Beware The Leaven

I said at the end of the last article I wrote, O You Foolish Galatians, that the only way in which to ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps as the early church did is to lead lives led by the Holy Spirit. This is true. However, it has struck me in the last couple of days that Y’shua (that is, Jesus’ Hebrew name) also offered some very practical advice to His followers along the way. Particularly in how to avoid falling into traps generally.

The essential point of that last article was that the church, like the Hebrews of old, always end up placing a greater weight upon rules and rituals, than they do upon a Spirit-led life. As a result, we fail to see what God truly wants from us, which is obedience and to faithfully trust in Him. When we do finally surrender to Him, He will do the ‘work’, and because He does it, it is truly effective.

It is very easy for me to think that because I have had some great revelation about all of this that I am now immune to the stuff, such as legalism and religion, which so easily entangles us. I’m not. Not a week had passed since I started writing that last piece when I realised just how easy it is to be enchanted by the lure of ritual. Let me explain.

I got up one morning and I wasn’t sure what to read. I had got myself into a habit of late of reading a certain amount of the Bible each day. I could see that, at times, I would pat myself on the back for getting through it each day. And, it doesn’t take long for it to become all about the actual reading of the words, instead of the person about whom the words were written. It’s pretty much an identical practice to that which Y’shua accused the teachers of the law of doing:

“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” [John 5:39 NKJV]

Y’shua was saying that they placed much importance upon the act of reading Scripture but failed to realise what the words were talking of – Y’shua Himself. So, in light of this I found myself wondering what to read. I remembered that I never had this problem when I first believed – I simple couldn’t get enough of the good book, and would digest great servings at every sitting. But, back then, I also remember that I seemed to ‘hear‘ the Holy Spirit far more easily. If I was praying about a certain issue, I would find a Scripture just there in my head. Over the years, this faded, until this year when it has began to return. If I am honest, I’m not sure it ever left me – but rather I stopped trusting in God for a while, and it takes time to find your way back. What I am sure of is, that once I started to surrender to God, my ears appeared more inclined to hear Him again. The real key is to learn how to discern between what is of God and what is of me.

So, in an attempt to find something to read, I was praying in my head. A thought popped in about what the Hebrew’s of this world refer to as the Torah portion, or parashah. This is the weekly portion of Torah (the five books of Moses) which is read on Shabbat (Sabbath). The practice has been going for a very long time. Basically, Torah is divided up in fairly equal portions so that, throughout the entire year, all of Torah is read on Shabbat. It means that Hebrews everywhere, tonight (this was written on a Friday morning) from sunset (when Shabbat starts) will all read the same Scripture. Tonight, for example, is Parashah 45 Va’etchanan which refers to Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Along with the Torah portion, Hebrews everywhere will also read a portion from The Prophets. Tonight’s is Isaiah 40:1-26. If the Hebrews are Messianic, that is they believe that Y’shua is the Mashiyach (Messiah), then they will also read a portion from B’rit Hadashah – the New Testament. In terms of a discipline, the idea is faultless.

I felt inclined to entertain the thought which had popped into my head, and I found myself on a website which I have found incredibly helpful over the recent months. Some time ago I felt that the Holy Spirit had challenged me to take a fresh look at the Bible, and in particular the events recorded in the New Testament, from the perspective of a Hebrew. It is very easy in the modern western church to get into a mindset that everything contained in the Bible is all about the church. The truth is, it simply isn’t. During this time of adjustment I have been led to several websites which have provided me with some fascinating insights into Hebrew culture. One of these sites, as mentioned above, is edited by a Hebrew man; a very talented scholar of the Hebrew language, who has been converted away from traditional Judaism to believing that Y’shua came as Messiah. There is an increasing section of the Hebrew people who are turning to Christ. That’s a thought that will warm the cockles of the hearts of End-Timers everywhere.

The particular site to which I am referring, I knew from previous visits, has a page dedicated to This Week’s Torah Portion. Before I relay to you what I experienced whilst on this site, I should say that once you start to look at Hebrew culture, it gives you a completely fresh understanding of everything in the Bible. There is something which is very enchanting and, perhaps, even beguiling about their language, cultures and traditions. It puts everything you have ever read from Scripture into its true perspective. However, to spend any time on such websites requires a certain level of discernment.

As I looked on the page for the weekly Torah portion, I found myself warming to what was said there very quickly. It was talking about what this week meant in the Hebrew calendar and how it was the beginning of seven weeks of comfort for God’s people. There was a chart showing where we were in the Hebrew calendar and what each lunar month meant. You could see a clear cycle in it. You will know from my last post that God does use cycles, and so, very quickly, I found myself absorbed by what I was reading. It had a description explaining how the portion for this week from The Prophets used the word nachamu (comfort) twice because God wanted to comfort His people after losing two temples…then I suddenly stopped. God didn’t care that two temples had been lost; He hates sacrifice and ritual. At that moment I had such a deep conviction from the Holy Spirit that I had to stop. I could see, instantly, that what I was reading was the views of the sages, the same sages who started the Oral Traditions, who added custom and ritual and religious act onto the perfect Law, which God had given. Of Y’shua’s day, these sages would have been called Pharisees. What had so quickly enchanted me wasn’t God’s view, but man’s. This wasn’t doctrine handed down by the Holy Spirit (as convincing as it was), but it was man’s doctrine for keeping people caught up in religion by using both the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the promise of righteousness by following routines and rituals, and the stick is the guilt to beat you with when you can’t live up to the standards they place upon you.

I saw just how easily I could be drawn into man-made doctrine. It is attractive and makes you think you will achieve righteousness by following it. Sound familiar? It should do. The sole purpose of anything false from Satan is to steer us away from God’s words. It is the same trick the serpent used on Eve in the garden. He promised her enlightenment. Of course, like all man-made doctrine, Satan’s promise of enlightenment is false. Eve wasn’t enlightened. She was lied to.

When you consider the four gospels in a careful manner, you will see clearly that Y’shua was constantly clashing with the Pharisees, or the scribes, or the Sadducees, or sometimes all of them at once, over the doctrine they claimed was of God. I could offer countless examples of how they would come to Him with the sole purposes of trying to trap Him into blasphemy. One example I would like to draw your attention to is found in Matthew chapter 15.

Y’shua was up in the area of Galilee. People had heard about the woman who had been healed from 12 years of bleeding by simply touching the hem of His garment (Matthew 9:18-22) and droves of them came to Him to be healed in the same manner. The scribes and the Pharisees wanted to be able to discredit Y’shua. They knew they didn’t stand a chance against the signs and wonders, so they always went for Him with what they did know about – the Law. Only, on this occasion, they came at Him with a tradition, or custom, which they had made into law.

When you consider their argument, in the context of what had just happened, it is easy to see that they were clutching at the proverbial straws – desperate to find anything to hold against Him. This time it was only His disciples they could find fault with. I think we can presume that they didn’t witness Y’shua eating bread, only His disciples. Perhaps He was fasting. They asked Him why His disciples didn’t follow the traditions of the elders by taking part in a ceremonial washing (a show for other men in order to appear holy) before they ate bread.

As usual, Y’shua is well prepared for such attacks (there is a lesson for us here when people try to enforce their legalism upon us – be prepared for such arguments). He points out to them that they are happy to break God’s commandments in order to maintain their traditions. He takes one of their oral traditions (those things added onto God’s commandments) and holds it up to the light of what God had already said and found them to be hypocrites. To make matters worse, He then refers them to the prophet Isaiah, upon whose words so much hangs to the Hebrews, and shows them what God truly thinks of them:

“Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” ” [Matthew 15:8-9]

He then calls the multitude to Him in order to expose the scribes and the Pharisees to the people. He urges everyone to hear and understand what He is saying. He tells them that what goes into their mouths is not the thing that defiles a man – that is to say, it doesn’t matter how you eat bread. It is what comes out of a man’s mouth that it the problem. Although it is easy to only see the earthly, temporal view of this – about the ceremonial washing and the eating of bread, the real view, as always with Y’shua, is the spiritual view. The bread we eat, spiritually, if from God, is always good for us. But what we speak out, spiritually, as in man-made doctrines is good for no man.

It is funny to see that, immediately afterward, His disciples were concerned about Him offending the Pharisees, despite His clear rebuke. The deeply engrained Hebrew customs and traditions were difficult to remove from their mindset, even though they were being taught by the very Word of God, Himself. We should take note of that – it takes a while to shake off the old ways, even if we accept the new ones. The apostle Paul speaks of this dilemma constantly in his letters.

I began this article by wanting to draw your attention to the strength of attraction there is in tradition and custom. We must be on our guard from such things at all times. They appear, to all outward appearance, to be highly favourable to us, but when it is all stripped away we find the doctrine of demons. I am certain that all who get drawn into such things most sincerely believe that what they are pursuing is of God. However, the warnings throughout the New Testament should show us that we must tread carefully for being deceived is clearly a possibility. It is only a fool who believes that he is beyond the lure of such deceptions.

I was reminded only this morning that in his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul makes a warning for us all in describing what the end times might look like:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own consciences seared with hot iron, forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from certain foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” [1st Timothy 4:1-3]

For those who like a paraphrase:

“The Holy Spirit is clear when He says that as this age draws to a close, many will stop being faithful to God’s word, and start listening to other spirits who will persuade them to be unfaithful to God. They will also be led to listen to teaching from demons and accept it as if it were from God Himself. Then they will tell their lies to others, becoming hypocrites in the process. Their hearts will become hardened because of this, and they will teach others that to follow their man-made traditions and customs regarding the things which God placed upon the earth for our good, will benefit them, thus making observance of their rules more important than the freedom God has already granted them.”

Why would Paul warn against such a possibility unless it was (and is now even more so) to be of real and genuine concern. Paul only picked up where Y’shua left off. If we return to Matthew’s account of Y’shua’s ministry, we see that after His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee, He headed off to Tyre and Sidon – a hundred mile round trip – just to show His disciples what true faith looked liked (Matthew 15:21-28). It was a real long way to go to make His point. Upon His return to Galilee, Y’shua went and sat on a mountain and great multitudes of people came to Him. He healed them all. And not only that, we read in Matthew 15:32-39, that He also fed them.

When He got to Magdala, He is approached once more, this time the Sadducees join the Pharisees. There is no trickery now. His rebuke over man-made doctrine must have struck a nerve with them. So, rather than being embarrassed again, they try to flatter His human nature by asking for a sign. They had no true understanding that He is, in fact, God incarnate. They think that He is like them; that flattery will please Him. Of course, He wasn’t going to fall for that. Once again, He rebukes their hypocrisy and tells them that only the sign of Jonah will be given to them. [If you want a detailed explanation of what the sign of Jonah is really all about you can read all about it in an article entitled Lost In Translation, which explains what three nights and three days in the belly of the whale really means. You may be somewhat surprised to learn that nothing in the New Testament supports Y’shua being crucified on a Friday].

Now, here’s the really important bit. The disciples, it seems, hadn’t travelled with Him to Magdala. The text certainly supports this. Notice in 15:39 it says ‘He sent the multitude away, got into the boat, and came to the region of Magdala’. And note also that in 16:5 it says ‘Now when His disciples had come to the other side…’. Nothing unusual there. Y’shua frequently left His disciples whilst He went off somewhere, quite often to be alone. This time however, He went to tackle the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It was clear at the last encounter His disciples had been worried about Him offending these teachers of the Law (15:12). So, when the disciples caught up with Him, He was alone, having departed from the teachers of the Law.

The disciples had forgotten to take bread with them, presumably the left over bread from the feeding of 4,000 men (plus women and children). Y’shua is keen to continue what He had been talking to them about before He had left them. This is what He says:

“Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” [Matthew 16:6]

Of course, that was a while ago for them and they think because He mentions leaven, which is used in baking certain types of bread, He is using a metaphor about forgetting the bread. His sharp rebuke helps them to regain their focus. By verse 12, they realise that He isn’t talking about forgotten bread but is likening the action that leaven has upon dough to the man-made doctrines, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees are so keen to teach others.

True, it was a disjointed conversation, but we should draw something from that; I have known in my own experience that, on occasions, God starts speaking to me, and then it might be some time later that I fully understand what He wanted to say. But, His warning here is vital for us. He was basically saying to His disciples that after He ascends to heaven, they won’t have Him around to face the challenges from the likes of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He tells them that man-made doctrine, teaching, and traditions will ruin any teaching He gives them, if they let it in. He says to take heed and to beware. That means that they need to be watchful and cautious when it comes to people trying to influence the church with teaching that comes from man and not from God.

Today, Y’shua’s message is the same – He is still telling His church to watch out for men and their slick traditions and customs. Y’shua is clearly telling us all that anything that is not from God will ruin that which is. What does this mean today?

It means that unless we are only looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance, then men are easily swayed by things, like ritual and customs, that appear to be God-like to the outward appearance, but they are really nothing to do with God.

In many senses, it is already too late for today’s church. Man-made doctrine and customs and legalism are already considered to be more important that what God had already said. The modern church will be just as reluctant to throw off the man-made stuff as the Pharisees and Sadducees were in the first century. They, like back then, have far too much to lose.

There is a reason why Y’shua used the idea of leaven as a warning. Leaven, or yeast in today’s speak, is a fungus that produces carbon dioxide, which is poisonous to humans. Just a tiny amount of yeast will infect the largest amount of dough. That’s the lesson: No matter how insignificant the doctrine or practice or custom or tradition appears; no matter how pleasing to the eye it might be; no matter how satisfying it might be to carry it out, it remains poisonous to all. The church, once impregnated with it, is useless. It can’t be taken out again. Take your time to think about Y’shua’s warning. It is a warning to each and every single one of us. Think about your own situation – is it filled with custom or tradition or ritual? If it is, then it is time to learn what a life led by the Spirit of God really means.

Shalom.

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