What does Leaven mean in the Bible?

Scripture Reading

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. All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.

Matt. 13. 33-35

I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.

Matt. 13:35b

Parable Unexplained

In this study on what leaven means in the Bible, there are certain parables shared by Jesus that for some reason were not explained by him as he did with many others. This has led to much interpretation and conjecture over time in man’s attempt to further understand and expound upon these parables. Since it is not the intention of this Bible study to offer subjective interpretation of unexplained parables, the focus will therefore be on the pivotal word Jesus used in this parable and that is the word leaven.

Leaven Defined

Leaven is only mentioned eleven times in the New Testament. Meal, or flour, is only mentioned twice in the New Testament, specifically in this parable. Leaven or as it is more commonly known today is yeast and this is used in the fermenting process of flour to make the dough rise or leaven it up so to speak. For anyone who has made bread without yeast such as bannock, it makes for a rather flat, somewhat hard, unleavened food product. Unleavened bread was actually the first time leaven was noted in the scriptures from Ex. 12:15. Leaven is what makes bread have those wonderful air bubbles throughout it giving it a lighter, more fluffier composition. This is only one of the meanings of what leaven means in the Bible.

Figurative Leaven

But that aside, Jesus used the word leaven on other occasions and at times even with connotations of evil works among religious leaders. Take for example his comments, “Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” [Matt. 16:6]  One only has to read through any of the four gospel accounts to see the pervasive and adversarial influence the Pharisees and Sadducees exerted upon Jesus during his preaching, teaching and healing ministries.

Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

Matt. 16:6b

Despite this teaching from Jesus, his disciples incorrectly thought he was referring to the premise of not having brought enough bread to eat. Jesus however was quick to remind them that this was the wrong interpretation of his comments since he was able to make bread if necessary through miraculous works such as when he fed five thousand people from a mere five loaves with leftover bread in baskets!

Evil Leaven

After explaining this to his disciples, then they understood the figurative use of the word leaven was standing for something else, “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.” [Matt. 16:12] The point he was making was the doctrinal teaching of the Pharisees was wrong and hypocritical. This discussion was also recorded in Mark 8:15 and Luke 12:1, further corroborating the message and witness of the disciples.

In another instance, the apostle Paul used the word leaven to describe habits and patterns of the old sinful nature among people. He wrote to the believers in the church at Corinth since it was commonly known among them that immoral acts were taking place in their midst. Rather than being ashamed and repentant over them they were boastful of them! This is why Paul admonished them by saying, “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.” [1 Cor. 5:6-7a] Interestingly, Paul used this same example in his letter to the church of the Galatians, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” [Gal. 5:9]

Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?

1 Cor. 5:7a

In this case, Paul uses the word leaven to describe the old ways of sin and that unless it is purged out from us it will leaven our whole nature and way of thinking as in leaveneth the whole lump. Who would have thought that such profound and impactful teaching on what leaven means in the Bible could come from simple examples from the kitchen and bake shop! With this, let us continue on to learn about other ways on what leaven means in the Bible.

Godly Leaven

Paul continues in this regard by identifying the need that Christian doctrine, beliefs and works should not be with the old sinful ways but rather through Christ who was sacrificed for us, “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 Cor. 5:7b-8] Here, worthy traits and behaviors of sincerity and truth are described figuratively with the word leaven and are indicative of filling the whole person with godly character.

So, while these parables may seem quite simple on the surface, they have correlation to many deep truths on Christian living and faith in Jesus. This is why Jesus ended this passage of teaching to his disciples with the very thought provoking comment, “I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” [Matt. 13:35] Clearly, the disciples were hearing some very original methods of teaching and wisdom from the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Leaven in your Life

To close off this Bible study on what does leaven mean in the Bible, let us ask the question, how does this apply to seekers of faith and Christians? Are there parts of your life that are acting as leaven upon your thoughts, words and deeds? Are these perhaps considered to be so small from your perspective but in reality they fall under the category of the phrase, a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? What we may deem as small or insignificant could be having deeper and more broader repercussions in our walk of faith than we know and perhaps Jesus is using this parable to bring them to the surface.

Therefore let us keep the feast… with the unleavened [bread] of sincerity and truth.

1 Cor. 5:7-8

The apostle Paul once wrote to instruct disciples to examine themselves in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5-10). This can often lead to the need for the importance of repentance and forgiveness of sins.  Paul instructed people to do no evil but to do that which is honest. As he concluded his writings, and noted that if he were speaking to believers in person he would use sharpness to get his point across to them more bluntly.

Therefore in conclusion, let us also follow Paul’s writings in this regard to rid ourselves of the old and unwanted leaven where he instructs us, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to [fulfil] the lusts [thereof.” [Rom. 13:12-14] This dear reader is the good leaven that should leaven the whole lump or whole mind, body, soul and spirit. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and depart from the iniquity of the old leaven in your life today.

Bible Study Questions

  1. In this study on what does leaven mean in the Bible, why do you think Jesus often spoke to the people in parables?
  2. Why did Jesus warn the people about the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees?
  3. Explain what it means when the scriptures say, a little leaven can leaven the whole lump?
  4. Can you name two godly examples of good leaven for your faith life?
  5. Conviction over having evil leaven in your life can lead to repentance and forgiveness of sins, true or false?
  6. What is one thing you can do today to remove old leaven from your walk of faith?
  7. Is there someone you can share this message of faith and hope with today?

WORD GUIDE – *(leaven – yeast) * (meal – dough) * (spake – spoke) * (bade – to speak or tell) * (chambering – archaic for sleeping around) * (wantonness – filthy, lustfulness) * (strife – quarrels) * (flesh – the body)

Helpful Resources


You cannot copy content of this page