Secular Power and the Voice of the Church

Thus we have compassed the whole history of the kingdom of the absent One, up to its solemn close in judgment at His coming. The two parables now before us take us back from this, to look at the same scenes in other aspects.

And the two parables, however dissimilar in other respects, have this in common (wherein they differ from the former two), that they speak, not of individuals, but of the mass, as such. They give us the outward form as well as the inward spiritual reality of what Christendom as a whole becomes of what it has become, we may very simply say, for the facts are plain enough to all, whether men question or not the application of the parables to those facts.

Parable of the Mustard Seed
"Another parable put He forth unto them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard-seed, which a man took and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof'" (Mart. 13:31, 32).

The Kingdom of Heaven
Of this parable the Lord gives us no direct interpretation. It is stated, however, to be another similitude of the same kingdom spoken of by the former ones. And as Scripture must ever be its own interpreter, and we are certainly intended to understand the Lord's words here, we may be confident the key to the understanding of it is not far off. Let any one read the following passage from the book of Daniel, and say if it does not furnish that key at once (the words are the words of the king of Babylon):- "Thus were the visions of mine head upon my bed: I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great. The tree grew and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth. The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all: the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof, and all flesh was fed of it" (Dan. 4:10-12).

This is interpreted of the king himself (vs. 22): "It is thou, O king, that art grown and become strong." The figure, therefore, which we have elsewhere, and always with the same meaning, (as Ezek. 17:5; 31:3-6) is that of worldly power and greatness. But the strange thing in Matt. 13 is, that "the least of all seeds" should grow into such a tree. For the seed, here as elsewhere, is "the Word of the kingdom" (vs. 19). And we have seen already how men treated that Word. The kingdom of the Crucified could have but little attraction for the children of the men who crucified Him. Human hearts are sadly too much alike for that. How could, then, a great worldly power come of the sowing of the gospel in the world?

Granted that it has become this, is this a sign for good, or the reverse? How could "My kingdom is not of this world" shape with this? And what proper mastery of this world could there be,- what overcoming of its evil with divine good, where three parts of the professed disciples were, according to the first parable, unfruitful hearers merely, and (according to the second,) Satan's tares had been sown broadcast among the wheat?

But if we want plain words as to all this, we may find them in abundance; and if, on the one hand, we know by what is round us that professing Christianity has become a power in the world, we may know on the other, both by practical experience and the sure Word of God, that it has become such by making its terms of accommodation with the world. It has bought off the old, inherent enmity of the world at the cost of its Lord's dishonour, by the sacrifice of its own divine, unworldly principles. He who runs may read the "perilous times" of the latter days written upon the forefront of the present days (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Yes, the little seed has become indeed a tree, but the "birds of the air" are in its branches. Satan himself has got lodgment and shelter in the very midst of the "tree" of Christendom. The "Christian world" is the "world" still; and the "whole world lieth in the wicked one" (1 John 5:19). The opposition to Christ and His truth is from within now, instead of from without; none the less on that account, but all the more deadly.

Rome is the loudest assertor of this claim of power in the world, and what has Rome not done to maintain her claim? Her photograph is in Rev. 17, 18. Successor to the "tree"- like power of old Babel, she is called "Babylon the Great." And she is judged as having, while professing to be the spouse of Christ, made guilty alliance with the nations of the world; "for all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies" (chap. 18:2). And alas! with the power of Israel's enemy, she has inherited also the old antipathy to the people of God: "I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration (chap. 17:6)."

This is the full ripe result. The beginning of it is already seen at Corinth even in the apostle's day: "Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you. . . .We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised" (1 Cor. 4:8, 10).

Thus early was the little seed developing; thus quickly did the Christianity of even apostolic days diverge from that of the apostles. Paul lived to say of the scene of his earliest and most successful labours, "All that are in Asia have departed from me." Thus widespread was the divergence. Men that quote to us the Christianity of a hundred or two hundred years from that had need to pause and ask themselves what type of it they are following, - whether that of degenerate Asia, or "honourable," worldly Corinth, or what else.

That is the external view, then, which this parable presents, of the state of the kingdom during the King's absence. It had struck its roots down deep into the earth and flourished. Such a power in the world is Christendom this day. Beneath its ample cloak of respectable profession it has gathered in the hypocrite, the formalist, the unfruitful,- in short, the world; and the deadliest foes of Christ and of His cross are those nurtured in its own bosom.

Parable of the Three Measures of Meal and Leaven
But we go on to the other parable for a deeper and more internal view: -"Another parable spake He unto them: 'The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened'" (Matt. 13:33).
Leaven Always Symbolical of Evil
Now what is "leaven"? It is a figure not unfrequently used in Scripture, and it will not be hard to gather up the instances to which it is applied and explained in the New Testament. We surely cannot go wrong in allowing it thus to interpret itself to us, instead of following our own conjectures.
The following, then, are all the New Testament passages: - Matt.16:6: "Then Jesus said unto them, 'Take heed, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.'" In the twelfth verse this is explained: "Then understood they how that He bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." The passages in Mark and Luke are similar (Mark 8:15 and Luke 12:1).

In 1 Cor. 5 the apostle is reproving them for their toleration of the "wicked person" there. "Know ye not that a little leaven leaventh the whole lump? Purge out, therefore, the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us; 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."

There the "leaven" is moral evil, as in the Gospels it was doctrinal evil. In Gal. 5:9 (the only remaining passage), it is again doctrinal. "Christ is become of no effect unto you whosoever of you are justified by the law.

Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not from Him that calleth you. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." If we take Scripture, then, as its own interpreter, it must be admitted that "leaven" is always a figure of evil, moral or doctrinal, never of good. But it is possible to define its meaning and that of the parable still more clearly.

It is Lev. 2 that furnishes us in this case with the key. Among the offerings which this book opens with (all of which, I need scarce say, speak of Christ), the meat (or "food") offering is the only one in which no life is taken, no blood shed. It is an offering of "fine flour,"- Christ, not in the grace, therefore, of His atoning death, but in His personal perfectness and preciousness as the bread of life, offered to God, no doubt, and first of all satisfying Him, but as that, man's food also, as He declares, "He that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me" (John 6:57).

Now it is with this meat-offering that leaven is positively forbidden to be mixed (vs. 11): "No meat offering which ye shall bring unto the Lord shall be made with leaven." True to its constant use in Scripture, as a figure of evil, that which was a type of the Lord Himself was jealously guarded from all mixture with it. Now in the parable, the "three measures of meal" are just this "fine flour" of the offering. The words are identical in meaning. The flour is man's food, plainly, as the offering is, and thus interpreted spiritually can alone apply to Christ. But here, the woman is doing precisely the thing forbidden in the law of the offering,- she is mixing the leaven with the fine flour. She is corrupting the pure "bread of life" with evil and with error.

Babylon the Great -"The Woman"
And who is this "woman" herself? There is meaning, surely, in the figure. And he who only remembers Eph. 5 will want no proof that that figure is often that of the Church, the spouse of Christ, and subject to Himself. It may be also, as we have already seen, the figure of the professing body, as the "woman," Babylon the Great, is. In this sense, the whole parable itself is simple. It is the too fitting climax of what has preceded it: it is she who has drugged the cup in Rev. 17, for the deception of the nations, adulterating here the bread also. The "leaven of the Pharisees" (legality and superstition), the "leaven of the Sadducees" (infidelity and rationalism), the "leaven of Herod" (courtier-like pandering to the world), things not of past merely, but of current history, have been mixed with and corrupted the truth of God. All must own this, whatever his own point of view. The Romanists will say Protestants have done so; the Protestants will in turn accuse Rome; the myriads of jarring sects will tax each other; the heathen will say to one and all, "We know not which of you to believe; each contradicts and disagrees with the other. Go and settle your own differences first, and then come, if you will, to us."

The leaven is leavening the whole lump. The evil is nowise diminishing, but growing worse. No doubt God is working. And no doubt, as long as the Lord has a people in the midst of Christendom, things will not be permitted to reach the extreme point. But the tendency is downward; and once let that restraint be removed, the apostasy (which we have seen Scripture predicts) will then have come.

But men do not like to think of this. And I am prepared for the question (one which people have often put, where these things have been so stated) how can the kingdom of heaven be like "leaven" if leaven be always evil. Must not the figure here have a different meaning from that which you have given it? Must it not be a figure rather of the secret yet powerful influence of the gospel, permeating and transforming the world?

To which I answer,-
     1. This is contrary to the tenor of Scripture, which assures us that, instead of Christianity working real spiritual transformation of the world at large, the "mystery of iniquity" was already "working" in the apostle's days in it, and that it would work on (though for a certain season under restraint) until the general apostasy and the revelation of the man of sin (2 Thess. 2).
     2. It is contrary to the tenor of these parables themselves, which have already shown us (in the very first of them) how little universal would be the reception of the truth: three out of four casts of seed failing to bring forth fruit.
     3. The language from which this is argued - "the kingdom of heaven is like unto it"- does not simply mean that it is itself like "leaven," as they put it, but like "leaven leavening three measures of meal." The whole parable is the likeness of the kingdom in a certain state, not the "leaven" merely is its likeness.

Let any one compare the language of the second parable with this, and he cannot fail to see the truth of this.
Verse 24
"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which a sowed good seed," etc.
Verse 33
"The kingdom of heaven is likened unto leaven, which a woman took," etc
Is it not plain that the kingdom is no more simply compared to the "leaven" in verse 33 than to the "man" in verse 24? In each case the whole parable is the likeness. The kingdom, therefore, need not be bad because the leaven is, nor the leaven good because the kingdom is. And into a picture of the kingdom in its present form evil may - and, alas! must - enter, or why judgment to set it right?

There is indeed too plain a consistency in the view of the kingdom which these parables present; and a uniform progression of evil and not of good. First, the ill success of the good seed in the first parable; then, the introduction and growth of bad seed in the second. Then the whole form and fashion of the kingdom changes into the form and fashion of one of the kingdoms of the world. This is the Babylonish captivity of the Church. And lastly, the very food of the children of God is tampered with, and corrupted, until complete apostasy from the faith ensues. Christ is wholly lost, and Antichrist is come.

Here, thank God, the darkness has its bound; and in the last three parables of the chapter, we are to see another side of things, and trace that work of God which never ceases amid all the darkness; His - Whose "every act pure blessing is; His path, unsullied light."