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11. The Parable of the Leaven

 

Chapter 11

The Parable of the Leaven

Matthew 13:31-33

Eric H. H. Chang

Montreal, August 27, 1978

 

Let us look at Matthew 13:33.

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Warning: The kingdom of God spreads throughout the world, and the world spreads into the church

The Lord Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God will spread throughout the world in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. But notice the perfect balance of his teaching. In case his disciples got too euphoric about the fact that the sun will never set upon the kingdom of God, and that they are going to reign with him, he brings in the balance in this parable. What is this parable? In the Parable of the Leaven, the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is going to spread throughout the world in this age, but as it extends into the world, it is also going to result in the world extending into the church to some extent. Now beware of that.”

The Lord Jesus foresaw all that too. And how true it is, that the church becomes corrupted by the ideas of the world, by the way the world does things. So it results in a situation, which each inter-penetrates the other. It becomes a mixing of the world and the church, of which the Lord Jesus warns us most seriously. So here we have another parable presented in one single verse, and it is really incredible how the Lord Jesus can say everything in one verse when most of us take a long time to say one thing! The only problem is that to bring out all the riches that is in that one verse, you have to say a great deal, otherwise you can read that verse and you see nothing. What do you see in this verse? What does this verse mean exactly?

The Lord Jesus says, “Look into that backyard. Do you see that woman there?”

The disciples say, “Yes, we see that woman.”

“Do you see that she is kneading flour?”

“Yes, we see that she is doing that.”

“What is she going to do? She is going to make a loaf of bread, or several loaves of bread, or maybe some cakes.”

“Yes, we see that.”

“Do you see what she is doing now? She takes a small lump of leaven– leaven is simply yeast—and she puts it in the flour. And what is she doing now? Well, she is kneading this flour, so that the leaven is going to mix in with the flour to leaven the whole lump.”

Today, you have self-raising flour, that is, the leaven is already inside the flour, but in those days, they did not have self-raising flour. And even in these days, many people prefer to use yeast to get better results. They mix the leaven in with the flour until the whole lump of dough is leavened. Some of us who have made bread before know what it is like. When you mix in the leaven and put it in a nice warm place, not too hot, not too cold, you will see the whole dough rising up. What is happening? It is getting filled with air, puffed up, and then it becomes nice and fluffy, very crumbly and soft. You will have a nice leavened loaf of bread.

Leaven represents the world

What important spiritual teaching is the Lord Jesus showing his disciples by this parable? There are only two ways to expound leaven in this parable. What are the two ways? One way is, the leaven is God’s work, and the bread is the world. If that is the picture, it is saying that the church is the leaven working inside the bread, and its influence will spread throughout the world. So it is simply another picture of the mustard seed, and not telling us anything that we have not already learned from the previous parable. If this is what it means, it is not even as clear as the previous one, because it doesn’t really tell us in what ways does the church spread through the world. The whole picture becomes too imprecise. We are left with no real definitions. What does it mean by “influence of the church”? What is called “influence”? Is it a spiritual influence? Is it a moral influence? Is it a literal physical influence in which the church will somehow spread through the world, controlling positions in the world? Or is it a mixture of all of these? But if it is a mixture of all of these, then it is not necessarily correct, say, the spiritual influence is not all pervasive in the world. So we have problems here because it is too vague.

The other way to take it is that the world is spreading into the church. I have already hinted that this will be the true exposition of the matter. I have to give you the reasons; I cannot take it that you will simply accept my word for it. Even if you did accept my word for it, I wouldn’t like you to do so, because I don’t want you to accept the Word of God simply because I say so, but that you will know what is the evidence for this statement.

Now I have to tell you right from the beginning that virtually all modern commentators take the first alternative, that this is merely a repetition of the previous parable, that the church is spreading through the world. If asked what the reasons are for this view, the reasons are fearfully unconvincing. There are only two that I have been able to find in the commentators.

The first reason is simply that it follows very well from the previous parable, as though that is some kind of evidence. We have seen, in fact, that a parable that follows often presents the other side of the truth of the Lord Jesus’ teaching. There is no parable that simply repeats the previous parable in his teaching.

The second reason being given is that it is a very comforting promise, as Fritz Reinecker, the German commentator and scholar writes in his German commentary called Lukas. To say, “I prefer this view because it is very comforting” is not a ground for exegesis. Exegesis or the exposition of the Bible is not meant to please people. You see, the alternative view that the influence of the world is pressing into the church is very uncomfortable to think about. We don’t decide on an exegesis because it is comfortable or uncomfortable. What kind of reason is this? He speaks of this as a comforting promise of the development of the kingdom, but this comforting promise has already been given in the previous parable. Does he need two? Is one not enough for him? But apart from that, not a single exegetical reason is given.

The Bible expounds itself; it is self-explanatory. We don’t have to invent an interpretation for it. You must check through how the Bible intends itself to be understood. The commentators have failed to produce any reasons whatsoever. This is a very puzzling thing for me.

Both these views—that the church penetrates the world, and the world penetrates the church—were held throughout the history of the church. But beginning around the 19th Century, only one view began to predominate, thanks to certain German scholars, who always seem to dominate the field of theology. Whenever a German scholar, or a group of German theologians teach something, it is really quite remarkable to see how meekly the British and American theologians all follow the Germans. I have never been able to figure out the reason for this. You would see that every major idea in theology is propounded by a German theologian, and it is always the British, the French and the Americans who all follow the Germans. Now this is very good when the Germans are right, but what if the Germans are wrong? The Germans are by no means infallible.

So when I open the commentaries today, to my astonishment, every modern commentator follows the lead of these early German theolog­ians, of saying that it is the first alternative namely, that the church is spreading through the world. As I have said, that has already been told us in the previous parable, in which case nothing new is being told us in this parable. But that is not the objection. The objection is that exegetically, it cannot be sustained on the basis of Scripture. I am going to leave you all, who love the Word of God, to be the judge of this, when I have presented what is evidently overwhelming evidence to show the facts.

But when I look at this, my heart has a sense of sadness. Today, if any pastor in a Chinese church cannot read English, he has to depend on a Chinese translation of an English version. As for understanding the Word of God, the pastors follow the commentators whom they regard as the experts. Little do they know that the commentators follow each other. The result is that like a flock of sheep, they all follow one another to the slaughter. When I look upon the scene, I am filled with a sense of grief. Why is it that such blindness has struck in the church? Can it be that this very parable is proving exactly what we said, that the world has penet­rated the church? They don’t even seem to be able to see the meaning of this parable in spite of the overwhelming clarity of the Biblical expository evidence of this parable.

So I ask you to concentrate for a few moments and look at the evidence of this. I only have to present you part of the overwhelming evidence of this case, and you will realize how rich is the meaning that comes out. This parable is not just repeating the previous parable in another way. That would really be adding nothing of substance to the previous parable. What it is saying in fact, is that the world is penetrating the church with its influences, and the Lord Jesus is cautioning his disciples to watch out for this. We live in a day to see how true it is that the church has been penetrated by the world.

The picture as a whole portrays the kingdom of God

Apart from all this kind of reasonings, let us look at this parable. It begins with these words: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven….” Aha! There is the case! The kingdom of heaven is the leaven that penetrates the world. That is exactly why so many commentators have gone wrong. They have not yet understood even the basic principle of expounding the parables. And I beg your patience that when I say this, it sounds too arrogant. I assure you I am in no way trying to be arrogant, but to tell you the truth of the matter. This is simply not how a parable is expounded. The great German New Testament scholar, Jeremias, understood this very well. In spite of his perception of it, he failed to take up his own clue. Jeremias has pointed this out in his standard work on parables—a work that every scholar and every commentator, who writes anything on the parables, reads and depends on. In fact, when you look at many of the commentaries in the Pelican series, it is simply re-hashing what Jeremias wrote in his standard work on the parables. Jeremias said that you do not read, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven”, but “The case with the kingdom of God is as with the case of leaven which a woman took.” It doesn’t say the kingdom of God is like leaven, but the whole statement continues without a break right up to the end.

Now you will say, “I don’t quite follow.” Let me explain it a little more clearly. In the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Darnel and the Wheat for example, the Lord Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a sower who went forth to sow,” and so on and so forth. Now does it mean that the kingdom of God is like a sower? No, it is because the Lord Jesus told us the sower is he himself. So is the kingdom of God like the wheat? No, the wheat is the harvest at the end. Or is the kingdom of God like the seed? No, the Lord Jesus says, the seed represents the Word of God. Well, does the field represent the kingdom of God then? No, the Lord Jesus tells us the field is the world.

So when you have seen his own explanation of the parable, you will ask, “Well, which one is the kingdom then?” Now to ask the question is to miss the point. None of these represent the kingdom. The whole parable together represents the situation in the kingdom, not any one part. It is not any more correct to say, “Does this arm represent my body?” No. “Does my ear represent my body?” No. Then what is the body if it is not the arm, not the ear? It is the putting of all these things together, the whole thing together is the body, not just the arm or the ear. Do you see what I mean? So, when you look at the kingdom of God, you don’t read, “The kingdom of God is like a sower,” as though to say that the kingdom of God is a sower. No, the sower, he has already told us, is the Son of God, the Lord Jesus himself.

If you don’t understand this point, you will make a complete mess of trying to understand the parables. One moment, the kingdom of God is the Son of God, the next moment it is the leaven, the next moment it is the merchant. Then if you look at Matthew 25:1, you will read, “The kingdom of God is like ten maidens.” One moment it was Jesus himself, now suddenly, it has become ten maidens! How are you going to understand the kingdom of God? You will say, “Well, I give up!” The reason you get into this confusion is because you have failed to under­stand a very basic principle in expounding the kingdom of God. You should not assume that the first word “leaven” is the answer. It says, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” The whole picture is involved, not just the first word.

Many commentators don’t realize this point, and it is astonishing how poorly equipped some commentators are. I never cease to be amazed at people, who know so little, and yet they try to write books! Their audacity is astonishing. What they should do is just humbly spend lots and lots of time learning the facts first, and then write a book. Otherwise you mislead everybody.

You could say, “The kingdom of God is like a woman who took leaven and put it in the meal,” Or you could change the words around and the meaning would still be the same: “The kingdom of God is like meal which a woman took and put leaven into it.” Do you see the point? Now this is a fundamental, simple point that every exegete must understand. It is astonishing how few do. But as I said, Jeremias saw it very well. He realized that it did not mean that the kingdom is like leaven, but the case with the kingdom of God is as the case of leaven which was taken by a woman and put into the meal. All this is clear to this scholar. So this is the first point I would like you to notice. I have to clear the ground, so that you will understand the grounds for exposition.

“Leaven” is a sign of sinfulness in the Bible

So having dealt with that, the next question to ask is, What does “leaven” mean in the Bible? It is not what I say it means, nor what I think it means, but what the Bible says that leaven means. That is exceedingly easy. The Bible has a lot to say about leaven. You will know the moment you take out a concordance. I hope that many of you who study the Bible seriously know what a concordance is. You don’t have to take my word for it, but just open a concordance and look under “leaven” in the New Testament. You will find immediately that one thing becomes clear. In the Bible, leaven always refers to something that is bad. This is a fact that every Bible dictionary can tell you.

Now what do the commentators do? Do they not read the standard reference works? Well, astonishingly, the German expositor, who is a very fine expositor in most other cases, says that in all other cases, it refers to evil in the Bible, but in this case it is an exception. My question is, can you kindly tell me what makes it an exception in this case? You would have to produce massive evidence to make this an exception. But he produces not one reason for it. Nothing! It is because he has already let his own idea determine his exegesis.

That is why I say to you when you study the Bible, you must come with no preconceived idea. If you come with a preconceived idea, you are going to decide in advance what it means and you are going to try to make it mean what you want it to mean. He wants to make it mean that this leaven is the church spreading through the world, so he says that is an exception. Why is it an exception? There are no reasons to give.

In the Greek New Testament, the Greek word for “leaven” is used only in this parable and in two other references. Now I trust that most commentators who write books do understand a bit of Greek, but it would appear that they have not noticed this matter. Let us look at 1Corinthians 5:6-7, one of the two references outside this parable, where the same Greek word for “leaven” is used. Paul says this to the Corinthians:

“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 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. ”

Do you see the picture? He says, “You Christians, are a loaf of bread which should not be leavened. You are really unleavened. Cleanse out the old leaven of sin in your life.” Now if you look at 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, you will understand the context of a very serious sin in the Corinthian Church, where a man commits incest, that is, he has a sexual relationship with his step-mother. Now this is a dreadful situation! Paul says in utter fury to the Corinthian church, “Such a thing is disgusting even to the non-Christians, to the heathens! And you dare to have a sin like this in the church? I excommunicate this man! Sling him out of the church! Remove the leaven from the church! Take out this sinful influence so that it does not pollute the entire church.” Those were strong words, and Paul dared to deal hard with sin in those days.

Today, everything is hush-hush. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Let us play soft with sin.” Paul has no time to play soft with sin. He says, “Sling out the leaven!” That is the context. He says the exact same thing in Galatians 5:9, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” In this case, he is speaking about the influence of false teaching—the return to circumcision—in the church.

Now notice this: leaven in the Bible always, without fail, refers to something sinful. That is why under the Old Testament Law, a sacrifice, say, at the Passover, could not be presented with leaven in it. Bread has to be presented as unleavened. All of you know that at the Passover feast, leaven had to be removed ceremonially from every Jewish home, as it is still done today. They must eat unleavened bread. Leaven was a sign of sinfulness. Is that not very plain to us that leaven refers to something evil? In a moment, we shall return to the Lord Jesus’ teaching and see that he uses the word in exactly the same way with no exceptions whatsoever.

“Bread” always refers to believers

Let us then ask another question: What does the bread refer to? When you look at the Bible teaching of “bread”, you will notice that bread always refers to believers. There is no exception at all. Now, if we had followed the earlier parables at all, we would have observed the point. What is bread made of? Wheat! The Greek word translated as “meal” or “flour” here, in fact, refers to wheat flour. The word specifically speaks of wheat flour, which doesn’t come out in the translation. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, the Lord Jesus has already given us the clue that the wheat is referring to the believers. So when we speak of wheat flour, of course, we are talking about believers.

It really puzzles me what is happening to the commentators today. Perhaps we have to put it down to carelessness, to a lack of sense of responsibility in exposition. Again, I sound like a voice crying in the wilderness, but let any expert check the facts.

As we go through the rest of the Bible, we find the wheat, the flour, the bread consistently refer to Christians. In John 6:35, the “bread” is Christ himself: “I am the bread of life.” We by extension, being the body of Christ, are called the “bread.” 1 Corinthians 10:17 says, we, the church, are one bread, because we are the body of Christ, who is the bread of life.

If this is not clear enough yet, we find the Lord Jesus saying to Peter in Luke 22:31, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat”, or wheat flour, if you like. What does wheat represent? In every instance, it represents a believer. Never in the Bible does it refer to non-Christians. The evidence is so overwhelming.

Leaven puffs up!

Now the next thing we have to observe is this: What does leaven do in bread? When leaven becomes warm, it gives off a certain gas. It puffs up the bread. If the church were the leaven in the world, it would be saying the church really contributes nothing to the world except to puff up the world. What kind of an idea would this be?

In fact, if anyone studied it carefully, the very notion of “puff up” in the Bible always refers to arrogance, pride, evil influence. In 1Corinthians 5:2, as if hinting on the meaning of the connection between leaven and puffing up, Paul says, “you are puffed up.” [NKJ] And then in verse 7 he says, “Clean out the leaven which has puffed you up.” Now how plain can you get? Isn’t it so clear that the leaven refers to the undesirable influences of the world upon the church, that it puffs up the church, filling it with pride and arrogance?

I am sorry to say, but many times, when I look at the church, especially the behavior of the Catholic Church today, all the parading around in these ceremonial gowns, gold crosses studded with jewels, and rings of precious stones, and the like, it seems to me this really is a pic­ture of being puffed up. The church leaders have become princes of this world. The world has saturated the church, so that the church behaves like the world. Kissing the clergy’s hand, bowing to his feet and kissing his toe is all the behavior of the world. The Lord Jesus says, “Now you don’t behave like the nations of this world. In the world, the mighty ones lord it over the others. You will not be so. The greatest among you will be the servant of all” (cf. Mt. 20:25-27). I must say I have no stomach to see church leaders being carried on people’s shoulders and paraded around as though they could not walk on their own two feet. I find this really objectionable, and I speak straight from the heart. The world has puffed up the church. Now this is the Biblical teaching here. The word “puffed up” is what the leaven has done.

The kingdom of God is not hidden

The Lord Jesus and the apostles preached openly

Let us look at the word “hid”, that a woman hid in three measures of flour. Hiding indicates two things: an act of secrecy, and of covering up. That is the last thing that God does. In what sense does God hide His kingdom in the world? The kingdom of God comes with no hiding at all. The kingdom of God comes into the world in such a way that the world is quite aware of it.

First of all, what Jesus did was obvious to everybody. All Palestine could see what he was doing. He did nothing secretly. That is why when they came to arrest Jesus secretly he said, “I stand in the temple every day. I stand out in the fields and I preached, and you never touched me. I stand in the public places. I don’t hide myself. Why do you arrest me secretly in the dark?” (cf. Mt. 26:55, Lk. 22:53) Haven’t we got eyes to see that the world acts secretly, but Christ does not act secretly? He does nothing in a corner, nothing underhanded at all.

In the same way, the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:9, “we have become a spectacle to the world...” Now you don’t hide a spectacle. The whole world can see it. There is nothing hidden about that at all. In Acts 17:6, the apostles were accused of “turning the world upside down.” The world is aware of its being turned upside down. How do you hide that? That was why they tried to kill Paul. That was why they persecuted the Christians. Again, Paul says in Acts 26:26, “The things of which I preach were not done in a corner.” They were not hidden from human view. Now to talk about hiding the kingdom of God is really to miss the point entirely because God’s kingdom is not hidden at all.

The gospel is not hidden

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:3, “The gospel that we preach is not hidden. But if it is hidden, it is hidden to those who are perishing.” Why are they perishing? Is it because God wanted them to perish? Not at all! He goes on to say in verse 4, “because the god of this world has blinded their eyes so they cannot see the glory of Christ who is the image of God.” In other words, the gospel is not hidden by God. If it is hidden, it is Satan that did the hiding; he is the one who blinded the eyes of people who cannot see the glory of Christ.

Jerusalem (the city of God) does not hide itself

The Lord Jesus says in Matthew 5:14, “A city that is set upon a hill cannot be hidden.” Is the Scriptural evidence not plain enough? It is not the church hiding in the world; it is the world that is entering secretly into the church, through its pervasive secret influence. That is what we see in Jude 4, where Jude says that, “admission has been secretly gained” into the church. It is the world and the false teachers who work secretly in the church in a hidden way. The world works secretly. The church doesn’t work secretly at all. The church works openly in the world. The church doesn’t hide itself.

The church never influences in a hidden way

I would like you to notice that, to speak about hiding is to miss one important thing about the kingdom of God. The influence of the church never works in a hidden way. It always works from crisis to crisis. What do we mean by crisis? To turn the world upside down is a crisis. When you hear the gospel, it grips your heart, and you begin to feel a crisis inside of you. “Shall I turn away from sin? Shall I become a Christian? Shall I not become a Christian? Do I dare to be a Christian? If I go home, what will my family say if I become a Christian?” There is a crisis. There is nothing hidden about it. In the history of the church, the kingdom of God develops from crisis to crisis. You face a crisis immediately, when the gospel hits you, and a crisis is always obvious to anyone who sees you.

As it is with the individual, so it is with the church. If the church were hidden, it doesn’t need to be persecuted. It is persecuted! Often, the church does try to hide for a while, but it is very hard for the church ever to hide. A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden. The Romans could find them very easily. Just ask them to offer incense to Caesar, and anyone who refuses to offer incense to the idols can be picked out immediately. You cannot hide as a Christian.

We speak about “underground churches” in China. What do you mean by “underground”? I was part of the church in China. Every Communist knew that I was a Christian. How do I hide? The only way I would hide is that I would not confess the name of Yahweh God and Jesus Christ. But no Christian could do that, because we are chosen by God to witness for Him and the Christ He sent. Take my friend, the surgeon, who was baptized with me. When the Communists told him to stop witnessing to his patients, he said, “I can do no other. My Lord has commanded me to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. I have to speak forth. He that believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth shall be saved” (cf. Rom. 10:10). The very definition makes it impossible for you to hide. You cannot hide, at least not for any length of time.

Therefore the church is like the city on a hill. It shines out. Everybody can see it. To speak of the church hiding in the world, is to completely fail to understand the very nature of the church taught in the New Testament. It is very possible that the church is hiding in the world today. But we are talking about the New Testament Church that did not hide. Oh no, it stood forth glorious and fearless. As the Lord Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid of them that destroy your body” (cf. Mt. 10: 28). That kind of advice can only be given to those who are not afraid to stand up and proclaim the truth.

The church is penetrated by the world

Finally, let me close with this one point: How then does the church get penetrated by the world? We see that it is not the church hiding in the world; it is the world hiding in the church, and working inside to puff up the church, to ruin the church from the inside. That is what the Lord Jesus is warning his disciples about. He says, “I want you to be very careful about this. Watch yourselves that your heart may not be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life” (Lk. 21:34). Today, nobody preaches on that anymore. Apparently, nobody falls into temptation nowadays, and if they do fall into temptation, it doesn’t matter very much. The Lord Jesus warned, “Don’t fall into temptation. Watch out for the leaven of the world that will come stealthily into your life.”

Persecution is not the thing that causes most Christians to fall. I have seen Christians stand persecution unflinching, when thrown out of their homes, and dispossessed of an inheritance. This is no exaggeration. I had a friend who is an heir to a rubber plantation in Malaysia. He was a fellow student of mine in London. He came to the Lord and he was dispossessed. He was given the choice by his father, “Either you don’t become a Christian, and you receive an inheritance, or you become a Christian, and you won’t inherit my fortune from me.” He accepted to be dispossessed. He was thrown out of his home. He was hounded and persecuted, and he stood unflinching. But do you know what broke him in the end? Aha! The secret influences of the world are far more danger­ous, my brothers and sisters! I beg of you to understand this parable.

The Lord Jesus knew that the Christians would stand up to persecution. Most of them would not break. Some might break, but not most. I have seen them in China stand like a tree blowing in the storm, unflinching—shaken, but not broken. Even the branches are torn down, everything is blowing away, but the tree stands rooted in God.

But do you know what the world does? The world sends a little bug, a little disease that goes in through the bark working into the fibers of the tree, corrupting it from the inside, and the fungus that grows inside destroys the tree. What the mighty storms could not do, that silent, insidious influence can. I beg of you brothers and sisters, to understand this most important teaching, that we must not allow anyone to rob from us. This is what the Lord is telling us in this most important little parable. Beware of the leaven that will destroy you if you are not careful.

The leaven of the Pharisees—Hypocrisy

What then is the leaven? The Lord Jesus explains himself perfectly. I just find the Lord Jesus so wonderful. He doesn’t leave us guessing what the leaven means. In Matthew 16:6,11-12, he is warning his disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” He says to his disciples, “Yes, I am confident that you will stand through the fearful days ahead. You have stood with me in my temptations and persecutions, but I want you to be aware of that insidious influence that can destroy you from inside. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Now what is the leaven of the Pharisees? Well, he doesn’t leave us guessing either. In Luke 12:1, the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. You see, hypocrisy is not something that comes suddenly. You can shift slowly, slowly away until you become a hypocrite. Did you know that people did not start out wanting to be hypocrites? The Pharisees were not insincere people, who had the intention to be hypocrites. If you think that way, you have misunderstood the Pharisees. The Pharisees were sincere people, to begin with anyway. It is like so many Christians, who were sincere when they first committed their lives to Christ. But after a time, slowly, slowly, they start shifting away. That is why Paul says in Colossians 1:23, “not shifting away from the hope of the gospel you have heard.”

“Shifting away from the hope of the gospel” is a slow process of being moved away, maybe by the current, maybe blown by the wind. Whatever causes the shifting, you shift away slowly, imperceptibly. Hypocrisy then slowly sets in. It is the disease that kills many Christians. They start out as genuine Christians, but they slowly cool down. Then one day, they find they have become hypocrites.

Well, the church has too many hypocrites already. Hypocrites in the church! I remind you, they did not start out with the intention of being hypocrites, but imperceptibly shifted away, so that eventually, only the outward is left, the inside is gone. They honor God with their lips, but their heart is far from him. I beg of you to understand that. It is most important!

In this connection, I would like you to observe one thing. Have you noticed how leaven works? Leaven prospers only in one kind of atmo­sphere. Do you know what kind of atmosphere? Lukewarm atmosphere! All of you who have baked bread will know that. If you put leaven, or yeast, in a cold place, the leaven does nothing. If you put it in too hot a place, the leaven will be destroyed. It does not leaven anything. You did not give it the lukewarm condition that it needs to rise. You see, it must not be too hot, nor too cold.

Now that is not the way the church works. The church is never leaven. The church must be either hot or cold. As the Lord says in Revelation 3:16, “Because you are neither hot nor cold.” The church in Laodicea has been so leavened that they are neither hot nor cold! That is hypocrisy: neither hot nor cold! They have departed from their first love.

The leaven of the Sadducees—Unbelief

The second kind is the leaven of the Sadducees. What is the leaven of the Sadducees? We learn from Luke 20:27 that it is unbelief. Again, it is unbelief coming into the church. This is the fearful thing! There are plenty of unbelieving Christians. Slowly, unbelief comes into the church. How does it come? Well, you will begin to have some doubts in your mind. If you don’t deal with these doubts, the doubts grow bigger, and they slowly eat away your faith. You have questions, but you don’t know how to answer them. Gradually, you’ll have many, many questions. Un­less you know how to combat these questions, unbelief takes over slowly.

I have seen people eaten away by unbelief. They read some philosophy, they get confused by it, and then their faith starts shaking. Then, they read of this idea and that idea, and they are blown about with every wind of doctrine. Soon, their faith is eroded by unbelief. How many students of theology have I seen, who went into the seminary with the intention of serving God, and they came out shaken! Some have even been broken. It is because we have to deal with so much unbelief in the seminaries, so much unbelief in the faculty of theology. They could not survive. They did not have the spiritual depth to draw strength from God to overcome these things.

I was trained in a liberal Faculty of Divinity. I was attacked and pounded by unbelief and liberal teaching every day. But thanks be to God, it did not scathe me! Why? It’s because I know whom I have believed, and I could see that these men did not know whom they believed. On their own confession, they said they did not know. Thus the leaven of the Sadducees is unbelief.

The leaven of Herod—Self-will, Opportunism

Finally, the last kind is the leaven of Herod. The Lord Jesus leaves us in no doubt what this leaven is. Mark 8:15 mentions the leaven of Herod. What is the leaven of Herod? You will have to get a Bible dictionary and read about Herod. But I will save you the trouble, and just give you the clue. Herod is the picture of a man who is utterly self-willed. Because he is self-willed, he is worldly; and because he is self-willed, he is opportunistic. Opportunistic people are people who bend with the wind whichever way; they don’t stand up for anything. They are afraid to stand up for God and for Christ in college, because they are afraid somebody would snigger at them. They don’t want to pray when you are sitting by them, or if they are behind you. They don’t want anybody to see lest they be called a “holy Joe.” They say, “I don’t mind being Joe, but not ‘holy Joe’.” When they look at church people, they say, “Look at him, he is all religious! He has gone all funny upstairs.” They are scared of this labeling. These are opportunists. “What were you doing? Were you praying?” “Oh no! My eyes were tired. I had to rub them a bit.” They dare not pray, because they are scared of what people will think of them. They are scared people will laugh at them, saying, “Huh, nobody is a Christian these days!”

So this is the leaven of Herod; he is an opportunist. You should read the history of Herod to see how he changed sides. Oh, he is incredible! One day, he is the friend of this guy. When the next nation comes and conquers Palestine, he is their friend. He is the friend of the Romans; he is the friend of the Egyptians; he is everybody’s friend. So long as you leave him to be king of his empire, he doesn’t mind whose friend he is. If you are on the winning side, he will fight for you. But if you are on the losing side, he would push you out. He is an opportunist.

How many Christians are opportunists? They want to have the best of this world, and they want to have the best of God’s kingdom. They want to have everything. They want to have one foot in the kingdom of God, and the other in the grave, and hope that the foot in the kingdom of God will hold them when the grave opens up. What kind of Christianity is this? Opportunistic! This is the dreadful thing. And what are these Christians? They are always self-willed. They always want to do their own thing. They want to go their own way.

You see, the world works in us by influencing our will, our desires. It says, “Come on, you’ve got to stand up. Be self-willed. Do your own thing. Why do you listen to what God tells you to do? You know this is not practical nowadays. There is no use loving everybody. If you love them, they will slap you in the face. That is not the way to live in this life. This kind of Christianity is useless. It’s not practical. We have got to be practical. So be a Christian, and by all means go to church. But if anybody there slaps you, punch him twice. Give it back to him with interest. And if he is stronger than you, go and take a lesson in kung-fu and be ready to give it to him. That is wisdom!”

We want to have the best of everything, and we want to have our self-will. We say, “I like the Lord Jesus’ teaching, but sometimes, it is not very practical. So I do my own thing. I don’t mind getting baptized, so long as I can do my own thing. I’ll still be a Christian, because Christians are nice people. As long as I can do my own will, that’s fine.” So the leaven of Herod comes in. Opportunists! Worldly people!

Beware of the subtle influence of the world in your life

The Lord Jesus warns us, how the influence of the world comes into our lives. I remind you again: the subtle slow influences of the world will get you where persecution cannot break you. Let us beware. I am not afraid of persecution. None of us who came to God in China were afraid of persecution. We were expecting persecution. But what I am afraid of is the insidious influence of the world that draws your heart to the world. Just put in a little bit of self-will. “Do you know how nice the world is? Look at this tree, nice to the eye, good to the taste. Have a go at it” (cf. Gen. 3:6). Or just be lukewarm and allow a bit of shifting. Or let doubts grow in your mind to gnaw at your faith. Or be self-willed. Stand up and do your own thing. Why do you listen to what God tells you to do? Thus we are drawn away by the world. I beg of you to understand this.

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church