Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21; Luke 12:1
5. And his disciples, when they had come to the opposite bank, through neglect had not taken bread. 427 6. And Jesus said to them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. 7. But they considered within themselves, saying, We have not taken bread. 428 8. And when Jesus knew this, he said to them, Why do you think within yourselves, O you of little faith, that you have not taken bread? 9. Do you not yet understand, and do you not remember those five loaves, when there were five thousand men, and how many baskets you carried away? 10. Nor those seven loaves, when there were four thousand men, and how many baskets you carried away? 11. How comes it that you do not understand that it was not about bread that I told you to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? 12. Then they understood that he did not bid them beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
14. And they had neglected to take bread, and had not more than one loaf with them in the ship. 15. And he charged them saying, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod. 16. And they reasoned within themselves, saying, We have not bread. 429 17. And Jesus, perceiving this, said to them, Why do you reason that you have no bread? Do you not yet consider or understand? Have you your heart yet blinded? 18. Having eyes, do you not see? and having ears, do you not hear? and do you not remember? 19. When I broke the five thousand men, how many baskets full of fragments did you carry away? They say to him, Twelve. 20. And when [I broke] the seven among four thousand, how many baskets of the remains of the fragments did you carry away? And they said, Seven. 21. And he said to them, How is it that you do not understand?
1. And when an innumerable multitude had assembled, 430 so that they trod one upon another, he began to say to his disciples, Above all, beware 431 of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy
Matthew 16:5. And when his disciples came. Here Christ takes occasion from the circumstance that had just occurred 432 to exhort his disciples to beware of every abuse that makes an inroad on sincere piety. The Pharisees had come a little before; the Sadducees joined them; and apart from them stood Herod, a very wicked man, and an opponent and corrupter of sound doctrine. In the midst of these dangers it was very necessary to warn his disciples to be on their guard; for, since the human mind has a natural inclination towards vanity and errors, when we are surrounded by wicked inventions, spurious doctrines, and other plagues of the same sort, nothing is more easy than to depart from the true and simple purity of the word of God; and if we once become entangled in these things, it will never be possible for the true religion to hold an entire sway over us. But to make the matter more clear, let us examine closely the words of Christ.
Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. Along with the Pharisees Matthew mentions the Sadducees Instead of the latter, Mark speaks of Herod Luke takes no notice of any but the Pharisees, (though it is not absolutely certain that it is the same discourse of Christ which Luke relates,) and explains the leaven to be hypocrisy In short, he glances briefly at this sentence, as if there were no ambiguity in the words. Now the metaphor of leaven, which is here applied to false doctrine, might have been employed, at another time, to denote the hypocrisy of life and conduct, or the same words might even have been repeated a second time. But there is no absurdity in saying, that those circumstances which are more copiously detailed by the other two Evangelists, in the order in which they took place, are slightly noticed by Luke in a manner somewhat different, and out of their proper place or order, but without any real contradiction. If we choose to adopt this conjecture, hypocrisy will denote here something different from a pretended and false appearance of wisdom. It will denote the very source and occasion of empty display, which, though it holds out an imposing aspect to the eyes of men, is of no estimation in the sight of God. For, as Jeremiah (Jer 5:3) tells us that the eyes of the Lord behold the truth, so they that believe in his word are instructed to maintain true godliness in such a manner as to cleave to righteousness with an honest and perfect heart; as in these words,
An now, O Israel, what doth the Lord require from thee, but that thou shouldst cleave to him with all thy heart, and with all thy soul? (De 10:12.)
On the other hand, the traditions of men, while they set aside spiritual worship, wear a temporary disguise, as if God could be imposed upon by such deceptions; for to whatever extent outward ceremonies may be carried, they are, in the sight of God, nothing more than childish trifles, unless so far as they assist us in the exercise of true piety.
We now perceive the reason why hypocrisy was viewed by Luke as equivalent to doctrines invented by men, and why he included under this name the leavens of men, which only puff up, and in the sight of God contain nothing solid, and which even draw aside the minds of men from the right study of piety to empty and insignificant ceremonies. But it will be better to abide by the narrative of Matthew, which is more copious. The disciples, after having been reproved by our Lord, came at length to understand that he had charged them to be on their guard against certain doctrine. It was plainly, therefore, the intention of Christ to fortify them against prevailing abuses, by which they were attacked on all sides. The Pharisees and Sadducees were expressly named, because those two sects maintained at that time a tyrannical sway in the Church, and held opinions so utterly subversive of the doctrine of the Law and the Prophets, that almost nothing remained pure and entire.
But Herod did not in any way profess to teach; and a question arises, why does Mark class him with false teachers? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and Of The Leaven Of Herod. I reply: he was half a Jew, was mean and treacherous, and availed himself of every contrivance that was within his reach to draw the people to his side; for it is customary with all apostates to contrive some mixture, for the purpose of establishing a new religion by which the former may be abolished. It was because he was laboring craftily to subvert the principles of true and ancient piety, and thus to give currency to a religion that would be exceedingly adapted to his tyranny, or rather because he was endeavoring to introduce some new form of Judaism, that our Lord most properly charged them to beware of his leaven. From the temple of God the scribes disseminated their errors, and the court of Herod was another workshop of Satan, in which errors of a different kind were manufactured.
Thus in our own day we find that not only from Popish temples, and from the dens of sophists and monks, does Antichrist vomit out her impostures, but that there is a Theology of the Court, which lends its aid to prop up the throne of Antichrist, so that no stratagem is left untried. But as Christ opposed the evils which then prevailed, and as he aroused the minds of his followers to guard against those which were the most dangerous, let us learn from his example to make a prudent inquiry what are the abuses that may now do us injury. Sooner shall water mix with fire than any man shall succeed in reconciling the inventions of the Pope with the Gospel. Whoever desires to become honestly a disciple of Christ, must be careful to keep his mind pure from those leavens; and if he has already imbibed them, he must labor to purify himself till none of their polluting effects remain. There are restless men, on the other hand, who have endeavored in various ways to corrupt sound doctrine, and, in guarding also against such impostures, believers must maintain a strict watch, that they may keep a perpetual Passover
with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,
And as on every hand there now rages an impiety like that of Lucian, 433 a most pernicious leaven, or rather a worse than deadly poison, let them exercise this very needful caution, and apply to it all their senses.
8. Why do you think within yourselves, etc.? The disciples again show how little they had profited by the instructions of their Master, and by his wonderful works. What he had said about being on their guard against the leaven is rashly interpreted by them as if Christ intended only to withdraw them from outward intercourse. As it was customary among the Jews not to take food in company with irreligious men, the disciples imagine that the Pharisees were classed with such persons. This ignorance might perhaps have been endured; but they are forgetful of a favor which they lately received, and do not consider that Christ has the remedy his power to hinder them from being compelled to pollute themselves by meat and drink, and therefore he reproves them sharply, as they deserved. And certainly it was shameful ingratitude that, after having seen bread created out of nothing, and in such abundance as to satisfy many thousands of men, and after having seen this done twice, they are now anxious about bread, as if their Master did not always possess the same power. From these words we infer that all who have once or twice experienced the power of God, and distrust it for the future are convicted of unbelief; for it is faith that cherishes in our hearts the remembrance of the gifts of God, and faith must have been laid asleep, if we allow them to be forgotten.
12. Then they understood. The word leaven is very evidently used by Christ as contrasted with the pure and uncorrupted word of God. In a former passage, (Mt 13:33,) Christ had used the word in a good sense, when he said that the Gospel resembled leaven; 434 but for the most part this word is employed in Scripture to denote some foreign substance, by which the native purity of any thing is impaired. In this passage, the naked truth of God, and the inventions which men contrive out of their own brain, are unquestionably the two things that are contrasted. The sophist must not hope to escape by saying that this ought not to be understood as applicable to every kind of doctrine; for it will be impossible to find any doctrine but what has come from God that deserves the name of pure and unleavened Hence it follows that leaven is the name given to every foreign admixture; as Paul also tells us that faith is rendered spurious, as soon as we are
drawn aside from the simplicity of Christ,
It must now be apparent who are the persons of whose doctrine our Lord charges us to beware. The ordinary government of the Church was at that time in the hands of the scribes and priests, among whom the Pharisees held the highest rank. As Christ expressly charges his followers to beware of their doctrine, it follows that all who mingle their own inventions with the word of God, or who advance any thing that does not belong to it, must be rejected, how honorable soever may be their rank, or whatever proud titles they may wear. Accursed and rebellious, therefore, is the obedience of those who voluntarily submit to the inventions and laws of the Pope.
“Et quand les disciples furent venus outre, ils avoyent oublie a prendre les pains;” — “and when the disciples were come across, they had forgotten to take bread.”
“[C’est pource que] nous n’avons point prins de pains;” — “[it is because] we have not taken bread.”
“[C’est pource que] nous n’avons point prins de pains;” — “[it is because] we have not taken bread.”
“Cependant une multitude s’estant assemblee a milliers;” — “mean while, a multitude having assembled by thousands.”
“En premier lieu, donnez-vous garde;” — “in the first place, beware.”
“Ici Christ prenant occasion des propos precedens;” — “here Christ taking occasion from the former discourse.”
“L’mpiete des Lucianistes et des Atheistes;” — “the impiety of the Lucianists and Atheists.” Lucian, a celebrated Greek writer, of the second century of the Christian era, author of Dialogues of the Dead, is here alluded to as the type of scoffers and Atheists. His subject naturally led him to treat with sportive humor the solenmities of death and the future judgment; and the wit and elegance of his pen, had it been guided by ordinary caution, would have been readily — far too readily — sustained as an apology for the tone of his work. But in defiance of the ordinary feelings of mankind, he attacked so fearlessly the most sacred truths, and offended the ear of modesty by such indecent allusions, that his character as a man has been stamped with infamy. Modern times have scarcely produced so daring an infidel, with the exception perhaps of Voltaire, who took no pains to conceal his intense hatred of Christianity and of good men. Had he appeared earlier, his name might perhaps have been substituted for that of Lucian, as the representative of his class. — Ed.
See page 127 of this volume.