DUNCAN/The mustard seed and the leaven
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 13:31-35. Here we see two more parables about the kingdom and we also see a statement about Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. These two parables, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven, teach us not to despise small beginnings in the things of the kingdom and never to underestimate the total impact of the kingdom even if the kingdom works silently, and ostentatiously. We will see three things from this passage. First, Christians need to be careful about how we measure the outward growth of God’s kingdom. Second, Christians must mark the silent but powerful inward workings of the kingdom. And third, Christians should be more than ever crystal clear on Jesus’ claims and person.
I. Christians Need to Be Careful About How We Measure the Outward Growth of God’s Kingdom
In verses 31-32, Jesus reminds us that Christians need to be careful about how we measure the outward growth of God’s kingdom. Jesus says in verses 31-32, “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.” It is always tempting for us simply to look at the outward way in which the kingdom manifests itself, to see the outward evidences and to measure God’s effectiveness by numbers, size, and outward success. This parable teaches us to be very careful about estimating God’s work in this way. This parable takes up the subject of the kingdom’s outward growth because sometimes that growth seems to be insignificant.
Why did the disciples need to learn that lesson? It is because they expected the kingdom to begin in majestic glory. As we look at the Lord Jesus crucified on the cross and see at His right and at His left hand two thieves crucified, we see a picture of the kind of kingdom that the Lord Jesus was bringing in. The disciples didn’t realize the suffering, persecution, and even the death that was going to be involved in following Jesus faithfully in the kingdom. The mustard seed is the smallest of the garden seeds planted in Palestine but yet we’re told in that land this mustard seed grows to be the largest of the garden plants, getting sometimes to the size of 10 or 15 feet, spreading its foliage out so that birds can actually build nests, not in the bush, but in what is a veritable tree. So from the tiniest seed comes the largest of the garden bushes. The story is made to point out that the kingdom’s outward manifestation is like that mustard seed. It may appear to be insignificant, but it grows. Christ is speaking to followers who are relatively small and weak. Christ’s message to them in the parable of the mustard seed is to be patient, keep on believing, keep on praying, keep on working—God’s kingdom will grow; but don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge the effectiveness of the kingdom by its outward appearances because it may be more powerful than it appears to be. That is Jesus’ message of the mustard seed.
II. Christians Must Mark the Silent but Powerful Inward Workings of the Kingdom.
The next thing we learn we learn is in verse 33. In the story of the parable of the leaven, Jesus teaches us that Christians must mark the silent but powerful inward workings of the kingdom. Jesus says in verse 33, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.” We must notice how the kingdom works inwardly. It works silently but it works powerfully in inward ways. This parable of the leaven reminds us that the gospel works from the inside out, silently and almost imperceptibly. This parable also reminds us that the gospel permeates every experience of life. It’s like leaven and when it gets inside bread it effects every aspect of the bread.
Why did Jesus teach this lesson? Why did He teach this parable to His disciples? It was because they were fixated on the external form of the kingdom. Jesus is telling this parable to His disciples to shock them into attention and understanding of this principle: that the kingdom works from inside out and it effects every aspect of our being. Tt works in such a way that you almost never notice it. It surely works; but it works from the inside out. Understand that the kingdom doesn’t just transform one area of your life. It doesn’t make you a Christian and leave you unchanged in every other area. The kingdom transforms you from within. It changes your attitude, your outlook, your worldview, your purposes, your goals, and your motivations.
III. Christians Should Be More Than Ever Crystal Clear on Jesus’ Claims and Person
Lastly, we see in verses 34-35 that Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew wants to press home the truth that Jesus is the Messiah looked for by the prophets of old. Matthew quotes Psalm 78:2 in Matthew 13:35 saying, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”
There are several ways in which Jesus fulfills that saying. First of all, if you would read the whole of Psalm 78, you would see over and over Asaf, the psalmist, tell you that God manifests His power and works wonders, showing His lovingkindness in the history of Israel. Over and over He does these things. Jesus does so more. Jesus is the greatest manifestation of God’s power, the greatest manifestation of His love. Notice also that Asaf shows that in spite of God’s love, the people of Israel rejected Him. Jesus, in spite of His love, was rejected by many in Israel and unfortunately by many Gentiles. Finally, Asaf, throughout this psalm uses a parabolic style. He speaks in figures of speech, using figurative or metaphorical language. Jesus preached to the multitudes using parables and similitudes and metaphors and figurative language. The application, of course, is that Jesus is the fulfillment of that Old Testament prophecy. Jesus is divine. His deity must be acknowledged. Jesus is Messiah. We must acknowledge Him as the one who was promised for all, both Jew and Gentile. Jesus is the Savior. He is the only way. Jesus is the shepherd. He is our guide and leader. Jesus is the teacher. He is the authority for our life and His book, the Bible, is the only final authority of faith and practice. We must present Jesus as He is presented in the word if we are to bring men and women and boys and girls to Christ because that is the only Jesus who will save.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.