What is the leaven of Herod?

Jesus warned His disciples: “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod” Mk 8:15.

What does Jesus’ mean by the leaven of Herod?

The leaven of Herod is conjoined and contrasted to the leaven of the Pharisees (which is hypocrisy Lk 12:1, a rigorous religious legalism which they imposed on others but which they would not keep themselves). Herod had a different law – Roman law, which he enforced, but he did not bother with the moral law as he was personally immoral respecting marriage and murder. Thus the leaven of Herod draws attention to the bifurcation of civil (Roman) law and moral law – in our day there are people who consider themselves very upstanding people if they have not broken the law of the land, but their morality is unchristian. The leaven of Herod involves an exalting of civil law above God’s moral law. Jesus tells us to beware of this.

Thus the two forms of leaven are false religious law and false civil law – while at the same time Jesus’ use of leaven for each of them suggests a common idea: the leaven points to the principles which give shape to our lives, just as leaven aerates a loaf and gives it shape. Herod’s political leaven gave the wrong shape to one’s life, and so did the Pharisees’ religious leaven.

Leaven has a dramatic and radical effect upon dough to change its whole appearance and substance, so that the loaf is full of hot air, and it has an appearance of having more substance than it has in reality. This is the essence of hypocrisy, which respects the outward appearance and gives a person an overinflated opinion of themselves as they pontificate to others how to live their lives, giving the impression that this is how they themselves lived while in truth they did not. This applied to both the Pharisees and to Herod. They had double standards, proclaiming one thing while doing another. Paul points out the danger of this in 1Cor 8:1 and 1Cor 10:13 and its damaging effect on oneself and upon others.

There is a second idea in leaven. Scripture draws attention to the spreading and pervasive influence of leaven 1Cor 5:6 and Gal 5:9, in which texts it is applied to the evil influence of sin, as is the use of leaven in the Old Testament. Thus purging out the old leaven and the use of unleavened bread is used to illustrate sanctification from sin 1Cor 5:7, and the leavening influence of sin is compared to the effect of an evil influence upon the whole Corinthian congregation “evil communications corrupt good manners” 1Cor 15:33. However Scripture uses leaven as an illustration of sin and not as a ‘code’ for sin, because this aspect of leaven is also used in a good manner to illustrate the spread of the kingdom of heaven Mat 13:33 and Lk 13:21. The concept of enlarging with hot air to give an appearance of substance could hardly be Christ’s meaning in applying it to the kingdom of heaven. This second aspect of leaven refers to the penetrating and pervading effect of both the leaven and the kingdom of heaven.

For completeness: Mat 16:6,11,12 speaks of “the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees” or “ the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees”, thus some are of the view that the leaven of Herod is the same as the leaven of the Sadducees, suggesting that Herod was a Sadducee, and that “the leaven of Herod” is synonymous with “the leaven of the Sadducees”. This is conjecture and there is no evidence for this. Thus there may be a third topic here, the leaven of the Sadducees’ accommodation of religious law to civil law. This throws up a series of different attitudes to the law. The Pharisees’, Herod’s, and the Sadducees’.

So how is Herod’s attitude to law compared to leaven? Each concept can be applied to Herod: 1. that he had an overinflated opinion of himself, expressed in his being a law to himself in morals and justifying himself by keeping within and imposing Roman law. 2. its pervasive influence is seen in his bad example as a ruler, and in his authority as a ruler.

Civil law and politics

Politics is the art of the possible. Many people argue against Christian involvement in politics because of the Christian compromise they witness. Political compromise is seen in the broad light of day; compromise in other employments is not so visible. Is this why politics has been singled out?

Christian politics sets the civil framework within which Gospel-preaching can flourish. Non-Christian politics removed Christian teaching from schools and it is in the process of removing it from public life so that many jobs in the public sector (and eventually the private sector) will become harder and harder for Christians to hold.

Christians should make use of the freedom which democracy affords to speak up and act. Christian slaves were very limited in their public service, but Paul taught them to be good servants to their masters. However, he also told them that if they could gain their freedom, to do so, as they will be freer to serve Christ 1Cor 7:21. This has relevance to the employment situations nowadays. Christian workers, not just politicians, are being inhibited in their Christian service by their worldly paymasters, but Paul tells us to use what liberty we have to serve Christ more earnestly.

“If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may be even a worse fate, you may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”
Winston Churchill

It is because some Christians are unable to vote for the mainline political parties that they have become involved in the Christian Party to change the laws of the country that are inhibiting Christian freedom in the workplace and throughout public life. Some Christians see the vision; others do not.

Meanwhile, let us press forward towards the Saviour’s goal: “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ” Rev 11:15. May it come sooner rather than later.

29 thoughts on “What is the leaven of Herod?

  1. I’m doing an article on the significance of unleavened bread in Communion and including a section on the various aspects of the leaven of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I wondered about the leaven of Herod and found your article, which is helpful.

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  2. I’m writing an article on the significance of unleavened bread in Communion. I’m including a section on the leaven of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and wondered about the leaven of Herod. I found your article interesting. Sorry to see you have not had other comments.

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  3. Donald

    Hi Michael,
    I’m glad you found it helpful.
    No, I have not done an article on unleavened bread in Communion. In Scotland we use ordinary bread in the Lord’s Supper.

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  4. Richard Elson

    Thank you your thoughts here.

    I believe to key to underdstanding herods leaven comes from questions that arise when we read another account of the same conversation where the auther wrote “saducees” and not “herods”.
    There is something these two group share.
    What is it?
    I will not go into detail here (typing on my phone) but a study of the family of herod and the allocation of the high priest position.
    Again, in short, herodes leaven is alliance, trade offs, compromise and loyalty.
    All this, is to 1.gain control over men 2. maintain control over men and 4.increase control over men.
    The aim or motive of heroes leaven is control.
    I have found people are very passive where it comes to indentifing and resisting control.
    Most want a piece of the action.
    The saducees at the time of Jesus had been given control over who was to be allocated the position of high priest.
    That changed from time to time depending on who could do the deal.
    There had not been a properly selected high priest for 160 years.
    This was one of the points the esseences took exception to , enter John the baptist . He didn’t turn a blind eye to herods marriage arrangements.
    The Saducees did this and many other things.
    The currency of Herods leaven is loyalty, political loyalty
    cheers
    Richard

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    1. Donald

      Richard,
      I have commented briefly above on the leaven of the Sadducees. Controlling other people is an important subject; its legitimate and illegitimate bounds are rarely addressed, often abused and simply assumed.

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  5. Rev Chandra Mohan India

    Foucalt says that he who has authority decides the thinking of people. Herod, as you said, made the society to live in bitter. They and the Pharisees misused their power and lived immorally with double standards. By their lack of ethics they made the nation have no ethics.

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    1. Donald

      Thanks Chandra,

      James warns those who want to control others: ‘My brethren, do not become many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation’ Jam 3:1; see also Jam 4:1-3. The teaching role is for imparting useful information and not for controlling others. James deals with the authoritarianism which grows up in those who are in positions of authority. Instead of acting as public servants, they behave as masters. James appeals to his brethren as equals not to control each other. Those who control others will have to give an account of their behaviour.

      Jesus said: ‘every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment’ Mat 12:36. The Scripture often contradicts control freakery by those in authority. The proper role of authority is not often understood, by those who are under it and by those who exercise it.

      I heard of a teacher who began his classes by bowing to the children because he did not know how famous they would become.

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  6. I think the Lord’s message is about purity of intention and one’s loyalty. If the church leader is concerned about ‘his ministry’ and careerism, he will have divided loyalty. He will promote the purposes of civil authority more than he should. Mr. Elson has it right. Here in the USA the idolatry of ‘nation’ dovetails nicely with the regional economic or commercial purposes of the wealthy in the local congregation. One rarely hears a sermon on these ‘leaven’ warnings of Jesus. The Protestant clergy is closely tied to earthly power…even more than the Catholics. The problem is a professional priestly class that is salaried by elders who have economic interests, political sympathies, or simply immature in their walk with the Lord.

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  7. Miles Patterson

    Hi Donald,

    Just wondering if we can still view leaven in the same sense (false teaching, hypocrisy, double standards) for both the warnings Jesus gave concerning the religious and temporal leaders of His time and His parable of the Kingdom of Heaven?

    When you look at this parable in context you find before it and after it other parables that describe the Kingdom of Heaven in both a positive and a negative aspect. For example the wheat and the tares, the good fish and the bad fish. Given the line of thought perhaps Jesus is saying there will be the three measures of flour (good) mixed with the leaven (bad) in the Kingdom of Heaven on earth?

    Seeing what we see in practically every church today this is probably an honest assessment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Would you agree?

    Best regards,
    Miles

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    1. Donald

      Thanks for your thoughts, Miles.

      I have heard this interpretation, which I think is wrong for two reasons.

      1. it is grammatically wrong for it turns the sentence round. Mat 13:33 does not say ‘the kingdom of heaven is like three measures of meal into which leaven was introduced’; but rather it is ‘like leaven’.

      2. it is exegetically wrong; it operates on the principle that similes and metaphors in Scripture are ‘codes’ – in this case, leaven is always bad, so one must find an interpretation in which the leaven is bad. This point is assumed and not proven, and it cannot be proven. Metaphors are metaphors and not codes. Many metaphors have multiple meanings and are used in a multitude of ways. Fire can be used to purge and cleanse, or it can be used to destroy.

      Interpreting words and metaphors as ‘code’ having only one specific, often technical meaning, is a common exegetical mistake, which is used to misinterpret multitudes of verses of Scripture. I have begun a series of blogposts on wrong exegesis, which I hope to develop as opportunity affords. I may bring ‘Code Exegesis’ up the list of priorities, but I have effectively illustrated and explained it here.

      Every encouragement in your Bible study,
      Donald

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    1. Donald

      Hello Miles,

      I replied to your first post before reading your second one.

      The link you supply makes my point. It says:
      ‘Thus, in the New Testament leaven signifies wickedness and malice in contrast to sincerity and truth.’
      ‘because we know what leaven represents in Scripture: the corruption of sin.’
      ‘Leaven must still be negative here.’
      ‘So, then, what is leaven? In its most basic sense, it is a symbol of corruption, which has a tendency to multiply and spread like yeast.’

      Four dogmatic assertions; but assertions are not exegesis.

      Every blessing,
      Donald

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  8. K.C.

    Could the leaven of Herod not also extend to the desire to simply see a miracle for the sake of seeing a miracle or for entertainments sake? We don’t catch a good glimpse of this until Jesus is being tried and we find that he has wanted for some time to have time with Jesus to simply see the miraculous performed because of his desire to be entertained by the supernatural or mystical. I would say both the law side of what you have mentioned and also the side of seeking Christ and His supernatural power for the sake of entertainment and not to get to know Him.

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    1. Donald

      Thank you for this interesting additional thought, especially as miracles are a common topic to the present hour. There are people who are easily beguiled into believing that they are witnessing miracles whenever there is some kind of healing. Such people need to distinguish healing from miracles. There is also a tendency to call extraordinary answers to prayer ‘miracles’.

      Lk 23:8 raises the possibility that Herod’s desire to see Jesus perform a miracle was quite widely known, so that there is some mileage in this suggestion.

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  9. K.C.

    At the church I pastor we have seen about 40 instances of healing occur since last August when I arrived. Many of them on the spot answers to prayers where people have been in pain for as much as 50 years. One man, almost 80 years old, in particular had no range of motion with his arm over his shoulder with one of his arms. He had not had it since he was in high school and suffered an injury. After over 50 years of life in that way he came up for prayer, I asked him to see if he could do what he could not do. Immediately he had his range of motion back and all pain associated with it were gone. Another woman was in the hospital and they had done an angiogram that found a blockage in an artery. We prayed and she went to surgery so that they could put in a stent or a balloon. They weren’t sure which they needed, but our prayer is that God would take care of it and they would find nothing when they went back in. They found nothing and the blockage was gone with no need for doctors to do any work. I believe that some healings should just be called healings in that some things are things that would heal on their own given the appropriate amount of time, but prayer shortens the process. I have trouble when it is something so on the spot and immediate not calling these types of things miracles of healing in that it defies what we know to be scientific logic.

    K.C.

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  10. richard elson

    Hi K.C
    The point is not whether we call answers to prayer, “miracles” or not.
    The question is “Do we expect more than the facts will allow” and do we give thanks to the Father for his provision and allow the miraculous to happen.
    To be overwhelmed by the “facts” is carnal, carnal meaning “guided by your senses”.
    If we are a believer we know that often the facts lie. Facts are not the truth.
    5 loaves can feed 5000 with God, but only if you can disregard the facts.

    There is a standing accusation, “these animals are not worthy to be one with God, because they are not spiritual, if you affect their senses they will not trust in their God”
    God backed us, and incrementally over thousands of years we have expressed the nature of God out of our own mouths, by Faith.
    The knowledge of the nature of our relationship is growing.

    Herods leaven will have us supporting ourselves by our, allegiances, our leverage with men, our actions. Facts affect the egos of men who are self reliant.
    We need to repent of being self-reliant. . . repent of being the answer to all our problems. Repent from relying on our strengths.
    Faith is not confidence in your increasing ability.
    Faith is the knowledge of relationship.
    The facts have a relationship to my walk in the lord, so we must conclude where our provision comes from before the facts turn against us.
    Herod sort to control everything, he was his own solution to every challenge.
    Who will we rely on?

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  11. OLADELE SAMUEL OLUYOMI

    I love this note as it addresses the theological approach of the subject ‘leaven’ both in the Old And New Testament context. As yeast permeate a dough very fast, so it is in the case of sin in the Church. It is such a viral disease that spreads fast and penetrates the Church tissue very fast to kill it.

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  12. Molly Joshi

    Hi Donald
    Thank you for the brilliant explanation. I lead a small group in my church and needed to understand before I explained. I have printed a copy of it . since I am in a hurry didnt check for the permission. My apologies. will come back after the meeting and respond. Hope you can forgive me. Agape . molly

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