Leaven

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Poignant Pictures from the Matthew 13 Art Gallery

Commented on by Jim van Heiningen.

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Part 1

Parables are Bible pictures that always fascinate. Each one is, as it were, 3-dimensional. The spiritual dimension opens up for those who have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” – vistas of incredible depth. Never more so than in Matthew 13.

Leaven – one of seven       
The shortest parable in this chapter is found in verse 33 – the woman who mixes leaven in as she is kneading her dough and getting it ready for the oven. It also occurs in Luke 13, but we shall look especially at Matthew 13, where it is the central one of seven parables – all “parables of the kingdom”. Though short, this particular one is of tremendous importance and we need to find clues to its meaning. First of all we’ll do a bit of research in the immediate context. The big question we’d like to see answered is this: “Is the ‘leaven’ a positive or a negative symbol?”

Here are the seven stories Jesus told: Parable nº 1 – seed and types of soil; P2 – wheat and tares; P3 – mustard seed and birds; P4 – woman and leaven; P5 – laborer and treasure; P6 – merchant and pearl; and P7 – dragnet and fish. We’ll leave our considerations of P4 for the second part.

Whoever studies the Scriptures would expect the Savior to be really positive about God’s kingdom – the “kingdom of heaven”. How about these parables? It may surprise us, but we’ll see that the Master has a lot of negative things to point out regarding the “kingdom”. In fact, only two of the seven – the treasure one and the pearl one – are wholly positive, which, incidentally, is the same proportion found in the Lord’s seven letters to the churches (Rev. 2-3). Five of the seven congregations were rebuked and told to repent, but two were found worshiping, walking and working as they should (which, of course, did not mean that they could now afford to stop growing…).

Seed of life
The first three parables all have a sower with seed, but we’ll concern ourselves with P1 and P2 first. In both, the ‘sower’ represents our Lord himself. According to the interpretations given by Jesus, the seed in the first one is “the word of the kingdom”, whereas in the second one it is “the sons of the kingdom”. That is an important difference. The “Word of the kingdom” invades and transforms human lives. It makes them “Sons of the kingdom”, who themselves are made into seed that engenders life! The secret of a transformed life is “the word of the kingdom”! This transformed human being, now a “son of the kingdom” sows the “word of the kingdom”, but it is not only words – his very life is ‘seed’. Letting the divine Sower do his sowing means that they themselves are ‘sown’, possibly in martyrdom.

In John 12:24 the Lord draws our attention to what had to happen at Calvary: He himself was to be sown like a grain of wheat, falling to earth and dying, before that grain could bring forth fruit. In verses 25-26 He then applies the same principle to all his followers.

Stephen is a moving example of one follower who was willing, even eager, to be sown (Acts 6-7). But think also of the whole church in Jerusalem that was “scattered” by persecution (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19-21) – the Greek word for “scattered” is in reality “sown”. It was, of course, the great Sower who did the scattering, and “those who were scattered (sown) went everywhere preaching the word.” It is the Word that bears the eternal fruit, but it is the Sons, in as much as they identify with the Word, who are “the good seed”.

Complications
The seed, the “word of the kingdom”, as we see in P1, may not reproduce… Much depends on the type of soil. Apart from the “good soil”, there is the trodden down soil, the stony soil and the overgrown soil – and no fruit. The “word of the kingdom” remains fruitless in these areas. And then there are the “birds” – Jesus says that they represent the wicked one who snatches away what was sown”. This is wicked, negative stuff – nevertheless included in a parable of the “kingdom of heaven…”        

In P2 the wheat is positive, but the tares? They are “the sons of the wicked one” – very negative. From Jesus’ parable we learn that by now the tares, sown by the “enemy”, the devil, have already been coexisting with the wheat for twenty centuries, and counting. Only the Lord of the harvest can clearly see the difference between the ones and the others, and He alone knows what the tare-percentage is. It could be as much as 50% or more, perhaps much more, but there they are, ‘involved’ with the “kingdom”, all mixed in with the “sons of the kingdom”, until “the end of the age”. Then they will be ‘unmasked’ and weeded out. “The angels… will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness.”

Back to the birds
In P3 the mustard seed is a beautiful picture of the power of a living faith in a human life. It is tiny – you wouldn’t expect anything great from it – but once you sow it, there is life – it starts to sprout! It is always so with true faith! In the parable we are told of explosive growth. So far, so good – all very positive and just what you’d expect of the ‘kingdom’. But the parable doesn’t end there. The tiny seed becomes a “mega bush” – so huge that the “birds of the air come and nest in its branches”. Is that positive or negative?

The “birds (of the air)”, mentioned a number of times in the Bible, don’t often have a metaphorical meaning. Yet when they do – seven times in the New Testament – “the birds of the air” paint a very negative picture of what is going on in connection with the “kingdom of heaven”. As such, Jesus uses them twice, in the first parable of Matthew 13 and in this third one. The same ‘birds’ that represent the ‘wicked one’ are now seen “nesting in the branches” of that ‘mega’ thing. It started so genuinely and wonderfully out of the tiny mustard seed of faith – but as it grew and grew and grew, its branches became convenient perches for visitors from the sky, and the mustard bush was at a loss as to how to handle that situation…

These same two parables with birds (P1 & P3) are repeated in Mark and Luke. Then, as if to clinch the picture of diabolic and demonic powers ‘nestling’ at ease among the people who profess faith in the King, there is a seventh verse, Revelation 18:2, where, on the occasion of the fall of “Babylon the great”, “every unclean and hated bird is mentioned as companion of “demons… [and] every foul spirit”.         

So short, so significant!
Skipping P4, which we must consider later in more detail, we come to P5. Both the treasure and the pearl parables, just like the leaven one, are extremely short. These are the only two that don’t give us a negative picture, but there is a quandary – what could be the meaning of the treasure; and of the pearl…? Traditionally, the laborer and the merchant have been taken to depict a lost sinner who finds salvation. Admittedly, salvation is the greatest treasure one can find. It is also a priceless pearl. The one great difficulty this interpretation poses, of course, is “how is a lost sinner ever going to ‘buy’ that salvation?” Bear with us if we make a different suggestion.

Every true Christian can exclaim joyfully like Philip of Bethsaida: We have found… Jesus of Nazareth!”, yet the deeper and more wonderful truth is that He found Philip and said to him: ‘Follow me’” (Jn. 1:43-45).
If we recognize this greater truth that Christ ‘found’ us and ‘bought’ us, then it is only natural to see him as represented by the ‘laborer’ and the ‘merchant’ – just as in P1, P2 and P3 we recognize that the ‘sower’ represents Christ. He is our Finder and He is our Buyer! This enables us to see “his side of the story”, as He focuses us on his redemption and on the Redeemer himself. It explains the total absence of anything negative.

The treasure  
The laborer finds a treasure that is hidden, and even after finding it, it remains hidden. Buying that entire field costs him everything, but “for joy” over having found such treasure, He pays gladly. Now the treasure is his, even though still hidden. Is not this the story of REDEMPTION – redemption provided by the Finder/Redeemer for the utterly lost – redemption that cost him all? “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, … for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hb. 12:2). “Do you not know that… you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Co. 6:19-20). “… knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold…, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 P. 1:18-19).

The world may have certain notions about ‘redemption’ and the ‘redeemed’, just as they have about the ‘Redeemer’. But for them the Redeemer is out of view, and so are the redeemed. No one really has the facts about the ‘hidden treasure’ except the redeemed themselves, but the day comes when the ‘treasure’ is produced and placed in full view of all. Together with its divine Owner, it will be admired by all – on earth and in heaven. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4).

This interpretation matches the apostle John’s description of the New Jerusalem – “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Rev. 21:10-21). The twelve foundations of the city have the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Mathias having replaced Judas). Together they are described as the most wonderful and dazzling composite treasure of precious stones.

“Not yet revealed…”
Though the treasure was immediately hidden again, there is a difference. Now there is ONE who fully knows about it, who, moreover, has become its owner. Those that are ‘in Christ’ have had a tip of the veil lifted, but to the world the treasure remains hidden until its owner chooses to reveal it. This is the story of the redeemed – the story of “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people” (1 P. 2:9). It is not the story of a political or a geographical nation. It is not linked to a certain race or dynasty like Israel – it is exclusively ‘spiritual’. No one enters this ‘holy nation’ by birth, only by rebirth. It does not need status, territory, buildings, organization, official recognition, headquarters, hierarchy. But in spiritual terms it is described as a living and functioning ‘body’, of which Christ himself is the Head.

This Church of the redeemed just cannot be ‘pinned-down’ by the world – “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:1-2).
This mysterious, unknown, hidden ‘quantity’ may be smugly despised, fiercely persecuted, locally annihilated and generally looked on “as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Co. 4:13). But when their Lord comes back for them, all that will change completely. The redeemed will be presented “to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27) – “when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in his saints and to be admired among all those who believe” (2 Th. 1:10).

The pearl
In P6 the “merchant” of the parable paid all he had in order to possess the one pearl of great price. Pearls have their origin in the sea; and, indeed, both Israel and all the other nations have come out of the one great ‘sea of nations’ (compare Isaiah 17:12; Luke 21:25: Rev. 17:15). These ‘nation-pearls’ were formed initially when, at the tower of Babel, “the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Gn. 11).

Subsequently they appeared ‘on the market’ of the world. Jesus tells us of a ‘merchant’ who is searching there. The ‘merchant’ observes many beautiful ‘nation-pearls’, but when He finds one ‘nation-pearl’ that outshines all the others, the matter is settled. He goes and sells all in order to buy that one “pearl” – the one nation! Our Lord, the “merchant”, found Abraham – even in that very chapter of the dispersion of the nations! In Abraham He already saw the one nation that was to be born of him, the nation He loved with a great and passionate love. Indeed, He himself would be born from that nation as “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1).

We may have our doubts – could the “pearl” really symbolize Israel, when our Lord is talking about the ‘kingdom of heaven’? Admittedly, the nation of Israel, typically, has more to do with God’s ‘kingdom on earth’, but just as Paul in his epistle to the Romans brings in the individual Jews in the very first verses (1:16), and then the whole nation in three entire chapters (9-11), so our Lord could not adequately speak about his great redemption, without also referring to what He has done, is doing, and is still to do with the nation of Israel.

David prayed: “And who is like your people, like Israel, the one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem for himself as a people, to make for himself a name – and to do for yourself great and awesome deeds for your land – before your people whom You redeemed for yourself from Egypt, the nations, and their gods? For You have made your people Israel your very own people forever; and You, Lord, have become their God” (2 Sam. 7:23-24).

The difference
In marked contrast with the Church, the nation of Israel has never been hidden. It has always stood out, in spite of the numerous efforts, through the centuries, to knock it down and eliminate it (compare Psalm 83). Egypt meant to absorb it, Balak and Balaam to paganize it, Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans to disperse it, Antiochus Epiphanus to ‘hellenize’ it, Haman, Hitler and Islam to exterminate it and ‘wipe it off the map’, ‘Christian’ theologians to ‘spiritualize’ it. But today Israel is more conspicuous than ever! Even the Antichrist and the “great red dragon” will be totally frustrated in their attempts to get rid of Israel once and for all.

Israel may be the great ‘stumbling block’ – historically, religiously and politically – to the rest of the nations, but to Israel’s Lover, even though his beloved has not yet been won over, she is the one pearl-of-great-price among all the other nation-pearls! When Paul’s prophecy that “all Israel will be saved” (Ro. 11:26-27) is finally fulfilled, a mighty ‘Halleluiah Chorus’ will resonate throughout creation: “Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout, you lower parts of the earth; break forth into singing, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel!” (Is. 44:23 and Is. 60).

So great and magnificent is that one pearl in the eyes of the divine Beholder, that He designed for it the place of honor in the New Jerusalem. As the treasure, so the pearl – it proves to be a ‘composite pearl’. There are ‘twelve gates’ and each one is a pearl. Every ‘pearly’ gate bears inscribed the name of one of the tribes of Israel. When the Lamb’s work of redemption is complete, both Israel and the Church – respectively as the gates and the foundations – are displayed as vital parts of indescribable radiance in the New Jerusalem, which is the Bride, the Lamb’s wife”.

The dragnet
P7) “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, …they sat down and… threw the bad away.” The ‘bad’ are also called ‘the wicked’ by Jesus – they are cast into “the furnace of fire”, just like the ‘tares’. Once again Jesus lays great emphasis on what is negative. Here you have “the kingdom of heaven like a dragnet”, yet, along with much that is good, the ‘kingdom’ also drags along much that is “bad”, “wicked” and destined for the “furnace of fire”.         

The fishermen-disciples knew what the Master was talking about – the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ coexist in the same net until the net is “full”.., then: separation!  In the case of the fishermen the coexisting situation might last a few hours, in some cases many hours… – in the kingdom’s case it has already lasted some 2000 years. The end of that situation is in sight, at least to the great Fisherman! The inevitable ‘separation’ will not be delayed!

Between our Lord’s two comings to earth, the “kingdom of heaven” (or the ‘kingdom of God’) is a reality. It was first announced by John the Baptist, then by Jesus himself, then by the apostles. What many fail to grasp is that in these parables Jesus isn’t speaking of the ‘kingdom in heaven’; He is speaking of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ – operating on earth. It was a true invasion force into territory held by the enemy.

There is another kingdom…
In total defiance of “the prince of the world” Jesus proclaimed his kingship and kingdom. He didn’t dispute Satan’s claim, when in Luke 4, he “showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to him, ‘All this authority I will give you, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish’,” but He did defy it – till his last breath. He was populating the kingdom of heaven with the people Satan considered his subjects. No wonder Satan declared war. It is that what we see reflected in the parables of the kingdom of heaven. It is that what we have to contend with. Why be surprised that in the context of the ‘kingdom-of-heaven-on-earth’ there is so much conflict, so much of demonic origin, so much that goes wrong, so much that is negative? Satan is seeking to reclaim lost territory.

Some like to sing (or sigh): “To dwell above with saints we love, that will be glory. But to dwell below with saints we know, well, that’s another story”. In stead, why not take to heart Paul’s encouragement to “do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).

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Part 2

Another parable He spoke to them:
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took
and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”
(Matthew 13:33)

Preach on this tiny parable and you may get a huge response – from those who are not in agreement with you. There are basically two ways of interpreting what Jesus says. If you are convinced of the one way, don’t think that you’re easily going to ‘convert’ those who hold to the other. But whichever ‘camp’ you are in, we’ll much appreciate your reactions.
The first thing to do is establish what “leaven” really is. While there may be other things that go by that name, biblically speaking, leaven is simply ‘sourdough‘, or ‘yeast‘. Here are some definitions:

 What is ‘leaven’?
Easton’s Bible Dictionary: “Leaven – the remnant of dough from the preceding baking which had fermented and become acid.”      leaimage6

Columbia Encyclopedia: “Sourdough – a portion saved from a mass of dough as a starter for the next batch.”

Oxford University Press: “Yeast… a piece of dough kept to ferment the next batch.” 

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NT Words: “Leaven was forbidden in all offerings to the Lord by fire, Lev. 2:11; 6:17. Being bred of corruption and spreading through the mass in which it is mixed, and therefore symbolizing the pervasive character of evil, leaven was utterly inconsistent in offerings which typified the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. In the Old Testament leaven is not used in a metaphorical sense. In the New Testament it is used metaphorically of corrupt doctrine and practices.”

Ancient Egypt is known, not only for its pharaohs, pyramids, mummies, and papyrus, it is also the place where bread was invented (or discovered), i.e. the leavened variety – and at some time before the children of Israel sojourned in that country!

Blood and leaven
The first time leaven is mentioned in the Bible as a distinct article is in Exodus 12. It is when God prepares the Israelites for their momentous night of redemption from Egypt. In two verses the Israelites are told to remove all leaven from their houses. From then on, and on those same dates for a whole week, it applied to the annual “Passover” celebrations with the “Feast of the Unleavened Bread”.

Leaven, or rather the mandatory absence of it, was closely linked to the blood of the lamb that was to be slain. After sundown on the 14th of the month Abib, the lamb had to be killed and its blood applied to mark the doorposts and lintel of the Israelite homes in Egypt. Why would God direct Moses to command the Israelites to do such a thing? What was behind it? It was the fact that every single firstborn son in the whole country was going to meet his death that night, except in those homes that were marked by the blood of the lamb. The Lord said: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you”. It was the blood that kept the “destroyer” from entering. The lamb was the “stand-in”, the “substitute”, for the eldest son. Its life, laid down and is blood applied, meant the salvation of the firstborn son.

Centuries later, as the Jews listened to John the Baptist’s message of the “Lamb of God” who would take away the world’s sin; they would instantly remember how Israel was redeemed and how in every household a lamb had been slain to make that possible.

Redemption and unleavened bread
Now as soon as the lamb’s blood was applied, the Israelites were to eat a hurried meal of the lamb’s meat, accompanied by “unleavened bread”. This was their night of redemption-by-blood. Their meal that included the unleavened bread was the means of sustaining them during the arduous day that followed. Then, a few days later, they experienced redemption-by-power. Pharaoh and his army, making a desperate, last attempt to get them back into Egypt and back into slavery, drowned instead!

The Israelites were then still eating unleavened bread. Subsequently, by the end of the first month (Ex. 16:1-5), if not earlier, provisions ran out and they were hungry, so they clamored to Moses about food. God then supplied the “manna” from heaven – for forty years.

When, at last, under Joshua, they entered Canaan, the promised land, they kept the Passover night and ate of the products of the land for the first time. What did they eat? It was unleavened bread (Jos. 5:10-12). After that the manna ceased to appear.

God made sure that as they left Egypt, there was not a trace of leaven among them – it was left behind. And as they entered Canaan, they did so without any leaven.

Applying it today
The terrific drama of that last night in Egypt was not just something for the history books. The event was to be faithfully celebrated every year. More than that, it was and still is, a most dynamic and dramatic pointer to something infinitely greater – the great redemption by the blood of “the Lamb of God”, fifteen centuries later. In the death of the Messiah as a lamb we have the guarantee of ‘life’ for all those who simply and fully trust him. Their human life, marked by death from the moment of conception, is marked by ‘eternal life’ from the moment of faith, which is when the “blood of the Lamb” is applied. The blood of the Passover lamb in Egypt shielded the Israelites from the very moment it was applied – the Christian believer today is saved and safe for all eternity as soon as the precious blood of his Savior is ‘applied’ to his life. Incidentally, the phrase, “under the blood”, used by some Christians, is derived from this event.

If the “blood of the Lamb” is applied to our lives, how about applying the “unleavened bread” experience as well…? It is that which both our Lord and the apostle Paul speak of in five NT books. These scriptures have the word “leaven” a total of thirteen times. Of these no less than twelve apply metaphorically to our Christian lives. But it is the history of bread, in combination with Exodus 12, that shows “leavened bread” to be symbolic of old Egypt and all that Egypt stood for. Leaving Egypt behind meant leaving the Egyptian “leaven” behind.

Being “redeemed” and consistent, means relegating your “leaven”, the fermenting parts of your former life, to your Egypt. You cannot take it with you. Taking it with you means taking Egypt with you…

Confusions
First impressions are often misleading. That could easily be the case with the concept of “leaven” and what Jesus had to say about it. First impressions tell us that in the parable of Matthew 13:33, Jesus was saying something pretty positive. Many good men and entire denominations have confined their search for clues to just the words of the parable itself. On from men like Ignatius and Irenaeus in the second century, through the RC and Orthodox churches and those of the Reformation, the ‘leaven’ and the ‘leavening’ Jesus spoke about was, and is (to them), simply symbolic of the worldwide effect the Gospel was to have on society and the world. To them the word ‘leavened’ stands for ‘Christianized’. Didn’t Jesus say, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven…”?

To illustrate how easily we get confused about what the Lord is really saying, let us have a quick look at two other examples of confusion.

In John 2 Jesus tells the Jews: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” That sounded clear enough – if they would destroy the temple, He would restore it in three days. So their reply was: “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” These were very learned men, but at this time they didn’t have a clue… It didn’t occur to them that Jesus’ words could have another dimension, beyond their human understanding.

Here’s the other example, a contemporary one, which concerns our RC friends. Like anyone else, they too read in Matthew 16: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. But RC’s to a man, from the pope on down, all jump to one conclusion: “Doesn’t the Lord say clearly that Saint Peter is the rock on which the church was to be built? Well, that is it! And so a ‘first impression’ becomes ironclad dogma.

In a case like this there are plenty of clues as to what Jesus meant. Take these few: What had Peter just confessed – seconds before? Does the name ‘Peter’ really mean ‘rock’? How could any sinful man be the foundation for the church of Christ? Whom does Peter himself point to as the church’s one foundation in his first epistle (2:4-7)? See also: <www.ntmu.net/peter.htm>. But clues must be looked for – what better example than the Berean Jews in Acts 17? That is just what we want to do.

The King said it
Nothing that the future holds baffles or confounds our King! He knows the end from the beginning and all that’s in between. In Matthew 25 He describes that moment of his enthronement on the throne of David in Jerusalem: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then He will sit on the throne of his glory…” But that is not what He is talking about in Matthew 13. In that chapter the King describes his kingdom in its introductory stages – the stages that are preliminary to his personal and visible reign from Jerusalem – and it directly concerns us, at this time! We had better sit up and listen to what He is telling us. In the parables of Matthew 13 He was talking about these 2000 years, and much of what He said describes a situation of grim conflict – his Holy Spirit working mightily, but, at the same time, the evil spirit working mightily as well, intent on thwarting all God’s purposes.

His words in the Gospels and Revelation make crystal clear, for example, that the subjects of his kingdom are to expect external aggression – persecution and martyrdom. But also that attacks from the inside would be constant and much more insidious and dangerous. That is the matter we are looking into.

Acts of the Apostles
The first external attack starts very soon after the record begins, in 4:1. Then the first internal attack comes in 5:1. When Barnabas shows genuine love and generosity (4:37), there is an immediate mirror image, a complete fake, in the very next verses (5:1-10). When in the following chapter the number of new disciples is growing, the older disciples manifest neglect and complaint (6:1). When in Samaria there are many genuine conversions, the most wonderful conversion of all proves to be a sham (8:14-20).

In other words, the record of the kingdom-of-heaven-on-earth, the kingdom-still-without-the-King’s-personal-physical-presence, is a record that is brutally honest – a ‘warts and all’ record. Paul alerts the Ephesian elders: “From among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch… (20:30-31). In Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 12 Jesus gives the same warning in regards to the “leaven” – He says it stands for dead doctrine and hypocrisy.

In the epistles, including those in Revelation 2-3, there are abundant examples of sad and negative attitudes and actions among the King’s people. All authors of the epistles: James, John, Jude, Paul and Peter, address these situations. Paul, specifically, writes to the Corinthian and Galatian churches about the “leaven” they had been mixing in and he urges them to purge out the old leaven” (1 Co. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:9).

The “OLD” clue
Why would leaven symbolize something negative? Paul teaches us that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Co. 5:17).

Leaven is a tiny amount of dough from the preceding baking – from the old batch. The ‘old batch’ has passed away, but that little bit of leaven gone sour (sourdough) is carefully kept in a safe place in order to ferment the fresh batch of dough when the time comes. In keeping with what the OT had to say about it, both our Lord and Paul use it as a very handy symbol of the old (and corrupt) things that have passed away”. What they emphasize is that the “old” will try to come back, reassert itself in God’s ‘new-creation-Christians’ (as well as among them!), and so effectively “leaven” them. The “old” wants to run the show again.

When Jesus charges the disciples so solemnly about the corrupting influence of “leaven”, it is because He knew perfectly well that right from the start, and all through the following centuries of Christianity, the corrupting ‘yeast’ of the religious right, of the religious left, of political correctness, of the world’s systems of philosophy, of tradition’s hold, of ‘wrong-headed-open-mindedness’, of the adoption of a “different gospel”, etc., etc., would seek to infiltrate and ‘adjust’ the pure new ‘batch’ of God’s new creation. He said: “Take heed and beware!”

Courting the curse
To court one’s old life-style, customs, philosophies, doctrines, worldview, resources, pleasures etc., is to have a love-affair with the curse. The ‘flesh’, the ‘world’, in short, all that is of the old creation, is under the curse! “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord” (Jer. 17:5). “Adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4).

It is easy enough to profess that all “the old things have passed away” and that “all things have become new…” But have they? How come we so easily let the old stuff back in, install it, use it? There is a wonderful and continual “feast” for every Christian, in spite of the hostilities and harassments of the world, and in spite of past failures, but, says the apostle, the feast must be kept not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Co. 5:8).

The “woman” and her “mix”
It is very significant that in six of Matthew 13’s seven parables the ‘protagonist’ is either a Sower, a Laborer, a Merchant or a Fisherman – men who represent our Lord. In the central parable, however, we get the contrast of a ‘woman in her kitchen’. Obviously she is not a picture of the Lord. Sometimes the Bible speaks negatively of a certain “parabolic woman”, notably so in Zechariah 5:5-11, where a “woman”, called “wickedness”, is being transported in an “ephah”, which is the container that measures exactly the amount (a total of three measures of meal) of the “woman” in Jesus’ parable. There is also the “woman” of Revelation 17 – an “abominable and filthy harlot”.

In the parable the woman “mixes in” something that doesn’t belong to the pure new batch, something that sooner or later will show its effects. Such “mixing in” we might also illustrate by a ‘river’, with our Lord being the fountain the river springs from. Only from the fountain is it absolutely safe and satisfying to drink. The further ‘down river’ you go, in other words, the further away you get from the fountain, the greater the risk in drinking from that same water. Because, as the river flows, more and more substances get mixed in – they either leach in or get thrown in. They may not be visible, but they may seriously affect your health, even endanger your life – that is, if you take the chance and drink from the river. The mixture is the problem! This is the principle the Lord is getting at, the one of the mixed-in-leaven which ferments the whole batch.

And, as we look around us at our Christian churches, what do we see all too often? Worldly standards and resources, unabashed ambition, permissiveness, Free Mason and New Age ideas, a liberal “gospel”, dependence on human traditions, hierarchy, organization, you name it, all mixed in as indispensable – and there go the purity and simplicity that our Lord is after.

Mother Sarah
What has been shown so far should leave no doubt about “leaven” being symbolic of the old and the cast-off values of hypocrisy, malice, wickedness, etc. But, just in case, here is another important clue that we must not forget.
Jesus speaks of three measures of meal that “a woman” was working with. Most Jewish minds, if not all, would immediately connect to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. She was the mother of them all. They would remember perfectly how Abraham had a divine visit. The Lord (in a ‘theophany’), with two angels, came to see him. They would also remember that “Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal; knead it and make cakes’” (Gn. 18:6).

Together, three measures of meal made exactly an “ephah”. According to the experts, an ephah is a grain measure that held the equivalent of some five (dry) gallons. In other words, Sarah had to start work on a respectable amount of flour, and she had to do it “quickly”. Abraham “hurried” and he wanted her to hurry too. Even if leaven had been known and available, there simply was no time to mix it in and then to wait for the dough to rise. Which means that the “cakes” that Sarah made were simply ‘unleavened bread’. Of course, in the following chapter also, the angels ate Lot’s unleavened bread.

The Jews knew all this; they also knew that Sarah’s ‘cakes’ were offered, together with the other food, to Yahweh himself, who had come to promise the birth of Isaac. So when Jesus spoke to them about “a woman who took leaven and hid it in three measures of meal”, they sort of recognized the story, but something was fundamentally out of sync – leaven was mixed in! If this was about the “kingdom of heaven”, then it must be about some sinister force, seeking to corrupt that kingdom, from within or from without, just like in the other parables of Matthew 13: the ‘birds’, the ‘tares’ and the ‘bad fish’.

Jesus’ listeners could never have taken the leaven to stand for anything else. In addition to Sarah, the mother of the nation, they also knew about the many thousands of mothers in the exodus night, baking bread without leaven. And then there was Gideon – offering the Lord unleavened bread made from an ephah of flour (Jud. 6:19).

Paul’s fears
By the grace of God Paul was a fearless warrior, yet sometimes he admitted to being fearful. What is it he feared? What he feared was the secret introduction of “leaven” among his Christian friends in the ‘kingdom of heaven’, and how it would work its way in to undermine and bring down God’s work in Christ.

In 2 Corinthians 12:20-21, for example, though he doesn’t mention the word ‘leaven’, watch how he does enumerate eleven fermentations of the leaven. These all had to do with the individual Christians’ lives, but in the previous chapter he writes of his fear that the ‘leaven’ (again without naming it) might be working great havoc on the congregational level. The congregation was “putting up” with the corruption that outsiders were bringing in - a different Jesus, a different spirit, and a different gospel.

Our good friend and brother, Peter Jackson of England, now in his seventies, was left blind as a result of measles when he was only 16 months ‘old’. His fascinating autobiography “One Day I Shall See You” recounts his conversion at the age of 18 and how, not long afterwards, studying at a College for the blind, there were concerted efforts from the ‘enemy’ to mix in the leaven. First the Christadelphians had a go at him, then the Seventh Day Adventists, followed by the Exclusive Brethren and finally Spiritism. He was isolated and vulnerable as a blind boy among the blind, a very young Christian, and as he was introduced to each “ism”, one at a time, Peter couldn’t help being forcefully attracted to them. Yet he would take things to the Lord in prayer, he would study his (Braille) Bible, and today he marvels at the way his Lord was faithful, keeping him and giving him the right discernment at the right moment. The Lord went on to mightily use Peter in blessing to thousands.

“Take heed and beware!”
says Jesus to all his disciples – don’t let the ‘leaven’ get in and corrupt the whole!
“Purge out the old leaven!”

says Paul to Corinthian and Galatian Christians – just “a little leaven” will leaven the whole lump!
Taking out the leaven, once the dough has been leavened, is a tall order; but in the spiritual world that is possible by the grace of God!

Compare: 2 Chronicles 7:13-14; 1 John 1:5-10.

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  • Irenaeus, in the second century AD, wrote:
    “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced… more true than the truth itself.”

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1 Co. 5:7-8