet? ” (Mark 8:11-21 HCSB)
Have you ever thought about how plagued our lives are with questions? Where did we come from? Why do we exist? What is the purpose of life? Is there anything beyond what we can experience and know with our senses? Are we alone in the universe? Is 42 really the answer to the meaning of life? (42? Just Google it.) On the flip side, have you ever thought about how obsessed we are with getting answers to all of these questions? We don’t like living with questions, unresolved issues or uncertainty. Maybe you’re thinking, “I live with uncertainty all the time. My life is one long, continuous question.” I’m sure it is. Mine is, too. But that doesn’t change my mind. We want our questions answered.
In fact, isn’t that the real point of what we call scientific inquiry? We constantly search for answers to our questions about life, how it works and, more specifically, how we can control it?
Let this thought sink in a bit…
Is our relentless search for answers to all of life’s questions just a desire to be god?
I started to say “to play god” but I really don’t think this is a game for us. I think it is a driving force in our lives. In fact, it drives nearly every aspect of our culture. It drives all of our religious-social-educational-economic-political systems. But do you realize that the existence of questions in our lives and our relentless pursuit of answers is very, very indicative of the human condition as defined in the Bible? They are indicative of our weakness, our humanity, our sin and of our quest for power, for control, for answers and to be god over life. Don’t believe me? Just have a conversation with someone about the idea of faith and see where it goes. It immediately begins that long, dark journey down the staircase called “proof”. But, we aren’t saved by “proof” but rather by grace, through faith as confirmed by how we live out our faith in obedience to Him (Eph 2:8-10, James 2).
In this week’s focal passage, we are going to be faced with lots of questions and some of them are going to be left unanswered. Not just by me, but also by Jesus. What happens when life’s questions are left unanswered? We must learn to live with the tension of the question, the uncertainty of the answer and the value of faith in what we do know. In other words, we must learn to walk by faith in the Spirit and not by sight and understanding (Rom. 8:1-10). Let’s dive in…
If you’ll recall from last week, we journeyed from the east side (Gentile) of the lake following the feeding of the four thousand, to the west side (Jewish) where we encountered a group of Pharisees who wanted to argue with Jesus and demanded a sign from heaven to “test” or tempt Him. In Mark, this type of sign is always viewed negatively and that’s why he says it was to tempt Jesus like Satan tempted Him in the wilderness. I think many would look at the Pharisees’ request for a sign and conclude that they just wanted some evidence in order to believe.
Why wouldn’t Jesus just honor an honest request for proof of His identity? Because it wasn’t a request from a group of honest God seekers. Everything Jesus said and did was in complete agreement with and fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, but the Pharisees refused to yield their religious traditions, Messianic expectations and moral demands to the authority of God’s Word. Simply put, they demanded that God fit into their mold rather than them being molded to His will and expectations. They didn’t want proof, they wanted power and authority over Him.
Every indication is that the argument centered around the events that had just occurred, all of the events described by Mark in chapter seven and the first part of chapter eight. Do you remember all that happened? Jesus had declared all foods clean and refused to honor the tradition of hand washing as a requirement for religious piety. He had driven a demon out of a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter simply by His will, without touch or words. He had made the deaf to hear and mute to speak. He had fed the large crowd with seven loaves and a few fish.
Wasn’t that enough proof? Not when you seriously doubt that God would do these things. They didn’t question His ability, they questioned His authority, His identity, His deity. They were SO confident in their answers to all of life’s questions that when God confronted them about some of them, they doubted and questioned Him instead of themselves.
So, Jesus leaves them, without giving them any sign, gets into the boat and goes back to the other side of the lake. I think some of them must have been standing there, mouths hanging open, wondering what just happened. “Did He really just walk away from us? Doesn’t He realize WHO we are and what power we possess? How dare He treat US like that!” They had no clue…
In the boat, Jesus confronts the disciples and commands them: “Watch out! Beware the leavened dough of the Pharisees and of Herod.”
Last week, my older brother was visiting us from Sicily and, since we hadn’t been together since before COVID, we talked about some of the impact and differences they experienced living in Italy compared to America during the pandemic. I’m sure most of us experienced some type of food shortage and one of the most common was bread. My sister-in-law told how she had spent about a month cultivating a batch of leavened dough and then maintained it and used it throughout the pandemic. This was also pretty common in America due to shortages on yeast in our stores, too.
Why am I telling you about leavened bread dough? Because that’s the word Mark uses here, not the word for yeast. You make more leavened dough by mixing in your existing “starter” lump of dough into your new dough batch and you allow it rise and spread throughout the batch. Once it is done, you pinch off a new “starter” lump, set it aside and bake the remaining dough into loaves of bread. There’s intent, purpose and design in this process. To keep your dough unleavened requires that you take precautions to keep it from being “infected” with leavening. Yes, infected. Most of the time in Scripture, leavening carries an evil, intentional corruption, infectious, negative connotation just as it does here.
He’s telling the disciples: Watch Out! Beware! Don’t be infected, corrupted and influenced by what has spread throughout them!
Now, play close attention to this next part. The disciples started discussing the issue of not having any bread. Remember, Mark tells us that they had failed to get any bread and only had a single loaf among them (v. 14). Jesus tells them to beware of the leavened bread dough of the Pharisees and Herod and they begin to discuss among themselves that they had failed to bring any bread. This is NOT coincidental but is central to Mark’s story and main point. They misunderstood Jesus’ comments and thought He was talking about a bread shortage issue when He was talking about an infectious, intentional corruption issue with their beliefs and understanding of His mission.
They thought He was talking about bread when He was telling them, “Don’t let this same corruption and confusion happen in YOU!” Be on guard! Watch out! Beware! This infection is insidious and it will corrupt the way you think and understand scripture and what God wants and demands of you! Jesus continues, “Don’t you understand? Is your heart hardened? Do you have eyes, and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear? Do you not remember?” He sounds exasperated, doesn’t He?
I’ve shared with you that I believe this group of stories are all related and are tied together by Mark for a specific purpose. What is the unifying theme? Bread. Go back and look at them. Go all the way back to Mark 6:7 and notice the unifying theme of bread throughout the following stories.
He sends them out to preach in the villages, without bread. Herod has a feast and, in the process, gives John’s life in exchange for sensual pleasure. Jesus then feeds a large Jewish crowd and the disciples gather twelve small Jewish baskets of leftovers. He then chastises them for their lack of faith and understanding regarding the loaves when the storm threatened them in the boat. Then He confronts the Pharisees as they challenge Him regarding hand washing before they eat bread and declares all foods clean and obedience to be more than lip service to God. He then encounters a Syrophoenician woman’s faith and her cry to just eat the bread crumbs that fall from the children’s table and He makes the deaf hear and mute speak and does everything well. Finally, He feeds a large Gentile crowd with seven loaves (and a few fish) and the disciples gather seven large Roman baskets full of pieces and He’s IMMEDIATELY attacked by the Pharisees, who demand a sign of His authority from God.
Now, He cautions the disciples regarding the danger of being infected by the Pharisees’ “leavened dough” and it corrupting them and they think He’s concerned that they didn’t bring enough bread. How many small Jewish baskets of leftovers did you collect when I fed the 5,000? Twelve, they said. How many large Roman baskets did you collect when I fed the 4,000? Seven, they said. He asks them, “Don’t you understand yet?”
They didn’t. At least, not yet.
Man wants to make God fit his expectations and his assumptions, so he tries to force scripture to fit into those same expectations and assumptions. I suspect that many of you reading those words might have uttered a silent “AMEN”, just then. You might have been thinking about the many, many non-believers who try to force God into their culture-shaped box and force scripture to say what they want it to say. While that is certainly true, many Christians are doing the very same thing as they ignore the truths of scripture and try to force God to fit into their own culture-shaped box. Let me shock you, HE doesn’t fit in either one.
Yes, our culture is often wrong about God. They are wrong about whether He exists, who He is, what He’s like, how He creates and what He created, how He acts and reacts towards man, who He loves and doesn’t love and what He wants, expects and demands of us. They misunderstand His love, His holiness, His righteousness, His justness, His goodness and, yes, they misunderstand His wrath, His anger and His judgment.
If you are not a believer, I’m shocked you’ve made it this far – to be honest, but I hope and pray you’ll stop trying to define God and let Him begin to define you. You have questions, no doubt. Trust me, we all do. Yes, I still have questions. However, the lack of answers is not an indication that God is somehow incapable of answering or inferior. The existence of our questions and the lack of answers are indicative of our limits, not His. Faith is not blind, it is simply trust in someone who has proven Himself worthy of our trust even when some questions go unanswered. I’m not asking you to walk blindly down a path, I’m asking you to consider walking with Him, by faith. Faith that’s based in a trust that He’s worthy of you having.
But Christians, we also get it wrong. Just like the disciples sitting in that boat, we often misunderstand Him, too. They thought He was talking about bread. He obviously wasn’t. We make the same mistakes. We try to use scripture to justify our wrong, sinful choices and desires. We try to bend it to fit our biases and prejudices, but it won’t bend that way. No, really! We are guilty of justifying slavery and covering up sexual exploitation by trying to make it bend to our wills. God and His Word won’t bend to our wills, He bends us to His!
We try to please God by looking good, building big and being successful but you can’t please God without faith no matter how good, big or successful it might seem. God doesn’t need us to look good, build big or be successful. Why? Because that’s what He IS! He’s the one who is perfect GOODNESS and all RIGHTEOUS. He is the ALMIGHTY who speaks the universe into existence and upholds it with His right hand. He is the FOUNDATION upon which all things are built and without which nothing can stand. Don’t you understand, yet?
We need to understand that we don’t have all the answers. HE does! We don’t. We must learn to live out our faith with some of our questions unanswered. We must learn to continually seek Him, allow Scripture to illumine our sin, repent and seek forgiveness. Why? Because we aren’t God, He is. We don’t like to admit it, but we cannot get it 100% right, we can’t understand or handle the answers to all of our questions. To believe we can is to deny our humanity and our sinfulness and to deny God’s deity and perfection.
In essence, that’s the “leavened dough” or yeast of the Pharisees. They felt they had it right and Jesus had it wrong. Don’t be guilty of the same mistake.
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