The Message of the Leaven
How many of you have ever baked a loaf of home-made bread? If you’re like me, ever since I was a little kid, my favorite thing to do in the kitchen has been to bake home-made bread. There’s nothing like the aroma of baking bread, or the soft flavor of a slice fresh out of the oven!
If you’ve ever baked bread, you know there many, many ingredients you can use to make bread. You can add raisins, and make raisin bread. You can add bananas, and make banana bread. You can even add pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds and make a hearty seed bread! But, there are a few ingredients you can’t do without. I’ve forgotten to add salt on a few occasions, and it doesn’t taste very good. But probably the most important ingredient, in a loaf of bread, is a tiny little thing we call yeast. That’s right—yeast. It doesn’t take very much, but if you forget and leave it out, your loaves of bread might as well be baked into bricks and plastered together with mortar.
It’s a very small thing, but without it, the bread as we commonly know it simply wouldn’t exist.
Yeast is actually a common organism in the fungus family. That dry, brown powder is actually millions of living cells, which come alive and begin breaking down the sugars in the wheat in a process called fermentation. As it feeds on the sugars, it gives off carbon-dioxide gas, which gets trapped in the dough and creates thousands of tiny air-pockets. We say the dough is “rising,” and that’s what gives the bread its light, soft texture.
This practice of making yeast-raised bread dates back thousands of years ago. Since ancient times, the children of Israel would keep a mixture of moist flour on which the yeast would grow, and whenever they would bake bread, they would use some of this mixture, called “Chametz” or “Leaven,” to leaven the bread.
Bread was so important to the ancient people of the middle east, that it became almost sacred. Without grain—that is, without bread—people were doomed to starvation. So, bread became synonymous with life itself. To have bread meant that you could live. To have no bread meant certain death—a slow, miserable death by starvation.
It’s not wonder that God would use bread, in so many ways, to teach us about His eternal kingdom. And in particular, the Bible speaks about the leaven—a very important symbol with some very important lessons for use today. Read Matthew 13:33:
The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.
In this verse, leaven is used in a positive sense, like the parable of the mustard seed. Just as a small quantity of leaven works a complete complete change in the whole of the dough, so the Kingdom of God starts out small, invisible, but ultimately brings about an entire change.
Here’s an interesting fact: under ideal conditions, yeast cells can divide every 90 minutes. If you had 1 yeast cell, dividing under these conditions, after just 57 hours (a little over two days) you would have about 275 billion yeast cells, or about the same amount of yeast as one tablespoon of commercial active dry yeast. By the third day (81 hours) you would have 18 quadrillion cells, the equivalent of about one-half ton of dry yeast. By the 8th day, without any inhibiting factors and at this doubling rate, the pile of yeast would grow to the size of the earth, and in less than two weeks it would be larger than the mass of the known universe!
Of course this doesn’t happen, because other factors stop the growth of the yeast before it can explode out of control like this. But, you can see why Jesus would use this as an example: something so small and insignificant, working silently, invisibly, until it takes over and changes everything we see.
More often than not, the symbol of leaven is used in a negative sense. Jesus told his disciples, in Matthew 16:6, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Of course, Jesus wasn’t talking about bread, but he was warning his disciples against “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” which he says plainly in Luke 12:1 “is hypocrisy.”
It’s easy to see how wrong ideas, wrong teachings, and especially wrong living can get out of hand, just like fermenting leaven. With this in mind, let us consider the first message of the leaven:
There’s No Room for the Leaven
This is so clear from the teaching of Jesus, here in Matthew and Luke.
Really, the disciples shouldn’t have been surprised when Jesus said, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” For over a thousand years, God had been using the leaven to teach Israel this very lesson.
Over 1300 years before, after the children of Israel had fled from the land of Egypt, God gave to Israel their laws, their calendar, and their feasts. And the most important feast of the whole year—the one the commemorated their deliverance from Egypt, and looked forward to the Messiah and their deliverance from Sin—this feast of the Passover—was framed around this very thing. You see, right in the middle of the Passover, during the week following the offering of the Pascal Lamb, the Israelites were to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Before the Passover, in every Jewish home, everyone had to throw away all of the “Chametz.” Anything that was made with leaven, and anything that might even have a small amount of leaven, was gathered up and burned. Even today, in Orthodox Jewish homes, this tradition is celebrated. After dark, the father of the home will light a candle and go from room to room, dusting out every corner and sweeping any specs of “chametz” into a small wooden spoon. The next day, the feather, the spoon, and all of the “Chametz” is burned, and the house is rid of all its impurity.
For seven days, no one eats any bread or anything that is made with yeast. Instead, they eat “Matstsah” or “unleavened bread.” Then, after the feast of unleavened bread, they don’t go back find their old leaven. They set out fresh flour, with water, in a cool place, and carefully collect a new batch of leaven that they will use for the next year.
What about us? The lesson is clear. In ancient Israel, during this special time, there was no room, anywhere, to keep a lump of leaven. This leaven represented sin—unrighteousness, wickedness, impurity. What about your life? What about your home? Are there dark corners, that need to be swept out—the old things taken out and burned? In Israel, if anyone ate regular bread during this special time, that person would be “cut off” from Israel? Do we take sin this seriously? Do we try to make room for “Chametz” – for the leaven of sin—in our hearts or in our homes?
Brothers and Sisters, there is no room for leaven in our lives today. Read 1 Corinthians 5:7:
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Not only is there no room for leaven, but in Christ, we have:
No need of Leaven
This is the second message of the leaven: There is no need of the leaven.
You know, drug addiction has become a real epidemic across the Commonwealth in recent years. Methamphetamine, prescription pain killers, and now we’re seeing a rising epidemic of heroin overdose cases. It is so sad to see families—fathers, mothers, adolescents, and children alike—whose lives are destroyed by this terrible curse. People start for various reasons—perhaps because of peer pressure. Perhaps because of an accident, or a legitimate prescription, an addiction started and couldn’t be stopped. Whatever the reason, from what I’m told, a person starts on drugs. At first, they get a high. It’s a wonderful, sensual experience. But then the drug wears off, and the person has to take it again. But the second high isn’t quite like the first one, and eventually the body develops a tolerance for it. Worse yet, the drug soon becomes the new “normal.” The body becomes physically dependent on that drug, and if the person stops taking the drug, they will get extremely sick. We say the person is “hooked,” “addicted” but it’s really worse than that. The person becomes physically dependent and in most cases they can’t break the cycle on their own, without special treatment. Sadly, this kind of treatment is a lot harder to come by than the drugs on the street, so the cycle continues.
It really is a tragedy. I don’t want to dwell on the tragedy now, but I think it can serve to make a point here. As far as I know, those of us here may not be addicted to drugs. But without the help of Christ, the Bible tells us that we’re addicted, in a sense, to sin. Paul describes our condition in Romans 7:14-15, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (NIV)
And in verse 24, Paul cries out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But he answers his own questions in the very next verse, “ I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Friends, not only is there no room for the leaven of sin in our hearts, but there is no need that it be there! Friend, I don’t know the condition of your heart. I’m not judging anyone—I’m not preaching this hear today because I think someone here is a great sinner. Not at all. If anyone here is, it’s probably me. I’m not trying to condemn people, but I believe we must allow God to use us to speak the truth. Perhaps, right now, God is speaking to you through His Word, and through His Holy Spirit. Perhaps he’s pointing out to you some dark corner, where a little bit of leaven has been hiding and growing. Friend, don’t wait. Don’t leave it there a moment longer. It may seems small and insignificant now, but like all leaven, it will grow in that dark place until it becomes the largest thing in your life—until it overpowers. Jesus will show it to you—and He longs to help you rid your life of this thing, but He won’t force Himself into your heart if you don’t invite Him there. There’s not need to keep it there—Jesus longs to come into your heart but he won’t co-habitat there with the devil. There’s not room for both Jesus, and the leaven—choose one or the other.
Last but not least, the Bible teaches that there is
No Time for the Leaven
On their last night in the land of Egypt—the night of their great deliverance, God instructed the children of Israel to be prepared to leave on a moment’s notice. Every day, the mothers were accustomed to preparing bread for their families. They would make the dough, and then put in the leaven and let it rise before baking the cakes of bread. But this night, there wasn’t time for that. At midnight, the destroying angel came through, passing over the homes of the Israelites but destroying the firstborn of every home of Egypt. Pharaoh issued the command—GO—and they went. The women grabbed their kneading bowls, with the unleavened dough still in them, and set out on a march. In leaving Egypt, they left behind, not only their old life of slavery, but quite literally the leaven for their bread.
Just like Israel, on their last night before their great deliverance from Egypt, friends we are standing on the brink of the greatest deliverance of all time. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.
2 Peter 3:10-14
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless.
Brothers and sisters, the time is short. It’s nearly here. It will not wait much longer. Is there yet time to play with leaven? Is there yet a little leaven among us? I don’t know your heart. I hardly know my own heart, but I do know someone who knows me, better than I know myself, and I pray with king David, in Psalm 139:23-24:
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.