Pastor David B. Curtis


The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Mark 4:30-34

Delivered 04/02/2006

We saw last week that the parable of the seed growing mysteriously spoke of the transition period and how the kingdom of God would grow to maturity by the end of the age. Do you remember what the golden rule of parabolic interpretation is? Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach.

Parables are similes and illustrations that help us to understand some dimension of the kingdom of God. This is a story about the kingdom. Over and over, Jesus would speak of the kingdom of God. In story after story, He would reveal truth about the kingdom from a different perspective.

Today we are going to look at the parable of the mustard seed, which I see speaking of the ongoing expansion of the kingdom of God.

This parable is very important for the disciples to hear. They are not world leaders or great statesmen or mighty generals, and yet, they have been called to change the world. In the darkness of their nights, they will wonder if they have made a mistake. And so, Jesus gives them this parable to let them know that they will succeed. Out of the little seed, their word will grow to start a mighty tree:

Mark 4:30-32 (NASB) And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31 "It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32 yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE."

I think the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach is how the kingdom will develop from the smallest of beginnings into something that will be greater than anyone could have imagined from the outset.

Jesus says there's this mustard seed, and it's a tiny speck of a seed, seeming so insignificant when it's sown. But eventually it grows into this six to ten foot plant that has these large branches that produce all this shade. Jesus is dealing with the fact that His followers may feel like this seed is very insignificant. With all that was going on in the Roman Empire, here's this little group of people gathered together. It may have felt like their seed was so insignificant. What difference could it make?

What difference could it make? Do you realize every person that has trusted Jesus as Savior can trace his/her spiritual roots back to one of these people sitting in the room with Jesus on that day? It may have seemed like a little, insignificant seed, but it changed the world, literally changed the world. So it may feel like your sowing of the seed is very insignificant ­ what could possibly come of this? Well, an eternal harvest, for one thing, as God takes these little seeds that are sown, and He builds His kingdom.

Mark 4:30 (NASB) And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it?

The kingdom is one of those concepts that seem to elude the grasp of our minds. We can easily consider earthly kingdoms since they can be explained geographically with boundaries, and politically with a definable government. We study ancient kingdoms of Babylon and Egypt as part of a well-rounded education, and if we stretch ourselves, we can recall a few facts about them. They had boundaries and monarchical governments and mighty armies and many enslaved subjects. But the kingdom of God is different. It has no boundaries geographically, spatially, or in terms of its governance. It needs no machinery that moves modern or ancient kingdoms, because the rule of the kingdom is omnipotent. Earthly kingdoms come and go. God's kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. Even when God's kingdom appears to be obscured, it remains forceful, mighty, and unruffled by the kingdoms of this world.

Ancient kingdoms regularly displayed their might through dazzling parades, magnificent buildings, extravagant celebrations, and grand armies. The ancients constructed new roads and buildings to accommodate a solitary visit from the emperor or king. People measured kingdoms by how large of a splash they could make in a given setting. So when Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom, the first century mind expected parades, armies, construction projects, and pomp. A disconnect existed between their concept of kingdom and what they viewed as insignificant and powerless.

But the parable teaches listeners that the kingdom of God will have only small beginnings - and this in contrast to what was normally believed; that it would come with such force and power that foreign armies and powers would be subdued under its forceful advance, and, for the Jew especially, that the Roman occupation of the land of Israel would be expelled when God's King Messiah was firmly established as reigning from Jerusalem and out into the world.
To assist their comprehension, Jesus again likens the kingdom to a common scene around ancient Palestine; the growth of the tiny Palestinian mustard seed into a garden tree. The kingdom of God may appear insignificant and without influence, yet we can be certain of its pervasive growth. Luther saw it happen and so did Augustine and Athanasius centuries before, and Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley later. God's kingdom is not dependent upon the displays of human might. By sovereign design, the kingdom grows and affects multitudes without boundaries. "What is the kingdom of God like?" we might ask. Jesus framed the answers in simple pictures for us to grasp.

What is the kingdom of God like? Remember that there is no real difference in the identity of kingdom of Heaven and kingdom of God. Matthew uses "heaven" as a substitute for God, which would have been a common Jewish practice out of reverence for the divine name. Kingdom of Heaven and kingdom of God are used interchangeable, so I would assume they are referring to the same thing:

Matthew 13:31 (NASB) He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like...
Mark 4:30 (NASB) And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it?
Luke 13:18 (NASB) Therefore He was saying, "What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it?

The kingdom of God is synonymous with the church; it is the New Covenant; it is Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. The kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God is the rule or reign of God. It is a spiritual, not geographical kingdom. God reigns in the hearts of people! Christianity is the kingdom of God.

Mark 4:31 (NASB) "It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil,

"Mustard seed... is smaller than all the seeds."- This statement has stirred much controversy. Critics who want to attack the Bible pounce on this statement. They say, "That proves the Bible is not inerrant, because a wild orchid seed is smaller than a mustard seed! Therefore, Jesus didn't know what was truly the smallest seed. If He didn't know that, then He is not God."

The Greek word used for "seed" and "seeds" in verse 31 is the word "sperma." The usage of the word "seeds" here refers to seeds sown in an agricultural manner. It refers to intentionally planted seeds. It refers to that which is planted as a crop to be eaten, as opposed to something that grows wild. The seed being referred to in the parable, then, is a seed that was sown agriculturally to produce something edible.

Of all the seeds that were sown at that time in the East, and all the seeds that are sown today to produce edible products, the mustard seed was and still is the smallest. In the context Jesus spoke in, what He said was absolutely correct. This was recently affirmed by Dr. A. L. Shinners, the director of the herbarium at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That herbarium is the largest in the southwest, with 318 thousand botanical specimens from all over the world. Dr. Shinners is also a regular lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute. He said, "...the mustard seed would indeed have been the smallest of those likely to have been noticed by the people at the time of Christ. The principal field crops (such as barley, wheat, lentils, beans) have much larger seeds as do...other plants which might have been present as weeds....There are various weeds and wild flowers belonging to the mustard, pigweed, and chickweed families with seeds as small or smaller than mustard itself, but they would not have been particularly known or noticed by the inhabitants." Those weeds and wild flowers were not planted as a crop.

Jesus was not intending to make a scientific statement. In Jesus' day, there was a common expression used to show smallness. That expression was "small as a mustard seed." Even the rabbis used "small as a mustard seed," to describe something insignificant, tiny, and unremarkable. This expression was much like our expressions, "sharp as a tack," or "high as a kite," or "flat as a pancake." Now these expressions are not the most exact scientifically. I'm sure that there are things sharper than tacks, higher than kites, or flatter than pancakes. But we use these expressions in our conversations to graphically illustrate the point we are attempting to make. So it was in that sense that this expression concerning the mustard seed came to use in Jesus' day.

How tiny it is to the other seeds! Other common seeds might be ten to twenty times larger. The point was that it was the smallest as compared with the ones with which they were familiar. It is deliberate exaggeration. And, indeed, while it was not necessarily so in size, it was in significance. It seemed tiny and unimportant. What a contrast with the huge bush, which was a favorite of the birds of the air.

Christ begins with a single seed ­ a tiny mustard seed. And I think it is of note that He does not say, "mustard seeds," as though there were many planted. He takes the idea of the tiniest seed with which they were familiar, and with great care, the man takes and sows this one seed in his field. One seed, one tiny seed seems to be without significance, especially when it comes to a mustard seed. It is smaller than the head of a pin, and about the size of a dot that you make with a pencil. Jesus wants to emphasize the small beginnings of His kingdom.

Mark 4:32 (NASB) yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE."

Matthew and Luke record Jesus as saying that this mustard seed, "becomes a tree." The remarkable nature of the Palestinian mustard seed was that it could grow into a small tree. Jesus was not talking about a big timber tree here; He was talking about a shrub so large that it had the properties of a tree.

Mark records Jesus as saying, "becomes larger than all the garden plants" - growing to heights of eight to twelve feet. And such growth came from the tiniest seed. It appeared to have little potential, incapable of exceeding the other garden plants, yet that is precisely what it did. With such a simple picture, Jesus drives home the point: Small beginnings of kingdom influence and rule inevitably give way to the mighty work of His kingdom.

We see a good example of the ongoing growth of the kingdom in Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer from Wittenburg. At that point in the Middle Ages, it seemed that the work of God's kingdom had been completely obscured. The church that should have been a vivid display of God's kingdom at work lacked even the slightest resemblance to the holiness and purity befitting the kingdom of God. As Martin Luther struggled with his own sins, he traveled to the center of church life in Rome. Instead of finding answers to relieve the guilt of his sins, he saw only corruption. Indulgences, the Roman practice of excusing sins, were sold, adding more silver to the Pope's coffers. Those charged with the responsibility of teaching people the way to God and how to live in relationship to Him did not read the Scripture or know the way themselves. Most indulged in the greed and lust that characterizes the world. Instead of giving Luther the answers that he needed in the church, it drove him to the Scriptures to understand how a man can be justified in God's sight.

We know the story well. After Luther discovered again the gospel of the kingdom in the justifying work of Christ alone, he sought to correct the superstitions and false teaching in his own parish. Nailing Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenburg, this single monk sought to identify the corruptions and unscriptural teachings that marked the church and needed change. He had in mind correcting problems that he faced in his own locale. Yet, here was a single grain of mustard being planted in the vastness of the Holy Roman Empire! That one act of kingdom life exploded far beyond Wittenberg and far beyond the 16th century! What began as small, insignificant, and seemingly weak increased to mammoth proportions affecting the whole empire and the future of the world. That's the picture that we find of the kingdom of God in our text.

Jesus tells us that this seed grows so large "that THE BIRDS OF THE AIR can NEST UNDER ITS SHADE." Not only does the mustard seed grow to produce food for the farmer and his family, but it extends its benefits to the creatures of the air. The birds come and roost in the tree's branches. The birds picture the expansive influence of Christ's kingdom throughout the world. Even those that do not benefit by being part of this kingdom through a relationship with Jesus Christ may yet benefit through the effects of the kingdom in the world. The farmer did not sow the mustard seed for birds to roost but to feed his family. It is those that are in relationship to Jesus Christ that most profit from the kingdom.

Just to give you an example of how varied the interpretations of this parable are, listen to what one commentator writes:

Our Lord is telling us a secret of the kingdom of God. He says that this mustard seed, which is supposed to be lowly and unimpressive, will provoke a false growth. It will stimulate a wholly false system which will be characterized by its seeking to be dominant, very impressive, and powerful, and to exercise wide influence -- so much so that satanic forces (you remember that in the parable of the sower, the key to all the parables, this is what Jesus says the birds represent) will take up residence within its great structure. It will seem to be tremendously powerful, and will have the name of the kingdom of God, but it will be anything but!

His is trying to say that God's kingdom will become a total mess. He has violated the golden rule of parabolic interpretation and made the birds represent evil. He takes a parable that is meant to be an encouragement and turns it to discouragement.

The picture of birds in a tree is familiar from the Old Testament. It illustrates a great empire in which the nations find shelter:

Ezekiel 31:2-6 (NASB) "Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and to his multitude, 'Whom are you like in your greatness? 3 'Behold, Assyria was a cedar in Lebanon With beautiful branches and forest shade, And very high; And its top was among the clouds. 4 'The waters made it grow, the deep made it high. With its rivers it continually extended all around its planting place, And it sent out its channels to all the trees of the field. 5 'Therefore its height was loftier than all the trees of the field And its boughs became many and its branches long Because of many waters as it spread them out. 6 'All the birds of the heavens nested in its boughs, And under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth, And all great nations lived under its shade.

Here Egypt is likened to a tall tree that nests the birds in its branches. We see this same idea in the book of Daniel:

Daniel 4:10 (NASB) 'Now these were the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed: I was looking, and behold, there was a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great.

Here Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, is likened to a tree:

Daniel 4:21-22 (NASB) and whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which the beasts of the field dwelt and in whose branches the birds of the sky lodged-- 22 it is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth.

So the idea of birds nesting in the branches is the idea of nations finding shelter in the particular kingdom. The benefits of the kingdom of God extend beyond the redeemed. The world benefits by the rule of Christ, for just as the birds found lodging in the mustard tree, even so the people of the world find help, comfort, and better lives through the expansive work of Christ's kingdom. Let me explain what I believe this implies. When the gospel of the kingdom takes root among a people, it changes the way not only the believers live but also others about them. Some that were engaged in immoral, damaging behavior are transformed by the gospel and so make the community a better place to live. The influence of kingdom citizens in a community slows down the decay and putrefaction so common in the world.

In the ancient Roman Empire, secular historians record the gracious way that Christians cared for not only their own but also the poor, dying, and even the slaves at large in the empire. So effective was their social care for the people of the empire that the pagan Emperor Julian grew frustrated that the rest of the Romans could not behave like these Christians whom he called atheists since they did not worship his gods. The social and moral conditions throughout the empire were affected by the work of Christ's kingdom among His people.

This parable of the mustard seed is teaching us that from a small beginning, the kingdom of God will grow until it extends itself to be the greatest kingdom on earth. We see this same idea in Daniel:

Daniel 2:31-36 (NASB) "You, O king, were looking and behold, there was a single great statue; that statue, which was large and of extraordinary splendor, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was awesome. 32 "The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 "You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and crushed them. 35 "Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. 36 "This was the dream; now we shall tell its interpretation before the king.

Here the small stone from God was seen to break in pieces the large statue representing the kingdoms of the earth and, subsequently, grew to become a great mountain that towered over all that had gone before it. The truth of the matter is that the kingdom of God that has started out with small beginnings will grow to enormous proportions until it can be seen throughout the entire earth. We are even told when it will happen:

Daniel 2:44 (NASB) "And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.

In the days of the Roman Empire God set up His kingdom which will endure forever.

We see this same idea in Ezekiel - from small beginnings to a great kingdom. In the restored kingdom, which is a reference to the church, Ezekiel sees a river flowing out of the kingdom:

Ezekiel 47:2-5 (NASB) And he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me around on the outside to the outer gate by way of the gate that faces east. And behold, water was trickling from the south side. 3 When the man went out toward the east with a line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and he led me through the water, water reaching the ankles. 4 Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water, water reaching the knees. Again he measured a thousand and led me through the water water reaching the loins. 5 Again he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not ford, for the water had risen, enough water to swim in, a river that could not be forded.

This vision of Ezekiel is the living waters of the gospel of the kingdom, which began on the day of Pentecost to flow out from the Temple at Jerusalem. On Pentecost, when the Spirit rushed in a mighty way upon the band of believers, the trickle of living water began as Peter preached the gospel. As time goes on this trickle continues to grow until it is a river. Notice the effects of this river in verse 9:

Ezekiel 47:9 (NASB) "And it will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there, and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.

What ever this river touches lives! The kingdom will grow in size so drastically that there will be nowhere that doesn't feel its forceful message.

The work of Christ's kingdom continues to have small beginnings in so many places. Luther's Ninety-Five Theses shook an empire. Whitefield and Wesley's preaching the necessity of the new birth awakened both sides of the Atlantic. Wilberforce's application of kingdom principles shattered the slave trade in the British Empire. Carey's humble work revolutionized the education and morals of the vast Indian nation. Small beginnings are no problem when the work belongs to the King.

The kingdom of God continues to move right on schedule. And so you have a mighty nation like China that forbids Christian evangelism and open displays of faith in Christ, but it cannot stop the work of God's kingdom. In the face of great opposition the work of the kingdom continues so that the gospel of the kingdom penetrates throughout China with a staggering number of Christians willing to risk everything for the sake of Christ and the gospel. Because of the work of the kingdom, even the persecution levied by the communist leadership has been turned around to accomplish God's purposes!

Mark 4:33-34 (NASB) And with many such parables He was speaking the word to them as they were able to hear it; 34 and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.

It is clear from these words that Jesus taught many parables of which we have no record. These were but a selection.

The parable sequence concludes with a recapitulation of what we were told in verse 2 and then again in verses 9-12; Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables, in "riddle-talk"-but He explains all the "riddle-talk" to His disciples privately.

Again, there's a final reminder that there were those that were only receiving parables because of their disbelief. But to those who listened, to those who heard, to those who believed, Jesus continued to unveil the mysteries of His kingdom.

The only ones to whom He actually spoke plainly were the ones who showed their deeper interest and concern for the truth by following Him. To them He revealed the truth in clear words. "To His own disciples He privately explained all things."

I see two strong applications coming out of Mark, chapter 4. One has to do with our

continuing responsibility to sow the seed. No one will ever come to saving faith in Christ without hearing the gospel:

Romans 10:14 (NASB) How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?

As God reveals His truth to us, we don't take the lamp and stick it under the bed. We need to let it shine. We sow the seed and trust God to give it growth. It may seem insignificant at the time, but He's going to grow it into His kingdom. God will do things with those seeds you can't even begin to imagine. Just be faithful to sow the seed.

But I also think another main application of this passage is about the victory of the kingdom. This tiny seed will continue to grow, it cannot be stopped.

If you find yourself discouraged by all of the evil about you in the world ­ and there is plenty of it ­ pause for a few moments to consider the continuing impact of Christ's kingdom in this world. Everywhere the work of the kingdom has spread, not only have there been new converts that follow Christ even to death, but there has also arisen thousands of schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, orphanages, job training institutes, hunger relief programs, literacy training, relief for the poor, prison ministries, and a host of other work that benefits society. There's nothing small about the influence and effects of Christ's kingdom in our world! Whatever small beginnings you observe of Christ's kingdom, be assured that it will grow far beyond your comprehension.

This parable is meant to encourage us. It is easy for us to get discouraged sometimes, because we feel like no matter how hard we try, we always seem to be crushed and crowded out by the evil world around us. If we feel that way, can you imagine how the disciples felt? However, there are many believers all over the world today, and there are still many people coming to Christ. In some countries there are thousands of people coming to Christ every day. The Kingdom is growing.

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