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10. The Parable of the Mustard Seed


Chapter 10

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

A Parable of Life and Transformation

Matthew 13:31-32

Eric H. H. Chang

Montreal, August 20, 1978


Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Mt. 13:31-32)

“It is the smallest of all seeds”

The Lord Jesus constantly speaks in parables, and this Parable of the Mustard Seed is of considerable importance because it occurs in all of the first three Gospels. The Parable of the Mustard Seed follows the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel precisely in order to provide us with the encouragement that we need. It is because looking at a parable like that, we might well become discouraged and say, “Well, what future has the church got when it is such a mixed bunch?” The Lord Jesus’ reply is in this parable in Matthew 13:31-32.

Perhaps the Lord Jesus was pointing to a mustard tree that was standing in the field, and teaches by way of a parable, as he often does: “The kingdom of God can be pictured as this mustard tree. It was sown as a tiny little seed, and then look, how it has grown!” In Palestine, sometimes, the mustard plant could grow to a height of eight to ten feet. Ten feet would be nearly twice my height, and that would be a very considerable tree growing out of this tiny little mustard seed.

It is very important to notice again, we have a parable concerning the seed. There are so many parables about the seed. We have the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:1-9, 18-23), we have the Parable of the Growing Seed (Mk. 4:26-29), we have the Parable of the Darnel and the Wheat (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43), and now we have the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mt. 13:31-32).

In case you have studied a little botany, you might start getting wise in your own mind and saying, “Wait a minute! The mustard seed is very small, yet it is not the smallest of all seeds in the world. The poppy seed is smaller.” Yes, but the farmers in Palestine don’t sow poppies, and they don’t smoke opium. Therefore to say that the poppy seed is smaller, is quite beside the point of this parable. The mustard seed is indeed not the smallest seed that exists, but the Lord Jesus’ point here is that this is the smallest seed that the Palestinian farmer sows.

The seed represents the teaching of salvation: die and rise anew

We realize now, how many parables there are in which the Lord Jesus speaks of seed, and there is a very good reason for it. I would like to pause for a moment to ponder upon the significance of the seed. The seed is something wonderful! The more you understand the Lord Jesus’ teaching concerning the seed, the more you will understand the whole Scriptural teaching of salvation. In other words, if you want to understand the Scriptural teaching of salvation, you must understand the Lord Jesus’ teaching on the seed.

The seed is sown into the ground; it dies or disintegrates in a certain way; it germinates; it bursts its body and it rises again! A whole picture of burial, of death and resurrection! It is marvelous! Thus, new life comes forth literally from the burial, the death and resurrection of the seed. So the Lord Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a grain of seed….” It may be small as a mustard seed if you like, but it is sown into the ground; it disappears from view; it is buried in there; it dies and it rises again in new life! In the same way, the Lord Jesus died, was buried, and he seems to be finished! Yet he rises again to new life. So, we find that the whole teaching of God’s kingdom is right there.

1. The Lord Jesus, the first seed, brings forth the church

What happens when it rises again to new life? It produces a whole new batch of seeds. A whole new batch of seeds comes from that one seed. This is the whole teaching of the Lord Jesus in John 12:24. He says, “Except a seed dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.” And so it brings forth a whole batch of new seeds through dying and rising again. In the same way, through his dying and rising again, the Lord Jesus brings forth the church—true Christians. So one seed goes into the ground, and produces a whole batch of new seeds of whatever is sown. That new batch is then sown again, and produces another batch of harvest. And so it goes on and on.

Do you see that the life that is in the new batch of seeds is derived from the first seed that died? In the same way, we derive our new life from the Lord Jesus who died to pass on this new life to us. The life in the new seed can be passed on. An ear of wheat is simply a new batch of seeds. When you eat wheat, what are you eating? You are simply eating seeds. If you don’t eat it, but sow it in the ground, it will grow again, and produce another batch of seeds. So you can choose to eat those seeds, or you can sow them. What a farmer does is that he eats part of them and he sows another part of them.

2. Every true Christian is also a seed: die, then live to produce fruit

Every grain of wheat is itself a seed. Thus it shows that we derive our new life from the resurrection life of Christ. We live because he died and rose again. The whole teaching of Scripture is in that seed.

Yet if we stop there, we have made a mistake. What happens to this new batch of seeds? Does it get life from that first seed just so that it can sit there in the ear of wheat, and enjoy itself and twiddle its thumbs? No! The new wheat is sown again, and it in turn dies to produce fruit.

Many people have stopped at the first point in teaching the gospel. It is true that we got new life through Christ’s death and resurrection, but do you realize that we ourselves become a grain of seed, which in turn is to die and rise again? People don’t understand that part. In another of Jesus’ parables of the seed in John 12:24-25, verse 24 refers to the Lord Jesus, and verse 25 refers to Christians who are also to die and rise again.

This teaching comes out in three of the Lord Jesus’ parables of the seed. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, that we are studying now, who is the seed that is sown into the ground, so that it dies and rises again? The mustard seed represents Christ, doesn’t it? The kingdom of God is personified in him. Here, it is the Lord Jesus who dies, and through rising again, the kingdom of God becomes a reality in the world. The parable is not describing a situation inside the kingdom of God as such, but it’s describing the growth of the kingdom itself.

But in the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, do you remember who is the seed that is sown in Matthew 13:38? “The field is the world, and the good seed that is sown are the sons of the kingdom”, they are the Christians. In other words, when the Lord Jesus has given new life to us—and this is the exciting teaching of the Lord Jesus—he sends us out into the world (the field is the world), where we, in our turn, become seeds. We die and rise again, bearing fruit to God.

That is the very thing the Lord Jesus says in John 12:25. After speaking about himself, the seed that dies in verse 24, he said in the next verse, verse 25 that, if any man tries to save his life, he will lose it. But he who loses his life for the Lord’s sake will have it. Many Christians cannot understand that. When you understand the Lord Jesus’ teaching about the seed, you will understand it very easily. Unless you in your turn become a seed—unless you in your turn go out into the world and live for God (and die for God, if necessary)—you will not have His life. If you try to save your life by not dying, you will lose it. If you put a grain of wheat somewhere, nothing will happen. If you leave it long enough, it will mildew and die. But if you take this grain of wheat—without waiting for it to get mildewed and perish, or be eaten up by some insects or worms—and drop it into the ground, it will bring forth life. This is so wonderful!

And as we look still further back to the Parable of the Sower, we saw that the seed was the Word of God. So you notice that in each of the parables, the seed represents something different. In the Parable of the Sower, the seed is the Word of God. In the Parable of the Wheat and Darnel, the seeds are the sons of God. And now in this Parable of the Mustard Seed, the seed is Christ himself. So to change the picture as it were, the Word of God is sown into my heart, and I totally respond and become a son of God, who is going to be sown into the world, after getting new life through Christ’s death and resurrection. There are so many facets of God’s riches and truth, and yet all summed up in this picture of the seed. Have you got the picture? Or are you finding it difficult to follow? Just think through the picture of the seed.

A true Christian, a new person, has God’s life in Christ

Let us continue to think about the seed, which is the Lord Jesus in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. It dies and brings forth a new crop of mustard seed. Now the new crop of mustard seed derives its life from the death and the resurrection of that first seed, that is, Christ in whom God lives. But notice still further, and this is very important for you to under­stand, a true Christian is someone who has the life of God in Christ in him. It is not just having the form of godliness; it is not just having good religious behavior; it is not just being nice, and smiling at everybody; it is not just saying the right things; it is not just knowing how to pray the Lord’s Prayer, or even any kind of prayer. It is not just doing all these things externally, but it is having the life of God in Christ in you. Do you have the life of God in Christ in you? What is that life of God in Christ? It is the new resurrection life that God’s holy Spirit creates in you. That is why a true Christian has become a new creation. That is what it means to be a true Christian and not a darnel.

Notice another thing: what happens if you have this life of God in Christ in you? That new seed looks like the original seed, doesn’t it? That is the beauty of it! The true Christian becomes like Christ who reflects the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:6), because the holy Spirit of God transforms him. If you are a true Christian, you will find yourself becoming more and more like Jesus in the way you think. We learn to think as he thought. He lived only for others. We learn to live for others, and not for ourselves. We become like him in love, as the Spirit of God sheds abroad God’s love into our hearts, as Paul says in Romans 5:5. So our conduct becomes more and more like Christ’s. Or as the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are changed from glory to glory, into Christ’s likeness by the power of God. The true Christian must have a certain beauty of Christ. That is very important.

Are you a true Christian? Then the likeness of Christ should be manifest in your life. You become more and more like him. Once you understand this point, you’ll understand why the Lord Jesus speaks of sowing the sons of God into the world (Mt. 13:24). We are Christ’s representatives in the world. We are his body in the world. How is the world going to know God unless it sees Christ in us? A true seed bears resemblance to the original seed. Do you bear resemblance to Christ? Do I bear resemblance to Christ? Is the life of Christ powerfully working in me? Is my thinking being transformed so that my selfishness is being put away, and I am becoming more and more like him? Only then do I know whether I am a true wheat or not. Only then do I know whether I am a true mustard seed or not.

Whichever picture you like, it is the same thing. This is the glorious truth of God’s Word. That is why I said right at the beginning, the whole of salvation teaching, the whole of gospel truth is summed up in the seed. Think about it more carefully. I would like you to ask yourself this question again: Am I truly a seed that has been born from that death and resurrection of the first seed namely Christ? Is Christ’s resurrection life in me? Am I becoming more like him in my thinking and in my ways? I know I have many faults and many shortcomings, but am I in the process of being changed, as Paul says, “from one degree of glory to another”? (2Cor. 3:18)

Maybe your degree of glory and my degree of glory showing forth the image of Christ is very limited at this stage, but at least we are progressing, as the Holy Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. This is a powerful message that the Lord Jesus gives to us in these parables. It is a message of life and transformation. May God grant that each one of us know the truth of it in our own experience!

God’s kingdom will be great, and shake the world

Now if you look at this parable carefully, and understand it spiritually, the Lord Jesus says, here is a picture of the kingdom. When the kingdom is sown, it is sown into this world like a tiny seed. What do you expect from a tiny seed? You expect a tiny plant. Instead, what you have is this huge plant that grows into a tree! Actually, the mustard plant is not a tree. It is a vegetable, but it grows to the size of a tree with considerable speed. Thus it is a picture of the kind of life-power that is inside this little seed to produce so huge a plant. The Lord Jesus says that from this you can get a picture of the kingdom.

As I said, when you see the mixed nature of the kingdom of God, with good and bad in it, from the Parable of the Darnel and the Wheat, you become discouraged and wonder if there is still a future for the kingdom of God. And the Lord Jesus gives us this parable to say, “Well, God’s power is there. Even if the seed seems little, even if the work seems small, a great work will come forth.” How great will this work be? Well, he says that even the birds of the air will make their nests, and will dwell in the branches of this mustard plant.

By deliberately using the language of the Old Testament, he at once directs our attention to the Old Testament. What is the language of the Old Testament? If you turn to Ezekiel 31:3-14 or Daniel 4:10-17, you will notice that the kingdoms of the world are described as great trees in which the birds of the air nest, and under which the animals of the field find shade. But our reference of particular interest is Ezekiel 17:22-24 [NJB], and the reason these verses are of particular interest to us is because they refer to the Messianic kingdom, the kingdom of Christ.

The Lord Yahweh says this: “From the top of the tall cedar tree, from the highest branch I shall take a shoot and plant it myself on a high and lofty mountain. I shall plant it on the highest mountain in Israel. It will put out branches and bear fruit and grow into a noble cedar tree. Every kind of bird will live beneath it, every kind of winged creature will rest in the shade of its branches. And all the trees of the countryside will know that I, Yahweh, am the one who lays the tall tree low and raises the low tree high, who makes the green tree wither and makes the withered bear fruit. I, Yahweh, have spoken, and I will do it.”

Now in these words of the prophecy, with deliberate reference to God raising the low tree high, the Lord Jesus speaks of a mustard tree, the lowest of all the trees you could think of, as compared to a cedar. The cedar (in verse 24) in fact, is a very powerful tree. The red cedar for example, is a tree that has such durability that it becomes exceedingly fine wood—it has high water resistance, and can endure corruption. God always takes the lowly things of this world and exalts them. He takes the foolish things and confounds the wise with them (cf. 1 Cor. 1:27). This is always His principle. When Christ Jesus came into Jerusalem, he did not ride on a great Arabian charger, as many preachers have noticed; he came sitting on a donkey, the humbler form of transport. So the Lord Jesus deliberately points to this reference in Ezekiel, and then makes an adjustment to it, indicating the nature of the kingdom in this present time.

What do birds and branches represent?

So what do these birds dwelling in the branches mean? Well, if you look carefully, Ezekiel 31:6 tells us that the birds and the beasts represent all the great nations of the earth. So the parable is not left for us to guess as to its meaning. The keys are all there, provided you know the Word of God. The picture then is that the kingdom of God, beginning with these tiny, insignificant beginnings, becomes a great power in the world, so much so that the nations come to dwell under its shade.

Of course, when the disciples listened to this, they could only take it by faith; they had nothing to see. There was no great nation living under the shade of the kingdom of God. The kingdom was the mustard seed at that stage. It was insignificant; nobody took too much notice of it. It did shake the people in Palestine for a time, but the world at large had not taken any notice of the kingdom of God. But we live in an age where we are eyewitnesses of the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching.

He said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt. 24:35). We see that his words don’t pass away. The disciples had to take Jesus’ words by faith. How would they know that what he says is true, that one day, the great nations of the world will shelter under the branches of the kingdom of God? But we see that what he said is true. Today, many of the mightiest nations of the world take shelter under the branches of this tree. They declare themselves to be Christian nations. This picture of birds is quite interesting. Don’t forget that the eagle is constantly regarded as an emblem of the United States. The double eagle constantly appears in the German emblems in one form or another, either double or single eagle. Thus it is curious that many nations represent themselves by these birds. These are the nations that have made their dwelling place in the shade of this tree. This does not mean they are Christians in reality. Now this is very important to notice.

The mustard plant is the kingdom of God. The branches of that mustard plant represent the Christians. “Branches” is a common term for Christians in the Bible. We are the branches, either in the picture of the vine in John 15:2, 4, 5, or of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24. In any case, whatever the tree, Christ is the main stem or the root, the founda­tion of that tree, and the branches are the Christians.

So these birds are not part of the tree—they are not part of the kingdom of God—but they do make nests in the branches; they try to gain some advantage and benefits from the kingdom of God. This is another way of saying that the influence of the kingdom of God has become so powerful. The teachings of Christ have become so pervasive through the world, that the nations find shelter in its shade even if they don’t practice that teaching. This is a prophetic parable; the Lord Jesus foretells what is going to happen.

God establishes Christ as the King of kings

That is not yet the end of the matter because the prophecy goes right on to the time when the kingdom of God will rule in the world and every nation will be subject to God and Christ. This has already been pro­phesied in Daniel 2:35, for example, in the picture of the great stone, “the stone...which will fill the whole earth.” And in the New Testament, we see the same thing in Revelation 11:15, where the loud voices in heaven declare as the seventh angel blew his trumpet: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” When Christ comes again, the whole world will submit to the authority of Christ, because God will establish him as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Now you have to take that by faith, don’t you? You haven’t seen it fulfilled yet, have you? But remember that what he said the first time was fulfilled, wasn’t it? Many of the mightiest nations of the world declare themselves to be Christian nations. So it is a foolish person who doesn’t realize that these words about what is yet to come will also be fulfilled. When Jesus comes again, the apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11, “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The Bible warns us that he shall judge all nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 2:27, 12:5). The apostle Paul says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). God sent him as Savior the first time; the second time he comes as Judge.

The prophecy in this little parable is so clear to anyone who understands the Old Testament. And the beauty of it is that a great part of the parable has already been fulfilled. We live in the privileged position to see it fulfilled before our eyes. The Christians in the 4th Century already saw it fulfilled when the mighty Roman Empire laid down the sword before the church. This great nation under Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, declared its surrender to God and Christ, and put the nation under the shade of the mustard tree. Since that time, we have seen nation after nation come to dwell in the shade of that mustard tree. In those days, America, Germany did not exist, but they are now Christian countries. It is a remarkable thing!

What is impressive about a mustard tree? Nothing much! There are mighty trees in the world, but the mustard tree is the one that conquers. Such is the remarkable power of God! Any person who has any eyes to see, even if he is not a Christian, should have been able to see the remarkable march of the kingdom of God, the remarkable growth of this mustard seed that conquers without drawing a sword, and the mighty nations find shelter in its shade.

Inasmuch as what the Lord Jesus said has already come true so remarkably to this day, I would like to impress this fact upon your attention, that his words never fail! Although there are some nations now that have not yet owned the kingship of God and His Christ, the day will come yet, when every nation will bow under God’s sovereignty. Those of us who have walked with God know that that day will come yet, even as what the Lord Jesus has said so far, has all come to pass.

But as I said, the disciples had nothing to see, but to listen to this with sheer faith, because at that time who was Jesus? Jesus was some carpenter wandering around in Palestine, saying these big words. They will say, “Wow! Who is he? Is the whole world going to be subject to his kingdom, by God-given authority? Surely, his head has gotten too big for him! Look at the small band of twelve disciples following him around, but not one of the religious or political leaders accept him! And this poor man ends up dying on the cross. Did he say the great nations of this world are going to shelter in the shade of God’s tree like birds? He’s had one drink too many!”

Are we to have faith in his words? Could it be possible his words would be true? Lo and behold! Jesus’ words have never failed. He was the one who dared to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt. 5:18). Who can dare to say these things in advance and be proven wrong? Let anyone try to prove him wrong. “Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (Jo. 8:46). That is the kind of thing the Lord Jesus dared to say to any person.

And history has again and again, justified his words! “Understand then,” he said to his disciples, “My kingdom shall go forth, but not with a sword” (cf. Jo. 18:36). We know that there have been ideologies and religions that tried to conquer with a drawn sword. Whole nations have been subjugated with the gun for fear that the moment you relieve the pressure off them, they will all revolt. Jesus doesn’t do anything like that. He conquers all, as Napoleon realized. He said, “I conquered a great part of this world with the armies, but Jesus never drew a sword.” To this day, his kingdom has lasted over a thousand and eight hundred years from the time of Napoleon. So the word of Christ and its fulfillment is truly something wonderful!

We can see that the Lord Jesus gives us the encouragement. We nearly got discouraged with the Parable of the Darnel and Wheat. We thought, “If there is so much corruption inside the kingdom of God, what is the future of the kingdom?” The Lord Jesus says, “God’s purposes will be fulfilled upon the earth. They will not be defeated.

The truth is always with the minority

I would also like you to remember that although the beginnings of God’s work are always small, never despise the day of small things. God will do mighty things.” Every great work begins small. Even a non-Christian British philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, could see that. He once said, “Every great movement in this world began with the minority of one.” Even the worldly man is wise and understands that. It is true that every great movement began with the minority of one. He had learned something from history. One man, Alexander the Great stood up and he conquered the world. One man, Caesar stood up and he conquered the world. One man, Confucius conquered China with Confucianism, a moral teaching approaching a philosophy, though not a religion. The Chinese nation lived under the teaching of Confucius for years, and in many ways to their great benefit.

It has been the same thing in the history of the church. Time and again, one lonely man stood up to speak out facing the entire world. He was condemned, persecuted, despised, but because it is God’s power at work, he wins through. Isn’t that amazing? Take Luther. One man stood up, facing the might of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. One poor unknown person called Luther! Whoever heard of him before? He stood up and spoke out with the Word of God. They say, “Can you, one man be right and the whole Catholic Church be wrong? Did you not hear that the Pope is infallible? I mean, were you born yesterday?” But he stood up and spoke forth the truth, proclaiming the Word of God. Today, even the Catholic Church has come to realize at last, that Luther was right after all in many, many respects. Hence, since Vatican II, there has been an attempt at reconciliation. They would not attempt a reconciliation unless they realize that he was right in great measure. One man stood up.

Back in the 18th Century, John Wesley stood up in the face of the corruption of the Anglican Church of the day, and preached on holiness. Again, he was one man against the whole world! He was not allowed to preach in the churches, although he himself was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He was not allowed even to preach in his father’s church where his father had been a minister. He was not allowed to preach anywhere. The Church of England virtually condemned him to silence. He stood out in the field, or on the street and preached, because he would not be silenced. How often he was attacked: “Wesley, who do you think you are? Do you think that you are the only man who is right, and the whole Church of England is wrong? You are too arrogant to believe!” Everybody condemned him. He went on preaching, because God’s message of salvation and holiness was burning in his heart! Today, Methodism, which Wesley proclaimed at that time, has spread through­out the world. What has happened? The Church of England today, seeks to be united again with the Methodist Church. Why? It is because they have to confess that the Methodists were right to a great extent.

Time and again, in the history of the world, one mustard seed, one little work of God builds to a great thing. Of course, those early days are always lonely days, days when you will be persecuted, criticized, accused, as Wesley, or Luther, or other men of God were constantly treated. But from that little mustard seed, there grows a mighty work of God.

So, don’t always be afraid to be in the minority. Men of God speak because the fire burns in their hearts. When Luther was told to recant what he had taught, on pain of excommunication, he said, “I cannot deny my conscience before God. I must speak what God has laid on my heart. You can excommunicate me, you can exterminate me if you like, but here I stand, I can do no other.” And we are grateful that he stood, aren’t we? But these were the ones who had to pay the price. They had to fall into the ground and die, so that there came forth a plant that brought glory to God.

In the same way, the Lord Jesus was all alone. All types of leaders of the nation were against him! The scribes who were Bible scholars were against him! (The scribes were also called lawyers because they were learned scholars in the Old Testament Law.) They said, “Can you be right, when the theologians are against you?” I think that little band of people that followed him must have had incredible courage, by the grace of God. But look what has come to pass: Jesus died, and he rose again! This mustard plant came forth, and today, the nations shelter in its branches. Today, in Canada, in the United States, Germany, and in most Western countries, what do they produce in a court of law? The holy Bible! You swear by the Word of God! They all want to shelter under that mustard tree. Not only this, but Jesus shall also rule when he returns. Praise God for that! Now you have to take that by faith. But I think that if you just have common sense, you can already see that as the prophecy that the Lord Jesus will come the first time was fulfilled, the prophecy that he will come the second time will also be fulfilled. Let the scoffers scoff, but on that Day, they will kneel down like everybody else, and confess Jesus as Lord.

So what we see in this amazing parable of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, is that the kingdom of God will spread throughout the world!


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church