The Leaven of Corruption

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” —Matthew 13:33

THE Bible’s first references to leaven is in connection with the Lord’s instructions concerning the original passover supper, which was eaten by the Israelites the night before they were delivered from their bondage in Egypt. The bread used at the feast of the passover was to be unleavened. At this time the Lord gave instructions concerning a seven-day feast—“Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.”—Exod. 12:8,15

The use of leaven was prohibited by the Lord in connection with all the sacrifices which the Israelites offered to him. We gather from this that he considers leaven as illustrating sin in all its various corrupting aspects. This thought is borne out by Jesus. We quote:

“Then Jesus said unto them [the disciples], Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? Do ye not understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? How it is that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”—Matt. 16:6-12

False Doctrine

From this quotation it is evident that Jesus used leaven as a symbol of the false doctrines or teachings of the Pharisees. The Scriptures do not indicate in detail a great deal concerning these false doctrines. However, we do know that the Sadducees taught that there is no resurrection of the dead, and this teaching alone corrupts and destroys one of the main doctrines of Christ.

Jesus said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell [Gehenna] than yourselves.” (Matt. 23:15) How this emphasizes the corrupting influence of false doctrines! Surely it makes clear to us the importance of being sure that the doctrines which we believe and teach are fully in harmony with the Word of God.

The scribes and Pharisees without doubt held to some of the truths set forth by the Law and the prophets, but they had gone beyond these inspired sources of truth, and had accepted and allowed themselves to be influenced by the teachings of tradition—largely those, no doubt, set forth in the Talmud. It was these teachings which had corrupted them in belief and in practice to the extent that their efforts to serve the Lord were not acceptable to him.

In Practice Also

Not only had the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees leavened or corrupted the teachings of God’s words by their traditions, but they had also, symbolically, permitted leaven to enter into their hearts and to influence their course of action with respect to their service of God. Although technically they still “sat in Moses’ seat,” Jesus advised his followers not to follow their example, their way of life. Jesus said:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.”—Matt. 23:2-7

In verse 13 of this chapter Jesus continues his denunciation of the corrupt practices of these religious leaders of Israel. We quote again: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widow’s houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation [condemnation].”—vss. 13,14

Jesus continues to denounce these “blind guides” for their hypocritical ways, but we have quoted sufficient to establish the point that in character as well as in doctrine they were corrupted by symbolic leaven. In Mark 8:15 Jesus speaks of “the leaven of Herod.” Herod was not a teacher in Israel, but a ruler representing Rome. His “leaven” was in the fact that he tried to please Rome, and at the same time curry favor with the influential among Israelites. This was a double-minded condition of hypocrisy, and illustrated by Jesus as leaven which had entered and was influencing him.

We do not need to conclude that all of Israel’s religious leaders had been corrupted by symbolic leaven. There was Nicodemus, for example, who went to the Lord in sincerity to learn more of the truth concerning this man whom his associates so generally opposed. There was also Joseph of Aramathea, who actually at last became a full believer in Jesus as the Messiah. There were probably others.

And certainly among others not leaders in Israel there were those who served the Lord with sincerity of heart and purpose. Jesus identifies one of these. When speaking of Nathanael, he said, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47) Here was a man pure of heart. He was straightforward, having no guile, no “leaven” of the Pharisees. There were others in Israel who likewise were without guile, who became the followers of Jesus.

For Personal Consideration

In the church at Corinth there was an individual who was not deporting himself in harmony with the principles of righteousness, and Paul instructed the brethren “to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” To this Paul added: “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?”—I Cor. 5:5,6

Here the unfaithful brother in the church is likened to leaven, who, if allowed to remain in the assembly, could lead to the corruption of the entire congregation. A similar use of leaven as an illustration of a corrupting influence is found in Galatians 5:9. In the context Paul refers to one or more who had come in among the brethren with teachings contrary to the truth, specifically, that they should be circumcised. Some apparently had been influenced by this false teaching, and had ceased for a time to “obey the truth.” Paul emphasizes that this false teaching they had accepted did not come from the Lord, and then adds, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”

Here again is a proper use of leaven as a symbol. Turning again to I Corinthians 5, we find Paul elaborating further: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”—vss. 7,8

Notice the expression, “leaven of malice and wickedness.” This is a true explanation of what is represented in the Scriptures by leaven—“malice and wickedness”. Nothing good or noble or praiseworthy is ever symbolized by leaven; but as we have seen, it does represent false doctrine and hypocrisy. And although Paul is giving his admonition that the brethren might be properly prepared in their hearts for the memorial season, it is a lesson which all the consecrated should take to heart and apply through every day of the year. May this be the determination of all of us.

The “Kingdom of Heaven”

The parable in which Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman put in three measures of meal until it was all leavened, furnishes another interesting study regarding the symbolism of leaven. To understand this lesson, however, it is essential to know what Jesus means in this parable by the expression “kingdom of heaven.”

This expression is sometimes used in the New Testament with respect to the preparatory aspects of that kingdom, rather than to the kingdom established in power and great glory. Paul wrote that the Heavenly Father “bath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.” (Col. 1:13) Here the Lord’s consecrated people are said to have already been translated into the kingdom. This obviously is the kingdom in preparation, and that work of preparation has proceeded through the Gospel Age, and it will continue until the harvest work is completed at the end of the age.

Jesus said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matt. 11:12) Here the Lord’s people, called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to live and reign with him in his kingdom, are referred to as “the kingdom of heaven.” The “violence” referred to, and the taking of the kingdom by force, are an obvious reference to the persecution of the kingdom class, beginning with Jesus, and continuing throughout the Gospel Age. After that the kingdom class, established in authority and power, will rule the nations with a rod of iron, and as the vessels of a potter shall those nations be broken to pieces.

In another parable Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat.” (Matt. 13:24,25) Jesus explained later that the good seed are “the children of the kingdom,” and the tares are “the children of the wicked one.” (Matt. 13:38) Here the kingdom class, described as “the kingdom of heaven,” is shown to have had evil introduced into its midst. The parable shows, in other words, that in the development of those who will live and reign with Christ in his kingdom, they become subjected to efforts by the Devil to divert them from their goal of joint-heirship with Christ.

The Three Measures of Meal

In the short parable concerning leaven being put into three measures of meal until the whole was leavened, we are presented with another aspect concerning the development of the kingdom. And here, as universally throughout the Scriptures, leaven is used as a symbol of corrupting influence. In this case the corruption takes place in the spiritual food, the doctrines, which are originally supplied by the Lord for the nourishment of his people as new creatures in Christ Jesus.

Jesus said, quoting Moses, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” (Luke 4:4) The words of God recorded in the Bible for us, set forth his plan of salvation for both the church and the world. They also include an expression of his will for the guidance of his people, especially those of the Gospel Age who are following in the footsteps of Jesus, and who have been made partakers of the heavenly calling. This is their food, their “meal” which was given to the apostles by Jesus, and through them to the entire company of saints, that they might be nourished as new creatures in Christ Jesus, and thus made ready for their glorification with Jesus in his kingdom of power and glory through which all the families of the earth will be blessed.

But it was not long after the apostles fell asleep in death that error [leaven] began to be injected into this pure food which the Lord furnished. It was almost imperceptible to start with, but this leavening continued, and to such an extent that the whole body of truth from the Lord became corrupt. Largely responsible for this, of course, was the great deceiver, Satan, but he used human instrumentalities, and finally a counterfeit church system, which Jesus identifies in the parable as a “woman,” to complete the corrupting work.

This “woman” is identified in the Book of Revelation as “Babylon.” We quote: “He carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.” (Rev. 17:3,4) This is the false church which, throughout the Dark Ages, was united with the civil powers of Europe.

Doctrines Corrupted

In the parable Jesus speaks of three measures of meal being corrupted. One of these might well represent the teachings of the Bible with respect to the condition of the dead and the penalty for sin. God told Adam that if he partook of the forbidden fruit he would die. (Gen. 2:17) The Apostle Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death.”—Gal. 6:23

But this simple truth was corrupted by the “leaven” put into the “meal.” The erroneous theory of the immortality of the soul developed, which means that when a man dies his soul remains alive; that actually there is no such thing as death. Out of this error came the false teaching of purgatory and eternal torture as “the wages of sin” instead of death. And if, according to this corrupting theory, no one really dies, then there can be no resurrection of the dead, so the hope of the resurrection thus became corrupted.

Even more fundamental was the manner in which this particular false theory corrupted the doctrine of the ransom as set forth in the Word of God. According to the Scriptures, Christ died for the sins of the people, being a substitute in death for father Adam, and through him for the entire race. But if there is no death, this beautiful doctrine of redemption through Christ Jesus is corrupted and destroyed.

Another of the “measures” of meal might well be the teachings of the Bible with respect to God’s messianic kingdom arrangement for the blessing of all the families of the earth. According to the Scriptures this kingdom in power and great glory was to be set up following the second advent of Jesus, with Jesus as its Head, and those who had suffered and died with him as associate rulers.

But this simple truth became corrupted. Instead of waiting for this development in the plan of God the teaching developed that the union of church and state was in reality the kingdom of Christ, and that there was no future kingdom to look forward to. This cast a shadow over the promises of God with respect to the blessings of the people through the agencies of the kingdom. And if the church was reigning with Christ in this life, the promises of future glory with him in the kingdom were made meaningless.

Man’s Eternal Home

Perhaps the third measure of meal corrupted by leaven was the teaching of the Bible with respect to God’s provision of the earth to be man’s eternal home. The teaching developed that when people “die” they are merely transformed to another place of abode, or plan of life, for, according to the corrupted teachings of the “woman” there is no death. So as the corrupting influences continued the false theory developed that one day the earth would be destroyed, and man could no longer enjoy it as his home.

But the truth is, as set forth by the Lord, that he created the earth not in vain, but formed it to be inhabited. (Isa. 45:18) The hope of the restoration of man to live on the earth forever, described in the Scriptures as “restitution,” was completely corrupted. This purpose of our Lord’s return was thus made void, and millions of the professed followers of Jesus left in darkness so far as the real plan of redemption was concerned.

Of course, there was always the one here and there whom the Lord specially protected against this leaven, but the masses of professed Christians were led almost completely away from the real teachings of the Bible. In this end of the age the Lord has furnished his faithful people with meat in due season. In this we rejoice!

We have seen that leaven is symbolic of that which corrupts. There is the leaven of false doctrine; the leaven of hypocrisy; the leaven of malice. Let us be on the alert lest “leaven” in any form should find its ways into our hearts and lives to corrupt our hope and destroy our faith.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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