The Parable of the Leaven
This is the fourth and last parable in Matthew 13 spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ to the crowd. The remaining four, dealing with the inner secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, were spoken to the disciples. In this parable our Lord is telling the crowd what will be the outward signs of the development of the Kingdom of God on Earth throughout this age. As in the case of the mustard seed parable, He gives no interpretation of it and therefore we must proceed carefully, remembering that popular interpretation is not always correct, and that any interpretation which contradicts the teaching of the Lord, and which is inconsistent with His explanation of the first two parables in this chapter—the sower and the seed, the wheat and the tares—cannot be the true one.
There are two possible interpretations of this parable. The first—the popular one—is that the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven, and without reading any further, this opening phrase of the verse forms the basis for popular teaching. The leaven is assumed to be good, and as a result of its working, all things are brought under the authority of the Lord—the kingdom of heaven in its outward form spreads throughout the whole until all is Christianized. Such is the popular conception of our Lord’s teaching.
I personally reject such an interpretation completely as being contradictory to the whole emphasis of New Testament truth, and there is more than one reason for that view. If we accept such teaching, we accept the fact that leaven in this parable is a picture of good, whereas in all other instances in Scripture it is a picture of evil. Consider one of two examples. In the feast of the Passover, commemorating deliverance from Egypt, unleavened bread had to be eaten—no leaven had to be in the house for seven days. And that emphasis on the corrupting influence of leaven is found throughout the Old Testament. Turning to the New Testament we hear the Lord Jesus warning the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which signifies hypocrisy in religion, professing to be something which one is really not, giving devotion with the lips, but rebellion in the heart. Beware of it!
Again in 1 Corinthians 5:6, Paul declares a “little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” I have heard that phrase employed as an argument by Christian people for the good influence which they hope to have in certain religious and other circles in which they move. But Paul goes on to say, “Purge out the old leaven…let us keep the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Leaven is therefore consistently a picture of an evil, corrupting influence, and this is one reason why we cannot accept the popular teaching of this parable.
A stronger reason still for rejecting such teaching is this: it contradicts all that the Lord Jesus taught elsewhere concerning the outward progress of His Kingdom. We remember that three-fourths of the seed fell on unfruitful ground; that tares were sown by the enemy among the wheat: the picture He drew, as to the outward signs of the Kingdom on Earth, was always one of conflict and apparent failure. Let us always remember that the ultimate issues of His Kingdom are not at stake—there is no question of failure there—but in the development of His Kingdom as evidenced to the world in this age there is to be an appearance of failure. That is always the emphasis of New Testament teaching, and the teaching of the first three parables in this chapter. If we accept the popular idea concerning the leaven, we find ourselves contradicting all the teaching of the first three.
There is, however, another interpretation of this parable, and it is surely the true scriptural one. It assumes that leaven is, as always, the picture of evil. It does not stop by reading the first phrase of the verse only, but reads right on, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” To understand the meaning, you must include the woman and the meal, just as in every other parable you include every factor. The picture here is of three measures of meal in which a woman deliberately hides leaven, until by the working of the leaven the whole lump becomes under its influence.
The thing of supreme importance is not the leaven, or the woman, but the meal and what happened to it. What did the Saviour mean by using this picture of three measures of meal? The only safe answer to that question is to recall its use in other parts of Scripture. In Genesis 18, we find an occasion when Abraham and Sarah entertained the Lord in their home and they prepared three measures of meal. I turn over the pages and find in the book of Leviticus—so full of symbolic teaching—first the burnt offering: then the meal offering. The burnt offering spoke of the dedication of life to God, the meal offering of dedication of service to God, for part was retained by the priest and part by the worshipper, and from it all leaven had to be excluded. In that offering there was the symbol of perfect communion between God and sinner on the basis of dedicated life and service. Gideon (Judges 6:19) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:24) each brought such an offering—three measures of meal.
Now in this parable there is the picture of fellowship with God with service marred by the intrusion of a corrupting influence. The first thing that God requires of each of us is the dedication of our life, on the basis of Calvary, to Him. But that is not all. This parable teaches us that our testimony to His grace must be based on fellowship with Him purged of all corruption. We can only, as a church and as individuals, bear testimony to His glory if we are entirely separated from all that of which leaven is the symbol. After that meal, Abraham stood face to face with God and pleaded for Sodom. That meal he had prepared was the symbol of his separated life and was the basis of his pleading. Lot was down in Sodom, a righteous man, but he could do nothing for the city: he could neither persuade nor influence nor save. “He seemed as one that mocked” when he spoke of its doom. Lot had corrupted his testimony by allowing the spirit of Sodom to enter his soul. It was the separated man, Abraham, who had the power to pray and save. Testimony to the glory of God depends on separation from the leaven of corruption.
What did leaven symbolize? The leaven of the Pharisees was hypocrisy; the leaven of Herod was worldly wealth and power; the leaven in the church at Corinth was sin and impurity. These are the things which mar and ruin Christian testimony today, and until the church and the individual are purged from them, our testimony is worthless. Oh! that the Holy Ghost would write that truth on our hearts as a church! Power to bring conviction to the world concerning spiritual realities feeble to the point of impotence because of internal corruption; formalism, corruption, and hypocrisy all exercise a leavening influence until the whole lump is leavened.
Thank god that is not His final word, for though this is the true picture of the age in which we live and the development of Christendom, yet we can say:
“Thou art coming, O my Saviour;
Thou art coming, O my King.”
And with His coming to exercise authority will be set up the administration of His Kingdom. It is at midnight that the Bridegroom cometh. For that the world is waiting, and we can hasten that day by communion and fellowship in lives unmarred by leavening influences.
Has your life been yielded to Christ? Have you accepted Him as your Saviour and Lord? If so, is there unhindered communion? Is the burnt offering of your life and the meal offering of your service untarnished, unmarred by the secret working of leaven? Or, is your testimony ruined by corrupting influence? Is the principle of your life, “What’s the harm in it?” or is it all to His glory?
Is the leaven of hypocrisy at work? Are we all living the Christian lives which we profess to others? Is our outward life the expression of our yielded heart, or is it only sham? Let the leaven of hypocrisy—of self-will—remain and soon the whole heart will be hard. Maybe the leaven of impurity is at work within, and secretly, silently the devil is spreading the flame of sin in your soul. If so, “Clear out the old leaven so that you may be a new dough; for in fact you are free from that leaven, for our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed—Christ.”
If you are trusting the Saviour you are free. Let your experience tally with your position and be free. It was to people who were separated from leaven that He gave deliverance from Egypt.
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away, all things are become new.” Purge out the old, cleave to the new, and let Christ be magnified in you!