Last time, we looked at Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed, and saw that there are two common interpretations of this parable. We examined the subject of church growth in detail with the premise that what is most important isn’t the amount or rate of church growth, but rather the reasons a church grows or doesn’t.
Matthew 13:33 – The Parable of the Leaven
We continue now with Jesus’ parable of the leaven.
He 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 [ESV]
The key to understanding this parable – as with all parables – is to determine the intangibles that the everyday objects in the parable symbolize. In particular, we must determine what the leaven, the woman, and the measures of flour represent.
As with the parable of the Mustard Seed, there are also two common interpretations of this parable. The traditional interpretation as espoused by Matthew Henry in his exhaustive Bible commentary, is that the leaven symbolizes the Gospel, that the woman symbolizes Gospel evangelists, and the three measures of flour represent the world into which the Gospel message is sent. Thus the lesson of the parable is that the Gospel will grow in the heart of believers. Henry also mentions that leaven will not affect raw grain, but that the grain (the hearts of the hearers of God’s Word) must first be prepared by grinding and mixing with the liquid ingredient of the dough. Then when the leaven is placed into the dough, it must be thoroughly kneaded in so that the leaven may begin its work. He points out that God’s Word is often symbolized as living water. Thus the leaven of the Gospel can only grow within the hearts of Christian believers whose hearts have been ground (softened) and mixed with the teaching of God’s Word until they are able to accept the leaven of the Gospel. Then the Gospel message must be thoroughly mixed into the heart of the believer through the process of discipleship. This is certainly a valid way of interpreting the parable, but it is by no means the only possible interpretation. Nor, if I may be so bold, do I believe it is the correct interpretation.
J. Vernon McGee points out that if indeed the leaven represents the Word of the Gospel message, then it is the only instance in all of God’s Word where leaven is cast in a positive light. On the contrary, leaven is used throughout the Bible as a symbol of sin and corruption.
The first mention of leaven in the Bible is in Exodus 12 in the context of the very first Passover. God commanded the Israelites to slaughter a lamb of the first year without blemish and to apply the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintels of their houses so that the destroyer sent to kill the first born of Egypt would pass over the houses of the Israelites. Of course, this first Passover was a foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus – our own spotless Passover Lamb – whose blood saves us out of the penalty of death ordained by God against sin. At same time God established the Passover, He also ordained that the Israelites were to commemorate this Passover annually by purging all of the leaven from their homes and eating only unleavened bread for seven days.
In Leviticus 2 and 6 when God established the ordinances for grain offerings, He stipulated carefully that none of the grain offerings made to Him contain any leaven. The grain offerings were considered by God most holy – thus they could contain no leaven. Since leaven symbolizes sin in God’s Word, the idea here is that the offerings given as God’s “food” were to be holy and entirely free of sin just as He Himself is perfectly holy.
By contrast, in Leviticus 23 we find the ordinances for the Feast of Weeks to be celebrated at the time of the harvest. One of these ordinances was for a wave offering of two loaves of bread. These loaves were to be baked with leaven. This is significant. These two loaves were not offered to the LORD as His own “food” but were to be waved before the LORD as a show of thanksgiving for the bounty of the harvest, and were to be eaten by the people. Sinful people were to eat leavened bread as a symbol of acknowledgement of sin and our need for a Savior.
Jesus Himself warned against the leaven of the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
5When the disciples reached the other side [Magadan (Magdala)], they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? 9Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12Then 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 [ESV]
The apostle Paul used leaven to symbolize sexual immorality that the church in Corinth had been tolerating within their fellowship.
6Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Let 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.1 Corinthians 5:6-8 [ESV]
In fact, Jesus’ use of leaven as a symbol here in Matthew 13:33 is the only instance in all of God’s Word in which it is even open to question that leaven might symbolize anything positive. Therefore it would seem somewhat incongruous for Jesus to cast the leaven in this parable in a symbolically positive sense. The ESV and a number of other English translations say that the woman “hid” the leaven in the three measures of flour. Perhaps we can get a clue about Jesus’ intent of the parable from this. The Greek word here is ἐγκρύπτω egkryptō. It can mean to conceal something inside something else. But it can also mean simply to mingle something with something else. Thus some English translations render the word as “mixed” rather than “hid.” If Jesus intended to imply that the woman “hid” the leaven in the flour, then that would imply that Jesus intended the leaven to represent something undesirable hidden within something good. On the other hand, if Jesus used the verb ἐγκρύπτω egkryptō to indicate that the leaven was simply mixed into the dough, then that would imply that the leaven is nothing harmful. So unfortunately, we can’t glean much from Jesus’ use of this particular verb.
If Jesus intended the leaven in His parable to represent infectious sin and corruption as it does in every other instance where leaven is found in God’s Word, then what do the other elements of the parable – the woman and the three measures of flour – represent?
If the leaven represents sin and corruption, then the one who hides this leaven in the flour must be our enemy – satan. The Bible uses the symbol of an unnamed generic woman in two ways. Frequently (e.g. in the book of Hosea) such symbolic women are cast as prostitutes. The Bible repeatedly compares the idolatry of His chosen people Israel to harlotry. In the case of the parable of the Leaven though, the woman probably doesn’t represent Israel. The other thing God’s Word symbolizes as a harlot is the corrupt political and religious system established by satan on earth after man’s fall in the Garden. The book of Revelation calls this system Babylon.
3And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” 6And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.Revelation 17:3-6 [ESV]
Apart from those of us who have been called to separate ourselves from the ways of the world by God’s Spirit, all of mankind has lived within satan’s corrupt societal establishment since the fall Adam and Eve in the Garden. Those who are the leaders and teachers of Babylon are the ones whom Jesus warned about when He told his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are symbolized in this parable as the woman who hid the leaven in the three measures of flour.
What then does the flour itself represent in the parable? The Greek word here is ἄλευρον aleuron. It refers specifically to wheat flour, not barley or rye. This is significant. Recall the context of this parable. Jesus had just finished teaching the parable of the wheat and tares and the parable of the mustard seed. Recall from the parable of the wheat and tares that Jesus had explained to His disciples that the wheat grew up from the good seed – the Words of the Kingdom – which He had sown into the field of the world, and that the weeds which sprang up among the wheat were hidden in the field by the evil one until they put forth their grain and revealed themselves. So it is here in the parable of the leaven. The corruption hidden in the Word of the Gospel by the evil one won’t become apparent until it has infused the entirety of the dough.
Why was Jesus so specific in mentioning three measures of flour in the parable? The word translated here as measure is σάτον saton. Each σάτον saton was equivalent to about three gallons. Thus three measures of flour would be about nine gallons! The number three is significant in God’s Word. It is a number of completeness like the number seven. Thus when Jesus used three measures of flour to symbolize the Word of the Kingdom His intent was to indicate that His Gospel Word is complete and perfect. Recall that Jesus used the word ἐγκρύπτω egkryptō speaking of the woman putting the leaven into the flour. It seems clear that Jesus intended this to mean that a small amount of corruption (leaven) had been hidden into the complete and perfect Word of the Kingdom by our great enemy satan (the woman). This is significant.
It has been said that every effective lie contains an element of the truth. Satan never makes a full-on frontal assault on God’s Word. Instead he twists the Word ever so slightly and subtly to alter its meaning in an attempt to sap its salvation power. Thus Jesus says here in the parable of the leaven that the woman “hid” the leaven in the flour. Satan’s tactic of twisting the Word of God in order to sow confusion and doubt is seen in the story of his temptation of our LORD in the wilderness following His baptism (Luke 4:1-18, Matthew 4:1–11 & Mark 1:12-13).
9And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,Luke 4:9-12 [ESV]
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
12And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
In this last of his attacks, satan misquoted portions of Psalm 91 out of context. In every one of His responses to satan’s temptations, Jesus quoted His own true Word to the enemy, which forced satan to leave Him until “an opportune time.”
ASIDE – The promise of God from Psalm 91 that satan cherry-picked out of context was contingent upon a precondition.
9Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—Psalm 91:9-12 [ESV]
the Most High, who is my refuge—
10no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
In tempting Jesus, satan conveniently left out the part about making the LORD our dwelling place and the Most High our refuge. It never ceases to astonish me how brazen he was, trying to use Jesus’ own Word against Him. It’s proof of what our pastor in California likes to say – “Sin makes you stupid!”
So we now have all we need to make a proper interpretation of the parable. The flour represents the full counsel of the pure Word of the Gospel. The leaven represents the false teaching introduced by the enemy of our souls to corrupt the Word. The enemy himself is symbolized by the woman. The lesson of the parable thus becomes clear. The false teaching that our enemy uses to corrupt the Word of the Gospel is hidden until it has corrupted the entire Word. We see this corruption at work throughout the Church of Jesus Christ today.
There is no clearer example of the subtlety of satan’s corruption of the Word of God than the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World “Translation” of John 1:1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god,John 1:1 [NWT]
Of course the Watchtower Society which governs Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine denies the deity of Jesus Christ. Consequently, they purposely mistranslate the Greek word θεός theos at the end of this verse as “a god” rather than the more traditional translation “God.” Ironically, they translate the very same Greek word as “God” earlier in the verse.
Another example of satan’s leaven sown into God’s Word is the so-called homosexual bible – the Queen James Version. Attempting to make God’s Word align with the homosexual agenda, and rationalize homosexual practice among those who profess faith in Jesus, the publishers of this corrupt “translation” made subtle changes to the passages in God’s Word that condemn homosexuality. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Leviticus 18:22.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.Leviticus 18:22 [ESV]
The Queen James Version adds the phrase “in the temple of Molech” to this verse just after the word woman, implying that homosexual acts between men are fine with God just as long as they aren’t performed in the (satanic) temple of Molech. This phrase is, of course, not found in the original Hebrew text, but was inserted out of thin air into the verse by the Queen James Version writers (I don’t call them translators) as part of a preconceived (satanic) agenda.
We must heed the warning that Jesus gave His disciples to “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” It is critical that we remain vigilant because the leaven that satan sows into the Gospel is very subtle and well hidden until its work of corruption is fully complete and manifest.
God willing, next time we’ll look at the last two of the seven so-called “Kingdom Parables” in Matthew 13 – The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl of Great Value.