There’s a well-known Spanish proverb that says, “All griefs with bread are less”. Food can be a source of comfort, and bread in particular has a universal appeal. For centuries, this hearty staple has satisfied the young and old, rich and poor, joyful and sad.
Of all the foods to describe his physical suffering, Jesus chose bread. He broke it, shared it, and used it to fulfill the old covenant. By eating bread, His disciples learned that He is the ultimate source of comfort. All griefs with Jesus are less.
Bread is an essential part of the Lord’s Supper. But the Bible mentions two basic kinds of bread: Unleavened and leavened. Which should be used? This post presents a biblical case for each of these “menu options.” Arguments can be made for either kind—but does Scripture support one to the exclusion of the other?
The Case for Unleavened Bread
Unleavened bread has ancient roots in the Old Testament. The first reference precedes the giving of the law at Sinai. As the Israelites wandered the wilderness, God fed them manna—unleavened bread from heaven. This was the “spiritual food” of the Exodus generation. (1 Cor. 10:3). Yet the most well-known example of unleavened bread is found in the Passover story (Exod. 12). God commanded Israel to eat the meal in haste with belts secured, sandals fastened, and staves in hand (v. 11). This hurriedness also affected the bread since there was no time for leaven. They needed to eat in a hurry. So the unleavened bread reflected the urgency of the deliverance.
This wasn’t a one-time event. The Lord commanded Israel to observe an ongoing festival so that future generations would remember this deliverance (v.17). The first day would be an annual celebration of the Passover, while the next six days rounded out the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Additionally, this festival would become the first of the three pilgrim feasts. Each required the male Israelites to make pilgrimage to God’s appointed place (Exod. 23:16; Deut. 16:16) which found a permanent location in Jerusalem (Isa. 33:20; Lk. 2:41-42).
During his last Passover on earth, Jesus followed the old covenant stipulations. This means the bread of the Last Supper had to be unleavened. Proponents cite this as evidence for using it in the Lord’s Supper celebrations.
Unleavened bread was also used in the sacrifices of the Tabernacle and Temple. Grain offerings had to be unleavened loaves mixed or smeared with oil (Lev. 2:4). Animal sacrifices couldn’t be offered with anything leavened (Ex. 23:8). These requirements raise the question, “What’s wrong with leavened bread?” To answer this, we need to understand the definition and purpose of leaven. It’s old, fermented dough that causes other dough to change. Leaven works through the entire lump, changing every part as it spreads.
Besides commemorating the haste of the Exodus, unleavened bread also reminded Israel of the need for ongoing purity. God saved His people for a specific reason. He was going to shape them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6) that would be a light to all the nations (Isa. 49:6). To fulfill this mission, Israel needed to be pure. The leaven of idolatry needed to be avoided so it wouldn’t spread through the dough.
The New Testament also mentions leaven as a negative metaphor. Jesus used it to describe the influential (and hypocritical) tradition of the Pharisees (Mt. 16:6, 11-12; Mk. 8:15; Lk. 12:1). Paul also utilized it to portray the heresy of the Judaizers (Gal. 5:9) and address an immoral situation in the church of Corinth. Concerning the latter, he wrote:
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor. 5:7-8)
Here, Paul connected the Corinthian church to the Exodus generation. Like Israel set apart for holiness, he referred to them as “a new lump” of unleavened dough. He contrasted the leaven representing vice (“malice and evil”) with unleavened bread symbolizing virtue (“sincerity and truth”). These virtues weren’t inherent in the Corinthians, but accessed through their union with Christ. As the blood of lambs protected the Israelites from the tenth plague (Ex. 12:5, 7. 12-13), so the blood of Christ—the ultimate Passover lamb (Jn. 1:29)—covers the sins of His people (Rom. 5:9; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).
The Case for Leavened Bread
The case for unleavened bread is a strong one. Yet it isn’t an open and shut case. A case can also be made for leavened bread from the biblical meaning of bread, the weight of New Testament discontinuity, and the positive use of leaven.
The Bible describes bread as a staple of life, a common blessing for all people (2 Kgs. 18:32; Ps. 104:15; Eccl. 9:7). Psalm 104, a creation song, praises God as provider of man’s basic needs. Along with wine and oil, bread is given to “strengthen man’s heart” (v. 15).
This common staple was also used for spiritual purposes. The priest-king Melchizedek, a type and shadow of Christ, mediated God’s blessings to Abraham through the use of bread (Gen. 14:18). And Christ himself used bread to reveal himself to his disciples (Lk. 24:31; Jn. 21:12-14). While the Luke 24 reference fell under the time frame of unleavened bread, the John 21 reference fell outside of that festival. It described a common meal that Christ transformed for spiritual purposes. There’s nothing in the text that suggests the bread was unleavened.
Proponents of unleavened bread make a strong case for continuity with the Old Testament, but the opposite case can be made for discontinuity in the New Testament. Appealing to the Last Supper narratives for the ongoing use of unleavened bread has its merits. Yet that meal in the upper room used the unleavened product because it was a Passover meal. Indeed, it was the last Passover from the standpoint of redemptive history. During that meal, Jesus fulfilled the old covenant while ratifying the new (Luke 22:20). One could argue that the unleavened bread was as much a part of the old covenant as the sacrifices it accompanied. In which case, it would fall under the types and shadows that were fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:16-17). Even though the Lord’s Supper is a renewal of the new covenant ratified at the Last Supper, it doesn’t necessarily require the same form of the bread.
The Bible even has some positive things to say about leaven. In the Old Testament, it was used in the Tabernacle/Temple alongside the unleavened product. Not only was leavened bread acceptable for religious use, but it was specifically used with the peace offerings, an Old Testament precursor to the Lord’s Supper (Lev. 7:13), since it was shared with priests and offeror (Lev. 7:19-21; 28-34). It was also used in the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:16-17) which found its fulfillment at Pentecost when the church experienced rapid growth (Acts 2).
Yet the most positive statements about leaven come from the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus used it as a metaphor to describe the positive spread of His kingdom. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour till it was all leavened” (Mt. 13:33). Here, there’s nothing negative about the spread of leaven. Instead it symbolized the spread of the kingdom from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). These Gentile areas knew hardly anything about Jewish ceremonial law. For them, leavened bread was a staple of life. So in a Gentile context, using the unleavened bread could be seen as a return to the types and shadows of the old covenant.
The Need for Wisdom
We’ve seen that cases can be made for both leavened and unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. The old covenant required both kinds of bread for religious use. Leaven is used both positively and negatively in the scriptures. The Last Supper was as an old covenant meal using unleavened bread. But the Lord’s Supper is a new covenant meal allowing for continuity and discontinuity with the old.
So which one should we use?
The results aren’t conclusive. In the final analysis, Scripture doesn’t specify the type of bread that must be used in the sacrament; arguments can be made for either kind. Therefore, we must determine which kind of bread to use by exercising wisdom, subjecting our knowledge to biblical principles and common sense. Wisdom isn’t “one size fits all”; it’s often circumstantial, and different situations may require different answers.
A church’s vision can drive such a decision. Unleavened bread emphasizes continuity with old covenant. So traditions with deep roots in the Old Testament may favor this option. On the other hand, leavened bread pictures the extension of God’s kingdom. Therefore, mission-minded churches may prefer this option.
Aesthetics can also factor into decision-making. Some value the simplicity of a wafer. Others prize the complexity of artisan bread. Taste is also a consideration. If the church with a vision for the community wants to emphasizing feeding, a hearty loaf may communicate better than plain wafers.
There are also practical concerns. Fresh loaves become stale much faster than bland wafers. So cost needs to be considered, especially in larger congregations. Sometimes visitors have food allergies. Keeping a gluten free product on hand would add to the expense. Yet providing for those with health concerns is an expression of Christian love, a worthy inclusion in the church budget.
Churches have the liberty to choose what makes the most sense in their context. The choice isn’t set in stone; the menu options can change over time. Wisdom, however, is always the best option.
Previous Articles in This Series:
Ken Golden is the organizing pastor at Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Davenport, Iowa. He is also the author of Entering God's Rest: The Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation--And What It Means for You and Presbytopia: What It Means to Be Presbyterian.
What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips
"The Puritans on the Lord's Supper" by Joel Beeke
- Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
- Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
- Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
- Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
- Right Reception of the Lord's Supper
- Hindrances and Benefits of the Lord's Supper
 In the Septuagint and New Testament use two Greek words for bread: azimos and artos. Azimos described unleavened bread in the context of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Levitical sacrifices of the Old Testament. Paul also used it in his metaphor of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8). On the other hand, artos is the generic word for bread. It’s used to describe both bread that had to be unleavened (e.g., Ex. 16:15; Lev. 24:5; Last Supper narratives; Lk. 24:30) and bread more likely to be leavened (e.g., Gen. 3:19; Eccl 9:7; Psa. 104:15; Jn. 21:13). Context would determine the meaning. After the Last Supper accounts, all references to bread in the Lord’s Supper use artos.