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In the gospels which narrate events two thousand years ago, a group of people called Pharisees occupied a prominent position. There were frequent confrontations between them and Jesus.

Luke 12:1 Meanwhile, 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.

Jesus warned his disciples to be on their guard against the yeast of the Pharisees. This warning applies to his disciples today as well. The spirit behind the Pharisees of Jesus’ day remains as active as ever today. How can modern-day Pharisees be identified?

The yeast of the Pharisees is hypocrisy

Jesus clearly taught that the yeast of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. One major characteristic of yeast in dough is that it spreads quickly and causes it to rise and grow in size. However, there is little substance to it because it is mostly air. The physical context in Luke 12 where Jesus taught about the yeast of the Pharisees is significant. At that moment, a crowd of many thousands had gathered around Jesus. Swirling about this man from Galilee who could perform unparalleled miracles were whispers that he might be the promised Messiah. There were so many people that they were trampling on one another. It was neither an orderly nor an obedient crowd. It was a carnal crowd drawn by the promise of spectacular miracles. It was in this heady atmosphere that Jesus warned his disciples to be on their guard against the yeast of the Pharisees. Why? These can be the conditions where the yeast of hypocrisy can spread quickly.

Let’s define hypocrisy in a very simple manner. It’s saying and teaching one thing, but secretly doing and practicing something very different. The Pharisees were very good at this. According to Strong’s, the Greek word for hypocrisy (hupocrisis) carries the strong flavor of pretense and deceit.

Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’

Let’s examine what was in their hearts which motivated them. First of all, they loved to receive honor from people. They loved to be recognized by people as men of God. Moreover, the Pharisees were motivated by the love of money—the root of all evil.

The love of money

Luke 16:14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.

Mark 12:38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law.… 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”

Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Jesus clearly taught that the Pharisees loved the praise of people and loved money. They preyed on widows who had possessions. It was not that the Pharisees were stingy. No, they knew how to give; they were faithful with their tithes. But they did not obey the spirit of the law.

Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

The severest punishment

Jesus also revealed that Pharisees looked very spiritual and righteous on the outside, but that on the inside they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Jesus condemned these men more harshly than he condemned anyone else, including gentiles and outsiders. They would be punished most severely (Mark 12:40). It was because outwardly they appeared to be righteous and God-fearing, but in reality they were sons of the devil (John 8:44). Therefore they were the perfect deceivers of God’s people. They were ferocious wolves in sheep’s clothing about which Jesus warned His flock in Matthew 7:15.

Matthew 23:29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! …33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

How can we identify the Pharisees of today?

Matthew 13:33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The yeast of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy spreads quickly through the kingdom of heaven, making it appear to grow and become large. But there is little substance involved. What kind of hypocrisy can do this?

Today in the Church there are teachers, citing mostly references from the Old Testament, who say that God wants every believer to be a millionaire. While on a mission trip to Southeast Asia, I saw a poster in a church promoting a meeting by a successful Christian businessman which trumpeted in bold letters, “How to get rich.” The purpose of this poster was to draw the lost to the meeting to hear the gospel. Those who would attend the meeting would of course likely be those who wanted to get rich.

1 Timothy 6:9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

The love of money and lavish earthly comfort, disguised as a holy desire for God’s blessings, has spread quickly through parts of the Church like yeast. Many Christians now gather to fill churches—big and small—every Sunday in search of God’s blessing here and now. It is not that God does not want to provide for our needs or that He does not desire to bless us here on earth. But some in the Church have crossed the line. Relatively few are the teachings that train us to live holy and fruitful lives on earth in order to receive our eternal reward in heaven. Rather, many teachings tell us what to do in order to receive God’s various blessings here on earth so that we may become “successful” and “fulfilled.” Becoming a blessing to others has become simply a pretext and an afterthought to seeking God’s earthly blessings for oneself.

Scripture teaches us otherwise.

Colossians 3:1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your a life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Big crowds drawn by the spectacular can be like dough puffed up by yeast

Those teachers who focus on earthly prosperity do so with the ultimate purpose of enriching themselves on the offerings of their ever-increasing number of disciples, as well for financing their big ministries. They love the earthly rewards of their teaching—material gain and many adoring followers. Outwardly they appear to be servants of God, but on the inside they are full of greed and the desire to become like Hollywood celebrities. They can draw huge crowds of people with spectacular miracles or promises, but these crowds of carnal Christians, like dough puffed up by yeast, are mostly air. They are fertile ground for yeast. Many of them have not come to learn to serve and obey Christ in holiness, but only to hear about God’s earthly blessings in this life. The teachers are more than willing to tickle their ears with empty words.

Such servants of God are among the Pharisees of today.

Luke 12:1 Meanwhile, 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.

When modern-day Pharisees see huge crowds, they don’t only see souls but more importantly the huge offerings which can be taken from them with cleverly-crafted words anointed with snake oil.

Matthew 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. …21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Ephesians 5:5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.