“On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses” (Exodus 12:15 ESV).
The leaven had special significance for the Israelites. They were commanded to remove all leaven from their homes before celebrating the Passover, and eat only unleavened bread for 7 days. The celebration was called the ‘Feast of the Unleavened Bread’.
Now leaven is added to flour to raise bread, and to give it softness and texture. None of us particularly enjoy eating unleavened bread on a daily basis. Yet, there was an important lesson for the Israelites, and now for us to learn – the need to serve God in purity, simplicity and truth.
How does leaven work? “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”(1 Corinthians 5:6 ESV). The tiniest bit added to flour works its way through the whole batch of dough or cake mix, puffing it up and transforming its nature. Sin works in a similar way – a tiny bit once allowed in, quietly begins its work on a person’s life. It invades and transforms his character, and its pervasive influence can sometimes be very difficult to eradicate. The final product is totally different to a similar batch that was untouched by yeast.
We have been taught to present our bodies as living sacrifices. Sin of any kind defiles the sacrifice – making it unclean and abhorrent in His eyes. So we are commanded to first get rid of the leaven. In particular, the scripture talks of certain types of ‘uncleanness’ that can have a pernicious effect on our character and Christian witness.
Jesus said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:11 ESV).
Now the Pharisees and Sadduccees were religious parties within the contemporary Jewish society; they held dramatically opposing views about the scripture and about the types of lifestyle and service that would be acceptable to God.
The Pharisees saw themselves as custodians of the Mosaic Law and tradition; their apparent concern was to maintain the integrity of its application within the Jewish community. Yet, how they erred! They would take simple laws like ‘resting on the Sabbath’ or ‘not cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk’, and add numerous sub-sections of laws and regulations. How far you were allowed to walk on the Sabbath and what loads you were allowed to carry – became exceedingly important. Having made the application of the laws so tortuous and restrictive, they then tried to find loopholes to escape some of the burdensome restrictions. The final result was detached from both the spirit and the simplicity of the original law.
What motivated them to do this? Paul, once a Pharisee himself explained their motives, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Romans 10:2-3 ESV). The result was self-righteousness, taking pride in the flesh and good works. Every stroke of every letter of their man made laws and interpretations mattered more than the Giver of the Law. Much of their good deeds were performed for the ‘eyes of men’ – and the benefits included public applause, honour and a high standing within their community.
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:2-3 ESV).
When Christ finally appeared, they could not recognise Him; being so blinded by their own self-imposed outward requirements that His words sounded like heresy to them. Every sign in the scripture pointing to the Messiah’s coming had to be interpreted through the lens of their own prejudices. They reacted angrily and were murderous in their rage. They separated themselves and whole generations of their followers from their long awaited deliverance.
Paul, formerly a Pharisee, understood the dangers of their teaching. People who practise such legalistic self-denial and austerity may seem righteous and respectable to outsiders. Yet, they are so caged in by their artificially manufactured righteousness, that they can no longer receive the true righteousness which comes from Christ. Their hearts are weighed down and burdened, that they find it almost impossible to love God whom they wrongly presume to be the giver of these rules and therefore, an oppressive taskmaster. Their souls are enslaved and separated from God; they unknowingly worship a caricature of Him.
When Christ comes in to dwell in our hearts and spirits, He sets us free and transforms our nature by His indwelling presence. His Spirit comes to fill our lives, change our character and perfect the quality of our service. We will then be able to offer up our works as sacrifices, fit and pleasing to the Living God. In contrast, a pharisaical adherence to legal duties and outward conformity to external ‘Christian’ norms, can separate us from Christ. Our works and service – without the Spirit – could end up like Cain’s sacrifice with which ‘God was not pleased’.
Paul was alarmed to see pharisaical legalism creeping into the Galatian church. From the simplicity of their belief in Christ and their confidence in being justified through faith in Him, they had moved to a lifestyle of legalistic duties, giving importance to all sorts of rules about what they ate or drank, special days, and so on. Paul’s grief is evident in his rebuke to them, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1 ESV). “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:7-9 ESV)
Paul reminds them that they were children of promise, called to freedom, and to lives transformed by grace. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). He understood that part of their reason for submitting to this form of slavery was a laudable zeal to defeat the flesh; but he taught them that in Christ there was a better, more effective way. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV). Walk by the Spirit. Keep in step with the Spirit. Live by the Spirit. A Spirit led life is a powerful life; it is also a prayerful life, and it is a life lived under God’s favour. But there is more. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 ESV). By serving one another in love, we fulfil the demands of the law.
Through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.(Galatians 5:5-6 ESV)
Today, let us watch ourselves, to see if we have been contaminated by the yeast of the Pharisees. The best evidence for this is a tendency to judge other Christians harshly for their lack of holiness or seriousness about the things of God. We must make every effort to eradicate this leaven from our lives. Let us embrace Christ once again, putting no confidence in the flesh. Let Him be the transformative agency in our lives, not our own works.
Father, thank You for setting us free from captivity to the flesh and leading us into the wonderful freedom in Jesus Christ. Help us to stand in this freedom, and be led by the Spirit of Christ. Let our lives be pleasing to You now and always. In Jesus’ name.