Jesus’ Kingdom parables reveal the nature of His world and ways, and the parable of the mustard seed is no exception.
Let’s read all three parallel passages and break them down:
“…The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field. Of all the seeds it is the smallest, but when it has grown it is the largest of the garden herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and find shelter in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32 Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)
“…With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use to illustrate and explain it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds upon the earth; Yet after it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all garden herbs and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air are able to make nests and dwell in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32 AMPC
“…What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the wild birds found shelter and roosted and nested in its branches.” Luke 13:18-19 AMPC
Now, let’s consider how this applies to the Kingdom in our daily lives (Note: You may need to prayerfully re-read some or most of these points after you read them to help absorb them.):
- In this parable, as well as in all His parables regarding the Kingdom, He speaks of His Kingdom (Reign) as a present reality, saying the Kingdom of God “IS”, not was or will be (see Matthew 12:28; 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9; 11:20; 17:21; 23:42-43; John 4:25-26; 11:23-26). Also, for Him to liken His Kingdom to a seed that is planted in the earth and becomes a tree — as opposed to comparing it to a planet, star or galaxy in outer space — illustrates that His Kingdom is right under our nose, hidden beneath and within our physical reality. And, of course, this affirmed what Jesus was already widely declaring, which was, “The Kingdom of God IS at hand” (Matthew 4:17 King James Version), “IS here” (The Message), “IS now very near” (Easy-to-Read Version), “IS upon us” (The New English Bible) and “IS now accessible” (The Passion Translation). [Note: This is the same Good News John the Baptist preached and the same Good News Jesus told His followers to declare and nowhere in scripture or history do we see Him changing the message.] With that said, as long we expect the Kingdom to “come” one day in the future, we will never understand that “…The Kingdom of God has come upon you [before you expected it].” (Matthew 12:28 Amplified Bible) As Jesus said in Mark 1:15, “…It IS time for the realm of God’s kingdom to be experienced IN ITS FULLNESS!“ (The Passion Translation) It’s time to repent (change the way we think) and believe the Gospel. [Note: To dive much deeper into this topic, click here.]
- Jesus likened the Kingdom of God — “the reign of God” (Mark 4:30 Young’s Literal Translation) — to the smallest and least of all seeds upon the earth. He didn’t equate His Kingdom, which is really Himself and Who He is, to the biggest of all seeds. He didn’t present Himself as “big-n-bad.” He didn’t compare His reign to the biggest and most beautiful structures, like Herod’s Temple that His disciples praised in Matthew 24:1. He didn’t relate His reality to enormous, powerful governments like Rome that ruled the whole civilized world of that day. Neither did He liken His system to the universe or to the Sun or to a mighty nation. Instead, He likened His Kingdom to “the smallest” and “the least” of “all seeds upon the earth”, to something we would consider “less than“, to something we would easily overlook. Why does this matter? Well, because unlike us, the Lord isn’t obsessed with size as a measure of worth or importance. Instead, He sees and values potential, seeing what will be over what is. When Jesus told Pilate in John 18:36 (Amplified Bible) that His Kingdom “is not of this world”, he was saying it isn’t like our world and doesn’t function like our world. In other words, the way He reigns, the way He works, isn’t like us or all the systems (even the “Christian” systems) we esteem that grade on size, power, position, perception, etc. His Kingdom sees and works differently because it is wholly other. It starts small, beginning as something easy to miss, as something most would consider insignificant, and then slowly expands, grows and matures over time, which brings me to the next point.
- Once “the smallest of all seeds upon the earth” is planted, what happens? Well, “…It grows up and becomes bigger than any other plant…” (Mark 4:31 J.B. Phillips), until it becomes the largest and greatest of all garden herbs and becomes a tree with large branches. Notice the progressive transformation, how the Kingdom, like a plant, sprouts, grows and becomes so much more than it was, through gradual stages of development? It doesn’t grow in a moment or over-night but over-time, not instantly but gradually, revealing, as a principle, what the Kingdom “is like” in how it always “comes”, whenever it “comes”. In Matthew 6:10, when Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come”, He wasn’t praying for the Kingdom to come from a distant place to where He was. Rather, He was saying, “Thy Kingdom grow and appear” because the word “come” literally means to “grow” and “appear”, just as a plant appears out of the ground as it grows (Strong’s G2064). As I think about this, along with Jesus’ other parables where He likens His Kingdom to plants, I’m reminded of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel two where the Stone (Jesus) that was cut out of a Mountain (the Kingdom) without human hands struck the feet of the image (the kingdoms of men) so that it displaced it with a Mountain (Christ the Head and Body) that fills all things (see Ephesians 1:23 and Isaiah 6:3). Notice the correlation between the Seed that grows into a massive tree that fills the air with large branches and the Stone that grows into a Mountain that fills the earth? As I ponder this, I’m also reminded of Isaiah 9:7 (AMPC) where it says “Of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end…” Contrary to what we’ve been told, the Kingdom doesn’t come in a moment in a flash of light. Instead, it grows, appears and increases. With that said, it’s important to carefully note that anything that grows takes time. James touched on this when he said, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it…” (James 5:7 King James Version). The word “coming” in this verse means “presence” or “being with” or “near” (Strong’s G3952), showing that the Lord, like a seed in the ground, doesn’t actually “come”, per se, but is already present with us, growing in our midst. With this in mind, it seems James is encouraging us to wait patiently for the precious fruit (manifestation) of the Lord Himself (His very Person) to grow/appear wherever He is planted, whether in us, in our homes, in our marriages, in our children, in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our communities or anywhere else. And while I know waiting isn’t our favorite thing to do, let’s remember that “Love endures long and is patient… Love bears up under anything and everything that comes… its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening]. Love never fails…” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7-8 AMPC) The development within us of this kind and quality of love-fueled patience is necessary for us to cooperate with Him in growing His Kingdom in us, in our daily lives and then in our world around us until He fills all things.
- As I consider the time it takes for a tiny seed to grow into a tree with large branches as an illustration of how the Kingdom (really the Lord Himself) grows and develops in us, in all we do and in our cosmos, I’m reminded of our vital need for long-range vision. The question is, how do we see the world and the future? Are we aggressively and optimistically building for 1000 years, for the longterm, with future generations in mind? Have we considered how our thoughts, words and actions are as pebbles in a pond that produce ripples that will be felt by our posterity for ages to come? Do we even believe we will have children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc.? Do we think about them, pray for them and plan for them, doing everything everyday with them and our broader world in mind? Do we make decisions about our lives and our children’s lives based on what will grow the Kingdom of God the most in our world for eons to come? Are we doing our jobs, managing our finances, casting our ballots, maintaining our assets, educating our children, spending our money, investing in relationships and planning our retirement years (assuming we believe in “retirement”) in ways that benefit our posterity and the whole world for the Kingdom of God for 1000 years and beyond? Or, are we so focused on our little seed today that we miss the bigger picture? Have we pondered the potential of a single seed and the fruit that comes from it, as well as the seeds in the fruit from that single seed that have their own incredible potential for fruitful legacies we can influence today? Or, do we mistakenly think “the end is near” so that we see and plan myopically and stay saved just enough to make it to heaven?
- The seed planted in the ground is a type of God and His Kingdom being planted in us and us in Him, revealing a personal application that empowers us as individuals. In Mark 4:14-20 (ten verses before Mark 4:30-32 quoted above), Jesus likens the “field” to people’s “hearts”, which is “…the hidden springs of the personal life…the sphere of Divine influence… the hidden man… the real man… the true character…” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). “Hearts” is also defined as “…the thoughts or feelings (mind); also (by analogy) the middle…” of a person (Strong’s G2588) Luke 13:18-19 compares our hearts to a “garden”, revealing the personal ownership we have over the thoughts, feelings and desires we allow to be planted and grown in our hearts and minds that determine what takes root and develops within us. Jesus then goes on in Luke 13:18-19 to liken the “seed” to “the Word”, Who is with God and is God Who became flesh in Jesus and lived among us (John 1:1, 14), as He (Father, Son and Spirit) now lives in us and with us in this world as we also now live in and with Him where He is (see John 1:16; 14:2, 16-18, 20, 23; 15:4-17; 17:21-24, 26; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Ephesians 3:19; Colossians 1:26-27; 2:9-10). [Note: You may want to go back and re-read that last sentence and chew on it a bit before you proceed.] In the Lord, we “…are not of the world [no longer one with it]…” (John 15:19 AMPC), just as a seed is not of the soil and is not one with it. But, like the seed in the soil, we are the Seed of God planted in this world for a purpose (John 17:18), which brings us to the next point.
- The seed planted in the ground is also a type of us who are planted in the world we live in, providing a societal application that empowers us as influencers in our individual spheres of life. In Matthew 13:38 (six verses after Matthew 13:31-32 quoted above), Jesus likens the “field” to “the world” and the “seed” to “the children of the kingdom”, revealing the purpose of our daily lives. Once planted, we begin to grow as our roots go deep and wide and take over the soil while our trunk grows high and fills the air with our branches. Then, as we become fruitful, we begin to drop the seeds of His Life onto our own field, which is our homes, our families, our relationships, our businesses and workplaces, our communities, etc., thus further spreading His Life into the earth around us. In this way, we partner with God to bring His Life into our world, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), thereby reducing in our homes, families, relationships, workplaces, communities, etc. what is already reduced in heaven and increasing in those arenas what is already increased in heaven (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). As we plant Seeds — through our words and actions in these various spheres of influence that we do life in — the Life of the Kingdom grows and fills the earth for all the birds of the air (more about the birds later).
- As a principle, everything God plants produces after it’s kind. The planting of Jesus in us has the potential to produce in us “the completeness of personality which is nothing less than the standard height of Christ’s own perfection), the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ and the completeness found in Him” so that we are “no longer… children” but those who “grow up in every way and in all things into Him” (Ephesians 4:13-15 AMPC). Then, as we grow and become like Him, the kind of seed we sow improves in quality so that the Seed produces after its kind until the world is His kind — “on earth as it is in heaven”.
- The tree putting out “great” (American Standard Version), “big” (Complete Jewish Bible), “large branches” in Mark 4:32 points to the enlarging of His Life and Reality in our hearts and minds and then in our individual spheres of influence. Not all trees have large branches but some do, depending on conditions, such as their access to water, sunlight, nutrients, etc., which are all types of benefits we receive as we walk with the Lord. And because everyone is at different stages of development, for various reasons, we can’t compare and measure ourselves (our trees) by others. It doesn’t matter how we match-up to others. All we can do is surrender ourselves to the Gardner to allow Him to cultivate us into our best selves for Him so we can then work with Him in cultivating our world into the Kingdom of Heaven.
- The birds of the air coming and finding lodging, shelter and shade in the branches speaks of us providing others healing (Revelation 22:2), peace and protection from predators and the harsh elements of life. As they nest, they rest. As they roost, they are refreshed. Why? Because there’s something appealing about a strong, solid tree. They know what safety feels like and build their homes where they feel most secure. The trees don’t have to advertise or market themselves. If they become “the largest of the garden herbs” and become a tree — tall, strong and healthy — the birds of the air will notice and fly to them to make their home in them, just as the disciples made their home in Jesus (see Ezekiel 17:22-24). Does this mean we becoming their resting place? Certainly not. Instead, we become merely a resting place on the way to their Rest [Some folks need an appetizer before they can handle the Main Course. :)]. And, by the way, our branches will attract all kinds of birds — like eagles and buzzards, Blue Jays and crows, hawks and pigeons and every other kind, wild or tame — so that we can’t be picky who we will love and care for. All kinds will come our way and that has to be okay with us as we simply love them the way Jesus loved all — wild and tame alike — who came to rest in His branches.
- Did you notice in this parable how it is one person (“a man”), and not a crowd, who plants the seed? If this was our kingdom, we’d have a crowd planting seeds. Again, we like big numbers. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t operate like we do, through the masses. It works through a few and always has, because only a few have the courage to follow Him. Most people prefer to do things the way they feel or have been conditioned to believe is best; they too often follow trends or measured approaches tested by well-meaning “experts”. But the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said, is like one person who plants one seed that grows and becomes what all our earthly systems say is impossible without their wisdom. Those who choose the Kingdom choose to swim against the flow of popular sentiment that follows the path of least resistance. So, don’t doubt yourself if you ever find yourself alone, as if being alone is a gauge for what’s right or wrong. The Kingdom of God is in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17) and to walk in the Spirit is to walk differently.
- How does the mustard seed sprout, grow and become a tree? Well, the answer depends on who you ask. The question is, who are we asking? If we’re interested in Jesus’ answer, then consider Mark 4:26-28 where He shares “how” His Kingdom grows and how we can best work with Him (Check out “The Resting Farmer”).
Notice the progression in the application of this parable: Our Father planted His Seed (Jesus) in the earth. Then, that Seed went into the ground and produced many Seeds after His kind. Then, with Him and His Kingdom planted in us and us planted in Him, He has planted us in the field of the world so we can plant the seeds of His Kingdom in our homes, our families, our workplaces, our communities, etc.? See the expansion and spreading from the metaphysical into the physical, from the macro of the eternal into the micro of the tangible, from the timeless into time, etc.?
Matthew 13:31 says this is what “the reign of the heavens is like” (Young’s Literal Translation). This is what “the reign of the heavens” looked like in and through Jesus’ life and work every day and this is what He has called us to do with Him in us and us in Him as we walk hand-in-hand with Him in each moment each day. The Kingdom works through seeds until it seeds everything, just as it changed the world when the Word showed up in a new-born baby in Bethlehem, Who grow into a man, Who reproduced Himself in others, who then planted the Seed of Christ in people until we have come to our day, where we are now called to implant His Seed in all we touch until the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
This is how the Heavens reign. This is how the Kingdom appears. This is how the Lord “comes”.
More could be written on this parable, but we will leave it here, awaiting your thoughts in the comments section below. Please share any thoughts you have about this parable. I’d love to hear them.