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The Tree of Life: The Parable of the Mustard Seed

By Steve Zink
November 09, 2012

On more than one occasion a Christian brother has told me that the Kingdom of God is not a reality for today. Rather, it is the great hope of the future. Often this is followed with an empirical argument: "if Christ was ruling now, would it look like this?" Surely the evil and rampant unbelief in the world disprove the present reality of the Kingdom.

Several assumptions underpin this opinion. The first is that Christ's Kingdom would be glorious-comprehensive and conspicuous. This assumption cannot be faulted. It is assuredly Biblical. The second assumption is that this magnificent state of affairs is to be introduced abruptly. That is to say, Christ's Kingdom is at once comprehensive and conspicuous. Thus, the Kingdom age is a sharp interruption in the course of the previous age. There exists a clear dividing wall between the two ages-the present age and the glorious Kingdom age. Unlike the first assumption, this is manifestly false. In fact, it is this assumption that Christ attempts to disprove in the parable of the mustard seed. 

Like many Christians today, the Jews never doubted that the Kingdom of God would be glorious.1 They believed that the intrusion of God's rule in the world and the victory of God's people would be thorough in its power and sweeping in its influence. Jesus' portrait of the Kingdom of God in the parable of the mustard seed certainly supports this belief. The Kingdom would indeed be glorious. The parable, as found in Matthew's gospel, reads as follows:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. (Matt. 13:31-32)2

Though the context of the sowing is a "field," the environs are pictured as being populated with "herbs." This is likely why Luke tightens the specificity of the scene to a "garden" (Luke 13:19). Thus, the mustard plant, which sometimes reached upwards of fifteen feet, would be relatively the largest of the herbs. Luke pictures it becoming a "large tree" in comparison with other garden herbs (Luke 13:193). Mark makes the superlative grandeur explicit: "greater than all herbs" (Mark 4:32). The Kingdom of God is the largest of kingdoms.

This also seems to be the implication of what attends this large tree-"the birds of the air nested in its branches" (Luke13:19). There is likely an allusion here to Ezekiel 17:23, where "birds of every sort" dwell in the renewed covenant tree. Gentile nations stream into the covenant people, the kingdoms of the world becoming the kingdoms of our Lord. The idea is again here reinforced that the Kingdom of God is a tree of life that swallows the entire horizon, ubiquitous and glorious. But again, nothing here would be startling or in any way novel to Christ's hearers. The Jews uniformly believed in this portrait of the Kingdom. Their error was in conceiving of this state of affairs entering the world abruptly. And it is this misconception that the parable is actually intended to redress.  

Christ had, on earlier occasions, taught the present reality of the Kingdom of God (Matt.11:12; 12:28; Mark 1:15). But this kind of teaching did not seem to square with Jewish anticipation. Christ's ministry lacked the comprehensive sweep that popular expectation cherished. Even John the Baptist appeared to be disappointed in Jesus' ministry and its results (Matt. 11:2). Should not the Kingdom be greater than this? Surely a handful of unlettered disciples is a far cry from the Psalmist's vision of the Messiah ruling from sea to sea (Psa. 72) and Isaiah's vision of divine knowledge blanketing the earth (Isa. 11:9)! Surely the Kingdom awaits its advent in the world. It simply can't be now! And yet, this perspective is very much in error. Here we engage with the point and the power of the parable. Despite the lowly beginnings, the Kingdom had indeed begun. The confusion on the part of the hearers was in thinking the fullness of the Kingdom comes at once. Jesus corrects this in two ways.

First, Jesus points out that the full and flourishing Kingdom begins as a modest seed. God created instantaneous mature trees in the creation week (Gen. 1:11-12). However, in the good pleasure of God this was a singular act. After this initial direct act of creation, the trees, grass, and herbs would propagate themselves (albeit, of course, by God's providential superintendence). God created these things with "seed ... in itself" (Gen. 1:11). We can speak, then, of two "tree models"-the creation model (direct, instantaneous, without means) and the providential model (organic, process oriented, employing means). The Jews evidently thought the Kingdom would come in a fashion analogous to the first model-the creation model. It would come as a miracle of direct divine action, in a flash, as it were. But Jesus here points instead to God's providence over nature, to ordinary growth in ordinary life as a parable of the Kingdom. He seizes upon an agrarian image that would be familiar to his hearers. The mustard seed, proverbially known as the "smallest" of seeds ironically became the "largest" of plants. This latter point has already been developed. But the real rub of the parable is the implications of the former.4 The Kingdom of God starts small! It may not be initially impressive. It may lack the splendid features of the expected latter day glories. And yet it is the very same reality, though in its humble infancy.5

Second, Jesus indicates that the seed stage of the Kingdom arrives at full flowering by a steady process of natural growth. Christ's hearers may have still felt the temptation to insert a "bump" of transition between seed and tree. But this would distort the intent of the imagery.

This parable of Jesus is undoubtedly based upon Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom dream. Daniel pictures numerous empires. Among them stands a rather unusual kingdom. It is a stone "cut without hands." That is to say, it is a non-human kingdom-the Kingdom of God. But again, notice that it begins among the other kingdoms: "... in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom" (Dan. 2:44). The divine Kingdom begins "in the days of these kings." Although it becomes the greatest kingdom, crushing all others (Dan. 2:34-35, 44), it nevertheless begins in their midst. The idea is of a humble but realized inauguration that progresses to consummative supremacy. The Kingdom of God, then, "becomes" a great mountain, filling the whole earth (Dan. 2:35). It is not introduced great. It is not inaugurated consummated. Rather, it becomes the ideal-it grows into greatness. There is no room in this portrait to wedge a cataclysm, miracle, or scene change that separates the "the days of these kings" (Dan. 2:44a) from the swallowing of the whole earth in Kingdom fullness (Dan. 2:35, 44b). The beginning and end are not two distinct ages but are in fact the two poles of one age!

To return to our parable, Jesus' emphasis is very much that of Daniel's. The seed does not "pop" into the mature tree by a miracle or sudden disruption in the ordinary course of growth. Rather, all the potential of the mature tree is laden in the seed. It simply requires the patience of time to ripen into its ideal. As David Brown put it,

[T]he grain of mustard seed may grow to be a tree sufficient to overshadow the whole earth; but the mass is the same, and the tree is the same, at every stage. The whole is there from the first. Not a new element is added. Expansion and development, growth and maturity, are all the difference.6

Since the church has within her all the means of realizing her fullness, should we not be more confident in the God-blessed efficacy of the divine Word? Should we be daydreaming of a second advent to demarcate a distinct age of "the Tree?" Should we not rather see the full and flourishing kingdom-swallowing Kingdom as the natural and inevitable maturation of evangelistic hard work begun with the first disciples? Should we not renew our confidence and participation in the present power of the gospel, ramifying the humble mustard seed into the salvific haven of all men? If what began with eleven men resulted in the world's largest religion, what will the world's largest religion be able to accomplish when it recovers the apostolic confidence in the apostolic gospel?

1. That the Jewish expectation embraced the absolute victory of the cause of God and truth and the elimination of all enemies that would threaten that triumph, see the prophecy of Zacharias in Luke 1.

2. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.

3. The adjective μέγα ("large") is absent from א, B, and some others. However, it is found in the majority witness (Byz), as well as others (A, W, etc.).

4. D. A. Carson notes, "For him it was not essential to stress the greatness of the future kingdom; few would dispute that. It was more important for him to find a metaphor emphasizing the kingdom's tiny beginning." D. A. Carson, "Matthew" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1984), 318.

5. "God beginneth his kingdom with very small beginnings, to the end that by the growing on of it, beside the expectation and hope of all men, his mighty power and working may be the more set forth." Note on Matt. 13:31 in The 1599 Geneva Bible (White Hall, WV: Tolle Lege Press, 2006-2007), 976.

6. David Brown, Christ's Second Coming: Will it be Pre-Millennial? (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1868), 332.


Topics: Gospels, The, Theology

Steve Zink

Steve Zink is the assistant pastor of Ottawa Reformed Presbyterian Church. Steve was mentored by author and Christian counsellor, Dr. Richard Ganz. Both he and Dr. Ganz now partner in ministering to the Ottawa RP congregation. Steve regularly speaks at conferences on Christian worldview and apologetics. He also teaches at Ottawa Theological Hall. He currently resides in Ottawa with his wife Kim and their two children, Heidi and Ezra. He can be reached at [email protected]

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