The Mustard Seed and the Mustard Tree

Another kingdom parable is the story of the mustard seed.  Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32).  Again this illustration may have been designed by Jesus to assure those who had trouble reconciling the tiny beginnings of God’s kingdom ushered in by Christ (a mustard seed is about a millimeter in diameter) with the powerful and explosive revolution they were expecting from their Messiah. 

But as it turns out this parable is actually a prophecy that we see coming true throughout the church age to this very day.  The kingdom that began at Christ’s first coming essentially started in Acts 1 with a group of 120 people (Acts 1:15).  A tiny mustard seed in the big picture of the world’s past and present population.  From this mustard seed beginning, the worldwide church has grown incredibly to a number that cannot be counted.

Describing the kingdom of God as becoming a “tree for the birds to nest in” ties it into the Old Testament description of mighty kingdoms (Ez 17:23; 31:6; Dan 4:12).  In its currently quiet way, the church has become a mighty kingdom.  Its true size will eventually be known at the second coming of Christ.  Like the parable of the automatic kingdom, this story should encourage us when our ministry work appears to us the size of a mustard seed.  We should not despair at small beginnings, but see our work as a leaf or branch in the growing mustard tree; the universal and growing church of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Automatic Kingdom

Another parable that cues us in to the nature and workings of the kingdom of God is found in Mark 4:26-29 and again begins with, “The kingdom of God is like…”  In this case the kingdom is like “a man who casts seed upon the ground; and goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts up and grows – how, he himself does not know.  The earth produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.  But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

This parable gives rise to our idea of the kingdom of God being a secret kingdom.  To His first century hearers, it must have appeared that all this talk of Jesus initiating the kingdom of God was not accompanied by action.  After all, Herod was still king.  The Romans still occupied Palestine.  And Jesus rebuffed any attempts to be made king in an earthly sense.  We may feel the same way today.  Why don’t we see more evidence in the world of God’s kingdom at work?

The fact is that God’s kingdom, though clearly operating on a world-wide scale, is a secret kingdom.  Just like the farmer in Jesus’ story had no idea how or even if the seed was growing, we may feel like the evidence of a growing kingdom is not very obvious.  In fact, if God is represented by the farmer as the planter, we may feel like He is following the farmer’s example of doing relatively little work while the seed is growing.  The words “goes to bed at night and gets up by day” suggest the farmer is not doing anything to make the seed grow.  He is just going about his normal business of waiting.  But God is working.  After all, unbeknownst to the farmer, God is growing the seed.

Notice how the seed is growing; “by itself.” (vs 28).  “By itself” is translated from the Greek word, automatos; the Greek root of our English word, automatic.  We are all familiar with the word “automatic” used to describe things that seem to run “by itself”, like an automatic transmission or automatic dishwasher.  The message here is that the kingdom starts as a seed.  Seed is vulnerable.  The beginning of God’s kingdom is vulnerable.  Jesus is a zygote in His mother’s womb.  With such a small start, how does the seed grow?  How does the kingdom grow?  According to this parable, it grows automatically.  And we know from the rest of the New Testament that it is God causing the growth that appears to be automatic.  This fits Jesus’ description of the church, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.” (Mt 16:18).

As with the parable of the wheat and the weeds, this should bring us great encouragement.  When it does not appear to us that things are happening fast enough, when evidence of God’s growing kingdom is blurry, rest assured that God is at work.  Growth is happening, “the seed sprouts up and grows…first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head.” (vs 27-28).  And similar to the wheat and the weeds, there is a harvest coming when, “he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (vs 29).

Now with God working automatically, do His kingdom citizens do nothing?  No!  We partner with God.  “What then is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (I Cor 3:5-7).  We plant the seed.  We water the seed.  We dive in wherever God leads us to be involved.

But God is the one who accomplishes the work.  We are not responsible to make it happen.  This can be such a challenge in ministry.  We want to see something happen.  We want to see something big happen.  But there are no Messiah complexes here.  The pressure is off us to make it happen.  Our role is the incredible opportunity to come alongside God and join Him in His work.  God is growing His secret kingdom.  Won’t you join Him in His work?

The Wheat and the Weeds

Like so many of Jesus’ parables, the story of the wheat and the weeds (Mt 13:24-30) begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  What is coming next is a word picture describing some aspect of the kingdom of God.  In this parable, the farmer planted good seed, the wheat, in his field.  At night, his enemy came and sowed weeds.  At first no one realized the sabotage.  But as the wheat and the weeds began to grow together, it was obvious something was wrong.  The confused workers quizzed the farmer, “Did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then does it have weeds?” (Mt 13:27).  The farmer recognizes this as the work of an enemy.  The workers respond with a willingness to immediately yank out the weeds.  But the farmer replies, “No, lest while you are gathering up the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.  Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’ “ (Mt 13:29-30).

At the disciples’ request, Jesus gives the interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:37-43.  “And He answered and said, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.  Therefore just as the weeds are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.  He who has ears, let him hear.’ “

Jesus’ explanation of this parable fits the kingdom picture we have been examining over the last few posts.  First notice the similarity between John the Baptist’s description of Jesus’ coming and the harvest mentioned in the parable.  The phrase, “Gather the wheat into His barn” appears in both passages. (Mt 3:12 and 13:30).  However the expected timing is different.  John expected the gathering to take place when Jesus first arrived on the scene.  Jesus is clearly teaching in this story that the gathering is at some future end of the age.  The interesting point is that the judgment envisioned by John is going to happen.  There is no doubt it will come true.  And while we find it hard to come to terms with Jesus’ fiery description and the awful reality of the final judgment, it is clear that Jesus believed and taught that the devil and his workers will face a final judgment of destruction.  This description fits the two-stage coming of Christ shown in the “New Testament view” chart below.  (See “The Secret Kingdom” post for comparison with the Old Testament view.)In the meantime, in the present age, Jesus makes clear that good and evil will grow together.  That God’s kingdom and the kingdom of evil will grow alongside each other.  And that Satan is the power behind the growing kingdom of evil.  God does have an arch-enemy.  We struggle with that because that somehow implies to us an equal as an enemy.  But that is not the case.  God is clearly the superior being and will one day judge and destroy His enemy as we saw above.  But, for now and for reasons I can’t explain and as taught in this parable and throughout the New Testament, God has given some level of reign over this world to Satan.  “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19) is just one of many references to Satan’s current rule in this world.

Satan is the author of the evil we see and experience in this world.  And I think we unnecessarily damage God’s reputation when we take God’s sovereignty to the point of making Him the author of evil but somehow using it for good, etc.  There is no need for these theological gymnastics.  I believe God weeps over the evil in the world, not because He can’t do anything about it, but because for this age He has ceded some level of rule to the evil one.

We, on the other hand, would like to see the Old Testament method put to use today.  The Old Testament model was God’s blessing and punishment were generally immediate, physical, and temporal.  That is what the workers had in mind in the parable.  “Should we use the Old Testament method and yank out these weeds on sight?  God replied, “Allow both to grow until the judgment at the end of the age.”  The banishment of evil and evildoers is coming, but not yet.  We would like to see evil destroyed in the here and now.

So when you see evil flourish, when you see the wicked prosper, do not despair.  God’s kingdom is growing and at work and will ultimately triumph.  This parable is meant to be an encouragement when we are discouraged by the power of evil in the world, including its presence in our own experience and our community of believers.  God has ordained that the two kingdoms not only co-exist but grow alongside each other in the present age.  This does not imply we take a nihilistic view of evil as if there is nothing we can do about it.  On the contrary, Jesus taught in many places the necessity of resisting evil and working alongside Him in “destroying the works of the devil.” (I Jn 3:8).  In fact, this may be one piece of the puzzle as to why evil exists in the world.  Could it be an opportunity for the church to serve the world and give witness to our alignment with Christ through fighting the works of the devil; disease, corruption, greed, etc.?  Something to think about.