Matthew: The Parables of the Kingdom, Part 4: The Mustard Seen and the Leaven

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 26, 1998

Matthew 13:31-35

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If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 13.  Matthew 13 contains a series of seven parables, all of which focus on the theme of the kingdom of God, and all of which are designed to teach us about unexpected aspects of the kingdom.  The disciples themselves expected the Lord Jesus Christ’s kingdom to come in a different form in which it appeared.  And so the Lord Jesus used these parables to teach His disciples and us about things in the life of the kingdom that a little bit different from the way we might have expected them to be. 

We’ve already looked at the parable of the sower and the parable of the tares in Matthew, chapter 13.  In the parable of the sower, we learned that though the Old Testament prophet said the kingdoms of the world and the peoples of the world would stream from the ends of the earth to become part of the kingdom of God and to worship the Messiah and the living God in Jerusalem, yet many reject the Lord Jesus and His teachings.  That is the great message of the parable of the sower.  The seed is planted in many soils but only in one of the four soils does the kingdom grow up into a full and complete and saving knowledge of God.  And therefore, though the gospel is faithfully preached everywhere, many reject it. 

Then in the parable of the tares, we learn that though the kingdom is glorious and though one day all the sons and daughters of the kingdom will be presented before the heavenly Father perfected, yet in its present form the kingdom is imperfect and that is not something that the Lord has overlooked or something that has taken Him off guard, that is the way He planned it.  He planned to perfect us in the very process of our trials and struggles so that the kingdom is not perfect in this life, so that there will be many who profess to be part of the kingdom and who are included visibly in the kingdom and yet the kingdom is not in their hearts.  And only in the end, in the final judgment, will that be sorted out.  And that lesson we learn in the parable of the tares. 

And then today, as we come to Matthew 13, verses 31 through 35, we learn yet another lesson about the nature of the kingdom in the parable of the leaven and in the parable of the mustard seed.  Let’s hear then God’s holy word beginning in Matthew 13, verse 31.   

Matthew 13:31-35 

Our Father we thank You for this word.  We ask that by Your Spirit you would make this word clear to us and You would change our hearts, teach us, instruct us, mold us into the image of Christ and help us, we pray, to embrace the gospel and to embrace Christ in all His benefits.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.         

As we look at Matthew 13, verses 31 through 35, we see two more parables about the kingdom and we also see a statement about Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  These two parables, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven, teach us not to despise small beginnings in the things of the kingdom and never to underestimate the total impact of the kingdom, even if the kingdom works silently, and ostentatiously. 

I.  Christians need to be careful about how we measure the outward growth of God’s kingdom.
I’d like to direct your attention to three things in particular in this passage.  The first thing you will see in verses 31 and 32.  There Jesus reminds us that Christians need to be careful about how we measure the outward growth of God’s kingdom.  It is always tempting for us simply to look at the outward way in which the kingdom manifests itself, to see the outward evidences and to measure God’s effectiveness by numbers, and size and outward success.  And this parable teaches us to be very, very careful about estimating God’s work in that way.  This parable takes up the subject of the kingdom’s outward growth because sometimes that growth seems to be insignificant.  Think of Jesus and His disciples even as He is telling them this parable.  There are only a few devoted disciples, twelve in the inner circle, 70 or 120 or so in a broader circle of faithful disciples who are following him and Jesus is being opposed by Pharisees and scribes and even though large crowds follow His ministry, many in the crowds do not listen to him, they do not accept His claims, they find him interesting to but they don’t embrace him as the messiah.  And Jesus’ disciples would have been scratching their heads.  I mean they were waiting for the kingdom to begin in a burst of glory.  They were waiting for all the nations to come to Christ.  And it looks like that His kingdom is insignificant.  There are not that many people following after Him and believing in Him.  And Jesus’ message to the disciples and to us is, ‘Don’t judge the seed by its size; don’t look at My ministry  and think that because outwardly it looks insignificant in comparison to what you were expecting, that it is not having a tremendous impact.’  In the words of the Broadway chorus, ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’  Don’t think that because  what I’m doing now looks unimpressive in the eyes of the world, but something unimpressive is going on.  Oh no, the work of the kingdom is going on. 

 

Why did the disciples need to learn that lesson?  Because they expected the kingdom to begin in majestic glory.  You remember how the disciples were always saying things to Jesus like this, ‘Lord, when your kingdom comes,’ and the implication is, you know, in three or four weeks, you know, when your kingdom comes, ‘we would like to sit at your right and at your left hand, in the positions of honor, when you set up your kingdom.’  And you remember the Lord Jesus would say to them, ‘You don’t know what you’re asking, because you don’t know the form in which my kingdom is going to be displayed.’  As we look at the Lord Jesus crucified on the cross, and we see at His right and at His left hand two thieves crucified, we see a picture of the kind of kingdom that the Lord Jesus was bringing in.  And the disciples were so clued out to that.  The disciples didn’t realize the suffering and persecution and even the death that was going to be involved in following Jesus faithfully in the kingdom.  They were caught up in the outward and the ostentatious in finding things that would be impressive displays of the power of God.  They were looking for the kingdom to come in that form and the Lord Jesus is saying, ‘Don’t be deceived by outward evidences.  When you see Me on that cross it may look like My kingdom is insignificant but that is My very hour of triumph.’  And that’s the nature of the kingdom in general isn’t it my friends? 

And isn’t that the nature of the gospel ministry?  As we live and serve here in First Presbyterian Church it is vital for us to recognize that ultimately we cannot measure the impact of our kingdom service, of our love for one another, of our zeal for the gospel, by outward things.  It is wonderful that great numbers come to First Presbyterian Church.  It is wonderful that we give faithfully to the kingdom of God amounts of money that boggle the eyes and minds of many people who come to be a part of our fellowship.  But those are not the things by which the kingdom is measured.  Those are only things which give us the ability to do the work of the kingdom.  Those are not the evidences and proof of a spiritual work, those are the opportunities for a spiritual work.  Don’t have your eyes glazed over by impressive things on the outside and don’t let your heart be discouraged by looking as if the kingdom is not doing something spectacular and magnificent, because the kingdom works inwardly.  That’s going to be the message of the parable of the leaven in just a few moments. 

But note the story of the mustard seed.  The mustard seed is the smallest of the garden seeds planted in Palestine but yet we’re told that in that land this mustard seed grows to be the largest of the garden plants, getting sometimes to the size of 10 or 15 feet, and spreading its foliage out so that birds can actually build nests, not in the bush, but in what is a veritable tree.  So from the tiniest seed, comes the largest of the garden bushes.  The story is made to point out that the kingdom’s outward manifestation is like that mustard seed.  It may appear to be insignificant but it grows.  And it grows in amazing ways.  Christ, you see, is speaking to followers who are relatively small and weak.  They were considered to be insignificant in the minds of those in Israel.  And they understandably longed for immediate, revolutionary changes to come about for a great outpouring of the spirit that would bring hundreds and hundreds to Christ and thousands and thousands to Him.  And Christ’s message to them in the parable of the mustard seed is be patient, keep on believing; keep on praying; keep on working, God’s kingdom will grow but don’t judge a book by its cover.  Don’t judge the effectiveness of the kingdom by its outward appearances because it may be more powerful than it appears to be.  That is Jesus’ message of the mustard seed. 

And we ourselves need to hear that message.  We live in a day and age that society is convinced that big is better; where that which is established and spectacular and impressive and filled with pomp and circumstance, that’s the stuff that’s really, really significant.  That’s the stuff you want to be involved with.  And we can be roped into that in the gospel.  I mean, haven’t you felt a yearning sometimes when a mission report is being given to hear that missionary say, ‘The entire country has been converted to Christ during my six month ministry there’?  I mean, don’t you find yourself yearning sometimes to hear the spectacular reports with big numbers and flashy results?  Jesus is warning us against that kind of triumphalism.  The power of the kingdom is not in its outward form or size or appearance.  I have recently being schooled into the modern conveyor of truth, Barney the dinosaur.  I have memorized many of the stories of Barney the dinosaur. 

One of my favorites is when the little red-haired boy is in the school and he is growing a bean sprout in a Dixie Cup.  And the other children are playing and the little red-haired boy is watching the bean sprout in the dirt in the Dixie Cup, waiting for it to grow right before his eyes.  And Barney and the other children have to come and explain to him that that bean sprout isn’t even going to come up over night.  It’s going to take several days before he sees any evidence that the bean sprout is growing.  But isn’t that how we act sometimes?  We work for the kingdom and then we sort of stop to wait to see then God’s immediate result.  But that’s not how kingdom work is.  In fact, that’s one of the frustrations of kingdom work, my friends, and we need to learn that.  We will never in this life ultimately see all the fruit of our ministry.  It’s hard sometimes in this life to see any fruit of that ministry.  Because the great fruit of the ministry that we want is not hundreds and hundreds coming to hear our ministry, the great fruit of our ministry is not an outward form of majestic appearance, the fruit of the ministry we want to see is people saved, people brought to Christ and people built up in Him.  And you can’t always see that with your eyes.  Oh yes, people can profess faith, but sadly we know that people can profess faith and fall away, too.  They can profess to be the Lord’s and the reality is not in them.  And there can be people who appear to be interested in the truth and yet they are not growing in grace.  And so much of our ministry we will never see in this life.  The greatest ministries carried on by First Presbyterian Church in Jackson we will never be able to see the result of in this life because of the evidence of them is spiritual evidence that is not always apparent to the eye. 

This also follows in the realm of finances.  It’s tempting sometimes, isn’t it, in charitable giving to sort of get on the bandwagon, give where something is already happening that’s exciting?  Give where there’s already spectacular results being gained.  And yet this church has resisted that and so in church planting, for instance, you will find this congregation giving to fledgling works that have not already had impressive results precisely because that’s when you need the most help.  It’s not when things are going great.  We want to see if something possibly could happen that is impressive and would please the Lord and bring people to Him.  And that’s why we give strategically in that way.  But it’s very tempting, isn’t it, to assume that what is happening in the kingdom is always visibly impressive?  We must not measure religion by its size.  The mustard seed teaches us that the kingdom grows but sometimes its looks insignificant when you look at it. 

II.  Christians must mark the silent but powerful inward workings of the kingdom. 
The next thing we learn we learn in verse 33.  In the story of the parable of the leaven, Jesus teaches us that Christians must mark the silent but powerful inward workings of the kingdom.  We must notice how the kingdom works inwardly.  It works silently but it works powerfully in inward ways.  And by the way, isn’t it interesting that in the parable of the sower, in the parable of the leaven and in the parable of the mustard seed, the thing that causes the kingdom to grow does not naturally reside in our hearts?  It has to be implanted in them.  You know, sometimes we tell people to look within.  The answer is not within, the answer is without.  The gospel of the kingdom must be implanted in a person’s heart for them to be changed, for them to be saved, for them to have fellowship with God.  And in each of these parables, the gospel of the kingdom is implanted like a seed from without.  It comes from the outside, it’s planted in the soil of the heart and it grows.  This teaches us that whenever Christ’s rule enters human hearts this happens by implantation from without. 

Now this parable of the leaven reminds us that the gospel works from the inside out.  And that it works silently and almost imperceptibly.  This parable also reminds us that the gospel permeates every experience of life.  It’s like leaven and when it gets inside bread it effects every aspect of the bread.  It’s not just one part of the bread that’s transformed, when the leaven is in it, the whole of the meal is transformed when the leaven is implanted. 

Now, why did Jesus teach this lesson?  Why did He teach this parable to His disciples?  Well again, because they were fixated on the external form of the kingdom.  They were expecting majesty, and glory and pomp and circumstance.  And so the Lord Jesus tells them a shocking and an ironic tale.  These men had read the passages of the Old Testament which spoke of God’s kingdom being set up and David being set on the throne to rule over the nations, and here’s the Lord Jesus and He’s teaching them about the kingdom and He says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like, well, it’s like a woman making bread.’  And you can imagine that would have been shocking to some.  What do you mean the kingdom of heaven is like a woman making bread?  The kingdom of heaven is far more glorious than that.  Well, it is glorious but the Lord Jesus means to use a common illustration, a humble illustration, to drive a truth home to the disciples. He says, ‘Look, you know, the kingdom of heaven works just like a woman baking bread.  She puts leaven in the meal and it causes the bread to rise.  And that’s just how the kingdom of heaven works.’  Jesus is pointing this parable to His disciples to shock them into attention and understanding of this principle that the kingdom works from inside out and it effects every aspect of our being.  And it works in such a way that you almost never notice it.  It surely works but it works from the inside out. 

This reminds us, friends, that we don’t have to draw attention to ourselves in doing the work of the kingdom.  The gospel does not brag.  The kingdom does not advertise itself.  The kingdom does not draw attention to itself as it works.  It works slowly and surely and it is impressive in spiritual even if it’s insignificant in the eyes of men.  But the kingdom works and it doesn’t draw attention to itself.  One of the privileges that I had while serving at RTS was to know one of the professors that Paul long had brought to us to serve as a missions faculty member, Dr. Will  Norton.  I first got to know Dr.  Norton when he and I had offices together in the Dean Center and I met one of his students.  In fact, one night I met this gentlemen from Africa, named Yusufu Jinkiri, late one Friday or Saturday night as he was empting trash in the Dean Center.  Later I found out that he was Dr. Yusufu Jinkiri and he was already an accomplished Christian educator.  He was a real picture of humility.  I never would have known his position because he never told me.  I found out his position from someone else.  And in many ways Dr. Jinkiri was a picture of the kingdom.  He humbly went about the Lord’s work without drawing attention to himself. 

One of the great experiences I had at RTS was when we gave a going-away celebration for Dr.  Norton as he was leaving us to retire to RTS Charlotte to start the missions program there.  There was an assembly called of the students and the faculty and we reminisced and we thanked Dr. Norton for his service in our midst.  Dr. Jinkiri was one of the students who reminisced about Dr. Norton and he told a story that left us all in tears.  It seems that the reason that Dr. Jinkiri had chosen to come to study at RTS was because of Dr.  Norton.  And the reason that he wanted to study with Dr. Norton is because Dr.  Norton had written a massive history of the evangelistic work, a missionary work, in Dr. Jinkiri’s area of Africa.  Dr. Norton had written the history of how that area had been evangelized by missionaries.  It was some three or four hundred pages of the history of that evangelistic work and Dr. Jinkiri was fascinated by it.  But it wasn’t just the story that Dr. Norton told that drew him.  You see, Dr. Jinkiri knew that Dr.  Norton had been the most important American missionary in that area for the work of Christ in missions.  But in the 400 pages of the history that Dr. Norton himself had written, he had never mentioned his name once.  And Yusufu Jinkiri said, “That is the man that I want to study under.”  You see, that’s how the kingdom works.  It doesn’t draw attention to itself, it goes about powerfully, inexorably, moving on and never bragging and boasting. 

The kingdom is a little bit like Will Norton and Yusufu Jinkiri.  And this gospel kingdom permeates every area of life.  It leaves nothing unchanged.  Understand that the kingdom doesn’t just transform one area of your life.  It doesn’t make you a Christian and leave you unchanged in every other area.  And it doesn’t necessarily take you from doing what you’re doing now and put you in another service.  That means that every time a person is saved they don’t stop being a stockbroker or a financial analyst and become a missionary or a preacher.  The kingdom transforms you from within, it changes your attitude, your outlook, your worldview, your purposes, your goals, your motivations, it may leave you right where it found you in terms of your vocation.  You may continue to be a doctor, you may continue to be a ditch-digger, you may continue to be a nurse, but you are transformed from within.  Everything looks differently. 

You know stories of people where that is precisely the case.  One of my dear friends is a delta planter and many years ago his life was consumed with worldly pursuits.  Among other things, he loved Ole Miss athletics.  In fact, He lived for Ole Miss athletics.  There was nothing more important in his life than pursuits like that.  He wanted to get to know the players, he wanted to give to the alumni program, he wanted to go to all the games.  And he was consumed with things like that.  And he was converted.  And when he was converted the priorities of his life changed.  I want to stop right there and say this is not an attack on Ole Miss or on sports.  One of the elders came up afterwards and said, “Oh boy, you’re going to hear it this week.”  Just for the sake of interest, next time I’ll give the story of an MSU graduate who gets saved.  And the point is not an attack on sports.  As you get to know me you’ll find out that I’m kind of a sports nut.  I love sports.  The point is, this man’s priorities changed.  He began to love the gospel.  He began to want to read sound, spiritual Christian literature.  He desired to tell the gospel.  He desired to see all aspects of his life changed.  And they were.  He continues to love the gospel to this day.  You see, the gospel, when it gets you, it turns you inside out.  It permeates every area of your being.  He’s still a planter; still farming; but he loves the gospel now and his priorities have been totally changed. 

And you can tell story after story about people just like that.  I’m thinking of another one.  A friend of mine who went to New York and wanted to become an actor.  And like many aspiring actors he ended up waiting tables in New York.  While he was in New York, from a small mid-western town, he got into a life-style, a dizzying, depraved life-style, and eventually plunged into alcoholism, and plunged into the drug culture and almost died.  He contracted a disease of the blood which could have killed him.  He was saved.  Went to seminary.  Worked on a seminary administration and now serves on the support staff for one of the largest missions organizations in the world.  The Lord does amazing things.  He changes our lives from the inside out.  And that’s the message of the parable of the leaven. 

III.  Christians be more than ever, crystal clear on Jesus’ claims and person. 
One last thing, you’ll see it in verse 34 and 35.  Christ is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and Matthew wants to press home the truth that Jesus is the Messiah looked for by the prophets of old.  And in that passage we learn a lesson that we Christians today, more than ever, must be crystal clear on — who Jesus claims to be  —  on who His person is.  Matthew quotes Psalm 78, verse 2, and you may want to turn in your Bibles to psalm 78 and look at the whole context.  When the New Testament quotes one passage from the Old Testament, it usually means to apply the truth from the entire passage around that quote to the situation which is addressing in whatever New Testament book you are reading.  That is the case in this passage.  Matthew quotes psalm 78, verse 2, but he means that Jesus fulfills principles found throughout the psalm.  The mystery which is spoken of in Psalm 78 which is quoted of in Matthew 13, verse 35, is the mystery of how God in the history of Israel reveals Himself and works out His plans.  And that’s the mystery which Asaf speaks of in parables, in figurative sayings, in dark things, this mystery which has been hidden from old, how God reveals Himself and works out His plan in the history of Israel.  Now Matthew quotes that passage and the context of the quote is rich and it shows us the ways in which Jesus fulfills the saying recorded in Matthew 13, 35. 

There are four ways in which Jesus fulfills that saying.  First of all, if you will scan that psalm, Psalm 78, you will see over and over Asaf tell you that God manifests His power, He works wonders and He shows lovingkindness in the history of Israel.  Over and over He does these things.  Jesus does so more.  Jesus is the greatest manifestation of God’s power, the greatest manifestation of His love.  In no one is God more clearly displayed in His love, in His power, in His grace, in His wonders. 

Notice also that Asaf shows that in spite of God’s love, the people of Israel rejected Him.  Jesus, in spite of His love, was rejected by many in Israel’s and unfortunately by many Gentiles.  Asaf also ends this psalm on a triumphant note saying that God will set David up over Israel as His shepherd.  Jesus, in the gospel of John, said, “I am the good shepherd.”  He is the David for which all of the Old Testament was waiting to rule over the kingdom.  And of course, finally, Asaf, throughout this psalm, uses a parabolic style.  He speaks in figures of speech, using figurative or metaphorical language and Jesus preached to the multitudes using parables and similitudes and metaphors and figurative language.  The application, of course, is that Jesus is the fulfillment of that Old Testament prophecy.  Jesus is divine.  His deity must be acknowledged.  Jesus is Messiah.  We must acknowledge Him as the one who was promised for all, both Jew and Gentile.  Jesus is the Savior.  He is the only way.  Jesus is the shepherd.  He is our guide and leader.  Jesus is the teacher.  He is the authority for our life and His book, the Bible, is the only final authority of faith and practice.  And we must present Jesus as He is presented in the word if we are to bring men and women and boys and girls to Christ because that is the only Jesus who will save. 

We live in a day and time who want to sort of make up Jesus as they go along.  In our day and time we want to make Jesus in our own image.  We want to think of Him the way we think He ought to be.  But the only Jesus who saves is the Jesus of prophecy; the Jesus who is the Messiah; the Jesus of the Scriptures.  And if we want to be salt and light for the kingdom, we must bear witness to that Jesus and that Jesus alone and we must embrace Him in our own lives.  Let’s look to Him in prayer.   

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word, for Your truth.  Excite us by the glory of Your truth and we’ll give You the praise and glory.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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