When Paul quoted the well known words of this household proverb to the Corinthian and Galatian Ecclesias, all would have understood what he was saying. For millennia children had watched their mothers take a little leaven, carefully knead it into a large lump of fresh dough and then over the next few hours watch it silently work as it permeated the whole lump with its fermenting effect. This regular household chore taught very important lessons for those who were brought up under the Law.

The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread

Israel was redeemed from bondage in Egypt by the blood of a lamb without spot and blemish. This redemption was to be memorialised each year with the keeping of the Feast of Passover: “it is Yahweh’s passover”: therefore “this day shall be unto you for a memorial” (Ex 12:11,14). The antitype of this redemption is seen in the sacrifice of our Lord: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet 1:18,19). As “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” so we too must remember our redemption through him. “This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance [or as a memorial] of me” (1 Cor 11:25).

The other feature associated with the Passover was the utter exclusion of leaven from every home, both during Passover and for the week following, which was called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In leaving Egypt the lesson was dramatic and clear. They were to take none, not even a trace of the leaven used in Egypt, with them on that dramatic night when they were redeemed by Yahweh through the blood of the lamb.

The instructions regarding leaven at the Passover are emphatic: “Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread… ye shall put away leaven out of your houses… whosoever eateth leavened bread… that soul shall be cut off from Israel. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger, or born in the land. Ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread” (Ex 12:15–20).

The lesson was clear—if a person had leaven then he would be “cut off from Israel”. His actions showed that he despised the blood of the Passover Lamb and its redemption, preferring instead the corrupting leaven of Egypt.

No Sacrifice with Leaven

Never was leaven to be offered to Yahweh upon the altar. The commandment was clear: “Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread”; and again, “No meal offering, which ye shall bring unto Yahweh, shall be made with leaven: for ye shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of Yahweh made by fire” (Ex 23:18; Lev 2:11).

The meal offering indicated labour given willingly to Yahweh. How could one genuinely offer an offering permeated with corruption? It would not rise as “a sweet savour to Yahweh”. The lesson for us is stated by Paul: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service”. We must not be “conformed to this world” in any of its ways (Rom 12:1,2).

The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees

The Lord uses the lesson of leaven when instructing his disciples. The Pharisees and Sadducees had come to Jesus, tempting him. There was a very evil and corrupt influence at work in the hearts and minds of these two ultra-religious groups.

The Pharisees derived their name from a word that meant “separate ones”. Initially they had seen the declining standards of holiness in the nation and had tried to stem this tide in their own lives and that of their children. However their regulations to maintain separateness ultimately became their “religion”. God was removed from the centre of their thought and worship. They taught the commandments of men rather than those of God as they strove to maintain “separateness” which they equated with righteousness and holiness. This corrupt leaven influenced their whole religious lifestyle.

The Sadducees derived their name from the Hebrew word zadok, meaning “righteous”. However, although they went through a form of righteousness, it was as “filthy rags” before God. Theirs too was a system of “righteousness” that was a corrupt leaven. Thus Jesus warned his disciples: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees”. At first the disciples were confused but finally they understood “that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” (Matt 16:6,12). What an unusual anomaly! Here were two zealously religious groups that maintained a religious ‘holiness’ that amazed the disciples, but the Lord exposed their true motivation—theirs was a fleshlybased system of law and regulation that gratified their own pride. Both groups, while initially wishing to uphold God’s righteousness and holiness, had deluded themselves and entwined the commandments of men into their worship, finally condemning the Word made flesh who walked in their midst.

This leaven, which superimposed the commandments of men over the word of God, finally corrupted its followers into a religion of hypocrisy. Thus the Lord warned his disciples: “Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). Those regulations that were initially introduced to guard against worldly practices and so maintain an environment of holiness, finally became more important to them than the principles of Godmanifestation in their lives. Thus the Pharisee saw religion as a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ and even in prayer he justified himself, listing the strengths of what he did and didn’t do in comparison with others, and thanked God he was not like “other men… or even as this publican” who, unbeknown to him, was actually worshipping God acceptably in the same Temple!! (Luke 18:11–13). His religion was a charade played out to be “seen of men”. The Lord’s final series of scathing statements to this class must linger with us as a warning, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!…” (Matt 23).

Herod’s Leaven

The leaven of Herod was another evil that affected Jewish life. The Lord warned: “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15). The leaven of that man was fleshly immorality which corrupted his whole life and that of those around him. He took his brother Philip’s wife, conducted sensual parties with his stepdaughter dancing before his court, and finally had John the Baptist beheaded because of a foolish oath, giving in to the whim of an adulterous and murderous woman. The leaven of worldly thoughts and ways which gratifies the flesh will quickly and effectively corrupt the pure mind of the saint.

Thus the Lord warns against these two forms of leaven that can corrupt a disciple, the leaven of selfrighteousness and that of worldliness. With either form of leaven present in our lives, our sacrifice is not holy, our identification with our Passover Lamb is denied, and we will be “cut off from Israel”. With these two aspects of leaven in mind Paul uses this proverb “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” to exhort the brethren in Corinth and Galatia.

Corinth the Corrupt

On reading through Corinthians it is hard for us to understand how an ecclesia could be involved in so many problems, many of them of an immoral nature. But a little research into life in Corinth quickly exposes the root of the problem. The city was overshadowed by Mount Acrocorinth, on which was the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and licence. Her worship was conducted through 1 000 immoral priestesses, and from that shrine flowed the immoral practices which affected the people. It was like the TV towers that dominate the skyline of most cities today and pour forth their ungodly immoral influence into homes with disastrous effects. Fornication was an acceptable way of life in that city then, as it is now.

The first issue that Paul deals with is that of the man who had taken his father’s wife. The ecclesia was so desensitised to immorality that they rationalised and tolerated it. Paul then deals with their justification of fornication. It seems unbelievable that one would have to write to an ecclesia: “What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body?” With this background we now understand why he commences his answer regarding marriage: “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband”.

The corruption of Corinth had influenced some brethren to “sit at meat in the idol’s [Aphrodite’s] temple”, justifying their action by saying “an idol is nothing”!! An idol may be nothing but the prostitutes there were real. Paul reminds them from Israel’s history: “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand” (1 Cor 10:7,8). The influence of the immoral worship of Aphrodite had affected the ecclesia in many ways. Even the sisters, wishing to show their emancipation, were now imitating the bareheaded, officiating, prostitute priestesses of Aphrodite, by being actively involved in ecclesial worship with heads uncovered.

A Little Corinthian Leaven Leaveneth the Whole Lump

This then is the background to Paul’s quotation. The brother had shamelessly taken his father’s wife—a disgraceful action, but not seen as such by the ecclesia at Corinth where they gloried in their Greek culture and wisdom. Paul rebuked them: “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6). They did not understand that immorality, like leaven, permeated so much of the ecclesia.

There was only one cure. Paul takes their minds back to that first Passover: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor 5:7). All forms of immorality must be purged out of our lives. If this is not done then its destructive influence will spread through the ecclesia. Paul allows no ground for toleration here, but states: “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (v13). Just as the person with leaven at Passover was “cut off”, so Paul tells them to “put away” that person. Association with moral standards that are less than holy must never be tolerated in our private lives and certainly never allowed into the ecclesia.

Galatia and Another Gospel

Whereas the leaven in Corinth was that of immoral and worldly ways, the leaven in Galatia was that of Judaism—a leaven of legalism based on the commandments of men. This leaven was the most dangerous, and most difficult to expose and eradicate as it had all the show of purity and holiness.

The Judaiser came to Galatia with all his pious show, stock quotations and man-made traditions. He brought “another gospel”. It was a gospel of exclusiveness and separation, not of unity. It even led Peter and Barnabas on one occasion to divide an ecclesial gathering to show their “purity”, not to God, but in the eyes of others. So part of the ecclesia “dissembled”—it was a doctrine of “dissimulation” from other brethren (Gal 2:12,13). It was an evil leaven that separated them from their Gentile brethren and sisters, believing they would be defiled in the sight of God by eating with them. What a misguided view of defilement this was.

When dealing with this form of Pharisaical leaven on the occasion when his disciples had not washed their hands, the Lord said: “Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him…That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man” (Mark 7:18-20).

Such Judaistic legalism draws lines that disrupt genuine fellowship on the basis of their man-made religious regulations.

Galatia’s Legal Leaven

To the Galatians Paul writes: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal 5:1). The Galatians had “run well”, but now they were being “hindered” by Judaistic legalism; so Paul uses this proverb again, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (v9). He well knew the corrupting effect Judaism could have—he had been a zealous Pharisee himself.

Paul reminds them that the Law, the true law of God, was fulfilled in one word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (v14). However Judaism is a work of the flesh and not of the spirit. It produces the opposite effect from love, bringing bitterness— brethren are driven to “bite and devour one another” (v15). There is no allowance or toleration given‚ no appreciation of differing circumstances or customs in the lives of brethren and sisters. To the Judaiser there is only one way—his. His life before God is a continual fear of being defiled—for to such is “nothing pure” (Titus 1:14–16). May we ever be on guard from being corrupted by this form of leaven.

Our Lord’s Example

How hard it is to keep a correct balance in all things as we strive to follow our Lord. We must keep the leaven of this world’s wicked and immoral ways out of our lives at all times. Likewise we must be ever alert, never allowing that leaven of self righteousness and pride to develop.

How we marvel at the wisdom of our Lord as he manifested the Father in all his ways. Just where would we have stood at that meal in Simon the Pharisee’s house? Would we have looked aghast when the immoral woman of the street came into the house and actually touched the Lord? Would the leaven of Judaism have made us step back from the meal with Christ because the food might now be contaminated through him because she had touched him? Or could we appreciate that this contrite, weeping woman was so thankful that the Lord had delivered her from that leaven that had led her into immoral and sinful ways. Would we realise that “she loved much” and therefore received the response from the Lord: “Thy sins are forgiven…thy faith hath saved thee”. She was accepted not by law but by her faith and love for her Lord. Or would we, like Simon the Pharisee, have to be told that this Jewess, who had deviated from God’s moral ways, actually had her sins forgiven through her “faith which worketh by love”? (Luke 7:36–50)

Let us thoroughly “purge out therefore the old leaven” in all its forms. And then “let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”, fully appreciating the redemption we have received in Jesus Christ our Lord.