Select your language
Nuer (Sudan/South-Sudan)
Tshiluba (DR Congo)

The Leaven

Simon Attwood

The parable of the mustard tree leaves us with an image of the kingdom of the heavens which is both grandiose and grotesque. It has quite out-grown itself to the point where every false and defiling influence can find a home and prepare for its next act of infidelity. What a contrast with the one whose kingdom it is: the true Joseph, ‘a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall’ (Gen. 49:22). Joseph means ‘Jehovah has added’ and that is exactly what the Lord Jesus has done in rejection and affliction (cf. 41:51 and 52) — His fruit has run out over the middle wall between Jew and Gentile in wonderful blessing (see Eph. 2:14). But in His absence, the kingdom has exalted itself, seeking prominence in the world that has rejected Him. 

In a way the parable of the ‘leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until it had been all leavened’ (Matt. 13:33) is worse still. The former is exterior, the latter interior, revealing unfaithfulness to the Lord Jesus within His kingdom where there should be obedience and devotion to one so wonderful as He is. Apart from the parable of the sower, the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are the only ones recorded elsewhere (see Luke 13:19–21). Given the moral bearing of Luke’s gospel we should apply them to ourselves as well as dispensationally. But now we turn to the parable of the leaven in detail.


One online definition of the noun ‘leaven’ is in two parts: 1) ‘a substance, typically yeast, that is used in dough to make it rise’, 2) ‘a pervasive influence that modifies something or transforms it for the better’.[1] We can hardly fault the first of these, but the second is way off the mark in spiritual terms even though many Christians would agree with it because they see leaven as a symbol of the gospel. But wherever we find leaven in Scripture it has a negative connotation: a pervasive influence that modifies or transforms things for the worse. Starting in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Himself warned His disciples, ‘See and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (Matt. 16:6). They did not understand at first, but later ‘they comprehended that he did not speak of being beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (v. 12). We could refer to other occasions when He characterised as leaven the words and ways of those religionists — proud and rationalist respectively — and others such as the Herodians (Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1). If we turn to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, we read: ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). This is in regard to immorality and evil doctrine respectively, and makes their corrupting influence on Christians very clear. In the first case, the apostle goes on to write: ‘let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with leaven of malice and wickedness, but with unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ (1 Cor. 5:8). This is an allusion to the feast of unleavened bread after the passover: ‘Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread: on the very first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day  that soul shall be cut off from Israel’ (Ex. 12:15). As for the meal offering, the law said: ‘No oblation which ye shall present to Jehovah shall be made with leaven’ (Lev. 2:11). Many more scriptures could be produced to prove the point but these should suffice. Leaven in its penetrating and elevating effect in dough is symbolic of sin’s activity in our lives individually and as families, but also as God’s people.

‘which a woman took’

If the leaven gives this parable a very negative aspect this is reinforced by the fact that it is a woman who takes the initiative in using it. The Apostle Paul writes: ‘I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence’ (1 Tim. 2:12). He refers to Eve in the garden of Eden who ‘having been deceived, was in transgression’ (v. 14). In responding to the serpent’s seduction independently of Adam, she both subtracted from and added to God’s instructions to her husband. We find a more graphic case of usurpation in King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. 1 Kings 21:25 says that Ahab sold himself to do evil in the sight of Jehovah, ‘Jezebel his wife urging him on’. She was the power behind the throne, who stimulated religious evil in Israel by persecuting the prophets of the Lord (18:4, 13) and promoting Baal worship (18:19). Speaking of sin in the assembly in Thyatira, the Lord Jesus says, ‘I have against thee that thou permittest the woman Jezebel, she who calls herself prophetess, and she teaches and leads astray my servants to commit fornication and eat of idol sacrifices’ (Rev. 2:20).

Some might argue that the woman in our parable is merely preparing a nice meal for her family, but it is evident that our Lord is not referring to everyday life in the home but the handling of divine truth — she is corrupting it. The Roman Catholic church of which Thyatira speaks so vividly is a particular example of this. She pretends her traditions have equal authority with Scripture and has often made them palatable by synthesising them with pagan practices, not only sanctioning sin and idolatry among her adherents but exercising religious oppression of those who seek to be faithful. She claims to teach but nowhere in Scripture do we find the assembly teaching — rather the ascended Head ‘has given some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints; with a view to the work of the ministry, with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:11, 12). It is teachers, led of the Spirit, who minister the Word in the assembly under the Lord’s direction for the glory of God and His people’s blessing. May we be on our guard against the idea that the assembly, be it in the form of councils, synods or even gatherings, let alone brothers’ meetings, should lay down doctrine.

‘and hid in three measures of meal’

We should note the three things mentioned in this part of the verse. She hid the leaven. The Greek word for ‘hid’ here is different from the one translated ‘hid’ or ‘hideth’ in the parable of the treasure (v. 44). There it means to hide so as to preserve for later recovery whereas here it means to conceal in order to mingle one thing with another. This is the way the devil works: he disguises evil so we do not recognise it for what it is. This is what he did when he tempted Eve — some of what he said about God was right and some was wrong. It is a horrible thing to do because it not only deceives but spoils what is good by associating it with what is evil. This is what the activity of the woman in our parable illustrates: she corrupted the meal which so often speaks of Christ, especially of course in the meal offering, which portrays Him personally as man. Yet, many Christians have been deceived into thinking and teaching that our Lord could sin, effectively ascribing a sinful nature to Him. This is just one example of the effect of evil teaching — other examples are the denial of His personal intrinsic glory as the Son of the Father (John 17:5) and  that His atoning work on the cross is the sole basis of our salvation (Eph. 2:8, 9; Gal. 2:16). 

The expression three measures puts a divine stamp on the flour the woman had in her hands. Bearing in mind that this amount is equivalent to an ephah, there are only three passages elsewhere in Scripture where we read of this quantity of flour being used, and all without leaven. Abraham offered cakes of this quantity to the three visitors at his tent door, one of whom he recognised to be his Lord; Gideon did the same when the Angel of Jehovah appeared to him as he threshed wheat; and Hannah brought this much flour as her offering when she presented Samuel to the Lord at the tabernacle at Shiloh (Gen. 18:1–8; Jdg. 6:19; 1 Sam. 1:24). The last of these shows that our parable in no way criticises what sisters do for the Lord, for Hannah is a lovely illustration of devotion to Him. Rather it condemns those — men as well as women — who profess to be subject to Him but who do their own will regardless of what His Word says.

It is terrible to think of the way false teachers, as typified by this woman, have treated the wonderful deposit of truth committed to us that Christ might be formed in His people in this world (see Gal. 4:19). Yet, we can take comfort from Paul’s words that the Lord will preserve the testimony: ‘I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep for that day the deposit I have entrusted to him’ (2 Tim. 1:12). And, we can answer to our responsibility in the matter as he did: ‘Keep, by the Holy Spirit which dwells in us, the good deposit entrusted’ (v. 14).

‘until it had all been leavened’

Truly ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’. Evil does not stop until it permeates everything as Paul describes in 2 Timothy 3:1–9: ‘But this know, that in the last days difficult times shall be there …’. Of course, this state of things has characterised Christianity for much of its history, not just recent years. However, it is sobering to think that the leaven that lies behind the particular problems we face today was added when Christian blessing was at its height in Europe. For instance, On the Origin of Species was written by a professing Christian and published in England in 1859, and higher criticism of Scripture had already gained a foothold in Germany in the decades before that. But let us not fear. After this parable, the Holy Spirit records: ‘All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and without a parable he did not speak to them’ (Matt. 13:34). This fulfilment of Psalm 78:2 was a judgment on the Jews for rejecting the Spirit’s testimony in our Lord but it also freed Him to open His mouth in parables and to ‘utter things hidden from the world’s foundation’ (v. 35) to His disciples in the house, including the vital and beautiful features of the kingdom of the heavens contained in the last three parables. 


From: Truth & Testimony, 2020


[1] See