KC Tsai—Toronto, Canada
Editor’s note: The parables in Matthew 13 enable men to find the true church through knowledge of the kingdom of God. In the first parable—the parable of the sower—only seeds that fall on good soil will grow, be deeply rooted, flourish and bear fruit. Although everyone has a chance to find the kingdom of heaven, only a genuinely receptive heart will understand the gospel, come to the true church and continually walk in God’s word. In the second parable—the parable of the tares—troublesome tares sown among the good seed will ultimately be weeded out and destroyed. The devil attempts to disrupt the true church through false brethren. True believers should not lose heart but trust God to ultimately eradicate these sons of the wicked one. In the third parable—the parable of the mustard seed—the eponymous seed grows into a huge tree that attracts birds to nest in its branches. The apostolic church was infiltrated by heresies and outside influences, which transformed her nature and allowed Satan to nest within it. To continue to enjoy God’s abidance, the true church must firmly uphold the truth at all times.
This installment continues with the fourth parable.
Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Mt 13:33)
This parable precedes the parable of the hidden treasure in which the Lord Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as “treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid” (Mt 13:44). Before the treasure was found, nobody knew the treasure existed.
Paul tells us that this treasure is the glorious gospel of Christ entrusted to him and his co-workers (earthen vessels) (2 Cor 4:1–7). The apostolic church received the truth from the Lord. However, this true and complete gospel was gradually lost with the corruption of the apostolic church, a process described in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven. Since the parable of the hidden treasure follows these parables, we understand that, before the emergence of the true church in the end time, no one had the full gospel of salvation.
Let us consider the parable of the leaven to see how the treasure of the gospel came to be hidden from man.
A LEAVEN-FREE CHURCH
The church ought to be an unleavened lump. Yet, there was leaven hidden within. Paul thus urged believers to “purge out the old leaven, that [they] may be a new lump” (1 Cor 5:6–7).
There are various types of leaven that the church must guard against.
Old Leaven and Leaven of Malice and Wickedness
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:8)
Paul warns the church in Corinth against two types of leaven: old leaven and the leaven of malice and wickedness. Old leaven refers to the believers’ old thoughts, old practices, old values, and concepts—often including acts of immorality—from before their conversion. The leaven of malice and wickedness refers to the sins that the believers had not forsaken despite their conversion. In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul similarly divides the things believers ought to forsake into two categories:
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them[old leaven]. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth [leaven of malice and wickedness]. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds [old leaven]. (Col 3:8–10)
To genuinely be unleavened bread, the church must not tolerate the presence of either of these types of leaven. Unchecked, these foreign elements will affect the purity of the entire lump.
Leaven of False Teachings
You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in you, in the Lord, that you will have no other mind; but he who troubles you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is. (Gal 5:7–10)
In the context of Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, leaven refers to teachings that do not align with the truth. During the apostolic church era, some advocated and exhorted the non-Jewish Christians to receive circumcision in order to be saved. This teaching caused confusion regarding the sound doctrine that Paul had taught (Gal 5:11–12).
During His ministry, the Lord Jesus warned, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Mt 16:6). The disciples only realized later that their Rabboni was speaking of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 16:12), for some of their teachings were not in accordance with the truth.
Leaven of Hypocrisy
In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Lk 12:1)
“Hypocrisy” means to put on a front, to be false, so that your actions do not match your words. These Pharisees were not genuinely devout but put on an outward appearance of false devotion and compassion; they loved to be greeted respectfully; they lacked understanding but loved to teach others; they were unable to practice what they preached, yet expected others to do what they taught (Mt 23:1–33).
A LEAVEN-FREE OFFERING
”No grain offering which you bring to the LORD shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey in any offering to the LORD made by fire.” (Lev 2:11)
Leavened bread is offered during the sacrifice of thanksgiving of the peace offering (Lev 7:13–14); and on the day of Pentecost, two leavened loaves are offered as wave offering (Lev 23:17). However, these leavened loaves shall be holy to the Lord for the priests, and not burnt on the altar. What is burnt as a sacrifice to God cannot contain leaven.
In the Bible, leaven does not have a single positive connotation. Instead, it represents immorality, malice, wickedness, hypocrisy, and teachings that are against the truth.
LEAVEN AND REFORMATION
The parables of the mustard tree and the leaven were fulfilled in church history when the apostolic church saw its nature change as a result of heretical teachings. The leaven of false teachings spread throughout the church, until the gospel was no longer pure—at this point, when the apostles were no longer alive to defend the truth, the Holy Spirit departed from the church. Although the church continued in the spiritual realm, it could no longer be found on earth as the truth became hidden. We can see the after-effects in how the human organization of the “church” developed throughout history—cycling through reformations and schisms—before the re-emergence of the true church.
In the sixteenth century, amid the growing decadence of the Catholic Church, there were still people who loved the Lord deeply. Such love spurred them to make personal sacrifices and carry out a series of religious reforms to rid the church of corruption. Prominent reformers include Erasmus of Rotterdam, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli.
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (also known as the Ninety-five Theses). He proposed an academic discussion on several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Specifically, Luther strongly opposed the indulgences sold by the Church of Rome, and refuted the idea that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [or 'into heaven'] springs.” The granting of indulgences was based on the Roman Catholic belief that—for a person who had sinned—having one’s guilt of sin forgiven through absolution alone is not enough. The person had to undergo temporal punishment for having offended Almighty God. However, the transgressor could pay for an indulgence to absolve him or her from the full punishment. The sale of these indulgences was a serious breach of biblical truth (Acts 8:20–23).
In 1520, Pope Leo X requested Luther to recant his writings. Luther’s refusal led to his ex-communication by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Luther rejected the request of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to withdraw all his written views. The Emperor then banned Luther’s writings, declaring him a heretic and an enemy of the state.
Luther also opposed sacerdotalism—the Roman Catholic Church’s belief that only officially appointed priests and clergy are meant to be mediators between God and humankind. Roman Catholic priests are, thus, like the Old Testament priests who carried out the work of atonement and proclaimed God’s word to the people. Ordinary believers would have to make all their requests to God through these priests. In contrast, Luther considered all baptized Christians to be part of a holy priesthood. He taught that the Bible is the only basis through which God makes revelations to allow man to know Him; lay believers did not need the authority of the pope nor the endorsement of the clerical orders. In 1534, Luther completed the translation of the entire Bible into the German vernacular (instead of Latin). This made the words of God more accessible to ordinary believers, an event that had a tremendous impact on Christendom, as it precipitated the development of Protestantism.
All this seems positive, but in his later works, Luther advocated destroying Jewish synagogues and homes, confiscating their property and money, and depriving them of freedom. Such anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed to the fomentation of anti-Semitism in Germany and caused Luther to become a controversial figure.
Luther’s anti-Semitic teachings reflected his incomplete understanding of the Lord’s compassion and forgiveness (Lk 9:51–56; 23:34), as well as ignoring the consistent theme of the Bible (Rom 11:28–29). The Lord Jesus did not teach His disciples to despise the Jews; on the contrary, He entrusted Peter with the commission of preaching the gospel to the Jews (the circumcised) (Gal 2:7–10). And Paul writes:
For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises. (Rom 9:3–4)
In the true church, the Lord sends forth His servants through the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:21–23). Such workers sent by the Holy Spirit will be impartial in their gospel work, eschewing any narrow-mindedness towards the recipients of the gospel. Therefore, Luther’s views on the Jews were against the principles of the Bible. This underlines the fact that without the Holy Spirit's guidance, man will be unable to fully comprehend the things of God (1 Cor 2:11).
In 1519, Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland was appointed the pastor of the Grossmünster (“the Great Minster”) in Zurich, where he began to preach ideas on the reformation of Roman Catholicism. He surprised his congregation by expounding on the gospel books in the vernacular (instead of Latin as was the practice of the Church of Rome).
In January 1523, Zwingli engaged in a public debate—the first Zurich Disputation—with the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Before its conclusion, Zwingli summarized his position in the Schlussreden (Concluding Statements or the Sixty-seven Articles). However, there was no conclusion to this debate, and a second disputation was convened in October. He and his supporters emphasized sola scriptura, i.e., that Scripture, not the Church in its clerical power, is the only authority for faith, and salvation is by faith in Christ. Zwingli opposed the papal system, sacerdotalism, purgatory, and clerical celibacy, among other things. He felt that all these human traditions and teachings did not accord with the Bible. To Zwingli, all believers are priests and do not need for clergy to be the mediator. In the end, the government of Zurich ruled him victorious, and his reformation plan was swiftly carried out.
Denominationalism and Impure Teachings
In autumn 1529, the Lutherans and the Zwinglians convened the Marburg Colloquy—an important council in Marburg to establish a formal alliance. Although both camps found a consensus on fourteen articles of faith, they disagreed on the fifteenth point, which pertained to the Eucharist. Specifically, the debate concerned the nature of Christ’s Presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Luther believed that the bread is the body of the Lord, but Zwingli maintained that the bread merely symbolized the body of Christ. As a result, the alliance fell through, and two different Protestant organizations (Protestant confessions) were formed instead. This was also the beginning of the ongoing chasm that separates Protestant branches.
Despite the good intentions of the Reformers, the absence of the Holy Spirit from the church and the various groups that formed meant that they were still unable to understand the complete truth of salvation (1 Cor 2:10–11). Therefore, they failed to fully depart from erroneous articles of faith, such as the Trinitarian views on God’s Divine Nature and the observation of the Lord’s Day in place of the Sabbath. For another, the church overlooked the redemptive aspects of the sacraments, namely, baptism for the remission of sins, foot washing to have a part with the Lord, and Holy Communion allowing partakers to have eternal life.
The absence of the Holy Spirit also meant that there was no unity of faith. Christian theologians and leaders—using their own wisdom and personal understanding—carried out eisegesis (imposed their respective interpretations) of the Bible. New denominations sprouted up one after another. At present, there are more than 33,000 denominations, globally, known as Christian church organizations.
Undeniably, it was the presence of leaven, in the form of teachings that were not according to the truth, that brought about the Protestant movement. Thereafter, disputes led to further division within the Protestant Church, such as the irreconcilable differences between Luther and Zwingli.
Believers must endeavor to uphold the unity of faith and spirit (Eph 4:3), and only the Holy Spirit can bestow this unity. It is certainly not God’s will for His church to be in a perpetual state of dispute and disarray, for “God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33).
In the true church, the Lord Jesus bestows different gifts and abilities to His servants. This is to equip all His believers for the work of the ministry, and to establish the body of Christ—the church. The church needs to rely on the Holy Spirit’s revelation and guidance to be united as one in the truth. In other words, only with the working of the Holy Spirit can the entire church have a unified will and one faith (Acts 15:28; 16:4–5).
REVIVAL AND RE-EMERGENCE OF THE TRUE CHURCH
Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” (Mt 13:36)
When the disciples queried Him, the Lord Jesus explained the parable of the tares to them, to let them know that the sons of the wicked will appear in the church. Hence, true believers must learn to wait patiently and not fret when they see the wicked prosper (Ps 37:7). God will never disappoint those who wait and rely on Him; He will bestow love and compassion, as well as righteousness.
After expounding on the parable of the tares, the Lord Jesus spoke three more parables in the house. Since Jesus had sent the multitude away, His disciples were His only audience. So the parables of the hidden treasure, of the pearl, and of the dragnet were spoken to those who belonged to Him. These parables reveal that the true church will emerge in the last days.
CONCLUSION: GOD’S TIME AND MAN’S EFFORT
The parable of the leaven is a timely reminder of the marvelous planning and providence of our Almighty God for His church, even as the devil rains fiery darts of persecution and heresy on her. In particular, during the period that followed the leavening of the church, when the complete truth was buried as treasure in a field, God was already making preparations for His true church. For example, He enabled John Wycliffe and his helpers to risk their lives to complete the English translation of the Bible in 1384, and also enabled Martin Luther and his students to complete the German translation of the Bible in 1534. These endeavors were severely condemned by the authorities. But the Bible was subsequently translated into various languages, thus paving the way for the gospel of the true church to be preached to the ends of the earth.
The parable of the leaven is also an exhortation to the true church today, to vigorously contend for the truth. In the Bible, the church is often personified as a woman. She is “the bride of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9), sanctified and cleansed by the Lord Jesus “with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself as a glorious church” (Eph 5:25–27). The church must be a pure and blameless woman (Rev 12:13–17; 21:2, 9–10) who is faithful to the Lord, and faithfully handles the pure words of the Lord.
Leaven hidden in just three measures of fine meal (the basic quantity for making bread) causes the entire lump to be leavened. To tolerate acts of immorality within the church is to add leaven, which will eventually affect the entire lump (1 Cor 5:1–8). Similarly, the church’s lack of fidelity to the truth, allowing erroneous teachings to creep into the church, is equivalent to adding a little leaven to the doctrines and Articles of Faith. We should be sure to remove any hidden leaven that may cause the entire lump to be leavened (Gal 5:7–10).
 “Reformation,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed February 10, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation.
 “Martin Luther,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed February 10, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther.
 Lin Dayi, Research on the New Testament Background (Taichung: Palm Press), 353–354.
 David B Barrett, George T Kurian and Todd M Johnson, World Christian Encyclopaedia (Second ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).