A few years ago I was given the gift of a mustard seed. The seed is in a small clear case, and I can attach it to my suit jacket or sport coat to wear on the lapel. I receive a lot of questions from people asking, “What’s that?”
Telling them it’s a mustard seed gives me an opportunity to relate a short parable of Jesus Christ where He used a mustard seed to explain the Kingdom of God. (Matthew records Jesus using the term “kingdom of heaven” as a euphemism for “kingdom of God” because religious Jews of that time didn’t speak the name of God out of reverence and lest they break the Third Commandment against taking God’s name in vain.)
Here is what Jesus spoke in a very short parable recorded in Matthew 13:31-32: “Another parable He put forth to them, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.’”
The parable is short, and using a mustard seed fits the brevity of His point. But the message, as usual, is quite large and filled with profound insight. Let’s examine what we can learn from the parable.
Starting small amid opposing factors
The context of the parable in Matthew 13 follows the long parable of the sower and the seed and the parable of the tares sown by the enemy among the good seed of the field. The earlier parables in this chapter focus on the results of the sowing of the seed of the gospel or good news of the Kingdom through the preaching of the word. Some seed falls on rocky ground and doesn’t sprout, some falls on other ground and grows for a little while but withers in the heat of the day. Other seed falls on good ground and produces much fruit.
The parable of the tares shows the focused opposition of Satan the devil to God’s purpose of “bringing many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). But God’s plan will not be hindered. In the harvest God will have the tares separated from the good grain. His purpose shall stand.
Now, with the parable of the mustard seed, Christ adds another dimension of understanding to His teaching about the Kingdom. In the present world the Kingdom starts small, among the smallest of matters, but its power is strong and enduring, and it will grow to become something far greater.
Another lesson on small beginnings
In the days of the Jewish return to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, God sent the prophet Zechariah to stir the people to action in their important task. They had stopped work on rebuilding the temple, the very purpose for their return from captivity in Babylon.
The small group of Jews were a fraction of their former state before their captivity. Demoralized from the years in Babylon, their confidence in both their ability and God’s presence among them was weak. They began the work of rebuilding, but had let opposition from the neighboring peoples bring the project to a halt. God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir them to renew their effort.
In a vision of the temple, Zechariah saw lampstands, a bowl and olive trees. It was a vision God wanted conveyed to the leader of the Jewish community, Zerubbabel. The message was one of encouragement that God was with the fledgling community and that the people’s work would be successful, yet they had to continue.
“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain! And he shall bring forth the capstone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’” . . . “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; His hands shall also finish it” (Zechariah 4:6-9).
God does His work among men by the power of His Holy Spirit. The power of the returned Jewish exiles was very small at this moment. Opposition and criticism had hindered them. God was effectively saying to the leaders, You have begun the work; keep at it and you’ll finish it. I am with you, but you have to work!
Then the prophet adds another thought from God: “For who has despised the day of small things? For these seven rejoice to see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. They are the eyes of the Lord, which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:10, emphasis added throughout).
The message to Zerubbabel and the people is clear: Don’t worry about your small numbers and your insignificant position. This small outpost of Jews was completely at the mercy of the great Persian Empire and its king, Cyrus. But God had been the One to move Cyrus to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem. God was greater than the king of Persia. There was no need to fear the king or any other source of opposition. Though they were small, God was with them!
At that moment the Jews were the remnant of the covenant nation of Israel. Israel had a special purpose in the hand of God, and though the nation had sinned and stumbled, God’s purpose and plan were sure. At that moment it was critical to the purpose of God that the nation be replanted and endure. Prophecies concerning the birth, life and death of Jesus the Messiah had yet to be fulfilled. God’s purpose would stand. Though it seemed small at the moment, God was working!
Planting the mustard seed in your life
Here is a lesson for us. When Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is like a small mustard seed that would grow large, He was showing the power of God to do His work through whatever instrument He chooses. It will often be in a small way that He works, but that is to His glory!
The apostle Paul similarly wrote: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair” (2 Corinthians 4:7-8).
God gives the power of the Holy Spirit to work faith and righteousness in His chosen people. It is the mighty power by which He raised Jesus from the dead. That same power can work in us to produce fruit for the Kingdom of God. The power is great and significant, but it starts small, like a mustard seed.
This power of life and faith is available when people realize they don’t have the real power of God inherent within them. They must receive it from God.
How about you? Are you at that point yet? The key to living by every word of God and facing the challenges of life with courage and confidence is having within you the Spirit of God, the down payment of eternal life, the life of the Kingdom to come.
Frankly, without that power none of us can expect to see the Kingdom of God. God’s Spirit must be a part of our life. Like that mustard seed, that Spirit must be planted within us and begin to grow to produce spiritual growth.
Where and how to begin
How does it begin? God promises the power to turn from sin and to obey Him in all parts of life. We find the beginning mandate in God’s plan in Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, where he spoke the convicting words that lead to life: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Do you wonder what it means to “repent”? This is not a word we hear often. It means to stop living the way that brings problems, heartache and tragedy and ends in broken lives that are hard to fix. To repent means to change destructive and addictive behavior that not only damages your own life but that of others in your family who love and care for you.
To repent in a biblical sense means to look into the mirror of God’s perfect law of liberty and ask if you are a hearer or a doer of the Word of God (James 1:22-25). It means to take an honest assessment of your life, even if you feel you are a Christian and know God, and compare that to the standard of righteousness defined by God’s law.
Does this help you to begin to make some sense of what may be missing in your present life? If you’ve been struggling as a God-fearing person and wonder if something is wrong with you, then take a lesson from this parable. God’s Kingdom is like a grain of mustard seed. It has the smallest of beginnings, yet has the greatest of power and potential. Do not minimize the power of the Spirit of God!
Notice how Christ answered His disciples’ confusion over their lack of spiritual power. They hadn’t been able to overcome the dark power of the demonic world and came to Christ asking what they were doing wrong. His answer connects to our parable. “So Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain [an obstacle blocking what needs to be done], “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind [of powerful demon] does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:20-21)—drawing closer to God.
Never underestimate the power of God’s Spirit to begin and to finish His perfect work in you. Christ is preparing places for His followers in His coming Kingdom. He is working within His Church now, a small body of believers (Luke 12:32)—but a body which will later be visible and apparent when God’s followers are transformed and His Kingdom rules over all nations.