DUNCAN/A warning against false teaching
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 16:1-12. In Matthew 16:1, Jesus and His disciples have arrived back on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. They have moved back into that region which is more Jewish, although all of Galilee was mixed with both Jew and Gentile. They have moved from the site of the Decapolis which was predominantly Gentile, and back into a more Jewish region. And as soon as they arrived, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the opponents of the Lord Jesus, were waiting to see if they can hatch some plot to embarrass Jesus. We will see three things from this passage. First, the heart is the great barrier to faith, not the evidence. Second, Christians should take great care in whom we follow. And third, Christians must avoid false teaching.
I. The Heart Is the Great Barrier to Faith, Not the Evidence
In this passage, as we see Jesus confronted by His opponents, we learn a vitally important lesson about the obstacle, or the obstacles, to saving faith. In verses 1-4 we see Jesus rebuking unbelief. We learn a very important truth: the heart is the great barrier to faith, not the evidence. It is not evidence which is the barrier to faith. It is the heart which is the barrier to faith. Jesus makes that clear in this exchange with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
These religious leaders by coming to Jesus and saying, “show us a sign from heaven,” are tacitly dismissing all the signs that Jesus has already performed, many of which have been done in the sight of them or of their colleagues. You need to understand that they were not interested at all in Jesus’ response. There would have been no response that Jesus could have made to their disrespectful demand that would have been satisfactory to them. There was no real openness in their hearts to being convinced by any sign, by any evidence, by any proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Matthew makes that clear to us by telling us 3 things.
First of all, will you notice that Matthew tells us explicitly that their purpose was to put Jesus to the test. In verse 1, we are told that they came to test, or to tempt, Jesus. Their desire is to embarrass Him, to shame Him, and hopefully, to disprove Him in front of the multitudes. They’re not there asking for this for their own spiritual welfare. They are there asking this to try and make sure that the crowds do not follow Jesus any more. Secondly, notice that Matthew repeatedly stresses that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were working together. Matthew knows that anyone who knew anything about the Judaism of the day when they heard that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were working together, knew that they were up to something. No good can be happening when the Pharisees and the Sadducees are working together on a project. Clearly, they have a sinister agenda because they are already factionalized themselves.
Finally, Matthew has already told you what the response of the Pharisees is to an undeniable, heavenly sign. You remember back in Matthew12:38-39, after Jesus had been casting out demons, what did the Pharisees say about Him? They said, “He casts those demons out by Satan.” They were determined to trip Jesus up, and there is no reason to believe that they would have accepted any sign offered to them. Jesus goes on to say in verse 4 that He will only give them one sign, the sign of Jonah. Going back to the experience of the prophet Jonah, who was swallowed up by the whale, and emerged on the third day, so also Jesus would be raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection is at the very heart of the gospel proof that He is the Messiah. The heart is the great barrier to faith, not the evidence.
II. Christians Should Take Great Care in Whom We Follow
In verses 5-7, you will see an exchange between Jesus and His disciples. He issues a warning to them about the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Note that Jesus insists that the disciples be discriminating about who they follow, who they admire, and who they emulate. If Jesus warns His disciples, the men upon whom He is going to found His worldwide mission, if He warns His disciples to be careful about who they listen to, and who they admire, and who they follow, how much more ought we to be on guard about who we listen to, who we learn from, and the doctrine that we take in? We must be on guard against those who pervert the truth of the Word.
III. Christians Must Avoid False Teaching
In verses 8-10, Jesus reprimands the disciples for misunderstanding what He is saying, and He tells them that the reason that they have misunderstood what He has said is because of their lack of faith. He reminds the disciples that He can do anything, and that He can provide for everything they need. The Lord first responds by reminding them of His recent, great, miraculous displays in the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000. By the phrase, “you men of little faith” in verse 8, He is putting His finger on the source of their misunderstanding. The Pharisees’ unbelief had blinded them to the clear signs that Christ had given that He was the Messiah. The disciples’ weak faith had blinded them to the meaning of His statement, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” They thought that He was rebuking them for not bringing bread. See, Jesus didn’t come to be served. He came to serve. He wasn’t rebuking His disciples for not serving Him adequately. He didn’t come to be served by His disciples. Who was the one in the Upper Room down on His knees washing their feet? He wasn’t in this for what He could get out of them. He was there to bless them. And so, His rebuke had to do with them not understanding the meaning of what He was saying.
He repeats that saying in verses 11-12. He reiterates that important warning, and He reminds us again that Christians must avoid false teaching like the plague. By repetition and emphasis, Jesus manages to get the main point through to the disciples. The teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees is pernicious. It’s spiritually harmful. It ought to be avoided. Jesus is saying, not only to the disciples but also to you and me, that as believers, we must take care not to dabble in unsound spiritual teaching. It has adverse spiritual consequences. Spiritual unbelief in a leader always has a moral component to it, and that moral component is infectious. That message is just as important for us in a day and age where Christianity is surrounded and penetrated by those who no longer embrace the great apostolic truths of faith. We must hold fast in a time of unbelief.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.