Big things often have small beginnings. Every harvest begins as a small seed. Every river begins as a small stream. Every journey starts with just a step. Every symphony comes from only eight notes. And that’s the point Jesus is making in these next two parables. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, appearances can be deceiving. Like a stream that builds into a mighty river and like a spark that develops into a fire, the growth of the kingdom will be great and its influence will be global.
The Astonishing Growth of the Kingdom
“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)
The focus of this parable is growth – astonishing growth. What begins as a tiny seed, no bigger than the head of a pin grows into a tree, or at least a very large bush. If you were to visit the area of the Sea of Galilee in the spring, you would see these bushes on the hills blossoming with bright yellow flowers. Normally, they grow to a height of 5 to 6 feet. But every once in a while, it will grow as big as 12 to 15 feet tall – the size of a large bush or small tree. And that apparently is what happens to the mustard seed in this story.
What’s the point of the parable? From tiny, inauspicious beginnings comes enormous growth. Who would imagine something so small and insignificant could produce something so big? This is how things work in God’s kingdom. What starts small grows into something astonishing.
Think about Jesus Himself. He was born in a manger in a stable with smelly animals and a dirt-covered floor. He was the son of a carpenter – nobody special, nobody great. He spent thirty years of his life among uncouth, uncultured and uneducated people in a town called Nazareth. A mustard seed – improbable, unlikely, insignificant, one from whom men hid their faces. That was Jesus, the rejected seed, sown in the field of the world.
Think about the early church. It started as a small sect, consisting of people from all walks of life. We read in the New Testament of escaped slaves, fishermen, soldiers, jailers, and people of ill-repute. Yet it soon spread to a point where Christianity became the official religion.
Think of Martin Luther, the obstinate monk who was used by God to spearhead a reformation that would sweep the entire world. Then there is the mustard-like beginnings of men like Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson and CT Studd, the wealthy Oxford graduate who gave up all for the cause of Christ to serve as a missionary in China, Africa and India.
This is how the kingdom of God works. It works through small but sacrificial acts; it works through unlikely people who offer to God whatever they have and humble people who choose to surrender their lives to God’s work. It works through events that seem insignificant at the time and then you look back and realize their huge impact. The message of the mustard seed is we can never know the full effect of things when we step out to be used by God.
It’s a message we all need to hear isn’t it. Because we are attracted to the big. But God often chooses to work through the small. Its’ with that one-on-one conversation you have with someone after church that affects the direction of that person’s life. It’s that encounter with the work colleague that sparks an interest in the things of God and eventually – through other many other small encounters, leads him to Christ. It’s that little book you hand to your neighbour that sits on a shelf for six months until tragedy happens and she picks it up to read. We serve a God who takes a mustard seed – a small step of faith, a small act of obedience, and multiplies it by his power to bring about very large results.
There’s still left one part of the parable that is unaccounted for. It’s where Jesus says, “The birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (verse 32). What is that all about? Jesus is alluding I believe to two Old Testament passages: Daniel 4:12 and Ezekiel 17:23. In the first, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon dreams of a giant tree with its height reaching to heaven. It’s a reference to the Babylonian Empire in which the nations of the world would find some measure of protection and security. In a similar manner, in the Ezekiel 17 passage, the tree refers to the Assyrian kingdom in which the same thing would occur.
Now here in Matthew 13, Jesus uses the same tree analogy to speak of the kingdom of God. Just as there were nations which benefited from the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires in the past, so there will be people who benefit from the growth of God’s Kingdom today. And we see that don’t we? There are many “birds” sheltering in the bush. They benefit from a Judeo-Christian heritage. They find protection under a legal system that punishes evil and rewards good. Our Western education system, equality for women, and care of the poor and needy have in large measure come from Christian beginnings. Wherever Christians have gone, there the influence of the kingdom is felt. Go to places like Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine that was under anti-Christian rule for almost a century and you’ll know what Jesus meant. Despite opposition and on-going aggression toward Christianity, the branches of the tree continue to spread.
That’s the parable of the Mustard Seed. Now let’s turn our attention to the parable of the Leaven.
The Invisible Power of the Kingdom
“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.” (Matthew 13:33)
Jesus provides another scene from daily life – a woman baking bread. The woman takes a small quantity of leaven or yeast, mixes it with a large quantity of flour, and bakes a large quantity of bread – enough to feed around 100 people.
Now yeast and leaven do work a little differently. Yeast is clean, fresh and wholesome. It is made from a cultivation of mineral salt-sugar solution to which starch is added. Leaven however, was produced by storing a piece of dough from the previous week and adding juices to promote the process of fermentation. But that has no bearing on the meaning of the parable. Both fit with its interpretation. The point Jesus wants to emphasize is the invisible power of the leaven. The leaven is hidden from sight and yet its effect is visible to all. That is how the kingdom of God works in the world. Its power is internal and invisible. It works in people’s hearts. And once it starts working, it influences every part of that person’s life.
The kingdom works inwardly. It words slowly and invisibly but powerfully in the souls of men and women. And it leaves nothing unchanged. Ones thoughts, attitudes, desires and worldview – how you view the world, your purpose for living, your goals, your motivations – they all get changed. You may continue to be a teacher or a banker or a doctor or a ditch-digger. But your outlook is drastically changed. And as a result, everything looks different.
I think of my own case. I was 19 years old. I had no purpose in life. Like many young people, I lived for the moment. I lived from one weekend to the next. My life consisted of cars, music, friends and beer. That was pretty much the extent of it. One of my favourite pastimes was cruising in my car, windows down, wind blowing in my hair and the stereo wound up so that the four speakers would make the door panels shake. Then I found Christ. I got saved. I had hope, I had purpose and I had joy. For the first time in my life I was truly happy. I was so happy I wanted to die. Heaven was better by far. These are the things a new creature in Christ starts thinking you see. They see things in a very different way. At first you might not picked up any great change. I stayed in my same job. I wore the same clothes. I still liked to run. And I still liked my car. And I still like music. But the music had changed. There was a different sound coming from my car speakers. The world’s songs were replaced with songs of praise.
You see, when the gospel gets you, it turns you inside out. It permeates your entire being. That’s the message of the leaven. The gospel has invisible power. It’s working away in the lives of people mysteriously, secretly, invisibly day after day until the time when Jesus returns, or they are taken to heaven when at last its permeating power reaches its end and their transformation is complete.
We are seeing, through the message of these parables of Jesus, what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. In spite of the stone and rocks, the scorching sun and the birds that snatch the seed, there is some good soil in which the gospel seed takes permanent root. In spite of the fact that there are weeds scattered about in the field, the wheat continue to grow and bear fruit. Despite the ongoing difficulties the mustard seed grows and the leaven does its permeating work.
Jesus is building his kingdom. He’s building here in New Zealand, he’s building it in India and Africa and China and in the lands of Russia. And the day is coming when it will come to a climax. The seventh angel will blow his trumpet and there will be a great shout from heaven,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
The Bible tells us very clearly what will happen in the end. The truth will triumph. Christianity will win. Evil will finally be destroyed. Then the kingdom will come in its fullness. And Jesus will reign forever.
Hallelujah. Come Lord Jesus.