Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 13’

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

December 30, 2010 4 comments

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.