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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.”
Matthew Chapter 13 verses 31-33, English Standard Version
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till 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 Mustard Seed
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 – the different places accurately reflecting the original Greek. 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 flour to cause all of it to rise. In Mark’s gospel the parable follows that of the seed growing quietly without any attention from the man who sowed it. Matthew and Mark note that Jesus drew attention to the smallness of the mustard seed. ‘As small as a grain of mustard’, was almost certainly a proverbial saying.
The plainest application of the parable
If the parable of the seed sown and growing steadily produces a harvest, the mustard seed produces a very large plant, and the small amount of yeast digests and works its way through all of the flour, then, surely, all three parables are parables of growth. It is the kind of growth that, from a small beginning, quietly continues until it yields a very significant result; a harvest, a tree, or a batch of risen bread. We have an English proverb to the same effect, ‘Great oaks from little acorns grow.’ From a little acorn to a tender plant and then almost unnoticed it grows year by year till it becomes a broad-spreading and well-rooted tree. As C.H. Dodd observes, these three parables should not be separated, or over-interpreted, but taken together as illustrating the remarkable growth of the kingdom of God. From such a small and apparently insignificant beginning the kingdom will, over the course of time, become mighty and far reaching.
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 kingdom of God under Messiah’s reign will dwarf all other kingdoms and empires.
None of this will surprise or offend us as modern people with the hindsight of twenty centuries of Christian history. The Lord’s pictures exactly fit the growth of the worldwide company of God’s people. However, these parables were completely new thinking to those who first heard them, they were counter-cultural and shocking. Certainly, our Lord’s hearers were longing for the Messiah’s majestic rule. However, 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, was of 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 kind of expectation can be seen 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, saying to the risen, but unrecognised, Lord Jesus, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
These three parables speak of the very different kind of growth of the kingdom of God. Not growth that is sudden, decisive and won by military conquest and the overthrow of all enemies, but a kingdom that grows quietly and steadily without any of these things. 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’.
Like the growth of the crop, the tree and the leaven, the growth of the kingdom of God will be almost unannounced. Nevertheless, eventually, like the leaven, it will permeate every nation on earth; like the tree, it will fulfil God’s purposes when 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.
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, beginning with the days he spent among them, 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?
We view the ancient, nationalistic misunderstanding of the nature of the kingdom of God, with the benefit of the Gospel teaching of the New Testament as well as 2,000 years of history. But it is challenging to ask, could such a misunderstanding be paralleled by some of our current Western expectations? We, too, are creatures of our age; do we have widely held, yet mistaken assumptions?
The New Testament writers clearly saw new disciples as a people chosen, adopted, redeemed and wonderfully caught up in the great purposes of Almighty God. At great personal cost, the apostles focused on building up the body of disciples so that, as fellow labourers, believers could each play a God-given part in warning people of the judgement to come, in spreading the gospel of forgiveness and in encouraging fellow disciples. They were fulfilling the Lord’s commission and so preparing for the Master’s return, both in glory and in judgement.
We live in a time when society has moved its focus from each of us playing our part in the whole community, to each of us pursuing our individual rights and self-fulfilment. The great danger for us is that we import this thinking into our Christian lives and churches.
If we do, we will find ourselves assuming that the kingdom of God is here for our personal protection, comfort and encouragement. However, like Jesus’ hearers, we will have put our hope and trust in an understanding that is mistaken.
In our churches, we will delight to meet and assure one another that God loves us and is ‘here to bless us’. But, unlike the New Testament church, tend not to see ourselves as called to be a team of God’s servants with a very great task to fulfil. We will delight in his promises, but pass lightly over his commandments. We will be more enthusiastic to be ‘blessed’ in all that we are doing, than to be challenged to turn from our ungodly ways, stirred by a clearer vision of the mighty purposes of God and better equipped to spend our lives in his service.
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. In our day, the Lord’s words are a challenge to each one of us to examine our own assumptions concerning the kingdom of God.
How does the kingdom of God grow?
Immediately following the parable of the mustard seed, Mark records that the Lord taught the great crowds only in parables – which he explained 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 it was taught.
So the question arises, should we simply take the parable of the mustard seed as an illustration of dramatic and yet quiet growth? Or might we usefully look more closely at 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 tree grows or could these be identified with particular aspects of the kingdom of God? So, for example, we could ask:
‘Who can sow the kingdom of God?’
This must be the Lord God himself: God the Father in overall, sovereign, control. God the Son, as he sowed both his God-centred way of living and his teaching, 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 a hunger for the things of God in the hearts of men and women – both then and in our day.
We might also ask, ‘What field, ground or garden had the Lord God been preparing for the sowing of his kingdom?’
The Scriptures show us that for centuries, by prophet, priest and king, the Lord God had been preparing his ancient people, Israel – the Jewish nation. 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. Much later, 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, John 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, referring to the Jewish people. 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, Isaiah’s words of prophecy concerning the signs of the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed King, were fulfilled. 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, as both the sower and the seed.
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 was sowing his kingdom; a kingdom hidden from those who consider themselves 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.’
‘How did the Lord God continue to grow his kingdom after the resurrection of Jesus?’
Jesus left a seedling 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 Jewish people from many different nations 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 over their mistake 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 Israel; the Jewish people.
On the Day of Pentecost, as the 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 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 Yeshua their crucified Messiah. Under the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God, the mustard tree, grew strongly that day. From then on, ‘the Lord added daily to his church those who were being saved.’
As we consider these things, 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 could initially be given such an astonishing reply, ‘It is not right to give the children’s bread to the dogs.’
At this point it would be easy to conclude that the kingdom of God, his mustard tree, was to be composed of those members of the house of Israel who believed: those who believed then, those who, through the running centuries, came to believe – and those of the Jewish people who in our day believe on their crucified Messiah, Yeshua.
But was the kingdom to be restricted to the people of Israel? Some Jewish believers certainly thought it was. However, it is the Lord God who plants and is growing his kingdom. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’
Heavenly Father, this parable challenged the religious and socially accepted thinking of our Lord’s hearers. In the light of your word, awaken us to examine equally mistaken comforting assumptions of our own, of our denomination or church, and of society around us in our times.
Questions for reflection or discussion
1. Why do you think the Roman occupation caused the people to understand the Scriptures in the way they did?
2. Are you aware of other ways in which we could misunderstand the purposes of God and our role in them in our day?
3. How can our personal circumstances also affect our understanding of the purposes of God? We can easily ‘bless the Lord’ in times of personal peace and plenty, but what of times of great difficulty, sickness or sorrow?
4. To what extent have we brought into our Christian thinking and churches the ‘my personal fulfilment, satisfaction and comfort’ thinking of the world of our day?
5. In what ways could we help our local church to do better at building the kingdom, proclaiming the gospel and countering society’s self-centred culture?
6. Can the thrilling way in which the Lord God began to grow his ‘mustard tree’ be an encouragement to us?
A minor difficulty
Matthew and Mark record Jesus referring to the mustard seed as being, ‘the smallest of all the seeds’. There are plenty of seeds no larger than dust, but in the Middle East, mustard was the smallest seed generally sown as an annual crop. It rapidly grew to be the largest of annual plants, over two metres high, and birds could easily settle and roost in it.
If the underlying word, which literally means ‘tenting’, implied not only settling and roosting but also ‘nesting’, how could mustard, grown fresh from seed each season, be large and available long enough for nesting? For this reason, a number of other, more substantial, plants that could have been known as mustard have been suggested. They include 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.)
The mustard tree – Matthew 13:31 & 32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke13:18&19
Cedar tree – Ezekiel 17:22-24
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
Only in parables – Mark 4:33&34
Smallest of people, fewest in number – Deuteronomy 7:6&7
The nations would be blessed – Genesis 12:3 and 18:18
John the Baptist, ‘repent’ – Matthew. 3:2
In the fullness of time – Galatians 4:4
Good news to the poor – Luke 4:17&18 and 7:20-23
Long promised Messiah – Isaiah 7&9, Micah 5:2
The kingdom of God among them – Luke 17:21
Tempted to return to fishing – John 21:3
Every knee bows – Philippians 2:10
Day of Pentecost – Acts 2:1-47, particularly verses 37 and 47
Zechariah – Zechariah12:10 &13:1
His own people – John 1:11&12
Lost sheep of the house of Israel – Matthew 15:24
To redeem those under the law – Galatians 4:4&5
Not right to take the children’s bread – Mark 7:27, Matthew 15:26
My thoughts are not your thoughts – Isaiah 55:8&9
The Parable of the Mustard seed, Continued © Parva Press
From Jerusalem to the end of the earth
Following the stoning of Stephen, the Jewish believers were persecuted and scattered from Jerusalem far and wide. They preached the gospel wherever they went. 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 the Roman soldier, Cornelius, and 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 Greek-speaking people of Antioch amongst whom, again, God did a mighty work – so much so that Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem 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, nurtured and defended from error, taught and looked after by the apostles.
Those of us who are Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians can be in danger of overlooking the great contribution of these Jewish people. We owe so much to those faithful members of the Jewish believing church who shared the gospel, and who nurtured those whom the Lord called to himself from among the non-Jewish people. In doing so, they planted the seed for the Lord God’s great harvest among the nations.
Pick up a New Testament and see how much of it has come to us by the labours of, for example, the apostles Peter and Paul. Read the Acts and the Epistles and see what it cost these early, Jewish members of God’s mustard tree to bring the gospel to the Gentile world.
Here is clear and undeniable proof that the Messiah is indeed, as Simeon had said, ‘. . . the glory of your people Israel’, but, by the grace of God, he is also ‘. . . a light for revelation to the Gentiles.’
How is the Lord God sowing and growing his mustard tree today?
The Lord Jesus himself was constantly sowing the seed of the kingdom of God in the lives of those with whom he spoke and those he healed and helped. He knew all about them. He opened the eyes of Nathanael simply by addressing him as ‘. . . an Israelite without guile,’ and 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 later the whole Samaritan village, believed him to be the true Messiah.
These are New Testament accounts of small and apparently insignificant seeds of the kingdom of God that our Lord sowed in the minds and hearts of individual people. This is still the principal way in which the Lord God grows his kingdom. It may be just a phrase or a few words read in a hymn or a tract, in a book or in the Bible. It could be the God-owned words of a faithful preacher, writer, 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 hearts and minds. The thoughts and questions arising from such an encounter challenge and disturb us. We find that we are hungry to discover more, and God begins to open our eyes to see the kingdom of heaven. Slowly we discover from the New Testament, as did John Newton, 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, known to those of us who are Gentiles as the Lord Jesus.
Here is yet another sharp and personal challenge presented by the parable. Has the Lord 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 some act of kindness. A word that so challenged and stirred you that you had to ask, seek, enquire, step forward, pray, or as in times of revival, cry out to the Lord – until the kingdom of God began to take root in your life. If it was genuine and has been nurtured by prayerful reading of the Scriptures and the encouragement of fellow believers, 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. Little by little, as we grow in grace and understanding, love of Scripture and of the ways of God, it will lift heavenward our attitudes and priorities, our aims and concerns, our use of time and money, our 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.
Where are we today? How greatly has the mustard tree grown?
Clearly, the kingdom of God, the mustard tree, continues grow. 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. Many times, the Lord Jesus directly and by parable warned of tribulation and, by the parable of the widow and the judge, urged 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?’
What a great challenge this is to every current member of the kingdom of God, each one of us in our own sphere – are we able to encourage one another to hold fast and to uphold and promote godly ways in a hostile world? Are the people in our care benefitting from our godly fair-mindedness, patience, kindness and mercy; are they able to safely shelter in our branches? Are we willing to play our part to the glory of God?
Here lies the great work of the whole people of God – the ‘mustard tree’ that is his church. Certainly it is called to be a place of refuge, safety and mutual encouragement for disciples, but also to be a witness to the world. Each of us is called to reach out by our lives and by our words to those around us with the gospel, and then encourage them to grow in grace and in knowledge and understanding of the ways of God and in humble obedience to his Son.
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. Pray that he would fill each true member of his kingdom afresh with his Holy Spirit. And that he would stir up that ‘first love’ for his risen, reigning and soon returning Son who loved us and gave himself for us.
Where will it end?
What a thrilling prophetic picture this parable gives us of God first sowing and then growing his kingdom!
The Lord God sent his one and only Son to live among his ancient people – to help and to heal, to teach and finally to lay down his life on the cross – in order to fulfil his Father’s purpose of establishing the kingdom.
The Lord God continued to grow his kingdom, first in the lives of the disciples, and then – after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost – among Jewish and non-Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire. Finally the branches of God’s ‘mustard tree’ would, and indeed have, spread throughout the world.
Looking to the future, in the light of Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the cedar tree, the parable gives us a glimpse of the day when the purposes of God for his kingdom will be fulfilled; the day when everything will be placed under the rule and authority of his beloved and anointed Son, the Messiah.
The apostle John’s vision in the book of Revelation is of a people ransomed by the blood of the Lamb – the cross of the Lord Jesus – from every language 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.’
Heavenly Father, by your grace and forgiveness, cause each one of us, by repentance and by faith in your Son, the Lord Jesus, to be a living part of your mustard tree. Fill us with gratitude and joy, and stir us to be truly caught up in your purposes and actively part of your world-wide kingdom, your mustard tree.
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 Jewish people, both those gathered in Israel and those scattered throughout the nations? Why do we have good reason to do so?
- 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; 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?
- What first drew you to the Christian Church?
- Can you look back on the first small seeds of the kingdom of God sown in your own life?
- In what ways can we better encourage the growth of the seed of the kingdom of God in our own lives, and in the lives of those around us?
- Have you known people whose genuine Christian faith has been a shelter and encouragement to you? Can we offer the same to those around us?
From Jerusalem to the end of the earth – Acts 1:8
The stoning of Stephen – Acts 7:54-60
Philip, the Samaritans and the Ethiopian – Acts 8
Cornelius – Acts 10
The church at Antioch – Acts 11:19-26
Simeon – Luke 2:32
An Israelite without guile – John 1:47
Five husbands – John 4:17&18 and v. 39
The Day of Pentecost – Acts 2:1-47
Tribulation – John 16:33 see also Acts 14:22
Will he find faith on earth, the widow and the judge – Luke 18:8
The love you had at first (first love) – Revelation 2:4
All authority – Matthew 28:18 see also Philippians 2:9-11
Loved us and gave himself for us – Galatians 2:20
The cedar tree – Ezekiel 17:22-24
Ransomed from every tribe – Revelation 5:9
All Israel saved – Romans 11:26
Life from the dead – Romans 11:15
The Parable of the Mustard seed, Concluded © Parva Press
An optional section for those wishing to explore some of the other interpretations of the birds settling in the branches
J.C. Ryle, quoting John Chrysostom, advises, ‘It is not right to search curiously, and word for word, into all things in a parable: but when we have learned the object for which it was composed, we are to reap this, and not to busy ourselves about anything further.’ There is one great teaching in all three of these parables, and that is the way the Lord God is growing his kingdom. Maybe we should be content to lay hold of that, and stirred to play our part in it.
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. He may have intended to convey nothing more than that. However fertile minds have interpreted the reference to the birds settling in the branches much further.
For those who wish to explore this and make their own judgement, here are some of the interpretations of the significance of the birds nesting in the branches. Some of them are clearly open to question, others contain useful challenges and warnings for both individual disciples and for the people of God as a whole.
The birds settling in the branches could represent the Gentiles lodging in the branches of God’s Jewish mustard tree.
From the earliest days, Gentile believers have been seen by some people as mere birds settling in the Jewish mustard tree, but not really part of it. Many of the earliest Jewish believers would only accept Gentile believers – who they recognised as being true believers – if they submitted to becoming fully Jewish. They regarded the Gentile believers as people benefitting from the Jewish mustard tree but not actually Jewish and therefore not actually part of the tree themselves.
At the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts chapter 15, the apostle Paul, with Barnabas, vigorously defended these non-Jewish believers from this kind of thinking and from those Jewish believers who would have them submit to the Jewish rites and customs. As the apostle Paul later wrote his letter to the Romans, he described Gentile believers as being ‘grafted in’ – different but absolutely part of the kingdom of God. The apostle’s picture of the Jewish church as an olive tree with Gentile branches grafted in, does not sit well with the suggestion that believers from the nations are mere ‘lodgers’ in the kingdom of God.
From the apostle Paul’s convincing defence in Jerusalem, and from his letter, the birds sheltering in the branches really cannot represent believing Gentile people.
The Lord God’s ultimate purpose, as the epistle to the Ephesians makes plain, is to put all things under Christ, Jew and Gentile alike. When that day dawns all believers will be one body and all believers will have benefitted from those early Jewish believers who, led by the apostles, brought the gospel to their own people and then, as the Lord God scattered them, to the Gentile world.
The birds settling in the branches could be a picture of evil infesting the whole body of Christian believers
There are positive benefits of ‘birds’ being able to settle in the branches of God’s mustard tree, his people. But there is also a negative side, for birds can cause considerable damage to a tree; for example, some, like bullfinches, strip a tree of the flower buds and others, like pigeons, of the young fruits.
May I invite you to explore another very widely held and respected, but I believe mistaken, understanding of the birds nesting in the branches.
If you note that in the gospels of 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 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 the beginning of a collection of verses that may lead you to understand that, in the parable of the mustard seed, our Lord is teaching that, as the kingdom of God grows, it will become riddled with hypocrisy, malice and wickedness and its branches will become infested with devils. 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? Could I be coming to the parable and making it fit an idea that I have brought to it?
Surely, a safer approach is to let the whole Bible speak for itself. Birds are by no means always a picture of evil. 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. Our Lord is simply drawing attention to the way the birds are fed. If our heavenly Father feeds them, cannot disciples trust him to provide for their needs also? Or again, the Lord speaks of gathering the people of Jerusalem ‘. . . as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.’ The Psalmist speaks many times of hiding, sheltering or taking refuge and of rejoicing ‘under your wings’ – but neither the Lord nor the Psalmist are speaking of the devil! On each occasion, we must allow the setting to show us how the illustration is being used.
The birds settling in the branches could be a picture of societies and nations sheltering and benefitting from the godly ways of the believing people of God
Ezekiel and Daniel speak of rulers of huge empires as great trees with smaller nations as birds sheltering in their branches. Can nations and societies benefit from the godliness of life of members of the kingdom of God? Can 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 – and to demonstrate these things in their own lives and attitudes. 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 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 remark, he gave a perfect illustration of the birds being able to roost safely 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.
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. Over many centuries, 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 governments 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.
The birds in the branches could be a picture of individual people, who have not yet come to believe, sheltering among God’s people
Another, and challenging, 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 – of being present among the people of God without being one of them.
We could usefully 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?
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. So did the despised tax gatherers and sinners. Clearly some, like the tax collector Zacchaeus, 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 many were helped and healed by him – went on their way fundamentally unchanged. Could such people be described as ‘birds’? They had rested or roosted for a spell in the branches and benefitted from doing it. But they did so without ever becoming part of the kingdom of God; truly part of God’s mustard tree. As our Lord said of the towns around Galilee, that had seen so much of his teaching and healing ministry, they failed to repent; failed to receive and believe in him and so, in practice, rejected both him and the Lord God who sent him.
In our own day, thousands of us who attend our chapels and churches do so for a whole variety of reasons, often without any sense of spiritual hunger or need. We may have the great benefit of a life-long habit of church-going or find ourselves attracted by the music, be it ancient or modern, or by an appreciation of 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 value the company of the people who go there; perhaps because of their generosity in a time of need, or hoping to find true friendship and sympathy, a marriage partner – or even a career or good business contacts. These are all real benefits offered by roosting in the Lord God’s ‘mustard tree’. However, being part of even the most dynamic of churches does not actually, of itself, mean that we have humbled ourselves before Almighty God or believed and submitted to his Son the Lord Jesus Christ and so really become a member of the kingdom of God.
At a far more serious level, from church history it is clear that some able and well-meaning people who ‘settle’ in the church can cause serious damage to those who are truly part of Christ’s mustard tree. For, if such people, ‘birds,’ who are not actually part of God’s kingdom, consider themselves so comfortable and settled that they begin to assume positions of leadership among God’s people, then his people are in great trouble. God’s true people will be led further and further from the root and stem. They will be persuaded that there is no need for a close personal bond of repentance towards God and faith in his anointed Son, the Lord Jesus, or need of a humble, willing obedience to his teaching and to that of his chosen apostles. These ‘birds’ will offer another gospel, one far less demanding and more suited to their considered opinions, the world around them and their way of life. They will also appoint like-minded ‘birds’ to positions of authority, and be inclined to exclude those who do not share their views.
We will look further at these things as we come to explore the second of this pair of parables, the parable of the leaven.
A personal look at the birds settling among the branches of the people of God
The Lord, alone, knows who are his and knows the secrets of our hearts. Yet, there is a challenge here for each one of us. There is a time to humbly and prayerfully examine ourselves, asking for the Holy Spirit’s enlightening to show us, in the light of Scripture, our own true standing 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 an alarming thought that it is possible to be merely ‘a bird’ even as a church dignitary or a minister; a horrifying possibility that we can be ‘a bird’ as a respected church officer or as one of those who are active members and regularly attend.
After a visiting speaker had shown a video and spoken in a Christian home for older people, an elderly resident spoke privately to him 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.
Heavenly Father, by the Holy Spirit, open our eyes and ears to heed the warnings of these understandings of the birds settling in the mustard tree. Enable us to humbly examine our own hearts and underlying assumptions before you and in the light of your word, lest, before you and too late, we find ourselves to have been birds, passengers or lodgers – enjoying the external benefits of the kingdom of God, but not actually members of it.
By your grace and forgiveness, cause us to 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.
Questions for reflection or discussion
1. How can we be spiritually open to let Scripture speak for itself rather than making it fit the ideas we bring to it?
2. What important benefits do you see flowing from true godliness in society?
3. In what ways can modern nations shelter under the kingdom of God?
4. Is it possible to merely ‘roost’ in today’s church?
5. Can you perhaps see a time in your life when, like the elderly man, you recognise that you were just ‘roosting’?
8. Are you increasingly aware of a vital link and humble dependence on the Lord Jesus himself, in John Newton’s words, as ‘Shepherd, Shield and Saviour’?
Council of Jerusalem – Acts 15:1-32
The olive tree with branches grafted in – Romans 11:24
To sum up all things under Christ, Jew and Gentile alike – Ephesians 1:10 and 22-23
The birds in the parable of the sower – Luke 8:5&12
The leaven of the Pharisees – Luke 12:1
Leaven of malice and wickedness – 1 Corinthians 5:8
Neither sow nor reap – Matthew 6:26
As a hen gathers her chicks – Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34
Rejoicing under your wings – Psalms 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, 91:4
Empires sheltering birds – Ezekiel 31:2-9 of Egypt and Pharaoh,
– Daniel 4:20-22 of Nebuchadnezzar
Salt and light – Matthew 5:13&14
Zacchaeus – Luke 19:9&10
Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida, the towns around Galilee, failed to repent – Luke 10:13-16
The Lord, alone, knows who are his – Matthew 7:21-23