And he said, “How shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or in what parable shall we set it forth? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown upon the earth, though it be less than all the seeds that are upon the earth, yet when it is sown, groweth up, and becometh greater than all the herbs, and putteth out great branches; so that the birds of the heaven can lodge under the shadow thereof” (Mark 4:30-32).
Many of Jesus’ teachings regarding His Kingdom were set forth in parables. This is understandable, for it is difficult for humans to wrap their heads around the realities of a spiritual Kingdom while living on the earth. We understand things best when they are compared with things we know and understand.
The Jews of first century Palestine would understand the mustard seed and the mustard plant. The mustard seed was incredibly small, about three millimeters in diameter. Nevertheless, when the mustard seed was planted and the plant grown, it far exceeds the size of other herbs, looking like a shrub or a small tree, large enough for birds in which to lodge. The mustard plant, therefore, is a story of growth explosion from a small beginning.
Jesus found the example of the mustard seed and plant quite useful and applied its lesson in different ways. In Mark 4:30-32, the mustard seed and plant represent God’s Kingdom. Its beginnings would seem rather insignificant: Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in the relative backwater of Galilee and Judea in the days of Tiberius Caesar (cf. Mark 1:15, Acts 10:38). Around Him gathered a small following of devoted disciples of whom He selected twelve to be His special representatives (Mark 3:14-19). Neither Jesus nor His representatives seemed very significant– He an unlearned son of a carpenter from Nazareth, His followers mostly Galileans, many of whom were relatively ignorant fishermen (cf. Mark 6:3, John 7:15, Mark 1:16-20, Acts 4:13). This Jesus went to Jerusalem in triumph and yet was soon executed by the Romans (Mark 11:1-10, 14:1-15:47). All of this did not seem to be that earth-shattering.
Yet, on the third day, this Jesus was raised by the power of God from the dead, and He instructed His followers in all things concerning Himself (Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-53). After He ascended to His Father, His representatives, the Twelve Apostles, received power from the Holy Spirit and began proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom in power to all the Jews (cf. Acts 2:1-36).
At first there was the One (Luke 17:20-21). Then there were 120 or so (Acts 1:15). After the first lesson there were over 3,000 (Acts 2:41). Soon after it would be 5,000 more (Acts 4:4). The message would then spread from Jerusalem throughout Samaria and Galilee (Acts 1:8, 8:4), and then throughout the Mediterranean world, and ultimately into all the world (Acts 1:8, Colossians 1:6). The Kingdom is proclaimed to this day, almost 1,980 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth!
Thus the Kingdom is like a mustard seed: it started extremely small but expanded out into all the world, and its message and those who proclaim it are a refuge for those who despair. Let us be part of that Kingdom and promote that Kingdom in our lives!
Ethan R. Longhenry