Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Vol. 2, No. 5 Page 2 May 2000

Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

The Parable of the Leaven

Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21

By Louis Rushmore


The Parable of the Leaven is one of the two “sandwich parables” that were mentioned in the previous lesson.  It is also one of seven kingdom parables presented by Jesus in Matthew Thirteen.

The Parable

“Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (Matthew 13:33).
The word “leaven” means “sour dough.”  It is the fermented remnant of dough from a previous incident of baking bread.
In ancient times leaven as a separate ingredient was not available as it is today.  In the leavening of bread, dough was kept over from a previous baking and inserted in the new mixture to ferment it.1
When I was a boy, my mother bought cakes (cubes) of yeast to make her bread rise.  Today, my wife buys dry yeast for the same purpose.  The bread that we commonly eat (loaf bread, sticky buns, etc.) is essentially leavened bread.  In contrast, the communion bread we eat lacks leaven or yeast and does not rise.

Jesus used leaven in this parable to emphasize similar characteristics between leaven as it affects bread dough and an object that affects the kingdom of heaven.  Similarities include: (1) A small amount affects a larger mass.  (2) The effect is gradual and constant.  (3) Growth and progress are emphasized.  (4) Small beginnings are contrasted with substantial results.  (5) The effect occurs quietly or with little notice.  (6) The object multiples itself.  (7) Ultimately, expansion is obvious.

The characteristics of leaven are further categorized by one commentator thus:

1. The inner influence.  Leaven does its work from within. . . . 2. The changing quality. . . . 3. The contagious characteristic.  Leaven works contagiously “until the whole is leavened.”2
References to leaven appear several times in both testaments of the Bible.
Leaven under the Old Covenant was never used in a metaphorical (figurative) sense, but always in the literal.  It was strictly forbidden in all offerings to the Lord by fire. . . . In any offering to be consumed by the priest and not on the altar, leaven could be used. . . . In the New Testament leaven is used in the metaphorical sense with the exception of one place.  (Matt. 6:12)  This exception is when Jesus’ disciples thought he meant literal bread when he had reference to the figurative.3
The popular view regarding this parable is that leaven here represents something good.  Herbert Lockyer, author of All The Parables Of The Bible, disagrees.  He argues that leaven always had a bad connotation among the Jews.4   That it at least often was employed respecting evil is certain.  “It is undoubtedly true, that leaven is used most frequently in Scripture as the symbol of something evil” (1 Cor. v.7; Luke xii. 1).5
In the New Testament leaven is used as a symbol of both good and evil.  The Jews identified fermentation with rottenness, and thus leaven was often used by them to refer to an evil influence.  Thus Jesus warned his disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod (Mark 8:15); and Paul on several occasions, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6; Galatians 5:9).  But leaven was likewise used by the Jews to represent a good influence.  Standing either for good or bad, leaven was a figure for any strong and pervasive influence.6
Admittedly, references to leaven in the New Testament usually refer to something evil.
“Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?  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: Therefore 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” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
Lockyer affirms that if in this parable leaven refers to something good, it is the only such citation in the Bible.7

Notwithstanding objections, the employment of the word leaven in this parable cannot be a symbol of evil.  Leaven is used in a good sense in The Parable of the Leaven.  Here the leaven is equivalent to the Word of God, which elsewhere is said to be the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11), “[t]he law of the Lord” (Psalms 19:7).  “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalms 119:11).  Otherwise known as the Gospel, it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).  As the leaven is in the dough and affects it, the Gospel in an honest heart affects it.

The leaven in this parable pertains to the growth and expansion of the kingdom in the sin-blackened world.  How we influence the world depends on how much of a godly affect the Gospel has on us.  Each Christian teaching other souls is God’s leavening plan for the expansion of the kingdom (2 Timothy 2:2, 24).

The significant factor regarding a Word-filled kingdom and the primary way it resembles the affect of leaven in dough is that it multiples itself.  The early kingdom (church) literally multiplied itself (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 9:31; 11:23-24; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20).

Commentators differ regarding whether the “woman” and the “three measures of meal” have significance.  The “three measures of meal” appear to be an ordinary allotment of flour for one batch of bread (Genesis 18:6).  Other than that, the meal is a detail of no major importance.

Likewise, the woman is largely incidental to the teaching of the parable.  The domestic circumstance of a woman baking bread is merely part of the vehicle by which Jesus taught a spiritual lesson.  Bread was a staple in the Jewish diet.  Therefore, its production was a familiar routine in their lives.

It might be observed, though, consistent with other biblical references, that like the “woman” in the parable, human instrumentality is essential to the growth of the kingdom (Acts 2:14, 37-47; 8:5, 8, 12, 26-40; 9; 22:16; 10; 11:14).  Leaven is purposely placed in the dough with hands and human agency is needed to place the Gospel in honest hearts.  Paul noted that the Gospel was deposited in “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

God determined to trust the proclamation of his saving message to preaching (1 Corinthians 1:18-21).

“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?   And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?  So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:13-17).
Preaching was prominent in the growth of the infant church or kingdom.  The mouth, hands and feet by which God sends the Gospel to the world today are the Christian’s mouth, hands and feet (Mark 16:15-16).

The words “. . . took, and hid . . .” refer to the process of placing the remnant of dough from a previous baking into new dough.  Likewise, the Gospel attained from another place (heaven), when placed in the lost world (John 1:17), makes changes in the world (Acts 3:19; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Colossians 1:13).  The spiritual kingdom, which is not from or of this world, thereby was established (John 18:36).

The words “. . . till the whole was leavened” may be viewed as a prophecy of a triumphant kingdom (Matthew 16:18).  Jesus died for the whole world (John 3:16).  Many souls respond to God’s conditional invitation for salvation (Matthew 24:14; Colossians 1:13).  Unfortunately, the majority of accountable souls will be lost (Matthew 7:13-14).  Happily, an innumerable host of souls will be rewarded with heaven (Revelation 7:9).


The Parable of the Leaven, like The Parable of the Mustard Seed discussed in the last lesson, was prophetic regarding church (kingdom) growth.  Jesus had not yet established his kingdom when he uttered these parables.


1Neil R. Lightfoot, The Parables of Jesus, Vol. I, ACU Press, p. 26.

2Ibid., pp. 26-27.

3Ben Vick, “The Parable of the Leaven,” The Parables of Our Saviour, Garfield Heights church of Christ, pp. 146-147.

4Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible, Zondervan Publishing House, pp. 190, 192.

5R.C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1990, p. 43.

6Lightfoot, p. 26.

7Lockyer, p. 192.

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