The Greek noun zymē refers to leaven or sourdough, something fermented that was used in making bread. It required time to fulfill the process, so unleavened cakes were used when food was required at short notice (Genesis 18:6; 19:3; Exodus 12:8). The Israelites were forbidden to use leaven for seven days at the time of Passover, that they might be reminded that the Lord brought them out of Egypt “in haste” (Deuteronomy 16:3). The unleavened bread, insipid in taste, also reminded them of their afflictions and of the need for self-judgment, and as such is called “the bread of affliction.” Leaven was forbidden in all offerings to the Lord by fire (Leviticus 2:11; 6:17); it was utterly inconsistent in offerings that typified the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, being produced from corruption and spreading through whatever it is mixed with—thus symbolizing the pervasive character of evil.

In the New Testament, leaven is used metaphorically of corrupt doctrine (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21), as well as of error mixed with the truth (Matthew 16:6, 11; Mark 8:15). The history of Christendom confirms the fact that the pure meal of the doctrine of Christ has been adulterated with error. It is also used of corrupt practices (Mark 8:15; 1 Corinthians 5:7).


Yeast is an important ingredient in baking because it causes baked goods to “rise,” transforming a dense, flat mass into the light and fluffy baked goods that most people prefer. Things made with yeast taste better, look better, even smell better—in short, yeast appeals to our senses. It works through a process of fermentation: the living organisms in the yeast devour the sugars in the dough, give off gas that causes the dough to rise, then die, allowing the dough to set. This is what Vine referred to above as being “produced from corruption,” because the leavening process involves death and decay.

It is no coincidence that the New Testament uses it as a metaphor for sin. Sinful behavior has a tendency to spread from one person to the next, to the extent that one person’s disobedience can corrupt an entire body of believers (1 Corinthians 5:6). The same danger holds true for false doctrine, which can become widespread and lead many astray (Matthew 16:6–12). Such corruption grows out of feeding our fleshly desires, just as yeast appeals to our fleshly senses. In this metaphorical sense, God’s people are called to purge out the leaven from our lives and become like “unleavened bread,” leading lives that are free of the world’s corruptions. “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 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 Corinthians 5:7–8).

[Taken from Reflections on Words of the New Testament by W. E. Vine and Gregory C. Benoit (Thomas Nelson, 2011).]


  One Response to ““Leaven” as Used in the New Testament”

  1. I clicked on this bc I’ve thought for some time that is is ironic that we use leavened bread to symbolize the body of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Now I’m just prayerfully considering a more weighty issue: how I need to prayerfully purge out my own leaven, that I don’t corrupt my circle of influence. Thanks for a timely reminder.

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