When God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He told His people that for "seven days you shall eat unleavened bread" (Exodus 12:15). Verse 39 further explains: "And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they had brought out of Egypt; for it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared provisions for themselves."
The leavening process, which makes bread rise, takes time. The Israelites had no time to spare when they left Egypt, so they baked and ate flat bread. What started out as a necessity continued for a week. God appropriately named this time the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6), or Days of Unleavened Bread (Acts 12:3).
When Jesus came to earth as a human, He observed this seven-day festival—sometimes called the Feast of Passover by the Jews because of the proximity of the Passover to the Days of Unleavened Bread. Jesus kept it as a child and later as an adult (Luke 2:41; Matthew 26:17). The early Church, imitating Christ in His actions, kept it as well.
God gave His earliest instructions concerning this festival to the Israelites as they prepared to leave Egypt. "This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD—a lasting ordinance. For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel. On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat-that is all you may do" (Exodus 12:14-16, New International Version).
Each year as the Israelites observed this feast, it reminded them of God's deliverance of their forefathers from Egypt. The Creator instructed, "Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt" (verse 17, NIV). The exodus from Egypt remains as a foundational reason for observing this feast today. Just as God delivered ancient Israel, He delivers us from our sins and difficulties.
Now notice Jesus Christ's teaching about leaven, which expands the meaning of this feast.
During Christ's ministry He performed two miracles in which a few fish and loaves of bread fed thousands of people. After one of these incidents, when His disciples had gone around the Sea of Galilee, they forgot to bring bread with them. So Jesus told them, "Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."
The disciples thought Jesus was referring to their lack of bread. However, He was using the occasion to teach them by calling on the symbolism of leaven. Christ asked them, "How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Then the disciples "understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:5-12, NASB).
Some of the members of the religious establishment of Christ's day appeared to be righteous, yet they secretly practiced sinful behavior. Jesus let them know He knew their hearts. They may have appeared righteous to other people, "but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:28).
The Days of Unleavened Bread remind us that with God's help we must remove and avoid all types of sin—symbolized by leaven—in all areas of our life.
During the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the apostle Paul taught the same spiritual lessons as had Jesus Christ, invoking the comparison of sin to leaven. In the context of reprimanding the Corinthian congregation for its divisions, jealousies and tolerance of sexual misconduct, Paul wrote: "Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
The church at Corinth was obviously and unmistakably keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread, to which Paul repeatedly alluded. However, Paul used the Corinthians' faithful obedience in keeping the feast physically (removing leaven from their homes) as a basis to encourage them to celebrate this feast with proper understanding of its spiritual intent.
Today removing leaven from our homes for seven days reminds us that we, too, through prayer and God's help and understanding, must recognize, expel and avoid sin. The Feast of Unleavened Bread is thus a time of personal reflection. We should meditate on our attitudes and conduct and ask God to help us recognize and overcome our shortcomings.
Paul spoke of this much-needed self-reflection in 2 Corinthians 13:5 when he told the Corinthian church: "Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified."
Paul explained the significance of the phrase "Jesus Christ is in you" in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
These seven days of self-examination prove invaluable in helping us to devote our lives to God and Jesus Christ. This week-long period also pictures our eventual triumph over sin. As God delivered the ancient Israelites from enslavement to Egypt, so He delivers us from our enslavement to sin (Romans 6:12-18).
We learn by doing. We learn spiritual lessons by doing physical things. Performing the task of deleavening our homes reminds us to vigilantly watch for sinful thoughts and actions so we can avoid them. God knows that, in spite of our good intentions, we all sin.
Many years after his conversion, Paul described the powerful human tendency to sin. "I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (Romans 7:21-25).
Paul knew life itself is a battle with sin. The Bible speaks of "the sin which so easily ensnares us" (Hebrews 12:1). We have our own part to play in struggling to overcome sin. Yet, paradoxically, we must rely on God to help us. Paul explained this to the Philippians by telling them to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13, King James Version).
Our observance of the Days of Unleavened Bread helps us realize our need for Jesus Christ's help in overcoming our weaknesses. Yet this feast is certainly a time for rejoicing because Christ freely gives us the help we need. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was sacrificed for the forgiveness of our sins, thus unleavening, or cleansing, our lives. He continues to help us live obediently through God's Spirit dwelling in us—which brings us to the subject of the next chapter.