In recent weeks we’ve been considering the parables of Jesus found in Matthew 13. These are often referred to as Jesus’ kingdom parables because all of these serve to illustrate what the kingdom of heaven is like. Before we look at the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven, let me just remind you of background to the kingdom parables.
We’ve noted that these parables (except for the parable of the sower), were told in response to a question that the disciples asked in Matthew 13:10 – why do you speak to the crowds in parables? Jesus then explains the purpose of the parables. They simultaneously reveal the secrets of the kingdom to those whom God chooses to reveal it and obscure the truth about the kingdom from others.
We’ve also discussed what prompted the disciples to ask the question in the first place. The common messianic expectation among the Jews was that he would come as a military conqueror to set up an everlasting Jewish kingdom that would conquer the nations of the world. This expectation was intensified by the fact that at this stage of history, things had gotten about as bad as they could for the Jewish people. Not only were they living under Roman rule, but the vassal King that Rome appointed over them (Herod), was a descendant of the Edomites; historically one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. The disciples were confused (and possibly disappointed) that the kingdom Jesus came to establish did not seem like it was ever going to make an impact on the world they were living in. If Jesus could not even convince the Jewish religious establishment to follow him, how were they ever going to rally a force strong enough to overthrow the Roman yoke?
The disciples were concerned that Jesus was not being strategic in recruiting for the kingdom. When Jesus was not saying things that offended the Pharisees, he was teaching things that made even his own disciples turn away from him (Jn. 6:66). And now, when he teaches about his identity as the Messiah and his establishment of the kingdom, he teaches in a way that seems to conceal his identity rather than reveal it. The disciples are worried that the kingdom was not gaining traction in the world, and from their perspective, Jesus’ chosen method of teaching about the kingdom was not helping.
Finally, we saw that Jesus responds to his disciple’s frustration by telling parables that reveal something about the mode in which he will establish his kingdom. In the parable of the tares and the wheat and in the parable of the dragnet, we learned that there will be a sowing phase and a reaping phase to the kingdom of heaven. There will be a season when the net is cast out and a season when the “good” will be separated from the “bad”. The Messiah came first to sow and to gather, only at his return will he come to separate and destroy.
As we turn our attention to the two parables in Matthew 13:31-33, we’ll see that Jesus is still seeking to challenge the disciples’ view of the kingdom. They expected a radical and immediate establishment of the kingdom. But Jesus tells two further parables to illustrate that the kingdom comes gradually and at times invisibly, but he also encourages them that the kingdom will eventually come in its fulness. Despite its small and seemingly insignificant beginnings, the progress of the kingdom is unstoppable, and all of history is heading towards its glorious consummation.
But let us briefly examine these two parables. Matthew tells us that Jesus: “put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.””
The Mustard Seed:
Here, as in the previous parables, we see a contrast between what the kingdom looks like when it first comes into the world and what it will look like eventually. Jesus points out that, of all the seeds one might plant in your garden, the mustard seed is the smallest. Compare it to a grain of wheat, lentil or barley and one might easily dismiss it as inferior because of its size. You might be tempted to think that it won’t grow into much. But, Jesus says, give it some time, and you’ll be amazed at what that tiny little mustard seed grows into. We often think of a mustard plant as a bush or shrub and technically it is, but in the climate that Jesus and his disciples lived in, that mustard bush could grow as tall as a two-story building. According to historical sources, this tree could get so big that a grown man was able to climb it, like one would climb a fig tree.
Jesus point here is quite clear. Don’t despise the small beginnings of the gospel. What you see now, a handful of fisherman and former tax-collectors, is only the beginnings of the kingdom. It will not always look like this. Its growth will be expansive and exponential and when it reaches maturity, all will be amazed that all this could come from such humble beginnings.
Now some have come up with all sorts of interesting interpretations for the birds of the heavens that come and nest in the tree in this parable. Some say these are gentile converts to Christianity, while others say it symbolizes the unconverted who come into the church, but who don’t belong there. I would, however, caution against trying to identify these birds with a certain group of people. Jesus is simply using common Old Testament imagery to make the point that this will be a great kingdom. The same language is used to describe the extent of the great Babylonian empire in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4). It is significant that Daniel makes no attempt to identify the birds in this dream, but rightly understands that this is just language that is meant to convey the greatness of this kingdom.
It is also important to remember that the tree here symbolizes the final manifestation of the kingdom. It does not represent the Church. It is vitally important not to confuse the kingdom of heaven and the Church. The kingdom advances by the activity of the church. And, in this age, it finds its truest expression within the Church, but the kingdom of heaven is not the Church. What we see here, therefore, is not a picture of the Church conquering the world for Jesus (remember the parable of the tares). Instead, Jesus is making a simple point about the incomparable and unstoppable expansion of his kingdom, until it reaches its final expression when Christ returns to establish the New Heavens and the New Earth. The point is that, despite the eager expectation of the disciples, the kingdom would not come immediately as a fully formed tree. It’s beginnings are small and seemingly insignificant – it comes first in seed form.
But the parable of the leaven adds an extra layer of meaning to our understanding of how God will establish his kingdom. Some commentators have suggested that while the parable of the mustard seed looks at the external (or observable) growth of the kingdom, the parable of the leaven deals with its invisible or unseen growth. I would agree with that to a certain extent. Especially since we are specifically told that the leaven is “hid” in the three measures of flower. But anyone who has baked bread before knows that the presence of leaven (or yeast) in the dough does not remain hidden for long. The presence of the leaven in the dough is made apparent by its effect on the dough – the dough rises – it gets bigger and bigger. So, while it is true that the leaven is unseen, its effects certainly are seen.
The emphasis of this parable is the same as that of the parable of the mustard seed. The kingdom starts off small. It doesn’t take much leaven to raise even a massive amount of dough (three measures of flour is about 20kg!). But the leaven eventually makes its way through the whole lump of dough, and it rises until you are left with a great big lump of dough. The emphasis is on the remarkable expansion of the kingdom.
But the parable also teaches us something about the way in which the kingdom of heaven comes. In the previous parable, the kingdom was a seed that turned into a great tree. In the parable of the leaven, the leaven itself does not turn into a massive lump of dough. Instead, it is pictured as spreading throughout the three measures of flour until eventually all the flour is leavened. It’s more accurate to speak of its spread than of its growth. The kingdom is pictured as something that will work its way through the world transforming everything it meets. Not only does it transform individuals, but it transforms communities, and societies and even whole nations (as we’ve seen in the last two thousand years).
But what should we as believers take away from these two parables? Here are three brief points for us to dwell on.
- Don’t despise the day of small things:
It is far easier for us to accept what Jesus said about the expansive and exponential growth of the kingdom of heaven, than it was for his disciples when they first heard these parables. As we look back on two millennia of church history, it would be impossible for anyone to deny the truth taught in these two parables. How is it possible that the obscure Son of a Jewish carpenter could start a movement that within three centuries had the entire Roman Empire bowing before him? How is it possible that when the barbarian hordes invaded that same empire, instead of wiping out Christianity, they were converted to it? Even in our day, when so much is being said about the decline of Christianity in Europe and in America, how is it that the church is now growing faster than ever, growing at three times the rate of the global population? It is because God is growing his kingdom and will continue to grow it until Christ returns in glory. Despite all the opposition, both human and demonic, the kingdom of God continues to expand and to spread across the globe and we all look forward to a day when will worship alongside the great multitude from every tribe and tongue and nation and people, because Christ will establish his reign on the earth.
- God is establishing his kingdom in ways that are often unseen:
One of the biblical truths that keeps me sane as a preacher, is the knowledge that my responsibility is only the sowing of the seed and not the conversion of unbelievers or the transformation of God’s people. The work that God does in people’s hearts and lives by the power of the preached word, often (perhaps even mostly) takes place without the knowledge of the preacher. We don’t know what God is doing in people’s hearts and lives when we share the gospel with them or when we offer words of counsel from Scripture. There is not always a radical conversion like with the Apostle Paul or with John Newton. But as sowers of the seed, we need to take courage in the fact that God’s word will not return to him without accomplishing his purpose in the world.
It’s easy to become discouraged when people are leaving the church, or when certain people in the church just don’t seem to show any signs of spiritual growth. A couple of weeks ago I even had visitors walking out in the middle of one of my sermons. But I find it helpful in these times to remember that God is working out his purposes at GBC. He is establishing his kingdom here, in and through his people. Many were offended at the preaching of Jesus, and many turned back from following him. But my confidence is in the fact that God knows those who are his and he is at work in ways that only eternity will reveal.
- The kingdom of God has a future and glorious fulfilment
Finally, and probably most importantly, these parables remind us of the certainty of what Paul calls our blessed hope. As we look around this sinful world that we live in, there are many things that may tempt us towards pessimism and discouragement. The rulers of the nations of the world don’t exactly inspire hope that we’re moving towards a brighter tomorrow. The moral decadence of our society and the growing insanity of the people around us might push us to the brink of despair. But we can take courage in the reality that the kingdom of God will find a glorious fulfillment in the eternal reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. There will be no corrupt politicians. There will be no farm murderers. There will be no abortion clinics or human traffickers. The fact that we feel so out of step with this world should not be strange to us, we are after all, strangers, and pilgrims here, on our way to the promised land. Let us therefore take heart. We can rejoice that the kingdom is even now breaking into this fallen world, but there is a manifestation of the kingdom in the future that cannot be compared to the groaning we experience daily in this fallen world. There will come a day when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14).