Reflections: Beware of the Leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod

The words of Mark 8 were recently brought to my attention where Jesus warned his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. I doubt these men were bakers so let’s ask some questions. What does Jesus mean when he says “beware”? Why did Jesus use the word “leaven”? Who were the Pharisees? Who was Herod? How can we apply Jesus’ warning today?

First, what does Jesus mean by the word “beware”? Webster says beware means to “guard against, look out for and be wary of.” Therefore, Jesus was telling the disciples to be alert and attentive to spiritual challenges they would face from the Pharisees and Herod.

Second, why did Jesus use the word leaven? Just as yeast permeates the ingredients that affect bread making, the Pharisees and Herod were creating laws that were overbearing and ungodly which could permeate the spiritual health of the people of God.

Third, the Pharisees were religious leaders and experts in the law. However, instead of following the 10 commandments that God gave to Moses, they created additional laws that people were required to follow. Sadly, by following these laws, the people were given the false impression that they could earn their salvation. For example, one compulsory hand washing ritual included pouring water from a special cup alternately, over their hands exactly four times while chanting a prescribed phrase. This burden, along with 612 (!) additional laws could overwhelmingly permeate life and distract people from the teaching of the One True God. Peter addressed this false leaven when he warned the church of Ephesus to remain unified and focused on the truth of the gospel so that “they would no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14 ESV).

Fourth, who was Herod? He, as the king, believed he was god himself and he expected to be treated as such. This again, could permeate the lives of the people distracting and challenging their worship of the one true God. We have an excellent example in scripture of how three Godly men handled this kind of leaven from a different king. The vanity of King Nebuchadnezzar led him to have a gold image of himself built that was over 90 feet tall and 9 feet wide. When musical instruments sounded, all the people were to bow to this statue and worship it. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego believed in worshipping only the one true God and did not allow themselves to be distracted by this leaven. Therefore, they were thrown into a hot furnace as the king’s warning to everyone else who would not comply. In this situation, God rescued them.

I believe that Jesus would warn us to beware of the leaven of many false influences today. We must not follow teaching that is built on man’s earthly preferences or fears and is contrary to the Bible. We must not let this leaven dictate, tweak, change or distract us from living out the truth of the Bible. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 RSV)

Instead of allowing worldly leaven of false spiritual teaching, a tainted gospel or earth born fears to permeate our lives, let us remain steadfast as we hold to the truth of God’s Word and seek His glory in all our ways. Only then are we able to live faithfully by fulfilling our true earthly mission as stated by Jesus. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15 ESV).


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