True Discernment


Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth…

Teaching college freshmen, I often found that many students at that age had difficulty understanding irony in human communications, not so much spoken, but written irony.  The developing brain that many once thought was mature at the end of the teenage years, instead continues to grow and develop even as late as the mid-twenties.

I would give my freshmen class an essay to read and ask them to state whether they agreed or disagreed with the author.  Unfortunately, most students agreed with the author, not realizing that the article was written ironically.  In other words, the article conveyed a position on a controversial issue that was the opposite of what the author actually believed, just to show the absurdity of the position. 

One essay, for example, proposed that doctors should not be compelled to tread AIDS patients because the doctors might also become infected. 

The students, taking the author’s words literally, decided that it was indeed reprehensible that doctors were being forced to expose themselves to a dangerous disease to provide treatment, in spite of the Hippocratic Oath they had taken.  The students didn’t realize that the author was using a heavily ironic tone to convey his disgust that any doctor would refuse to treat an ill patient.  They didn’t discern the weighted language the author used that revealed an opposite meaning from what the words seemed to convey.

…Not According to Fleshly Wisdom

In the 16th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we find a several stories that are exceptionally enlightening, though they aren’t ones that attract much attention, mainly because their deeper interpretations may not be immediately apparent, and the stories need to be analyzed and interpreted.

Jesus has just had an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who have formed an interesting partnership since they usually disagreed on so many doctrines and teachings.  In this case, they are colluding to test or to provoke Jesus by asking Him for a “sign,” presumably to demonstrate to whether He has come from God. 

Jesus asks them why they cannot discern “the signs of the times” when they can correctly predict the weather based on the color of the sky, either in the morning or the evening.

Being able to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, however, does not depend on human, or fleshly, wisdom.  Yet it is clear from Jesus’ words in this passage that the means of understanding are comparable.  They merely apply to different realms, either the natural realm or the spiritual realm.  The Apostle Paul teaches that the natural man cannot understand or accept the things of the Spirit of God.

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (I Corinthians 2:14).

Leaving the Sadducees and Pharisees behind and going to the other side of the lake, Jesus is still recalling the confrontation, saying to His disciples, ““Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). 

What follows is an excellent example of how the disciples use natural, human thinking rather than spiritual discernment.  Since they had come without bread to eat on their journey, they thought Jesus was speaking about literal bread since He had mentioned “leaven.” 

This leaven consisted of a portion of the fermented dough used in a previous baking and mixed with the new batch of dough, causing  the new mixture to rise also since leaven grows and permeates the entire mixture.

Because of its association with the Passover–the Jews only had unleavened bread with them when they left Egypt–and the fact that it was forbidden in all offerings to the Lord made by fire, leaven was metaphorically seen as a corrupting influence.  This is why Jesus uses this metaphor to describe the teachings and practices of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What seems confusing is why Jesus says His disciples have little faith when they misunderstand His admonition to beware of the “leaven” of the Jewish teachers:

You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? 10 Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? 11 How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  (Matthew 16:8-11)

 In this case, Jesus is reminding them that their food will be provided for them on their journey, even miraculously if need be.  Don’t you recall the ways thousands of people were fed with just a few loaves that God multiplied before you, He is saying?

It wasn’t literal bread He was talking about, however, and He is telling them to use spiritual discernment to understand His meaning.  In effect, He is warning them not to be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were able to discern the weather naturally but  could not discern spiritually. 

We also must beware such “leaven,” even though the influence of the Pharisees and Sadducees is no longer present today.  The same insistence on legalism, only interpreting the Scriptures literally, seeking proofs of God’s existence, or looking for “signs” to show His presence, all  demonstrate a lack of faith.  Why?  Faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).


Finally, see how the following passages from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and his second letter to Timothy relate to these issues:

For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.  (II Corinthians 1:12)

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling [i.e. dividing] the word of truth.  (II Timothy 2:15)

These verses demonstrate in brief how to read and interpret the Scriptures.  They should not be used for “proof-texting.”  We must not select verses or passages  merely to uphold or validate our own ideas and theories.  Instead, we need to seek to know the mysteries, or “secrets,” that only God by His Holy Spirit may reveal.

True teachers of the Word must also reveal the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives (Galatians 5:22-24).  Be wary of those who are merely trying to sell their books or messages on recordings.  Be wary of those who try to attract followers to themselves instead of to Christ, or those whose lives seem to focus on material goods or popularity. 

Much against my better judgment, the church where I once was pastor many years ago invited a guest speaker who ended up using the following old trick:   “I know there are twelve people here who need to give $100 dollars today.  If they do, the result will be five people saved in the mission field as a result of their gift.” 

This guest also invited two couples to lunch, telling them that he had a special ministry for them.  He ended up trying to enlist them as workers in a pyramiding sales “ministry,” and guess who was at the top of the pyramid?

The Church today is under  fire from those who believe they can see through  the hypocrisy of Christians and Christian leaders!  Too often these  people are unaware of their own hypocrisy, yet we must do all we can to purge the true Church of all such leaders, as well as seek ourselves to follow Christ truly in all godliness.


  • By Patrick Kennedy, July 29, 2014 @ 11:51 pm

    I always thought that the leaven/bread incident you cite was one of the biggest signs that Matthew’s gospel was authentic. No way would someone, a disciple no less, would EVER include that story. It makes them look like a total bunch of knuckleheads.

    This next part i’m going to say partially tongue-in-cheek, but it’s still pretty accurate.

    Fast forward to today. Think about how dumb the average person is. Then realize that half the people out there are DUMBER. 😉

  • By Chuck, July 31, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    Very perceptive, Patrick! I guess it’s not about being smart or “dumb,” though. It’s a matter of maturity, I think. After all, Jesus said that we need to come to Him like children. We need to combine this principle with what I wrote about adolescent brains in the post somehow! 🙂

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