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First Corinthians The Epistle of Sanctification - Book 1

An in-depth commentary/study on the first 6 chapters of First Corinthians.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 21

The Leavened Church

The Corinthian church was proud of its spirituality, but its soulishness was evident in actual practice. Soulishness had led them to divide into factions that followed men, rather than Jesus Christ. Soulishness had led them to think that they had already received all that Christ had for them. Soulishness had caused them to judge Paul himself. Finally, soulishness had caused them to tolerate immorality in their midst—in this case, incest, a form of fornication (porneia).

But when Chloe informed Paul of what was happening in that church, he found reason to admonish them for their pride. 1 Cor. 5:6 says,

6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?

By contrast, Paul says elsewhere in Rom. 11:16,

16 And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too.

Bread was either leavened or unleavened, so we can say that the dough is either leavened or holy. This theme is central to the revelation of Passover and Pentecost.

Leaven and the Feasts

The first day of Passover (Abib 15) is the first day of Unleavened Bread, because the people were supposed to remove all leaven from their houses on the previous day. The time of Unleavened Bread extended for a full week, during which time the sheaf of barley was waved in the temple.

Since Unleavened Bread was associated with the first of the first fruits (barley), it signifies first Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God that was presented to the Father as unleavened (sinless). Next, it signified those of His body, the overcomers, who will be the first group of people presented as the Sons of God after the second coming of Christ.

The next feast was Pentecost, seven weeks (Sabbaths) after the waving of the barley sheaf. On Pentecost, they offered to God the first fruits offering of wheat (Exodus 34:22), which was baked into two loaves of bread “with leaven” (Lev. 23:17). It was the only offering in which leaven was used (Lev. 2:11). In Lev. 6:17 leaven was forbidden because the offering is “holy.” Hence, Paul too contrasts leavened dough with holy dough.

This Pentecostal offering refers to the church in general (believers, but non-overcomers). The church was leavened, but the fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit was designed to kill the inner leaven. The fire used in baking made this leavened offering the spiritual equivalent of unleavened bread.

In practice, however, the church has often failed to submit itself to the Pentecostal baking process in the baptism of fire. While it may appear to be spiritual, as with the Corinthian church, and even boast about this, in reality there is too little fire and too much leaven. Those who reject the baptism of the Holy Spirit are like believers who neglect to rid the house of leaven. Those Pentecostals who tolerate immorality and other types of sin are like offerings of wheat which are just raw dough full of leaven—totally unfit for God to “eat.”

The first set of feasts, Passover and Pentecost, concern themselves with leaven. The second set of feasts—Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles—make no mention of leaven, but follow other important themes.

Leaven in Corinth

The Corinthian church prided itself in being spiritual and Pentecostal, having the gifts of the Spirit in full operation, as we will see in chapters 12 and 14. Yet by tolerating immorality in their midst, they had neglected or refused to remove the leaven from their spiritual house, thus violating the law in the feast of Unleavened Bread. So Paul says in 1 Cor. 5:7-9,

7 Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people.

Paul was telling the church, as we will see shortly in verse 13, to “remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” The man who was guilty of incest had not repented, nor had he ceased from his wicked way. The baptism of fire had not made his wheat offering holy. Therefore, he represented an unbaked Pentecostal offering.

In another sense, he represented the leaven in the church that needed to be removed because “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.” Toleration of sin sets an example for the others to follow.

Paul then seems to contradict himself, telling the church, “you are in fact unleavened.” Really? Was he not just telling them to remove the leaven? How, then, were they “in fact unleavened”?

The answer is given in the next sentence: “For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.” Jesus died on the cross to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Those who place their faith in Him and in His work on their behalf have become unleavened.

But this is no excuse for tolerating sin (lawlessness) in the church, for in essence, tolerating sin serves to bring leaven back into the house after it has been removed. The feast of Unleavened Bread began on Passover, but it was to continue for a week. This meant that the cross of Christ was only the beginning of a time of Unleavened Bread and that the people were to continue the practice of removing sin from their lives and from the church in general.

The Corinthian church, however, had failed to put into practice the spiritual application of the feast of Unleavened Bread, thus violating the law of Passover. One cannot truly celebrate Passover with leaven in the house, for doing so could even uproot the foundation of faith in Christ’s work on the cross.

In verse 8 Paul defines leaven further by calling it “the leaven of malice and wickedness.” The Greek word translated “malice” is kakia, which means “malice, ill-will, evil, depravity.” It is contrasted with “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The word translated “sincerity” is from eilikreneia, “purity, sincerity.” Essentially, Paul was contrasting purity with impurity in regard to the feast of Unleavened Bread.

Paul says in verse 9 not to associate with immoral people. In other words, do not allow immoral people to remain in the assembly.

What is Immorality?

The example of immorality that Paul was dealing with in this chapter is incest. Paul classifies incest as immorality, which is from the Greek term, porneia. In modern English, this is the root of our word pornography. But in the Scriptures, the word has a much broader meaning that includes many different types of immoral behavior. Biblical immorality is any unlawful sexual relationship, whether physical or spiritual, as defined in the law.

Lev. 18:1-18 sets forth the definitions of incest. Lev. 18:20 includes adultery, saying, “you shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife.” Lev. 18:22 includes homosexual relations, saying, “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” This is specifically called porneia in Jude 7, speaking of the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, where the people “indulged in gross immorality [porneia] and went after strange flesh.”

Lev. 18:23 includes bestiality, saying, “you shall not have intercourse with any animal… it is a perversion.”

These are all examples of immorality—leaven which must be removed from the church in order to fulfill the feast of Unleavened Bread. Repentance, of course, removes this leaven and resolves the problem. But when leaven is tolerated, it leavens the whole church.

Associating with Sinners

Paul continues in 1 Cor. 5:10, saying,

10 I did not at all mean with immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world.

Hence, the religious idea that holy believers ought to separate themselves and thus avoid all contact with sinners is not what Paul was recommending. Jesus Himself associated with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. In doing so, He drew much criticism from the “righteous” men of the day. Jesus response to such people is seen in Luke 5:31, 32,

31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

The idea is to be an example of righteousness to sinners, not to participate in their sin. Or, to use Jesus’ metaphor, be a healing physician without contracting their disease. Pharisees withdrew from those they pronounced unclean to avoid being tainted by them. Even in the early church, there were many who escaped to the wilderness, deserts, and later to monasteries to find holiness in a life of isolation.

Paul instructs the believers to be a positive influence in the world, and to do this, they had to mingle with sinners. The problem, however, was when the church allowed sin to remain in their house. So Paul says in 1 Cor. 5:11,

11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

Eating with someone was an act of fellowship in those days. It had far greater implications than it does today. Paul concludes in 1 Cor. 5:12, 13,

12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

Paul says that the church has no authority to judge outsiders. How can they remove leaven that is already outside the house? They must leave such people to God, who is their Judge. But the church was indeed responsible to judge those in the fellowship who claimed to believe in Christ, as long as they judged righteously.

Many today have judged according to the soulish “old man,” which judges outside appearance but has no ability to discern the heart or to judge by revelation from God. Soulish judgment gives all judgment a bad name and has caused many to renounce all judgment. By their over-reaction, they end up refusing to judge righteously, and so the churches begin to accumulate leaven.

The solution is first to live our lives through the “new man” that is spiritual. This gives us the ability to discern by the spirit, so that we are capable of judging righteously. In the next chapter, Paul tells us how important it is to know how to judge righteously.