Do you ever look around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning or the living room on a Wednesday night and think, “is this it?” I mean, the church is supposed to represent the victorious kingdom of Heaven, realized on earth. Is this all there is?
No doubt people wondered the same thing when Jesus from Nazareth, the carpenter’s son came announcing the kingdom. Really, this is that? In Matthew 13:31-33 Jesus told two short parables to address that question.
The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are complementary parables.
One is a parable of extensive growth. One is a parable of intensive transformation.
One is a parable of work of surprising growth begun by a man. One is a parable of surprising growth begun by a woman.
Both are parables contrasting a small beginning with an over-sized result.
First: the mustard seed. The smallest of all seeds which becomes a tree. Wait. The smallest? A tree? If any of you are botany nerds alarm bells are ringing in your head. There are seeds smaller than mustard seeds. And mustard seeds grow into plants, not trees. Was Jesus wrong?
That’s what some have said. Clearly, Jesus did not have good data to work with and made erroneous claims about the natural world. But isn’t he supposed to be the Lord of the natural world? Wasn’t it supposed to be created through him?
Bart Ehrman is a scholar of textual criticism and professor of religious studies at UNC Chapel Hill. He has written three textbooks and a handful of NYT bestselling books about the Bible. The main idea of his research and writing is that the Bible is filled with errors. In his book, Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman lists a handful of errors which he realized were indefensible and led to a shift from faith to skepticism. One of those is the mustard seed:
“maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t.”
Ehrman now teaches that the Bible is an entirely human book, evidenced by the countless pile of errors found throughout the texts.
Before we go there with Ehrman, we have to ask the question, “did Jesus really make a mistake?” The basic rules of literary analysis – grammatical, historical and literary interpretation – should be employed. Who was Jesus addressing in Matthew 13? What form or style was he using? Is there any historical/cultural context needed to understand the text?
Jesus was speaking in parabolic form – using visible and common elements to explain invisible realities, often with exaggerated elements to make a striking point. He was definitely not speaking in an encyclopedic style. Jesus was not giving a lecture in botanical taxonomy. He was using common language (“small as a mustard seed” is a phrase found in a variety of ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman literature) to communicate in the cultural context of an agrarian people who were all familiar with the mustard plant. It was the smallest seed in their world and quickly germinated and grew to 12 feet in height. For all intents and purposes, a tree. To categorize this parable as a human error is to violate the basic rules of interpretation. Shouldn’t a textual scholar understand that?
When you hear a strong claim presented by a renowned scholar that there are countless errors in the new testament, you take it seriously, but when you see that one of those errors significant enough to mention among a few examples is this instance of the mustard seed – you kind of have to question the strength of the claim.
Agrarian people of Palestine in Jesus’ day knew very well the deceptive appearance of a mustard seed. One minuscule object could quickly grow into one large plant which could quickly overcome an entire region. The point is the difference between the very small seed and the large plant.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The Batch of Leaven
Leaven in verse 33 is not yeast, but a small bit of fermenting dough. When you bake bread with leaven dough, you can set aside a small portion of the batch to ferment the next one. In this way a small batch of fermenting dough can multiply through many generations and leaven countless loaves of bread. The woman in this parable for one reason or another slips a bit of this fermented dough into 3 measures, or a bushel full of flour. Enough to feed 100 people. A small thing with outsize results.
The women of Palestine in Jesus’ day knew very well the deceptive power of a small batch of leaven. One little bit hidden in a bushel full of flour will work its way through the whole batch.
That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Why did Jesus describe the kingdom like this?
Maybe, some who heard him were skeptical of his announcement that the kingdom of heaven had arrived among them.
Maybe some who heard him would feel overwhelmed by their apparent smallness in the midst of large troubles and a large world.
Maybe some who heard him were women who felt insignificant and impotent in a world dominated by men.
Maybe some were in danger of missing the kingdom of heaven in their midst because they were looking for something big and flashy.
The lesson to all of them is the same – don’t underestimate a small beginning.
This isn’t a uniquely spiritual principle. Just look at the story of Facebook – two young college students working on a project in their dorm room created something which would spread across the globe and transform human society. Don’t underestimate a small beginning.
Jesus isn’t claiming ownership of this principle, he is saying “that’s what the kingdom of God is like.” It’s one of those things that starts small, but don’t be deceived. Don’t miss it because you are looking for a grand entrance. Don’t get discouraged by your small beginning.
What are some ways the kingdom has small beginnings?
Do you ever feel discouraged by your spiritual life? Do you feel that your faith and your potential feels small?
The way of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, which shines ever brighter until the full light of day.
Don’t be discouraged by the apparent smallness you see. Remain faithful in the small works of righteousness and faith and great things can come.
The multiplication of souls.
Do you ever feel that you want to change the world, but it’s just too big and you’re just one small person?
and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.
2 Timothy 2:2
Do you remember the story of Edward Kimball, the shoe store owner? He once gave a job to a young man fresh from the countryside, looking for a start in life. Kimball mentored the young man and introduced him to Christ. That young man went on to become an evangelist who would influence millions of people and who would initiate a remarkable chain of events leading up to the conversion of a young Billy Graham. It is beyond our power to calculate the scope of impact that one, insignificant shoe store owner began in the world in his care for one, insignificant young man.
Don’t underestimate the power of a small beginning.
The lesson of the parable has been proven by history. What began with the teaching of one insignificant working class laborer, attended to by a small band of similarly insignificant laborers in one little corner of the Roman world would, before long, dominate the whole empire. One man’s teachings became a religion with over a billion followers in every country on the globe.
You don’t have to take giant steps to make a big impact.
You don’t have to be a giant to be a part of something of giant significance.
Plant some small seeds this week.
If you aren’t reading the Bible regularly – read one verse a day.
If you aren’t praying regularly – try to make 5 prayer requests or thank God for 5 things tomorrow morning.
If you aren’t sure how to share your faith – tell someone you love “I appreciate you and I’m praying for you.”
If you aren’t satisfied with your community group or your church – keep showing up, keep planting seeds and watch what comes in time.
What is it that is so powerful in the kingdom, that creates so much growth?
It is an idea which grows and multiplies in the kingdom: it is the idea of grace. Undeserved grace and affection. The heart of Jesus’ life and teaching was the idea of grace. It was the embodied and lived idea that God is love, that he is full of grace and affection for undeserving and unworthy people. The idea that God, in return for our fall into the idolatrous attachments of greed and pride and lust, is willing to forgive everything and has done everything necessary for our restoration through the cross of Jesus.
This changes everything.
Because of grace early Christians eagerly welcomed the poor, the disabled, the widows and orphans into their lives.
Because of grace the early Christians sold their possessions to share among the poor.
Because of grace they camped out on the riverbanks to rescue the unwanted babies who were thrown away in the water.
Because of grace they moved into plague ridden villages while the healthy inhabitants carried their belongings out and exposed themselves to care for the sick and dying.
Because of grace Christians invented hospitals and orphanages and universities.
Because of the indescribable power of grace the small band of insignificant people devoted to Jesus of Nazareth soon dominated the Roman empire and now are found in every nation on earth.
Grace causes a man born into privilege and luxury to spend his entire adult life in an extremely intense battle for the abolition of slavery.
Grace causes a woman to move in among the people who had murdered her husband to offer forgiveness and love.
Grace causes a man to stand in a court room and embrace the person who had killed his brother.
Grace causes a woman to move to an undeveloped country to live in poverty and constant danger in order to rescue young girls from sexual exploitation.
Grace causes a church to invite total chaos into their lives by bringing 300 foster children into their homes.
When grace takes root, there is no telling what can happen.
Have you received it?
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown