THE PARABLE OF THE LEAVEN
I-Bing Cheng, M.D., M.A.
Jesus taught people about the kingdom of God, He often used examples taken directly
from everyday life. The parable of the leaven is one good example. Let’s read
this short parable.
13:33. 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."
Here Jesus is
telling the story of a woman who was busy making bread. He says, ‘Look over
there. Do you see that woman behind the window? Do you see what she is doing?
She is going to make a loaf of bread, maybe even several loaves of bread. She
already got her pans and pots ready. Now she is mixing flour, water, yeast
and a pinch of salt together. The yeast is a very important ingredient
because it causes the dough to rise. Later when it is all leavened, the woman
will bake the bread.’
You all know that bread made simply from water and flour
is dry and very hard. That is why we mix it with leaven. When you put the
dough in a warm place, at the right temperature, the leaven changes the
quality of the bread by making it porous and moist. Through the process of
fermentation, the whole dough is filled with air and it becomes very soft.
Two opposite views
What is the spiritual teaching of this passage? There
are essentially two interpretations of this parable.
(1) Some say that the leaven represents God’s work and
the bread is the world. This means that the church is the leaven working
inside the world, the bread, and its influence spreads throughout the world.
If that is the picture, it is basically repeating the lesson of the previous
parable, the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32). There we saw
that the influence of the church will be pervasive in the world. Man and
society will be affected in one way or another by this leaven.
(2) The other way to understand this parable is that the
world is spreading into the church. The description of ‘leaven taken by a
woman and hidden in the meal’ indicates a mixture of evil within the good. It
is a picture in which the leaven symbolizes evil that penetrates God’s
kingdom and His church.
Throughout the history of the church, both views were
held. Most Bible commentators of our time prefer the first interpretation,
namely that the church, like leaven mixed in with dough, penetrates and
transforms the world.
I personally prefer the second interpretation. The
parable is a picture of evil diffusing itself through the church. It seems to
me that the arguments supporting that point of view are stronger than those
of the first one. We will see what those arguments are in this lesson. Now
let’s take a close look at this parable.
The kingdom of God is ‘not’
The parable of the leaven begins with these words. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven... Here we have to be very careful how we
read the Scriptures. If we read the story like this, The kingdom of heaven
is like leaven, then it would seem like Jesus is saying that the kingdom
of God is the leaven which penetrates the world. But that is not exactly the
meaning of Jesus’ words. The fact that the kingdom of heaven is likened to
leaven does not mean that the kingdom is the leaven. You see, when Jesus uses
the expression ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this,’ the point of His
comparison is not strictly the noun which follows that expression but the
parable as a whole.
Take for example
the parable of the sower. It is not the ‘man who
sowed’ who is compared to the kingdom of heaven, but the situation resulting
from his sowing. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus says, The
kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Again, the point of comparison
is not the mustard seed in itself, but what happens when it is sown. The
kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in
his field (Matthew 13:31).
We read in
Matthew 25:1, At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins.
Does that mean that the kingdom of heaven is being represented by these
women? No. We have to read the sentence until the end. At that time the
kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went
out to meet the bridegroom. The kingdom of heaven is not simply
compared to ten virgins, but to ten virgins who have taken their lamps and
gone out to a marriage feast. In the context of this parable, the meaning is
that when Jesus returns to judgment, it will be as it was the case of ten
virgins in a marriage ceremony. It is the whole thing together that
represents the situation in the kingdom.
This reminds me
of Paul when he says, For the body is not one member, but many
(1Corinthians 12:14). The body is made up of many members, not just of one
single member. It is the same thing with the kingdom parables. When a parable
begins with the expression ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this,’ we should
not assume that the first word is the one that the kingdom of God is like.
The kingdom of heaven is not like leaven. It is like leaven put into the
bread by a woman. The whole picture is involved, not just the first word. The
meaning of the statement will not change if we say, ‘The kingdom of God is
like a woman who took leaven and mixed it with flour.’ We can also change the
words around in this way, ‘The kingdom of God is like meal which a woman took
and put leaven into.’ The meaning remains the same.
little leaven leavens the whole lump
The next point
we have to deal with is the question of the leaven. What does ‘leaven’ mean
in the Bible? Well, the word of God has a lot to say about ‘leaven’. If you
take a NT concordance and look under the word ‘leaven,’ it won’t be long
before you notice that leaven refers to something bad.
In the parable
of the leaven, it appears once as a verb (zumoo)
and once as a noun (zume). There are only
two other places outside of this parable where the verb form is used:
1Corinthians 5:6 and Galatians 5:9. Let’s look at these two passages.
1Corinthians 5:6. Your glorying is not
good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
7 Therefore purge out the old
leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened…
Do you see the picture? Paul says,
‘You, Christians, are a loaf of bread which should not be leavened. You are
in fact unleavened. Clean out the old leaven of sin in your life.’
The apostle Paul wrote those
words to the church of Corinth in reaction to her immorality. At the beginning
of the chapter, mention is made of a very serious sin
in which a man committed incest, i.e., he had a sexual relationship with a
relative of his own. In this case, it was with his mother-in-law. Paul said
out of fury, ‘Such a thing is disgusting even to the non-Christians. How dare
you tolerate a sin like this in your church? This cannot pass over without
correction!’ Then he said, ‘I have decided to excommunicate this man.’ By
this action, he removed the leaven from the church. He took out this sinful influence
so that it does not affect the entire Christian community.
The word leaven is used in the
same negative way in Galatians 5:9. Paul says this.
5:9. A little leaven leavens
the whole lump.
In this particular context, Paul
is speaking about the influence of false teaching in the church, namely, the
return to circumcision. ‘It only takes a little leaven,’ Paul says, ‘to
affect a whole lump of dough. So it is with false teaching. If we let it
spread, it will permeate and mislead the whole church.’
Symbol of evil
The noun form of leaven occurs
12 other times in the NT (Matthew 16:6, 11, 12; Mark 8:15, 15; Luke 12:1;
13:21; 1Corinthians 5:6, 7, 8, 8; Galatians 5:9). And again, it is always
used in reference to corrupt doctrine or to corrupt practice.
In the OT, the word ‘leaven’ also represents something
evil. That is why leaven was forbidden in all offerings to God by fire
(Leviticus 2:11; 6:17). We read in Leviticus 2:11, 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. Because leaven symbolizes the pervasive character of
evil, it was inappropriate to use it in offerings which typified the
propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. For the same reason, the Israelites were
forbidden to eat leavened bread for seven days at the time of Passover. Not
only that, they were prohibited from having any leaven in their homes (Exodus
12:15, 19) or in their land (Exodus 13:7; Deuteronomy 16:4). At that time of
the year, the Israelites searched with extreme care their homes, to purge out
every particle of leaven.
This is the point we need to observe. In the Bible,
leaven is never used in a good sense. There is not a single place in the
Scriptures where it typifies something good. Even when Jesus uses the word
‘leaven,’ it is always in a bad sense (Matthew 16:6, 11; Mark 8:15; Luke
12:1). If we want to change the symbolic meaning of leaven and take it in a
good sense in the parable of the leaven, we must have some very solid
arguments. But it seems to me that there are no strong reasons for making an
exception and regarding the symbol here differently from its application
everywhere else in the word of God. The interpretation that makes the leaven
to be the gospel introduced into the world by the church and influencing
subtly the whole world is based more on an exception than on a general rule.
To be consistent, it is more logical to see the picture of evil penetrating
the Christian community.
Three measures of flour
Let us consider another question. In the NIV, we read, The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a
woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through
the dough. What does
this dough represent? Dough is used in Romans 11:16 as a picture of the
people of God. Paul writes, If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy. Because of the holy lives of a few
faithful ones, God cares for the nation as a whole – for the whole lump – for
In the parable of the leaven, the Greek word for ‘flour’
or ‘meal’ refers specifically to wheat flour (aleuron).
This does not come out in the English translation but it is very clear in the
Greek text. And when we speak of wheat flour, we are talking about believers.
Remember the parable of the tares. According to
Jesus’ own explanation, the tares represent the sons of the devil, whereas
the good seed, the wheat, stands for the children of God (Matthew 13:38).
Wheat is also used as a picture of believers by John the Baptist in Matthew
3:12 where he declares that Jesus will one day ‘gather His wheat (the
righteous) into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff (the wicked) with
In John 6, the
bread is Jesus Himself. I am the bread of life, Jesus says. And we, by
extension, being the body of Christ, are called ‘bread’. That is why in
1Corinthians 10:17 it says, For we (the church), though many, are
one bread and one body. The Christians are all one bread and one
body with Christ. So the wheat, the flour, the bread, all those terms refer to believers.
symbolizes evil and wheat refers to Christians, then the lesson of the parable
is that evil is able to penetrate the kingdom of heaven and corrupt it. The
world is penetrating the church with its bad influence and Jesus is telling
us to watch out for this. That, to me, is a more natural interpretation of
in the flour
Notice the word
‘hid.’ Which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal.
This action, ‘to hide,’ indicates two things: (1) a certain act of secrecy,
and (2) a certain covering up of something. Can we say that God takes His
kingdom and hides it in the world? No, the kingdom of God comes with no
hiding at all. Rather, it comes into the world in such a way that the world
is quite aware of it.
Paul says for
example in Acts 26:26, ‘The things of which I preach were not done in a
corner.’ They were not hidden from human view. The events in the life of
Jesus were obvious to everybody. All the Palestinian people could see what He
was doing. That is why Jesus said to the people who came to arrest Him
secretly, ‘Why do you arrest Me in the dark? Everyday
I was in the temple teaching and you never touched Me. I sat in a public
place. I didn’t hide Myself. So why do you do this thing in secret?’ The
world acts secretly. Jesus does nothing in the corner.
In the same way,
the apostle Paul says in 1Corinthians 4:9, ‘We, apostles, have become a
spectacle to the world.’ A spectacle is something that the whole world can
see. There is nothing hidden about it. In 2Corinthians 4:3-4, Paul again
says, ‘The gospel that we preach is not hidden. But if it is hidden, it is
hidden to those who are perishing. And they are perishing because the god of
this world has blinded their eyes so that they cannot see the glory of
Christ.’ The gospel is not hidden by God. If there is anything hidden, it is
Satan who did the hiding, who blinded the eyes of the people to prevent them
from seeing the glory of Christ.
The influence of
the church works in a way that is obvious to anyone. The Lord Jesus says in
Matthew 5:14, A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. The
church is like a city on a hill. It shines out. Everybody can see it. So it
is not the church that is hiding in the world. It is the world that is
entering secretly into the church.
Jesus is not the
only one who gives us this warning. Jude tells us that Certain men whose
condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among
you (Jude 4). In 2Peter 2:1, we read that False prophets also arose
among the people … who will secretly introduce destructive heresies,
even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon
themselves. That is the leaven that is hidden in the meal, the pervasive
and secret influence of the false teachers and of the world in the church.
And that is what the Lord Jesus is warning His disciples about in this
parable. ‘Watch out for the leaven of the world that you do not fall. Beware
of the leaven that can bring destruction upon you if you are not careful.’
kinds of leaven
specifically, leaven is mentioned by the Lord Jesus as an attribute of the
Pharisees and of the Sadducees of which the disciples are to beware. What is
the leaven of the Pharisees? It is hypocrisy. Beware of the leaven of the
Pharisees, the Lord Jesus says in Luke 12:1, which is hypocrisy.
The Pharisees were guilty of hypocrisy, that is, saying
one thing and doing another. You see, hypocrisy is not something that comes
suddenly. It is a slow and subtle process. The Pharisees were not people who
had the intention of being hypocrites. They were exemplary in their sincere
pursuit of doctrinal truth. But after a period of time, slowly by slowly,
they became self-righteous. They knew perfectly the letter of the Law but
they missed the spirit of the Law. They shifted away from the focus of the
Scriptures. Paul speaks of ‘shifting from the hope of the gospel (Colossians
1:23).’ Shifting away is a slow process no matter what causes the shifting.
start out as genuine Christians. But slowly by slowly, they cool down. They shift
away so that eventually only the outward appearance of spirituality is left.
The inside is gone. They honor God with their lips;
their heart is far from Him. They preach one thing but do not practice it.
They have departed from their first love, being neither cold nor hot.
connection, have you ever noticed how leaven works? Leaven works only in one
kind of environment. What kind of environment is it? A lukewarm
environment. If you put the dough in a cold place, the leaven will not do
anything. If you put it in a hot place, nothing will happen either. You have
to give the leaven the lukewarm condition that it needs to raise the dough.
In that sense, the church cannot be the leaven. The church must be either hot
or cold, as Jesus says in Revelation 3:16 (…because you are lukewarm, and
neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth).
What is the
leaven of the Sadducees? We read from Luke 20:27 that it is unbelief. Then
some of the Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Him…
The Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch. They did not believe in the
resurrection or in the miracles, or in the life after death. Unbelief can
also affect the church. Some Christians may struggle with doubts about their
faith. They have many questions which they don’t find answers. They are
easily shaken with every wind of doctrine. And slowly by slowly, their faith
is eroded by unbelief.
warns us about another kind of leaven in Mark 8:15. Beware of …the leaven
of Herod. ‘The leaven of Herod.’ What is it? ‘That fox,’ Jesus called
Herod in Luke 13:32. This has reference to the subtle diplomacy and cunning
political management of a difficult Roman region, which enabled Herod to keep
his puppet position and royal power for many years. Now, in order to have
peace, he had to be an opportunist. He was willing to be nice with everybody
so long as you leave him to be king of his little empire. It is possible to
be spiritually opportunistic by having one foot in the kingdom of God and the
other foot in the world. These people behave as though they can have the best
of both. So long as they can continue to do their own will, they don’t mind
getting baptized. Eventually they become worldly Christians.
by His use of the word leaven in these three instances, is warning His
disciples of the danger of allowing their thinking to be assimilated to that
of the world around them, the world of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. And if we are to judge from the use of the
word leaven in the rest of the Scriptures – an unseen pervasive evil
influence – we have to interpret the parable of the leaven as a picture of
the spreading of evil within the church.