Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees | Mark 8:11-21

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Mark 8:11-21 ESV

In Exodus 17, we find a strange scene. The Israelites have been led by the LORD out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. They witnessed the ten plagues ruin Egypt. They walked through the sea on dry land and watched as God drowned Pharaoh and his armies with the waters of the sea afterward. Then as they began their journey through the desert, God had made bitter water sweet, and He had given them literal bread from heaven to sustain them.

But when they camped at Rephidim, we read that:  

there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Exodus 17:1-7

For all the glorious signs that the LORD had displayed before the Israelites, they still continued to test the LORD, demanding more and more of Him. In today’s passage, we see both the Pharisees and the disciples resembling their ancestors as they fail to see and understand the significance of Jesus’ miraculous signs.

DEMANDING A SIGN // VERSES 11-13

If you are still feeling a bit of déjà vu from the feeding of the 4000, allow me to add to that vibe. After the feeding of the 5000, Mark said that Jesus immediately “made his disciples get into the boat” (6:45). After the feeding of the 4000, we find that “immediately he got into the boat with his disciples” (8:10). Similarly, after arriving at their destination, Jesus was met with questioning scorn of the Pharisees and scribes (7:1-5). Now again, after arriving at their destination, Jesus is met with the questioning scorn of the Pharisees. This time, however, their testing of Jesus is far more brazen. Earlier they directed their contention at His disciples in an indirect attempt to corner and entrap Him. But now they are aiming to test Jesus Himself. ‘The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.’

The Pharisees were evidently taking it upon themselves to be the ultimate source for verifying whether or not Jesus is the long-awaited Christ, and here they seem to indicate that they could be persuaded as along as Jesus performs a heavenly sign for them to see. If Mark did not clue us into their purpose with the phrases ‘began to argue with him’ and ‘to test him.’ We might be tempted to think that the Pharisees were finally coming around to the idea that Jesus might, in fact, be the Messiah. Yet that is clearly not the case. The Pharisees were placing themselves into the judgment seat, intending to give judgment on God Himself. During His temptation in the wilderness, our Lord was tempted by Satan to throw Himself off the height of the temple, knowing that angels would save Him from death and reveal to everyone that He is God’s Son. Yet Jesus answered by citing Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The Pharisees, however, were doing exactly that. Like the generation of Israelites that were not permitted to enter Canaan, the Pharisees demand an answer to the question: “Is the LORD among us or not” (Exodus 17:7)?

Given the hardness of their hearts, Jesus’ response in verses 12-13 should not surprise us, which is threefold. First, Jesus ‘sighed deeply in his spirit.’ Like His sigh before healing the deaf man, this sigh is an emotional response from Christ, a reaction of grief and frustration. Here, however, we are told that Jesus’ sigh was deep within His spirit, meaning that this was a very guttural reaction to the unbelief of the Pharisees. He was profoundly troubled by their inability to believe. Again, there is comfort to be found here in the emotional exacerbation of our Lord. Peter wrote that God does not wish for any to perish but for all to reach repentance. While we know that many will reject repentance at every opportunity (like the Pharisees), here is a powerful reminder of God’s affection toward them and His grief at their insolence.

Second, Jesus said to them: Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation. Although these words sound quite harsh, we must remember that Jesus is not turning away those who were genuinely seeking His kingdom. Again, the Pharisees did not have any intention of submitting to Jesus; they only wanted to test Him. Therefore, Jesus denied their request for a sign. The irony, of course, is that Jesus has not been stingy at all with presenting signs of His messianic authority. He healed people without number. He miraculous fed two large crowds of people. If the Pharisees desired a sign, surely Jesus had already provided it. Morgan writes:

Here were men asking for a sign, who had seen His signs; men who had listened to His words, and followed Him from Judea and from Galilee; men who had watched the working of His power in the marvels that He had wrought, had seen Him healing disease, casting out demons, raising from the dead; and infinitely more wonderful than all, banishing the power of sin, forgiving it, and demonstrating His right and authority to forgive in the results that followed. They had seen Him dealing with every form of human malady, material, mental, moral. Yet these men said, “Show us a sign.”[1]

Perhaps the problem was that Jesus’ signs were too earthy for their taste. Notice, after all, what they demanded: a sign from heaven. Maybe all of Jesus’ miracles did not quite meet their heavenly notions. In all likelihood, they were desiring to see some of the cosmic fireworks that the prophets predicted would befall on the Day of the LORD, since they were looking for the Messiah to come as a conquering king.

I could also say that this would be my largest critique of those who hold to a premillennialist view of the end times and are actively looking for ‘signs of the times.’ Somewhat like the Pharisees here, the temptation can be to search so diligently for ‘heavenly’ signs that God’s plain, ‘earthy’ work goes unnoticed. We must, of course, remember that God seems to take great delight in subverting our expectations. The greatest examples, indeed, are how Christ came and how He conquered. Let us not be among those who are so intent on finding God’s signs that we miss what He is actually doing before our very eyes.

Third, Jesus left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. As with the Gerasenes who begged Jesus to leave their region, we see again that Jesus did not impose Himself upon those who had no intention of hearing Him. The signs of His messianic status were plainly before them and not just within the good and miraculous works that He was doing. John 5 records Jesus giving to a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem five witnesses to His authority as the Son of God: John the Baptist, His own works, God the Father, the Scriptures, and Moses.

Simply put, the Pharisees clearly did not have ears to hear nor eyes to see. They were deaf and blind to the evidence that was staring them squarely in the face. And their inability to hear or see came from their own prideful arrogance. They could not hear because they refused to listen. They could not see because they refused to open their eyes. The evidence was clear, but they obstinately refused to acknowledge it. So, Jesus left them to their own devices.

Paul explains that this is how the wrath of God comes upon all who refuse to believe. All men know God, at least as Creator and Lawgiver, and those who deny Him “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Like the Pharisees, when people do not honor God nor give thanks to Him, He gives them up “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (v. 24), “to dishonorable passions” (v. 26), and “to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (v. 28). Thus, even these very men who taught God’s Word to others became heartless enough to put the incarnate God to death. While the rebukes of Christ in the Gospels can be quite hard to hear, let us never forget that His walking away is most terrifying pronouncement of all.

MISSING THE SIGNS // VERSES 14-21

Picking up immediately from the context of verse 13, verse 14 sets our focus upon Jesus and His disciples within the boat, heading to the other side of the lake. However, since Jesus evidently took them away from Dalmanutha in a hurry, the disciples only realized after they were in the boat that they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat, which was certainly not enough to be a meal for Jesus and His twelve followers. Jesus, never missing an opportunity to teach the mysteries of His kingdom, gave them a parabolic warning: Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. This was clearly meant to take their minds away from their very momentary physical concern (their lack of bread) and onto more eternally significant spiritual matters (the resolute unbelief that the Pharisees had just displayed), which He compared with leaven within bread.

Indeed, before moving into the disciples’ reaction to this statement, let us make sure that we understand it well ourselves. Although leaven is a fairly common biblical illustration, it is rarely positive. The Parable of the Leaven in Matthew 13:33 is the notable exception. In other places, such as Galatians 5:9, leaven is used to describe the way only a small amount of false doctrine is needed to work significant corruption, for indeed not much yeast is required to cause an entire loaf of bread to rise when proofing and baking. Here Jesus is giving the same kind of warning about the arrogant unbelief of the Pharisees and Herod. Although these parties were quite different (one religious and the other political), both fully rejected Jesus as the Christ, and they did so out of their own sense of superiority. Jesus was warning His disciples against such pride. Of course, His warning is not without merit, since we know that one of the twelve will quite literally fall into league with the Pharisees. Indeed, we would do well to listen learn the truth of what Ryle has to say about this warning:

The assaults of persecution from without have never done half so much harm to the church as the rise of false doctrines within. False prophets and false teachers within the camp have done far more mischief in Christendom than all the bloody persecutions of the emperors of Rome. The sword of the foe has never done such damage to the cause of truth as the tongue and the pen.[2]

How then did the disciples respond to this warning? And they began to discuss with one another the fact that they had no bread. Morgan captures my initial thoughts about this response quite well by honestly saying:

I have been trying to find out how they connected the word of Jesus with bread… What did they imagine he meant by the leaven of the Pharisees? Did they imagine that the Pharisees were going to take their meal and put leaven into it?… I cannot see the connection between what He said and what they thought.[3]

I certainly share Morgan’s perplexity; however, while thinking over this text this week, I have an answer to propose. You see, I believe that they disciples began to discuss their lack of bread again because their focus was so much upon their physical circumstance that they could not understand the spiritual truth that Jesus was teaching them. Their problem was the opposite of the Pharisees in some ways. While the earthy nature of Jesus’ miracles was a stumbling block to the Pharisees who demanded a heavenly sign, the earthly mindedness of the disciples could not grasp the heavenly warning that Jesus gave them. Their focus was so greatly upon how they forgot to bring bread that they were blind and deaf to anything else.

How then does Jesus answer His disciples lack of understanding?

And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

It is worth noting that this is the third scene that Mark has recorded of Jesus and His disciples in their boat, and each of them has ended by emphasizing the disciples’ lack of understanding. In fact, the account of Jesus’ walking on the water ended with Mark telling us that “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). They evidently failed to understand something that Jesus was trying to teach them through the feeding of the 5000, and Mark noted that their hearts were hardened. Sometime later in our present passage, the disciples are still in the same boat (pun intended). Their ears were dull of hearing, and their eyes were fogging in seeing.

Yet notice the grace of Jesus in these words. He backtracks away from His warning against the leaven of the Pharisees, seeing that they were clearly unable to understand, and He instead addresses their concern over the lack of bread. He does this by calling them to remember the feedings of the 5000 and the 4000, which both resulted in a surplus of bread being taken up afterward. The implication is, of course, that Jesus is more than capable of providing for His own disciples physically, even though they only had one loaf of bread in the boat.

But we might then rightly ask how the disciples were unable to remind themselves of such astounding miracles? How could they seriously worry about only having one loaf of bread after having witnessed what Christ could do? While we cannot know for certain, I would suppose that the sheer quantity of Jesus’ miracles certainly factors in. After all, John concluded his Gospel by telling us that “there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of the them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). It seems to me that the disciples were waterlogged by the abundance of wonders that Christ did, so that they failed to see the grand significance of them.

The particular significance of the two feeding miracles is readily before us. We should note that the feeding of the 5000 came immediately after Jesus sent His disciples to minister on their own, charging them to take no bread with them on their journey. Thus, they were forced to trust in the provision of the Father and then afterward immediately given a display of Christ’s own ability to provide. The connection here is, as Jesus said in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” If the disciples had understood this, His walking upon the water would not have startled them as it did. If they had perceived this, they would not have been so concerned about only having one loaf of bread with them, for the Giver of manna to the Israelites was sitting beside them.

It can be so easy to pass judgment on the blindness and deafness of the disciples from our vantage point two thousand years later; however, I have no doubt that we would be just as slow to see and hear as they were, if we were in their place. I can safely say this because of both the testimony of Scripture and how we treat the wonders that God has already surrounded us with.

First, the disciples were not abnormal nor were they especially hard of hearing. As we noted, the Israelites, after seeing some of God’s most amazing wonders ever performed, still demanded signs from God, failing to see the significance of their own deliverance that the Canaanites (Joshua 2:10) and the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:6) recognized. The disciples were, therefore, not an oddity.

Second, we too fail to see the vast quantity of gracious wonder that the LORD has cast all around us. One of my favorite sayings of Martin Luther goes like this: “If man could make one rose like this, people would say he was wonderful; yet God scatters hundreds around us.” Indeed, God scatters His marvelous works so generously that we often fail to see their beauty. N. D. Wilson captures this well:

Our futile struggle in time is courtesy of God’s excessive giving. Sunset after sunset make it hard to remember and hold just one. Smell after smell. Laugh after laugh. A mind still thinking, a heart still beating. Imagine sticking your fingers on your pulse and thanking God every time He gave you another blood-driving, brain-powering thump. We should. And we shouldn’t, because if we did, we would never do anything else with our living; we wouldn’t have the time to look at or savor any of the other of our impossibillions of gifts.[4]

We are just like the disciples. We each day we take our energy quite literally from starlight, and then go about like it is the most natural thing in the world. If we were witnesses to Jesus’ abundance of miracles, we too would be prone to take them for granted, to not give them the attention and consideration that they so rightly deserve.

Consider that these two passages both involve people’s relationship to Jesus’ signs, His miracles. Both the Pharisees and the disciples failed to see the reality of His divinity that Jesus was displaying through His miracles. But notice that, unlike with the Pharisees, Jesus is still showing patience with His disciples. He did not leave them. He did not forsake them. Instead, He was blowing into a flame the embers of belief.

May we never forget that our Lord is both Judge and Justifier. In Jude 5, the half-brother of Jesus wrote, “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” In the same way, those who still fail to believe in Him as the Savior are still given over to the fruit of their unbelief, while those who believe He patiently and graciously guides ever toward Himself.


[1] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark, 171.

[2] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 125.

[3] Morgan, Mark, 172.

[4] Wilson, N. D.. Death by Living (pp. 107-108). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

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