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The Yeast of Unbelief

Date: Oct. 6, 2019

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Mark 8:1-21

Key Verse: Mark 8:15

“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

At the end of the year, there is a Star Wars movie coming out The Rise of Skywalker, and who knows what that title means? We’ll find that out in December. There have been eight core movies and two side stories up to now, and most people would say that The Empire Strikes Back is currently the best of the bunch. There are so many iconic scenes in the movie, from the battle on the ice planet Hoth, where you first see the imperial walkers. There is the scene in the asteroid field. We get to go to Bespin where the biggest twist in Star Wars history happens and we find out that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. We get to meet Lando Calrissian there and meet Yoda on Dagobah. On Dagobah, Luke trains with Yoda and learns more of the ways of the Force. At one point in time, Yoda tells Luke to lift his X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force, since it had submerged itself. He tries…and fails. Exasperated, he says that it is too big. Yoda, who is just a few feet tall tells Luke that size does not matter, only the Force. Luke just doesn’t understand and calls it impossible and walks off. Then, Yoda calmly uses the Force to lift the X-Wing out of the swamp and he places it on dry land. When Luke sees what Yoda did, he says, “I don’t believe it.” To which, Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.” Believing is an extremely important part of our lives. Sometimes, the difference between failure and success is belief. A lack of belief can demoralize and cause you to fear and worry, but just believing a little can give hope to a hopeless situation. In today’s passage, Jesus warns his disciples about unbelief.

Last week, we heard Jesus sigh. He was sighing at the broken creation and he solved that brokenness with yet another sigh. In the last passage, Jesus was in the region of the Decapolis, a predominantly Gentile area. In this passage, Jesus is still in that region. Our passage begins, “During those days another large crowd gathered.” (1) While Jesus was in the Decapolis, a large crowd came to him. He had healed a deaf, mute man and word had spread throughout the region and people came to see him. The passage continues, “Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.’” (1-3) This crowd had been with Jesus for three days, and any provisions they may have had must have run out. Jesus had compassion on them and wanted to feed them. Some of the people had come from far away and they would never make it home unless they ate first.

The disciples responded, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” (4) The disciples had a legitimate question. There were a lot of people nearby, and nowhere to get food. They had seen Jesus feed five thousand with just a little bread and fish, but it wasn’t something that Jesus did regularly. They wouldn’t necessarily expect Jesus to do so again, but Jesus asked them about what they did have. The disciples replied that they had seven loaves. Then, Jesus had everybody sit down and he gave thanks for the food and distributed it. There were also a few small fish. Everybody had some and was satisfied. Afterward, the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces of bread that were left over. In this case, the passage says that there were four thousand men there.

Now, this sounds a lot like the feeding of the five thousand, and some people wonder if the two events are actually the same one. Fortunately, there is quite a bit of evidence to support that the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand are two separate events. First of all, the number of people is different, five thousand versus four thousand. Also, the location is different for each event. The feeding of the five thousand was in Galilee, while the four thousand was in the region of the Decapolis. This would mean that the five thousand consisted mostly of Jews while the four thousand consisted mostly of Gentiles. The number of bread and fish is different in each account. Five loaves and two fish for the five thousand and seven loaves and a few fish for the four thousand. In terms of leftovers, the five thousand had twelve basketfuls left over and the four thousand had seven. Even the word for basket in each account is different. For the five thousand the twelve basketfuls referred to small ceremonial baskets that everyone carried, whereas for the four thousand, the baskets referred to are larger. This means that there was probably more left over after the feeding of the four thousand than the five thousand. Looking at the texts, Luke and John only record the feeding of the five thousand in their gospels, but Mark and Matthew show both the five thousand and the four thousand. As we have been reading, Mark is all about the main point. His passages are short and to the point, but he puts both accounts in his gospel. He wouldn’t have put extra, redundant information in his gospel. The most telling evidence is at the end of this passage when Jesus refers to each feeding separately in verses 19 and 20. It really looks like this feeding is a separate account from the one earlier.

After feeding the four thousand, Jesus dismissed the crowd and crossed the Sea of Galilee and landed at Dalmanutha. The exact location of Dalmanutha is uncertain, but it is known to be back on the Galilean side of the lake. We can piece that together because the Pharisees come to check on Jesus, and they would never soil themselves by hanging out with Gentiles. The passage says, “The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.” (11) The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus to seek answers; they came to test him. They weren’t trying to find out who Jesus was; they came to find holes in who Jesus showed he was. Jesus had already performed many miracles, a number of them were unlike any that had been seen before. The blind could see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and even the dead rise. The wind obeys him, and they know all of this. Jesus’ actions show that he is from God, but when you look at these miracles in light of Scripture, the actions show that he is God. However, the Pharisees didn’t just want an everyday miracle. They wanted something that would prove beyond all doubt that Jesus had God’s approval. They wouldn’t accept Jesus unless God told them so, himself.

Honestly, I don’t think that anything would be enough proof for the Pharisees. If God had opened the heavens and spoke directly to the Pharisees, the Pharisees would complain that the voice didn’t sound like God, therefore it probably wasn’t God speaking. It’s messed up and Jesus felt the same way, “He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.’” (12) Here, we see Jesus sighing again. This time it is definitely out of frustration at these Pharisees. You see it in his words, and you see it in his sigh. He had just fed more than four thousand people on the other side of the lake. Now the Pharisees weren’t there to see it, but Jesus did it and performed many more miraculous signs in their presence. And yet, none of it was enough for them. What difference would one more make? Not one bit of a difference. So, Jesus tells them that there are not going to get one. What would the point be of giving one if nothing would change? So, Jesus hops back into the boat and goes to a different spot.

Now, while in the boat, the Bible notes that the disciples forgot to bring bread except for one loaf. This is mention briefly because of the confusion in what happens next. After just leaving the Pharisees on the shore, Jesus decides to warn the disciples about them. “‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’” (15) Jesus says to be careful and watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod. It is an obvious warning about something related to the Pharisees and Herod, but the disciples assume that it is about the lack of bread. They heard Jesus talking about yeast and they assumed he was talking about bread. The disciples were so worried about forgetting bread that they took Jesus’ words as a rebuke about it. But what Jesus was talking about had nothing to do with bread. “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?’” (17)

If Jesus wasn’t talking about bread, what was he talking about? He tells them to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod. What is this yeast? In the Bible, most of the time, yeast refers to something small that works its way through to affect something larger. Here the connotation is that the yeast is something undesirable, that’s why the disciples need to watch out. A small bit of whatever the yeast is can work its way through something that is larger, like someone’s life. This yeast is something that can infect someone’s life. But what is this yeast? The Bible doesn’t really explain what the yeast is, but we can get an idea about it. In other place, the yeast is the Pharisees’ teaching and their hypocrisy, but in this passage, the yeast is referring to something different. We can see this because of the inclusion of Herod. Herod wasn’t a teacher of God’s ways and wasn’t a hypocrite.

If you look in this passage, the Pharisees demanded that Jesus give them a sign to prove who he was, but they weren’t looking for truth. They were looking for ways to discredit Jesus. They were filled with unbelief. Now, unbelief is not simply not believing. You can believe in something or not believe in it, but then there are those who actively reject believing. Unbelief is when a person actively rejects a person, idea or concept. Unbelief actively goes out the way to push away an idea and find ways to poke holes in it. The Pharisees were filled with unbelief because, despite all the evidence, they still rejected Jesus. The Pharisees did not deny that Jesus performed miracles. They were aware of his healings and driving out demons. They had witnessed it themselves, but they denied the source of power. When Jesus was driving out demons in God’s name, the Pharisees recognized that Jesus was driving out demons, but they attributed it to the power of the devil. They said the Jesus was using demonic power to drive out demons, which really made no sense. Again, the Pharisees couldn’t not deny the power that Jesus had to heal, but they focused instead on how Jesus used that power in a way they thought was not right. He healed on holy day. It must not be God’s work. This is obvious unbelief.

We can see this type of unbelief today when people look for ways to discredit Christianity and Jesus. The Muslims say that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but there was someone else up there who died in Jesus’ place. I think someone would have noticed that. I don’t think that Jesus had a stunt double waiting in the wings. I don’t think that the Romans would have stopped crucifying him to put up the decoy. There is an unwillingness to accept the truth, so people look for ways to discredit the truth. Unbelief active denies the truth. Unbelief brings up ridiculous questions to poke holes in what people do believe. There are questions like, “If God is good and all powerful, why is there evil in this world? He is either not good because he allows the existence of evil or not all powerful because he can’t get rid of evil.” It sounds like sound reasoning, but the point is not about thinking about God, but to get people to question their beliefs. But the question is narrow and misses some very important things about God. He is good and he is all powerful, but evil’s source is humanity. People are the source of evil. It comes from our hearts because we choose to disobey God. God could choose to eradicate evil entirely. He has the power, but that would mean that everyone would have to die, because we are the source of evil. We devise new ways to do evil. Without getting rid of everyone, evil could never be gone, so instead he uses that evil and turns it to good. It was evil that put Jesus on the cross, but by allowing that evil to do so, evil was rendered powerless through the salvation of humanity.

Herod was filled with unbelief, too. When he heard about Jesus and his power, Herod did not try to find out more, he was filled with fear and assumed that John the Baptist had returned from the dead. Herod should have accepted the word of God that both preached, but his heart was filled with fear and regret. He refused to accept the truth about Jesus and failed to realize that Jesus and John actually worked at the same time. This unbelief comes from his refusal to repent for his sins, so Herod was filled with guilt and fear. That is what unbelief does, it fills us with guilt and fear. That fear works its way through our lives, making us irrational and filled with pain. That fear leads to anger, to hate and to suffering. We become paranoid and everything becomes about the thing we fear.

That paranoia is exactly what was filling the disciples. They were so caught up in their lack of bread that Jesus’ words about unbelief were turned into words about bread. Their own unbelief jumped the rails and landed on a completely different track. This shows us that unbelief is not something that non-believers do. Even those who profess belief can be filled with unbelief. Believers can stubbornly refuse to believe. I’ve seen people who know of God’s grace but cannot accept it in their own lives. They think that they are too far gone in their sin to be saved, but that just shortchanges the power of God. There are believers that do accept God’s grace, but turn into legalists, calling for people to follow the rules or they are not good people. We can know of God’s power but are filled with worry because choose to not believe in that power and love of God. A Christian filled with fear and anger is a Christian filled with unbelief. It is a stubborn refusal to accept something about God and Jesus. Like yeast, it works its way into our lives. Just a small amount can take over all the dough and it is very dangerous.

Jesus says to watch out for this yeast, but how do we battle against it. How do we force the unbelief from our hearts? When times get tough, we can worry about what is going to happen next. Our hearts can be filled with uncertainty and fear. How do we battle against it? Jesus helps his disciples, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (18) Jesus calls for his disciples to remember. To remember what? He calls for his disciples to remember what they have seen and heard. Jesus asks them, “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” (19) Jesus wants for them to remember what he did. He fed five thousand people with five loaves and there were even a bunch of leftovers. There were twelve basketfuls, as the disciples start to remember. Jesus continued to remind them, “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” (20) Not long prior to this, Jesus fed four thousand with seven loaves and they had seven larger basketfuls left over.

Jesus was reminding them of what he did. On two separate occasions, Jesus provided for a multitude with very little. The disciples didn’t need to worry about bread. He would sustain them and provide for them. They just needed to remember. Belief is cultured in remembering. Unbelief is like yeast in dough, a little unbelief spreads far, but so does belief. We only need to believe just a little bit for it to do great things in our lives. We only need to remember a little bit about what the Lord has done to culture belief. We can remember what God has done in the course of human history and we can remember what God has done in our own lives.

We can struggle with anxiety over finances, but we only need to remember how God provides. For my family, God has always provided for us. Every time we weren’t sure how we were going to make it, God opened a new way for us through a promotion or raise or a reminder of money long forgotten. It was always exactly what we needed. Through each of those things, I learned to trust in God to provide for us. I don’t have anxiety over that. My greatest fear, however, is different. In our family Bible study two weeks ago, our fears were brought up, and my kids asked me mine. Because of things, I wasn’t able to answer, but I will answer now. My biggest fear is not being good enough. I fear that I am not good enough in my work, that I am not good enough of a father or husband. I fear that I am not good enough as a preacher or a friend. I fear that I am not good enough as a person. I am the least of all people with nothing to offer. These thoughts eat me up sometime because I only think about how I need to change. They are just thoughts in my head, but the unbelief comes in when I think, “What if that is true?”

If I try to attack these thoughts on my own, it is true. I am not good enough. I am not smart enough, strong enough, nice enough or loving enough. I will never be what I need to be, because I forget. I forget how much God loves me, not because of my intelligence, strength, niceness or how much I love. When I was the biggest jerk possible, God loved me. Jesus died on the cross for my sins because he loved me, not because I am good enough, but because he is good enough. He is my strength; he is the source of my thoughts; he fills me with love that overflows out to others.

Unbelief is something that we stubbornly hold to when we don’t want to acknowledge the truth about God. The only way to push it away is to remember what God has already done, from salvation through shedding his blood on the cross to all the little moments in our own lives. We have to humility to remember God to remember the love and power of Jesus. We cannot refuse God, because that will only lead to fear and anger. When we believe, our lives change. We go from being dead in fear to being able to face any obstacle because God is with us. We have his power, his love and hope that it brings into our hearts. We are strong because God is strong. We love because God is love. We have peace because God is peace.

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