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The Parable of The Mustard Seed

by Robert Garrett

We now come to the third and fourth parables in the series of seven parables that Jesus gave us on the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew chapter 13. In the first two parables, the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares, our Lord Jesus explained the meaning to us. But in the next four, Jesus did not give us an explanation. However, he expected his disciples to understand and through them he expects us to understand. In seeking understanding we need to move very carefully and it should be kept in mind that whatever interpretation you might here, no matter who gives it, including that of your speaker, that such interpretation is personal opinion. That does not mean that we should not attempt to understand it, but that we should proceed with caution.

As we attempt to understand these parables, I suggest the following guidelines. Number one, Jesus said this was a mystery. That is, here is a new truth concerning the kingdom of heaven that was not revealed to the Old Testament prophets. Number two, does our interpretation fit in with or contradict the first two parables? Number three, does it help us to understand the history of the Church and the world of the past 2000 years? And, number four, interpret Scripture with Scripture. In other words, does the rest of the New Testament support or contradict our interpretation?

Now the parable of the mustard tree. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows it is the largest of the garden plants and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

A tree is often used in the Old Testament as a figure for an earthly kingdom, a mighty kingdom that gives shelter to the nations. We see that in Daniel four and in Ezekiel 31. Now the messianic kingdom, that is the resurrection of the house and throne of David, is portrayed in Ezekiel 17 verse 22 to 24. It is portrayed as a great tree planted by the Lord on the mountain heights of Israel. The mustard tree is not the fulfillment of that prophecy, because the parable represents the present mystery form of the kingdom.

It has been suggested that although a mustard seed may grow into a large shrub, it normally never grows into a large tree big enough give shelter to the birds of the air. But in the parable it does grow into a large tree. Some suggest that it is this abnormal growth that gives this parable its significance. In any case, in the parable it is a garden plant and becomes the largest of the garden plants, becoming a tree by comparison to the size of the other garden plants. Although it grows taller than the other garden plants, it never towers over the trees of the forest. This is in contrast to the towering and mighty cedar tree of the prophecy in Ezekiel 17:22-24. It is the mystery phase of the kingdom that was not envisaged by Ezekiel.

Then what can we say about the birds of the air that come and perch in its branches? I cannot believe that our Lord would use something to symbolize evil and then in the next breath use that same thing to symbolize something good. In the first parable the birds were the emissaries of Satan snatching the Word of God out of people’s hearts. Surely the birds of the air that roost in the branches of the mustard tree are the same birds that snatched away the seed in the first parable.

As we read in the Revelation 17 concerning mystery Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth, she is the false bride of Christ. She is the embodiment of all false religion. And in Revelation 18:2 it says she has become a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird.

We often distinguish between the visible church, that which professes to be Christian in the world, from the invisible Church, the body of true believers. The mustard tree represents the visible church, that which is seen by the world as the church or Christendom as a whole with all its corrupted and various denominational branches. From its small, seemingly insignificant beginning in Acts chapter two, the Church grew into a great world wide edifice, but with much that was not natural that is not of the Spirit. The fleshly outgrew the spiritual.

Very soon after the so-called conversion of Constantine who lived from 288 to 337, the simplicity of the gospel was corrupted. Pompous rites and ceremonies were introduced. The clergy began to be paid by the government. There developed the Church of Rome which claimed and exercised political authorities over many nations and denied the Bible to the people. Most of the denominations which grew out of the Protestant Reformation also developed in dictatorial organization that demanded allegiance to the particular creed of that denomination rather than to the Lord and is Word. Their way of organization, way of worship and some of their teaching in many cases much of their teaching cannot be found in the pages of the New Testament. Thus, the kingdom of Christ has in a great measure been converted into a kingdom of this world. It is nonetheless the kingdom of heaven in his present mystery form and the birds of the air which have for so long been the burden of its reproach shall be driven from it when the king returns in glory.

And in 2 Corinthians 7:17 to 18 we are exhorted: Therefore come out from among them and be separate says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing and I will receive you. I will be a father to you and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord almighty.

Now let’s look at the parable of the yeast in verse 33. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough. This is often interpreted as the gospel having an influence for good on the world. One can hear sermons or read Bible commentaries which interpret the leaven as the gospel of Christ, that from a small beginning it should pervade all the nations of the world and fill them with righteousness and true holiness. But history contradicts that interpretation. After 2000 years of the gospel, the greater part of the nations of this world are still without Christ and sinking deeper into ungodliness all the time. Our nation, the USA, began its life with a constitution based upon biblical, Christian principles and was known as a Christian nation. But its government has turned its back upon God. The Bible, prayer, and the teaching of Christian morals are not permitted in our public schools today. Millions of defenseless babies have been murdered in the womb and our president now supports the abomination of gay marriage.

No, the leaven or the yeast does not represent the work of the gospel influencing the nations for good, just the opposite. It is false teaching which has corrupted the gospel. Nor is it illustrating, as some fancy, something once set in motion that cannot be stopped. We are not free to just use our imaginations without regard to scriptural usage. Scripture is to be explained with Scripture. Jesus elsewhere used yeast or leaven as a symbol of evil, of corruption, never of anything good. So it is contradictory to say that he is here using yeast to symbolize the gospel. How did Jesus use yeast elsewhere? Jesus warned strongly against the yeast, the teaching of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and Herod. You can read that in Matthew 16:6, 11 and 12 and Mark 8:15.

We read in Matthew 16 verses five to six: When they went across the lake the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

But the disciples did not understand. They thought he was talking about the kind of yeast you use in bread. So he had to explain it to them. And so in verse 12 Matthew tells us: Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Mark also tells us in Mark 8:15 that Jesus warned them against the yeast of Herod. Let’s look at the yeast of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the legalists, the formalists of their day. They were hypocrites. They insisted and glorified outward observance without inward reality. The Lord Jesus said of them in Matthew 23 verses 27 and 28, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like white washed tombs which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

They had the yeast of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the rationalists and skeptics of their day. They wanted a natural or a scientific explanation for everything. And according to Acts chapter 23 verse eight the Sadducees did not believe in angels or spirits or a resurrection. Their counterpart would be the evolutionists and humanists of today.

Then there is the yeast of Herod. Herod was not a Jew. He was not of the house of David. He was a worldly person with a superstitious fear of God, but who lived for this world. And the Herodians were a political party among the Jews who supported the kingly claims of Herod who was not a Jew. Their counterpart today would be those who seek to bring in the kingdom of God through political reformation instead of through the coming of Jesus the King.

Yeast or leaven is, therefore, the symbol of formalism, hypocrisy, rationalism, skepticism and worldliness. The history of the Church shows that the doctrine of Christ has been adulterated and corrupted by all these things. Is there any doctrine of the Bible that has not been corrupted by the yeast of men? Are not the exhortations and warnings of Paul to Timothy warnings against the yeast, the teachings of men? Let’s read some of these. 1 Timothy chapter four verse one to five. The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and will follow deceiving spirits, things taught by demons. Such teaching comes through hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.

And 1 Timothy 6:20-21. Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge which some have professed and so doing have wandered from the faith.

And 2 Timothy 3:1-5. But mark this. There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self control, brutal, not lovers of good, but treacherous, brash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than loves of God, having a form of godliness, but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

And in 2 Timothy three verse 15 to 17. All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for ever good work.

And in 2 Timothy 4:1-4 he exhorts Timothy to preach the Word because in the last days there will be people who will turn away from the truth and who will gather after themselves great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

Add to all that the corruption of our own day. A modern example is the feminist movement that demands that all sexist references to the Bible be removed. They do not want to pray to God as their Father, nor refer to Jesus as the Son of God. Thus, they deny the one who bought them and judge themselves unworthy of eternal life while yet worshipping and calling themselves Christians.

Among some denominations the yeast has pervaded the dough until it has become a rotten, stinking mess. Although there are similarities, the yeast is not a repetition of the mustard tree. The mustard tree represents corrupt organization which is a ruse for all kinds of man made doctrines, practices and evil. Whereas the yeast represents corrupt teaching that makes insidious and often undetected inroads into the pure gospel, the pure doctrine of Christ. Perhaps we can think of them as two sides of the same coin. The parable is to reveal a mystery of the kingdom. And Paul declares that the mystery of iniquity was already at work. The New King James version says: The mystery of lawlessness is already at work. So this mystery of iniquity, the mystery of lawlessness, this is the yeast. These speak of the same thing. This working of iniquity or lawlessness was not revealed to the prophets of old. It is a mystery. Remember? The Bible definition of a mystery, it is something that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.

The Old Testament prophets prophesied the sufferings of the Christ and those have taken place. Jesus suffered in our place. He died for our sins that we might have eternal life. He also prophesied concerning the glories of the Christ which should follow. See 1 Peter 1:11. What they did not prophesy was this interim period between the sufferings and the glories. It was hidden from them.

These parables Jesus said were mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. What the prophets did prophesy was that Jesus would speak in parables and in doing so would utter things hidden since the creation of the world. These parables, therefore, are revealing to us what would take place in the period between the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. In other words, the period between the first coming and the second coming of Christ.

Isaiah prophesied that the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. But Jesus is here revealing that in this period, which we call the Church age, Satan would be active. He would blind the minds of unbelievers, 2 Corinthians 4:4. He would snatch the Word out of people’s hearts. He would persecute believers. He would infiltrate the Church. The very gospel would be compromised and corrupted. That is why the New Testament continually warns us against false teachers and exhorts God’s servants to study God’s Word and to preach the pure Word.

Let me give you a common and wide spread example of the yeast that corrupts the gospel of Christ. I recently read a tract that set forth very clearly the Bible teaching on creation. The writer emphasized the need to take Genesis literally showing that the account of the creation in the Bible is an accurate historical account, that the days in Genesis one are not periods of millions of years, but are literal 24 hour days. To that I say, “Amen.” I agree most empathically.

But the writer went on to present the gospel about Jesus. Again, what he had to say was very good. But when he began to explain how a person can become a Christian he deviated from the written Word. There was a little prayer for the person to say about accepting Jesus as Savior and then a place for the person to sign his or her name. But nowhere is such found in the pages of Scripture. Instead, the same Bible that tells us how God created the heavens and the earth also tells us very clearly how we can be saved. Jesus, who was the creator in Genesis one died for our sins and Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” And the Holy Spirit through the apostle Peter commanded in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Then there is the popular plea to the lost sinner to confess Christ as your personal Savior and you will be saved. But the Scripture does not put it that way. Instead, the Scripture tells us to confess that Jesus is Lord. Of course, Jesus is our personal Savior, but only if we first allow him to be Lord.

And the Lord Jesus did not say to sign your name to a little prayer. He commanded you to repent and be baptized.

In Acts 2:41 we read that those who accepted his message were baptized. Have you accepted the message of Christ

In conclusion, I believe that we can say that the flower in the parable would be representative of Christ and his Word, the food of the child of God. We are to feed on Christ. We are to feed on his pure Word. We are commanded to keep the feast with unleavened bread, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast as you really are. For Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Let us keep the festival, not with the old yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

-Robert Garrett lives in Louisville, KY and does  mission work in Zimbabwe

 

 




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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8