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Luke Chapter 13 verses 18-21 English Standard Version*
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”
Mark Chapter 4 verses 26-34 English Standard Version*
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
* The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed © Parva Press
The parable of the mustard seed is found in each of the first three gospels. Matthew describes the seed being planted in a field, Mark in the ground and Luke in a garden. Matthew and Luke set the parable with the parable of the woman hiding a small amount of leaven – dough containing live yeast – in a large amount of meal to cause all of it to rise. In Mark’s gospel the parable follows that of the seed growing secretly and Mark alone draws attention to the smallness of the mustard seed.
A minor difficulty
In the West, a problem for us is that we think of mustard as a strongly flavoured, yellow paste that goes well when served with sausages etc. It is made from the seeds of an annual plant, a member of the cabbage family, and has seeds that are not as tiny as many others. Although there are well over 40 varieties of mustard, some of which can grow to over eight feet and in the Middle East even larger, the mustard we know grows fresh from seed each season. How, then, could it be available for nesting if that is what the underlying word, which is literally ‘tenting’, implies? Perhaps our thinking is in some way misleading us and so a variety of other, more substantial, plants that could have been known as mustard have been suggested. They include the seeds of trees such as the Bay tree or the Toothbrush tree, each of whose peppery leaves are used in food. (The second one, Salvadora persica, gets its fascinating English name because the benefit to teeth and gums from chewing its twigs has been recognised for thousands of years.)
A difficulty of interpretation
Immediately following the parable itself, Mark records that the Lord taught the great crowds only in parables but explained them privately to his disciples. However, the gospel writers have not recorded the Lord’s explanation of this parable or told us much about the context in which these parables were taught. Perhaps they considered that only the dullest of Englishmen – such as the present writer – could create difficulty in understanding such obvious teaching! Well, it seems all too easy to do!
The question is, should we simply take the parable as an illustration of dramatic and yet quiet growth without trying to press it any further, or, should we attempt to identify the man, the seed, the growing seedling and the ultimate tree? Similarly, is the reference to the birds nesting in the branches simply an indication of the size to which the plant grows or should they be identified with particular aspects of the kingdom of God? Because of the briefness of the gospel writers, our understanding of the parable will be determined by what ideas we bring to it and by what, if anything, we believe to be represented by the seed, the tree and the birds. If we consider the parable of the mustard seed on its own, it is dangerously easy to make the parable teach whatever we want it to!
The simplest and plainest application of the parable
Adopting, first, the plainest and most straightforward understanding – if the parable of the seed sown and growing secretly produces a harvest, the mustard seed produces a substantial tree and the small amount of yeast digests and works its way through a large batch of meal, then, surely, all three parables are parables of growth. They each illustrate the remarkable growth of the kingdom of God. We have an English proverb to the same effect, ‘Great oaks from little acorns grow.’ Very small and apparently insignificant beginnings can, over the course of time and almost unnoticed, lead to mighty and far reaching consequences.
Such an understanding is in accord with the vision given to the prophet Ezekiel who, when looking forward to the promised kingdom of the Messiah, spoke of God taking the topmost sprig of a cedar tree and planting it on the mountains of Israel. He spoke of God causing it to grow to become a mighty tree in whose branches the birds found shelter as did the animals beneath. The little cedar cutting became a tree which dwarfed all other trees, as the Messiah’s kingdom would dwarf all other kingdoms and empires.
None of this would offend or scandalise our Lord’s hearers. They were longing for and eagerly expecting the Messiah’s majestic rule. But they were anticipating a powerful military kingdom that would overthrow their Roman conquerors and restore the nation of Israel to the power, wealth and world position it enjoyed under King David and his son Solomon. This was the all-pervading yearning and hope of the oppressed people of Israel, in our Lord’s day, as the yoke of Rome lay heavy upon them. This expectation was expressed as the disciples asked the Lord Jesus, ‘Will you at this time, restore Israel?’ It also underlies Peter and John’s longing to be in positions of power in his kingdom and the shattered hope of Cleopas and his fellow disciple as they walked back from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the crucifixion.
However, these three parables speak of a very different kingdom. Not one that is sudden, decisive and won by military conquest and the overthrow of all enemies, but a kingdom that grows secretly, all but unobserved by this world’s great powers. Such teaching was indeed absolutely scandalous. It completely dashed the popular hope and undermined the nationalistic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures held by almost every one of Jesus’ hearers. Each of these parables teaches that the kingdom of God will come ‘not by might, nor by power’ but by the Spirit of God. It will be entirely different from this world’s ‘proud empires’.
Rather than being spearheaded by the conquests of this world’s great ones, the kingdom of God will grow quietly and not draw attention to itself and so, like the growth of the crop, the leaven and the tree, its growth will be almost unannounced. Nevertheless, eventually, like the leaven, the kingdom of God will permeate every nation on earth, like the tree, it will have fulfilled God’s purposes and be full grown, and like the growing grain it will be ready for God’s final harvest. Such an apparently insignificant sowing would produce a world-wide people of God watching, waiting and ready for the return of God’s anointed King.
Maybe it is best to stop here, understanding that the Lord was challenging and correcting the mistaken nationalistic thinking of his hearers and drawing attention to the ultimately dramatic and yet almost unnoticed growth of the kingdom of God from the day he taught until the day of his final return as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Is there a warning here for us, in our day?
Although we may smile at the ancient, nationalistic, misunderstanding of the nature of the kingdom of God, it is less than comfortable to ask, could such a misunderstanding be paralleled by some of our current Western expectations of the kingdom of God? We are creatures of our age; do we, too, have widely held, yet mistaken assumptions?
We live in a time when society has moved its focus from the building up of the whole community to the individual and personal feelings of fulfilment. This change was vividly illustrated by a Head Teacher of a local school who demonstrated that the aim of teaching used to be the preparing and enabling of the youngsters to play a fulfilling and useful part in society but was now ‘giving the students an enjoyable educational experience.’ The original focus of the whole exercise had become secondary or even lost.
Has something of this cultural change been imported into our churches? For example, the New Testament focuses on the building-up of the people of God so that, together, we can play our God-given part in warning people of the judgement to come, spreading the gospel of forgiveness, making disciples throughout the world and so preparing for the Lord’s return. The commonly accepted thinking in our day seems to assume that true Christianity should ‘meet our felt needs’ and be enjoyable, comfortable and socially respectable. We want it to be popular and looked on in favour by both intellectuals and those we hold in esteem; footballers, celebrities etc. As a result, church leaders are under great pressure to pass very gently by the dire and urgent warnings of Scripture and work hard to give us, ‘an enjoyable religious experience.’ And so we come away from our churches having really enjoyed spending time with one another, hearing amazing stories and joining together in religious activities. But we come away with no humbling sense of awe at having met together before Almighty God. We come away without any deep and disturbing sense of having been challenged to turn from ungodly ways or stirred to live more actively for his glory in the days ahead.
You can uncover this way of thinking as you visit any of the ‘entertainment- centred’ services which are so wide-spread in today’s church or take note of how many of our worship songs actually have ourselves at their centre. We delight to meet together, but any sense of hush in the presence of the Lord God is, at best, secondary. We love to proclaim his promises but pass lightly over his warnings and commands. We pass lightly, too, over the priorities of living lives that are worthy of the gospel and of proclaiming his kingdom. We delight to assure ourselves and those around us that God loves us and is ‘here to bless us’ but are very unsure about the call to repent before the Lord God for living daily lives that, in practice, all but ignore him. We are less than eager to cry with the tax collector, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ – to seek the forgiveness of Almighty God, believe on his Son the Lord Jesus and submit to him.
In our own day, we almost seem to have turned the opening phrases of the Westminster Confession on their head. Rather than, ‘the chief end of man’ – the very reason for our existence – being, ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever’ we seem to believe that the chief end of God, the very reason for His existence, is to bless our lives and to do so ‘faithfully’ as we request it! Instead of acknowledging ourselves as the Lord’s unworthy servants, we seem to have come to picture him as our faithful servant. But surely, such a misunderstanding is at least as devastating in its final result as the Lord’s original hearers’ military and nationalistic misunderstanding. Both are false hopes that will be shattered.
Another way of putting this is to say that we appear to have come to believe that the kingdom of God is here for our personal protection, comfort and encouragement rather than seeing ourselves – as the writers of the New Testament so clearly did – as being a people chosen, redeemed, adopted and wonderfully caught up in the great purposes of Almighty God.
The parable of the mustard seed sharply challenged the expectation of the Lord Jesus’ disciples and their fellow hearers. It completely overturned their hope of military and national supremacy. As it did to the first hearers, it is a parable that challenges us to examine our own assumptions concerning the kingdom of God.
The mustard tree, Matthew 13:31 & 32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke13:18&19
Only in parables, Mark 4:33
Cedar tree, Ezek. 17:3-22
Restore Israel? Acts 1:6
Positions of power, Mark 10:37
Cleopas, Luke 24:21
Not by might, nor by power, Zechariah 4:6
King of kings and Lord of Lords, Revelation 19:16
God have mercy on me, Luke 18:13
Questions for reflection or discussion
- Why did the Roman occupation cause the people to understand their Scriptures in the way they did?
- How can our personal circumstances also distort our understanding of the purposes of God? We easily ‘Bless the Lord’ in times of personal peace and plenty, but what of times of great difficulty, sickness or sorrow?
- To what extent has the church pandered to the ‘my personal, fulfilment, satisfaction and comfort’ thinking of the world of our day?
- To what extent is the church really about its own self preservation, growth and the provision of a satisfying or comforting religious experience rather than proclaiming and building the kingdom of God?
- Older books of prayer would encourage us to pray for the bringing of all nations under the rule of Christ, more recent books only encourage us to pray for peace among the nations. Is there a sea-change in thinking here?
- In what ways could we help our local church to be more clearly focussed on the kingdom of God?
- Can you see other ways in which we could misunderstand the purposes of God and our role in them in our day?
The Parable of the Mustard seed, Continued © Parva Press
Exploring other possible levels of understanding of this parable
Keeping tight control of our imagination, we can ask what else the Lord might have us learn from the parable concerning the kingdom of God. So, for example we could ask:
‘Who can sow the kingdom of God?’
The answer must, of course, be God; God himself and God alone: God the Father in overall, sovereign, control. God the Son as he sowed both his teaching and, by his example, his God-centred way of living in the lives of those first disciples. And God the Holy Spirit as he opens eyes to see the kingdom of God and as he sows the life of God in the hearts of men and women, both then and now.
We might also reasonably ask, ‘What field, ground or garden had the Lord God been preparing for the sowing of his kingdom?’ Again, the answer is plain. For centuries by prophet, priest and king the Lord God had been preparing his ancient people, Israel. From Abraham onwards, they were his chosen people, a people through whom he would fulfil his purposes and on whom he set his love – not due to any merit of their own but simply by God’s sovereign choice. It was through God’s ancient people, the children of Abraham, that the nations would be blessed. Full of the Holy Spirit of God, John the Baptist declared that God’s chosen moment to begin to fulfil his purpose had arrived. By divine appointment, he prepared the way and called the people of Israel to repent and to be ready.
‘As he sowed the kingdom of God, who or what did the Lord God sow; who or what was his grain of mustard seed?’
‘In the fullness of time God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law . . .’ writes the apostle Paul. Isaiah’s words of prophecy concerning the signs of the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed King, were fulfilled as the Lord Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, gave sight to the blind, set captives free and proclaimed good news to the poor. As he taught, he declared that by his very presence among them, the kingdom of God had come. Here is the mustard seed; here is the seed of the kingdom of God, the long promised Messiah; God himself among his people.
And yet, to the world, he was just a baby boy, born in turbulent times, who escaped a massacre. He was just an irregular rabbi, an itinerant preacher sowing his life and teaching in the hearts and minds of a dozen unlearned and ignorant men in a backwater of the great Roman Empire. His was just one more miscarriage of justice; one more crucifixion among so many which took place to keep the conquered people, and especially the slaves, under subjection. Each of these things was apparently quite insignificant. And yet God had sown his kingdom; a kingdom hidden from the great and the wise, but a kingdom that would grow until the great day dawns when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
‘What did the Lord Jesus leave after his resurrection and ascension?’
He left a seedling Jewish church, a sapling mustard tree; a little group of disciples who, typical of seedlings, were very vulnerable and unsure. They were frightened, confused and tempted to return to fishing. However, at Pentecost, devout Jews from every nation were gathered in Jerusalem and, in their own native languages, heard these same disciples, now filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly telling out the mighty works of God.
The Lord God had long before promised, by his prophet Zechariah, that he would pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on his ancient people as they looked on the one they had pierced and cause them to mourn as one mourns for an only child. He had also promised, ’on that day’, to open a fountain of forgiveness and cleansing for the house of David and those who dwell in Jerusalem.
On the Day of Pentecost, as these devout men of Israel listened to Peter’s God-owned declaration concerning the Messiah, identifying him with the Jesus they had put to death, they were indeed deeply moved, ‘cut to the heart’, by the Holy Spirit. Crying out, ‘what must we do,’ three thousand of them turned in repentance and faith and were baptised. They found the promised fountain of forgiveness and cleansing in the name of the Lord Jesus their crucified Messiah. Under the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God, the mustard tree, grew strongly that day and from then on the Lord added daily to it those who were being saved.
As we consider it, we must not overlook the fact that the Lord God’s kingdom, his mustard tree, was, very clearly, primarily among his ancient people; the Jews. ‘He came to his own people . . .’, writes the apostle John. Jesus came, as he declared, ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ He was sent ‘to redeem those under the law.’ It is for this reason that the non-Jewish person seeking help for her sick daughter was initially given such an astonishing reply, ‘It is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.’
Western Christians often, somewhat arrogantly, overlook the Messianic, Jewish, nature of the New Testament mustard tree. But the gospel has always been ‘for the Jew first’, even though God’s ancient people often reject it with an almost aggressive self-righteousness. However, when they recognise, turn and receive him as their own promised Messiah, they discover, with wonder and with joy, the salvation that ancient Simeon spoke of as being, ‘the glory of your people Israel.’
At this point it would be easy to conclude that the kingdom of God, his mustard tree, is composed of those members of the house of Israel who believe – those who believed then, those who, through the running centuries, came to believe and those who in our day believe on their crucified Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. It would then follow that the birds settling and roosting in the branches represent the peoples of the world, the Gentile believers benefitting from the Jewish mustard tree but not actually Jewish and therefore not actually part of the tree themselves.
But was the mustard tree to be restricted to the house of Israel? The Messiah is indeed as Simeon said, ‘the glory of your people Israel’, but, by the grace of God, he is also, ‘the light to lighten the Gentiles’.
How were the Gentiles enlightened; how was the light of the gospel brought to the non–Jewish world?
Following the stoning of Stephen, the Jewish believers were scattered by persecution and went about preaching. Philip preached to the Samaritans and by divine appointment, shared the same gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch. Although it ran counter to all his Jewish background, by a dramatic vision it was made plain to Peter that the approaching invitation to preach to Cornelius and to his household was of God. Obeying the vision, Peter brought the gospel to these non-Jewish people and saw for himself the unmistakable signs of the coming of the kingdom of God. Some of the believers preached the gospel to the Greeks at Antioch amongst whom, again, God did a mighty work – so much so that Barnabas was sent to see if it was genuine. He found it to be, clearly, a work of grace; the kingdom of God truly planted among Gentile people. Barnabas needed help to tend and teach this new and God-owned branch of the growing mustard tree. He brought Paul from Tarsus and they laboured together until that church, where believers were first called ‘Christians’, found itself called of God to send first Paul and Barnabas and then Paul and Silas as missionaries throughout the Roman empire. Within a few years there were many Gentile branches of God’s mustard tree.
The apostle Paul vigorously defended these non-Jewish believers from those who would have them submit to Jewish rites and customs, describing them as being ‘grafted in’; different but absolutely part of the kingdom of God. Thus the birds sheltering in the branches cannot represent the believing Gentile peoples.
However, again, we Western, Gentile Christians often arrogantly overlook the debt we owe to those faithful members of the Jewish, believing church who shared the gospel and nurtured those whom the Lord called to himself from among the non-Jewish people. Pick up a New Testament and see how much of it has come to us by the labours of these men. Read the Acts and the Epistles and see what it cost these early, Jewish members of God’s mustard tree to bring to gospel to the Gentile world.
Where are we today? How greatly has the mustard tree grown?
Clearly, the kingdom of God, the mustard tree, has grown remarkably. From the person of our Lord himself, to those first few disciples, to the early church in Israel – it has now reached out to touch almost every nation on earth. There are genuine believers to be found on every continent. In some situations the mustard tree is growing fast, in other places it is static, declining or actively being squeezed out or suppressed. The Lord Jesus directly warned of ‘much tribulation’ and, by parable, urged the disciples to hold fast, watch, pray and await the vindication of God. He made plain how hard it might become by the sombre addition, ‘nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
Where will it end?
The apostle John’s vision is of a people ransomed by the blood of the Lamb from every tongue and tribe and nation and so it will be when the Lord Jesus returns. But before that time, the apostle Paul speaks of a great turning among God’s ancient people. No wonder Paul spoke with such excitement as he wrote of the day when all Israel will be saved as being, ‘life from the dead’.
What a thrilling picture this is of God sending, sowing, his one and only Son in the seedbed of his ancient people to live and heal and teach and die in order to fulfil his Father’s purpose of establishing the kingdom of God; the kingdom of his redeemed people. Here is a picture of God growing his mustard tree, first in the lives of the disciples and then, from the day of Pentecost onwards, among Jewish believers, then among Jewish and non-Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire and finally with its branches spreading throughout the world. The purposes of God will yet be fulfilled; as he prepares for the day when everything will be placed under the rule and authority of his anointed King and Son.
Smallest of people, Deuteronomy 7:6&7
The nations would be blessed, Genesis 12:3 and 18:18
John the Baptist repent, Mtt. 3:2
In the fullness of time, Galatians 4:4
Good news to the poor, Luke 4:17&18 and 7:20-23
The kingdom of God among them, Luke 17:21
Long promised Messiah, Is. 7&9, Micah 5:2
Every knee bows, Philippians 2:10
Tempted to return to fishing, John 21:3
Day of Pentecost, Acts 2
Zechariah 12:10 &13:1
Own people, John 1:12
Lost sheep of the house of Israel, Matt. 15:24
Not right to take the children’s bread, Mark 7:27, Mtt. 15:26
Jew first, Romans, 1:16, 2:9&10
Simeon, Luke 2:32
Philip, the Samaritans and the Ethiopian, Acts 8
Cornelius, Acts 10
The church at Antioch, Acts 11:19-26
Grafted in, Romans 11:24
Through much tribulation, John 16:33, Acts 14 22
Will he find faith on earth, Luke 18:8
Ransomed from every tribe, Revelation 5:9
Life from the dead, Romans 11:16, All Israel saved, Romans 11:26
All authority, Matthew 28:18 & Ephesians 1:9&10
Questions for reflection or discussion
- How great is the debt we owe to the faithful Jewish believers of the New Testament church?
- Do we pray and care as we might for the current generation of God’s ancient people, the Jews? Why should we?
- Can you think of countries where the gospel mustard tree is growing with great vigour, where it is dormant, where it seems to be dying off, where it is threatened with extinction? What are the reasons for this?
- Do we care as we ought for our fellow Christians facing great tribulations? How can we do better?
- Do we reach out to our fellow men and women as the early church did? What would help us to do better?
The Parable of the Mustard seed, Concluded © Parva Press
How should we understand the reference to the birds?
The Lord Jesus describes the mustard tree growing to such a size that the birds shelter or nest in its branches. He certainly did so to indicate the vigour of the growth and the great size to which it would grow.
Could there be further possibilities implied by the picture of the birds settling in the branches?
If you note that in Matthew and Luke the parable of the mustard tree is paired with the parable of the leaven, you may come to see them both either as parables of growth . . . or as parables of evil. The basis for this second, very widely held understanding is that the birds eating the seed on the pathway in the parable of the sower, are clearly identified by our Lord as representing the devil. ‘Then the devil comes and snatches away the word.’ Add to this our Lord’s warning to his disciples about ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’ and the apostle Paul’s reference to ‘the leaven of malice and wickedness’ and you have an intoxicating mix that leads you to understand that, in these parables, our Lord is teaching that, as the kingdom of God grows large, it will become riddled with hypocrisy, malice and wickedness and its branches will become infested with devils. Whether the modern church is full of hypocrisy, wickedness and vice and is all but devilish may, justifiably, be a debatable issue well worth exploring! Certainly, historically there are elements of truth to be found in such an understanding. However, is this really what the Lord was teaching at the time? Have I not come to the text and forced these two parables to fit an idea that I brought to them?
Surely, a safer approach is to let the whole Bible speak for itself. Birds are by no means always a picture of the devil. For example the Lord challenged his disciples to learn from the birds, which ‘neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns’ and yet are fed. If our heavenly Father feeds them, cannot disciples trust him to provide for their needs also? Or again, he speaks of gathering the people of Jerusalem, ‘as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ – surely not gathering them under the devil’s wings! The Psalmist speaks of, ‘rejoicing under your wings’ but he is certainly not speaking of the devil! So, in each case, the context determines how the illustration is being used.
Another possible understanding of the reference to the birds settling in the branches is that the Lord Jesus intended to alert his hearers to the terrible possibility of being associated with the kingdom of God, rather than being a vital part of it.
We could reasonably ask, who ‘flocked’ to our Lord in the time of his ministry and who has ‘settled in the branches’ of the kingdom of God through the running centuries?
Certainly, great crowds of ordinary people came to hear the Lord Jesus and followed him from place to place. The sick and suffering, the oppressed and disabled also flocked to him with their relatives as did the despised tax gatherers and sinners. Could these be described as ‘birds’? Clearly some, like Zachaeus, truly became members of the kingdom of God, ‘salvation came to his house’. However, the vast majority of those who flocked to him, although they loved his teaching and so many were helped and healed, went on their way fundamentally unchanged. They had only rested or roosted for a spell in the branches without ever becoming part of the kingdom of God; truly part of God’s mustard tree. In our Lord’s words, they failed to turn, failed to repent, and so, in practice, rejected both him and the Lord God who sent him.
In our own day, thousands of those who fill our chapels and churches do so because of the good things on offer rather than for the root of the matter. We may be attracted by the music, be it ancient or modern or appreciate the orderliness of things done well. We may be attracted by the sense of being in the presence of holy things or drawn by a particularly gifted preacher. We may ‘roost’ in the church because we delight in the company of the people who go there; perhaps hoping to find true friendship and sympathy, a life partner or even a career or good business contacts. These are all real benefits offered by roosting in this particular tree. However, being part of even the most dynamic of churches does not actually, of itself, involve repenting toward Almighty God or believing and submitting to his Son the Lord Jesus Christ; of really becoming a member of the kingdom of God.
There is, clearly, a challenge here to examine ourselves before Almighty God. Are we truly members of the kingdom of God or are we only ‘members of the church’; ‘birds’ roosting in the branches? Surely, it is horrifying to realise that we can be merely ‘birds’ even as a church dignitary or a minister; horrifying that we can be ‘birds’ as a church officer or as one of those who, for one reason or another, regularly attend.
After he had shown a video and spoken in a Christian old people’s home an elderly resident beckoned the speaker and said, ‘I love it here and they all think I’m a truly believing Christian, but I know that I’m not, can you help me?’ The Holy Spirit had shown that man that he needed to be a member of the kingdom of God, not just a ‘bird’ roosting in its branches. And the speaker was able to lead him to the mercy of God and to true faith in the One who told this parable.
Are there other ‘birds’ that can shelter and roost on the branches of the kingdom of God?
Ezekiel and Daniel speak of empires as great trees with smaller nations as birds sheltering in their branches. Can nations and societies, though not thoroughly Christian, also shelter and benefit from the godliness of life of true members of the kingdom of God? Can truly believing people bring enormous benefits to society as a whole?
It is the calling of God’s people to be salt and light in society; to work for justice and mercy, respect, and a forgiving attitude. Because of this the kingdom of heaven, outwardly expressed in the sincere, godly living of its members, will permeate, form and reform the whole of a society; over the years it will transform a nation.
One African president, in passing, commented on his experience in his own country, ‘You can always tell the areas where the Christians are – it is safe to travel.’ In that aside, he gave a perfect illustration of the birds being able to safely roost in the branches of the kingdom of God – honesty and respect for other people and their property, is one of the benefits of the kingdom of God to society as a whole.
The founding fathers of America set out to build a society on a truly godly basis and, as a result, America, as a whole society, has prospered and benefitted hugely from that Christian foundation.
In Britain ‘godly natural justice,’ the honest dealing based on trust, a willingness to work for the common good and a willingness to be forgiving of others are all things that flow from the true godliness of sufficient numbers of its citizens. Such godly ways gave this country a parliamentary system and a system of justice, education and honest trading that have been the envy of the world. These are benefits that flow from godliness and without godliness they very soon evaporate. Sadly this is something not generally appreciated by the secular government of our own day. Indeed, ungodly folk are determinedly tearing down our rich Christian heritage; ripping the branches from the tree and would be altogether rid of the kingdom of God and of all godly influence in school, work place, legal justice and the public sphere.
What a great challenge this is to members of the kingdom of God who are put in any kind of position of authority; politicians, local counsellors, lawyers, magistrates, employers, writers, teachers, broadcasters – are we able to encourage one another to uphold and promote godly ways in a hostile world? Are we able to play our part or the glory of God? Are the people entrusted to our care benefitting from godly justice, fair-mindedness, patience, kindness and mercy; are they able to safely shelter in our branches?
One final question
Does the parable offer any other valid picture of the powerful, independent growth of the kingdom of God?
The Lord Jesus, himself, was constantly sowing the seed of the kingdom of God in the lives of those to whom he spoke and those he healed and helped. He opened the eyes of Nathanael simply by addressing him as, ‘an Israelite without guile’, of the Samaritan woman by telling her that she, ‘had had five husbands and that the man she now lived with was not her husband,’ as a result of those words, she and, subsequently, the whole Samaritan village believed him to be the true Messiah.
These are examples of small and apparently insignificant seeds of the kingdom of God being sown in the mind and heart of individual people. This is still the principal way in which the Lord God chooses to grow his kingdom. It may be just a phrase or a few words read in a tract, in a book or in the Bible. It could be the God-owned words of a faithful preacher, broadcaster or public speaker. We could be stirred by the care or kindness with which we have been treated. In such apparently insignificant ways the Lord God sows the seed of the kingdom in our minds. The thoughts and questions arising from such an encounter challenge and disturb us. They worry us and we worry at them until we want to know more and God begins to open our eyes to see the kingdom of heaven. We slowly discover, with horror, that we have been completely unaware of our true and desperate situation before Almighty God and then go on to discover, with wonder, the way of forgiveness and cleansing that he has provided for us in his Son, the Lord Jesus.
At this level, too, the parable challenges us. Has God sown the seed of his kingdom in our hearts and lives? Do you count yourself eternally grateful for that gospel warning, phrase or word that the Lord God first planted in your heart? It may have been something you read, saw or heard; some words or acts of kindness that so challenged and stirred you that you had to ask, seek, enquire, step forward, cry out, pray – until the kingdom of God took root in your life. If it was genuine and has been nurtured it will be like the seed growing or like the yeast at work bringing the whole of life under the saving rule and kingship of the Lord God. It will lift heavenward our attitudes and priorities, our aims and concerns, our time, money, career and friendships. Under the hand of God, we may grow into a godly ‘bush in the garden of our own home’, as did Susannah Wesley faithfully bringing up her many children, or we may grow into a mighty ‘tree in the field of God’s world’, as did her sons, John and Charles Wesley and their contemporary George Whitefield.
Here is God’s powerful and yet secret work of the gospel seed; the life-changing presence of the kingdom of God within us. It will be scoffed at by the unseeing world. Yet if it is not just a ‘religious veneer’ but a genuine work of God, colleagues, friends and family, Christian and non-Christian alike, will find themselves drawn to shelter in the openness to reason, cheerfulness, trustworthiness and kindness that mark out the true child of the kingdom of God.
The parables of Jesus have their fulfilment at so many different levels. Under the hand of God and by the working of the Holy Spirit, pray that this parable may get under our thick, protective skin to disturb, challenge, awaken and strengthen us.
Just like the grain of mustard seed when it has been sown, the kingdom of God, faithfully lived and proclaimed, has a dynamic and a power of its own – the power of God. Pray, therefore, that the Lord God would restore and revitalise his church. Pray that he would stir, thrill and revive his people and so enable us to live as vigorous branches of the mustard tree in our own day and society. And pray that he would fill each true member of his kingdom afresh with his Holy Spirit and that ‘first love’ for his risen, reigning and soon returning Son who loved us and gave himself for us and to whom he has committed all authority and all judgement.
Heavenly Father, by your grace, enable us to examine our own hearts and underlying assumptions. May we not be mere birds, passengers, lodgers enjoying the external benefits of the kingdom of God, but be truly members of it. By your grace and forgiveness, may we be vitally connected by repentance and by faith in your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Full of gratitude and joy, may we be truly caught up in your purposes and actively part of your world-wide kingdom, your mustard tree.
Snatches away the word, Luke 8:12
Leaven of the Pharisees, Luke 12:1
Leaven of malice and wickedness, 1 Cor. 5:8
Neither sow nor reap, Mtt. 6 26
As a hen gathers, Mtt 23:37, Lk. 13:24
Rejoicing under your wings, Ps. 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 91:4
Zachaeus, Luke 19:9&10
Failed to turn; to repent, Luke 10:13-16
Empires sheltering birds, Ezekiel 31:3-9 of Egypt, Daniel 4:20-22 of Nebuchadnezzar
An Israelite without guile, John1:47
Five husbands, John 4:17&18 and v. 39
Loved us and gave himself for us, Galatians 2:20
Questions for reflection or discussion
- How can bringing a narrow selection of ideas to Scripture mislead us?
- How can we be open to let scripture speak for itself rather than forcing it to fit the ideas we bring to it?
- How easy is it to merely ‘roost’ in today’s church?
- What important benefits do you see flowing from true godliness in society? In what ways can modern nations shelter under the kingdom of God?
- Can you identify with the elderly man who came to recognise that he was just ‘roosting’?
- What first drew you to the Christian Church? Do you see yourself today as one of those who are ‘roosting’ or as one of those who are vitally linked with the Lord Jesus himself?
- Can you look back on the first small seeds of the kingdom of God sown in your own life?
- Has the seed so grown that those around you find shelter? In what ways can we encourage its growth?