In the Gospel of Matthew 13:33 we read of Christ’s teaching on leaven. “Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” (cf. Luke 13:21)
The word, leaven, appears twenty-three times in twenty Scripture texts, enough to warrant our attention. It is a translation of the Greek, zume (Strong’s G2219), from a root meaning to ferment; the Hebrew word is matstsah (H4682), meaning sweetness. The symbolism of three measures of meal has engendered a plethora of ideas; early theologian St. Thomas Acquinas, in “Catena Aurea” listed nearly a dozen interpretations in his day. The actual meaning is possibly best explained by the McGarvey & Pendleton Commentary, which tells us, “In Oriental housekeeping, yeast is not preserved in a separate form. A piece of leavened dough saved over from the last baking is added to the new dough to ferment it. Three measures contained the quantity usually taken for one baking. Leaven represents the quickness, quietness, thoroughness, and sureness with which gospel truth diffuses itself through human society. A woman is named because baking was part of her household duty.” Yet it is popular today to insist that both the woman and the leaven are symbolic of evil.
Morgan G. Campbell wrote, “The figure of leaven is uniformly used in Scripture to typify evil. This [verse] is no exception to the rule. All the outward manifestations of Church life have become more or less corrupt, contaminated by the evil leaven which was introduced into the Church of Jesus Christ by paganizing influences. That which produces fermentation issues in disintegration, and leaven is the very principle of decay in active condition.”
Dr. Campbell added, “No meat (meal) offering which ye shall bring unto the Lord shall be made with leaven” (Lev. 2:11) – the woman here in the parable is doing what the law strictly forbids. Leaven being always in Scripture a type of evil, putting it in the meal is introducing evil doctrine in the bread of God – the food of His people.” But what if she was preparing leavened bread for Pentecost (Lev. 7:13), or perhaps baking bread for her own family rather than as a meal offering to God in the Temple? It is not always evil to eat leavened bread!
The Kelly Commentary insists, “The woman too in this parable should remind us of Eve leading ‘in the transgression’; and still more of ‘that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants,’ etc. (Rev. 2:20) – again doing what is forbidden. Why should commentators interpret leaven as good spreading out, or the gospel subduing the whole world?” Well, we could reply, because leaven is likened to the Kingdom of God which will grow and fill the earth, and the Kingdom of God is not evil! (cf. Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14)
The Concordant Commentary states, “Leaven, in scripture, is always a symbol of evil and corruption. The Jews cleanse all leaven out of their houses once a year at the festival of Unleavened Bread (Matt. 26:17; Exo. 11:15)…The meal was good. But the woman covertly introduces evil, which causes it to expand, and makes it palatable for men. The woman can hardly be any one but that false figure of the end time, great Babylon…Leaven typifies evil, and evil only, at all times.”
Do women in Biblical symbolism always signify evil and wickedness, as these Dispensationalists think? In Revelation 12 we read of “a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon beneath her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars on her head; and she was with child…” The woman signifies Israel, and it is the dragon in the next verses that is the embodiment of evil attacking the woman and her child, the Messiah!
In stark contrast to much modern preaching, the Pulpit Commentary says, “Leaven symbolizes the progress of the kingdom of God. The domestic, simple and innocent operation of leavening meal for baking is used as an illustration of the coming of the kingdom of heaven (or of God—these terms are used interchangeably, as witness Matt. 11:11 and Luke 7:28) among men and of its action on humanity.”
RSW Baird wrote, “Over the operation of leavening the woman presides, symbolizing the work of the Holy Spirit which completely transforms a person’s heart and life. The leaven is not in the meal originally; it must be put there by [an] outside agency.” That agency, Baird says, is the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a woman.
Dispensationalism teaches that women in the Scriptures symbolize evil and are a type of false religion; the leaven is sin; the meal is humanity. Baird disagrees: “They see false religion taking possession of sinful humanity until the whole is leavened; [and becomes thoroughly] evil. Surely this is darkened counsel.” So instead of the Kingdom of God growing and spreading throughout the earth like leaven, they see sin and wickedness growing and enveloping the whole earth when Messiah appears, the exact opposite. Baird says, “In their understanding of this simple, straightforward illustration, multitudes of Bible readers conjure up one of the gloomiest of visions. They see in it the prophecy of the practical ruin of the human race. They come to the interpretation of the parable mentally bound by the idea that wherever found in the Bible leaven must be taken as meaning something evil, and they interpret the words of the parable accordingly.”
Leaven is often a symbol of evil, but not always. As evil, it is an apt symbol of the contaminating contact of evil and the rapid consequences of it. Leaven is at times forbidden, but also commanded in Lev. 7:13; 23:17.
Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon on “The Gospel of the Kingdom” recognized that both good and evil are characterized as operating like leaven: “Many expositors argue that this relates to the power of evil in the church, or in the heart. But the connection does not lead us so to interpret….Is not leaven here used simply as another picture of an influence which appears feeble, but turns out to be active, conquering, and at length all-pervading? This, though hidden in obscurity, in the midst of nations comparable to “three measures of meal”, wrought with a mysterious rapidity, and will still continue to work in the whole mass of the world, and subdue the nations to itself. Let our friends take their choice of the two interpretations, and learn a good lesson from either or both. From evil leaven, the Lord preserve us; by holy influences may we all be wrought upon!”
Some of the important lessons we can learn from leaven should encourage and guide us in our Christian walk and witness. The leaven added to meal is active and operating; it works and shows its presence by its agency. It is assimilating, it converts and changes, not by destroying the substance of the meal, but altering its quality. The operation of the leaven is gradual; the effect is not produced at once, but by degrees. The influence of the leaven is diffusive. Commencing from a small and little regarded beginning it in time grows and penetrates every particle of the meal. As the leaven ultimately attains its object and leavens the whole, the result is sure. However small the leaven is compared with the meal, the less will prevail and subdue the greater.
Leaven is used as a type because it works. The Kingdom of God (Matt. 13:33) and hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) are called leaven because they work. The former works goodness, the latter works malevolence, but they both are typified by leaven because they work. So in typology, it is not necessarily a question of goodness or badness, but a question of interpretation. If men make a bad use of it, figuratively or literally, it does not alter the fact that leaven works as intended.
Let us be about our Father’s business as good leaven transforming the world! In the words of the founder of Methodism, Rev. John Wesley, “Thus will the Gospel leaven the world and grace the Christian.”