The mustard seed kingdom of God.
This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries.
The “Kingdom of God” is one of the more prominent themes that occurs throughout the Gospels. A quick inquiry will find the term frequently mentioned in all the Gospel records, to varying degrees of prevalence. And without burying ourselves in assorted opinions of what the “Kingdom of God” (or “Kingdom of Heaven”) is or isn’t, let’s just chalk it up to God’s intrusion on our world in the person and work of his Son, Christ Jesus. The simple fact is, God’s Kingdom is an invasion of our manufactured kingdoms, a reclamation of what is rightfully his.
As Jesus’s earthly ministry unfolds, his insistence on the impending Kingdom of Heaven intensifies. In Luke 13, Christ journeys with his disciples towards Jerusalem and the ultimate culmination of his ministry — that is — the cross. And so it is that Christ spends ample time in this chapter speaking to this Kingdom, and all its ramifications for the present world. It is referenced four times in this chapter alone. (Lk 13:18, 20, 28–29) And of all the allusions to and illustrations of the imminent reign of the Heavenly Father, none is more peculiar than that of Luke 13:18–19, in which we find Jesus’s Parable of the Mustard Seed:
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
This parable is curious not only because of its content but also its context. The “therefore” in verse 18 obviously connects the ensuing words to the preceding scene. (Lk 13:10–17) A woman with a “disabling spirit” comes to Jesus as he teaches in the synagogue, and with a mere word from the Lord, she is healed. But instead of rejoicing at this miracle, the ruler of the synagogue is angry that this scruffy Galilean would dare to complete a healing on the Sabbath. And so begins a quick debate regarding work and holy days. But, as Christ retorts, what’s more important? The keeping of an ordinance, or the saving of life? Obviously, the ruler (and undoubtedly countless others in earshot) had missed Jesus’s point yet again.
With this healing as our backdrop, we proceed to engage this quick parable, in which God’s magnificent Kingdom is compared to a minuscule mustard seed, which is planted, and then grows into a tree. But what is Christ after in likening the Father’s domain to a mustard seed? I contend that he is, once again, emphasizing the counterintuitive truth of the gospel. God’s promise of a Messiah who would usher in a new kingdom was familiar to most people of the day. But their interpretation of such a prophecy was primarily focused on the might and power that this coming king would display. They expected this king to come with all the muscle and clout of a warrior leading an uprising against their oppressors. It was believed by many that the Messiah would come to usurp the Roman Empire, taking the throne, and bringing freedom and authority back to the Jewish nation. This sudden overthrow of control would be accompanied with great fanfare, sparking the dramatic reestablishment of sovereign Israel. But that wasn’t what Christ came to do — at least not in the manner we normally think.
Christ came to die. His mission was death and resurrection. Contrary to our natural inclinations, Christ’s Kingdom wouldn’t be won by vengeance but by surrender. It’s a kingdom of meekness and humility and grace. Opposite to the colloquial traditions of the day, Jesus’s Kingdom wouldn’t be ushered in with great pomp and circumstance. Like the planting of this seed, the Kingdom of Heaven was incarnated almost invisibly. The insignificant inception of the heavenly domain is surprising and shocking. And so it is with the entire gospel itself. Its Founder was poor and lowly, birthed in a whirlwind of rumors of infidelity, possessing nothing, and dying a criminal’s death on a cross. Its first believers were a small band of tax collectors, carpenters, and fishermen, of whom the majority were unwelcome and unlearned by the rest of society. Its primary doctrine was an affront to the religious officials of the day, bringing havoc and persecution to all its adherents. Its message and messengers were not lightly hated. The point being that the greatest of things can start from the smallest beginnings.
More than that, though, Jesus’s words regarding this seed also refer to himself. He is the Living Seed, who by dying brings forth life. Out of him springs the tree of the Church with all its far-reaching branches. Just as a seed dies to its life as a seed, setting in motion the new life of a plant, so does Christ’s death set in motion the restoration of creation. There’s no real earthly glory in this Seed (that is, Jesus). There’s no majesty or beauty in this Shoot that we should desire It. (Is 53:1–3) It came to the world unknown and unnoticed, without anything spectacular or extraordinary about It. But contained in this ordinary Seed was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Jesus is the seed, the seed that’s planted, the seed that dies, the seed that grows, and the seed reaches to the heavens. “By dying he became a king,” writes Thomas Guthrie. “He laid his head in the dust that he might become ‘head over all’; he entered his kingdom through the gates of the grave, and ascended the throne of the universe by the steps of a cross.”He is the Agent of the heavenly kingdom, the Prince of this peaceful domain. His coronation was a crown of thorns. His success is his own defeat. By being crucified, he vanquished the enemies of righteousness once for all. By rising again, he established the Kingdom of God and showed that the triumph of Heaven is secure in him. It’s just like this mustard seed — something that first seems so small will become great; something that appears inconsequential will permeate everything and make all things new.
The hope of the world is found in a mustard seed. From this Seed, a tree shoots up, providing a refuge for all weary fowl. And so it is that we might rest assured that all who find their nesting place in the gospel will find grace, mercy, and peace freely provided. We don’t have to go about clamoring for acceptance and approval; we don’t have to seek our own name or our own kingdom. Christ invites us into his. Youth pastors are continually beguiled by the felt demand to be significant. The pressure to perform and prove your worth are often deafening, suffocating the spiritual life out of would-be disciples. The hope we need and long for is only found when we forget about ourselves and disregard our grandiose fabricated kingdoms of personal prestige.
The pandemic of our time is our addiction to being extraordinary. We want the world to know us and remember us. This contagion affects nearly every action and decision for young people and young ministers. If we aren’t being seen, if we aren’t being noticed, what’s the point? But Christ says that’s precisely the point. Your identity isn’t rooted in how big your ministry is or how polished your sermon is or how amazing the activities pan out. Your identity is firmly rooted in Christ, who loves the weak and the foolish, the small and the ordinary.
We may not have a statue made in our likeness, or a building named after us, or a foundation to carry on our life’s labors, but the sufficiency of Christ extends to relieve us from the pressure to make a name for ourself, knowing that our name is securely written on the palms of God’s hands. (Is 49:16) God’s Kingdom and Gospel, as this parable shows, are actually all about personal insignificance. They’re about relinquishing our lives, reveling in our deaths, that we might live for something and Someone so much greater.
Thomas Guthrie, Christ and the Inheritance of the Saints (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859), 56.