A Little Leaven

In the New Testament world, a world where you couldn’t go to a shop and grab a loaf of bread as people today do, breadmaking was a major part of life. Jesus found a way to weave this everyday picture into his teaching via the one ingredient that fundamentally changes the nature of a loaf of bread: leaven. Jesus used this powerful ingredient to illustrate another very powerful thing: influence.

On at least one occasion, Jesus reminded His disciples that they were in a position to influence others by using leaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven,” He said, “which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33; cf. Luke 13:20-21). Jesus’ kingdom, the church which He built and “purchased with His own blood” (Matthew 16:18-19; Acts 20:28), transforms everyone who has been “conveyed” into it by being born again “of water and the Spirit” (Colossians 1:13; John 3:5). Through transformed believers, the kingdom has performed an incredibly transformative work upon the world around it; so much that has shaped the modern world has stemmed from Christian influence.

More often though, Jesus used leaven to illustrate the influence that others could wield upon His disciples. Jesus’ disciples grew up under the influence of the scribes and Pharisees, who in both the Sanhedrin (the Jewish legislative body) and the court of public opinion, sat “in Moses’ seat,” wielding both real and perceived authority (Matthew 23:2-3). As the followers of Jesus swelled to “an innumerable multitude” and the influence of Jesus and His disciples swelled alongside of it, Jesus cautioned His disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). The disciples had only ever known the influence of religious hypocrites and could not afford to wield influence in that way since they had been called to lay aside all hypocrisy (1 Peter 2:1).

It wasn’t merely hypocritical examples that could leaven the disciples though. On one occasion when Jesus’ disciples had forgotten to bring bread for a trip across the Sea of Galilee, He told them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matthew 13:33). While this at first confused the disciples (they thought he was making some comment about their forgetting bread), they came to realize he was really talking about “the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:12). In Mark’s account of this event, it’s revealed that he also warned about the “leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15), that is, the temptation into which some Jews fell to be unduly focused upon and influenced by the political sphere (cf. Matthew 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13).

Followers of Jesus today really need to pay attention to this particular warning of Jesus. You see, the apostle Paul revisits the leaven illustration twice. On one occasion, his aim in doing so seems to be to draw from the way God seems to have used leaven in the Old Testament, namely, as a picture of sin and its effects. Paul spoke of how “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” in relation to the effect that extending fellowship to a brother in Christ who was living in sexual sin was having on the local church (1 Corinthians 5:6-11). On another occasion though, he speaks of the Galatians being “hindered” from “obeying the truth,” by succumbing to a “persuasion” that didn’t come from God before adding, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:7-9). He was talking about the influence that false teachers can have on Christians, and effectively, he was echoing the message Jesus gave about the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod to us.

Christians typically think they have a handle on what it is to be a false teacher. They hear the term, and immediately the image of a rich, charismatic leader of a megachurch who spouts more stories and psychology than Scripture comes to mind. And perhaps it should; the strictest interpretation of the pictures we see in 2 Peter and Jude seem to mirror those kinds of people. I’m convinced though that there’s a whole lot more to false teachers than that. In fact, the Bible says, “Everyone who… does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 1:9 ESV). Which teaching? Any. What if their motives are pure? It’s possible to “have a zeal for God” that isn’t “according to knowledge,” and because of that be lost (Romans 10:1-3).

With this broader definition in mind, how can Christians keep from being leavened by those who, as the Bible says, don’t have God? I believe there’s some value in reflecting upon the voices that arise from outside of the fellowship of believers; for example, Paul was happy to quote from Grecian poets and Cretan prophets when they had spoken the truth (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12-13). However, I always try to keep in mind that whenever “righteous judgment” (John 7:24) reveals that a person is not speaking in line with Jesus’ teaching, that person and their teaching does not have my best interests at heart. While I may engage what such people say from time to time, they’re not my favorite authors; I don’t always listen to their podcasts; I don’t always read their latest articles. They may identify as Christian, but if they’re not “[abiding] in the teaching of Christ,” giving them too much of my focus is likely to have a negative influence on me. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”

I’ve seen so many Christians over the years zealously follow impressive teachers, preachers, and theologians who deny things like the autonomous nature of the church, the necessity of a believers’ baptism by immersion for remission of sins, the universal priesthood of believers, and a host of other Biblical doctrines. The effect is an all too predictable pattern: first, the Christian upholds what these individuals say where it agrees with the Bible, and then gradually the leaven brings about a change. Sometimes the Christian follows the voice they admire into a novel, unbiblical doctrine. Sometimes he or she abandons New Testament Christianity in favor of a denominationalized understanding or practice. Sometimes, if like the Herodians the voice a person admires has politicized faith, he or she will begin to do the very same thing and speak more about politics than the Bible. None of this would happen if people realized the power of leaven.

I love that leaven illustrates both the followers of Jesus and those who would hinder people from following Jesus. It’s a powerful reminder: either we’re influencing, or we’re being influenced. Let’s be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16), as we engage a world that needs plain, simple, Biblical teaching more than we need a book to read or a podcast to listen to. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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