3.1.6 Leaven/Yeast: Corruption and Sin
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 1.6
Leaven/Yeast: Corruption and Sin
The freedom from Egyptian tyranny gained by Israel under Moses will be forever linked in their national memory to one substance—unleavened bread. We all remember the story of the tenth and final plague: the Messenger of Death slew all the firstborn of Egypt, but passed over the houses of the Israelites who had been indemnified by the blood of the Passover lambs, painted on their doorposts. In their terror and anguish, the Egyptians reversed their policy on the Israelite slaves. Instead of stubbornly refusing to let them go, they now insisted they leave Egypt—immediately. “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders…. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” (Exodus 12:34, 39)
It wasn’t merely the suddenness of their exit, of course, that had left the Israelites with unleavened bread dough. Before the Passover took place, Yahweh had instructed them to remove all the yeast from their homes—a condition that would last for a whole week. This was to be the inaugural celebration of an annual convocation: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast [chag, a festival or celebration] to Yahweh; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread [Hebrew: matsah]. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel….” So this wasn’t quite the “accident” it appears to be at first glance: Yahweh engineered it so that the fleeing Israelites wouldn’t have any leaven handy to put in their bread dough. The absence of yeast was suppose to mean something.
“On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days.” As we’ll see in a bit, the “work” image has a great deal to do with leaven, more than meets the eye. “But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever….” Like each of Yahweh’s seven holy convocations, the meaning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread extends far beyond whatever historical significance the day might have held. In point of fact, the last five have no memorial connection to the exodus at all. These aren’t “Jewish” holidays, no matter what they look like: they’re the feasts of Yahweh. Every one of them is prophetic of something earth-shakingly significant in His plan of redemption.
“In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.” Chag Matsah was thus to commence at the end of the day on Passover (the day the lamb was slain), and last for a whole week. “For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:14-20) As Passover was defined by the slaying of the lamb and the application of his blood, the Feast of Unleavened Bread is defined by the removal of whatever it is that leaven represents—and because it’s a seven day feast, we can safely infer that its complete removal is indicated. Beyond this, it is evident that God has symbolically linked the two things, though they have no natural connection. We are being told that the Passover sacrifice achieves—it leads to—the “absence of leaven.” So because the Torah says eating it during Chag Matsah will get you “cut off from the congregation,” it behooves us to figure out precisely what leaven signifies in Yahweh’s dictionary of symbols.
It should be noted first that leaven or yeast was an ordinary part of the Israelite diet, just as it was for everybody else, and is to this day. Bread made without yeast is hard, flat, and heavy. But some clever soul, thousands of years ago, figured out that if you added yeast to your bread dough and allowed it a little time to do its thing, the resulting bread would be lighter, airier, and softer. But it’s kind of like what they say about sausage—you may want to eat it, but you don’t really want to know how its made. Yeast, after all, is a fungus, a single-celled eukaryotic micro-organism, similar to the molds that cause your food to go bad. Though the fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae has been used in baking (and brewing beer) for millennia, it wasn’t until 1857 that microbiologist Louis Pasteur proved that yeast’s effects were caused by a living organism, and not merely a chemical reaction.
Historically, leaven was made from bran, vetch, or barley, ground fine, mixed with water and allowed time to rot. The fermentation process made leaven an apt picture of corruption in our lives, since a little bit of it permeates the whole loaf, or the whole life as the case may be, changing it from within. In bread, of course, there’s nothing particularly harmful about the presence of yeast. Leavened bread wasn’t forbidden as food in the Torah’s dietary guidelines. But because of the insidious way leaven operates, invading and altering the character of a loaf of bread from within, it was recruited by Yahweh as a metaphor for what sin can do in our lives, corrupting us from the inside out.
But there’s more to it, if we’re attuned to its symbolic significance. One doesn’t just sprinkle a little yeast on top and pop the loaf into the oven. It has to be thoroughly mixed into the dough, and given time to work, in order to do its job. Gases will be created as the yeast permeates the mixture, but the bread dough needs to be elastic in order to capture these gasses, to stretch as the bubbles form in the dough, to expand and rise. Without this elasticity, bread wouldn’t have the open texture we’ve come to prefer. So how is it achieved? Two important proteins, glutenin and gliadin, are contained in the endosperm of the wheat. When wheat flour is mixed with water and physically manipulated by kneading, these two proteins begin to link with the water molecules and crosslink with each other. As the kneading continues and these molecules create stronger bonds, gluten is formed, and this gluten is what gives the dough the elasticity it needs to allow leaven’s fermentation process to change the character of the bread.
The point is that corruption—sin—doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it, we have to choose to do it, to knead the leaven into our lives. And sin’s effects aren’t (always) apparent immediately—they usually take time to make themselves apparent. Opportunities for sin don’t guarantee corruption in our lives. The mere presence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden didn’t make sin inevitable: Eve had to choose to reach up and pick the forbidden fruit. She had to choose to eat it. And she had to choose to give it to Adam (whose choice to believe her word over Yahweh’s what got us into the mess we’re in). So James concludes, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:12-15) That’s the way leaven works (sort of): it enters the dough because the baker “desires” a certain effect. This desire is “conceived” as he kneads the dough with the yeast, giving it time to rise, so when it’s baked, it “gives birth” to light, open-textured bread. Just as with baking bread, sin doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of choice and volition—which is not to say it doesn’t become habitual. Bakers add yeast because “that’s the way bread is made.” We sin because we’re sinners—it seems natural to us. God’s point is that it’s not natural, and we don’t have to be defined by it.
It may seem odd for God to have chosen a substance that is seen as a good thing in our ordinary lives to symbolically represent something bad. The key, I think, is leaven’s ubiquity. It’s expected; it’s normal—even if it is an insidious fungus. Yahweh, however, would have us know that it’s possible to bake bread without leaven—sin doesn’t have to characterize us or permeate our lives.
But let’s face it: sin (now that we’re sinners) is second nature. We find falling short of Yahweh’s perfect standard the easiest thing in the world. It takes effort, determination, even sacrifice, to rid our lives of something that—like yeast—is as common to us as breathing air or drinking water. The question is: whose effort? Ours? No. As anyone who’s ever tried to do this can attest, we’re invariably unsuccessful when we attempt to become sinless on our own, because we’re already contaminated. The only way for us to rid ourselves of this insidious curse is to become “new creatures,” and the only One who can bring that about is the One who made us in the first place—the Creator, Yahweh. It’s His effort, determination, and sacrifice that can remake us into leaven-free loaves.
That’s the picture painted by the Feast of Unleavened Bread: “On the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened bread to Yahweh.” Remember what happened on the fourteenth? The Passover lamb was slain. There is a connection, a progression, a cause-and-effect scenario: the sacrifice of the Lamb, Yahshua, is what achieves the removal of leaven—sin—from our lives. “For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. But you shall present an offering by fire to Yahweh for seven days. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work.” (Leviticus 23:6-8) Here’s where the symbol catches up with reality: just as no amount of work will enable us to remove leaven from bread dough once it’s there, we can’t rid ourselves of the sin in our lives through our own efforts, either. In every facet of this (and throughout the Torah, for that matter), what the Israelites were told to do was a picture, a pantomime, of what Yahweh was doing for us. When they sacrificed their Passover lamb, it meant Yahweh would sacrifice His son. When they rid their homes of leaven, it meant God would rid our lives of sin. (Note that the deadline for the removal of yeast was the same as for the sacrifice of the lamb: sundown on the fourteenth of Nisan. The two things are spiritually equivalent.) When they met in holy convocation on the first and last days of the feast, it meant that from beginning to end, Yahweh would meet our needs. And when they refrained from working, it meant that Yahweh would achieve for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The Passover/Unleavened Bread convocation wasn’t the only place leaven was absent from the Levitical rites. “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of My feast remain until the morning.” (Exodus 23:18) Leaven, of course, was ordinarily associated with bread (and beer, but that wasn’t enlisted as one of God’s symbols). So the “grain offering” (the minha) that accompanied the blood sacrifices was where the prohibition applied. Moses addresses this in more detail in the early chapters of Leviticus: “This is the law of the grain offering. The sons of Aaron shall offer it before Yahweh in front of the altar. And one shall take from it a handful of the fine flour of the grain offering and its oil and all the frankincense that is on the grain offering and burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a pleasing aroma to Yahweh. And the rest of it Aaron and his sons shall eat. It shall be eaten unleavened in a holy place. In the court of the tent of meeting they shall eat it. It shall not be baked with leaven. I have given it as their portion of My offerings made by fire. It is a thing most holy, like the sin offering and the guilt offering. Every male among the children of Aaron may eat of it, as decreed forever throughout your generations, from Yahweh’s offerings made by fire. Whatever touches them shall become holy.” (Leviticus 6:14-18)
Generally speaking, then, leaven was to be conspicuously absent from the Levitical rites. The whole point, after all, was to reveal how Yahweh planned to rid us of our corruption. Rare indeed are the times when leaven is allowed (or even specified) in the Torah, so we can expect to learn something significant from these exceptions. The first has to with the peace offering, the selem, which was to be offered as a voluntary and spontaneous expression of praise to Yahweh, as a way to express one’s thanks for answered prayer, to underscore the seriousness of a vow to Yahweh, or as a freewill offering to demonstrate one’s devotion. Moses defines it: “This is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings that one may offer to Yahweh. If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer with the thanksgiving sacrifice unleavened [Hebrew: matsah] loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and loaves of fine flour well mixed with oil.” So far, this is what we might have expected: the grain offerings are to be yeast-free. But then he says, “With the sacrifice of his peace offerings for thanksgiving he shall bring his offering with loaves of leavened [Hebrew: chametz] bread.” Leavened bread? “And from it he shall offer one loaf from each offering, as a gift to Yahweh. It shall belong to the priest who throws the blood of the peace offerings.” (Leviticus 7:11-14)
Loaves of leavened bread were to be presented along with the unleavened offerings. The unleavened part we understand well enough: it’s a symbolic indication that Yahweh graciously accepts our sincere thanksgiving as being untainted with sin. So why the addition of leavened bread? Doesn’t that indicate the presence of sin? Yes, it does. The prophet Amos reports Yahweh’s cynical disgust at the insincere religiosity being practiced in Israel: “Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days [or years—see Deuteronomy 14:28]; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord Yahweh.” (Amos 4:4-5) Yes, they had the “leavened” part of the peace offering down to a science. Even as they went through the motions of “keeping the Torah,” Israel’s Northern Kingdom did not revere Yahweh in the least: this was nothing but religious pretense. So He declared, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24) Thirty years later, Samaria (having failed to heed the prophet’s warning) was swept away by the Assyrian hordes, never to be seen in one piece again.
Was Yahweh, then, merely engaging in bitter irony when He specified a leavened element to the peace offering? No. It may help to know that the adjective chametz (leavened) is derived from a verb that can mean to be sour, embittered, or grieved. This is a component of the proper attitude of someone offering thanksgiving to Yahweh—being grieved at the sin he knows is a part of his life, and will be as long as he walks this earth as a mortal man. True repentance, which would have been evidenced by justice and “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” was conspicuously absent from Israel’s mindset. Don’t get me wrong: Yahweh doesn’t want us to feel as if we must somehow achieve a state of sinlessness before we can offer our gratitude and thanksgiving. He knows our condition. That’s why He provided for our redemption. But He wants us to confront our sins head on, to examine our lives, admit where we’ve failed, and rely upon Him for atonement and cleansing. Our mere participation in a religious ritual or formula was never what He intended. The Torah’s rituals are there for only one reason: to teach us, by symbol and example, about what God is doing.
So notice something else: the worshiper doesn’t eat the leavened bread; the priest does. The point: we cannot benefit or profit from our own sin, but Christ (our High Priest) does benefit, in a way. Our acknowledgement of His redemption is what reconciles us to Him—which was the whole point of His sacrifice. At the very least, the Messiah has “eaten” our sin; He has absorbed its poisonous curse into Himself. So the leavened bread is “waved” or “heaved” in symbolic dedication to Yahweh, as if to say, “I acknowledge my sin before You, and I thank You for rescuing me from its inevitable disastrous consequences.”
The only other precept that specifies leavened bread is this notice concerning the fourth of the seven “feasts” or convocations of Yahweh—the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavuot or the Day of Pentecost. “You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath [i.e., the Feast of Unleavened Bread], from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to Yahweh. 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 firstfruits to Yahweh.” (Leviticus 23:15-17) Those familiar with the second chapter of the Book of Acts will immediately recognize the significance of the Day of Pentecost. It represents a major paradigm shift in the way Yahweh interacts with His people, as individuals. Falling as it did seven weeks (read: completion multiplied by perfection) after the resurrection of Yahshua from the dead, Pentecost marked the initial indwelling of the called-out assembly of Christ by Yahweh’s Holy Spirit—it was the birthday of the Church, for the Spirit’s quickening is what defines us.
As with the peace offering, two leavened loaves were required. Why two? The answer is patently obvious: the Church (more properly, the ekklesia, literally, the “called-out” assembly of the Messiah that came into being on the Day of Pentecost) would be comprised of two distinct groups: those who were physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and those who were not—gentiles. On the day of Pentecost, every single participant in the ekklesia was an Israelite (as far as we know). But, largely due to the apostasy of the Rabbis over the next century—culminating in the treachery of Rabbi Akiba, something that still permeates Orthodox Judaism—the racial makeup of the church shifted. It became predominantly, almost exclusively, a gentile demographic. The last nail in the coffin of Jewish Christianity was hammered in by Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century, under whose watch “all things Jewish” became an anathema in Christendom. This, to my mind, ranks up there in the top five most disastrous blunders of all time. In their enthusiasm to rid themselves of rabbinical myths and heresies, the “church” threw out the Torah as well, and with it, all remembrance of the identity of the God who had manifested Himself in flesh—Yahweh. It’s the classic example of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
In both cases (that is, with both the peace offering and the Feast of Weeks) the two loaves were to be made with leaven because sinful people (gasp!) were being invited to be at peace with Yahweh—to be reconciled to Him by virtue of His sacrifice and the subsequent indwelling of His Holy Spirit. As we saw above, however, there’s a logistical problem to overcome, one revealed by the symbol God used: it is impossible to remove the leaven from a loaf of bread already permeated with it. Leaven changes the character, the nature of the dough—permanently.
And there’s another problem: Yahweh has (if you’ll pardon the dumb analogy) a yeast allergy. (Or perhaps that might be better stated, “Sin has an allergy to God.” In any case, Yahweh and sin, like light and darkness, cannot coexist.) How then can sinful people like you and me possibly attain peace with God? In these sinful bodies, with these sinful natures, we cannot. As we read in Romans 3:23, we have all fallen short of God’s doxa—His opinion, His assessment of how things ought to be. But the new birth—the birth from above that we may experience in Yahweh’s Spirit—changes everything. Paul explains it: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (II Corinthians 5:17) The remarkable thing is, the transformation begins now, while we still inhabit these mortal bodies. But our new identities, permeated with the Holy Spirit, cannot be corrupted by sin any more than gold or silver can be corrupted by yeast.
Again, it’s Paul who tells us how it works: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.” Or, in the imagery of our present topic, what is leavened cannot become unleavened. So the solution to the problem is change—the fundamental transformation of our very natures. “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.” There’s the “new creation” of which he previously spoke. It’s not just a spiritual phenomenon (that which happens the moment we trust in Yahweh), either. We’re also told to expect a physical, bodily “new creation” in the future. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” It doesn’t matter to God whether a believer’s body is living or dead. This “trumpet transformation” of which he speaks (an event I firmly believe will be fulfilled on the Feast of Trumpets—Yahweh’s fifth scheduled holy convocation—in some future year) will complete the “new creation” process. We who are Yahshua’s are to be given immortal, incorruptible bodies designed to accommodate the spiritual life that now resides within our souls. “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin [just as the corruption of bread is leaven], and the strength of sin is the law.” (I Corinthians 15:50-56)
I should pause and address that last statement, because it’s very easy to misconstrue. Three words need definition here. (1) “Strength” is dunamis: the power inherent in something by virtue of its nature. (2) “Sin” is hamartia: to err or be mistaken, miss the mark, wander from the path, or go the wrong way. And (3) “Law” is nomos: anything established by usage, custom, law, or command (which would, by definition, include the Torah). When we read, “The strength of sin is the law,” we might conclude that Paul is claiming that the Torah forces us to sin (implying that the Torah is therefore evil). But that’s not what he’s saying at all. This is the same thing he explained in Romans—that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (3:20); that “where there is no law, there is no transgression” (4:15); that “apart from the law, sin was dead” (7:8). In other words, we can’t violate what we don’t perceive. This isn’t limited to specific Torah precepts, however. “Sin” might merely be the violation of our own conscience or even common sense. So (in the broadest possible terms) whatever inherent power our mistakes hold over us is dependent on what we know—the instruction we’ve been given, or the knowledge we’ve gained through experience or insight. If Adam had eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil before Yahweh had instructed him not to, it would not have been sin. It would merely have been lunch.
What does all of this have to do with leaven? We have seen that our vulnerability to corruption is bound up in our mortal nature, but when we’re born anew in Yahweh’s Spirit, our resulting immortal nature cannot be touched by sin as our old one was. So put “The strength of sin is the law” into these terms. The power of leaven (sin) is its ability to corrupt “bread” (the life that God has provided and revealed in the Law). So conversely, the inherent power of becoming an “unleavened” new creation is that sin and corruption are no longer compatible with our nature. The consequences of violating the law (whether Torah or conscience) do not apply. The penalty for sin was eternal estrangement from Yahweh, but now we have been reborn, remade, created anew in the incorruptible image and likeness of God. And just as the leaven of sin once permeated our old life, the Spirit of Yahweh now saturates the new.
New Testament references to leaven invariably focus on its ability, like sin, to permeate the whole loaf—or life—after introducing what might seem a very small amount of it. Paul, for instance, applies the principle to false teaching: “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (Galatians 5:7-9) Paul was talking about roughly the same thing Amos had (as we saw above). Pre-captivity Israel was cynically going through the motions of keeping the rites of the Torah, while stubbornly refusing to perceive what God’s Law meant: that in emulation of Yahweh’s character, we are to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. Amos’ Israelites, of course, couldn’t have been expected to know how the Torah’s precepts would be fulfilled on Calvary’s tree, but nevertheless, for failing to value what they had been shown, they were hauled off to Assyria. Paul’s audience was laboring under no such handicap: they had the key of Christ’s passion to unlock the Torah’s secrets. And yet, they had been infiltrated by some who insisted that their salvation depended as much on their literal performance of the rites of the Torah as it did on their belief in Christ. If treating God’s word like any other dumb religion wasn’t a good thing for Amos’ Israelites, how could it possibly be a good thing for Paul’s Galatians?
Paul knew that even a little falsehood was enough to sink the boat. His opponents were saying, “Yes, Yahshua died for your sins, so you have to believe in that. But the Torah is God’s word, too, so you have to perform its precepts as well. Well, not all of ’em—that’d be silly, and besides, we know it can’t be done. But at least you have to have your males circumcised.” Really? The minute you add one thing to the finished work of Christ, you’ve added “leaven” to the loaf of your relationship with God. And a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Besides, as he noted a few verses later, “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8) The Torah must be performed in the flesh if at all. But our new creation is a spiritual phenomenon—based on love, faith, and trust in God’s promise and Yahshua’s finished work. In the end, mortal flesh will be found to be incompatible with immortal Spirit.
Am I saying that we shouldn’t keep, observe, and revere the Torah? No, not at all (nor did Paul). We should, insofar as it’s possible (though ninety percent of it isn’t possible, depending as it does on the existence of a temple and priesthood). Am I saying it’s obsolete or has been abrogated? Absolutely not. The Torah serves exactly the same purpose today as it did when Yahweh delivered it to Moses. All I’m saying is that we must not rely on our own performance of its literal precepts to achieve reconciliation with Yahweh. The only way that can be done is through reliance upon the sacrifice of Yahshua—the One who personally fulfilled everything the Torah signifies. Nor is the Torah just for Jews. We should all, even today, observe God’s Law—study it, apply it, ponder it, and meditate on it in order to perceive what Yahweh was telling us through its timeless symbols.
Paul used the same truth—that a little corruption engulfs its entire environment—when cautioning against immorality. Somebody in the Corinthian Church was living in open, blatant, sexual sin, and the assembly—instead of admonishing him to repent—was congratulating itself on how tolerant they were, how forgiving, gracious, and liberal. So he writes, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Corinthians 5:6-8) Once we embrace the wrong-headed idea that we’re free to live like Caligula because Christ’s sacrifice has atoned for our sins, our “loaf is as good as leavened”—you might as well stick a fork in us, ’cause we’re done. The church shouldn’t have been proud of their open-mindedness; they should have been horrified at the results of their one-sided teaching. Yes, we’re under grace, but grace leads to liberty, not license. Under grace, we become free to follow Christ in word and deed, not to lead lives of dissipation and rebellion, contradicting everything He ever taught us. Yahshua didn’t legalize sin; He eliminated it from our lives—He didn’t just remove sin’s penalty; He removed its presence.
“Legalizing sin” (in other words, finding loopholes in the Law that could be exploited) was the game being played by the movers and shakers of Christ’s day—and ours. So He warned His disciples to be cognizant and wary of those who would bind us hand and foot with the red tape of legalistic religiosity. “When the disciples reached the other side [of the lake], they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?’” As usual, while we are fixated on the things of this world, Yahshua would have us broaden our outlook to include heavenly things, eternal things. “‘Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:5-12)
The “leaven” of the Pharisees was their teaching that one could earn favor with Yahweh by strict outward adherence to the Torah. I find it fascinating that although God obviously wants us to heed the Torah, learn from it, and live by it, Yahshua’s harshest criticism—by far—was for those who viewed the Torah as a burden to be carried, one that would prove your worth before God if you kept it, or crush you if you failed. The Pharisees were a party from whom sprang the rabbinical traditions that bind Judaism to this day, a group that gained the upper hand in the century following Christ’s death, finding their “greatest” spokesman in Rabbi Akiba. Yahshua explained a bit more in another place: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1) “Hypocrisy” is literally play-acting, pretense; it implies duplicity or insincerity. It’s what an actor does on stage: playing a part that may be believable to the audience, but isn’t really true (or if it is, it’s somebody else’s truth). The “leaven of the Pharisees” is an insidious, pervasive character trait that, given time, can permeate one’s entire life.
The leaven of the Sadducees was a bit different. This was the party of the powerful priestly class (including, for instance, Annas and Caiaphas, so familiar from the passion narratives). These were the “liberals,” the politically correct religious apostates, those who made a living out of “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” They didn’t believe in miracles, prophecy, the existence of angels (or demons), heaven, or hell. God, if He existed at all, was little more than a theory, a philosophy, a distant and disinterested “Great Spirit.” What the Sadducees really believed in was earthly power and prestige dressed up in feel-good quasi-religious robes. Their “leavened” teaching was, in effect, that this mortal life is all there is, so grab what you can now, while the getting’s good. And don’t worry about the little people you have to step on to reach the top: there’s no God to defend them: “no hell below us, above us only sky.” Yahshua warned us to beware of these attitudes.
Another “party” that warranted a “leaven alert” was the Herodians—the supporters of Herod, the secular ruling authority. So we read, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) Herod and his party, unlike the Pharisees or Sadducees, made no pretense of religious interest. They didn’t try to “teach” anything. They merely wanted to exercise dominion as the ruling elite, subjugate those they viewed as being “beneath them” (i.e., most everybody), and get rich collecting usurious taxes. The Herodians’ “holy grail” was the attainment of personal power at the expense of others; the mantra was pride, greed, and self-aggrandizement. Citizens of Judea who espoused the Herodian cause were—like some who support political candidates today—in it for what they thought they could get out of it: favors, contracts, advantage. They were the collaborators, the quislings, the ones who compromise for profit. So “to beware of the leaven of Herod” is to hold true to your values and convictions; it’s to love without expectation or hope of reward; it’s to live your life openly and honestly in the sure knowledge that God is sovereign.
It’s pretty obvious that each of these three types of “leaven” still exist in today’s world. It seems you can’t get half a dozen people together in one room without one of these symptoms making its evil presence felt, and you don’t have to be a literal Pharisee, Sadducee or Herodian to personify one variety of “leaven” or another. In their simplest terms, they boil down to self-righteous hypocrisy, the counterfeiting of God’s truth, and arrogant avarice. Not only are we to be wary of these traits in others, we are to be vigilant against allowing them to creep into our own lives unawares. Remember, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
One more mention of leaven deserves our attention: “He [Yahshua] told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’” (Matthew 13:33) This chapter records a whole series of parables comparing things in common experience to “the kingdom of heaven.” Surprisingly, most of them describe how the “kingdom” is going to get screwed up—the message is going to be lost, ignored, and abandoned; false teaching will grow alongside truth; the Kingdom will grow so large, predators will find homes within it; the poisonous and putrid parts will eventually have to be separated from the good. All of this, He says, will get sorted out at the end of the age, when the good will be gathered but the evil will destroyed. So what are we to make of the “leaven in three measures of flour” reference? (1) A “kingdom” must have a king, so He must be talking about events subsequent to His own first-century advent. (2) During the Age of the Ekklesia, there was “neither Jew nor Greek,” so God apparently views the Church as but one of these “measures.” The restored remnant of Israel during the Millennium would then be the second. And the “nations,” the progeny of the gentile Tribulation converts, will form the third “measure,” I’m guessing. (3) The disturbing truth is that “leaven” (sin) will be hidden in all three groups (as we unfortunately know to be true of the Church). The bottom line: as long as mortals walk the earth, as long as we are “leavened,” Yahshua’s saving grace, our “new creation” in God’s Spirit, will be essential. In other words, mortal man will never attain perfection on his own.