The Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven
Matthew 13:31-33, Message by Pastor Eric Chang
Today we continue our exposition in God’s Word as we do systematically week by week. But first, there are one or two points I need to conclude on from the last message concerning the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Last time, we were expounding on Mt 13:31f, a parable of considerable importance because it occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels, i.e., the first three gospels. We saw how important the picture of the seed in the Lord’s teaching is, but there were some other points we have not seen.
Here is the parable that the Lord Jesus taught:
Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
So, the Lord Jesus, as he often does, teaches by the way of a parable, perhaps pointing to a mustard plant, a mustard tree that was standing there in the field for everyone to see: “The kingdom of God can be pictured as this mustard tree. You see, it was sown as a tiny little seed, and then, look, how it has grown!” In Palestine, sometimes the mustard plant could grow to a height of eight to ten feet. That is why it is justifiably called a tree. Ten feet would be nearly twice my height and so that would be a very considerable tree growing out of this tiny little mustard seed.
A Picture of the Kingdom – A Tiny Seed Growing to a Tree
Now the Lord Jesus says if you look at this carefully, and understand it spiritually, here is a picture of the kingdom. When the kingdom is sown, it is sown into this world like a tiny seed. What do you expect from a tiny seed? You expect a tiny plant! But instead what you have is this huge plant that grows into a tree. Actually, the mustard plant is not a tree. It is a herb. It is a vegetable. But it grows to the size of a tree, so enormous does it become. It also grows with considerable speed. Thus, it is a picture of the kind of life-power that is inside this little seed to produce so huge a plant.
The Lord Jesus says that from this you can get a picture of the kingdom. As I said last time also, when you look at the Parable of the Darnel and the Wheat, when you see the mixed nature of the kingdom of God, with good and bad in it, you become somewhat discouraged. You wonder if there is still a future for the kingdom of God. And the Lord Jesus gives us this parable to say, “Well, God’s power is there. Even if the work seems small, even if the seed seems little, a great work will come forth.” How great will this work be? Well, he says that even the birds of the air will come and live in it, will make their nests in it, will dwell in the branches of this mustard plant.
A Prophetic Parable – The Great Messianic Kingdom
By using this picture, he at once directs our attention to the OT, because here he deliberately uses the language of the OT. What is the language of the OT? If you turn to Ezek 31:3-14 or Dan 4:10-12, you will notice there that the worldly kingdoms are described as great trees in which the birds of the air nest and under which the animals of the field find shade. But our reference of particular interest is Ezek 17:22-24 and the reason these verses are of particular interest to us is because this verse, in fact, refers to the Messianic kingdom, the kingdom of Christ. Ezek 17:22-24 reads
Thus says the Lord GOD: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar, and will set it out; I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it upon a high and lofty mountain; on the mountain height of Israel will I plant it (Israel then is this mountain), that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar; and under it will dwell all kinds of beasts; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I the LORD bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree….”
I would like you to particularly notice these words, “make high the low tree”. Now the mustard plant is actually, as we saw, scarcely a tree, yet it develops into a tree. He brings high the lowly things, the low tree. [Let us continue reading:]
“…dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.”
Now, as it were, with deliberate reference to bringing high the low tree in these words of the prophecy, the Lord Jesus speaks of a mustard tree, the lowest of all kinds of trees you could think of. The cedar [in v24] in fact is a mighty tree, a very powerful tree. The red cedar, for example, is a tree that has such durability that it becomes exceedingly fine wood – it has high water resistance, it can endure corruption, and so forth. But compared to a cedar, a mustard tree is really about the lowest tree you can get. It is always like this. The Lord takes the lowly things of this world and exalts them. God takes the foolish things and confounds the wise with them. It is always his principle in this way. When the Lord Jesus came into Jerusalem, he did not ride on a great Arabian charger, as many preachers have noticed; he came sitting on a donkey, the humbler form of transport. So, here we find the same thing happening. The Lord Jesus deliberately points to this reference in Ezekiel and then makes an adjustment to it, indicating the nature of the kingdom in this present time.
So, what do these birds dwelling in the branches mean? Well, if you look at these references carefully, you will see, as in Ezek 31:6, that the birds in the branches in fact refer to the great nations. Ezek 31:6 tells us that the birds and the beasts represent all the great nations of the earth. So, the parable is not left for us to guess as to its meaning. The keys are all there, provided you know the Word of God. The picture, then, is that the kingdom of God, beginning with these tiny insignificant beginnings, becomes a great power in the world, so much so that the nations come to dwell under its shade.
Now, of course, when the disciples listen to this, they had only to take it by faith. They had nothing to see. There was no great nation living under the shade of the kingdom. The kingdom was at that stage the mustard seed; it was insignificant. Nobody took too much notice of it. It did shake the people in Palestine for a time, but the world at large had not taken any notice of the kingdom of God. But we live in an age where we are eyewitnesses of the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching. He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” [Mt 24:35] We see that his words do not pass away. The disciples had to take Jesus’ words by faith. How would they know that what he says is true, that one day the great nations of the world will shelter under the branches of the kingdom of God? But we see that what he said is true. Today, the great nations of the world – that is, many of the mightiest nations – take shelter under the branches of this tree. They declare themselves to be Christian nations.
The Birds Take Advantage and Benefits From the Kingdom of God
It is quite interesting – this picture of birds. Do not forget that the eagle is constantly regarded as an emblem of the United States. The double eagle constantly appears in the German emblems, in one form or another, either double or single eagle. Thus, it is curious that many nations portray themselves in one way of another, or represent themselves, by these birds. These are the nations that have sheltered or made their dwelling place in the shade of this tree. This does not mean they are Christians in reality. Now this is very important to notice.
The mustard plant is the kingdom. The branches of that mustard plant represent the Christians. “Branches” is a common term for Christians in the Bible, as you know, in Jn 15:2, 4, 5, and so on. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We are the branches, either in the picture of the vine, or, as in Rom 11:17-24 as branches of the olive tree. In any case, whatever the tree, Christ is the main stem or the root, the foundation of that tree, and the branches are the Christians.
So, these birds are not part of the tree – they are not part of the kingdom of God – but they do shelter. They try to gain some advantage and benefits from the kingdom of God, which is another way of saying that the influence of the kingdom of God has become so powerful. The teachings of Christ have become so pervasive through the world that the nations find shelter in its teaching, in its shade, even if they do not practice that teaching. This is a prophetic parable; the Lord Jesus foretells what is going to happen.
But this is not all there is to the parable. That is not yet the end of the matter because the prophecy goes right on to the time when the kingdom of Christ will govern over the whole earth. The kingdom of Christ will rule in the world and every nation will be subject to him. This has already been prophesied in Dan 2:35, for example, in the picture of the great stone, “the stone . . . which will fill the whole earth.” And in the NT, of course, we see the same thing in Rev 11:15 where the great words of the angel declare: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of God and of his Christ.”
The Ultimate Fulfillment is Yet to Come
Now, you have to take that by faith, do you not? You have not seen it fulfilled yet, have you? But remember this: that what he said the first time was true and it was fulfilled, was it not? So it is a foolish person who does not realize that the ultimate fulfillment of these words, which are yet to come, will also be fulfilled. When Jesus comes again, “Every knee,” the Apostle Paul says in Philippians Chapter 2, “will bow to him. Every tongue shall confess him as Lord.” [vv10-11] All the nations will be gathered under his judgment. He shall judge the nations with a rod of iron. That is what the Bible warns us. Every one of us will stand, as the Apostle Paul says, before the judgment seat of Christ [2 Cor 5:10]. The first time he came as Savior; the second time he comes as Judge.
So, here we find the situation: all this prophesied in this little parable, so clearly stated in terms of OT imagery, so clear to anyone who understands the OT. There are no problems here whatsoever in understanding this parable. And the beauty of it is, that a great part of the parable has already been fulfilled. We live in the privileged position, being in the 20th century, to see it fulfilled before our eyes. But, of course, way back already in the 4th century, the Christians saw it fulfilled when the mighty Roman Empire laid down the sword before the church. That nation that no other country in the world could conquer was conquered by Christ who did not even draw a sword. This great nation under Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, declared its surrender to Christ and put the nation under the shade of the mustard tree.
That is remarkable. Since that time, we have seen nation after nation (in those days, of course, America did not exist, Germany did not exist) come to dwell in the shade of that mustard tree. It is a remarkable thing. A mustard tree – what is impressive about a mustard tree? Nothing much! There are mighty trees in the world, but the mustard tree is the one that conquers. Such is the remarkable power of God! Any person who has any eyes to see, even if he is not a Christian and does not own the Lordship of Christ, should have been able to see the remarkable march of the kingdom of God, the remarkable growth of this mustard seed that conquers without drawing a sword and the mighty nations find shelter in its shade.
Again, I would like to remind you and press this fact upon your attention, that inasmuch as what he said has already come true so remarkably to this day, let me tell you, too, his words never fail. Never fail! Those of us who have walked with the Lord Jesus know his words never fail. The day will come yet when every nation – there are some nations now that have not yet owned his Lordship – will bow under his sovereignty. “His kingdom shall rule from shore to shore,” as Wesley sang, “and on his kingdom the sun will never go down.” His kingdom rules everywhere. That day will come yet, even as what he has said so far has all come to pass.
But as I said, the disciples had nothing to see, but to listen to this with a sheer act of faith because at that time who was Jesus? Jesus was some carpenter wandering around there in Palestine, talking these enormous big words. Wow! Wow! What is this? They will say, “Who is he? The whole world is going to be subject to his kingdom? I mean, surely his hat is the wrong size! His head has gotten too big for him! He has lost his judgment. Look at the small band of people, twelve disciples, following around him. The nations’ leaders, the religious leaders, the political leaders, the social leaders – not one accepts him! And this poor man ends up dying on the cross. His kingdom? You mean, the great nations of this world are going to shelter in the shade of his tree like birds? He’s had one drink too many.”
By faith? Could it be possible his words would be true? But look! Lo and behold! Jesus’ words have never failed. He was the one who dared to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away; my words will not pass away.” This truly is the Son of God. Incredible! Who can dare to say these things in advance and be proven wrong? Let anyone try to prove him wrong. “Which of you convicts me of sin? Which of you convicts me of saying the wrong thing?” [Jn 8:46] That is the kind of thing the Lord Jesus dared to say to any person. And history has again and again justified his words! “Understand then,” he said to his disciples, “My kingdom shall go forth, not with a sword.” There have been ideologies and religions that tried to conquer with a drawn sword. We know that. Whole nations have been subjugated with the gun. Jesus does not need that. There now they are trying to hold their slaves down with the guns pointed at them for fear that the moment you relieve the pressure off them, they will all revolt. So, you have to hold them down with the gun.
Jesus does not do anything like that. He conquers all, as Napoleon saw. As Napoleon realized, he said, “I conquered with the sword. I conquered with the armies. I conquered a great part of this world, but Jesus never drew a sword.” And to this day, his kingdom has lasted thousands of years, well, over a thousand and seven or eight hundred years by the time of Napoleon. So, we find that this is truly something wonderful – the word of Christ and its fulfillment.
Every Great Movement Began With the Minority of One
Now, so we can see that the Lord Jesus gives us the encouragement. As we saw that in the previous Parable of the Darnel and Wheat, we nearly got discouraged. We thought, “Oh, if this is the case with the kingdom of God, if there is so much corruption inside the kingdom of God, what hope is left for us? What is the future of the kingdom?” The Lord says, “There is a great thing. God’s purposes will be fulfilled upon the earth. My purposes will not be defeated.” And he said, “I would like you to remember one other thing. Although the beginnings of God’s work are always small, never despise the day of small things. God will do mighty things.”
Every great work begins small. Even a non-Christian philosopher could see that – Thomas Carlyle, the British thinker, once said, “Every great movement in this world began with the minority of one.” Now, you think about that. Even the worldly man is wise and understands that. Every great movement began with the minority of one. And that is true. He had learned something from history. One Alexander the Great stood up and he conquered the world. One Caesar stood up and he conquered the world. One man! But other people brought forth ideas. Confucius conquered China with the idea of Confucianism, with a moral teaching and a type of something approaching a philosophy, though not a religion. The whole of China lived under the teaching of Confucius for years, and in many ways, to great benefit for the Chinese people. And so it goes on like this.
When it comes to the church, it has been the same thing in the history of the church. Time and again, one lonely man stood up and spoke facing the entire world. He was condemned, persecuted, despised, but because it is God’s power at work, he wins through. Is that not amazing? Take Luther. One man stood up, facing the might of the Roman Church at the time, the Holy Roman Empire. One single man! One poor unknown person called Luther! Whoever heard of him before? He stood up and spoke out with the Word of God. They say, “Can you, one man, be right and the whole Church be wrong? Did you not hear that the Pope is infallible? I mean, were you born yesterday?” But he stood up and spoke forth the truth, proclaiming the Word of God. Today, even the Catholic Church, at last, has come to realize that Luther was right in many, many respects. He was right after all, and hence, since Vatican II, there has been an attempt at reconciliation. Nobody attempts a reconciliation unless they realize that he was right in great measure. One man stood up.
Well, back in the 18th century, John Wesley stood up in the face of the corruption of the Anglican Church of the day and preached forth on holiness. One man against the whole church! He was not allowed to preach in the churches. He was not allowed even to preach in his father’s church where his father had been a minister, and he himself was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He was allowed to preach nowhere. The Church virtually condemned him to silence. He stood out in the field and preached. He stood on the street and preached because he would not be silenced. One man against the whole world! And how often he was attacked: “Wesley, what do you think you are? Do you think that you are the only man who is right and the whole Church is wrong? Who do you think you are? You are too arrogant to believe.” Everybody condemned him. He went on preaching because God was burning in his heart – his message of salvation and holiness! Today, Methodism, which Wesley proclaimed at that time, has spread throughout the world. What has happened? The Church of England today seeks reconciliation with the Methodist Church. They seek reunion with the Methodist Church. They want to be united again. Why? It is because they have to confess that the Methodists were right to a great extent. Time and again, in the history of the world, one mustard seed, one little work of God builds to a great thing. Of course, those early days are always lonely days, days when you will be persecuted, criticized, accused as Wesley was constantly, or Luther, or whoever you would like to mention of these men of God. But from that little mustard seed, there grows a mighty work of God.
So, do not always be afraid to be in the minority. Men of God speak because the fire burns in their hearts. As Luther said, “I stand here.” When he was told to recant what he had taught, on pain of excommunication, he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other. I cannot deny my conscience before God. What God has laid on my heart, I must speak. You can excommunicate me. You can exterminate me if you like. But here I stand, I can do no other.” And we are grateful that he stood, are we not? But these were the ones who had to pay the price. They had to fall into the ground and die so that there came forth a plant that brought glory to God.
The Kingdom of God Will Spread Throughout the World
So, in the same way as we saw last time, the Lord Jesus was all alone. All the leaders of the nation were against him. All types of leaders! The Bible scholars were against him, the scribes and all these people! The scribes were Bible scholars, of course. They were also called lawyers, which are Bible scholars. They are not lawyers in the modern sense of the word, but it is the OT Law. So, they say, “Can you be right and the theologians are against you? Look at this!” I think that little band of people that followed him must have had incredible courage by the grace of God. But look what has come to pass. Jesus died; he rose again! This mustard plant came forth, and look! Today, the nations shelter in its branches. Today, in Canada, in the United States, Germany, wherever you are, in a court of law, what do they produce? A Holy Bible! You swear by the Name, or the Word, of God! They all want to shelter under that mustard tree. And the day, as I say, is coming, praise God for that, when every nation will come under his rule. It is not just in this sense today, but when Jesus returns, he shall rule. Now, that you have to take by faith. But I think that if you have enough, even just common sense, you can already see what is going to happen. As what he said was true before, it will be true again. As it was prophesied that he will come the first time, so he will also come the second time. Let the scoffers scoff, but on that Day they will kneel down like everybody else and confess him as Lord.
So, what we see in this amazing parable of the Lord’s teaching is that the kingdom of God will spread throughout the world. But notice now the perfect balance of the Lord’s teaching. In case his disciples got too euphoric about it, too excited and too happy about the whole business, and say, “Hurray, my Lord is going to reign from shore to shore. The sun will never set upon the kingdom of God and we are going to reign with him.” Wow, we start getting really excited. Well, that is true, but the Lord brings in the balance and that comes in the next parable.
The Parable of the Leaven
What is the next parable? The gist of the next parable is somewhat like this. “The kingdom of God is going to spread in this age throughout the world. But let me tell you something else,” the Lord Jesus said, “the world is also going to spread into the church. Now, beware of that.” The kingdom, as it extends forth into the world, is going to result in the world also, to some extent, extending into the church. The Lord Jesus foresaw all that, too. And how true it is, as we have seen, where the church becomes worldly. The church becomes corrupted by the world in many ways: the ideas of the world, the way the world does things. So, it results in a situation which each interpenetrates the other. It becomes a mixing of the world and the church, of which the Lord Jesus warns us most seriously.
So, here we have another parable presented in one verse, one single verse, and how much the Lord Jesus can say in one verse. Most of us take a long time to say one thing, but he can say everything in one verse. This is really incredible. The only problem is that to bring out all the riches that is in that one verse, you have to say a great deal. Otherwise, you can read that verse and you see nothing. What do you see in this verse? What does this verse mean exactly?
Let us look at Mt 13:33.
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
So, the Lord Jesus says, “Can you see? Look through that window there or look into that backyard there. Do you see that woman there?” The disciples say, “Yes, we see that woman.” “Do you see that she is kneading the flour?” “Yes. Yes, we see that she is doing that.” “What is she doing? She is going to make a loaf of bread, or several loaves of bread, or maybe some cakes.” “Yes, we see that.” “Do you see what she is doing now? She takes a small lump of leaven, that is, yeast, and she puts it in the flour. And what is she doing now? Well, now she is kneading this flour, so that the yeast, the leaven – leaven is simply yeast – is going to mix in with the flour and is going to leaven the whole thing.”
Today, you have self-raising flour, that is, the leaven is already inside the flour. But in those days, of course, they did not have self-raising flour. And even in these days, many people prefer to use yeast to get better results. And so, what happens is they mix the leaven in with the flour until the whole thing is leavened. Some of us who have made bread before know what it is like. When you mix in the leaven and put it in a nice warm place, not too hot, not too cold, you will see the whole dough rising up. What is happening? It is getting filled with air – that is what is happening. It is getting puffed up and then it becomes nice and fluffy, very crumbly and soft. You have here a nice leavened loaf of bread.
The Lord Jesus is showing his disciples some great important spiritual teaching by this parable. Now, what is the spiritual teaching? There are only two basic ways in which to take this parable. So, in expounding this parable, I will start from the beginning. What are the two ways?
How to Understand the Parable of the Leaven?
Well, either it is the case that the leaven is God’s work and the bread is the world and so this becomes simply another picture of the mustard seed, that is, the church is the leaven working inside the world, the bread, and its influence spreads throughout the world. If that is the picture, of course, it is simply repeating the previous parable and really not telling us anything that we have not already learned from the previous parable. It is simply saying that the influence of the church will be pervasive in the world and the world would be completely affected in some way or another by this leaven, and so the church will spread through the world. But as I said, we have already seen that from the previous parable.
What is more, if this is what it means, it is not even as clear as the previous one because it does not really tell us what it actually means to say that the influence of the church will spread through the world. In what ways does it spread through the world? The whole picture becomes too imprecise. We are left with no real definitions. What does it mean by ‘influence of the church’? What is called ‘influence’? Is it a spiritual influence? Is it a moral influence? Is it a literal physical influence in which the church will somehow spread through the world, gaining, controlling positions in the world? Or is it a mixture of all of these? But if it is a mixture of all of these, then it is not necessarily correct; say, the spiritual influence is not all pervasive in the world. So, we have problems here because it is too vague.
The other way to take it is that the world is spreading into the church. This, I have already hinted, will be the true exposition of the matter. I have to give you the reasons; I cannot take it that you will simply accept my word for it. Even if you did accept my word for it, I would not like you to do so because I do not want you to accept the Word of God simply because I say so, but that you will know why the Scripture of God, the words of God, mean what they mean. What is the evidence for this statement?
Now, I have to tell you right from the beginning that virtually all modern commentators take the first alternative, that in fact, this is merely a repetition of the previous parable, that the church is spreading through the world. If asked for any exegetical reasons for this view, what the reasons are for this view, the reasons are fearfully unconvincing. Well, it is simply that it follows very well from the previous parable, as though that is some kind of evidence. We have seen time and again that the next parable often presents the other side of the truth of the Lord’s teaching and does not just repeat it. In fact, in the Lord’s teaching we have no parable that simply repeats the previous parable.
The second reason being given – there are only two that I have been able to find in the commentators – is as Reinecker (Fritz Reinecker, the German commentator and scholar) writes in his German commentary called Lukas. He gives the reason that it is a very comforting promise. That is not a ground for exegesis, to say, “I prefer this view because it is very comforting.”
You see, the alternative view is very uncomfortable. The alternative view is that the influence of the world is pressing into the church. Now that is, of course, very uncomfortable to think about. We do not decide on an exegesis because it is comfortable or uncomfortable. I mean what kind of reason is this? He speaks of this as a comforting promise of the development of the kingdom, but this comforting promise has already been given in the previous parable. Does he need two? Is one not enough for him? But apart from that, no single exegetical reason is given.
“Exegesis” means the exposition of the Bible. The Bible expounds itself. We do not have to come and bring in our own interpretation. We do not have to invent an interpretation for it. The Bible explains itself entirely. It is self-explanatory. You must check through how the Bible intends itself to be understood.
But here the commentators have failed to produce any reasons whatsoever. This is a very puzzling thing for me because both these views were held in the church, that is, both that the church penetrates the world and that the world penetrates the church, throughout the history of the church. But now in the 20th century, beginning actually probably in the 19th century, only one view began to predominate, thanks to certain German scholars who always seem to dominate the field of theology. Whenever a German scholar, or a group of German scholars – theologians – teach something, it is astonishing to see how meekly the British and American theologians all follow the Germans. It is really quite a remarkable thing. I have never been quite able to figure out the reason for this. You would see in theology, that every major idea is propounded by a German theologian and it is always the British, the French and the Americans who all go and follow the Germans. Now, this is very good when the Germans are right, but what if the Germans are wrong? The Germans are by no means infallible.
So, when I open the commentaries today, to my astonishment, every modern commentator follows the lead of these early German theologians, of saying that it is the first alternative; namely, that the church is spreading through the world. As I have said, that has already been told us in the previous parable, in which case, nothing new is being told us in this parable. But that is not the objection. The objection is that exegetically (and I want to show you this kind of exegesis) it cannot be sustained on the basis of Scripture. I am going to leave you, all who love the Word of God, to be the judge of this when I have presented it, what is evidently overwhelming evidence to show the facts.
But when I look at this, my heart has a sense of grief and sadness. You see, today any pastor, say, in a Chinese church – assuming they can read English; or if not, then he has to depend on a Chinese translation of an English version – will depend on the commentators. They depend upon what they regard as the experts, the commentators. They follow the commentators. Little do they know that the commentators follow each other. So, the result is that like a bunch of sheep, they all follow one another to the slaughter. When I look upon the scene, I am filled with a sense of grief. Why is it that such blindness has struck in the church? Can it be that this very parable is proving exactly what we said, that the world has penetrated the church? They do not seem to even be able to see the meaning of this parable in spite of the overwhelming clarity of the exegetical evidence, the Biblical expository evidence of this parable.
So, I ask you to concentrate for a few moments and look at the evidence of this. I can only present to you part of the overwhelming evidence of this case. And you will realize how rich is the meaning that comes out. This parable is not just repeating the previous parable in another way; that would really be adding nothing of substance to the previous parable. What it is, in fact, saying is that the world is penetrating the church with its influences, and he is cautioning his disciples to watch out for this. Now we live in a day to see how true it is that the church has been penetrated by the world. Apart from all this kind of reasonings, let us look at the evidence.
In Exegesis, We Need to Look at the Picture as a Whole
Let us look at this parable. It begins with these words: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven….” “Aha! There you are! There is the case. It is that the kingdom of heaven is the leaven that penetrates the world. Right?” That is exactly why so many commentators have gone wrong. They have not yet understood even the basic principle of expounding the parables. And I beg your indulgence and patience that when I say this, it sounds too arrogant. I assure you I am trying in no way to be arrogant, but to tell you the truth of the matter. This is simply not how a parable is expounded. The great German NT scholar, Jeremias, understood this very well. In spite of his perception of it, he failed to take up his own clue.
Jeremias has pointed this out in his standard work on parables -- a work that every scholar and every commentator who writes anything on the parables reads and depends on. In fact, when you look at many of the commentaries in the Pelican series, it is simply re-hashing what Jeremias wrote in his standard work on the parables -- that you do not read “the kingdom of heaven is like leaven…” like this: “The case with the kingdom of God is as with the case of leaven which a woman took.” It does not say the kingdom of God is like leaven, but the whole thing continues without a break right up to the end.
Now you say, “I don’t quite follow.” Let me explain it a little more clearly. If you read all the parables, you will notice this, for example, by comparing it with the foundation parables, in which the Lord Jesus has given the explanation. He says for example, “The kingdom of God is like a sower who went forth to sow. . .,” and so on and so forth. Now, does it mean that the kingdom of God is like a sower? No, it is because the sower, the Lord Jesus told us already, is he himself. So, is the kingdom of God like the wheat? No, the wheat is the harvest at the end. Or is the kingdom of God like the seed? No, the Lord Jesus says, the seed represents the Word of God. Well, does the field represent the kingdom of God then? No, the field, the Lord Jesus tells us, is the world. So, when you have seen his own explanation of the parable, you say, “Well, which one is the kingdom then?” Now, to ask the question is to miss the point. None of these represent the kingdom. The whole thing together represents the situation in the kingdom, not any one part. It is not any more correct to say, “Does this arm represent my body?” No. “Does my ear represent my body?” No. “Then what is the body if it is not the arm, not the ear?” It is the putting of all these things together, the whole thing together is the body, not just the arm or the ear. Do you see what I mean?
So, when you look at the kingdom of God, you do not read, “The kingdom of God is like a sower,” as though to say that the kingdom of God is a sower. No, no. The sower, he has already told us, is the Son of God. It is the Lord Jesus himself. Or else, if you do not understand this point, you will make a complete mess of trying to understand the parables. One moment, the kingdom of God is the Son of God, the next moment it is the leaven, the next moment it is the merchant, the next moment it is ten women. If you look at Mt 25:1, you will see the words beginning like this: “The kingdom of God is like ten maidens.” You say, “Well, I give up! What is the kingdom of God?” One moment it was Jesus himself; now suddenly it has become ten maidens!” I mean, how are you going to understand the kingdom of God? You say, “Well, I give up.” The reason you get into this confusion is that you have failed to understand a very basic principle in expounding the kingdom of God. It is that you should not assume that the first word is the answer. It says, the kingdom of God is like leaven which a woman took and put into the flour… and so on and so forth. The whole picture is involved, not just the first word.
Now, many commentators do not realize this point, and it is astonishing how poorly equipped some commentators are. I never cease to be astonished at people who have the courage to write books and commentaries. I really am amazed. They know so little and yet they try to write books. It never ceases to amaze me; their daring and audacity is astonishing. I mean, what they should do is just go humbly and learn the facts first; spend lots and lots of time learning; and then go and write a book. If you go and write a book like this, you mislead everybody.
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took….” The substance would change in no way if you say, “The kingdom of God is like a woman who took leaven and put it in the meal.” The meaning would be exactly the same. Or you could change the words around and the meaning would still be the same. You could say, “The kingdom of God is like meal which a woman took and put leaven into.” The meaning would still be the same. Do you see the point? Now this is a fundamental, simple, basic point that every exegete must understand. It is astonishing how few do. But as I said, Jeremias saw it very well. He realized that this term did not mean that the kingdom is like leaven, but the case with the kingdom of God is as the case of leaven which was taken by a woman and put into the meal. All this is clear to this scholar. So, this is the first point I would like you to notice. I have to clear the ground so that you will understand the grounds for exposition.
What Does ‘Leaven’ Mean in the Bible?
So, having dealt with that, the next question to ask is: What does ‘leaven’ mean in the Bible? It is not what I say it means, nor what I think it means, but what the Bible says that leaven means. That is exceedingly easy. The Bible has a lot to say about leaven. The moment you take out a concordance you will know. I hope that many of you who study the Bible seriously know what a concordance is. You open a concordance – you do not have to take my word for it – and look under ‘leaven’ in the NT. You will find immediately that one thing becomes clear. In the Bible, leaven always refers to something that is bad. This is a fact that every Bible dictionary can tell you.
Now, what do the commentators do? Do they not read the standard reference works? Well, astonishingly the German expositor, who is a very fine expositor in most other cases, says that in all other cases it refers to evil in the Bible, but in this case it is an exception. My question is: Why is it an exception in this case? Can you kindly tell me? What makes it an exception? You would have to produce massive evidence to make this an exception. But he produces not one case, not one evidence, not one reason for it. Nothing! It is because he has already fixed on the idea in advance. He has already let his own idea determine his exegesis. That is why every time I say to you, when you study the Bible, you must come with no preconceived idea. If you come with a preconceived idea, you are going to decide in advance what it means and you are going to try to make it mean what you want it to mean. You want to make it mean that this is the church going through the world. So, you say that is an exception. Why is it an exception? No reason given! There are no reasons to give.
Let us look at 1 Cor 5:6. Take one example here; there are too many to look at. What is more remarkable is that the word for ‘leaven’ in this passage is exactly the same word for leaven in 1 Cor. 5:6. What does Paul say here in 1 Cor 5:6? He says this to the Corinthians:
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.
Do you see the picture? He says, “You, Christians, are a loaf of bread which should not be leavened. You are really unleavened. Cleanse out the old leaven of sin in your life.” Now, if you look at 1 Corinthians Chapter 5, you will understand the context. 1 Corinthians Chapter 5 is in the context of a very serious sin in the Corinthian church where a man commits incest, that is, he has a sexual relationship with a relative of his own, in this case his mother-in-law. Now this is a dreadful situation. Paul says in utter fury with the Corinthian church, “Such a thing is disgusting even to the non-Christians, to the heathen! And you dare to commit a sin like this, to have a sin like this in the church?” He says, “I excommunicate this man. Sling him out of the church. Remove the leaven from the church. Take out this sinful influence so that it does not pollute the entire church.” Those were strong churches in those days that dared to deal hard with sin. Today, everything is hush-hush, “Well, it does not matter. Let us play it soft with sin.” Paul has no time to play soft with sin. He says, “Sling out the leaven!” That is the context.
The same thing he says in Gal 5:9; the exact same thing: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” In this context, he is speaking about the influence of false teaching in the church; in this case, the return to circumcision. Now look at the situation. In fact, in the Greek New Testament, the Greek word for ‘leaven’ is used only in this parable and in these two references I have just given. Those are the only two places outside this parable where the same Greek word is being used. Now I trust that most commentators who write books do understand a bit of Greek, but it would appear that this has nowhere crossed their observation. They have not noticed this matter.
So, now notice this: leaven in the Bible always, without fail, refers to something sinful. That is why under the OT Law, a sacrifice, say, at the Passover, could not be presented with leaven in it. Bread has to be presented as unleavened. All of you know that at the Passover feast, leaven had to be removed from every Jewish home, as it is still done today ceremonially. They must eat unleavened bread. Leaven was a sign of sinfulness. Now, is that not very plain to us that leaven refers to something evil? In a moment, we shall return to the Lord’s teaching and see that the Lord uses the word in exactly the same way with no exceptions whatsoever.
The ‘Bread’ Always Refers to Believers
Let us then ask another question: What does the bread refer to? When you look at the Bible teaching of ‘bread,’ you will notice one thing. Bread always, and again without exception, refers to believers. There is no exception at all. It always refers to believers. Now, if we had at all followed the earlier parables, we would have observed the point. What is bread made of? Wheat! The Greek word here translated ‘meal’ or ‘flour,’ in fact, refers to wheat flour. The word specifically speaks of wheat flour. That does not, of course, come out in the translation.
But now, notice the other thing. If we had looked at the first few parables, what would we have seen? In the Parable of the Seed – what seed? The sower – sowing what? He was sowing wheat. We already saw the Parable of the Wheat and Darnel. Do we learn nothing from previous parables? The Lord has already given us the clue that the wheat is referring to the believers. So, when we speak of wheat flour, of course, we are talking about believers. It really puzzles me what is happening to the commentators today. What utter carelessness! Perhaps, we have to put it down to carelessness, to a lack of sense of responsibility in exposition. Again, I sound like a voice crying in the wilderness, but let any expert check the facts.
As we go through the rest of the Bible, we find it is always consistently the same: the wheat, the flour, the bread always refer to Christians. In Jn 6:35, the ‘bread’ is Christ himself: “I am the bread of life.” We, by extension, being the body of Christ, are called the ‘bread.’ So in 1 Cor 10:17, the church is spoken of as the ‘bread’. How more obvious do you need it? How more plain than that can you get? 1 Cor 10:17 says we are one bread because we are the body of Christ who is the bread of life.
If this is not clear enough yet, we find the Lord Jesus saying to Peter in Lk 22:31, “Peter, Peter, Satan has wanted to have you, to sift you as ...” As what? As wheat! What does wheat represent? In every instance, it represents a believer. Never in the Bible does it refer to non-Christians. And that is in Lk 22:31: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat…”, or wheat flour, if you like. The evidence is so plain, so overwhelming.
Leaven Puffs Up!
Now, the next thing we have to observe is this: What does leaven do in bread? What does it contribute to the bread? It contributes nothing to the bread. What does leaven do? Leaven simply becomes hot air. When leaven becomes warm, it gives off a certain gas. It simply blows up; it puffs up the bread. If the church were the leaven in the world, it would be saying the church really contributes nothing to the world except to puff the world up. What kind of an idea would this be?
In fact, the very notion of “puff up” in the Bible, if anyone studied it carefully, always refers to arrogance, pride, evil influence. In fact, this is so plain to us. Just now, we looked at 1 Cor 5:6 where it says, “Remove the leaven.” In a few verses before that, as if hinting on the meaning of the connection between leaven and puffing up, we have 1 Cor 5:2 where Paul says, “…you are puffed up.” [NKJ] And then a few verses later, he says, “Remove the leaven,” which has puffed you up. Now how plain can you get? Is it not so obvious, so clear, that the leaven refers to the undesirable influences of the world upon the church, that it puffs up the church, filling it with pride and arrogance?
I am sorry to say, but many times when I look at the church, especially the behavior of the Catholic Church today, all the parading around in these lavish jewels and ceremonial gowns, with gold crosses studded with jewels and ruby rings and the like, it seems to me this really is a picture of being puffed up. The church has become princes of this world. It behaves like the people in the world. The world has saturated the church, so that the church behaves like the world. The whole structure, organization, behavior – each kissing the other fellow’s hand and bowing to his feet and kissing his toe and all this kind of nonsense – this whole business is the behavior of the world.
The Lord Jesus says, “Now, you don’t behave like the nations of this world. In the world, the mighty ones lord it over the others. You will not be so. The greatest among you will be the servant of all.” [Cf. Mt 20:25-26] I must say I have no stomach to see church leaders being carried on people’s shoulders and paraded around as though they could not walk on their own two feet. I find this really objectionable and I speak straight from the heart. The world has gone into the church, puffed up the church. Now, this is the Biblical teaching here. The word ‘puffed up’ is what leaven has done.
What Does ‘Hidden’ Mean in the Parable?
Now, let us look at one other word and that is the word ‘hid.’ Notice this word ‘hidden’: “…which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour.” ‘Hidden’ indicates two things: a certain act of secrecy and a certain covering up of something. That is the last thing that God does. God does not take his kingdom and hide it in the world, does he? In what sense does God hide his kingdom in the world? The kingdom of God comes with no hiding at all. In fact, when we look at this, we find that everything that is said is contrary to this matter. The kingdom of God comes into the world in such a way that the world is quite aware of it. First of all, Paul says for example, in Acts 26:26, “The things of which I preach were not done in a corner.” They were not hidden from human view. What Jesus did was obvious to everybody. All Palestine could see what he was doing. He did nothing secretly. That is why when they came to arrest Jesus secretly, he said, “Why do you arrest me in the dark? Everyday I stand in the temple. I stand out in the fields and I preached, and you never touched me. I stand in the public place. I do not hide myself. So, why do you do this thing secretly?” [Cf. Mt 26:55, Lk 22:53] Do you not see? Have we not eyes to see that the world acts secretly, but Christ does not act secretly. He does nothing in the corner, nothing underhanded at all.
In the same way, the Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 4:9, “…we have become a spectacle to the world...” Now you do not hide a spectacle. The whole world can see it. There is nothing hidden about that at all. In Acts 17:6, the apostles were accused of turning “the world upside down”. Now, how do you hide that one? What is “turning the world upside down”? It is that the world is aware of its being turned upside down. That was why they tried to kill Paul. That was why they persecuted the Christians. Now, to talk about hiding the kingdom of God is really to miss the point entirely because God’s kingdom is not hidden. It is not hidden at all.
Paul says this (Cf. 2 Cor 4:3-4), “The Gospel that we preach is not hidden. But if it is hidden, it is hidden to those who are perishing.” Why are they perishing? Is it because God wanted them to perish? Not at all! He goes on in v4 to say, “…because the god of this world has blinded their eyes so they cannot see the glory of Christ.” In other words, the Gospel is not hidden by God. If it is hidden, it is Satan that did the hiding; he is the one who blinded the eyes of people who cannot see the glory of Christ.
The Lord Jesus says in Mt 5:14, “A city that is set upon a hill cannot be hidden.” Is the Scriptural evidence not plain enough? It is not the church hiding in the world; it is the world that is entering secretly into the church, through its pervasive secret influence. That is what we see in Jude 4, where Jude says that, “admission has been secretly gained” into the church. It is the world and the false teachers who work secretly in the church in a hidden way. The world works secretly. The church does not work secretly at all. The church works openly in the world. The church does not hide itself.
To speak about hiding is to miss one important thing about the kingdom of God which I would like you to notice. The influence of the church never works in a hidden way. It works always from crisis to crisis. What do we mean by crisis? To turn the world upside down is a crisis. When you hear the Gospel, the Gospel grips your heart and you begin to feel a crisis inside of you. “Shall I turn away from sin? Shall I become a Christian? Shall I not become a Christian? Do I dare to be a Christian? If I go back home, what will my parents say? What will my family say of me that I am a Christian?” There is a crisis. There is nothing hidden about it. In the history of the church, the kingdom of God develops from crisis to crisis. Immediately, the moment the Gospel hits you, you face a crisis and a crisis is always obvious to anyone who sees you.
As it is with the individual, so it is the same thing with the church. The church is persecuted. If it were hidden, it does not need to be persecuted. It is persecuted! Many times the church does try to hide for a while, but it is very hard for the church ever to hide. A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden. The Romans could find them very easily. Just ask them to offer incense to Caesar. Anyone who refuses to offer incense to the idols can be picked out immediately. You cannot hide as a Christian.
Even in China, you speak about “underground churches”. What do you mean by “underground”? I was part of the church in China. Every Communist knew that I was a Christian. How do I hide? The only way I would hide is that I would not confess the name of Jesus. But no Christian could do that because we are commanded to witness for Christ. Take my friend the surgeon who was baptized with me. When the Communists told him to stop witnessing to his patients, he said, “I can do no other. I am under orders to witness. My Lord said to me I must proclaim this Gospel to the ends of the earth. I have to speak forth.” “He that believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth shall be saved.” [Cf. Rom 10:10] The very definition makes it impossible for you to hide. You cannot hide; at least not for any length of time. Therefore, the church is like the city on a hill. It shines out. Everybody can see it.
To speak of the church hiding in the world is completely to fail to understand the very nature of the church taught in the NT. Maybe that is what the church is doing today. Maybe it is hiding in the world; that is very possible. But we are talking about the NT church that did not hide. Oh no, no. It stood forth, glorious, fearless. As the Lord Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid of them that destroy your body.” [Cf. Mt 10: 28] Don’t be afraid! That kind of advice can only be given to those who are not afraid to stand up and proclaim the truth.
The World Has Gotten into the Church! How?
Finally, let me close with this one point. How then does the church get penetrated by the world? We see that it is not the church hiding in the world; it is the world hiding in the church and working inside to puff up the church, to ruin the church from the inside. That is what the Lord Jesus is warning his disciples about. He says, “I want you to be very careful about this. Watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation.” [Cf. Mt 26:41]
Today, nobody preaches on that anymore. Apparently, nobody falls into temptation nowadays, and if they do fall into temptation, it does not matter very much? I tell you the Lord Jesus warned, “Don’t fall into temptation.” Watch out for the leaven of the world that will come stealthily into your life. Most Christians fall not because of persecution. Persecution is not the thing that causes people to fall. I have seen Christians stand persecution unflinching: thrown out of their homes, dispossessed of a million-dollar inheritance. This is no exaggeration. I had a friend who is a son of a rubber plantation heir in Malaysia. He was a fellow student of mine in London. He came to the Lord and he was dispossessed. He was given the choice by his father, “Either you don’t become a Christian and you receive an inheritance, or you become a Christian and I dispossess you from my will. You will not inherit my fortune from me.” He accepted to be dispossessed. He was thrown out of his home. He was hounded and persecuted and he stood unflinching. But do you know what broke him in the end? Aha! The secret influences of the world! Far more dangerous, my brothers and sisters! I beg of you to understand this parable.
The Lord Jesus knew that the Christians would stand to persecution. Most of them would not break. Some might break, but not most. I have seen them in China stand like a tree blowing in the storm, unflinching – shaken, but not broken. Even the branches are torn down, everything is blowing away, but the tree stands rooted in God. But do you know what the world does? The world sends a little bug, a little disease that goes in through the bark, that works into the fibers of the tree, corrupts it from the inside to kill the tree. The fungus that grows inside destroys the tree. What the mighty storms could not do, that silent, insidious influence can do. I beg of you, brothers and sisters, to understand this most important teaching that we must not allow anyone to rob from us. This is what the Lord is telling us in this most important little parable. Beware of the leaven that will destroy you if you are not careful.
The Leaven of the Pharisees – Hypocrisy!
What then is the leaven? The Lord Jesus did not leave us in the dark about the leaven either. He explains himself perfectly. I just find the Lord Jesus so wonderful. He does not leave us guessing so that I have to guess what this means. It is all there. He says to the disciples in Mt 16:6, 11 and 12, “…beware of the leaven.” There he is, warning his disciples, “…beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” There is the leaven to watch out for. He says to his disciples, “Yes, I am confident that you will stand through the fearful days ahead. You have stood with me in my temptations and persecutions.” But he says to them, “I want you to be aware of one thing, that insidious influence that can destroy you from inside. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Now, what is the leaven of the Pharisees? Well, he doesn’t leave us guessing either. In Lk 12:1, the leaven of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. You see, hypocrisy is not something that comes suddenly. You can shift slowly, slowly away until you become a hypocrite. People did not start out wanting to be hypocrites, did you know that? The Pharisees were not insincere people who had the intention to be hypocrites. If you think that way, you have misunderstood the Pharisees. The Pharisees were sincere people, to begin with anyway. It is like so many Christians who were sincere when they first committed their lives to Christ. But after a time, slowly, slowly, they start shifting away. That is why Paul says in Col 1:23, “not shifting away from the hope of your calling.” Shifting is a slow process, moving slowly away, being moved away, maybe by the current, maybe by the flow of water, maybe blown by the wind. Whatever causes the shifting of it, you shift away slowly, imperceptibly. Hypocrisy then slowly sets in. It is the disease that kills many Christians. They start out as genuine Christians; they slowly cool down, cool down, cool down. Then one day, they find, “What happened?” They have become hypocrites. Well, the church has too many hypocrites already. Hypocrites in the church! They did not start out with the intention, I remind you, of being hypocrites, but imperceptibly shifted away, so that eventually only the outward thing is left; the inside is gone. They honor God with their lips, but their heart is far from him. I beg of you to understand that. This is so important. It is most important!
In this connection, I would like you to observe one thing. I hinted to you how leaven works. Have you noticed how leaven works? Leaven prospers only in one kind of atmosphere. Do you know what kind of atmosphere? Lukewarm atmosphere! All of you who have baked bread will know that. You take leaven and put it in a cold place and the leaven does nothing. You put it in a hot place, and if it is too hot, the leaven will be destroyed. It does not leaven anything. Some of you who make cakes in a hurry, put the leaven in, shove it into the oven and say, “Hey, it didn’t rise!” Of course, it did not rise; it was baked to death inside. It was too hot. You did not give it the lukewarm condition that it needs to rise. You see, it must not be too hot, not too cold.
Now that is not the way the church works. The church is never leaven. The church must be either hot or cold. As the Lord says in Rev 3:16, “Because you are neither hot nor cold...”. They have been so leavened – neither hot nor cold! That is hypocrisy: neither hot nor cold! They have departed from their first love.
The Leaven of the Sadducees – Unbelief
So, the second one is the leaven of the Sadducees. What is the leaven of the Sadducees? We learn from Lk 20:27 that it is unbelief. Again, it is unbelief coming into the church. This is the fearful thing. There are unbelieving Christians, plenty of them. Slowly, unbelief comes into the church. How does it come?
Well, you will begin to have some doubts in your mind. If you do not deal with these doubts, the doubts become bigger and they slowly eat away your faith. You have questions, but you do not know how to answer them, “How is this?” You have many, many questions. Slowly, the unbelief takes over, unless you know how to combat these questions.
I have seen people eaten away by unbelief. They read some philosophy, they get confused by it, and then their faith starts shaking. And then they read of this idea and that idea, and they are blown about with every wind of doctrine. Soon, their faith is eroded away by unbelief. How many students of theology have I seen who went into the seminary with the intention of serving God and they came out shaken! Some have even been broken. It is because we have to deal with so much unbelief in the seminaries, so much unbelief in the faculty of theology, for example. They could not survive. They did not have the spiritual faith, the spiritual depth to draw nourishment from God, to draw strength from him to overcome these things.
I was trained in a liberal Faculty of Divinity. I faced unbelief everyday. I was attacked and pounded by unbelief and liberal teaching everyday. But thanks be to God, it did not scratch me; it did not scathe me. Why? It is because I know whom I have believed. And I could see that these men did not know whom they believed. On their own confession, they did not know. Thus, here, the leaven of the Sadducees is unbelief.
The Leaven of Herod – Self-will, Opportunism
Now finally, in the last one, and we have to conclude here today, is the leaven of Herod. We read that in Mk 8:15, “Beware of …the leaven of Herod.” You see, the Lord Jesus leaves us in no doubt what this leaven is. Mk 8:15 mentions the leaven of Herod. What is the leaven of Herod? Well, to know that you have to get a Bible dictionary and read about Herod. But I will save you that, and just give you the clue, because I cannot go through the history of Herod now.
Herod is the picture of a man who is utterly self-willed. A man who, because he is self-willed, is worldly. And because he is self-willed, he is opportunistic. Opportunistic people are people who bend with the wind whichever way; they do not stand up for anything. They are afraid to stand up for Christ in college because they are afraid somebody would snigger at them. They do not want to pray when you are sitting by them, or if they are behind you. They do not want anybody to see lest they be called a “holy Joe.” They say, “I do not mind being Joe, but not ‘holy Joe’.” When they look at church people, they say, “Look at him, he is all religious! He has gone all funny upstairs.” Oh, they are scared. They are scared of this labeling. These are opportunists. Oh no, no! “What were you doing?” “Oh, ah, my eyes are just tired. I have to rub my eyes a bit.” “Were you praying?” “Oh no, no. It is just my eyes. My eyes are tired.” They dare not pray because they are scared of what people will think of them. They are scared. People will laugh at them, saying, “Huh, nobody is a Christian these days!”
So, this is the leaven of Herod; he is an opportunist. You should read the history of Herod to see how he changed sides. Oh, he is incredible. One day, he is the friend of this guy. When the next nation comes and conquers Palestine, he is their friend. He is the friend of the Romans; he is the friend of the Egyptians; he is everybody’s friend. So long as you leave him to be king of his empire, he does not mind whose friend he is. He will fight for you if you like, provided you are on the winning side. Anytime! If you are on the winning side, he will fight for you. But if you are on the losing side, he would push you out. He is an opportunist.
How many Christians are opportunists? They want to have the best of this world; they want to have the best of God’s kingdom; they want to have everything. They want to have one foot in the kingdom of God, and the other in the grave, and hope that the foot in the kingdom of God will hold them when the grave opens up. What kind of Christianity is this? Opportunistic! This is the dreadful thing. And what are these Christians? They are always self-willed. They always want to do their own thing. They want to go their own way. You see, the world works in their lives through the will. That is how the world works in us, by influencing our will, our desires. It says, “Come on, you’ve got to stand up. Be self-willed. Do your own thing. Why do you listen to what God tells you to do? I mean, this is not practical nowadays, you know. There is no use loving everybody. I mean, you love them; they slap you in the face. That is not the way to live in this life. This kind of Christianity is no use. It is not practical. We have got to be practical. If he slaps you in the face, you punch him twice. That is the way to do it. Give him back with interest. Ah, that is the wisdom. So, you be a Christian. By all means go to church! But if anybody there slaps you, you punch him twice. And if he is stronger than you, go and take a lesson in kung-fu. When you come out, then you are ready for it.”
We want to have both, the best of everything. We want to have our self-will. “Jesus is not practical. I like his teaching sometimes, but it is not very practical. So, I do my own thing. I don’t mind getting baptized, so long as I can do my own thing. It’s okay. I’ll still be a Christian because Christians are nice people. As long as I can do my own will, that’s fine.” So the leaven of Herod comes in. Opportunists! Worldly people!
Beware of the Subtle Influence of the World in Our Life
Well, there we have to close and we can see how the influence of the world comes into our lives. That is what the Lord Jesus warns us. I remind you again: maybe persecution will not break you, but the subtle slow influences of the world will get you where persecution cannot break you. Let us beware. I am not afraid of persecution, I tell you this. None of us who came to the Lord in China were afraid of persecution. We were expecting persecution. But what I am afraid of is the insidious influence of the world that draws your heart to the world. Just put a little bit of self-will. “Do you know how nice the world is? [Cf. Gen 3.6] Look at this tree, nice to the eye, good to the taste. Have a go at it.” Thus, we are drawn away by the world. I beg of you to understand this.
End of message
All Scriptural quotations in italics are from the Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.
(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church