In Mark 8, Jesus warns his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. What exactly is Jesus warning them about? What is meant by their "leaven"?
To answer the question, Mark 8:1-21 must be viewed as a cohesive whole revolving around one basic issue: the nature of kingship and therefore the kingdom. The chapter begins with the feeding of the 4000, announcing in no uncertain terms that the way in which Jesus will manifest his reign among the Gentiles will be fundamentally the same as the way he does in Israel (recall the feeding of the 5000 in Israelite territory earlier). Jesus will rule by serving; He will gain by giving. You see, some might be able to get this with Israel. Sure, they might say, He’ll serve the people of God, He will serve in Israel. But surely with the nations He’ll put them in their place; surely He’ll spread His rule among them by force of conquest; He will squash them, this is what Messiah will do.
But Jesus says NO – I have come to serve, not to be served. I will extend My rule among the Gentiles, I will manifest My rule over the Gentiles, in the same way – by sacrificing and giving Myself for them. I will feed them; I will care for them.
It is in the context of this declaration that we come to the demand of the Pharisees in vv. 11-12. The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees has been intensifying throughout Mark’s Gospel. Here in our verses the Pharisees are once again testing Jesus. Mark is bringing us back to the issue of vindication. In the previous chapter the Pharisees endeavored to vindicate their authority to speak for God by pointing out that they observed the tradition of the elders, unlike Jesus. But this plan backfired. Jesus demonstrated that far from obeying Moses with their traditions, they were actually disobeying him, undermining the Word of God. Now Jesus returns from abroad and the Pharisees, in frustration, demand visible evidence of His authority. Can you prove that you speak for God? Show us some visible sign from heaven! Prove it! Show us!
What lies behind their demand is a false conception of Kingship – the King that we’re looking for will be dynamic, powerful, awe inspiring. He’ll be like (dare we say it and reveal their sin?), he will be like SAUL – tall, stately, kingly, powerful. So show us Jesus! Prove it.
But Jesus spurns their demand. Already, according to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Jesus has faced this temptation. Remember that in the wilderness temptation Satan took Jesus up to the top of the temple and declared, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here and the angels of God will protect you. You’ll get all the acclamations of the crowd! You’ll prove that you really are the Messiah!” And this is the temptation, the demand, that the Pharisees lay before Jesus now. “If you are the Messiah, if you really are the Son of God, then prove it! Prove that you’re the one with God’s approval; that you’re the spokesman for the true Israel. Manifest your power!”
But Jesus repudiates them and their notion of Kingship. No. No sign will be given to this generation. You’ll get nothing for which you are seeking because your eyes are so blinded that you can’t see all the signs that God has already been giving you! You foolish men! You read the signs of the seasons but you can’t even figure out what God is doing right now. Your misconceptions have so poisoned and blinded you that you can’t even figure out who I am. You fools!
And so Jesus in disgust leaves them abruptly. He goes back into the boat toward the other side of the lake, toward the city of Bethsaida. The last time Jesus was on the sea with the disciples, he was walking on the water, revealing to them His glory; but they were too dull to figure it out. They couldn’t see exactly what Jesus was doing.
In our text, we find that they are still dull of hearing. They don’t quite have it figured out yet. For Jesus tries to give them this warning about being like the Pharisees, and all they can think about is bread.
Jesus warns the disciples, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
The leaven of the Pharisees makes sense – we’ve just seen it have we not? But what of the leaven of Herod? Is it not fundamentally the same? We have seen that whatever differences the Pharisees and Herodians may have had with one another – and there were many – both were united in their opposition to Jesus (cf. 3:6). Why? Because for all their disagreements the Pharisees and Herodians were united in their conception of the Kingdom, or at least in their conception of Kingship. Kingship is a display of power, a show of force. Kingship subdues, conquers, destroys, overthrows. Jesus warns the disciples – beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians. This is not the nature of My Kingdom. The Pharisees and Herodians had the same basic vision – personal or national greatness at the expense of others. Jesus rejects such a program. “No! In me, as the Scripture says, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
And this is a message the disciples themselves stood in dire need of learning. What does it mean to be the Messiah? What does it mean to be one of His disciples? It is this lesson that Jesus is forced to teach again and again and again in succeeding chapters (8:33; 9:33ff, 38ff; 10:13ff, 35ff).
What then can we learn from the passage before us today? What principles does Jesus give to guide us in our understanding of the nature of His Kingship and His rule?
First and foremost, note the whole point of this section: the Pharisees and Herodians had mixed up notions of Kingship. Herod was a cannibalistic king, building his kingdom on raw power. The Pharisees objected to Herod not because his notion of kingship was fundamentally askew but simply because they weren’t the one’s with the power and he was too accommodating to other nations. You see, Herod was a syncretist, the Pharisees separatists. Jesus rejects both of them. He gives an entirely new paradigm of Kingship – the King is one who serves and who gives his life for the benefit of his people. He truly is a public servant.
Jesus displays this in His ministry. He is no Saul. He is not stately, kingly, powerful in appearance. He is lowly. He is like David, a youth, not of remarkable appearance. He is a servant. And so God will raise Him up and exalt Him higher than any other name.
Philippians 2:5-11 (NKJV)
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Notice then that Jesus’ feeding of the 4000 undermines all attempts to carry out the Great Commission by force or cruelty. There is no Islamic jihad here. No spreading the faith of Christ with the sword. Jesus extends His rule by serving; he extends His rule by sacrificing; he extends His rule by giving.
And He calls us as His people to imitate Him, to live the same way, to manifest the same type of giving and sacrificing, to the end that the Nations might know, that peoples might come to understand the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.