Home > Bible Study, J. C. Ryle, Matthew, S. Lewis Johnson > The Leaven in the Three Measures of Flour: Matthew 13:33

The Leaven in the Three Measures of Flour: Matthew 13:33

December 30, 2010

A recent devotional reading from John MacArthur (Life of Christ volume 1), looked at Matthew 13:33 and expanded on the verse as a positive reference to the great work of Christianity.  Since in recent years I have heard the opposite view concerning this parable (the leaven is symbolic of evil, and this refers to the growth of apostasy in the church), this prompted me to look at the passage and what has been said about it by others.  On the Grace to You site I found MacArthur’s full sermon on the verse, which expands on his positive view along with his reasons for rejecting the negative-leaven interpretation.  I checked a few other online references and found that Alexander MacLaren gave a similar interpretation.  Both men emphasize the spread of Christianity from its small beginnings (120 in Acts 1), through the centuries.  MacLaren also linked this parable to the idea of Christians being salt and light in the world, preserving and penetrating the darkness, even calling for Christians to be involved in public life.

S. Lewis Johnson held to the Scofield view, that leaven only represents evil and so this parable is in reference to the growing apostasy within the church as it approaches the last days.  Certainly this point is clear from other texts including the first parable in this section of Matthew 13, about the wheat and the tares growing alongside each other until the end.  Yet as I read Scofield’s notes for Matthew 13:33, it seemed that he was primarily rejecting a post-millennial interpretation that would have the whole world gradually conformed to Christianity and thus bringing in the golden age (the kingdom) before Christ comes.

That may have been one big error of Scofield’s day, but it seems that MacLaren and MacArthur, at least, were not arguing for such — but rather, seeing the increase and spread of Christianity throughout history, always being there as salt and light — the great spread of the gospel as described in Acts, and afterwards.  Yet, both being premillennial, they would never try to make the claims that Scofield was disputing.

I found yet a third view of this parable, from J.C. Ryle’s “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels” series.  In the treatment of Matthew 13 he omitted discussion of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, but took these up in the parallel passage in Luke 13.  J.C. Ryle took the view that:

The parable of the mustard seed is intended to show the progress of the Gospel in the WORLD.   The parable of the leaven is intended to show the progress of the Gospel in the heart of a BELIEVER.

Ryle’s approach mirrors similar comments in his other books, Practical Religion and Holiness, emphasizing sanctification, the progress in a believer’s life as he avails himself of the means of grace and grows in grace throughout his lifetime.  John Gill also points this out in his commentary of Matt. 13:33:  so the Gospel reaches the conscience, pierces the heart, enlightens the understanding, informs the judgment, raises and sets the affections on right objects, subdues the will, and brings down all towering thoughts, to the obedience of Christ, in particular persons.

From all of this discussion of one parable — with at least three different interpretations — I remember well the admonition of good hermeneutics:  never draw theological conclusions that are based solely upon parables.  (See, for instance, Dr. Reluctant’s “Parameters of Meaning, Rule 7”.)  The doctrines themselves may be found in the parables and types, but must also be supported by other, stronger, biblical texts.  In the case of Matthew 13:33, all the views mentioned here (except the postmillennial view disputed by Scofield) have biblical support elsewhere.  The “negative” view of the decline of the church throughout this age is found in the parable of the wheat and tares (one that Jesus did give the interpretation of); as well as in New Testament texts such as in Acts 20:29-30, 1 and 2 Timothy and Jude — warnings regarding false teachers who will come into the church, of people with itching ears gathering teachers to suit themselves.  The “positive” view of believers as salt and light has its support also in the Sermon on the Mount.  J.C. Ryle’s view has its support in the many exhortations in the NT epistles concerning practical Christian living, plus texts such as Philippians 1:6.

  1. Frank Schlernitzauer
    December 15, 2018 at 2:42 pm

    The understanding Scofield had is the correct one, the one that can be searched out confirmed via the scripture itself, in more ways than I will list here. It is true parables are in fact riddles, riddles can not be taken at face value. The problem with the leaven being the gospel itself in Mt 13:33 is that understanding is impossible for one simple reason, the law- it is contrary to thee law of God which defines leaven for eternity; MaCarthur and the others who make leaven the gospel their understanding is “not equal” like the lame man of Proverbs 26:7 who’s legs were not equal either- he could not walk. MaCarthur too is crippled by his leaning unto his own understanding, yet as verse 9 reveals he/they too do not recognize their spiritual hurt like the drunken man who feels no pain. The reason why is found by searching the meaning of the words here in Proverbs 26:7, & 9, the Hebrew word translated in the KJV “fools” would be better translated [the] self confident [ones].

  2. Frank Schlernitzauer
    December 15, 2018 at 9:17 pm

    It is scripturally untenable position to claim the Church will be bringing in the Kingdom, it just is not going to happen. He will do so by His own hand; just read (KJV of course), Isaiah 59:14-21, note carefully verse 16, please. Yeah I know this is OT but it is clearly talking about future as well.

  3. G jones
    October 28, 2021 at 11:26 am

    My thought seems simplistic but if the leaven was evil In verse 33 it seems like the kingdom of heaven would be described as the flour. Just sayin.

    • Frank Schlernitzauer
      November 1, 2021 at 6:50 am

      Ezekiel 17:2
      King James Version
      2 Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the house of Israel; Proverbs 26:7,9
      King James Version
      7 The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of fools.

      9 As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouths of fools.

      *Looked up Hebrew word translated fool here and it is not “nabal” but another better translated [thee] self confident (who lean unto their own understanding), which of course is a fool.

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