Parable of the mustard seed

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. Matthew 13:31-32

This parable encourages us by telling us that, like a mustard seed, God often begins a work in a small way, but that the smallness of its beginning is no measure of its end. Mustard seeds were proverbial in Jesus’ day for their smallness. And this is where the emphasis lies in the point our Lord was trying to make. He was not emphasizing so much the size to which the mustard plant grows (after all it only grows to about ten or twelve feet[1]) as its tiny beginning. Even so, the kingdom of God begins in the most unpromising of ways. But the smallness of its beginning is never a measure for its success. Even so it is today.

This has, in fact, always been the way God has worked in this world. Think of his promises to Abraham: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). With such a promise, Abraham surely thought that God was about to do something great through him. And he was. But it was not in the way Abraham must have thought it would happen. In fact, eleven years later, Abraham didn’t even have a single child! It would not be until 25 years after the initial promise that God would begin to fulfill his promise to Abraham of a great nation. Even then, it was only one son. When Abraham died, he was not yet the father of a great nation.

And the land that God promised to Abraham? (Gen. 13:14-17) When Abraham died, it does not appear that he owned anything more than a grave for his wife, Sarah. In fact, when the martyr Stephen summarizes this part of Israel’s history, he says that God “gave him [Abraham] none inheritance in it [Canaan], no, not so much as to set his foot on” (Acts 7:5).

To make things worse, Abraham’s grandson Jacob and his family had to move out of Canaan to Egypt to survive a famine. They were there for 400 years, ending up as slaves. Of course by this time, Israel was beginning to be a great nation in terms of population, but slavery is not exactly the condition of a great nation. It must have looked hopeless. Such small beginnings, and such a miserable end.

But it was not the end. It was just the beginning. After 400 years, God begins to fulfill his promise to Abraham. After 40 years in the wilderness, Israel inherits Canaan. It has become a great nation in its own land, just as God promised to Abraham. And yet, if we had gone back 400 years to Abraham, or even to Jacob, no one would have ever thought that God’s promises would come to pass from such inauspicious beginnings. That is because with God nothing shall be impossible.

Or think about the apostles and the church. They were 12 men who were characterized as ignorant and unlearned (Acts 4:13). And yet it was through such men that God brought his church into all the world, and that 300 years later would have such influence that a Roman emperor would align himself with the Christian faith. There at the beginning, I doubt anyone would have predicted the success of the church. God’s work is not bound by statistics.

What about you and me? Let us not become discouraged because society as a whole is becoming more and more godless. God is not constrained by trends. Nor let us not become discouraged because we seem too weak to do anything about it. The fact of the matter is that we are too weak to do anything about it. But with the Lord we can do all things. Remember what the Lord said to the church at Philadelphia: “I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and has not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8). Note the strange juxtaposition between the open door (opportunities) and having a little strength. In fact, our Lord says that it was because they had little strength that he had set before them an open door! What did the apostle Paul say? “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . . For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Do you want to do something for Christ? Are you afraid to do so because you don’t feel like you are adequate? Are you afraid because you feel that you are small? That’s okay; there is no need to fear. Because that’s usually how God works. As Calvin put it in his commentary on these verses, “Let us not despond, but rise with faith against the pride of the world, till the Lord give us that astonishing display of his power, of which he speaks in this passage.”[2]

[1] See D. A. Carson, Matthew (EBC), p. 317.


By: Jeremiah Bass