BEWARE THE YEAST (Yeast – Part 2)

“Why can’t you understand that I’m not talking about bread? So again I say, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’” Then at last they understood that he wasn’t speaking about the yeast in bread, but about the deceptive teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. [Matthew 16:11-12 (NLT)]

oleanderFor a single-cell microorganism member of the fungus family, yeast is mighty powerful. When added to water and flour, it starts to grow and multiply as it ferments the sugars in the flour, releases carbon dioxide, and causes the dough to rise. Moreover, once added to something, yeast can’t be removed. When a small amount of old fermented dough called a starter or seor is kneaded into flour and water, it permeates the dough and makes it rise. Some of the newly leavened dough can be saved to become the starter for the next batch of bread and so on.

In the right conditions, yeast seems nearly immortal. San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery uses a sourdough starter originating in 1849.  Scientists even revived yeast microbes from 4,500 years ago to make a loaf of bread! Indeed, the longevity, growth potential, and pervasiveness of yeast makes it a powerful substance.

The way yeast permeates and affects the dough with which it is mixed certainly makes it a good metaphor for the influence of one thing on another. Even though the Hebrew Scriptures never equated leavening with sin or evil, leaven and corruption had become almost synonymous with one another by the 1st century. Although Jesus used yeast’s power in a positive way as a metaphor for the growth and spread of the Messianic Kingdom, He also used yeast in a negative way; just as good can influence the world around it, so can bad.

At various times, Jesus used yeast as a metaphor for the power of evil to spread. He warned the disciples about the yeast of skepticism and unbelief found in the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herod. In spite of the bountiful evidence of Jesus’ true identity seen in His miracles, the Pharisees and Sadducees demanded yet another “sign from heaven” to prove His authority. When Jesus appeared before Herod, the king wanted to see the proof of His miracles, as well. Not wanting His followers to be infected with such distrust or thinking of His miracles as entertainment for unbelievers, Jesus made this warning several times. Taking Him literally at first, the disciples thought Jesus was speaking of bread until they finally understood His meaning.

Along with the Pharisee’s skepticism, Jesus didn’t want his disciples influenced by their addition of the Talmud’s oral traditions to God’s final word in the Hebrew Bible or their hypocrisy in meticulously following the letter of the law while ignoring the most important commandment—that of loving God and their neighbor. Jesus also didn’t want His disciples affected by the Sadducees’ deceptive teachings. More concerned with their ritual purity than people’s welfare and politics than religion, the Sadducees denied things like angels, heaven, hell, and the resurrection while believing that people’s souls died with their bodies. As for Herod’s evil influence—Jesus didn’t want His disciples influenced by the actions of this immoral and self-indulgent man.

In letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, the Apostle Paul also used yeast as a metaphor for the powerful influence of erroneous thinking and sinful behavior. When the Corinthian church ignored the flagrant immorality of one of its members, Paul warned them to remove him from the congregation lest such immorality spread through the entire congregation (as yeast does when added to fresh dough). In the same way, Paul warned the Galatians about the danger of accepting the perverted gospels of both the Judaizers (who insisted Gentiles had to adhere to Jewish laws like circumcision) and the Legalists (who preached a doctrine of salvation by works). Such false teaching was dangerous because, like yeast, it spreads out and affects everything with which it comes into contact.

Be it even a little false doctrine or immorality (whether sexual sin or things like abuse of power, financial fraud, deception, decadence, hate, hypocrisy, or gossip), when such evil is tolerated by the Church, it is like yeast. It’s evil works invisibly and will permeate and influence all that it touches. Just as a little leaven leavens the whole lump, a little sin can destroy the individual as well as the Church—the body of Christ. Let us beware!

Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. [1 Corinthians 5:6-7 (NLT)]

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Jesus also used this illustration: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” [Matthew 13:33 (NLT)]

Immediately after the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to the yeast a woman added to “three measures of flour” when making bread. While “measures” seems vague, the original word used wasn’t. It was seah (about a peck and a half of flour) and three seahs were over 167 cups (nearly 50 pounds) of flour. This was an enormous amount of flour for just “a little yeast” and, as He did in the previous parable, Jesus used hyperbole to emphasize the power of something very small. The question in this parable is whether the yeast is a metaphor for a bad or a good thing.

This is the first mention of leavening in the New Testament but, by the 1st century, yeast had come to represent sin. Sticking to yeast’s traditional symbolism, some commentators liken the story’s yeast to false doctrine that can sneak into the Kingdom and see this parable as a warning about the dangerous power of false teaching in the Church. Enekrupsen is the Greek word used to describe the woman’s action in adding the yeast and this is its only use in Scripture. From egkruptó, which literally meant to bury within, enekrupsen has been translated with different meanings. Some translate it as hid or concealed (which implies she did something sneaky and devious in adding yeast) while others merely translate it as put, blended, or mixed in. Since enekrupsen is used both ways in other Greek literature, we can’t be sure which correctly communicates Jesus’ meaning. Considering that bread was being made, it seems that burying yeast in the dough would be expected rather than sneaky.

I find it hard to interpret this parable in a way that associates anything sinful or evil with the Kingdom of Heaven. Although His listeners may have expected yeast’s power to represent something bad, Jesus’ parables rarely fit his listeners’ expectations. When they anticipated one thing, He usually gave them another! That a Levite and priest had failed their fellow Jew while a hated Samaritan was the hero of one parable was as surprising as a beggar ending up in Abraham’s bosom at a heavenly banquet when the rich man ended up tormented in Hades. Jesus threw society’s expectations out the window when telling of a father who’d been offended and hurt by his wastrel son. Upon the boy’s return, rather than rejecting him as the law required, the father ran to welcome him home, restored him to the family, and even had a festive celebration in the boy’s honor. Equally unexpected was the story of vineyard workers getting the same pay regardless of how long they worked and the prayers of a tax collector being heard when the Pharisee’s were not.

I agree with the commentators who take this parable at face value. Believing Jesus simply is speaking of the pervasiveness and power of yeast, they see this analogy as a continuation of the lesson in the mustard seed parable. Rather than a corrupting influence, the leaven, like the mustard seed, illustrates that great things can come from small beginnings. Yeast is even smaller than the tiny mustard seed and yet both are powerful enough to expand and effect change. While both parables illustrate the extensive growth of the Kingdom, the second parable emphasizes the Kingdom’s transformative power. Just as yeast changes dough, the Kingdom will transform the world! In both parables, the message is clear—the Messianic Kingdom comes from small beginnings, operates quietly, but has the power to accomplish great things! That God’s Kingdom would start from small and humble beginnings to grow and change a much larger entity (the world) would have been reassuring news to Jesus’ small band of disciples.

Like the Kingdom of Heaven, yeast is a living organism. Like the Holy Spirit, yeast is invisible once in the dough and yet its effect, like that of the Spirit, becomes obvious as it permeates the mixture. Just as leavened dough grows from inside out, the Kingdom moves from our hearts into our actions and from our actions into the world. Yeast transforms what it mixes with and, as we are transformed, we transform those with whom we interact. Just as yeast needs certain conditions to grow, so does the Kingdom and, just as there are 1,500 different kinds of yeast, God’s Kingdom is made up of a wide assortment of people. Yeast is found everywhere—from the bottom of the ocean to the Arctic and from flower nectar to the lining of our stomachs—and God’s Kingdom should be as pervasive! Indeed, the Kingdom of Heaven is alive, it’s everywhere, it takes attention and patience to grow, and it transforms all it touches.

What Jesus’ listeners probably didn’t understand was that the Kingdom already had arrived. But, like a tiny mustard seed, a bit of yeast, or a baby in a manger, it entered the world quietly without fanfare. Like a small yellow flower, a lump of dough, or an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, the Kingdom didn’t look that impressive at first. Appearances, however, can be misleading. Like a mustard seed that grows 1,440 times its original size or the more than fifty loaves of bread leavened by that bit of yeast, the Kingdom will increase and prevail. In the end, when Christ returns as a conquering king, no one will be able to miss its arrival. Until then, like a small amount of yeast, God’s Kingdom will transform the hearts and lives of all it touches! May we always remember that little things become great when God is at work!

When the dough is leavened, then to the oven with it; trials and afflictions commonly attend this change; but thus saints are fitted to be bread for our Master’s table. [Matthew Henry]

I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. [Matthew 16:18 (NLT)]


Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others.” [Mark 4:13-14 (NLT)]

The Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all repeat Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Soils. As the farmer sows his seeds, some lands on the packed soil along the footpath. The birds steal the seeds so nothing takes root. Some seeds land on a thin layer of dirt over underlying rock. Although the seeds quickly sprout, without deep roots, they wither and die. Other seeds land among the thistles and thorns. Although they take root, the fast-growing weeds crowd them out. Only the seeds that fall on fertile soil take firm root, grow into maturity, and bear fruit. Rather than teaching Agriculture 101, by comparing those soils to the various ways God’s message is received, Jesus was teaching about evangelism.

The parable’s farmer scattered his seeds without determining beforehand which soil would be most receptive. In the same way, when we sow the seeds of God’s word, there’s no quick way to determine if or when that seed will take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds might lie dormant for years until conditions are optimal for them to take hold. For example, lodgepole pine seeds actually need the intense heat of fire to explode their seed cones before they can germinate. In the same way, the seed of God’s word may lie dormant until a person’s life goes up in flames.

As for the seeds on the footpath and the birds and other animals who might eat them—when they deposit their feces, those seeds may end up in a more receptive environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble. Even if our testimony is rejected, it may inadvertently get passed on to a more receptive person!

As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying. Having seen trees growing out of mountain sides and wildflowers peeking up through sidewalk cracks, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. Just as it’s possible for seeds to grow in adverse conditions, it’s possible that the word of God can soften even the hardest of hearts! As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Beautiful flowers can grow in the midst of weeds!

Even in good soil, some seeds might never germinate. While the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth should have been fertile ground for Him, it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to meet Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of pagan gods, 1,000 prostitutes, temple to Aphrodite, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, didn’t seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a successful church there. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.

While Jesus knew how people would respond to Him, we don’t. None of us can accurately predict if, how, or when the seed of God’s word will be received. In 2005, without knowing if the seeds would germinate, scientists planted thirty-five 2000-year-old date palm tree seeds excavated from Israeli archaeological sites. Even though it took those ancient seeds two millennia to sprout, against all odds, seven of them took root and are now producing fruit!

Rather than trying to analyze the soil or waiting for optimal growing conditions, our job as God’s farmers is to continue sowing good seeds whenever and wherever we can. Eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.

The Parable of the Soils tells us that, regardless of hardened hearts, superficiality, competing pressures, and even failure, the promised harvest is “a hundred times as much as had been planted.” Without a doubt, in spite of setbacks and challenges, God’s Kingdom will prevail, but only if we continue to plant those seeds!

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

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canada geeseI appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. [1 Corinthians 1:10 (NLT)]

Seeing a couple of first-timers at our church, I went over with programs and introduced myself. From the well-worn Bibles they carried, I surmised they weren’t new believers. The man explained that they’d been seeking a new church in our town since leaving their church five years previously. When he asked to see information about our church, I explained that our Scripture-based statement of beliefs and vision statement were on our web site. Responding that he had studied them but still had several questions, I assured him our pastor would be happy to speak with him after service. Asking me if the church had a formal statement of belief regarding the Rapture, he wanted to know whether it was pre, mid, or post-Tribulation. Never pausing for an answer, he added that he was a Calvinist, as well. Wondering if he was looking for a church or a theological debate, I was tempted to split hairs and ask if he was a four or five-point Calvinist or possibly a “hyper-Calvinist” but, fortunately, the service began. From his pointed questions, I understood why the couple had failed to find the “perfect” church in five years of searching!

In the past, Christians often settled their religious differences with bloodshed; nowadays, we just start another denomination! According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, as of 2019, there were 45,000 Christian denominations in the world! For the most part, the major differences among them have to do with baptism, predestination, and the Eucharist. Other issues of contention include everything from the nature of Mary to the interpretation of Revelation.

Many doctrinal differences are inconsequential—not unimportant—but inconsequential when it comes to our saving belief in Christ. If we truly believe that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the questions of juice or wine, immersion or sprinkling, day of worship, type of music, women in the pulpit, marital status of clergy, and whether Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is actual, figurative, or symbolic, really have no bearing on our salvation!

The Bible doesn’t speak to every issue and several verses are open to a variety of interpretations. If knowing things like the timing of the Rapture or which Bible translation God wants us to use were essential to our salvation, our infinitely wise God would have made it crystal clear to His church. When it comes to the essentials, there’s no misunderstanding His meaning with Jesus’ words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying,” and  “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” [John 11:25,14:6] If the Apostle Paul managed to find common ground with unbelievers, surely we can find common ground with our brothers and sisters in Christ!

As for that couple—since they made a speedy exit after service, our church must not have met their dogmatic requirements and I suspect no church ever will. Whether we’re Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Charismatics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Calvinists, Orthodox, or independents, we’re not likely to agree on every theological point—not with the person sitting beside us at church or even the clergy conducting the service! Nevertheless, as brothers and sisters in Christ, let our focus remain on where we do agree—on loving God, loving others, and following Jesus.

Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:3-6 (NLT)]

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For seven days the bread you eat must be made without yeast, as when you escaped from Egypt in such a hurry. Eat this bread—the bread of suffering—so that as long as you live you will remember the day you departed from Egypt. Let no yeast be found in any house throughout your land for those seven days. Deuteronomy 16: 3-4 (NLT)]


In Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16, God ordained a seven-day festival commemorating both the day death’s angel passed over Jewish homes when striking down Egypt’s firstborn sons and Israel’s emancipation from slavery. Prior to the innovation of a fixed mathematical calendar determining the full moon’s date, Jews living outside of Israel celebrated for eight days. Today, in spite of knowing the exact date of the full moon, Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside of Israel continue to celebrate eight days while Jews living in Israel and Reform Jews (no matter where they live) celebrate seven. Whether observed for seven or eight days, Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread begin at sunset this Wednesday when our Jewish sisters and brothers will celebrate with a Seder supper.

A Seder plate holds at least six ritual items to help retell the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Along with a lamb shank representing the paschal (lamb) sacrifice, bitter herbs representing the bitterness of slavery, and saltwater representing the peoples’ tears and sweat will be an unleavened bread called matzah. Called the bread of affliction or suffering, the unleavened bread was to remind Israel of the day they left Egypt.

Although there is written evidence that Egyptians used yeast to bake bread some five thousand years ago, archeologists suspect it was used long before that and leavened bread was a regular part of ancient Israel’s diet when the people fled Egypt. But, because they left in haste, there was no time for dough to rise so the bread they brought with them was unleavened. When God ordained this commemoration, He prohibited eating anything with leavening the entire seven days. Along with refraining from leavened food, He instructed Israel to rid their homes from all leavening agents or products containing leaven.

More than 3,400 years later, preparing for this holiday involves more than eliminating bread, cookies, pastries, yeast, and cake mixes from the pantry. In preparation for Passover, any traces of those items are completely eradicated. The house is meticulously cleaned so that no crumbs remain in the toaster, oven, refrigerator, under cushions, or in pockets. The night preceding Passover, families do one last search for chametz (anything with leavening) and any found is removed from the house and burned outside. In actuality, cleaning one’s house of all yeast is just about impossible because yeast is a fungus. Existing in the air, soil, and on plants, it will find a way to enter even the cleanest house.

While yeast and leavening are what makes baked goods rise, when yeast or leavening are mentioned in the Bible, they sometimes represent sin. Jesus used yeast to describe corruption, false teaching and hypocrisy. Sin, like yeast, is all around us and can enter our lives through the tiniest cracks. Like yeast, sin can grow, multiply, and take on a life of its own. Just as a little yeast can go a long way and spread through dough, a little sin can spread right through a person and spread into those around him.

For Christians, thinking of yeast as symbolic of sin gives additional meaning to the Passover celebration. Because Jesus freed us from the laws and rituals of the Old Testament, we don’t need to search for cookie and bagel crumbs in our pantry nor do we have to forego French toast and toasted cheese sandwiches for the next week. Nevertheless, just as there are crumbs hiding in the bottom of the toaster and under the sofa’s cushions, there is sin hidden in our lives. Rather than hunt through the house for crumbs with leavening, let us search through our hearts for concealed and unacknowledged sin. In preparation for Resurrection Sunday this week, we should look deep into the nooks and crannies of our thoughts and actions and remove all that doesn’t belong.

For Jews, this week celebrates their deliverance from Egypt. As Christians, may this Holy Week prepare us for the celebration of our deliverance from sin!

Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old “yeast” by removing this wicked person from among you. Then you will be like a fresh batch of dough made without yeast, which is what you really are. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. So let us celebrate the festival, not with the old bread of wickedness and evil, but with the new bread of sincerity and truth. [1 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NLT)]

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May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NIV)]

This life, therefore is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on our way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the end but it is the right road. At present, everything is being cleaned. [Martin Luther]

white oibos - juvenile - adultOur sons recently visited to celebrate their father’s birthday. As I watched them work their culinary magic in the kitchen, I marveled at how the boys who once thought Kraft mac n’ cheese to be haute cuisine became gourmet cooks. For that matter, when did they get so tall or those wrinkles appear around their eyes? At what point did the tow-headed boy’s hair darken and start receding or his brother’s turn grey? The changes I observed weren’t just physical. As we talked, I wondered when my once irresponsible boys became so sensible and wise. None of it happened overnight and yet each little change was so subtle it barely was noticed. But, when I thought back to the children and young adults they once were, the change was enormous.

When we accept Jesus, we are justified: set free by the blood of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are spiritually reborn. But, because we still sin, our work has just begun. No parent wants their children to remain helpless infants, unthinking youngsters, or reckless teens and God is the same way with His children. Just as babies must learn to walk, new believers must learn how to walk in the steps of Jesus. We gradually transform from newborn Christians into mature ones through the power of the Holy Spirit in a process called sanctification. While justification is once and done, sanctification is a lifelong journey. Growing in grace, we become obedient to God’s Word, understand His ways and, little by little, become more like Christ.

Although challenges are often accompanied by spiritual growth spurts, for the most part, we transform gradually in barely noticeable ways (as did my boys). If we look back, however, we’ll see the difference our sanctification/spiritual growth has made in the way we conduct our lives. Because of our faith in Jesus, somewhere along the line, we probably developed enough patience to deal with our tiresome neighbor, enough wisdom to counsel a troubled friend, or enough restraint to step away from an argument. At some point, we found the ability to have peace in the midst of turmoil and self-discipline in the face of temptation. We began to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, and give generously without expecting something in return. When looking back, we’ll realize how the Holy Spirit slowly but steadily matured us from baby Christians into adolescents and beyond.

No matter how far we’ve come in our journey, a little self-examination tells us how far we still need to go. Like the wrinkles that come with age, sanctification it is a gradual, daily, and life-long process. But, unlike those inescapable wrinkles, sanctification isn’t inevitable—it takes effort. To become sanctified, we must actively pursue a holy life. By yielding to God, we become empowered by the Spirit to live a life that honors Him (without becoming self-righteous, legalistic, or proud about doing so). Like a child learning to ride a bike, however, there will be times we fall but, by the grace of God, we keep trying!

Even though I’d prefer the face and body I had twenty years ago to the one I have now, it’s because of Jesus that I much prefer the woman I am today to the woman of decades past. While I don’t look forward to seeing more wrinkles in the mirror, I do look forward to the changes the Holy Spirit continues to make in me. While I’m not who I once was, I’m still nowhere close to the woman God wants me to be.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” [John Newton]

 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. [1 Corinthians 15:10 (NIV)]

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. [Philippians 3:12 (NIV)]

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