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Clean Out the Old Leaven

When God gave instructions to Moses regarding the observance of the Passover, he commanded Israel to remove all of the leaven from their houses (Ex. 12:15; 13:7).  This was because they were to eat only unleavened bread for seven days as a memorial to all that God did for them when He delivered them from Egypt (Ex. 12:17, 26-27; 13:8-10).  Leaven was not even to be seen within the borders of Israel during the Passover memorial (Ex. 13:7).  Any person who failed to observe this ordinance properly was to be cut off from Israel (Ex. 12:15).

In 1Corinthians 5:7, Paul gave a similar instruction for Christians when he wrote, “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.”  This is not a commandment for Christians to observe the Passover ordinance according to the Law of Moses, but rather it is an allusion that uses the figures of the Passover to teach a lesson.  In this allusion, the leaven is a figure of sin, and the lesson is that it is necessary for Christians to remove sin from their presence, for “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1Cor. 5:6).

This instruction was first written because the church at Corinth had chosen to harbor a blatantly sinful brother rather than to remove him from their midst (1Cor. 5:1-2).  Rather than mourning for him, they had become arrogant in their acceptance of him.  Therefore, Paul commanded them in the name of Christ to make a public issue of this man in their assembly and turn him over to Satan for “the destruction of his flesh” (1Cor. 5:3-5).  The practical application of Paul’s commandment was that the Corinthian Christians were not to associate with the sinful brother at all (1Cor. 5:9-13).  They were not to keep company with him (not even to eat with him) collectively or individually.

In this instruction, the allusion that Paul made to the leaven and the Passover was to demonstrate the effect that the sinful brother had upon the whole church at Corinth.  The sinner’s presence among them made the whole congregation disrespectful of the Christians’ Passover, which is Christ Himself, who was foreshadowed by the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:5-7, 13).  While the withdrawal of fellowship from this sinful brother would hopefully work to save his spirit (1Cor. 5:5), it was even more important that the church be purified by his removal so that they would be acceptable to the Lord.  This man’s sin had tainted the whole church just as a little leaven taints an entire lump of dough, so he had to be removed.

Today, the instruction to “clean out the old leaven” still stands and admonishes us to keep the church pure.  Other instructions of this nature are also found in the New Testament (Rom. 16:17-18; 2Thess. 3:6-15), and they likewise have the primary purpose of preventing the negative influence of sinful brethren upon the church and the secondary purpose of saving those brethren who have returned to sin.  Jesus even gave step-by-step directions for dealing with a sinful brother, which must result in the sinful brother becoming ostracized from the church if he refuses to repent (Matt. 18:15-17).  We must follow these commandments not only for the sake of our brethren caught up in sin, but especially for the sake of the church, which must be pure and holy in honor of Christ.

Even so, churches sometimes fail to heed God’s word.  Too often they continue to embrace members who will not repent of sin and thereby passively endorse their practices.  Like the church at Corinth, such churches become arrogant, thinking that they know better than God how to handle the situation.  They ascribe their permissive acceptance of an unrepentant brother to their great love for him, but in doing so they compromise their love of the Lord and His church.  Rather than giving up one sinful brother for the sake of the church, they give up the whole church for the sake of one sinful brother.  Moreover, if they truly loved their brother in sin, then they would follow God’s prescription to save his spirit.  Rather than being afraid of turning him away from the church, they would purposefully push him away so that he would come back to the Lord.  In doing this, they not only would show love for the sinful brother, but they would also show love for the church and honor to the Lord by keeping His church pure.

Therefore, let us keep the commandments of God in regard to this matter and clean out the old leaven.  Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us that His blood may cleanse us from all sin and make His church pure and holy (Eph. 5:25-27).  May we honor that great sacrifice by maintaining the holiness that He died to give without harboring sin within His church.  If we fail in this, then we may expect the same result that was promised to those in Israel who did not clean out the old leaven, and that was to be cut off from the people of God.  As difficult and painful as it may be, it is much better to lose one member of the body than to lose all.

Stacey E. Durham



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