The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven

Series: Training for Kingdom Living

Sermon by David Strain on Apr 6, 2014

Matthew 13:31-35

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Now if you would please take your copies of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to the gospel according to Matthew chapter 13, Matthew chapter 13.  Our attention this morning will be on the words of verses 31 through 35 and you’ll find that on page 819 if you’re using one of the church Bibles.  Before we read together let’s turn to God for His help as we pray.  Let us all pray.

Our Father, we pray very simply now that as the Bible is opened and read You would send us the help of the Holy Spirit to receive and believe and find our comforts in its truth.  we pray for any who are yet strangers to the kingdom of God and to the grace of Jesus Christ, that even in this portion of Holy Scripture You would work, that they would pass this Lord’s Day Morning from death to life for the glory and honor of the name of Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

Matthew chapter 13 at verse 31.  This is the inspired and inerrant Word of Almighty God:

“Jesus put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.  It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable.  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.’

All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.  This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:

‘I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’” 

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Joseph Leake - he died in 2003; he was ninety years old.  And according to his daughters, Joseph Leake lived and died like a pauper.  He watched television, get this, he watched television in a neighbor’s home so as to avoid unnecessary electricity bills. Someone asked me after the earlier service if he was Scottish!  He had delayed repairs on his home as long as he could; he shopped at the Goodwill and at thrift stores and wore second-hand clothing.  He was, to all observers, a poor old man.  When he died he left behind him, however, a fortune of some almost two million dollars - all of it earned and carefully saved across his long and frugal life.  The remarkable thing about Joseph Leake, however, was that no one, not his friends, not his family, no one knew a thing about it.  Appearances, it turns out, can be deceiving. 

The Kingdom’s Deceptive Appearance

And in many ways as we turn now to Matthew 13 and the two twinned parables, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leaven, that is precisely Jesus’ point about the kingdom of heaven.  Appearances can be deceiving.  What may at first seem inadequate and small and insignificant as God’s means for reaching the world will in the end prove to be mighty and expansive and potent as He works out His purposes and His kingdom advances against all the odds.  And that ought to be for us an enormously encouraging message.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll find you have to fight to keep pessimism about the future at bay.  It is easy, isn’t it, to find ourselves wringing our hands, fretting over the way things are going, to conclude that all there are, are dark clouds on our horizon and hard days ahead.  Perhaps you look at the church and as the old hymn puts it, you see the church “sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” and then you look at the world, the culture, and you see a downward spiral spinning into debauchery and violence and that moral dissolution and you can’t see much of a future.  And perhaps we’re tempted to retreat, to pull back, to take up a defensive posture, to keep the world at bay as long as we can to circle and wagons before the darkness engulfs us. 

But if we are to be trained for kingdom living, which is what Jesus says He is doing in the lives of His disciples in the parables of Matthew 13 there in verses 51 and 52, if we are to be trained for kingdom living so that we can open our treasure and bring out things new and old, that is, share the Gospel with a lost world to advance rather than to retreat, well then we need an entirely different perspective.  We need to understand, don’t we, that the kingdom of heaven that may at first appear like a poor old man dressed in rags is in reality richer than our wildest dreams.  It may at first appear slight and impotent and inadequate compared to the towering darkness of the world - a little spark amidst the gloom.  But Jesus wants us to understand that that little spark will light a fire that the darkness will never, never put out.  There is a spiritual principle being taught here, fundamental, that we need to comprehend and grasp and embrace when it comes to the kingdom of God - appearances can be deceiving.  When it comes to the kingdom of God, what you see is not all that you get. 

Look at the text with me please.  Matthew 13:31-35.  I want you to notice three things.  Verses 31 and 32, first of all, notice the kingdom’s improbable progress.  The kingdom’s improbable progress.  Then in verse 33, the kingdom’s invisible power.  And in verses 34 and 35, finally, the kingdom’s unveiled message.  I tried desperately hard to make those alliterate; I just couldn’t do it.  When I said that in the early service I then realized people are going to spend the rest of the service trying to make them alliterate - please don’t do that!  Improbable progress, invisible power, unveiled message. 

I.      The Improbable Progress of the Kingdom

Let’s think about 31 and 32 first of all - the kingdom’s improbable progress.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.  It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  The mustard seed was proverbial in Jesus’ day for something exceedingly small.  Jesus Himself adopts that proverbial, cultural convention in the language of His day.  He uses the mustard seed on two other occasions to make the same sort of point - Matthew 17:20 and then again in a different form in Luke 17:4-6.  He describes faith as small as a mustard seed - something tiny; almost insignificant.  And Jesus here is making use again of that commonplace, that proverbial figure of speech for something tiny and easily overlooked, the mustard seed, when He describes the kingdom.  And so everyone will have understood His point but its clarity would never have lessened its shock effect.  He’s perfectly clear but still profoundly shocking.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds.

“No, no, Jesus.  Let me stop You right there.  You’ve got this all wrong.  We are expecting the kingdom of heaven to break in when Messiah comes with supernatural pyrotechnics that will level our enemies and sweep us into an era of peace.”  The kingdom of heaven is a mustard seed.  But the principle that Jesus is teaching is crucial in reorienting their thinking, perhaps also in reorienting ours, about the true nature of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom Jesus tells them will reach the ends of the earth, it will triumph over opposition, but not yet and not now and not instantly.  No, like a mustard seed planted into the field, the kingdom of heaven will undergo slow and steady progress.  With all the marvelous incongruity of a mustard bush that grows to what - about ten feet tall around the edge of Lake Galilee from that just that tiny little seed, this little speck on the palm of your hand?  So the kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, will reach its full world-spanning dimensions from improbable beginnings.  It might not look like much right now, Jesus is saying, just a tiny little seed, but it will grow until the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.  Jesus there is quoting from the prophecy of Ezekiel chapter 17 in verse 23 where the Lord promises that He will establish His people like a tree and where the nations will find refuge and rest within it. He says, “On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar and under it will dwell every kind of bird.  In the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.”  The plan of Jesus Christ for His church is that the birds of the air will come and nest in its branches.  That is, that people from every tribe and language and nation will find eternal homes here in the church of Jesus Christ. 

A Kingdom like a Seed

That is Christ’s plan.  That is the destiny of God’s kingdom.  But that is not where it starts; it starts with a mustard seed, “the smallest of all seeds,” Jesus calls it.  How easily missed it is; how easy to overlook it and disregard it.  Notice also, carefully, that Jesus says this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.  He’s talking about how the kingdom appeared among them as He spoke to them at that very moment.  “The kingdom of heaven is here already,” He’s saying, “but it’s here like a mustard seed so that you all overlook it, you despise it, you think nothing of it.”  He’s really talking about Himself.  The early church fathers said of Jesus that He was he auto basileia, the kingdom in Himself.  Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom.  Isn’t that how they responded to Him?  They despised and rejected Him - His coming, His kingdom - sorry, His coming and person and work is the kingdom of God planted in seed form, as it were, into the world that will soon sprout and begin to grow but it is a seed that all who see it think will not amount to much at all.  Isaiah 53:2-3, remember, uses very similar language to describe Jesus and how people responded to Him.  “He grew up before them like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground.  He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  And as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.”  A mustard seed - improbable, unlikely, insignificant, worthy to be ignored, one from whom men hid their faces, we esteemed Him not.  That’s Jesus - a rejected seed, sown in the field of the world. 

In John 12 verse 24, Jesus uses another similar image, this time to speak much more narrowly about His death.  He said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”  Jesus, despised and rejected, crucified, murdered, dead and buried, but His death, He says, will be like the sowing of a seed and it will bear worldwide fruit.  Now of all things, how improbable that cross must have seemed to everyone who saw Jesus hanging there as God’s great instrument for planting the mighty tree of His kingdom into the world.  The Roman authorities saw in Jesus nothing but a threat to the rule of Caesar in the region, the peace and prosperity of the region, and so with a cool and calculated efficiency they put Him down.  The crowds, they delighted in His downfall.  They repudiated and disdained Him and so they laughed as He died in agony among them.  Even the disciples, for their part, were altogether overcome with despair at the sight of Jesus at the cross.  And to a man, they deserted Him.  That’s the cross.  No one saw it for what it really is - the mustard seed of the kingdom; the dying grain of wheat that would make such progress that the nations would find eternal rest in its embrace.

Christ’s Kingdom and Plan: Easily Missed, Overlooked, and Disdained

I wonder how you think about Jesus.  I wonder how you think about Jesus.  Perhaps you’ve heard His name and His Gospel hundreds of times and He seems now to you unimpressive, His message old hat, irrelevant.  And so you can shrug Him off and walk away unaffected by Him, indifferent to the contribution His message will make to your eternal destiny.  He is, after all, you say, just a little mustard seed.  But not so fast.  The message of our passage is that Jesus Christ is the seed from which all the life of the kingdom springs.  Do not underestimate Jesus; do not dismiss Him.  There is no hope without Him!  Do you see?  And I wonder how you think about His kingdom.  Now that it’s had two millennia to grow and put forth its branches, how do you think of His kingdom? The fact is, that for all of its progress the kingdom remains comparatively small, doesn’t it?  Often beleaguered, opposed, hard pressed; often mocked and derided and dismissed as irrelevant.  And perhaps as you see all of that and the rising tide of cultural opposition to the claims of Jesus Christ and of His kingdom all around us, perhaps that discourages you deeply.  Maybe you’re even ready to give up.  You see, really, no fruit for your labors in Jesus’ service.  Maybe all you can do is pray.  Maybe all you can do is speak a few faltering words in Jesus’ name.  Maybe all you can do is love your neighbor consistently and compassionately and quietly and well.  And that’s what you’ve been doing but you see no fruit; you’ve got nothing to show.  No measurable difference appears to you for all your labors and it’s left to you thinking, “Well maybe I’m not doing it right; maybe I’m the problem.  Maybe it’s because my story isn’t really worth sharing.  Maybe my love isn’t sacrificial enough.  Maybe my prayers are ineffectual.  Maybe I’m too small, too quiet, too insignificant to be of much use.  Do you see how that line of reasoning has actually bought into the faulty ideas of the crowds who were listening to Jesus here?  They thought the kingdom advanced through supernatural pyrotechnics and power displays and upfront work and service and labor.  Thinking like that is always going to despise and set at a discount the mustard seed contributions. 

But the truth is, “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus says.  Easily overlooked, often dismissed; that’s the nature of the kingdom. God chose what is low and despised in the world and “the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are,” 1 Corinthians 1:28.  God takes His Son and hangs Him on the cross and everyone despises Him and this is the seed that plants the kingdom in the world.  And God takes your stammering lips and your faltering prayers and your fragile service and by it the kingdom grows, improbably perhaps, as it may seem to you, and yet really according to Jesus’ promise.  Appearances can be deceiving.  Do not judge the value of your labors in the name of Jesus by your perspective or your understanding, by appearances.  Learn to judge by His promises.  He has said this is the nature of the kingdom and the kingdom will grow, albeit, improbably in your eyes.  Improbable growth.

II.     The Invisible Power of the Kingdom

Then secondly, look at verse 33 and the parable of the leaven.  This time the point is that the kingdom grows by an invisible power.  Improbable growth; invisible power.  Leaven, you may know, it’s some of the batch of fermented dough from a previous baking, reserved and then mixed with the flour to leaven the whole batch of dough for the next baking.  And in Scripture, leaven is often used as a symbol of sin.  So for example, Jesus warns His disciples against the leaven, the hypocrisy, of the Pharisees in Mark chapter 8 and verse 15.  The apostle Paul, likewise, in 1 Corinthians 5, calls the Corinthian believers to rid themselves and to purge the leaven of malice and evil because, he says, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump,” and he says the same with similarly negative connotations in Galatians 5 and verse 8.  “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” - deal with sin. 

A Glorious, Powerful Leaven

But this time in our text Jesus uses the idea or the image of leaven for something glorious, not something sinister.  And He does so just like describing the kingdom in terms of a mustard seed in order to subvert and challenge and provoke a new perspective in the thinking of His hearers.  The kingdom of heaven, a mustard seed, was a stunning and shocking image; the kingdom of heaven like leaven, commonly used as an image of evil and sin, a shocking, challenging image.  And the point, I think, is that if sin, like leaven, can be pervasive and dangerous because it has a way of growing and multiplying, the kingdom of heaven is far more potent.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.  Notice that the measure that is leavened in verse 33 is pretty large.  “Three measures” - the ESV translates it.  That’s about twenty-two liters or six gallons; an approximate weight maybe thirty-five pounds or so.  But Jesus says just a little leaven makes then to even so great a volume of flour leavens the whole lump.  That’s what the kingdom is like.  You can’t see it working, it’s mysterious in its progress, but the potency of the kingdom of heaven is irresistible nevertheless.  If the parable of the mustard seed emphasizes extensive growth, the parable of the leaven emphasizes the intensive power of the kingdom.

Kingdom Advancement that Cannot be Thwarted

And that, once again, ought to immediately encourage us as we seek to serve the Lord Jesus in these difficult days.  One of the things I love about living in the United States is your “can-do” mentality.  Scottish people typically see the glass as being half-empty and we will tell you to be grateful it isn’t emptier!  And for the most part, however, there’s a real glass half-full sort of perspective here that I really appreciate.  And so you will understand how odd I find it, given that cultural inclination to entrepreneurial optimism, how odd I find it to discover Christians who still think the church’s worst days lie ahead, that it’s all downhill from here.  Facing a hostile world of prevailing unbelief, equipped with nothing but preaching and praying, they say is like facing nuclear war armed with BB guns - the chances of success are not strong.  But we’ve forgotten, haven’t we, that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven that leavens the whole lump.  It is potent.  Quietly, mysteriously it will work, unnoticed, unanticipated; it will advance till it permeates the world and all the elect of God have been leavened.  We’re called upon here, I think, to fight the forces of discouragement with this promise.  A little leaven will leaven the whole batch of dough.  One day “all the ransomed church of God will be saved to sin no more.”  It will be so!  There will be a countless multitude singing the praises of the Lamb from every tribe and language and nation under heaven one day.  It will be so and nothing can thwart the purpose and design of Jesus Christ for His kingdom to make it so.  The improbable progress of the kingdom, the invisible power of the kingdom - how we need to cling to the promise of Jesus that we ourselves might persevere in His service. 

III.   The Unveiled Message of the Kingdom

And then finally and very briefly, the unveiled message of the kingdom.  Look at verses 34 and 35.  Matthew interjects a comment of his own at this point. There is a natural break in the flow of the passage because now Jesus and His disciples are about to withdraw for a time alone together where Jesus will deliver some parables and some explanations of those parables privately.  And between the public parables and the private parables, Matthew interjects in 34 and 35 with a word of explanation.  In verse 34 we find out that Jesus’ normal modus operandi in ministry is to use parables; this is His ordinary pattern.  And in verse 35 we’re told why.  It is to fulfill the Scriptures.  “I will open my mouth in parables and utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”  That’s a quotation from Psalm 78 and verse 2.  Psalm 78 is a retelling of Israel’s history from the exodus to the reign of King David.  And Asaph who wrote the psalm is saying those events ought to be like parables; they teach timeless principles that are perennially relevant to the people of God in every age.  And Matthew is saying that is a pattern that finds its climactic fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus, not just in His teaching but even in His very person.  Jesus unveils truth that has long been hidden so that the parables themselves have a form that is uniquely suited to Jesus’ work.  He came to reveal God.  Like the parables, He reveals hidden mysteries, but also like the parables the revelation that came through Jesus Christ is accessible only to those to whom God gives the gift of saving faith.

A Kingdom built by the Word of God

Here’s the point.  The kingdom God makes, the kingdom that He plants into the world may seem to us to make improbable progress and God will do it by an invisible power.  But the instrument by which that progress is made, the tool wielded by the invisible power of the Spirit of God to advance His kingdom into the world is the revelation of God that has come in the person of Jesus Christ and has now been recorded for us in Holy Scripture.  Matthew is driving us back to the Bible, back to Psalm 78, back to Jesus’ preaching ministry, back to the parables, back to the way Jesus Himself reveals God to us.  The Word of God, you see is the lynchpin to the progress and power of the kingdom of God.  It is the instrument by which God’s Spirit will leaven the whole lump, because of which the birds shall come and nest in the branches of the tree of the kingdom.  When all around us today people are losing confidence in the Bible, in its authority, in its inerrancy, in its sufficiency, I think this portion of Scripture urges us to be like the disciples in John chapter 6 after Jesus had engaged in some hard teaching and for the most part the crowds who heard all deserted Him.  And He turned to the disciples and said, “Will you also forsake Me?”  You remember what they said in response?  Peter, as their spokesman, said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” 

The words of eternal life - that’s what you’re hearing.  That’s what you hold in your hand.  That is what makes the kingdom grow.  That is what makes its leaven potent.  Here is where the Spirit of God works by His power - in and through His holy and inerrant Word.  Where else can we turn but here to the Word of God?  Do you love the Bible?  Are you Bible people?  If you long to see the kingdom advanced, this is the great means He has ordained by which it will make its progress.  Improbable progress of the kingdom, the invisible power of the kingdom, and the unveiled message of the kingdom.  May the Lord bless to us the ministry of His Word.  Let’s pray together.

O our Father, we praise You for Your Holy Word.  We pray for the progress of Your kingdom rule even in our midst.  Wield Your Word with power, slay sin, and cause us to bear fruit.  Let the leaven of the kingdom leaven the whole lump.  In the name and for the glory of Jesus, amen.

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