Jesus gave four categories of people in the Parable of the Sower. Some seeds landed by the wayside and birds of the air devoured them. Other seeds fell on stony places with little soil. They came up quickly but then died in the heat. Then there were the seeds that fell among thorns and failed to produce, because the weeds choked them. Finally, we read about the seeds that fell on good ground. These produced well, with crops of varying size (Matthew 13:3–8). Jesus later gave the spiritual significance, showing that different people respond differently to the message of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13:18–23).
Similarly, four categories of people will read this article—but I will get back to that later. Let me first address the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread. These Festivals and High Days are special times for the people of God, and we look forward to them for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are physical and some are spiritual. The emphasis should be on the latter.
Ministers often sense a greater level of inspiration for sermons given on these specially ordained High Days. When several congregations meet together, more voices sing out with greater power, making the occasion joyous as we praise our Creator. Youth look forward to seeing their friends that they may not have seen for some time, and each year we take note of personal and collective growth in our understanding of these days, and in overcoming sins.
While some stick with peanut butter and Matzos, others branch out to create special breads that become family favorites. Husbands and children eagerly open their lunch boxes to see what special treats are inside. Unconverted husbands are sometimes more accepting of the Festival when wives make creative special unleavened meals during this time. Yes, we look forward to these days for both spiritual and physical reasons.
One physical task that we may not find so pleasant is obeying the command to put leaven out of our homes (Exodus 12:15). Some go to extremes, spending days in what becomes spring cleaning in the northern hemisphere, and I suppose, fall cleaning south of the equator. Others barely give it a lick and a promise, taking a very casual approach toward the task.
Wisdom of Age
Those of us who have been in the Church of God for 50 or more years have a unique perspective on deleavening. We have seen ministers, members and the Church as a whole sometimes fall into opposite ditches. Growth is a process, and we can, perhaps, have a few laughs along the way, such as the year I destroyed two toasters during the deleavening process. However, we also saw on more than one occasion where God's instructions were watered down.
We all appreciate a clean house, but we must never forget that the purpose of this cleaning is to identify and remove leaven, and it is important that each member of the family take part in this process. Both removing leaven and avoiding eating leaven during this time provide valuable insights into our sinful nature.
Occasionally, some well-meaning speaker reads from Clarke's Commentary on Exodus 12:19, where it says, "To meet the letter of this precept in the fullest manner possible, the Jews, on the eve of this festival, institute the most rigorous search through every part of their houses, not only removing all leavened bread, but sweeping every part clean, that no crumb of bread shall be left that had any leaven in it. And so strict were they in the observance of the letter of this law, that if even a mouse was seen to run across the floor with a crumb of bread in its mouth, they considered the whole house as polluted, and began their purification afresh" (Clarke, Adam. Clarke's Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 354).
What are the odds of a mouse running across the floor with a piece of bread in his mouth on the eve of this festival? Actually, not as remote as you might think, based on my experience. Twice while living in Canada, we had a bird or a squirrel leave bread on our front porch right before or during the Days of Unleavened Bread, and they were more like chunks of bread than crumbs! As trite as it sounds, you can't make this up! At least they were on the porch instead of in the house. The timing was remarkable, as neither my wife nor I ever remember such a thing happening at any other time of the year. Maybe it was a kind Jewish neighbor disposing of leavening where wildlife could get to it. It seems to me that God has a sense of humor.
We stopped buying cookies from Girl Scouts (or, in Canada, Girl Guides) many years ago, because no matter how the Holy Days fell each year, the leavened cookies always seemed to arrive in the middle of the Feast. And have you ever noticed that it is during the Days of Unleavened Bread that the neighbor brings over a freshly baked cake?
Jesus corrected the Jews for their oppressive interpretations of the law. He is to be our guide, not the Jewish custom described in Clarke's Commentary. There is something about human nature that exalts physical activity over activity of the heart. Some, who once understood the truth, have joined Messianic Jewish groups that focus on the physical rather than the spiritual: prayer shawls, circumcision, certain kinds of dress, and other customs and rituals.
There were also times when we heard comments that downplayed the need to deleaven. Such comments usually preceded or accompanied times of apostasy. How easy it is to make fun of or ridicule deleavening practices, and while some take deleavening to extremes that God never intended, but some of us have been around long enough to attest to the fact that when deleavening is abandoned, other apostasies follow. God clearly instructed Israel, "For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land" (Exodus 12:19).
Some claim this is only for Israel, but we are, through the Holy Spirit in us, children of Abraham and spiritual Israel (Romans 2:28–29; Galatians 3:26–29). We keep the Feast as Paul commanded the Gentile Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:7–8): "Therefore let us keep the feast…." Paul then explains the symbolism of leaven in this context: "…not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
Malice involves the thought process of an evil heart. Wickedness refers to wrong actions. These are to be replaced with a sincere heart and righteous behavior. Truth is described in 1 John 1:6 as something we practice. In other words, truth is more than academic. It is the way we act, what we do. So, we are to change in mind and in actions.
Verified by Historical Records
The early Church of God put the physical leaven out of their homes. This is confirmed in a passage from Eusebius over the Quartodeciman controversy—the proper day to celebrate Passover. The Church of God in Asia Minor continued to follow the example of keeping the Passover on the 14th day of the first month in the sacred calendar. Quarto decimo is Latin for "fourteenth." The burgeoning counterfeit church substituted the pagan celebration of Easter for Passover. Eusebius shows us that Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, was at odds with Anicetus, a Roman bishop. Polycarp's disciple, Polycrates, also disputed with Victor of Rome over the same question.
Eusebius describes the controversy between Polycarp and Anicetus as follows: "For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John, the disciple of the Lord, and the other Apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he [Anicetus] said that he ought to follow the customs of the elders who had preceded him" (Ayer, Joseph C. A Source Book for Ancient Church History, p. 164). How interesting! Even Eusebius points out that Polycarp was following the Apostles of Christ, and that Anicetus was following a different set of spiritual leaders!
Polycrates followed Polycarp as leader in Asia Minor and addressed Victor as follows: "We observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking anything away. For in Asia, also, great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord's coming, when He shall come with glory from heaven and shall seek out all the saints…" (ibid., p. 162).
Note these points from this passage. Polycarp did not add to or take away from Scripture, death was like a sleep, the sleeping dead are resurrected at Christ's coming, and saints are true Christians, not individuals "sainted" by men.
Eusebius tells us that Polycrates named those he followed: "Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep at Hierapolis, and his two aged virgin daughters and his other daughter… moreover, John, who reclined on the Lord's bosom … and, further, Polycarp of Smyrna, both a bishop and a martyr…. All these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover, according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I, Polycrates, do the same, the least of you all, according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven; I, therefore, am not affrighted by terrifying words" (ibid., pp. 162–163).
Does Our Approach Reflect God's Mind?
Balance is difficult for human beings—that's us. As one minister once pointed out, the only time we are in the middle of the road is when we are on our way to the ditch on the other side! The emphasis must be on spiritual deleavening.
We should take time each year for fasting and introspection, praying as Jeremiah did: "O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps. O Lord, correct me, but with justice; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing" (Jeremiah 10:23–24).
Pray for a tender heart that you might learn the less painful way, knowing that God loves you and that any correction He gives will only be for your ultimate good. As Paul instructs, "For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world" (1 Corinthians 11:31–32).
Consider the similarities between sin and leaven as you put it out of your home. Tackle the areas of the home where it is most likely to be found, such as the kitchen and dining rooms. You will never get every crumb out, nor should you be so focused on the physical that you have no time for the spiritual. Teach Johnny and Mary to clean their own rooms. Dad, do your part. Don't leave it to your wife to do it all. Avoid extremes, such as going through the cuffs and pockets of all your clothes. Could a crumb be in one? Possibly, but is that the approach God is truly asking of us?
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that four types of people will read this. The first are those who do little deleavening and who will take this message to mean that they are doing too much. That is what they want to hear, because they want to be justified in doing less. The second category is those who go overboard and sweep the whole house if the unlikely mouse runs across the kitchen floor and out the patio door.
The third category is those who think some drastic change in doctrine is taking place and this article is evidence. Frankly, brethren, these points have been explained in one way or another since I began attending in 1964. Some individuals tend to go more toward one ditch, while others lean the other way.
Then, finally, there are those who demonstrate good balance. We are all trying to do it as Christ did it when He lived as a physical human being. I think we all know that He put the leaven out, but He did not follow the oppressive traditions of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 15:1–20).
This last category is composed of those who read with a humble spirit, seeking the mind of Christ. They follow God's command to put physical leaven out of their homes. Some will no doubt do a better job than others with this physical task. Older adults and younger children may not be able to do as well as those in the middle, but God looks on the heart and they learn from this task. They also carefully seek out the spiritual leaven in their lives, and when they discover it, they determine to change. They go on to perfection. They grow in grace and knowledge. I pray that we all fall into this fourth category, just as in the Parable of the Sower.