“Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:8)
At the time of Paul’s first letter to the Corinth Church, all Jews who had not believed in Jesus Christ, still observed the Passover feast in accordance with the command of the Mosaic law. However, Jesus came to fulfill all the law (Matt 5:17-18), so the church is no longer bound by observance of the Old Testament law, but rather is ruled by the New Testament covenant of grace. While the church is therefore not required to observe the Old Testament version of the Passover feast, Paul introduces a new “feast” that the church should observe, relating to the purity and sincerity of our conduct in the church.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to observe the Passover annually to commemorate their deliverance from bondage in Egypt (Exod. 12:14-20). During the original Passover, God commanded each house in Israel to slay a lamb that was without blemish and to place the lamb’s blood on the two side posts and on the upper door posts of the houses (Exod. 12:3-8). (You may notice the blood was applied in the form of a cross, pointing to the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus Christ as the Passover Lamb.) Then when God came to destroy the Egyptians by slaying the firstborn of each household, God “passed over” every house when He saw the blood (Exod. 12:23). The application of the lamb’s blood was the sole reason that the Israelites were spared from the judgment of God and death of the firstborn. After this great deliverance from Egypt, Israel observed the seven day feast of unleavened bread and sacrificed the Passover lamb every year.
The sacrifice of the Old Testament Passover lamb for the salvation of Israel was pointing to the ultimate sacrifice for sins by Jesus Christ as the Passover Lamb for the eternal salvation of God’s people. “For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” (1 Cor. 5:7) The children of God were redeemed from the bondage of sin “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus perfectly met the requirement for the Passover lamb to be without blemish, having never sinned but was perfectly spotless and sinless. Jesus was recognized by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus’ death did just that – it fully took away the sins of all the world of His people that were given to Him on the cross (Matt. 1:21; Heb. 1:2, 9:12,26, 10:12-14).
In light of the finished work of salvation by the offering of the blood of the Lamb of God once for sins, we now have another “feast” to observe in the church. Leaven (or yeast) is consistently associated with sin in the New Testament. Paul warns against the leaven of “malice and wickedness” (1 Cor. 5:8). The context of 1 Cor. 5 is admonishing the Corinth church to purge out the leaven of an unrepentant fornicator before this egregious sin contaminated the whole church. Jesus warned against partaking of the leaven of the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ doctrine (Matt. 16:12). In addition, Jesus warned the disciples to “beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).
Paul reminds the Corinthians that they have been purged from their past sins by the sacrifice of Christ. They have been made “unleavened” in the sight of God – “as ye are unleavened” (1 Cor. 5:7). But now the church must keep the “unleavened feast” to keep their bodies pure from the contamination of leavened sin here in this world. What is the remedy for the leaven of malice, wickedness, sexual sin, and hypocrisy? Paul says we are to observe the unleavened feast of “sincerity”. The remedy for hypocrisy is sincerity. We have been made unleavened before God by Jesus Christ, now we need to keep ourselves unleavened from the world. Pure religion is defined as keeping oneself “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Simply put, the children of God need to act like the Father. Anything short of pursuing personal holiness to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16), constitutes hypocrisy in the life of God’s children. The church must be “sincere” in our discipleship, putting off all manner of sin in our lives. If the church proclaims that certain actions – particularly those condemned in the context of leaven: malice, wickedness, and sexual sins – are detestable, but then the members of the church proceed to engage in those same sins, we have descended into the hypocrisy of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. The salt of the church has then lost its savour, has lost its identifying distinction and separation from the world, and Jesus declares “it is henceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” (Matt. 5:13). The actions of the church must be congruent with the doctrine that we proclaim. The church must be sincere in our commitment to Christ, and reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ in our actions (Phil. 1:27).
The remedy for the leaven of false teaching is a commitment to the unleavened feast of “truth”. Jesus had commanded the disciples to beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees. The Pharisees peddled many false teachings, but they were all rooted in hypocrisy, not living by the same standards that they imposed upon others. A commitment to truth always purges out error and false teaching. Paul denies any tolerance for false teaching in the church and even commands that those who preach such error should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9). The lesson of leaven should be a very sobering reminder of how false teaching and unrepentant sin can quickly spread and affect the church. The nature of yeast (leaven) is for one little measure of yeast in the bread to rapidly consume and permeate the entire loaf of bread, soon making the entire bread leavened. That is why Paul addressed the situation of unrepentant sin in 1 Cor. 5 so abruptly. He fully understood that if this situation was left unaddressed it would soon permeate and contaminate others – if not all – in the church. “Know ye not that a little leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened” (1 Cor. 5:6-7). The same is true with false teaching. Such error must be quickly purged from the church to protect the integrity of the entire loaf of bread – i.e. the church, if you will. The church must maintain a fierce and unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ who is “the truth” (John 14:16). Furthermore, the church must proclaim and uphold God’s word as the truth – “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy [God’s] word is truth” (John 17:17).