What the Bible says about
Leaven as a Type of Sin
(From Forerunner Commentary)
The English phrases, "from your houses" (Exodus 12:15) and "in your houses," (verse 19) derive from a single Hebrew word, bayith, which can also mean "homes," "households," or "families."
Exodus 13:7 expands on this: "Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days. And no leavened bread shall be seen among you, nor shall leaven be seen among you in all your quarters." The English words "your quarters" come from the Hebrew word gebul, which can mean "borders," "coasts," "bounds," "landmarks," "space," "limit," "territory," and "region."
God's instruction shows that we should deleaven all the areas for which we are responsible. Obviously, this includes our homes, but what about our cars, garages, yards, and workspaces? Should we deleaven them? Where do our "quarters" end?
Many centuries ago Galileo wrote, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." God expects His people to be sensible. He should not have to explain every single detail for long-time members of His church. He does not expect us to deleaven areas where there has been no chance of leaven getting into it. Think about it! Is it possible that leavened products have made their way into the downstairs bathroom or into the tool cupboard or work bench? Does anyone ever eat in the car? Have groceries been carried in the trunk? Has anyone eaten in the office? Are we sure?
If a person has young children, of course, there can be no guarantees! But if we are absolutely sure that no leaven has been taken into an area over which we have responsibility, then there is no need to deleaven it! Our time at this period of the year is so valuable. Why waste any of it? We would spend it better preparing for the Passover and searching for spiritual leaven.
The Five Ws of Deleavening
The words "the Feast of" are not in the Hebrew of verse 17, but were added by the translators. God says here that His people are to keep the annual practice of deleavening because He brought His Old Testament church out of Egypt (verse 39). We find later that this great and miraculous event symbolized freeing His New Testament church from sin. Many scriptures show that both Egypt and leaven are symbols of sin.
Did God really intend His people to observe this practice forever, as we read in verse 17, or was it nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ? These three scriptures from the early church after Jesus' crucifixion show that it is indeed a New Testament practice:
» And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, [Herod] proceeded further to seize Peter also. Now it was during the Days of Unleavened Bread. (Acts 12:3)
» But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread. . . . (Acts 20:6)
» Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:6-8)
We know that Jesus kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and perhaps what is more important for our example, these scriptures prove that His early New Testament church kept it after His death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Five Ws of Deleavening
Jesus warns us in Luke 12:1 about leaven: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." Throughout Matthew 23, Jesus lists a multitude of Pharisaical sins that could be grouped as legalistic externalism.
In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warns of the leaven of the Sadducees. The Sadducees' sins are not listed, but elsewhere we find they at least denied the supernatural and the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8). Jesus also warns of the leaven of Herod (Mark 8:15). Herod was involved in a great deal of lying in his political wheeling and dealing, abusing the power of his office, adultery, and general all-around worldliness.
Paul commands in I Corinthians 5:7-8:
Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Thus, in the New Testament leaven signifies wickedness and malice in contrast to sincerity and truth.
All of our offerings to God are mixed with some measure of sin. Has He made allowance for this in His instructions for the offerings? Yes.
No grain offering which you bring to the LORD shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey in any offering to the LORD made by fire. As for the offering of the firstfruits, you shall offer them to the LORD, but they shall not be burned on the altar for a sweet aroma. (Leviticus 2:11-12)
Leviticus 23:17, 20 clarifies this:
You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the LORD. . . . The priest shall wave them with the bread of the firstfruits as a wave offering before the LORD, with the two lambs. They shall be holy to the LORD for the priest.
This Pentecost offering is a meal offering. The loaves represent Christians accepted before God because of Jesus Christ. However, because the loaves contained leaven, symbolizing the reality of sin in our lives, they are waved before God and accepted but not burned on the altar, recognizing the presence of that sin.
Romans 7:14-20 makes a powerful statement on this:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
No matter how much oil—the Holy Spirit—is poured out on us, it cannot completely counteract the corrupting effect of the leaven. We can control the flesh sufficiently so sin does not rule us, but sin is ever with us, and as long as we have human nature, that cannot be changed.
The only solution is that we must be changed—totally—and that is in our future, according to I Corinthians 15:50-52:
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Offerings of Leviticus (Part Three): The Meal Offering
One man's sin! There were no accomplices. Nobody even saw him do it, yet Israel's army became paralyzed with fear. Joshua faltered and became confused. The whole nation was affected. Thirty-six men died. Thirty-six women became widows. And how many children no longer had a father?
One might say that the sin was somewhat atoned for. When they found out what Achan had done, Achan and his family (who were innocent of the deed) were put to death. When God saw it, however, He analyzed the sin according to different standards. He was dealing with His people, and He wanted to make sure that a witness was made—so that there would be information for those of His church in the end time.
God takes a personal interest in His people. Things happen out in the world, and He seems to do nothing. But when things happen within His church, He is concerned for the well-being of His people, and He takes action.
What we see here is a clear beginning of "the body" analogy that later becomes so important to the church in the New Testament. He shows us plainly that sin has a natural leavening effect. It increases; it will not just lie there and die. Corrections must be made to ensure that it does not spread, affecting others.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Every Action Has a Reaction
Most of the time, commentators interpret this parable just as they interpret the Parable of the Mustard Seed—that the Kingdom would grow big and eventually encompass the whole earth, and everything would be great. Hallelujah! But is this correct?
When the Jews heard this parable, they must have been astounded. If Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God was like leaven in bread, what would we think? It does not sound very good to us—nor did it sound right to the Jews—because we know what leaven represents in Scripture: the corruption of sin. How can the Kingdom be likened to leaven? It is almost unthinkable that the Kingdom of God would be full of leaven throughout. Is the Kingdom evil? Is it full of sin? This does not square with what we learn in the Old Testament. The Kingdom is supposed to be glorious and pure, and Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom is full of leaven. How can this be?
And we are right! Everywhere else in the Bible where the word "leaven" or "unleavened" appears, "leaven" carries with it a negative implication. Yet, according to the commentators, this one case is the exception! In 87 out of 88 times, it means something bad, but here in Matthew 13, leaven is positive. Why? It does not make sense for a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Leaven must still be negative here.
The commentators are uncomfortable with the idea that the Kingdom of God in its present form can have leaven in it, that it could be full of sin. But we need to remember that Jesus was seeing what would happen between the time He died and the time He returned. He saw that the people would be full of leaven, and they would always be, until they were changed to spirit.
That is the beauty of grace—that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and we can then come under His blood and be cleaned. This does not mean we are clean forever—we still sin after we are cleaned. So we have to go back before the throne of grace and plead for mercy and forgiveness again and again and again—even up until the time that we die or we are changed. We sin because we are full of leaven, and we spend our whole lives getting rid of it.
Every year, we keep the Days of Unleavened Bread to depict just this process and to be thankful that we have this sacrifice—Christ our Passover—who saves us and forgives us. In the Levitical sacrifices, no leaven could be in any of the offerings that were made (Leviticus 2:11), because they typified the sinless Christ. The two wave loaves that were offered on the day of Pentecost (Leviticus 23) were made with leaven, because they represent us, the Old Testament and the New Testament, or the Old Covenant and the New Covenant—the churches of those times that were full of leaven, that is, sinful people. But God accepts them because the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:7). He knows our frame and gives us grace (Psalm 103:14).
In I Corinthians 5:6, Paul writes, "Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" This sounds like the Parable of the Leaven. The leaven went throughout the Corinthian church. In verse 7, Paul says, in essence, "You are supposed to be pure. Get that sin out, so you can repent." In verse 8, Paul defines leaven as "malice and wickedness." In other words, it is sin.
In Galatians 5:7-9, Paul calls leaven a "persuasion [that] does not come from Him who calls you," one that hinders us from obeying the truth. Putting these three verses together, this is how he defines leaven, as "a persuasion that does not come from God." In Luke 12:1, Jesus says that the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy—hypocrisy in religion. In Mark 8:15, He speaks of "the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." Herod had leaven, too, and his was basically secularism or the use of religion for political purposes. Then, in Matthew 16:5-6, 11, Jesus clearly says that the leaven He spoke about was the doctrine of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
So, then, what is leaven? In its most basic sense, it is a symbol of corruption, which has a tendency to multiply and spread like yeast. A little bit of yeast in the dough will make the whole thing rise because the yeast ferments and spreads throughout the entire lump of dough, making it all rise. In this parable leaven symbolizes sin that corrupts and spreads.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part 2): Leaven
The woman in the Parable of the Leaven is interesting because in all the other parables a man is the main character. What is "a woman" in Scripture?
In Revelation 12, a woman is symbolic of the nation of Israel, and in Revelation 17 and 18 she represents the false system of Babylon. In Isaiah 47, a woman is again symbolic of Babylon (whether the nation or the system of Babylon). In Galations 4:21-31, Paul uses "women" to symbolize the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. In Ezekiel 16, God uses a woman to symbolize Israel: "Aholah" is the kingdom of Israel and "Aholibah" is the kingdom of Judah.
What can we understand from this? Every time a woman is used as a symbol, the common denominator is the idea of a system of beliefs and practices that influence other people. A church or religion is a system of beliefs and practices. A nation has a character and way of doing things. This world as a whole has a system of beliefs and practices that go contrary to God. To find out what kind of system is being referred to, we must look at the context to see how the system works, how it reacts, and what it does.
What are the characteristics of this woman in the parable? First, she took leaven. This is the common word used to mean "to come into possession of." It is a common Greek word, but it can also have the connotation of "to seize," "to take by force." The text does not say which connotation is correct here.
The next verb is "hid" (Greek, enkrupto), an interesting word. It means "to hide in" or "to mix." Enkrupto is used only this way here. Enkrupto is the same word from which we get our word "encrypt." A general tells his lieutenant, "Encrypt this message and take it to the colonel at the front line." What does the lieutenant do when he encrypts it? He mixes up the letters according to a code, and only a person with the key to the encryption knows what the message is saying.
The root word for enkrupto is krupto, which means "to cover, to conceal, to keep secret." Its major connotation is "to be sneaky" or "to be secret, covert, or surreptitious." It seems from the usage of these words that this woman is up to no good whatsoever. First, she takes something, then she hides it. She is a bad lady, a bad system.
She hides the leaven "in three measures of meal." That Jesus uses the very phrase "three measures of meal" is quite interesting—and it is a key, because this told His Jewish audience something that He did not have to explain, as they were familiar with it. It was a normal practice and meant something to them.
It has been suggested that He used this amount because it is the average quantity of meal a housewife would employ in her daily baking. This suggestion is pretty ridiculous when we consider that three measures of meal equal about two gallons of meal (7.3 liters)! That seems like a lot of bread each day.
An average loaf of bread contains about three cups of flour. Two gallons of meal, which is the equivalent of about eight quarts or thirty-two cups, would make nearly eleven loaves! Even the most bread-gorging family on this earth would not eat eleven loaves each day. Normally, one loaf would suffice for one person for a day, if he ate nothing else. Jesus, then, is probably speaking of a special occasion.
Genesis 18 contains the first biblical usage of "three measures of meal." This is the occasion when the One who became Jesus Christ and two angels came to Abraham, and he made them a meal. Jesus tells him in verse 5, "Go ahead and make a meal." "So Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, 'Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal'" (Genesis 18:6).
What was "three measures of meal"? There is a principle of Bible study (the law of first mention) that says, "The first time a thing—a word, a phrase—is mentioned in the Bible influences how it should be interpreted throughout." Here, "three measures of meal" is used in the context of a fellowship meal—giving hospitality, in this case, to God—so it has a spiritual connotation.
The law of grain offerings in Numbers 15:8-9 provides some instruction. We need to learn a little bit about Israelite dry measures. The smallest unit of measure is an omer. Three omers equal one about one seah. This seah is what is translated "measure" in Matthew 13:33, except it is in Greek saton. There is also the ephah, which is ten omers. Three seahs made up of about three omers equal one ephah. These verses show that the smallest meal offering that could be given was one seah, one-third of an ephah. It had to be of fine flour. Abraham gave three seahs, three measures. He went above and beyond what was required for the meal offering.
Judges 6:18-19 shows Gideon's offering to the Lord. How much did he give? Gideon gave an ephah, three measures of meal. I Samuel 1:24 tells of Hannah's thank offering. How much? Hannah's offering was one ephah, three measures of meal. In Ezekiel 45:24 and 46:5, 7, 11 are the offerings given at the Feast during the Millennium. How much is given? An ephah, three measures of meal, is given.
With these examples in mind, we can understand that Christ's use of this phrase would have made His Jewish audience think immediately of the meal offering in Leviticus 2, and they would have been absolutely shocked out of their shoes to find that someone had the audacity, the blasphemy, to put leaven in a meal offering! That was not kosher! It simply was not done! A person who did so could expect to be zapped by the next lightning bolt out of heaven. It was sin. What, then, would the normal Jew have thought? He would have understood immediately that the Kingdom of Heaven would be subverted. Something good had been corrupted.
"Three measures of meal," the meal offering, represents the offerer's service and devotion to fellowman, and it is typified by what Christ did throughout His whole life by offering Himself in service to fellowman. Symbolically, it represents the second great commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It is devoted service toward others.
If "three measures of meal" represents our love, service, and devotion to fellowman, this parable warns us that the false system will make a concerted and covert effort to corrupt the true church through false doctrine aimed at how we treat each other. It will lunge directly at the church's jugular—how we treat one another.
The "three measures of meal" represents the church's teachings. This squares with our understanding of what Christ is. He is the Word, and one of His titles is "the Bread of life." The church's teachings come from the Word of God, which is our daily bread. Fine meal is the major component of bread. Satan would try to corrupt the word, the teaching, so that church members would not treat each other well, offend one another, and maybe some would lose their salvation.
And the woman succeeds! Jesus says, ". . . till it was all leavened!" Sobering, is it not?
The church has been fairly successful in guarding the major doctrines that have to do with its identity: the Sabbath, the nature of God, the identity of Israel, the holy days, God's plan. Where has the church shown its greatest weakness? In the area of personal relationships. What do we hear about among and within the congregations? Distrust, offense, marriage problems, disunity, selfishness, gossip, rumor, tale-bearing, judging and condemning, comparing ourselves among ourselves, giving place to wrath, etc. These are the works of the flesh—they reflect how we treat one another. All of these are part of the meal offering—our service and devotion to each other. In these areas we need to focus our greatest attention, overcoming how we treat each other, growing in our devotion and service. We must get along with one another as God intends, or we might not be around to enter His Kingdom.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part 2): Leaven
Physically, leaven is a lump of old dough in a high state of fermentation, or a substance that causes dough to rise (yeast). A natural reason for leaven's negative symbolism is the idea that fermentation implies a process of corruption. In the Old Testament, it is generally symbolic of sin and evil. In every instance that leaven appears in the Bible, it represents evil; the only exception, some say, is Jesus' use of leaven in this parable. Knowing its Old Testament significance, however, He would have used the symbol in the same way.
While some commentaries interpret this parable as depicting the spreading influence of the gospel, such explanations go against Jesus' use of this symbol. He uses it to refer to the evil doctrine of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herod (Matthew 16:6-12; Mark 8:15), and this could easily apply to later corruptions of doctrine by those who place more importance on the traditions of men than on the Word of God.
Paul uses leavening as a type of sin in its development (I Corinthians 5:6-8). His reference to Christ's sinless sacrifice, and his statement that believers, as such, are unleavened shows the typical significance of leaven. In Galatians 5:7-9, its diffusive quality describes the harmful effects of false doctrine. He calls leaven a persuasion, something that exerts a powerful and moving influence, that hinders people from obeying the truth. Such a thing, he declares, is not from Him who calls us.
In the parable, the leaven alone is not what relates to the Kingdom, but the entire concept in the parable, the progress of the church in history. The leaven is hidden in the meal, representing the way Satan subtly strikes against the truth. Leaven is symbolic of things that disintegrate, break up, and corrupt. The leaven of the Pharisees was hypocritical formality. That of the Sadducees was skepticism. Herod's was of shameful self-indulgence in worldly desires. The leaven of those who have distorted doctrine down through the ages has been greed, pride, control, and worldly desires.
Whenever we find the symbol of a woman in the Bible, she represents a system of beliefs and practices that influence other people. Nations or political groups and religions or churches have specific unique beliefs. All human-based belief systems go contrary to God because "the carnal mind is enmity against God" (Romans 8:7). What the woman does and how she acts determines what belief system she is representing.
The woman in the parable takes leaven and hides it in the meal (Matthew 13:33). Hid is translated from the Greek word enkrupto, from which comes the English word "encrypt." The root word, krupto, means "to conceal" or "to keep secret." Hence, this woman is surreptitiously placing the leaven of false doctrine in the church. She is an opponent of Christ and infuses His church with corrupting ideas. Elsewhere she is called "Wickedness" (Zechariah 5:7-8), "Jezebel" (Revelation 2:20), and the "great harlot" (Revelation 17:1).
Three measures of meal would be a huge amount even for a large family - perhaps as much as is needed to make about a dozen loaves of bread. More importantly, most of the Jews listening to Jesus would have recognized the three measures of meal (an ephah) as the meal or grain offering (Leviticus 2). This offering was never allowed to contain leaven (Leviticus 2:5). The meal offering represents the offerer's service and loyalty to his fellow man and is typified in how Jesus Christ offered Himself in service to mankind (Matthew 20:25-28). It portrays the second great commandment of Matthew 22:36-39: love of our fellow human beings. Thus, the three measures of meal represent love, service, and loyalty to others, specifically our brethren in the church.
Jesus warns in this parable that false doctrines would be infused by stealth into the church, and these evil beliefs would corrupt, erode, and destroy relationships. If the false doctrines are allowed to grow, affection and loving concern in service to one another are thwarted. The phrase "till all was leavened" is a sobering indication that the church would be plagued by insensitive, uncaring, self-absorbed, self-centered attitudes that would spread through the church just as leaven spreads through bread dough. The apostle Paul tells us "through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13), an antidote to the woman's devious subterfuge.
Martin G. Collins
The Parables of Matthew 13 (Part Five): The Parable of the Leaven
1 Corinthians 5:7-8
Paul plainly instructs that the purpose of keeping the Days of Unleavened Bread is to remind us of our need to remove sin from our lives. Because of the serious sins that a Corinthian member had committed, and the congregation's general acceptance of this situation, Paul advises them to use the Days of Unleavened Bread to "purge out the old leaven." They should examine their attitudes and put these sins out of their lives and out of the congregation. He reminds them that the Passover is a memorial of the death of Christ, who died for us that we may receive forgiveness of sins. They "truly are unleavened," he says, in the sense that they had repented and been justified through faith in the sacrifice of Christ. However, since they had allowed leaven to return into their lives, they needed to get rid of it.
This is the heart of why we are still required to put leaven out of our homes. Leaven represents sin, and deleavening our homes symbolizes purging sin from our lives. However, cleansing our lives of sin is a lifetime process that will not be completely fulfilled until we are resurrected and transformed into spirit. As long as we are still flesh and blood, we will never be absolutely perfect—we will never free ourselves completely and totally of sin. This constant struggle to overcome human nature and put on God's nature is called sanctification. Nevertheless, we must continually strive to conform to the image of Jesus Christ, that is, to be a truly perfect human being (Philippians 3:12-14).
God wants us to observe the Days of Unleavened Bread year after year to remind us that we are not perfect and that our lives are a constant struggle against sin. When we deleaven our homes, we find that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot find every tiny crumb that may be imbedded in carpet or hidden behind an appliance. This illustrates how deceitful sin is and teaches us that we must constantly examine ourselves to purge it out of our lives. Removing sin is hard work! The Days of Unleavened Bread remind us annually of this constant warfare that all Christians must wage throughout their lives.
Why then must we remove leaven from our homes but need not be circumcised? The answer is that physical circumcision no longer has a purpose under the New Covenant. Its symbolism is fulfilled in the process of repentance, baptism, and receipt of the Holy Spirit. However, the object lesson of deleavening our homes still has great meaning and purpose for us. The symbolism of putting sin out of our lives will not be completely fulfilled until we are born into the Kingdom of God and become like Him who cannot sin (I John 3:9).
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Why We Must Put Out Leaven
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