A certain nobleman

A grain of mustard
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The sheep and the goats
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The unforgiving creditor
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"A grain of mustard seed"

Jesus stood in the boat off the shore of Galilee and addressed the crowd that had gathered round to hear his teachings. How could he put over to them and to all future generations, the tremendous tidings of the gospel of the kingdom of God? How could he convey to them the uniqueness and glory of the Kingdom that was to be like nothing mankind had ever experienced before and was unlike anything that any form of human kingdom or organisation could ever be?

So Jesus posed this question:

"...Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it?" [Mark 4.30]

As on many other occasions, Jesus answered the question with a parable:

"It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it." [Mark 4.31,32]

No doubt the prolific yellow flowers of the mustard plant would be in evidence all around them as the people listened to Jesus' words, since, as one authority remarks, wild mustard is conspicuous in the vegetation around the Sea of Galilee. [Plants of the Bible - Michael Zohary]

Brassica Nigra

The mustard referred to by Jesus is probably Brassica Nigra, the source of the important condiment black mustard, which for a long time has been extensively cultivated, and in Bible times was the source of mustard seed oil and was also used as a medicament. It is an annual herb with large leaves clustered mainly at the base of the plant. Its central stem branches prolifically in its upper part and produces an enormous number of yellow flowers and small, many seeded linear fruits. It normally grows to just over a metre in height but specimens have been known to grow as high as five metres.

One writer, travelling in the region of Galilee during the last century, exclaimed: 'Is this wild mustard that is growing so luxuriantly and blossoming so fragrantly along our path? It is; and I have always found it here in spring and a little later than this, the whole surface of the vale will be gilded over with its yellow flowers. I have seen this plant in the rich plain of Akkar as tall as the horse and his rider.' [The Land and the Book - W M Thomson]

Three questions spring to mind when considering a subject such as this:

  • Why did Jesus use parables to describe the kingdom of heaven?
  • Why did Jesus choose this particular figure of the mustard seed?
  • How is this herb, which has grown from so tiny a seed, like the kingdom of heaven?

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD

The first thing to notice is that the parable is recorded almost identically in three of the gospel records, [Matthew 13.31,32; Mark 4.30-32; Luke 13.18,19] although in varying contexts. Each of these records put a different emphasis on the parable. While Matthew refers to `the kingdom of heaven', Mark and Luke refer to `the kingdom of God'. It must be noted here that these two phrases, `the kingdom of heaven' and `the kingdom of God,' are the same; neither term refers to a kingdom beyond the skies, or to some abstract movement spreading throughout the world through the work of Christianity. Careful study of the Bible makes clear that God's kingdom is to be here, literally and visibly on earth.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray for this:

"Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven". [Matthew 6.10]

The kingdom of God is to be heaven upon earth, as the angels sang at Jesus' birth: "on earth peace, good will toward men." [Luke 2.14]

THE MYSTERY OF THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

Why did Jesus use parables to describe this Kingdom? Why didn't he explain plainly what the Kingdom would be like? The disciples also asked this question and from Jesus' reply the reason clearly is that the knowledge of the Kingdom was only for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Only to such was it given to "know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" [Matthew 13.11] because his parables contained "things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." [Matthew 13.35]

A pre-requisite to a full understanding of the parables then, is an awareness of what Jesus meant by `mysteries' and `things which have been kept secret.'

There is nothing sinister or supernatural or incomprehensible about the word `mystery'. It refers to something, the knowledge of which is shared only by the initiated. The Gospel, or the good news of the Kingdom that Christ preached was not new. It had been contained in the 'Brissica Nigra - black mustard' Jewish Old Testament scriptures for more

than a thousand years, although it had remained largely hidden from their eyes.

But now, in Jesus, was revealed the purpose of God, which had been foreshadowed right from the fall and death of the first man and woman. The good news of man's salvation through Jesus Christ had been hidden in the words of the curse on the serpent recorded in Genesis, in the promises to Abraham and throughout the Old Testament. But now, in Jesus, the whole plan of salvation was to be revealed - but only to a certain group of people, to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear and who were able to accept the Kingdom as a grain of mustard seed.

Moses, Israel's great prophet and leader wrote: `The secret things belong unto the LORD our God...' [Deuteronomy 29.29] Israel understood their covenant relationship with God, demonstrated in the Law He gave them, but the ultimate purpose of God was hidden from the eyes of the majority. Later, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to record many of these hidden things, but even then the true character of God's kingdom remained concealed.

"For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he (God) hath prepared for him that waiteth for him." [Isaiah 64.4]

But shortly after the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Paul was able to quote these words of Isaiah and he added:

"But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God." [1 Corinthians 2.10]

Also he wrote to the believers at Rome:

"...according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith." [Romans 16.25,26]

This was the mystery. These were the secrets that Jesus was revealing to his disciples in the parables. He was revealing that which had been contained in the Old Testament scriptures all the time, but in the main had been hidden, because there had been a veil over their hearts and those things would remain hidden from those who were spiritually blind and spiritually deaf.

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE A GRAIN OF MUSTARD SEED

Mustard seed

The most striking thing about this parable is that Jesus did not, as one might have expected, compare the kingdom of heaven to something stupendous or highly exalted. He did not compare it to some magnificent visionary kingdom that would impress his audience and take away their breath. Instead, he compared it to a simple, tiny seed that could be held in the palm of the hand; the smallest of all the seeds which are upon the earth was how he described it. There was the likeness of the kingdom of heaven! From such insignificant beginnings, tremendous growth was to be made, till it became a large plant.

Whilst the emphasis of the parable is on the tremendous growth, which is out of all proportion to the beginnings of the seed, to be able to appreciate and anticipate with joy a kingdom that was likened to the common mustard herb, Jesus demanded first and foremost humility. This need for humility is overriding in his teachings as the following verses demonstrate:

"...Except ye...become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven...for of such is the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 18.3; 19.14]

"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for their's is the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 5.3]

Because of this, the message in the parable was hidden to many. Human nature looks for great things. It looks for self-importance, esteem of fellow men, pride and grandeur. Not so the kingdom of heaven. Even the disciples were not entirely free of this human trait, as they debated among themselves who should be the greatest. Jesus reproved them and made clear that the greatest were those who served. [Luke 9.46-48]

The prophet Isaiah recorded these words concerning the importance of humility:

"...to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word." [Isaiah 66.2]

Thus the lesson of the parable of the mustard seed is essentially one of humility.

"BUT WHEN IT IS GROWN..."

From the tiny, apparently insignificant seed grows the herb greater than all the herbs, so that the fowls of the air lodge under the shadow of it. What a lovely figure this is! What wealth of beauty and perfection is seen in a humble wild flower! The poet William Blake marvelled at this too:

                  'To see a world in a grain of sand
                  And a heaven in a wild flower;
                  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
                  And eternity in an hour.'

Jesus, without whom the kingdom of God could never be established, was despised and rejected and finally crucified by his generation. They looked for glorious things and he offered them a mustard seed! But it was for the joy that was set before him that he endured the cross. He was raised from the dead, exalted to his Father's right hand and is to return to establish his Kingdom on earth, when the faithful too will share his glory.

Paul, too, wondered at the mystery of the seed when writing to the Corinthians. The seed is sown in the ground, it apparently dies, but then comes the growth. [1 Corinthians 15.36,37] Paul continued in that same chapter:

"Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed...the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed...when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory." [1 Corinthians 15.51-54]

This is what Jesus instructed his disciples to pray for, "Thy kingdom come".[Matthew 6.10] The Apostle John saw this day in vision. He heard voices in heaven saying:

"...The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever." [Revelation 11.15]

The prophet Isaiah affords many wonderful glimpses of the glorious flowering of the kingdom of heaven:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgement and with justice from henceforth even for ever." [Isaiah 9. 6,7]

Just as the birds of the air found shelter and nourishment in the mustard plant, so all the nations of the world (which are frequently referred to in the Old Testament as fowls of the air) shall find peace, justice and equity under the kingship of Jesus and in his world-wide government.

The dream of Nebuchadnezzar, the great king of Babylon, made a comparison similar to that of the parable of the mustard seed. There, a tiny stone displaced all the kingdoms of men and grew till it filled the whole earth. "...the God of heaven (shall) set up a kingdom," Daniel explained, "which shall never be destroyed...it shall stand for ever." [Daniel 2.44]

Consider these glorious words of Isaiah speaking of a time of universal harmony and well-being. Compare it with the world we live in today:

"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." [Isaiah 2.2-4]

What tremendous wealth is hidden in one tiny parable! Jesus said to his disciples that he spoke in parables: "Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given." [Matthew 13.11]

Do you have eyes that see and ears that hear what God has in store for those that love and obey Him?