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10. The Parable of the Mustard Seed

– Chapter 10 –

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:31–32

Montreal, August 20, 1978


He 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.” (Matthew 13:31–32, ESV)

“It is the smallest of all seeds”

The Lord Jesus constantly speaks in parables, and this Parable of the Mustard Seed is of considerable import­ance since it is found in all the synoptics, that is, the first three Gospels. The Parable of the Mustard Seed follows the Parable of the Wheat and Darnel precisely to provide us the encourage­ment that we need. After looking at the Parable of the Wheat and Darnel, we might well become discouraged and say, “What future does the church have when it consists of such a mixed bunch of people?” Jesus’ answer is found in today’s parable, in Matthew 13:31–32.

We can imagine Jesus pointing to a mustard tree that is standing in the field, and then tells a parable, as he often does: “The kingdom of God can be pictured as this mustard tree. It was sown as a tiny seed, and now look, how it has grown!” In Palestine, the mustard plant can grow to a height of eight to ten feet. Ten feet would be nearly twice my height, which would make for a considerable tree growing out of this tiny mustard seed.

It is important to notice that we have yet another parable about seed. There are several parables about seed. We have the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:1–9), the Parable of the Growing Seed (Mk. 4:26–29), the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel (Mt. 13:24–30), and now the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mt. 13:31–32).

If you have studied some botany, you might say, “Wait a minute! The mustard seed may be very small, but it is not the smallest of all the seeds in the world. The poppy seed is smaller.” Yes, but the farmers in Palestine don’t grow poppy or smoke opium. To say that the poppy seed is smaller is quite beside the point of this parable. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed that exists, but the point is that it is the smallest seed that the Palestinian farmer sows.

The seed dies and rises: the teaching of salvation

We now realize how many parables there are in which Jesus speaks of seed, and there is a good reason for that. I would like to pause for a moment to ponder on the significance of the seed. A seed is some­thing wonderful! The more you under­stand Jesus’ teach­ing about seed, the more you will understand the whole Scriptural teaching of salvation. So if you want to understand the teaching of salva­tion, you must understand Jesus’ teaching on the seed.

The seed is sown into the ground; it dies or disintegrates in a certain way; it germinates; it bursts its body; and it rises again. It is a whole picture of burial, death, and resurrection. It is marvelous! Then new life literally comes forth from the burial, the death, and the resurrection of the seed. So Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a grain of seed.” The king­dom may be small like a mustard seed sown into the ground; it disappears from view; it is buried; it dies; and it rises to new life. In the same way, the Lord Jesus died and was buried. He seemed to be defeated, yet he rises again to new life. So we find the whole teaching of God’s kingdom right there.

1. The Lord Jesus, the first seed, brings forth the church

What happens when a seed rises again to new life? A whole new batch of seeds will come from that single seed. This is the whole teaching of the Lord Jesus in John 12:24: “ Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (ESV)

The seed brings forth a whole new batch of seeds through dying and rising again. Likewise, through his death and rising again, the Lord Jesus brings forth the church, the true Christ­ians. One seed goes into the ground, and produces a whole new batch of seeds of whatever is sown. That new batch in turn is sown, and produces yet another batch of harvest. On and on it goes.

Just as the life in the new batch of seeds is derived from the initial seed that died, so we derive our new life from the Lord Jesus who died in order to pass on this new life to us. The life in the new seed can be passed on yet again. An ear of wheat is simply a new batch of seeds. When you eat wheat, you are simply eating seed. Instead of eating it, you can sow it into the ground, and it will produce yet another batch of seeds. You can then choose to eat the seeds or sow them. A farmer would keep a portion for eating, and a portion for sowing.

2. Each Christian becomes a seed: he dies and rises again

Every grain of wheat is itself a seed. It illustrates that we derive our new life from the resurrection life of Christ. We live because he died and rose again. But if we stop here, it would be a grave mistake. What will happen to this new batch of seeds? Does it get life from that first seed just so that it can remain in the ear of wheat, enjoy itself, and twiddle its thumbs? No! The new wheat is sown again, in order to die and produce yet more fruit.

In teaching the gospel, many stop at the first part. It is true that we get new life through Christ’s death and resurrection, but we as a grain of seed must in turn die and rise again. Many don’t understand that second part. In Jesus’ parable of the seed that dies in John 12:24–25, verse 24 refers to the Lord Jesus, and verse 25 refers to Christians who are likewise to die and rise again:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24–25, ESV)

The picture of a seed that dies comes out in three of Jesus’ parables of the seed, includ­ing the Parable of the Mustard Seed which we are studying now:

He 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.” (Matthew 13:31–32, ESV)

Who is the mustard seed that is sown into the ground to die and rise again? The mustard seed represents Christ, doesn’t it? The king­dom of God is personified in him. It is the Lord Jesus who dies; then through his rising again, the kingdom of God becomes a reality in the world. The parable is not merely des­cribing a situation within the kingdom of God, but is describing the growth of the kingdom itself.

In the parable we studied last time, the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, the symbolism is different, for the seed there represents Christians: “The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom” (Mt. 13:38). When the Lord Jesus gives us new life, he sends us out into the world (= field) where we in our turn become seeds. We die and rise again, bearing fruit to God.

That is precisely what Jesus says in John 12:25. After speak­ing of himself as the seed that dies (v.24), Jesus says in the next verse (v.25) that if any man tries to save his own life, he will lose it. But he who loses his life for the Lord’s sake will keep it for life eternal.

Many Christians don’t understand this, but you can under­stand it easily if you understand Jesus’ teaching about the seed. Unless you in turn become a seed — unless you go out into the world and live for God (even die for God, if necessary) — you will not have God’s life. If you try to save your life by not dying, you will lose it. If you put a grain of wheat somewhere where there is no soil, like a book case, nothing will happen, and it will eventually mildew and die. But if you take this grain of wheat before it gets mildewed or eaten by a bird, and drop it into the ground, it will bring forth life. That is so wonderful!

If we go back to what we previously studied, all the way back to the Parable of the Sower, the seed is the Word of God. In each of the three parables about seed, the seed represents something different. In the Parable of the Sower, the seed is the Word of God. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, the seeds are the sons of God. And now in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the seed is Christ himself.

Combined together, they provide an overall picture: The Word of God is sown into my heart, and I respond totally and become a son of God, in turn to be sown into the world after getting the new life through Christ’s death and resur­rect­ion. There are so many facets and riches in God’s truth, yet all are summed up in this picture of the seed.

The true Christian has the life of Christ

Let us continue to reflect on the seed, which in the Parable of the Mustard Seed is the Lord Jesus. The seed dies and brings forth a new crop of mustard seed. The new crop derives its life from the death and the resurrection of the first seed, namely, Christ. It is important to notice that a true Christian has the life of Christ in him. It’s not just having a form of godliness, not just having good religious behavior, not just being nice and smiling at everybody, not just saying the right things, not just knowing how to pray the Lord’s Prayer or any prayer. It is not just doing these things externally, but having the life of Christ in you. Do you have the life of Christ in you? What is it? The life of Christ is the new resurrection life that God’s Holy Spirit creates in you. That is why a true Christian is new creation. It means to be a true Christian and not a darnel.

What will happen when you have the life of Christ in you? The new seed would look like the original seed, wouldn’t it? That is the beauty of it! The true Christian becomes like Christ who reflects the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:6), for the Holy Spirit has transformed him. If you are a true Christian, you will find yourself becoming more and more like Jesus in the way you think, for you will learn to think as he thinks. He lived only for others, so we must learn to live for others and not for ourselves. We become like him in our love, for God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Our conduct will become more and more like Christ’s, for we are being changed from glory to glory into Christlikeness by God’s power (2 Cor. 3:18). The true Christ­ian has a certain beauty of Christ.

Are you a true Christian? If so, the likeness of Christ will manifest in your life as you become more and more like him. Once you under­stand this point, you will understand why the Lord Jesus speaks of sowing the sons of God into the world (Mt. 13:24). We are Christ’s representatives in the world. We are his body in the world. How is the world going to know God unless it sees in us Christ’s life which reflects God’s glory? A seed bears resemblance to the original seed. Do you bear resemblance to Christ? Do I bear resemblance to Christ? Is Christ’s life working in me powerfully? Is my thinking being trans­formed so that my selfishness is being put away, as I be­come more and more like him? Only then will I know whether I am true wheat.

Whichever picture you use, it comes to the same thing. This is the glor­ious thing about God’s Word. As I said at the begin­ning, the entire salvation teaching, the entire gospel truth, is summed up in the seed.

I would like you to ask yourself: Am I truly a seed that has been born from the death and resurrection of the first seed, Jesus Christ? Is his resurrection life in me? I have many faults and shortcomings, but am I in the process of being changed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18)? Your degree of glory and my degree of glory in showing forth the likeness of Christ may be very limited at this stage, but at least we are progressing as the Holy Spirit conforms us to the like­ness of Christ that reflects the glorious image of God. This is a powerful message that the Lord Jesus gives us in these parables. It is a message of life and transformation. May God grant us to know this truth in our own experience!

The kingdom of heaven will shake the world

If you look at this parable carefully and understand it spirit­ually, the Lord Jesus gives us a picture of the kingdom. When the seed is sown, it is sown into the world as a tiny seed. What would you expect from a tiny seed? A tiny plant? But what you get instead is a huge plant that grows into a tree!

Technically, the mus­tard plant is not a tree but a vegetable. Yet it grows to the size of a tree with considerable speed. It is a picture of the life power inside a tiny seed that produces so huge a plant. From this you get a picture of the kingdom.

As I said, when you see the mixing of the good and the bad in the kingdom of God as in the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, you may get discouraged and wonder if there is still a future for the kingdom of God. But the Lord gives us the Parable of the Mustard Seed to tell us that God’s power is in the seed. Even if the seed is tiny, something great will emerge from the tiny work. How great will it be? So great that even the birds of the air will make their nests and dwell on the branches of this mustard plant.

By purposefully using the language of the Old Testament, Jesus directs our attention at once to the Old Testament. If you turn to Ezekiel 31:3–14 or Daniel 4:10–17, you will notice that the kingdoms of the world are described as great trees in which the birds of the air nest, and under which the animals of the field find shade. But the reference of particular interest to us is Ezekiel 17:22–24, for it refers to the Messianic kingdom, the kingdom of Christ:

22 The Lord Yahweh says this: “From the top of the tall cedar tree, from the highest branch I shall take a shoot and plant it myself on a high and lofty mountain. 23 I shall plant it on the highest mountain in Israel. It will put out branches and bear fruit and grow into a noble cedar tree. Every kind of bird will live be­neath it, every kind of winged creature will rest in the shade of its branches. 24 And all the trees of the countryside will know that I, Yahweh, am the one who lays the tall tree low and raises the low tree high, who makes the green tree wither and makes the withered bear fruit. I, Yahweh, have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 17:22–24, New Jerusalem Bible)

Jesus refers to these prophetic words, in particular the statement that God “raises the low tree high” (see boldface) to draw a contrast between the mustard tree, the lowest of all the trees you could think of, and the cedar, a tall and powerful tree (v.22). The red cedar, for example, has such durability that it becomes exceedingly fine wood; it has high water resistance and does not decay easily.

God takes the lowly things of this world and exalts them. He uses the foolish things to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). This has always been His principle. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he did not ride on a great Arabian charg­er, as many preachers have noted, but came sitting on a donkey, a humble form of transportation. The Lord Jesus deliberately points to this pass­age in Ezekiel, with some adjustments, to indicate the nature of the kingdom at the present time.

What do the birds and beasts represent?

What do the birds which make their nests in the branches represent? Ezekiel 31:6 tells us that the birds and the beasts represent all the great nations of the world:

All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth to their young, and under its shadow lived all great nations. (Ezekiel 31:6, ESV)

So the Parable of the Mustard seed doesn’t leave us to guess­work. The clues are all there provided you know the Word of God. The picture is that of the kingdom of God, with tiny and insignificant beginnings, which becomes a great power in the world, so much so that the nations come to dwell under its shade.

When the disciples heard this, they could only take it by faith. They could not see its fulfillment for there wasn’t yet a great nation living under the shade of the kingdom of God. The kingdom was a mustard seed at that stage. It was insigni­ficant, and nobody took much notice of it. It did shake the people in Palestine for a time, but the world at large hadn’t taken notice of the kingdom of God.

But we live in an age in which we are eyewitnesses of the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching. He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt. 24:35). The disciples had to take his words by faith, for how could they know that what he said was true, that one day the great nations of the world will shelter under the branches of the kingdom of God? But what he said came true. Many mighty nations of the world today take shelter in the branches of this tree. These declare themselves to be Christian nations in some sense or other. The picture of birds is quite interesting, for the bald eagle is an emblem of the United States. The dou­ble eagle constantly appears in German emblems in one form or another, either the double or single eagle. It is curious that many nations represent themselves by birds. These are the nations that have made their dwelling in the shade of this tree, though it does not necessarily mean that they are Christian in reality.

The mustard plant is the kingdom of God, and its branches represent Christians. “Branches” is a common term for Christ­ians in the Bible. We are the branches, whether in the picture of the vine in John 15:2–5, or of the olive tree in Romans 11:17–24. In any case, whichever the tree, Christ is the main stem or root, being the found­ation of the tree, and the branches are the Christians.

These birds are not part of the tree — not part of the king­dom of God — but they do make their nests in the branches. They try to gain advantages and benefits from the kingdom of God. This is another way of saying that the influence of the kingdom of God has become so powerful. The teachings of Christ have become pervasive through­out the world, such that nations find shelter in its shade even if they don’t practice his teachings. This is a prophetic parable; the Lord Jesus is foretelling what is going to happen.

God establishes Christ as the King of kings

This is not all there is to the prophecy because its fulfillment continues right up to the time when the kingdom of God will rule in the world and every nation will be subject to God and Christ. This is already prophesied, for example, in Daniel 2:35, in the picture of the great stone: “But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

In the New Testament, we see the same thing in Revelation 11:15, where at the blowing of the trumpet by the seventh angel, loud voices in heaven declare, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” When Christ comes again, the whole world will submit to his authority because God will establish him as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

You have to take this by faith, don’t you? You haven’t seen it fulfilled completely, have you? But remember that what he said has been ful­filled. Many of the mightiest nations of the world declare themselves to be Christian. It is a foolish person who doesn’t see that these words concerning what is yet to come will also be fulfilled. The apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:10–11 that when Jesus comes again, “every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Christ and his faithful ones will judge all nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 2:27; 12:5). Paul says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). God sent Jesus as Savior the first time; the second time Jesus will come as Judge.

The prophecy in this short parable is clear to anyone who under­stands the Old Testament, and the beauty of the parable is that a great part of it has already been fulfilled. We live in the privileged position of seeing it fulfilled before our eyes. The Christians in the 4th century saw it fulfilled when the great Roman Empire laid down its sword before the church. This empire under Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, declared its sur­render to God and to Christ, putting the nation under the shade of the mustard tree. Since then we have seen nation after nation come to dwell in the shade of that tree. Germany and the United States did not exist in those days, but now they are Christian countries. This is remarkable!

Is there anything impressive about a mustard tree? Nothing much! There are mightier trees in the world, yet the mustard tree is the one that conquers. Such is God’s remarkable power. Anyone who has eyes to see, even if he is not a Christian, will be able to see the remarkable march of God’s kingdom, the remarkable growth of this mustard seed that conquers without drawing a sword (at least in the early days before later episodes of political conquest), and whose shade is shelter for the mighty nations.

Insofar as what the Lord Jesus said has come true to this day, I would like to impress upon your mind that his words never fail. Although some nations today have not submitted to the kingship of God and His Christ, the day will yet come when every nation will bow to His sovereign­ty. Those of us who have walked with God would know that the day will come, just as what the Lord Jesus has said so far has come to pass.

As I said, the disciples had nothing to see for its fulfillment, and could only listen with sheer faith. And who was Jesus at that time? Just a carpenter wandering about in Palestine saying these grand words. Some will say, “Who is he? Is the whole world going to be subject to his kingdom by a God-given authority? Surely his head has become too big for him! Look at the small band of twelve disciples following him around, whereas none of the religious or political leaders accepts him. And this poor man ends up dying on the cross. Did he really say that the great nations of the world are going to shelter in the shade of God’s tree like birds? He’s had one drink too many!”

Do we have faith in his words? Can his words ever possibly come true? Lo and behold, Jesus’ words have never failed. He was the one who said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt. 24:35). Who would be bold enough to say these things in advance with the confi­dence that he will not be proven wrong? Let anyone try to prove him wrong. “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8:46). That is the kind of statement the Lord Jesus, the Son of God, dared to say to any person.

History has justified his words again and again. He says to his disciples that his kingdom will advance, and that without the sword (cf. John 18:36). Ideologies and religions have tried to conquer with the sword. Whole nations have been subju­gated by the gun for fear that they will revolt. Jesus doesn’t do anything like that. He conquered without the sword as Napoleon realized when he said, “I conquered a great part of this world with armies, but Jesus never drew a sword.”

His kingdom has continued for two thous­and years to this day, and 1800 years to the time of Napoleon. Jesus’ words and their fulfillment are truly wonderful! The Lord is encou­raging us, especially after we nearly got discouraged from the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, and we thought to ourselves, “If there is so much corruption inside the kingdom of God, what is the future for the kingdom?” But the Lord says that God’s purposes will not be defeated, but will be fulfilled upon the earth.

The truth is always with the minority

I would like you to bear in mind that although the beginnings of God’s work are always small, never despise the days of small things, for God will do mighty things. Every great work begins small. Even the non-Christian British philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, could see that. He once said, “Every great movement in this world began with a minority of one.” The wise and worldly man understands that every great move­ment begins with a minority of one, as we see from history. One man, Alexander the Great, stood up and conquered the world. One man, Caesar Augustus, stood up and conquered the world. One man, Confucius, con­quered China with Confucianism, a moral teach­ing approaching a philosophy, though not quite a reli­gion. The Chinese nation lived by the teachings of Confucius for centuries, and in many ways to its great benefit.

It is also like this in the history of the church. Time and again, one lone man stands up to speak to the whole world. He is condemned, persecuted, and despised, but he is victor­ious because God’s power is at work. One unknown man, Martin Luther, stood up to the might of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, and spoke the Word of God. How can one man be right and the whole Catholic Church be wrong? But he stood up and spoke forth the truth, proclaiming the Word of God. Today the Catholic Church has come to realize that Luther was right in many respects. Hence since Vatican II, there has been an attempt at reconciliation. They would not do this unless they realize that he was right in great measure.

In the 18th century, John Wesley stood up to the corruption of the Anglican Church in his day, and preached holiness. Again one man against the world. He was not allowed to preach in the churches even though he was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He was not even allowed to preach in the church where his father had been a minister. He was not allowed to preach anywhere, for the Church of England virtually condemned him to silence. So he stood in the field or on the streets and preached, for he will not be silenced. He was often criticized: “Mr. Wesley, who do you think you are? Are you are the only man who is right, and the whole Church of England is wrong? You are arrogant beyond belief.” Everybody condemned him, but he kept on preaching because God’s message of salvation and holiness was burning in his heart. Since then, Methodism, the movement associated with Wesley, has spread through­out the world. The Church of England today seeks unity with the Methodist Church because they admit that the Methodists were right to a great extent.

Time and again, in the history of the world, one mustard seed, one tiny work of God, builds up to a great thing. Of course the early days are always lonely, accompanied by much perse­cution, criticism, and accusations, which Wesley, Luther, and other men of God constantly faced. But from that tiny mustard seed grows a mighty work of God.

So never be afraid to be in the minority. Men of God speak because the fire burns in their hearts. When Luther was told to recant what he taught on pain of excommunication, he said, “I cannot deny my con­science before God. I must speak what God has laid on my heart. You can excommunicate me or extermin­ate me, but here I stand, I can do no other.” We are grateful that he stood, aren’t we?

These are the ones who pay the price. They fall into the ground and die, so that a plant may come forth to glorify God.

The Lord Jesus was alone. The leaders of the nation were arrayed against him, such as the scribes, who are Bible scholars (they are also called lawyers because they are learned scholars of the Old Testament Law). They said to Jesus, “How can you be right when the theologians are against you?” I think that little band of people that followed him had incredible courage, by the grace of God.

But look what has come to pass: Jesus died and rose again! The mustard plant has come forth, and the nations shelter in its branches. In Canada, the United States, Germany, and most Western countries, what do they produce in a court of law? The Holy Bible! You swear by the Word of God! They all shelter under that mustard tree. Not only that, Jesus will also rule when he returns. Praise God for that! But you have to take that by faith. I think if you have common sense, you can see that just as the prophecy of the first coming of Jesus was fulfilled, so the prophecy of his second coming will be fulfilled. Let the scoffers scoff, but on that day they will kneel like everybody else, and confess Jesus as Lord.

What we see in the Lord Jesus’ amazing parable is that the kingdom of God will spread throughout the world!


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