For Leaven’s Sake!


Parables

Hermeneutics. The first time I heard that word I thought, “Herman knew … what?” The word is commonly interchanged with exegesis which simply refers to the method of interpreting written text. In this case our written text is the Holy Bible. (When we make the Bible say what we want it to say that is called eisegesis.)

As of this writing the beloved radio pastor (my regular readers know to whom I’m referring) is going through the Gospel of Matthew. I would like to focus our attention on one of the parables of Jesus. There are two common interpretations of Matthew 13:33:

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

The pastor teaches that leaven is the subject of this parable. The three measures of flour represents the Gospel, and the woman is the principle of evil who kneads false teaching into the Word.

Until it is all leavened? What the pastor is saying is that the kingdom of heaven will become universally corrupt.

It is true that in ancient Rabbinic writings leaven is represented as evil. As the pastor notes it is similarly depicted 98 times in the Bible. In his interpretation, then, we see the word leaven and presume that this is a story about evil for as such it is always depicted.

1 Corinthians 5:6–8

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump

Matthew 16:6

beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Mark 8:15

beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.

Exodus 12:15

if anyone eats what is leavened shall be cut off

If we begin with this association between leaven and evil it then colors our interpretation of the parable. Recall that I said leaven is always symbolic of evil. Is this true?

Let’s examine one of the Holy Feasts of Israel — Shavuot. Called Pentecost (by Hellenistic Jews) it fell on the 50th day after Passover, and was also known as the Feast of Latter Fruits. (We should note that the Feast of First Fruits was celebrated in the week of Passover. Messiah was resurrected on First Fruits, and so shall His church be the Latter Fruits.)

Leviticus 23:16–17

You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord.

As followers of Messiah we commonly think of first fruits as symbolic of resurrection. How, then, do we understand leavened bread as a type of first fruits? This makes no sense to our literal understanding of leaven being representative of evil.

Without going into every jot and tittle of the Law the wave offering was to be food for the priests and, as such, was not to be offered upon the altar. [See Leviticus 2:11]

The Shavuot bread offering is the key to our proper understanding of this parable of Jesus. We, as a body of believers, are the leavened bread offered as a type of first fruits. The old leaven — that is our old nature — is gone. We are a new lump of dough leavened by the Word of God.

Look again at the parable. What is the subject of this story — leaven? Read carefully.

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven. In what way? It shares the properties of leaven. The Word, as a peck, is hidden in a person’s heart, and acts as an agent of change.

The kingdom of heaven is the subject. It dwells in our hearts and transforms us in the renewing of our minds. Just as the yeast changes the lump of dough so, also, we are changed — inwardly, to be sure, but also in our outward behavior, and manifestation of one who walks upright in the Lord.

The leavening process has caused us to become a new creation in Christ; and so much more dramatic than a lump of flour becoming a loaf of bread.

Some will interpret the three measures of flour as the world, the church or individual believers. In any case, those who incline towards the pastor’s interpretation will say, “No, things are getting worse. Where is the evidence that the world is being changed?”

Well, the kingdom of heaven began with eleven men who were told to go and make disciples. As of 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world.

The kingdom of heaven is advancing in people’s hearts, within the church and around the globe.

Habakkuk 2:14

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

John Gill (an English Baptist pastor) wrote that an ingenious interpretation of this parable had been introduced (after the Reformation) suggesting that the woman kneading the dough was the apocalyptic harlot of Revelation. While Gill thought that to be interesting it suggests that the fermentation of evil would leaven the whole world (and every creature) until the Lord was, at last, compelled to intervene.

Does the Bible teach this? That the whole world must first be consumed with evil?

Jesus said that the tares and wheat would grow together until His angels are sent to collect the harvest. I believe that things will go along as they have been for 2000 years. Some dough will rise, and some not. Some seed will fall in good soil, and some not. Good and evil co-existing until the end. Which means I don’t agree with post-millennials who see an ultimate triumph of the Gospel before the Second Coming.

What I presented was the historic view of the church as summarized by Henry Alford (ca. 1810-1871):

Difficulties have been raised as to the interpretation of this parable which do not seem to belong to it. It has been questioned whether ζύμη (leaven) must not be taken in the sense in which it so often occurs in Scripture, as symbolic of pollution and corruption.

And some few have taken it thus, and explained the parable of the progress of corruption and deterioration in the outward visible Church. But then, how is it said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this leaven?

If the progress of the Kingdom of Heaven be towards corruption, till the whole is corrupted, surely there is an end of all the blessings and healing influence of the Gospel on the world. It will be seen that such an interpretation cannot for a moment stand, on its own ground; but much less with the parable preceding (of the mustard seed, as the Kingdom of Heaven, which grows into a great tree that offers comfort and protection). [1]

John Gill (ca. 1697-1771), a century before Alford, was an historicist though he concluded that the reader may choose which interpretation he likes best. [2]

As the beloved radio pastor often said, If you wanna be right you’ll agree with me.

Notes:

1. Alford’s Greek Testament and Exegetical and Critical Commentary (Volumes 1-4), Henry Alford, (1841-1861).

2. John Gill’s Exposition of the New Testament, (3 vols., 1746-8).

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2 thoughts on “For Leaven’s Sake!

  1. I love the fact that you actually are examining the meaning of this parable. It is so common for believers to throw up their hands and moan, “This is too hard,” or just skip over it and not be bothered. I love J.V.M. but I can’t agree with him that the woman is an agent of evil. I choose to believe the other interpretation, that the spreading and growth of the Kingdom of heaven is like that of leaven in dough, and will thoroughly permeate reality in the end.

    I have difficulty with the notion that we can substitute “church” for the kingdom of God, though the church is definitely part of it. But there is also heaven, the throne of God, the angels…no way will evil ever permeate the kingdom of heaven. I don’t think it is possible for sin and darkness to exist in the presence of God. And too, Jesus said the gates of hell would never prevail against his church.

    I also don’t agree with “change the world” theology. I’ll leave that to God. It’s our job (those of us in his church) to let him change us, so that we may serve him, serve one another, spread the gospel and make disciples. But change the world? I think those who focus on that idea miss the fact that entering the kingdom of heaven is all about the hearts of individuals being changed and turning from sin and the flesh to Jesus. Any other “change” is on the outside: social, political, economic and even religious. Without the fundamental spiritual change that flows from the love of messiah, all other change will burn away with the rest of the wood and stubble.

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