The Parable Of Mustard Seed
“And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.” (Mark 4:30-34)
Here our Savior employs another of his parables to teach us spiritual truth. It is the same parable recorded by Matthew (13:31) and Luke (13:19). Remember, parables are common, familiar earthly illustrations of spiritual, heavenly truths. In this case the parable is drawn from a commonly used proverbial expression during the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry.
Though it is never mentioned in the Old Testament, many varieties of mustard plants grew in abundance in and around Palestine. Some grew in the wild. Others were cultivated for various purposes. In the New Testament it is mentioned only by our Savior. In two other places he compares true faith to a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 17:14-21; Luke 17:3-6). In both of these places our Lord uses mustard seed to illustrate faith. Our Savior’s use of mustard seed to illustrate faith teaches us four specific things about the character of true faith.
1. True, saving faith begins as a very small thing. — A Grain of Mustard Seed.
True believers always recognize that their faith is a small, a very small thing. We often look upon our brothers and sisters in Christ as being men and women of great faith; but anyone who thinks he has great faith probably has no faith at all.
2. It is not the greatness of our faith, but the greatness of our God and Savior, the Object of our faith, that gives it merit, power, and efficacy.
Far too many have faith in their faith; which is to say they have faith in themselves. We must never imagine that there is some mystical power to faith. The power of our faith is Christ, the Object of our faith. It is not our faith that moves the mountain of our sins or plucks up the sycamore tree of trouble; but the blood of Christ and the power of Christ, who is the Object of or faith. The question is not, “How much faith do I have?” but, “What is the object of my faith?” Great faith in an idol is as useless as spitting in the ocean; but faith even as a grain of mustard seed in the God of glory is mighty, effectual, saving faith.
3. With God, nothing is impossible; and therefore, “Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mk. 9:23).
Nothing can stand in the way of, hinder, or defeat that man and those people who, being called of God, believe him. It was impossible for Egypt to destroy Israel because Moses believed God. It was impossible for the Red Sea to stop the march of God’s elect because Moses believed God. The walls of Jericho had to fall. Joshua believed God. The land of Canaan had to be possessed. Caleb believed God. The Philistine giant had to die because David, defending the cause of God’s glory and his people, believed God. Jairus’ daughter had to live. He believed God. The centurion’s servant had to rise. That centurion believed God. Our Savior was not lying when he said, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” “If thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God.”
4. Yet, nothing is more abominably wretched than the paralyzing effect of unbelief.
When the Lord Jesus came into his own land, among his own people, we read, “He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). Just in proportion as we believe God, we experience his power and grace. Just in proportion as we believe him, we see his glory. Nothing is as costly as unbelief (Isaiah 48:16-19).
The purpose of the parable is to assure us of the certain growth and blessedness of Christ’s church and kingdom in this world. Robert Hawker’s brief summary of the parable is excellent.
“These verses are so many different similitudes, to illustrate the progressive work of grace in the soul. A child of God is apt to make false conclusions, in forming his view of such scriptures, by what passeth in his own experience. He feels at times such a deadness to divine things, that he is at a loss to ascertain any growth in the divine life. But the truth is, the growth he is looking for is to be found in the reverse of what he expects to find. He supposes to find himself more holy: whereas, the holiness, the Holy Ghost is ripening him in, is in Christ. He doth indeed make great progress, when, from making every day more discoveries of his own unholiness, he becomes more and more longing for the holiness in Jesus. When a sense of the remains of indwelling sin makes him more out of love with himself and more in love with Christ This is indeed, from small beginnings, to arise to large attainments, because, as it begins in Christ, so it ends in Christ. And Christ is the Tree of Life, under whose branches his people find both a banquet and a shadow (Song of Solomon 2:3-4).”
The Veracity of Holy Scripture
Ignorant men who think themselves wise, reprobate men who think themselves spiritual, pass judgment upon the Word of God. They claim to be Christians, to be people of faith, and claim to honor Christ, while denying the veracity of the Bible. I once heard a man in an interview with ABC News say, “I believe the Bible; but I don’t take it word for word.” A woman in the same segment said, “I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God; but I do not think you have to take it all literally.” Regrettably, those comments fairly well represent the opinions of most who profess to be Christians in our day.
In this day of spiritual darkness and perversion there is almost a universal abandonment of belief in the verbal, plenary inspiration of God’s holy, inerrant Word. Rejecting the veracity and, consequently, the authority of Holy Scripture, men and women everywhere are turning to necromancy, astrology, and sorcery for spiritual counsel and aid. Isaiah specifically addressed such evil (Isaiah 8:19-20). John Hazelton warned, “Satan assumes the garb of an angel of light and his deceptions in this disguise are deadly.”
Frequently, those who think they are smarter than God point to this parable to show that our Savior was either ignorant or misinformed, because he spoke of the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds and of the mustard plant as a tree. Those who make such judgments are ignorant and misinformed. When our Lord said that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds in the earth,” he was not talking about all seeds without exception, but all the seeds a man sows in his garden. Though we usually think of mustard plants as bushy, leafy plants, there is a variety of mustard that grows into a good size, tree like plant, similar to a banana tree in size.
We must never allow men, with their imaginary proofs of inaccuracies in the Bible, shake our faith in the Word of God. — “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Growth of God’s Kingdom
Like faith in the heart, the church and kingdom of God in this world began as a very small thing. The expression, “as a grain of mustard seed,” was a common, proverbial saying among the Jews, referring to anything small and insignificant. As a rule, God’s works in the world are always looked upon by men as trivial and insignificant. Certainly, that is the way it was with the Church of the New Testament.
Those who were chosen to be the foundational apostles of Christ’s kingdom were poor, unlettered fishermen. He who is the Lord and Master of this Church, the King of this Kingdom, was a despised Nazarene, a crucified Jew. The doctrine proclaimed by this Church, the doctrine, which they preached everywhere, was the doctrine of grace, life, and eternal salvation by the merit and efficacy of a crucified Substitute.
In the eyes of men, nothing could have been less likely to be successful, nothing could have been more despicable, nothing could have been more offensive. Yet, this was God’s work, God’s Church, and God’s Kingdom. Once planted, this Church and Kingdom grew into a great Kingdom.
Our Lord’s parable here was prophetic. He was telling his disciples not to despise the “day of small things.” Though it appeared a small, despicable thing, like mustard seed, the Lord here prophesied that his Church would become a great, large Kingdom. He said, “As the mustard plant grows to be the greatest of all herbs, so shall my church grow to be the greatest of all kingdoms.”
So it has come to pass. It began to grow on the day of Pentecost. Three thousand were born into his Kingdom on that day. The Church grew so rapidly, that nothing can account for it except the finger of God. A few days after Pentecost, five thousand were added to the Church at once. Wherever God’s servants went preaching the gospel, it proved to be the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:14-17).
Today the Church of God is the greatest Empire the world has ever known. It is not done growing yet. And our God still employs the same means today as he did in the beginning for the building of his Church, the preaching of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:21-31; Matthew 16:18). As J. C. Ryle put it, “In spite of all the predictions of Voltaire and Payne, in spite of foes without and treachery within, the visible Church progresses, — the mustard plant still grows!”
As Hawker observed in his summary of this parable, that which is true of the Church as a whole is true of each member of it. The beginnings of grace in the life of a believer are very small; but where there is life there is growth; and those who are born of God are grown by God. The more they grow, the smaller they appear in their own eyes. Yet, when God is finished with us, we shall at last be transformed into the very likeness of the Son of God.
The Sanctifying Influence of the Church
Though no one in the world knows it, and few in the Kingdom of God realize it, the Church and Kingdom of God has a profoundly sanctifying effect upon the rest of society. That is, at least in part, what is meant by the birds of the air flocking to and nesting in the mustard plant. The Church and Kingdom of God, like a great tree, provides shelter for the world and influences it for good. We have an example of what I am talking about in 1 Corinthians 7:14. — “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.”
As in a home, the unbelieving are sanctified by the believing in a moral sense, so in the world, the unbelieving are sanctified by the believing. Read your history books. Education did absolutely nothing to improve the moral condition of the Greek and Roman worlds. Plato and Aristotle made absolutely no impact upon society for moral good. That which has improved every society, every culture, every family, and every relationship under its influence is the gospel of Christ.
The Mixed Inhabitants of Zion
The fowls of the air also represent the mixed multitude in the visible Church and Kingdom of God in this world. The visible Church has always been inhabited by both the clean and the unclean. There is no such thing as a perfect Church in this world. Every true Church has within its fold both goats and sheep. It is a nesting place for birds clean and birds unclean. It is a garden enclosed, but a garden with wheat and tares growing side by side.
What are we to do about this? Nothing! Do not try to scare off the crows. If you do, you will drive away the red birds. Do not try to pull up the tares. If you do, you will pull up wheat every time. Never try to separate sheep from goats. We are not equipped for it. Only the Lord God himself is able to distinguish the true from the false. It is his work and prerogative alone to do the separating.
The Method of Our Lord’s Teaching
When the Lord Jesus preached, he always preached in the plainest, simplest manner imaginable. He who is the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge never used complicated words and phrases. He never once referred to the original language, or even defined a word. He did not use words that required definition. Instead, he told stories and illustrated the truths he taught by parables.
“And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (vv. 33-34).
In contrast with today’s preaching, our Lord’s example of preaching speaks volumes. He preached in such a way that people understood what he preached. He never tried to impress his hearers with how smart a man he was, or with how much he knew. He did not display knowledge. He taught knowledge. There is a huge difference. Those who follow the Master’s example do not try to impress men. They instruct men.
Our Master taught with plainness and simplicity. He did not preach what he could not illustrate; and when he was finished, the people who heard him understood what he had said. Our Savior taught with knowledge and understanding. He knew exactly what they needed, and what they could bear, and taught them accordingly. And every pastor called and gifted of God preaches as he did (Jeremiah 3:15). The Son of God expounded all things to his disciples. He kept back nothing from them. He expounded to them all the Word of God. Faithful men follow his example.
The parable of the mustard seed teaches us that we should never despise the “day of small things.” God is building his Church, gathering in his elect, and establishing his Kingdom. — “The Lord GOD which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him” (Isaiah 56:8).
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