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A Few Notes on Leaven and Evil

Alfred E. Bouter


Leaven* is an ingredient in dough, in which fermentation is still active and which is added to new dough, causing it to rise. In Scripture, this process is used as an illustration of the progressive power of evil, causing defilement. Leaven's power can only be stopped through baking, a result of the application of fire, which speaks of judgment in God's Word. This matter of 'leaven' was serious business in Old Testament times. Before celebrating the Passover, the people had to remove all leaven from their homes and communities (Ex. 12:15, 19t). However, according to Leviticus 23:17, God's earthly people were to be presented to Him, symbolized by two baked wave-loaves containing leaven! Even though leaven was in them, its working had been brought to a halt and therefore the loaves could be presented to God, an apt illustration also of believers today, marked by self-judgment.

* Sometimes incorrectly translated yeast - which is an en-Tine and not the same sour dough.

According to general instructions laid down in the New Testament, we may connect these Old Testament illustrations with the instructions given, for example, in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and 11:27-32. These directives - if rightly applied - will stop leaven working in the local assembly. How? First, a wicked person must be excommunicated from among the believers (1 Cor. 5:13). As a result of this discipline, the immoral man of 1 Corinthians 5, repented and was restored again, not only with God, but according to Paul's instructions, he was also to be brought back into fellowship with the assembly at Corinth (2 Cor. 2). Second, self-judgment by believers in general is needed (see the instructions in I Cor. 11:28-32). The Corinthians were 'puffed up' (this is the result of 'leaven,' also referred to in 1 Cor. 4:6, 18, 19, in contrast to love, 13:9; cf. Col. 2:18 and 1 Tim. 3:6), and, lacking this self judgment, they had not mourned concerning the condition of the wicked brother, or their own indifference.

What is the link between 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Timothy 2? When discipline is no longer practised collectively (as still was the case in Corinth, for which Paul gave instructions), it remains our personal and individual duty to honour the Lord's rights in separating ourselves from unjudged evil, further explained in 2 Timothy 2. This separation is a prerequisite for being in practical harmony with the Lord and useful to the Master. In both cases instructions with apostolic authority are at our disposal.

The Defiling Power of Evil

Besides the matter of leaven, the Old Testament gives other examples with respect to the defiling power of evil that could affect a member of God's earthly people. The following cases are identified (Num. 5:1-4), together with urgent instructions for His people:

  • Leprosy, depicting unrestrained self-will and the power of sin in one of God's people. Thus, even a believer today, who does not judge himself, may become leprous in a spiritual sense;
  • An issue or flux that flows out from a person. It illustrates a lack, or even absence of self-control. This is a test for every Christian as well
  • Contact with death, showing the influence and power of a system marked by death. Applying this principle to the believer today, we may think of the effect that a religious system has - even though given by God like Judaism - if there is no real life. For example: Nicodemus in John 3, though being a chief rabbi and teacher, needed to be `born again'). The same could be said of Judaism as it developed into a man-made system ('the camp', Heb. 13:9-14), and of imitations of Judaistic forms and practices in modem religious systems.

The people of God were instructed to separate and stay away from these influences (see Num. 5:1-4 and 19:11-22 for more details). it is remarkable that the three forms of evil above had the potential to thoroughly affect one or more persons through whom, if they were not sent away, the whole camp in the wilderness would be defiled! This Old Testament principle of the defiling power of evil with regard to 'the camp of God' or God's testimony in this world, is applied in 1 Corinthians to God's assembly. Furthermore, the evil of leprosy could even have an effect on a house in the land (Lev. 14), and this is perhaps the thought that is applied to the situation described in 2 Timothy 2.

Seven Different Forms of Leaven

The New Testament describes seven different forms of leaven, each of which is to be judged and rejected by the Christian:

  1. Leaven of idolatry;
  2. Leaven of the Pharisees;
  3. Leaven of the Sadducees;
  4. Leaven of the Herodians;
  5. Leaven of immorality,
  6. Leaven of false doctrine;
  7. Old leaven.

The leaven of idolatry appeals to the affections, leading people astray from their legitimate object. The Lord strikingly described idolatry in a short parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened' (Mt. 13:33). The three measures of meal reflect the truth of the Trinity and of the Person of the Christ (God and Man - with a perfect and sinless spirit, soul and body - in one Person; including His eternal Sonship, His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and coming again), which are vital doctrines of Christianity and of the Kingdom of God. However, the enemy has deceived many Christians, like as he did with Eve, and has corrupted their affections towards Christ so that they have lost this simplicity; the single eye directed only to Christ.

Against the background of this development, the Apostle John, in a different way, exhorts all believers in 1 John 5:20 `And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding that we should know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Children, keep yourselves from idols.' John clearly shows that idolatry - placing something in between the Lord and His people - affects their relationship with the Son of God. Satan seeks to draw the affections away from Christ by placing a counterfeit before the eyes of believers (cf. 2 Cor. 10-13 - consider the context). However, the Lord unmasks the root-cause of this by saying that the early Christians at Ephesus had forsaken their 'first love' with regard to Christ (Rev. 2:4). The resulting development included false prophecy, idolatry, and fornication, and is further described in parts of Revelation 2-3 and 17. Thus, the leaven of idolatry is linked with seduction and (spiritual) fornication with this world's system.

Hypocrisy is linked by the Lord with the Pharisees (Lk. 12:1) and could therefore be called 'religious leaven,' the doctrine of Pharisaism (Mt. 16:12). Their outward appearance of piety was a leavened, inflated form of religious flesh, legalism, party spirit, self-righteousness, and 'show off godliness. The Lord condemned these elements (Lk. 18:9-14; Mt. 5:20; 6:1-5; 23:1-7). We also need to do so in unsparing self-judgment.

Rationalism is another form of leaven, Sadducee-ism, the opposite of Pharisee-ism, but often mentioned together with it. It could be called 'materialistic' leaven, and it represents those religious leaders who denied the resurrection, and the existence of angels and spirits (Mt. 22:23-33; Acts 23:8). In Matthew 16:6-12 (and other passages) the Lord links both forms of leaven together and considers them to be harmful doctrinal systems. Although both religious parties were opposing each other, they were united against the Lord, before and after His resurrection.

Herodianism, or worldliness could be called 'political leaven.' Mark combines it with the leaven of the Pharisees (Mk. 3:6; 8:15; 12:13), although they opposed the Roman occupation. Herod and his successors, and those who were following them, enthusiastically collaborated with the Romans, obviously for selfish intentions (Mt. 22:16-22). However, in this last passage, the Lord stands entirely above the Pharisaic party spirit and the political motives of the Herodians; neither of them could trap Him.

The context of 1 Corinthians 5 in which the instruction is given to 'purge out the old leaven' gives us warrant to call it `the leaven of immorality.' However, the same chapter shows that this leaven should not be limited to fornication (1 Cor. 5:11).

The leaven of false doctrine would include Judaistic teachings, opposed to true Christianity (Gal. 5:9). Here, Satan opposes God's work through the leaven of doctrinal evil. This evil can be traced through the Acts, Galatians, Colossians, Revelation and other parts of the New Testament, throughout the history of the Church. This leaven would denigrate the accomplished work of Christ, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer.

The flesh is referred to as `old leaven' in 1 Corinthians 5:7. It speaks of evil belonging to the 'old man', and once again comes to light because of lack of self-judgment. Before the Israelites could eat of the Passover lamb they needed to cleanse their houses and land, removing all forms of leaven. Therefore, applying this to the New Testament setting, the purging of leaven is needed, whether collectively or individually (1 Cor. 5; 2 Tim. 2), in order to enjoy fellowship with God. The removal of leaven in an assembly implies putting out the wicked person (who, even though a believer, refuses to stop sinning, to judge himself, and confess and abandon his sins). It also includes self-judgment and mourning about a puffed-up condition, as Paul shows in this epistle.

We suggest that the old leaven represents all the features and actions of the old man (Eph. 4:22), which have no room in the new order of things linked with Christ, the Passover Lamb. `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 eating of 'unleavened bread of sincerity and truth' was to take place during a seven-day period, which points to our entire life as redeemed ones. This verse also underlines the need for continuous self-judgment and for reality; not mere forms, but truth in the inward parts.


In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul, speaking about the need for purging or purification, uses the same Greek word as in 2 Timothy 2:21, although he adds there the preposition `from' (which is paraphrased in the JND version by adding the words between brackets).* Continuous contact with and influence from false teachers, or fellowship with groups that tolerate such influences, will have its negative impact. For further teaching and encouragement, 1 refer to the example and instructions of Jeremiah 15:16-21. and suggest also a comparison of Abraham's behaviour in Genesis 18:16-33 and his dealings with Lot.

* Some have objected to the bracketed clause in the New Translation, supposing that JND put his own interpretation into Scripture. However, purge means: 'To purify, by separating' (Webster). Therefore the KJV means: 'If a man ... purifies himself by separating from these. ' This is the rendering of JND's New Translation.