What the Bible says about
Parable of the Leaven
(From Forerunner Commentary)
An overview of Matthew 13 is essential, because we need to understand the whole context to see what Jesus was trying to get across to us. A particular Bible translation may divide the chapter into only seven parables, but there are eight parables in Matthew 13. Usually the eighth is combined with the seventh parable. In a way, the eighth follows the seventh, but it is a parable in its own right. It should stand alone.
These eight parables can be divided into three sections. The first consists of the first four parables: the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Leaven. The second section consists of the next three parables: the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price, and the Parable of the Dragnet. The third section is the last parable, the Parable of the Householder, who takes out of his treasury both old and new.
The titles of these three sections give an idea of what Jesus emphasizes in Matthew 13. We can title the first section "Satan's Plan to Destroy the Church." The second section can be titled "God's Work on Behalf of the Church," what God does to make sure that Satan does not destroy the church. The third section can be titled "The Ministry's Duty to the Church."
Notice the comment Matthew makes following the first section. In Matthew 13:34 is an explanation why the first four parables can be titled "Satan's Plan to Destroy the Church":
All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world."
What was kept secret from the foundation of the world? Satan's plan to destroy God's plan of salvation, which He is fulfilling through the church.
Matthew 13:34 applies specifically to what Jesus had just said, but it also applies generally to all the parables. Through them, Jesus opens up matters that have been concealed from the foundation of the world. In Psalm 78:2, it does not say, "I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." Instead, it says: "I will utter dark sayings of old," providing another clue that what Matthew 13:34 refers to in respect to the first four parables is dark. Jesus is speaking of dark mysteries, dark things happening. These can only be Satanic things, bad, negative things inspired by the Devil.
What Jesus spoke before verse 34 is primarily negative, not positive, and these negative things have been hidden from man since the foundation of the world. What happened at the foundation of the world? Adam and Eve sinned. That was the first step in Satan's plan—"Get them while they're young"—and he has been doing the same thing ever since. Jesus touches on this in the first parable.
So, in the first half of this chapter, Jesus is saying, "Look, My disciples, this is the plan that you must fight against. If you understand what is in these parables, you will have a pretty good idea of what is happening spiritually."
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part 1): The Mustard Seed
Matthew 13 contains Christ's explanation of His use of parables as a way of teaching. In analyzing these parables, we discover the King's personal view of His Kingdom through the past, present, and future of the history of His church. They seem not to reveal as much about the church's eternal characteristics as about its day-to-day efforts resulting from Christ's work in coming into the world. They act as a prophetic summary of the historical development of God's church. The recurring phrase "kingdom of heaven" denotes Christ's work through His church to make known "the word of the kingdom" (verse 19), that is, to announce the good news of the coming Kingdom of God.
The chapter contains eight parables. Jesus gave the first four to the mixed multitude, while He told the last four to the twelve disciples in private. After the first series of four parables, Matthew writes, "All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them" (verse 34). These four parables describe the outward characteristics of the church, the working of the mystery of sin against the church, and the extent to which the Evil One is allowed to go in his opposition. The remaining four parables illustrate the inner characteristics of His church. After the eighth parable, Matthew makes another concluding statement, ". . . when Jesus had finished these parables, . . . He departed from there" (verse 53).
The parables can also be grouped into related pairs that illustrate the church's different characteristics:
First Pair: The Sower (verse 3) represents the relationship of the church to the different groups of people with which it comes into contact while doing its work. The Tares (verse 24) represents the relationship of the church to the wicked one and his agents.
Second Pair: The Mustard Seed (verse 31) represents the dynamic growth of the church from small beginnings even while adversaries confront it. The Leaven (verse 33) represents the progress of the church against and despite the contagious outspread of sin.
Third Pair: The Treasure (verse 44) represents the preciousness of Christians to Christ, who can see their hidden value and sacrifices all to possess them. The Pearl (verse 45) represents the preciousness of the church to Christ, who sacrifices everything to acquire it.
Fourth Pair: The Dragnet (verse 47) teaches that the good and evil who intermingle on earth will be completely separated in the judgment. The Householder (verse 52) represents the work of the true minister and teacher who feeds the household of faith from a rich storehouse of essential spiritual treasures.
Taken together, the stories describe the characteristics and dynamism of the church, its formidable obstacles, and its ultimate victory. They show Christ working through His messengers to preach the gospel of the Kingdom between the time of His first and second comings.
The first parable, The Sower, and the eighth, The Householder, are key, the first introducing and anticipating all of the parables, and the last concluding and reflecting back on the whole, stating the church's purpose and duty under the authority of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus finished the first seven parables, He asked His disciples, "Have you understood all these things?" That they understood made it possible for Jesus to conclude with a final parable that reveals the responsibility of the disciples as "scribes" in the church, "instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven" (verse 52). The apostles, and the church Jesus would build, would bring forth a treasure of knowledge and understanding, "things new and old."
Jesus teaches us by the simplicity and shortness of His parables that directness and brevity are effective teaching tools. His method stands in sharp contrast to the involved and lengthy style of some Bible commentators. Jesus gave clear and precise illustrations to which His audience could relate. Farmers listened to pictures of agricultural life. Wives could grasp His word pictures from home life. Merchants could relate to illustrations from the business world that translated into spiritual principles. Jesus also spoke of common civic duties and social events. Portrayals of nature scenes provided Him with analogies with which to express spiritual truth. Jesus used pictures that fit the occasion in a way that preserved their naturalness.
Only Christ's disciples can really understand the true spiritual principles involved in the parables, "because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (verse 11). They were inspired by His Father in heaven, "[for] all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15), therefore "blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear" (Matthew 13:16).
Martin G. Collins
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part One): Introduction
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
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