IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 29, September 13 to September 19, 1999

Matthew 16:1-12

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    In 16:1 these two groups are mentioned together for the first time in Matthew's account of Jesus' ministry (cf. 3:7, about John's ministry). Given the great differences between the groups (see Appendix A), the evidence of Mt 16 is striking. Here they are associated with one another in the closest way. In every instance (vv. 1, 6, 11, 12), both names stand under one definite article ("the Pharisees and Sadducees," not "the P's and the S's"). The two groups unite in their testing of Jesus, v. 1. Jesus ascribes to both groups a single teaching (didachae), v. 12, here pictured as their "yeast," vv. 6, 11. This is most remarkable, given their different points of view - so remarkable that some interpreters infer from Matthew's language that he was ignorant of, or indifferent to, those differences (cf. e.g. TDNT 7: 52). But this is to miss the intention of both Jesus and the opposition.


    1. Jesus' Abandonment of the Pharisees and Sadducees. 16:1-4.

      1. The test, v. 1. The request is hostile, its intent being to "test" Jesus (the verb is peirazo, also used of the devil in 4:1); on the Greek of v. 1 as expressive of evil design, see Gundry, 322. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, otherwise opposed to each other, now unite against a common enemy. On the "sign from heaven," see comment on Mt 12:38.

      2. Jesus' verbal response. Jesus credits his opponents with knowing "how to interpret the appearance of the sky" (v. 3b). The adage of vv. 2-3a (whence our saying, "Red sky at night, sailors' delight / Red sky at morning, sailors take warning") reflects Palestinian weather conditions (Carson, 361); as the Jewish day began at sunset, "evening" comes before "morning" (cf. Gen 1:5-31). (Vv. 2-3 present a difficult textual problem. On balance, it is preferable to include the vv., as has NIV; cf NIV mg., and Metzger, TC, 41.) Yet, continues Jesus, "you cannot interpret the signs of the times" (v. 3c) - a reference to Jesus' mighty works, which had occasioned the earlier, very similar conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees (and teachers of the law), 12:22-42. The present confrontation is in fact an outgrowth of that one. At the present juncture of Mt, the Pharisees' and Sadducees' inability to interpret the signs contrasts sharply with the Gentiles' responsiveness to Jesus' miracle-working power - as exemplified in the immediately preceding passage in the faith of the Canaanite woman, 15:21-28, and in the thanksgiving of the crowds, 15:29-31. On the reasons for this response from the religious leadership, and on "the sign of Jonah" (both its nature and its relation to Jesus' ministry), see comments on 12:30-45.

      3. Jesus' visible response. "Jesus then left them and went away" (16:4). This is a deliberate act of "judgmental abandonment" (Gundry, 324). Jesus does not abandon his subject, only his audience. In 16:5-12 he will pursue the matter raised by the question of v. 1; he will continue to speak about the Pharisees and Sadducees, but now he does not speak to them - only to his disciples. This passage is very reminiscent of 15:1-20, where, after pronouncing judgment upon the Pharisees and teachers of the law, vv. 8-9, Jesus turns to the crowd and then to the disciples. In both instances the explanation for Jesus' action is the same; and it is sufficient to refer to the earlier discussion.

    2. Jesus' Warning to His Disciples. 16:5-12.

      1. His rebuke for anxiety. The disciples are anxious over the lack of food (for themselves and Jesus) and over their forgetfulness that accounts for this (vv. 5, 7-8). In face of their worry, Jesus speaks of their "little faith" (v. 8) and reminds them of his abundant provision in both feeding miracles (vv. 9-10). Were they not confirmed on those occasions in the belief that the heavenly Father faithfully provides for the material needs of his children - as Jesus had taught them in the Sermon (6:11, 25-34)?

      2. His command to vigilance. In saying, "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (vv. 6, 11b), Jesus makes it clear that he is not talking about bread at all (v. 11a). Instead (as the disciples come to see) he is warning them "against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (v. 12). For this section, see Appendix A.

        1. The teachers. We might have expected Jesus (like Paul in Acts 23) to side with the Pharisees against the Sadducees, for he shows a greater kinship with the former than with the latter. (E.g., Jesus directs his ministry to the common people, he respects the sovereign will of God, and he believes in the resurrection of the dead. And while his criticism of "the tradition of the elders," 15:2, might seem to place him on the side of the Sadducees, their kind of Biblical conservatism might make them especially invulnerable to such teaching as 5:21-48.) Instead he stands over against both groups, and he represents them as standing together against him.

        2. The teaching. Despite all the doctrinal differences between Pharisees and Sadducees, says Jesus, they are one in their man-centeredness. To be sure, this manifests itself in various ways. In the case of the Pharisees, it is expressed in adherence to human traditions (15:1-9, concluding with the words, "their teachings are but rules taught by men"), in prideful hypocrisy (6:1-18), and in domination of other people (23:4). In the case of the Sadducees, the man-centeredness is evident in the exercise - and in the efforts to safeguard - status and wealth and power. The request for "a sign from heaven" (16:1) is itself hypocritical. It does not in the least express a God-centered faith but rather a man-centered philosophy (whether the more religious form of the Pharisees, or the more secular form of the Sadducees) bent upon perpetuating itself.

        3. The choices. The evidence of Jesus' mighty works is willfully misinterpreted; the risks of interpreting them as Jesus himself does, are far too great. It would too readily expose the sinfulness of the present generation, starting with its leadership both spiritual and secular. In terming them "a wicked and adulterous generation" (v. 4), Jesus means fundamentally that they have disobeyed and rebelled against God. A principal explanation for the popular judgments concerning Jesus (vv. 13-14), is that a merely human messiah is far less frightening and far less demanding than a Messiah who is "the Son of the living God" (v. 16). Jesus' warning against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees is an urgent one. For that which these leaders advocate (an influence whose power can hardly be overestimated), is reinforced by the inner appeals of the disciples' own egos. What Sin urges upon us (by means of the devil, the flesh and the law) is the desire to dethrone God and to enthrone self (Gen 3). In face of this powerful temptation, Jesus urges his followers not to abandon what he has been teaching them about himself. He urges them to risk being utterly God-centered in their faith - and thereby to find true rest for their souls (11:25-30). (Nothing is so wearisome and worrisome as a self-centered faith.) Out of the disciples' awareness of who Jesus really is, will arise the sort of trust to which he summons them in Mt 16:8-12.

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