Matthew 16(01–12)


In last week’s passage we read about the faith of a Gentile woman who asked the Lord to have mercy on her daughter. And then other Gentiles came to the Lord so that he could heal them of their disabilities. And then the Lord Jesus fed the crowd of 4,000 men plus women and children who were probably also Gentiles.

And so, last week’s passage was about how the Gentiles were coming to the Lord Jesus for help. In today’s passage, we see how the leaders of the Jews came to the Lord Jesus. But they did not come for help, but to test him. Instead of believing in him, they doubted him. Instead of humbly asking for mercy, they demanded something from him.

Of course, this is not the first time that this has happened; and we’ve seen before how the Pharisees doubted the Lord and complained about him. What’s unusual about this occasion, however, is the fact that the Pharisees are joined, not by the scribes, their normal partners, but by the Sadducees.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees did not have a lot in common. One ancient historian described the Sadducees as a party of the aristocratic priesthood. They were a party of the wealthy. In terms of their doctrine, they did not believe in life after death or in the possibility of resurrection. Nor did they believe in angels or spirits. And they believed that only the first five books of the Old Testament were the word of God. So, they rejected the rest of the Old Testament. And they rejected the tradition of the elders, which the Pharisees were committed to observing.

On the other hand, the Pharisees were lay people. One of the commentators (Morris) says that while the Sadducees were a kind of political group, the Pharisees were a religious group only. And they accepted the whole of the Old Testament as the word of God. And, as I’ve said, they were careful to observe the traditions of the elders and to obey all the rules and regulations which had been added to God’s law over the years. So, these two groups did not have a lot in common. But they had this one thing in common: they were opposed to Christ.

Verses 1 to 4

And so, we read in verse 1 that they came to the Lord Jesus to test him. That is, they came to examine him. They didn’t come humbly, confessing their need and asking for mercy. They came to put him to the test. They were putting the Lord Jesus in the dock and they were placing themselves as judges over him. And they wanted him to prove to them why they should believe in him. ‘Show us a sign from heaven. If you can show us a sign from heaven, then we’ll believe in you. Prove yourself to us. Make us believe.’

The Lord, of course, has already performed many miracles to demonstrate that he had come from God. It’s possible, though, that by asking for a sign from heaven that they were asking for an even more spectacular sign. ‘So, you’ve already given us some signs. But what we want now is a really big sign: something so spectacular that it will be obvious that it’s a sign from heaven.’ Maybe they wanted fire to come from heaven; or maybe they wanted to see the clouds part and heaven opened. They wanted to see some truly remarkable.

And the Lord replied by saying that, while they could interpret the appearance of the sky so that they could tell what kind of day it would be, they were unable to interpret the signs of the times. In other words, the signs were there for all of them to see. The signs were there, but they don’t know how to read the signs correctly. And when the Lord refers to the ‘signs of the times’, he’s probably referring to the things he has done which make it obvious that there were living in a special time in history. They were living in a time of fulfilment. The Sadducees only read the books of Moses. But didn’t God promise in the book of Deuteronomy to send another prophet like Moses? And the Pharisees read the rest of the Old Testament. And didn’t God promise in the rest of the Old Testament to send another king like David? And the Lord Jesus is the fulfilment of those Old Testament promises, because he’s the great prophet who was to come and he’s the great king who was to come. The Pharisees and Sadducees should have recognised him and believed in him. But instead of believing in him, they came to judge him.

And while they wanted to put the Lord in the dock and to judge him, he instead passes judgment on them because of their unbelief. He said of them that they were a wicked and adulterous generation. And though they were demanding a sign from him, no sign will be given to them apart from the sign of Jonah.

This is the second time the Lord has referred to the sign of Jonah. And back in chapter 12 he explained that the sign of Jonah is that Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights. And his three days and nights in the belly of the fish signified the death and resurrection of the Saviour. Going down into the belly of the fish signified the Lord’s death and burial. Coming up from the belly of the fish signified the Lord’s resurrection. That’s the only sign God will give them. But when it happened, many of them still did not believe. Even though the Lord was raised from the dead, they continued in their unbelief.

And having passed judgment on them, the Lord left them and went away. If only they had believed, he would have welcomed them. But since they did not believe, he walked away from them.

Verses 5 to 12

The next thing Matthew tells us is that, when the Lord and his disciples went across the lake, his disciples realised they had forgotten to bring their packed lunch. They had no bread with them. And we can imagine them talking about it, wondering what they would do and where they could get more supplies. But then the Lord said to them to be on their guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The disciples began to wonder what he meant by this enigmatic statement. What does he mean? What’s he thinking about? It must have something to do with our missing bread. But what does he mean exactly?

And on hearing their discussion, the Lord once again rebuked them for their little faith. This is the fourth time he refers to ‘little faith’. He mentioned it during the Sermon on the Mount because we tend to worry about what we’ll eat and drink instead of trusting our heavenly Father. He mentioned it before he calmed the storm because the disciples were so afraid because of the wind and waves. He mentioned it when he and Peter were walking on the water and Peter began to be afraid and sink. And he mentions it here, because there’s no need for them to worry about what they would eat. There’s no need to worry, because didn’t the Lord feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish and there were 12 baskets of leftovers? Didn’t he feed 4,000 with seven loaves and a few fish and there were seven baskets of leftovers? There’s no need to worry about food, because he’s able to supply them with all the food they need.

‘So, come on now. Come on now. I’m not talking about bread. I’m talking about something else entirely. I’m talking about the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’ And Matthew goes on to explain for us that when he mentioned their yeast, he was talking about their teaching: what they believed and taught to others.

And by likening their teaching to yeast, the Lord meant that, just as yeast works its way through dough, so the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees is able to work its way through the world, unless the Lord’s people guard themselves against it carefully. The disciples needed to watch out lest they were infected by the teaching of those two groups.

And it’s interesting that, when Matthew explains what the Lord meant when he referred to the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, Matthew refers to the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He didn’t say the teachings of those two groups, but the teaching of those two groups. As I’ve already said, those two groups didn’t have a lot in common. They believed very different things. So, how can Matthew say that the Lord was referring to their teaching, as if they believed and taught the same thing? It’s because they were united in their unbelief. Though they may have believed and taught different things, nevertheless what they taught amounted to the same thing which is unbelief and opposition to the Lord Jesus. The Pharisees were against him. And the Sadducees were against him. While they believed different things, they were united in their unbelief.

Remember what we were reading about on Sunday morning in 1 John? Remember what John said about the false teachers in his day and how the spirit of the antichrist was in them? John was saying that their teaching was against Christ. It was in opposition to Christ. And the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees was also against Christ.

‘So, be on your guard against that. Watch out for that. Don’t let their unbelief spread like yeast among you. Don’t let yourself be infected by their doubts. Vaccinate yourself against unbelief. Inoculate yourself from their doubts so that you will continue to believe in me.’


And so, today’s passage is about unbelief and how we must be on guard, because the unbelief of some can spread like yeast in dough and infect us all.

That’s what today’s passage is about. And it’s interesting to contrast it with the next passage, which we’ll study properly next time. But the next passage is about Peter’s confession of Christ. ‘Who do people say that I am?’, the Saviour asked. And Peter replied: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Where did he get this understanding? Where did he get the faith to believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God? Where did this faith come from? ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.’

God the Father did not reveal the truth about Christ to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He let them continue in their unbelief, so that while they saw the signs which the Lord was doing, they did not understand what the signs meant. But God the Father revealed the truth about Christ to Peter and to the other disciples. And he revealed it to us, by enabling us to hear the good news of Christ and by enabling us to believe so that we turned to Christ for salvation. And we pray that he will reveal the truth about Christ to more and more men and women and boys and girls around the world, so that they too will hear and believe and trust in Christ for salvation. And all to the praise of his glorious grace.