Watch Out for Pharisee Yeast!

“Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1)




Yeast, as far as baking is concerned, is used in very small quantities but changes the nature of bread.  A tiny amount works through the whole batch of dough.

What kind of spiritual “yeast” was Jesus warning us against?

To start, no committed disciple of Jesus would choose to be a Pharisee – after all, these religious folk were more resistant to the gospel than were the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ Jesus spent so much time with. But this is why the illustration of yeast is so powerful – if even a small pinch is added to a church community, problems start rising.  The spirit of the Pharisees works its way through the whole batch!  That’s why we have to “be on guard” against it – sometimes it sneaks in and starts growing before we realize what’s happening.

Where once there was grace, now there is law.  Where once there was joy, now there is judgment.  Where once there was fellowship, now there is comparison.  People start acting in reference to what others are thinking about them rather than what the Lord has actually told them.  People start worrying about the image they maintain in front of their friends rather than the wonderful life-changing gospel they are instructed to carry to the world.  Hypocrisy replaces humility.  Pressure replaces peace.

Pharisee-yeast turns everything upside down (especially smiles)!

How do I know if I’ve been infected by Pharisee-yeast?  You might find yourself…

Adding rules to life that aren’t in the Bible. (Col. 2:20-23)

These rules often make sense, from a human point-of-view.  They might even be based on biblical principles.  The Pharisees wanted to be so sure that they kept the Sabbath holy that they outlawed the picking of a head of grain, or even spitting on the ground, because such things would be like “work.”  A classic some of you might remember was when Christian contemporary music started coming out, a few of the bands were very dishonoring to Christ by the way they performed.  This led some well-meaning folk to not just avoid those concerts, but to “outlaw” any music that had a 2-4 backbeat!  I’m not joking.  A big Pharisee thumbs-up!

Pushing your rules at others as only right way to live. (Lk. 11:46)

Once a Pharisee gets his own life together, he’s really motivated to get other people’s lives together too.  Jesus chided his Pharisaical audience for “loading people down with burdens they can hardly carry.”  I sat in my living room once talking to a woman who came from a church that required its members to drive black, non-descript cars without hubcaps.  Again, I’m not joking!  The church leaders were trying to eliminate the sin of coveting and that’s what they came up with.  Of course, that church also tried to regulate other areas of life – all for noble reasons.  Pharisees everywhere rejoice!

Insuring that other people see how well you’re doing.  (Mt. 23:5, Mt. 6:1-18)

They’d never state it; that would look like pride.  But at their core, Pharisee hearts are really interested in making sure that other people know about all the great things they’re involved in doing.  It’s more than classic conceit, it’s like an ID badge so that other people with the “right standards” can find them in a crowd.  There was a movement back in the ‘80s and ‘90s that tried to get homeschool families to intentionally dress differently than “the world” so that they could “be a light.”  Huh?  There is actually a good principle there – modesty – and that’s sorely lacking in our world and in our churches.  But once you start making detailed lists of how many inches below the knee a jean-jumper needs to stretch, or what type of hair clips are acceptable, could you have missed the heart of the gospel?  Maybe?

Muttering about people who don’t maintain the high standards you’ve set. (Lk. 15:1-2)

“Psst, did you hear about this fellow, Jesus?”  “Yeah, I actually heard he was in the house of a tax collector!”  “Hmmm, he should know better.  The prostitutes hang out over there!”  “No, it’s worse.  I glanced in there and saw he was eating with them, and, well, you’ll never believe this – there might have even been a wine cup sitting in front of  his plate.”  (gasps of horror)  “Imagine, and he calls himself some sort of a rabbi.  The nerve.  People like him give us a bad name!”

Believing you’ve reached a higher level of spiritual life than people around you. (Lk. 11:43, Lk. 18:9-14)

Pharisees love to be treated with honor because they are the “better examples” of how to conduct life.  They cease to be students of God’s Word and self-rank themselves as scholars.

Categorizing people with a “they’re in” or “they’re out” attitude. (Lk. 7:36-50)

Jesus’ Pharisee host couldn’t believe that Christ would allow a prostitute woman to come and cry at His feet.  She’s not on the guest list!  She’s one of “them.”

Trusting in your “camp” name or church label. (Mt. 3:7-10)

The Pharisees leaned on their association with Judaism and their lineage to Abraham as the security for their relationship with God.  The Corinthian church liked to compare notes on who baptized them and which popular preacher they were following.  Today we’re more sophisticated – we use denominational and doctrinal labels to identify ourselves.  “I’m a _______, and if only more people became _______, we wouldn’t have these problems!”  (Baptist, Calvinist, Free Willer, Methodist, Dispensationalist, PreTribber, Christian schooler, Christian rocker, traditionalist, homeschooler, surfer, emerging reformer, etc.)  Some rise above it all and just declare themselves a “Biblicist” – and who argue with that?  High-five to my Pharisee bros!

Being full of sin and compromise, but never admitting it. (Mt. 23:23-28)

I remember a women’s magazine that encouraged women to be faithful wives and to carefully guard the purity of their homes using a whole host of Amish-flavored rules.  The magazine was shut down after the founding editor was caught in an affair!   All the rules in the world don’t change the condition of the human heart, only Jesus does that.  In fact, rules usually breed rebellion, not submission. The sad thing for a Pharisee is that so much of his identity is wrapped up in rule-keeping that he forfeits the ability to even ask for help.  If he admitted he was failing or that the to-do list had become unsustainable, he might not be “in” anymore!

The antidote to Pharisee-yeast in our lives is a refreshed relationship with Jesus born from a spirit of personal humility.  The Holy Spirit can administer the antidote to anyone who calls upon God for grace, who admits their own spiritual poverty, and who looks at people with the compassion and mercy of Christ.  In Psalm 51 the author writes in confession that God does not delight in sacrifices (outward spiritual activities), or he would have made them!  David would have gotten out the big checklist and started hitting every target – but that’s not what God was after.  God was looking for a “broken and contrite” heart – the kind of heart that really loves, repents, and surrenders.
Hope for the Joyless

There is a way out of sad “checklist Christianity” and all the hurt and comparison it causes.  The church of Galatia had a whole lot of Pharisee-yeast growing, and Paul wrote an entire letter to them to show them the way forward – out of law, and into the Spirit.   I’d love for you to read it for yourself, but I’ve taken the liberty of quoting a few portions to get at the core of what the Apostle Paul was saying to these poor souls who had traded the joy of faith in Jesus for the high-pressure performance of legalism.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery…You were running a good race.  Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?…’A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’…

“You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  If you keep biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

The Spirit produces fruit in us that all the rules in the world never could.

What joy there is for those who live and love in the freedom Jesus died to provide!  If you are feeling weighted down, discouraged and burdened – look to Him for healing.  If you’ve been victimized by well-meaning Pharisee-types, or if you suspect you’ve become one yourself, take heart.  Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light.  He loves you, not based on how well you’re performing, but because He created you to be His treasure forever.

For the church in Galatia, the debate was about circumcision and the observance of Jewish festivals.  In every era of church history, the “law” issues change, but the heart needs are the same.  And, every time legalism surfaces, it is usually based on good principles, or even “the appearance of wisdom” (Col. 2:20-23).  But in the end, what counts is our heart toward God and the joy of walking daily with Him through life; honoring His commands, loving His people, and being a part of His mission.  Galatians 6:15 says it best:

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.”

For further study: Luke 11:37-54, Book of Galatians

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