We are starting a new series within the Gospel of Matthew that we are calling The Hard Sayings of Jesus. Matthew 16-20 contain some of the hardest teachings of Jesus and some events in Jesus’ life that are hard to understand. Before we begin, I want us to think about this idea. Jesus did not teach only simple concepts. Jesus did not keep things easy for his listeners. Jesus definitely did not keep his teachings easy for his disciples. Jesus says things that cause people to leave. Jesus says things that cause people to think that he has a demon (John 7:20; 8:52; 10:20). Jesus says things that even caused disciples to leave him (John 6:66). But Jesus was not afraid to teach the truth, even if the truth was hard to accept. I hope we can prepare our hearts to listen to Jesus and accept his teachings so that we can truly say we are disciples of him.
Can’t See the Signs (16:1-4)
The first verse of Matthew 16 is quite telling. We read in Matthew 16:1 that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus. Now we will often read about the scribes and the Pharisees. But we do not read about the Pharisees and the Sadducees joining forces. The only other time we read their names together is when they approached John the Baptizer in the wilderness in Matthew 3. The reason we do not see them working together is that these two religious groups were against each other. They had little in common. They did not agree on the teachings of the Law nor did they agree in their outlooks religiously or politically. But they can come together on this one thing. They want to test Jesus. Both religious groups are looking for a way to discredit and get rid of Jesus. So they come to Jesus asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
Now I want us to think about this request. Has Jesus not been performing signs that these religious leaders think that a sign is necessary for belief? No, this is not the problem. Matthew 15 records Jesus performing myriads of healings as well as the feeding of the 4000. This explains Jesus’ answer in verses 2-3. Jesus tells a mini parable about reading the weather signs. You are able to read the weather signs that are before your eyes and draw conclusions about if it will be fair weather or stormy weather. But you cannot see the signs that have been done before your eyes and draw the necessary conclusion that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is not saying that he does not want to give a sign. Jesus’ point is that he has already given them many signs but they do not want to draw the right conclusions from those signs. You have all the signs you need.
Jesus then says that an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign in verse 4. Now think about what Jesus said. A person who does not accept the information given to them but keeps demanding God for more is called evil and adulterous. Think about the term “adulterous.” You have left God for another love. These religious leaders look like they love God. They act like they are truth seekers. But they do not want to accept the truth that has been given to them. They do not want to see the signs that have already been performed.
Friends, we do not get to tell God what signs we need. We do not get to tell God what truth has to be exposed to us so that we will finally believe. We do not get to tell God what he needs to do to make me a believer. That what these religious leaders are trying to say. Do something to prove it to us. Jesus’ answer is that you have all you need for faith. An evil and adulterous group of people place such selfish demands on God.
But Jesus does not end the discussion there. He tells them in verse 4 that there is one more sign that will be given for such an evil generation. The sign that will be given to them is the sign of Jonah. There are many facets about the sign of Jonah that we need to consider as Jesus says that this would be the final sign. First, the prophet Jonah did not do miracles or signs. Jonah was the sign. Jesus connecting himself to Jonah shows that he himself will be the final sign. You just need to see who is standing in front of you. Second, the sign of Jonah speaks to the work of Jesus. Jonah was sent to the Gentiles, not Israel. Jesus’ final sign of himself would be something that was not exclusive to Israel, but would be for the whole world to see and believe. Third, the sign of Jonah had a particular outcome. Jonah was the Israelite prophet who rejected God’s mercy and love. He hated that God was compassionate and wanted to save even the Gentiles. Through Jonah as a sign, the Assyrians (Gentiles) overwhelmingly repent and receive God’s mercy and love. The sign of Jonah implies Israel’s rejection of Jesus and the Gentiles’ acceptance of Jesus.
So what was the great sign of Jonah? Jesus expressed it earlier in Matthew 12:38-40. The scribes and the Pharisees came to Jesus earlier asking for a sign. Jesus gave them the same answer. No sign will be given to them except the sign of Jonah. But Jesus explains what he means. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The resurrection is the great sign that every person must grapple with and explain. Jesus said he would raise from the dead. More than 500 of his disciples saw him risen from the dead. The opponents of Jesus could not deny that the tomb was empty. Jesus’ final sign of himself is his resurrection from the dead. It is a plain and powerful sign that must be dealt with. It is not a myth. It is not a fairy tale. It is recorded in historical documents. Jesus says that the great sign for faith will be his resurrection. Everything about the Christian faith hangs on Jesus’ resurrection. If you do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then you must be able to explain what happened. You must be able to explain why the opponents did not produce the body of Jesus when the disciples went around saying he had risen. You must explain why enemies of Jesus became followers because of the resurrection. You must explain how this supposed hoax started a movement that changed the world and still continues 2000 years later. You have all the signs you need to believe. Jesus himself would be the final sign for the skeptic.
Watch for Teachings (16:5-6)
But this is not the final point that Matthew wants us to see regarding Jesus. Jesus and his disciples go back across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus wants to teach his disciples about what just happened. So he warns them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6 ESV). Jesus calls the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees “leaven.” Leaven is how the ancients would make their dough rise. They would take a small amount for the dough they made, preserve it, and then use it for a new batch of dough to make it rise. Since leaven was to be cleansed from the house during Passover, leaven became a symbol for the spreading nature of corruption and wickedness (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Their teachings were to be warned against because it was like leaven, spreading corruption and wickedness. So let me ask something. Does teaching matter? Does it matter what a church teaches? Does it matter what a religious leader proclaims? Or can we all just love God and be on our own journey? It sounds so noble and so intellectual but it is so wrong. Jesus does not say that these religious leaders who taught the law and knew the scriptures were fine because at least they loved God and were on their own spiritual journey. Jesus calls their teachings wicked by calling it leaven.
Friends, the teaching matters because teaching is powerful. Teaching affects the whole person. Jesus tells his disciples to scrutinize people’s teachings. He tells them to pay careful attention to it because truth can be corrupted. It is not good enough to have a few key pieces of truth in place. It is not enough to say that at least they have the big concepts of God right. No, Jesus warns his disciples that their teachings are like a poison that seeps slowly through the body, defiling all who receive it. Just because it is old does not make it right. Just because it is with the majority does not make it right. Just because some of the information is good does not make all of it right. We cannot affirm the validity of all views to demonstrate how inclusive and open-minded we are. Some views are just wrong. Some views cannot be accepted because it is leaven. The teaching matters because there is only one truth and only one path. Jesus said to beware because not every teaching and not every path leads to eternal life.
Missing the Point (16:7-12)
But look at verse 7. The disciples think that Jesus says this because they forgot to bring bread with them. It is almost like their brains stopped listening when Jesus got to the word “leaven.” They heard “leaven” and they starting thinking about the bread they forgot.
Look at what Jesus says in verse 8. Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you still not have spiritual insight and understanding? Then Jesus reminds them of the feeding of the 5000 and the feeding of the 4000. Then look at verse 11. “How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread?” Jesus points out that it is silly to be concerned about forgetting bread. Jesus can handle the fact that we do not have bread. He has proven that to his disciples already. But please think about how they have seen the signs of the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 and yet they do not perceive either. They are missing the point about Jesus.
Go back to verse 8 because I want you to see that Jesus sees this more than just a misunderstanding. He calls this a lack of faith in verse 8. It is not listening issue or a misunderstanding. This happened because they have little faith. They are focused on the physical. They are focused on the fleshly. They are thinking in a shallow way. Jesus’ concern is so much bigger than bread in the moment. His concern is the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now Jesus’ concern is that the message of the miracle feedings has not sunk into his disciples’ hearts.
Friends, it is so easy to become distracted by the mundane. The disciples were too busy thinking about the bread they forgot to listen to what Jesus was teaching. They were so distracting by the physical that they could not receive the spiritual. So the disciples were not paying careful attention because they were focused on bread. Do you remember how Jesus illustrated this problem with Mary and Martha in Luke 10? Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teachings. Now listen to the words recorded. “But Martha was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40). This was not simply a Martha problem. It is a problem that traps all disciples. Jesus’ twelve disciples are in the boat with Jesus. But they are thinking about how they forgot to bring bread. This blocked them from hearing Jesus’ important teaching. Their physical concerns kept them from hearing Jesus’ correctly.
What I want us to see today is that there are three things that can block us from seeing Jesus clearly and hearing his teachings properly so that we can follow him. First, we can be blocked from seeing Jesus because we do not want to see him. We think God should come to us on our terms and we are unwilling to investigate the signs and sayings of Jesus. God has given you an important sign that you must reconcile. Jesus rose from the dead. You must explain how this did not happen if you want to reject Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.
Second, we can be blocked from seeing Jesus properly because we are listening to the wrong teachers. Just because a teaching is spiritual does not mean it is the truth. Just because a teaching comes from a spiritual or religious person does not make the teaching true or from God. There is so much religious noise today. There are so many spiritual sounding proclamations today. But we need to scrutinize every teaching and see if it matches what God’s word says. There is a lot of leaven that is proclaimed as spiritual that is actually a corrupt poison that spiritual kills those who accept it.
Finally, we can be blocked from seeing Jesus properly and hearing his teachings because we are distracted by our own circumstances. We can get stuck in the physical and focus on the mundane. We lose so much time that can be spent listening to God, praying to God, meditating on God, seeking God, and serving God because we are focused on bread. What is distracting you today from focusing on God? What is pulling you away from listening to his teachings? What are you worried about that is blocking you from hearing and enjoying God’s blessings in your life? Jesus will take care of your bread if you will focus on him. Jesus will handle the physical concerns in your life if you will give those concerns to him and have a laser focus on your spiritual life and his teachings.