Matthew 16:6-12 (NKJV)
6Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
7And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread.”
8But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? 9Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? 10Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up? 11How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? — but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
12Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
-- Bible Gateway

What did Jesus mean by "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees"?


3 Answers 3


@Ruminator, just some comments (it was too long for a comment)

Kruptó doesn’t mean to mix, but to hide or conceal. The three measures of fine meal (equivalent to an eiphah) were first introduced as what Abraham asked Sarah prepare for the angels that visited them. This amount, about 27 pounds, was also offered by Gideon and by Hannah, and it’s mentioned as the equivalent of offering a bull or ram in Ezekiel.

So, when Jesus mentions specifically three measures of flour in conjunction with the Kingdom of Heaven, his Jewish audience immediately would have known that this was an offering, and would have been horrified at the thought of someone secretly adding yeast to it.

I really appreciated your last paragraph, which was certainly applicable to the religious leadership of his day, and perhaps was intended as prophetically applicable to ours.


In Biblical times yeast was not available in little packets as it is today. Instead flour and water were left exposed to the air where wild yeast would find it and begin to multiply. Over time a lump of yeast rich "sourdough starter" would develop. A piece of this "starter" would added to a new batch of flour and water and allowed to sit and the yeast would cause the new lump to rise:

BSB Luke 13: 20Again He asked, “To what can I compare the kingdom of God? 21It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

A properly cultivated starter is an heirloom today because not all yeast is the same and it can take many years to raise a quality starter. The nature of the starter influences the resulting bread's flavor and texture.

The use of leaven was extremely common as bread was a staple of the Mediterranean. Jesus and Paul both used it in metaphor and in parables. It must not have been commonly used in metaphor before Jesus since the disciples didn't "get it" when he issued the warning.

Leaven wasn't intrinsically a bad thing and in the use of the 3 loaves cited above it was a positive image of the power of reproduction (disciples begetting disciples perhaps) and influence.

In the NT Paul used the metaphor to refer to pride, where people were observing the Passover with unleavened bread but in their hearts they were self-congratulatory rather than mourning for their sins, which was the point of the feast of unleavened bread.

In Luke 12 it is specifically said to be used as a metaphor for hypocrisy, where what is done in public does not match what is done in private:

NIV Luke 12: 1Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 3What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

But in the Matthew 16 version the focus is on the teaching:

NIV Matthew 16: 5When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” 8Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

While Jesus does not here explain what was the issue in the teaching of the Pharisees or the Sadducees, and they would have had different teachings (often diametrically opposed) they apparently had some things in common. The diatribe in Matthew 23 has many examples of their hypocrisy and this section seems to be focused on their teachings:

NASB Matthew 23: 16“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ 17“You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18“And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ 19“You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20“Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21“And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22“And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

While there are other teachings that could be cited we see in this one that these "blind guides" practiced a kind of "binding and loosing" where they held some practices to carry obligation while others were free of obligation. Jesus held that every idle word had obligation.

In fact, when Jesus gave his Royal Law on the mountain and on the plain it shocked the hearers because his teaching was so different from that of the scribes and Pharisees:

NASB Matthew 5: 17“Do not think that I came to abolish [parse into obligatory and non-obligatory] the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish [parse into obligatory and non-obligatory] but to fulfill [restore the integrity of the law]. 18“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19“Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

NASB Matthew 7: 28When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; 29for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

One could also point out their penchant for adding to the scriptures:

NIV Mark 7: 1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.a )

5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

6He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’b 8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

9And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observec your own traditions! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’d and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’e 11But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16]f

17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

20He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

By amplifying the simple commands of the scriptures into more complex and often more demanding obligations they were essentially acting like leaven, inflating the command into a bloated and vexing version of itself such that the original command was ultimately displaced with their traditions.

  • 1
    Interesting aspect on the binding and loosening Re: abolishing. Insightful!
    – grammaplow
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 19:08

Matthew 16:1-12 (DRB throughout)

1 And there came to him the Pharisees and Sadduccees tempting: and they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 But he answered and said to them: When it is evening, you say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. 3 And in the morning: To day there will be a storm, for the sky is red and lowering. You know then how to discern the face of the sky: and can you not know the signs of the times? 4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. And he left them, and went away.

5 And when his disciples were come over the water, they had forgotten to take bread. 6 Who said to them: Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.1 7 But they thought within themselves, saying: Because we have taken no bread. 8 And Jesus knowing it, said: Why do you think within yourselves, O ye of little faith, for that you have no bread? 9 Do you not yet understand, neither do you remember the five loaves among five thousand men, and how many baskets you took up? 10 Nor the seven loaves among four thousand men, and how many baskets you took up? 11 Why do you not understand that it was not concerning bread I said to you: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees? 12 Then they understood that he said not that they should beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

1 cf. Mk 8:15—"the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod" ; Lk 12:1—"Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy"

Leaven (or yeast) when used spiritually, means 'corruption' not only of false doctrine, but of the corrupt of sin (i.e. among the 'pure' church).

For example:

1 Corinthians 5:1-11

1 It is absolutely heard, that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as the like is not among the heathens; that one should have his father's wife. 2 And you are puffed up; and have not rather mourned, that he might be taken away from among you, that hath done this deed. 3 I indeed, absent in body, but present in spirit, have already judged, as though I were present, him that hath so done, 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, you being gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus; 5 To deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Your glorying is not good. Know you not that a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump?Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened. For Christ our pasch is sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us feast,1 not with the old leaven,2 nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened3 bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I wrote to you in an epistle, not to keep company with fornicators. 10 I mean not with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or the extortioners, or the servers of idols; otherwise you must needs go out of this world. 11 But now I have written to you, not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, or a server of idols, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such a one, not so much as to eat.

1 For Christ our pasch is sacrificed. Therefore let us feast (the Eucharist or Lord's Supper is the new Passover)

2 old leaven (former ways)

3 the leaven of malice and wickedness (malice and wickedness, which is the 'leaven' which corrupts the pure unleavened whole)

Yeast or leaven helps to puff bread up (is a raising agent; cf. Mt 13:33), among other things, whereas unleavened bread is like flat bread, which is dense and thin (symbolic here of purity: with no gaps or air, lacking substance or grace; or, not having corruption). The kind which the Jews were commanded to eat on Passover, as per God's command (e.g. Ex 12:8)

  • Please, declare which Bible translation you are quoting from. Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 0:48
  • 1
    I added context from Matthew and the other synoptics. Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 20:44
  • It still seems you are presuming that Paul's metaphoric use of leaven and Jesus in Matthew 16 are the same which doesn't seem to be the case. Also, the Eucharist is an invention of men, not "the new Passover" and is actually an example of bad leaven!
    – Ruminator
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 23:22
  • 1
    "Also, the Eucharist is an invention of men" Hardly the case. See 1 Cor 10:15; Acts 2:42. 'Eucharist' comes from the manner in which it was instituted: εὐχαριστέω (I give thanks). 1 Cor 11:24. cf. Lk 22:17. I didn't claim they were the same, I actually made a distinction: "not only of false doctrine, but of..". But they are both related in that they are something not wanted in the church, and therefore sinful. Both hypocrisy and false doctrine, and false practices. They are all of the genre of 'leaven' among the church, who are supposed to be 'unleavened.' Making leaven, by impl. impurity. Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 13:07

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