Misguided Optimism

Many Christians in the past misread Biblical prophecy to suit their own dream of a church marching steadily onward to total victory over heathenism and unbelief. They believed that the church would someday raise the flag of Christ over the whole world. Every nation would become a Christian nation, and every citizen of the earth would take Christ as his sovereign. According to the same optimistic scenario, Christ would return only after everyone, everywhere, was joyously waiting to receive Him.

The difficulty in this scenario is that it does not square with the actual teaching of Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture do we find a prediction that Christianity will flourish until it conquers the earth. Instead, Scripture predicts that when Jesus returns, He will find the church in a sad state, in a state characterized by weakness and decay rather than by health and progress.

The two Kingdom parables in Matthew 13 that deal particularly with the weakness of the church in its final days are the third and the fourth—the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven.

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jesus compared the church to a mustard plant beginning as a tiny seed and sprouting upward until it becomes the largest herb in the garden.

31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:

32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.

Matthew 13:31-32

Many expositors have leaped to the conclusion that this parable paints a glorious future for the church—a future of steady progress toward the goal of making all men servants of Christ. But if Jesus meant to portray the church in its last stages as something glorious, He certainly chose strange imagery. A mature mustard plant excites no one's admiration. Its growth is rank, its form ungainly. The foliage is coarse and weedy. The flowers are tiny and undecorative. The seedpods are bereft of the color or lusciousness that commends other kinds of fruit. Even the odor is unpleasant.

Jesus' picture of the church in its final stages leads us to doubt, therefore, that all will be well. Indeed, to underscore that the outward success of the church will be accompanied by spiritual decline, He says that "birds ['peteina'] of the air" will lodge in its branches. To decipher the riddle, we must accept that in His literary inventions, Jesus is a masterful craftsman. For example, when He uses the same symbol in similar contexts, He retains the same meaning. It is therefore significant that in a companion parable, the Parable of the Sower, fowls ('peteina' again) represent, literally, "the wicked" (Matt. 13:19), a term comprehending both the devil and the demonic spirits under his control. We infer that the birds in the Parable of the Mustard Seed represent "the wicked" also. Another proof of Jesus' craftsmanship is that every symbol He chooses is appropriate. The fitness of birds to symbolize spiritual beings who can fly about at great speed thus confirms our interpretation. Jesus' purpose in calling them "birds of the air" may be to connect them with "the prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2).

The birds that roost in the branches of the mustard plant show something evil infiltrating the latter-day church. No doubt they represent demons working through men of influence to introduce corruptions in doctrine and practice. Paul speaks of the false teachings that will someday creep into the church as "doctrines of devils" (1 Tim. 4:1).

We conclude that although the Parable of the Mustard Seed is, on its surface, optimistic, the actual meaning of the parable is that the church in its final stages will lapse into weakness and apostasy.

Parable of the Leaven

Although compressed into a mere twenty-four words, the Parable of the Leaven is full of prophetic teaching.

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 fourth parable must be parallel in meaning to the third, since both speak of something growing to full extent. The fourth shows a woman mixing leaven in a lump until it permeates the whole. R. C. Trench, author of Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, alleges that the spread of leaven through the lump pictures the spread of the gospel through the world (1). So interpreted, the parable supports the view that the church will eventually convert the whole world to Christ. It is not surprising to find this view in the writings of an Anglican archbishop from the Victorian era. As a loyal member of the British establishment, Trench believed that Britain and the other colonial powers would succeed in bringing all mankind within the bounds of Christian civilization. Today, when the influence of the church is rapidly dwindling, few Christians retain Trench's optimism about the future of the church.

Yet, to reach a valid interpretation of this parable, we should look not to changeable historical circumstances, but to Scripture, for Scripture explains itself. In the light of Scripture, Trench's treatment of the symbols in this parable is untenable. The woman cannot be the church. The lump cannot be the world. And the leaven cannot be the gospel.

The Leaven

Scripture always associates leaven with evil. Before celebrating Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the people of Israel were required to go through their houses and remove every trace of leaven (Ex. 12:15). This ritual depicted their need to remove sin from their lives before they sought fellowship with God. Paul says,

6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?

7 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:

8 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

Paul says again,

7 Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?

8 This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.

9 A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.

Galatians 5:7-9

Consider what leaven is. The chemical reactions that cause a lump of dough to rise are the work of minute vegetable organisms called yeast, a type of fungus. A distinctive property of all fungi is their lack of chlorophyll. As nongreen plants, they are incapable of making their own food. They must draw nourishment from other organisms, whether living or dead. Parasitic fungi—those that feed on living organisms—may cause death of the host. Saprophytic fungi—those that feed on dead organic matter, such as the wooden timbers of a house—produce decay. Yeast is a saprophytic fungus that converts bread sugars into alcohol (which disappears during baking) and carbon dioxide, a gas. Notice that the leavening effect of the yeast depends on its destruction of a nourishing and flavorful food substance. As an agent of destruction and decay, leaven is a fitting symbol for something evil.

The Lump

The lump of dough in the parable is not the world, but the church. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, the passage quoted above to illustrate the meaning of leaven, Paul compares his readers—that is, the church—to a lump purged of leaven by the death of Christ.

But if Scripture is consistent in its use of symbols, how can bread represent the church? For Christ said of Himself, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35). We must remember that Christ is joined to His church in a perfect union often described as a marriage. The church is His bride (Rev. 19:7-8). Together they are one flesh (Eph. 5:29-32). Therefore, since Jesus said, "The bread that I will give is my flesh" (John 6:51), it is not at all strange that, in Scripture, the Bride united with His flesh is also symbolized as bread. As Paul says elsewhere,

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?

17 For we [being] many are one bread, [and] one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

As we have argued elsewhere, the symbols that Scripture employs are always appropriate. The underlying thought here is that bread is the staff of life. Jesus is bread because, through His death, He is the life-giver to all who believe. The church is bread because it comprises all those who show Christ to the world and who bring the world to Christ, where they find life.

The Woman

If she is responsible for the church becoming thoroughly infected with evil, the woman in the Parable of the Leaven cannot be the church. Nor can she be anything good. Jesus Himself identifies the woman.

6 Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. . . .

12 Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

Matthew 16:6, 12

From this we understand that the woman represents all those Pharisees and Sadducees who introduce or promote false doctrine in the church. Who are the Pharisees and Sadducees? In Jesus' day, they were the leaders of Jewish religion. Although both groups sprang from a godly heritage, each had corrupted the truth and were leading people astray.

The party of the Sadducees had adopted a skepticism toward the supernatural. They accepted only the books of Moses as canonical. They disbelieved in angels, in miracles, and in a bodily resurrection. Their counterparts in the world today are the proponents of theological liberalism, a system of religious thought that casts aside the beliefs of historic Christianity. Liberalism treats the Bible as a collection of folk writings rather than as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. It regards Jesus as a good man with a spark of divinity rather than as the only Son of God. And it denies the existence of anything unrecognized by modern science. As liberal preachers and teachers spread their pernicious doctrines, they are taking the role of the woman who mixes leaven into the lump.

The Pharisees in Jesus' day were the conservative party of Jews. They not only tenaciously adhered to all the regulations in the law of Moses; they also imposed many additional regulations and duties upon themselves and their followers. But they failed to prize those virtues most desired by God: faith, justice, and mercy (Matt. 23:23). Worst of all, they failed to comprehend that a man becomes right with God not by his own works, but by divine grace in answer to his repentance (Luke 18:10-14). Modern Pharisees include all who advocate a theological system that pretends to uphold the Bible, but substitutes human merit for divine merit as the basis of salvation. We find many Pharisees among the Roman Catholics and the cultists. We find them also in the multitudes of nominal Christians who say that they believe the Bible, but also that they plan to reach heaven by observing the Golden Rule. All who teach salvation by works will stand trial as corrupters of the church.

Yet the leaven in the lump is not false doctrine only. Jesus also says,

In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

Luke 12:1

Here he omits any reference to the Sadducees, because their religion was at least honest in its unbelief. The Sadducees were vile infidels, but they were not hypocrites. The Pharisees, however, pretended to obey God's Word down to the smallest letter and slightest nuance. But, as Jesus pointed out, while they gave the Lord a tithe from their handfuls of herb pickings (Matt. 23:23), they robbed widows (Matt. 23:14) and slew the righteous (Matt. 23:35). Hypocrisy, then, is another form of the evil that will permeate the church. We see it today particularly in Pentecostal and fundamental circles. Those Christian leaders who wave a Bible before their adoring followers and then go out to commit adultery, or to cut shady financial deals, or to plot the ruin of a godly critic are spreaders of leaven. They too partake in the diabolical work of the woman.

Jesus points to yet another source of danger.

And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.

Mark 8:15

Herod stands in place of all rulers. The leaven of Herod represents any undesirable influence that secular government exerts upon the church. If the will of the state is contrary to the will of God, the church must obey God, or else it will shut souls out of the Kingdom. Herod tried to silence Christ by sending agents to intimidate Him (Luke 13:31-33). Had Christ listened to them, leaven would have crept into His ministry. Today, the church must resist many pressures from the state. The gravest threat is the persistent attempt to bring the rearing of Christian children under greater state control.

Jesus' use of a woman to depict the various forces arrayed against the purity of the church—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and Herod—might, to some readers, seem curious. But His choice of imagery is by no means arbitrary. The woman in this parable appears elsewhere in prophecy. Revelation 17 speaks of a harlot called Mystery Babylon (Rev. 17:5) who is the embodiment of false Christianity. She is the counterfeit of the Bride, the embodiment of true Christianity. Because of her faithfulness to Christ, the Bride is chaste and blameless, but the woman called Mystery Babylon, because of her traffic with other lovers, is a harlot. Through her fornication with the kings of the earth (Rev. 17:2), she has given birth to "abominations" (Rev. 17:5). The allusion here is to churchmen who use the secular arm of society, the arm of government or business, to accrue power and wealth for themselves. Their lust for unholy gain drives them to corrupt the church with false doctrine, with hypocrisy, and with concessions to the state. Hence, we see that the mother of abominations is the same as the Pharisees and Sadducees who mix leaven into the lump. For this reason Jesus pictures them as a woman.

Patterns in Church History

Leaveners have troubled the church ever since its inception. The experience of the church has followed a recurring cycle. Whenever Pharisees and Sadducees gain control of churches and Christian institutions, they introduce changes that soon cripple the work of the gospel. The innovations in doctrine may be of a superstitious or skeptical nature. The innovations in practice may loosen good standards or impose burdensome obligations. When God's people become aware of the corruptions entering into their midst, they rise up to reform the church. But generally their efforts do not begin soon enough. The reformers find that the Pharisees and Sadducees are entrenched and that the leaven is too intermixed with good dough to be purged away. God's people then have only one option, according to Scripture. They must separate themselves from a polluted Christianity. This they do, and they begin the formidable task of building new churches and institutions. After a period of struggle, God blesses their work, and they gain a large following. Soon, within a generation or two, their enterprise mushrooms into a major movement or denomination embracing many large churches. But now the positions of influence are no longer held by men who have sacrificed career and reputation for the sake of the truth. Instead, because high office in any prosperous organization attracts ambitious self-seekers, the positions of influence again fall into the hands of Pharisees and Sadducees. Leaders of this sort are skillful politicians. In every situation they calculate the safest means to the richest ends. They do not hesitate to tamper with doctrine or practice if changes would bring them greater success. They weave pretty speeches to applaud themselves and their friends as great men of God. They put on masks of piety over faces of greed and lust. Only the silly, the simple, and the naive believe them, however. And so tensions again rise in the church, and yet another struggle for Biblical righteousness and purity begins.

Besides a cyclical pattern in church history, there is also a linear trend—a trend downward toward ever greater corruption. It is this downward trend that the Parable of the Leaven particularly notices. The parable shows a woman who hides leaven in three measures of meal "till the whole was leavened." Her act is called hiding because "there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies" (2 Pet. 2:1). In other words, false teachers always disguise themselves as the true successors of Jesus. The measures are three in number because the parable conceives of the church in its role of giving nourishment and life, and in this role the church has three kinds of ministry: the prophetic ministry, which preaches and teaches truth; the priestly ministry, which obtains blessing and grace by means of intercessory prayer; and the kingly ministry, which makes all temporal arrangements necessary for the church to serve people. The leaven is described as affecting the whole lump because evil will, in fact, spread throughout the church until at last, in the days before Christ's return, it will reach everywhere. The whole church will be touched by it. It will be pervasive, like the final stages of a terminal cancer.

The unscrupulous leaders who will then dominate the church face an unspeakably gruesome punishment.

45 Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?

46 Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.

47 Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods.

48 But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming;

49 And shall begin to smite his fellowservants, and to eat and drink with the drunken;

50 The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of,

51 And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:45-51

The resurrection and judgment of most of the wicked will take place at the end of Christ's Millennial reign on the earth (Rev. 20:11-15). But Christ will not wait until the end of the Millennium to deal with men who have misused their leadership over the flock of God. The passage cited here shows that He will mete out their punishment as soon as He returns for the church. What church leader aware of this warning would dare betray his sacred trust? Only that man whose male egotism led him not just to doubt the Bible, but even to feel cocksure that the Bible could not possibly be true. Such a man never suspects that God has blinded his eyes.

Far from supporting an optimism about the future of Christianity, the Parable of the Leaven supports a frank pessimism. The church will not conquer the world. Rather, the evil world system will conquer the church. Enemies of Christ will lodge corruptions in the church that will progressively diffuse throughout the whole lump. The word "whole" quite pointedly informs us that no part of the church will escape these corruptions.


  1. Richard Chenevix Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, popular ed. (n.p., 1861; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1948), 43-44.