PassageIn this passage there is a large crowd around Jesus—many thousands of people (verse 1 (ESV))—but before addressing them, Jesus addresses his disciples. He tells them to beware the “leaven of the Pharisees,” which is hypocrisy. Why? Because you can’t keep it secret—you will be found out:
Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. (verses 2–3 (ESV))He then goes on to tell them that they don’t need to be afraid of the people who can do nothing more than kill them; instead, they should be afraid of the one who, after they’re dead, has the power to cast them into hell. But his next statement almost seems to contradict this one: Even though sparrows are of so little value that five of them are sold for two pennies, God remembers all of them, and humans are much more valuable than sparrows—so his disciples shouldn’t be afraid. So… they should be afraid of the one who can cast them into hell, but, because they’re valuable to Him, they shouldn’t be afraid. (Obviously words are being used in different ways in different contexts; I’m just being facetious. See below.)
He then brings the point specifically back to hypocrisy:
And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. (verses 8–12 (ESV))
ThoughtsWhy does Jesus talk about the “leaven” of the Pharisees? Leaven—or yeast—is an agent used in baking, to add volume; it’s what makes bread rise, for example. But Jesus’ point is that you don’t typically need a lot of it; a little bit of leaven, though it might seem small on its own, makes its way through the whole batch of whatever it is that you’re baking. Paul makes this explicit, saying that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (i.e. lump of dough) in a couple of places: 1 Corinthians 5:6 (ESV) and Galatians 5:9 (ESV). The point is this: hypocrisy may not seem like that big of a deal, but it is, and when it’s present, it ruins your entire relationship with God.
Frankly, if the Bible didn’t keep railing against it, I doubt I’d be smart enough to understand why hypocrisy is so problematic; I’m sinful enough that, if I didn’t know any better, I could probably even find a way to twist things around until it actually seemed like a good thing. (“Whether I’m righteous or not, wouldn’t it be better to at least seem righteous?”) But what’s going to happen? Whatever it is that I’m being hypocritical about, I’m eventually going to get found out. How many high-profile preachers and politicians have railed against some sin or the other, only to have it go public that they are prone to that very sin? And then how does the public respond? “All preachers are fakes,” and, “all politicians are liars.” And, of course, even if nobody ever finds out other than God, He will know!
When Jesus tells his followers to fear God (instead of fearing those who can do nothing more than kill them), and then tells them not to fear, I have two explanations for this, and I actually think both are applicable:
- The “fear of the Lord” is a common theme in the Bible, but that phrase doesn’t necessarily mean “fear” in the way we typically use the word; “fear of the Lord” is something more akin to respect, or awe, or acknowledgement of how powerful He is—especially in comparison to us. (I think there’s a reason that the word is translated as “fear,” though, because there’s also an aspect of, for lack of better phrasing, a healthy respect for how dangerous a Being like that could be, if He weren’t looking out for us, since He is all powerful. “Gods,” as they were depicted in Roman/Greek mythology, if they had had God’s power, would have been very dangerous beings indeed! The Lord God Almighty really is that powerful—but we know enough about His character, His love, His graciousness, that “the fear of the Lord” doesn’t just mean “being scared of God.”) So there’s a sense in which you could take Jesus’ words to mean that we should have “fear of the Lord,” but that, if we have that “fear of the Lord,” we don’t need to be “afraid,” because He will care for us.
- You could also read both uses of the words afraid/fear to be the way we usually use the word fear, but in that case Jesus’ warnings to be afraid of God would apply to those who aren’t His children, and his second point that we don’t need to be afraid applies to those of us who are His children.
In the last set of verses I quoted, Jesus says that people can be forgiven for speaking against the Son of Man, but that blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. I just want to state, flat out, that I don’t know for sure what this means. Even the ESV Study Bible calls this, “one of the most enigmatic, debated, and misunderstood sayings of [Jesus’] ministry.” Their explanation of this passage is that speaking a word against the Son of Man refers to disrespectful words spoken about Jesus (which is a sin that can be forgiven, like any other sin), whereas blasphemy against the Spirit refers to persistent, unrepentant rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit (which can’t be forgiven because, if you die, and haven’t yet repented, it’s too late). And, sure, that seems like a reasonable explanation. It definitely fits in with my understanding of the theology of the Bible, on repentance for sin and the Grace of God. But the fact that it fits in with the theology of the Bible seems to be the only thing going for it; it’s like we took very enigmatic words of Jesus’, and then reverse engineered an explanation for them based on what we know about theology. Which, don’t get me wrong, is much better than taking this verse on its own and coming up with an explanation that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Bible—something that people are sometimes prone to do—but it also seems to me that the explanation doesn’t quite seem to fit with Jesus’ words; or, maybe a better way to put it, is that Jesus could have phrased himself more clearly, if that’s what he meant. But it’s also possible that there’s something very cultural going on here—a manner of speaking in Jesus’ day that doesn’t translate well into modern speech—or maybe some weird Greek stuff happening that is difficult to translate in English. So all of this adds up to me not being 100% sure as to what Jesus meant in this particular passage, though, as mentioned, the explanation given in the ESV Study Bible could very well be it.
In any event, these three sections can be summarized together:
- Don’t be hypocritical, like the Pharisees are, because hypocrisy will ruin your relationship with God
- Resisting hypocrisy will sometimes mean going against the world to stand with Jesus—and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. The worst they can do to us—the absolute worst thing they can possibly do—is kill us, and how bad is that compared to what God can do, in sending us to hell? (The answer to that rhetorical question is that yes, being killed is very, very bad, but going to hell is even worse.)
- Putting these two things together, we should stand up for Jesus whenever called to do so; we shouldn’t be afraid to do so, and have no reason to be afraid to do so. In fact, when we do, and when we’re called upon to “defend” ourselves (verse 11 (ESV)), the Holy Spirit Himself will help us find words to say.
- It’s worth tying in 1 Corinthians 1:10–31 (ESV), especially verse 17, in which Paul mentions that his preaching to the Corinthians wasn’t very eloquent, but that it was true. When we’re in similar situations, we may not suddenly give a poetic speech, with swelling music underneath our beautiful words, but we can still speak truth.