Jesus warned His disciples: ‘Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod’ Mk 8:15.
What does Jesus’ mean by the leaven of Herod?
The leaven of Herod is conjoined and contrasted to the leaven of the Pharisees (which is hypocrisy Lk 12:1, a rigorous religious legalism which they imposed on others but which they would not keep themselves).
Herod had a different law – Roman law, which he enforced, but he did not bother with the moral law as he was personally immoral respecting marriage and murder. Thus the leaven of Herod draws attention to the bifurcation of civil (Roman) law and moral law – in our day there are people who consider themselves very upstanding people if they have not broken the law of the land, but their morality is unchristian. The leaven of Herod involves an exalting of civil law above God’s moral law – putting man’s law above God’s law. Jesus tells us to beware of this.
There is good reason to beware of it. Secularists are very offended at the breach of civil law and bring down the force of the law upon those who offend their law. It happens all the time. If you lie to the police you can end up in prison. Secular lies, breaking secular laws, are very selective.
Thus the two forms of leaven are false religious law and false civil law – while at the same time Jesus’ use of leaven for each of them suggests a common idea: the leaven points to the principles which give shape to our lives, just as leaven aerates a loaf and gives it shape. Herod’s political leaven gives the wrong shape to one’s life, and so does the Pharisees’ religious leaven.
Leaven has a dramatic and radical effect upon dough to change its whole appearance and substance, so that the loaf is full of hot air, and it has an appearance of having more substance than it has in reality. This is the essence of hypocrisy, which respects the outward appearance and gives a person an overinflated opinion of themselves as they pontificate to others how to live their lives, giving the impression that this is how they themselves lived while in truth they did not. This applied to both the Pharisees and to Herod. They had double standards, proclaiming one thing while doing another. Paul points out the danger of this in 1Cor 8:1 and 1Cor 10:13 and its damaging effect on oneself and upon others.
There is a second idea in leaven. Scripture draws attention to the spreading and pervasive influence of leaven 1Cor 5:6 and Gal 5:9, in which texts it is applied to the evil influence of sin, as is the use of leaven in the Old Testament. Thus purging out the old leaven and the use of unleavened bread is used to illustrate sanctification from sin 1Cor 5:7, and the leavening influence of sin is compared to the effect of an evil influence upon the whole Corinthian congregation ‘evil communications corrupt good manners’ 1Cor 15:33. However Scripture uses leaven as an illustration of sin and not as a ‘code’ for sin, because this aspect of leaven is also used in a good manner to illustrate the spread of the kingdom of heaven Mat 13:33 and Lk 13:21. The concept of enlarging with hot air to give an appearance of substance could hardly be Christ’s meaning in applying it to the kingdom of heaven. This second aspect of leaven refers to the penetrating and pervading effect of both the leaven and the kingdom of heaven.
The leaven of the Sadducees
For completeness, let us look at the leaven of the Sadducees. Mat 16:6,11,12 speaks of ‘the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees’ or ‘the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees’, thus some are of the view that the leaven of Herod is the same as the leaven of the Sadducees, suggesting that Herod was a Sadducee, and that ‘the leaven of Herod’ is synonymous with ‘the leaven of the Sadducees’. This is conjecture and there is no evidence for this. Thus there may be a third topic here, the leaven of the Sadducees’ accommodation of religious law to civil law. This throws up a series of different attitudes to the law. The Pharisees’, Herod’s, and the Sadducees’.
So how is Herod’s attitude to law compared to leaven? Each concept can be applied to Herod: 1. he had an overinflated opinion of himself, expressed in his being a law to himself in morals and justifying himself by keeping within and imposing Roman law. 2. its pervasive influence is seen in his bad example as a ruler, and in his authority as a ruler.
Civil law and politics
Politics is the art of the possible. Many people argue against Christian involvement in politics because of the Christian compromise they witness. Political compromise is seen in the broad light of day; compromise in other employments is not so visible. Is this why politics has been singled out?
Christian politics sets the civil framework within which Gospel-preaching can flourish. Non-Christian politics removed Christian teaching from schools and it is in the process of removing it from public life so that many jobs in the public sector (and eventually the private sector) will become harder and harder for Christians to hold.
Christians should make use of the freedom which democracy affords to speak up and act. Christian slaves were very limited in their public service, but Paul taught them to be good servants to their masters. However, he also told them that if they could gain their freedom, to do so, as they will be freer to serve Christ 1Cor 7:21. This has relevance to the employment situations nowadays. Christian workers, not just politicians, are being inhibited in their Christian service by their worldly paymasters, but Paul tells us to use what liberty we have to serve Christ more earnestly.
“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may be even a worse fate, you may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
It is because some Christians are unable to vote for the mainline political parties that they have become involved in the Christian Party to change the laws of the country that are inhibiting Christian freedom in the workplace and throughout public life. Some Christians see the vision; others do not.
Meanwhile, let us press forward towards the Saviour’s goal: ‘the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ’ Rev 11:15. May it come sooner rather than later.
30 Jan 2014: there is further discussion in the comments below.
4 Dec 2017: a summary of secular religion attempting to replace Christianity, thinking that man’s law can replace God’s law.