“The Kingdom of Heaven is like… yeast that a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” (Matthew 13:33 NLT)
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
A small amount of yeast is mixed into the dough, where the yeast acts on the fermentable sugars, turning them into the gas – carbon dioxide. This causes the dough to expand – or rise – as the gas forms pockets or bubbles. When the dough is baked, those air pockets ‘set’, giving the loaf of bread a soft and spongy texture. Yummy, right?
And a beautiful picture of the Kingdom! I have always thought of this parable as fairly simple to unpack… God’s Kingdom, though small, is powerful! And it is meant to be added to the stuff of the world – not kept in a jar on the counter, or holed up in a church building somewhere. That’s how it does its work! It acts on the stuff of the world and changes it! God’s Kingdom stimulates growth and changes outcomes. Instead of coming out of the oven crispy & flat, that which is touched by the Kingdom of Heaven rises and grows and emerges soft, fluffy and fragrant! A delight to the senses! Something we can enjoy and share. Can’t you just smell it?!
But, friends… there is much, much more to yeast (and the Kingdom of Heaven) than bread alone!
Did you know that in the baking process of bread, once yeast has converted the sugars into gas bubbles and caused the dough to rise, the yeast dies. Its work is… Finished. When that loaf comes out of the oven, the yeast is gone, but its fingerprints are all over the loaf. What does THAT say about the Kingdom of Heaven?
You don’t have to go far in a Google search on yeast before you stumble onto what is perhaps the most compelling Kingdom insight yet. I was a few web pages into yeast when I came across this quote from a researcher named Dr. Francis Collins – a name that rang a bell for me, by the way.
He said: “The yeast genome is closer to the human genome than anything completely sequenced so far.”
What does that mean? Well, a genome is all of a living thing’s genetic material. It’s the entire set of hereditary instructions for building, running and maintaining an organism, and for passing life onto the next generation.
Francis Collins was saying that the yeast genome – the DNA of yeast – is closer to human DNA than any other organism studied up to the point of this quote, in 1996. Because of the similarities, studying the genome of yeast has opened up an entirely new area of science in which yeast and its genetic structure offer valuable clues toward understanding the workings of more advanced organisms, including humans.
Yeast models are being used today in the study of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Yeast is being used to test experimental drugs and is helping scientists learn more about cellular processes.
When I heard Francis Collins speak at a conference about seven years ago, I was struck by his childlike enthusiasm for genetics. I know – it’s as weird as it sounds! He spoke for almost an hour and a half to a group of youthworkers whose attention spans are – I promise you – NOT that long! He was actually giddy as he told the story of his experience as the lead scientist on the Human Genome Project – an effort that led top genetic scientists to ‘unravel’ and map human DNA in the same way he had done with yeast in the 1990s. He even took out his guitar at one point and sang us part of his talk! He was actually pretty awesome!
Dr. Collins, it turns out, has been appointed by President Obama as the Director of the National Institutes of Health - this is his current base of operations. But perhaps most interesting is that Francis Collins is as giddy about his faith in Jesus Christ as he is about genetics! His studies into yeast and human genomes changed his life – and his heart – and he write a book called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief so that others who struggle with reconciling science with faith might have the benefit of his insights.
All of this is to say… What if?
What if the Kingdom of Heaven, here on earth, is like yeast from Francis Collins’ perspective – possessing the entire set of instructions for building, running and maintaining life; even passing life onto the next generation – when we, like yeast, have finished our permeating work, leaving only fingerprints on the loaves we’ve left behind?
What if the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, offering valuable clues to the full workings of God’s plan – beyond what we can see with our eyes?
We can’t fully grasp the entirety of God’s Kingdom – heaven and eternity are beyond our understanding – but… the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast! And yeast is close enough to human DNA to shed light on what scientists seek to understand. Maybe yeast is close enough to the Kingdom of Heaven to shed light on what we seek as well.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve often wished that God would give you a map for understanding life. Some of us have even tried to read the Bible that way, hoping for a MapQuest kind of experience, where we can see our origination and destination points – point A and point B – and with a click of the mouse, we can have turn-by-turn directions from today to eternity (complete with audio, if you like – and she can even have a British accent)!
Let me know if your experience has been different, but God hasn’t mapped the Kingdom of Heaven for me in that way. My experience with Kingdom-Mapping looks a lot like what Dr. Collins and his cohort have done with, yes… Yeast. Not so much a road map; more like a genome map.
A genome map is a set of landmarks that tell people where they are, and help them get to where they want to go. But where road maps chart well-known territory surveyed with incredible precision, a genome map is a map of a new frontier. Some parts of a genome map include great detail while other parts are relatively uncharted territory. It may turn out that a few landmarks appear in the wrong place or are the wrong distance from other landmarks, but over time, as exploration continues, the map becomes more accurate. More detailed. A genome map, like your life and mine, is a work in progress.
What if Jesus’ teachings are meant to be landmarks on a map of the Kingdom of Heaven? Not as much road map – precise and measured – as genome map – experiential and in-progress?
For example, from the parables in Matthew chapter 13, we learn that:
The Kingdom of Heaven starts small – like a mustard seed – but once it takes root, there will be no stopping it! Landmark #1
The Kingdom of Heaven is growing at God-ordained speeds and in God-selected shapes, sizes and colors! No one but God knows what the seed will produce – you can’t tell by looking at the seed. Our work is simply to watch it grow. Landmark #2
The Kingdom of Heaven, like yeast in the dough, is acting on people and in systems and situations to make them better. To help them rise above. Landmark #3
And… the Kingdom of Heaven is diverse and filled with variety in people and personalities, all with different histories and gifts and crosses to bear. It isn’t our job to decide who’s in and who’s out… God has a plan, and it all gets worked out in the end. For today – for you and me - it’s enough to be caught in His nets! Landmark #4
In this way, using Jesus’ teachings as landmarks for Kingdom-Mapping, the Kingdom of Heaven really is like yeast - giving us new ways to learn and connect with realities we have yet to begin to understand. With each newly discovered landmark, the detail on our Kingdom map grows, leading us into a clearer picture of what God Himself must see.
A quick scan of related websites can provide a sort of yeast-mapping crash course; in a sense, Jesus’ parables and the whole of scripture comprise a life-long course of study – call it Kingdom-Mapping 101. Biblical teachings and our own experiences become landmarks on this Kingdom map of ours.
Some landmarks, like the parables in Matthew chapter 13, may show up on your map and on mine, but depending on how we each understand the teachings, we may place them differently on our own maps. My Kingdom map isn’t exactly like yours, because I also have personal encounters with God and the Holy placed on my map that you don’t know anything about! And my experiences with people and challenges in life also produce landmarks unique to me, which exist on my Kingdom map beside the truths I’m learning from God’s inspired Word.
When you tell your Kingdom stories, some of those end up on my kingdom map, too – because you help me learn when you take the time to share.
I have to wonder whether Jesus’ listeners were telling the truth when Jesus asked, “Have you understood all this?” and they answered, “Yes.” But what Jesus says next sounds just like yeast and brings the work of Dr. Francis Collins to mind:
“He said to them, Therefore every teacher and interpreter of the Sacred Writings who has been instructed about and trained for the kingdom of heaven and has become a disciple is like a householder who brings forth out of his storehouse treasure that is new and [treasure that is] old [the fresh as well as the familiar].” (Matthew 13:52 AMP)
May the yeast of the Kingdom produce treasure for you – the fresh as well as the familiar – and give you eyes to spot that pearl of great price, and the wisdom to do whatever it takes to hold onto it.
And may your Kingdom map reflect the work that is in progress inside of you: tethered to the landmark-teachings of Jesus, moving boldly into the new frontier of God.