Beware of Poisoned Religion – Matthew 16:1-12

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Faith Bible Church, NY

January 23, 1994

Pastor Scott L. Harris

"Beware of Poisoned Religion"

Matthew 16:1-12

The kind of weather we have had the last several weeks not only presents us a beautiful landscape, and everyone would have to admit that Tuesday morning was especially gorgeous with sky being so blue and the fresh snow in the trees, but along with the beauty are some dangers. The icy conditions make driving and walking treacherous and the extreme cold can quickly nip your ears and nose. Another danger exists inside your warm home, and that is carbon monoxide poisoning that can occur if your heating system becomes faulty. There have been some recent cases of that in our area.

Now most of you I am sure are aware of these dangers, but did you ever think about why carbon monoxide was so dangerous? Most poisons work because they destroy tissues in our body such as a caustic substance eating a hole in your stomach, or they cause our organs to function improperly such as a neurotoxin over-stimulating your nervous system causing convulsions. Carbon monoxide does neither. It works because your body loves it so much.

When you breathe in, the oxygen in the air is transferred through your lungs and becomes attached to your red blood cells. They in turn circulate throughout the body and deliver the oxygen to where it is needed. Blood cells then pick up excess carbon dioxide and bring it back to the lungs where it is exhaled. Oxygen is inhaled and carbon dioxide is exhaled. Carbon monoxide, however, prevents this process from happening because the red blood cells like carbon monoxide so much that once they have it they do not want to pick up either oxygen or carbon dioxide. A person actually suffocates while breathing. This morning we are going to look at another kind of poison that works the same way. It is a spiritual poison that condemns the soul to death because the human spirit prefers this poison to what it needs for life.

Turn to Matthew 16 as we look at Jesus’ warning to His disciples to beware of poisoned religion. In verses 1-4 there is an example of the poison, and in verses 5-12 Jesus warns His disciples about it. Look first at verses 1-4.


"And the Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Him asked Him to show them a sign from heaven. But He answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times? An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.’ And he left them, and went away."

There are several things to take note of in this passage. First, poisoned religion is not concerned with the truth. Second, poisoned religion is man-centered, and third, poisoned religion understands the temporal, but not the eternal.


Notice in verse one that the Pharisees have now joined together with the Sadducees. That does not seem significant until you understand that these groups were opposites of each other. The Pharisees were the ultraconservatives basing their lives upon the traditions handed down to them. The Sadducees were the ultraliberals who cared nothing for the traditions and would compromise anything be it religious, cultural, or political if they thought it would be expedient to their cause.

The Sadducees were largely from the aristocracy and usually the High Priest and Chief Priests were from their ranks. The operators of the Temple concessions came from among them. These are the people that became wealthy selling the sacrificial animals and from money changing. They claimed to believe the Bible, but their materialistic bent so distorted its meaning that no significant meaning was left. They denied the existence of angels, the resurrection of the dead, and anything else supernatural.

The Pharisees were largely from the working class and many of them made their living in some sort of trade just as Paul did. They held to the Bible as being God’s Word and believed in angels, the resurrection, and God’s supernatural intervention into the lives of mankind. Their main problem with the Scriptures is that they raised their traditions to be equal to them, and for all practical purposes they actually held their traditions to be superior to the Bible.

For these two groups to come together they would have to set apart their many fundamental differences, and that demonstrates that the truth was not their major concern. The Scriptural proverb that "Two men cannot walk together unless they are agreed" is true. The common point of agreement for the Pharisees and Sadducees was that they wanted to destroy Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Sadducees wanted Jesus destroyed because Jesus interfered with their profiteering in the Temple when He had taken a scourge of cords and had driven them out while scattering the sheep and oxen and over turning the tables of the money changers (John 2:13f). (See: The Zeal of Jesus). The Pharisees wanted Jesus dead because Jesus did not follow their traditions and was becoming a threat to their power over the people.

Neither group was concerned about the truth. The Sadducees were already known to be pragmatists willing to compromise on almost anything if it would get them what they wanted. The Pharisees were really no different. They made much acclaim to being the keepers of the Mosaic Law and the rabbinic traditions, but they held the traditions of men over the truth of God’s revelations. We have already examined many passages in which Jesus had pointed out to them how far they had strayed from the Mosaic Law. Contrary to their claim, they did not live according to the Mosaic Law because they had compromised it by their traditions. They also failed to even live up to their traditions. Their very efforts in plotting to kill Jesus (See: The Lord of the Sabbath) were contrary to the rabbinic teachings, but they were willing to compromise on them in order to get what they wanted. So in reality, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the same for neither group was concerned about the truth.

The first mark of a poisoned religion is that it is not concerned about truth. Why? Because


The Pharisees and Sadducees both demonstrated this trait. As already mentioned, they were out to destroy Jesus because Jesus was interfering with their personal interests. In addition their demand of Jesus also demonstrates their man centered thinking. Look again at Matthew 16:1, "And the Pharisees and Sadducees came up, and testing Him asked Him to show them a sign from heaven."

Notice that the Pharisees and Sadducees did not come to Jesus seeking to learn from Him, but as the text says, "to test Him." Again we note that they were not interested in the truth, but only in finding some way they could discredit Jesus and then destroy Him. They wanted to give Jesus a challenge they thought He would fail. They were so centered in on themselves that they failed to observe what Jesus had already done. The challenge that they gave Him was one that Jesus had already fulfilled.

Their challenge specifically was for Jesus to show them a "sign from heaven." The idea of a sign from heaven was specific. They were looking for Jesus to do something like had been recorded in the Old Testament where some miraculous thing had come out of heaven such as the manna that fed the Children of Israel in the wilderness, or the fire that Elijah called down in his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, or the Sun and Moon standing still like it did for Joshua.

The Sadducees thought that Jesus would certainly fail this test. Remember that they did not believe in the supernatural so they reasoned it would be impossible for Jesus to perform such a feat. And anyway, if Jesus did produce some sort of sign, there certainly would be some logical explanation of it.

The Pharisees also thought Jesus would fail. They believed in the supernatural, but they thought that only God could do a sign from heaven because Satan was limited to the earth, therefore Jesus could not perform such a sign because they believed His power came from Satan. They were wrong on both accounts.

Satan can perform signs in the sky as he did in Job 1:16 and 19 when Satan directed fire from heaven to fall on Job’s sheep destroying them. Satan also directed a great wind to come out of the wilderness and kill all of Job’s sons and daughters when it caused the house they were all in to collapse. We must be careful in interpreting supernatural occurrences because Satan is a deceiver and Paul warns in 1 Thessalonians 2 about Satan’s "power, signs and false wonders" by which he will deceive many. A miracle in itself does not in itself say whether it is from God or from Satan. You must examine whether it is in keeping with the Scriptures, its purpose, who is glorified by it, and its effect. If it is not in keeping with the Scriptures, it is not from God. If it is not done for a godly purpose to bring praise to God (not man) and it does not produce holiness in men, then beware.

The Pharisees were also wrong about Jesus. Jesus’ various miracles were in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies. They were done out of compassion for man to the glory of God, and they encouraged men in holiness. Both the type and nature of the miracles and signs that Jesus did point very clearly to the fact that He was from God. In fact, Jesus was the very sign that they were asking for. The wanted a sign from heaven and Jesus said in John 6, "I am the bread that came down out of heaven." Jesus was sent by God the Father from heaven to earth to redeem sinful man. All the evidence was already present demonstrating that, but the Pharisees and Sadducees were not interested in the truth nor in the things of God, but only themselves. They were man-centered.

The Pharisees and Sadducees had taken Judaism and poisoned it and they found many followers who wanted what they had to offer. Just as our physical body craves carbon monoxide over what is best for it, so in religion man craves not God, but himself. He wants to be the center of his universe, the captain of his fate, and so he finds a way to poison the revelation of God with a man-centered philosophy and then call the evil result "good." He trades the truth of God’s Word and distorts it according to his own desire.

This type of poisoned religion is still all around us, but it is not just in the false religions and cults. We also find it in the evangelical-fundamental churches. It is present in the watered down gospel of easy believism that presents God as a beneficent grandfather who will overlook any and everything you do rather than as the Holy and just Creator who loves you too much to let you remain in any sinful practice. It reveals its self when people try to earn their way to heaven through rituals and good works. True Christians do good works as a response to God’s love, not as a means to earn it. The poison of man-centered theologies is sweeping into the church as Biblical Counseling centered in God’s grace and mercy to sinful men is replaced with secular psychology that is candy coated with Christian phrases. Poisoned religion is all around us, and it is recognized by its turning away from the truth of God’s word and becoming centered in the thoughts of man rather than the revelation of God. One other mark of poisoned religion is


Observe Jesus’ answer to them, and as often is the case, the answer is in the form of a question. In short. He says, "How come you can so easily discern what the weather will be by looking at the sky and yet you cannot comprehend the signs of the epoch that is upon you?" They could see clearly the signs that marked the changing of the weather, which is something very temporal, transient, fleeting, and yet they were blind to all the signs given by both Jesus and John the Baptist that the Messiah was present. Because they were not concerned about the truth and they were man-centered, they were blind to what was in front of them. It is for that reason that Jesus concludes His answer to them in verse 4.

"An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah." Jesus then leaves without explaining what He meant by the sign of Jonah. This was His first public reference to His forthcoming death, but He left them alone in their spiritual blindness because they refused to see what was right in front of them. No sign would convince them of the truth. Not even if one should rise from the dead (Luke 16).

Some of you come Sunday after Sunday and hear about Jesus, but you still have not responded to His claims to being God in human flesh and the only means of salvation from sin. If you have questions you are still trying to get answered that is fine, but you need to ask yourself what would it take for you to yield your life to Jesus as He is asking you to do? Eventually we find from this passage and also from Romans 1 that God will depart from a person who continues in unbelief. Take warning; don’t be like either the Pharisees or Sadducees. In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus warns His disciples about them.


"And the disciples came to the other side and had forgotten to take bread. And Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began to discuss among themselves, saying, ‘It is because we took no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets you took up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

How much are we just like the disciples? It has only been a short time since they had seen Jesus feed more than 4,000 Gentiles on the southeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. (See: Compassion for People). They have crossed with Jesus back to the region of Magadan somewhere on the western shore and now they are going back to the northern shore near Bethsaida where Jesus had fed the 5,000 plus, yet their minds quickly turn from the spiritual to the temporal, from the eternal to the transient. As they begin their journey back across the lake, they realize that they have not taken enough bread with them (Mark points out they had only one loaf in the boat). Their minds have become fixed on that, so when Jesus seeks to turn His encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees into a lesson for them they miss the point. Then, to make matters worse, instead of asking Jesus to explain (which requires humility), they start discussing it among themselves. Are we not often like that? We are slow to understand the lessons that God is teaching us because we so quickly fill our minds with the routine things of life. Our lives quickly become filled with concern over what we will eat, when we will eat, and what we will wear even though we know from Matthew 6 and personal experience that God will provide all those things if we will keep our priorities straight and seek His kingdom and His righteousness first.

Let me challenge you here. Your life will always be hindered until you learn this lesson. God wants you to be preoccupied with living a moral and pure life and serving Him, not worried about the commonplace things of life. There is both a wonderful peace and sense of fulfillment when your life is God-centered instead of man-centered. I would even say there is more exhilaration in life because you become bolder in life because your security is in Him and not your own abilities to manipulate your environment.

We find that though the disciples initially missed the point, that after a relatively mild rebuke in which Jesus reminds them that He will take care of them, they finally understood Jesus’ warning. Bread is bread regardless of who makes it – a devout Christian, a cultist, a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, a pagan, or an atheistic reprobate. The religious convictions of your baker, or mechanic, or doctor, or shoe salesman make little difference. You are not contaminated because you buy something or receive services from a non-Christian. But the beliefs of those who teach you, counsel you, and advise you make a big difference, and that is what Jesus is warning them about.

Jesus’ warning to His disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees applies to us as well. Remember that leaven is simply an illustrative way of referring to the influence of a person. Just as a little yeast will affect a whole loaf of bread, so it only takes a little influence from poisoned religion to affect us. At minimum, the influence of poisoned religion will hinder our ability to really serve the Lord, but left unchecked, it can turn us into enemies of the cause of Christ even while we claim to be serving Him like those in Matthew 7.

What is the leaven of the Sadducees and Pharisees? The Pharisees were the legalists of their day. These religious hypocrites had traded the Word of God and His mercy and grace for man-made traditions and rituals. Their form of ungodliness was characterized by outward show without inward reality, external piety without internal righteousness. These sorts of people are still around us. Beware of people who say you should do this and not do that and are unable to back up what they say with a clear explanation from the Scriptures. A person who is inwardly righteous will humbly speak the truth of God’s word in love.

The Sadducees were the theological liberals of their day. They were materialistic and rationalistic. They denied angels, miracles, the resurrection, hell, and everything else beyond natural explanation. We still have such people around. They use religion for their own gain. Church is for social affairs, charitable works, and business contacts. They profess to be wise, but have become fools. They take pride in explaining away the plain meaning of Scriptures, but in doing so they reject the truth and deny the undeniable. I like what John MacArthur says of them.

"The liberal theologian does not prefer the speculations of philosophy or psychology because these are more provable or persuasive than the truths of Scripture but because he prefers man’s wisdom to God’s. And, contrary to his claim, the agnostic does not refuse to believe because he cannot know about God but because he will not know about Him. The person who turns to rationalism, evolution, skepticism, or simply to himself for meaning and purpose does not do so because of lack of evidence about God and Christ but in spite of it. The person who turns to man-made religion does not do so because no light about the true God is available but because he despises that light and that God."

The warning that Jesus gave to His disciples is one that we must also heed. How can we do that?


First, Be a truth seeker. Be aware that there are many false teachers out there. If you blindly believe everything you hear and read, then you will find yourself in deep trouble. Remember that poisoned religion is unconcerned about the truth and complacency is an ally to falsehood. You have to expend the energy to find out the truth. You have to check out what a person says and determine if it is fact or fantasy, the truth or a lie, reality or imagination. In Acts 17, Paul commended those in Berea because they "received the word with eagerness, examining the Scripture daily, to see whether these things were so." They listened to what Paul said and then checked it out with their Bibles. You should do the same with what I say, with what you hear on the radio and television, with what you read.

Second, recognize that poisoned teaching is by design enticing. It sounds good to our selfish natures. It makes us feel good about ourselves because it is man-centered. This is going to take self-examination into our motives. Why do you do what you do? Why do you refrain from doing what you don’t do? Are the decisions you make in life for your own benefit or for God’s glory? How do you spend your time? How do you spend your money? What occupies your thoughts? What do you pray for? Our purpose for existence is not the pursuit of happiness, but of holiness. Which are you pursuing?

Third, which do you understand more about: the temporal things of this earthly life or the things of God? Before you defend yourself and say your work requires you to spend your time with earthly things so of course you understand them more, let me make the question more pointed. Which are you more interested in understanding? The more you understand God, the greater your defense against poisoned religion. Are you taking advantage of the opportunities to learn? The church holds Sunday School, Sunday Evening services, various Bible Studies, as well as encouraging personal discipleship. Are you consistently involved in your own devotions and Bible Study? What do you read, listen to and watch? The opportunities are all around you, but unless you make the effort to be involved with them, you will not grow.

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