Luke 13:18 & 19 “Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.’’’
If you should use the word ‘kingdom’ or ‘kingdom of God’ when talking to a Muslim then he would think immediately of those nations that are committed Islamic countries. He would remember with pride the rise of Muhammad, and the spread of his rule, his aggressive mission against pagans, Jews and Christians, the bloody warfare in which he was engaged, the victories that imposed Muhammad’s religion on the Middle East. For the Muslim that is territory he calls the kingdom of God.
The Lord Jesus also spoke of the ‘kingdom of God’ frequently. The theme of his very first sermon was that his hearers should repent because the kingdom of God was at hand. The King himself was there and so his kingdom also had to be there. So what would God’s kingdom be like? Would it be like Muhammad’s? Certainly his early disciples were expecting the Messiah to come in power, subdue all Israel’s enemies, and drive the Roman armies into the Med. Then he would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem and his reign would encompass the whole world. It would be an immediate and perfect society.
Yet when Jesus described the kingdom of God he didn’t use martial images. He didn’t say that the kingdom of God was like a mighty army. He didn’t compare it to a nuclear bomb, rather he said that it was like a mustard seed, or like leaven, or like hidden treasure or like a pearl of great value. It was like a sower going out on a spring morning and sowing his seed in a field. That is a picture of the real kingdom of God. You entered it by becoming like spiritual babies and being born again. His disciples looked at one another; what sort of kingdom was this that they’d entered? They were young men. Had any of them been to a rabbinic school? Not one. A number of them were the sons of fishermen; the smell of fish clung to their clothes. They didn’t seem the sort of men who would be given leadership in a mighty kingdom.
Then you looked at Jesus their leader. He had spent thirty years of his life in a tiny community on a hillside without a main road, surrounded by thorn bushes through which threaded narrow paths. There was one well, and Jesus was the son of the local joiner’s wife, Mary. He had made gates and fence posts and doors and ploughs with Joseph. For twenty years of his life he had done this. He shared a bedroom with a few brothers. The land they lived in was a petty nondescript province of the vast Roman Empire; for over a hundred years it had been conquered and domiciled by those Gentiles. Roman legionnaires walked anywhere and everywhere in the land without any challenge.
The religion he founded seemed at first feeble and helpless. It didn’t appear that it could possibly survive. The Lord Christ was poor throughout his life; he never held a weapon in his hand, and he was put to death for blasphemy. He split the country into three groups; 90% of the people kept their distance, undecided, some days hostile, and other days perplexed. 9% of the people were militantly opposed to him plotting to kill him, and 1% worshipped him. He had persuaded at least 500 people to serve him by the end of his life, maybe double that, but he himself possessed nothing at all at that time except the clothes he stood in; no house, no land, no livestock, no wife, no sons. His leading men were inexperienced, and the message they preached was not a stirring call to arms and revolution. The theme that they preached to their fellow Jews centred on how the Christ died, and his death was a cursed one. Anyone whom God allowed to be nailed up on a cross was a cursed criminal, but these disciples of Jesus were determined to tell everyone about the meaning of his death. They were determined not to preach anything else. To the Greeks who heard this preaching it was an absurd message, and so when these followers of Jesus began their evangelism they united everyone against them, Jews and Greeks became friends, though full of scorn and hatred for one another, they stood shoulder to shoulder in their contempt for the message of Jesus Christ. They hated it. They persecuted those who preached it; they stoned some of them to death. This was a cranky unbelievable sect scorned by all groups in society and all religions. That is a fact; no one can deny it. If ever there was a religion that began like a grain of sand it was this Christian gospel.
You see how important it was to Jesus that his disciples grasped the importance of this message of what the kingdom of God actually was. He tells the parable of the mustard seed at least twice; it is recorded here and also in Matthew’s gospel. Then see how he repeats the lesson twice first with the mustard seed and then using the analogy of yeast or leaven. Then again notice the way Jesus introduces our text; he draws them in by raising a question. “Then Jesus asked, ‘What is the kingdom of God like?’” Then he paused . . . what were they thinking? What are you thinking? The wheels were turning. There was a silence, and then he asked them the same question in another way;“What shall I compare it to?” (v18). Another silence . . . no answer. Boys and girls today are thinking of the coming royal wedding of the future British king, the marching soldiers in full regimental uniform, brass bands, cavalry troops riding along, everyone dressed up, huge crowds watched by an audience of a billion people. The kingdom of God would have to be something like that. What impresses non-Christians is something like May Day in Moscow and the inter-continental ballistic missiles on their trucks going past the politburo suits standing on the podium, the ground shaking.
So what does the Lord Christ say about the reign of the God who is the Creator of heaven and earth? “It is like . . . a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden” (v.19). And once you have planted a mustard seed you can never find it again; it becomes just like another bit of dirt. It is minute. The kingdom of God is not like . . . the Red Army. It is not like a weapon of mass destruction. It is not like Oscar Night. It is not like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It is not like Manhattan. It is not like the World Cup Final. The kingdom of God is like the most diminutive seed you can imagine. It is! It most certainly is! That is the image you have to hold firmly in your mind if you are thinking about the kingdom of God. You will never understand God, and you will never understand grace, and you will never understand his rule until you have grasped that his kingdom is like . . . a skimpy, meager, paltry mustard seed. That is the lesson that jumps out of Luke 13:18. You protest that there are large churches, congregations of a thousand people, and I agree that there are some like that, but if they are true mustard seed churches they will say to you, “Yes . . . I suppose we are big, but Oh what problems we have, and how few are converted and what worldliness there is among many who claim to be Christians . . .” They too are mustard seed churches.
Jesus does not say that the kingdom of God begins like a grain of sand, because you can take a grain of sand and plant it in your garden and water it and fertilize it each day and nothing at all will happen ever, because it has no life in it at all. It is as lifeless as a pebble on the beach. But the kingdom of God is redolent with the life of God, and the reason for any transformation, any metamorphosis, any expansion and development in the seed that is sown is due to the fact that the life of God is inside that tiny object. In fact it is all life. It may look brown and so ordinary; a puff of wind would blow it away, but it is alive.
Now the mustard seed is not literally the smallest seed in the world. We all know that there are more modest seeds, and so don’t worry about people talking very learnedly about a more diminutive seed than the mustard seed and then giving it its correct Latin name and announcing that such and such a seed is half as small again as a mustard seed. O.K. . . . a mustard seed is proverbially the smallest of the small. It stands for unimpressive beginnings. It is a metaphor for the kingdom’s insignificant origins but extraordinary growth. You are bird watching with your binoculars from the upstairs verandah, about four meters in the air, and you are watching a mother bird flying onto a nest and feeding her young, and then you see another nest on another branch, and even another nest! The birds of the airs are nesting in the branches of this large tree, and you ask the householder later on what kind of tree is that. “It’s actually a mustard tree,” he tells you. “You know that tree the New Testament speaks about in a couple of places which has such an insubstantial seed and yet it grows and grows and grows to that size there! It gives us shade, and many of our friends like to look – just as you’ve been doing – at the birds nesting and roosting in its branches. Have you seen a mustard seed? Let me show it to you,” and he takes out of a drawer a small plastic envelope and shows you what looks like dust. “There are a hundred mustard seeds here. Each one is less than one millimeter in diameter, and yet the tree that comes from them grows to that size.” That is what Jesus is doing. He is warning us about dismissing a work of God in a place or in a life because it seems to be insignificant.
i] It was true for the early spread of the gospel. There was one man Jesus of Nazareth, baptized by John, who began to preach and gather around him twelve men. We all go back to him. Everyone here this morning, 2,000 years after Jesus was walking this earth, and 5000 miles away from where he lived and died, we are all here today singing these hymns and praying and listening to the preaching because of one man Jesus Christ.
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 size and numbers – the outward appearances of religion – the multitudes at the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or those millions of Hindus ceremonially bathing in the Ganges in India seeking to wash away their guilt because the moon and planets are in a favoured position, or the people in their thousands standing on a Sunday morning in St. Peter’s Square in Rome to see the pope and hear his greetings, or again there are the statistics and claims about the Mormon movement being the fastest growing religion in the world. Do you measure the work of God by numbers, and size, and outward success? This parable is saying, “Hang on a minute!” It is teaching us to be very, very careful about estimating a divine work in that way. What you have to do is to ask, “Is it like a mustard seed?”
Think of Noah and his family, the only mustard seeds in the world at their time. Think of Joseph in Egypt the only Old Testament Christian there. Think of Elijah on Mt Carmel facing 850 prophets of Baal. One man one vote and he is out! He thinks he is the only one in the country who hasn’t bowed to Baal. God has to tell him of the thousands of mustard seeds in the land. Think of Daniel in Babylon, often all by himself, taking a stand – “Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone!” Think of Jesus and his disciples – even as he was telling them this parable. He was the supreme mustard seed. There were only a few devoted disciples, twelve in the inner circle, 70 or 120 or so in a broader circle of faithful disciples who were following him, while Jesus is being opposed by the system – it is a well organized system, and it is all over the land. There were thousands of Pharisees and scribes, and they had every synagogue in their pockets, while Jesus’ little group of disciples were perplexed at the failure of the Lord to bring in his kingdom. Where were the bursts of glory? There were no fireworks, no pom poms, and no roll of drums and trumpets, no prancing stallions. It looked as if Christ’s kingdom was all words, mere words. It had failed. Cleopas on the road to Emmaus two days after the crucifixion talked about Jesus to the Jesus he failed to recognize, “We thought he’d have been the one to redeem Israel. But we saw them crucify him, and so he can’t be the Messiah.”
Jesus’ message to the disciples and to us in our text is, “Don’t judge a 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 going to have the most tremendous impact.” In other words, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Christ is saying, “Don’t think that because what I’m doing now looks unimpressive in the eyes of the world, that my life and death are going to be a failure.” No, there is divine life in this mustard seed; the work of the kingdom is going on.
The disciples were always saying things to Jesus like this, “Now Lord, when your kingdom comes . . .” and the implication was that it would be in a short time. In a few months, “ . . . we’d like to sit at your right and at your left hand, in the positions of honour, when your kingdom comes.” The Lord Jesus would say to them, “You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still don’t realize the form in which my kingdom is going to be displayed. Let me tell you exactly what it’s like – my kingdom is a homeopathic mustard seed. You’re asking to sit each side of . . . a mustard seed!” Then when the Lord Jesus was crucified on the cross, at his right and at his left hand there weren’t two keen, young apostles but two crucified criminals one cursing and railing against God and man. That’s how God’s kingdom was brought in; it was through the tortured, dying body and soul of his Son. That was the only way – and the disciples were utterly clued out to that. They hated him talking about the corn of wheat falling into the ground and dying and rising, and that if it didn’t do that then the alternative would be isolation! They had no idea that the kingdom would be brought in through much tribulation – whipping and stoning and martyrdoms. They were caught up in the numbers game, in the mega church, in impressive displays of powerful religion. So Jesus tells them that the kingdom of God is like . . . an infinitesimal mustard seed; “Don’t be deceived by outward evidences. When you see me on Golgotha, and hear the chanting mob, and see me agonizing, trying to suck in one breath after another, it may look to you that my kingdom is nothing but in fact I’m there defeating the guilt of sin, and I am overcoming death there, and I am destroying the power of the devil.” Now that’s the nature of the kingdom of God in general isn’t it? When we know that we are weak and we look to God and cry mightily to him for his help and strength, it is then that we are strong. But when we feel we’re strong and start to neglect God then we are at our weakest.
Isn’t that the nature of our church life? As we live and serve here in our small town ultimately we can’t measure the impact of our kingdom service, of our love for one another, of our zeal for the gospel, by mere statistics. You can’t measure the effectiveness of a Christian family – Dad’s authority and leadership, Mam’s love, you lying on your bed at the end of the day chatting to your brother – I say you can’t measure the textures of precious home life by statistics. Those are not the criteria by which the kingdom of God is measured. Those are not the evidences and marks guaranteeing that a mighty divine work has been done. Don’t have your eyes glazed over by impressive things that happened 300 years ago, or that are happening now but a hundred miles away, or 5,000 miles away, or everywhere else except here; don’t say, “They’ve got the kingdom of God but we haven’t – all we’ve got are a few mustard seeds.” Don’t let your heart be discouraged at the absence of the dancing bears, the clowns on mono-cycles, the spectacular and the magnificent. Are there mustard seeds here? Is there only one? Then the kingdom of God is here. I believe there’s more than one.
Christ, you see, was speaking to followers who were relatively small and weak. They were considered insignificant and uneducated in the minds of Israel. And his disciples understandably longed for immediate, revolutionary changes to come about, for a great outpouring of the Spirit that would bring hundreds and hundreds into the kingdom. And Christ’s message to them in the parable of the mustard seed was, “Be patient, keep on believing; keep on praying; keep on doing your duty. God’s kingdom will grow.” Men wisely say, ‘You don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Don’t judge the effectiveness of the kingdom by its outward appearances because it may be far more powerful than it appears to be. That was Jesus’ message of the mustard seed.
I remember a church meeting here forty years ago when members of the congregation talked for the first time of the need for a home for people with learning disabilities, and at the end of the meeting the chairman announced that he was giving either one pound or five pounds (I can’t remember) towards setting up such a home somewhere. That was a very important gesture, because something had to be done with that small sum of money. Someone had to keep it safe, in a clean jam jar, or in a jug or a sock under the bed. That gift was a mustard seed, and slowly over the next years it grew, and today there are sixteen or so residents living in Plas Lluest, with twenty or thirty staff, and the property is worth more than a million pounds with other homes like it across the UK as well as an international network. Why am I telling you this? When we were beginning the work a man named David Potter, who was the person behind this vision, would regularly come to Aberystwyth, and occasionally he would take cassettes of my sermons and listen to them on his journeys back and fore from Aberystwyth to Reading in Berkshire. On one occasion he picked up a sermon of mine on the mustard seed (but from Matthew 13) and he told me how that sermon had heartened and cheered him in the fledgling work of Cause for Concern. That is what I am talking about.
Jesus is warning us against triumphalism. The power of the kingdom is not in its outward form or size or appearance. You know how this truth of patient waiting used to be taught to children in primary school. You’d tell every child to bring a jam jar to school and you’d surround the inside of the jar with blotting paper and you fill the jar with sawdust, packing it in. Then the teacher would put a kidney bean between the blotting paper and the glass. Then you’d fill the jar (that has all that sawdust) with water. All the bottles, labeled with the children’s names, were then lined up on the window sills of the classroom. The children came to their classes every morning and at first they’d go to their own jars and look, but day after day nothing seemed to be happening, and they lost interest in the boring jars and the solitary beans. But there is life in the kidney beans and the water is making them change, and one day roots begin to sprout and grow in all the beans.
We are often like those children, at first losing interest because nothing seems to be happening and we long to see immediate results, but that’s not how kingdom work is. In fact, that’s one of the frustrations of kingdom work, men and women, and we need to learn that, that no preacher and no church, no father and no mother, no missionary or church planter will ever in this life see all the fruit of their labours. It’s hard at times of discouragement to see any fruit at all of our ministries because the evidences of them are spiritual evidences – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self control – and such fruit takes a time to appear. Don’t despise your ministry as a mother, deacon, bookshop manager, youth worker, student worker.
I know of a pastor who had served a church in a small town for many years. He had faithfully preached the Word of God and regularly visited and witnessed in that community. His ministry in that church spanned decades, but there was little evident fruit and few conversions. Eventually this old preacher retired and died. He went to the grave convinced that his ministry in the little church had been a failure. A while later the church called a new pastor. He preached the same gospel that the old preacher had preached, but a surprising change occurred. People began to get saved. In fact, there was a local awakening in that many of the folk in that community came to profess faith in the Lord. As they testified about their experiences, the people shared their pilgrimages one with another. Many of them discovered that it had been the gospel of the old preacher that God had used to awaken them to their need of a Saviour. I am saying to you that we simply do not know what is happening in the hundred people who will listen on a Sunday. One sermon can change the whole future of a person.
We must never measure the significance and truth of a religion, and whether God is blessing it, by mere statistics. The mustard seed is teaching us that the kingdom is growing, yes, but often it looks insignificant. That was true for the early spread of the gospel.
ii] It has also been true for the spread of the gospel in the history of the church. There have been men whom God has set apart. Like the mustard seed they had life inside them. God had given then understanding and a grasp of the truth, and yet they were often lonely men. There was a man named Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, living at a time when the whole professing church seemed to deny that Jesus Christ was God. For forty-six years, and throughout four exiles, Athanasius battled for the truth of the deity of Christ, often standing alone against the whole world. “Who is this guy? Does he have the effrontery to claim that everyone is out of step except himself? What vanity!” That is what his opponents said, but Athanasius loved God, and knew the Scriptures. He understood the crucial significance of Jesus Christ being God the Son incarnate – no Christianity and no gospel without it – and in the end Athanasius’ preaching and writing and arguments prevailed. The churches gathered at Chalcedon and they confessed Jesus Christ to be God as the Scriptures say he is. There was one man responsible, humanly speaking. One mustard seed.
Again, one monk serving in a small German town called Wittenberg tacked ninety-five theses on the door of the parish church – Castle Church – as issues the professing church needed to discuss. So quietly and inconspicuously was born the Reformation of the church in the light of the New Testament in those 95 theses. It seemed a mustard seed, even to Luther himself. Again an obscure member of parliament introduced anti-slavery legislation, in the late 18th century in London. Initially it was greeted in parliament with overwhelming hostility. William Wilberforce was that mustard seed, but for thirty years he spoke and wrote and campaigned tirelessly until the British Empire abolished slavery. Again one man named Hywel Harris began to read aloud from an evangelical book to some of his neighbours in the area around Trefecca in the 18th century and more and more people came to listen to what he was reading, and later multitudes came to hear his preaching, and soon a great work of God was being done so that moribund Wales came to life spiritually.
We are living in days of small things, but we are not living in days of absolutely nothing at all, and we are being told by the Son of God in the words that are before us that we must not despise mustard seed days. In our day we Christians are not in the media, and we find it hard to raise our voices in the public square. The world does not know us, but we are building our own alternative society (of which the world is utterly unaware), and you see it thriving in our family life, gospel congregations which meet every seven days, publishing houses, home schooling, our websites and magazines, our summer camps and conferences, ministers’ fraternals, our pro-life work, our homes for the elderly, missionary societies and theological colleges. These are all 21st century mustard seeds unknown and unrecognized by the world, but in these ways the kingdom of God is operating quietly and powerfully in our land because the life of God is in all of this.
There was a student in our congregation who had been converted a year before I arrived in Aberystwyth. His name is Keith Underhill. Since that time he has been working in Kenya for forty years, and now there is a network of 45 churches in many parts of Kenya pastored by men he has trained. In these congregations godly living is taught and the whole counsel of God is proclaimed. Where did all this begin? It started with God’s providence in putting him in a shared room in a university hall of residence with Brian Williams, a Christian student from Cardiff, who spoke to him, and brought him to this church and to the university Christian union. One boy sharing his faith with another – a mustard seed – and hundreds of people in Kenya have been greatly blessed.
That is the history of mission. Some men plant mustard seeds; some men water mustard seeds, but God gives the increase to mustard seeds. Some men are mustard seed men. Richard Greenham was a minister in a village seven miles from Cambridge for twenty years, working very hard, rising and praying at four a.m. and on four days each week he preached at daybreak to the men going to work. He walked alongside ploughmen as they ploughed the fields and bore witness to them. But for all his godliness, insight, evangelical message and hard work his ministry was virtually fruitless. When he retired he said, “I can see no good by my ministry on any except one family.” That was not true; much good was done, but he was a mustard seed, and proof of this I found out for myself as this week I opened up Google and I typed into Amazon his name, ‘Richard Greenham,’ and there were 27 places all over the world where I could buy books he had written, all taken from the one 500 page manuscript folio which he left behind. He was a mustard seed.
William Carey went to India and for the first seven years not one person was converted. Today there are millions of Christians in India. William Chalmers Burns was one of the first missionaries to China and that Scotsman saw scarcely one person converted during his entire time there. He died in China, but today there are millions of disciples of the Lord Jesus in that mighty nation. A Welsh missionary called Robert Thomas went to Korea and was martyred on the beach as he stood on Korean soil, but today Korean Christians are evangelizing all over the world. Those men were mustard seeds. The gospel spreads through mustard seeds.
Last night Alec MacDougal called me from Gloucester and told me of a funeral he had taken on Friday of one of his members. The man was my age and had been a pet shop owner and Alec and his children had gone there often and he had spoken to him and given him literature and John Blanchard booklets. One day he gave him a cassette of my talk on Richard Weaver the Potteries’ Evangelist and that lecture greatly touched him. Soon Alex invited him to look at their new church building at one of its Open Days. The man came and then on a Sunday, and then each Sunday, and then twice, and then to the Prayer Meeting. He died of cancer a week ago, and at the funeral two days ago on Friday Alex told them about that mustard seed, my cassette on Richard Weaver and how it had warmed his heart.
iii] It is also true for the influence of the gospel in your life. The place you heard the gospel was not significant, maybe a lecture room at the university borrowed by the Christian Union, a Baptist chapel over 140 years old with upright pews, a train journey bumping along to Shrewsbury and a person talking to you about what Jesus Christ means to her. The people gathered around you when you heard the gospel were not glamorous people. No one famous was there, no millionaires, no stars, no beautiful people. The speaker you listened to was not an orator. His delivery and gestures were irritating. He was not a graduate. The message was not one that flattered you at all. It said that you, like all men, are a sinner, and that you needed forgiveness and the mercy of God, and that he has provide this through sending his Son to be the Saviour of the world. You were told that you could do nothing to gain heaven but to entrust yourself to him, that he had lived the life you have failed to live, and he has made atonement for your sins by his death. All you could do was ask God in the name of his Son to pardon you for your poor life, and help you live a new and upright life following him.
You were told to do nothing more until you had done that, that it was futile to try to do anything until God had given you a new birth and made you a new creature, but as you cried to God, and yielded yourself to God then he was working in your heart and he was planting there a mustard seed of grace. All your new life for eternity was there in your heart by the Holy Spirit. As all the oak tree’s fulness is there in seed form in the acorn, and as all the mature man or woman is there in the fertilized egg in the mother’s womb so the life of God and the life of eternity is in you as a new Christian by the Holy Spirit when you are given a new birth. There is complete forgiveness there; there’s the righteousness of Christ there; there’s a new spirit there; there’s adoption into the family of God there; there’s the end of sin’s dominion over you right there; there’s union with Jesus Christ there; there’s your place seated at the right hand of God there; there’s glorification there. It’s all there in one dense heavenly atom, like a mustard seed, planted by God in the life of every single new Christian. It’s all there in your heart in seed form when you became a Christian. I know that that is true of you because it is true for every Christian. You’re not aware of all that. All you’ve done is to ask God to save you and forgive you and make you a real Christian, but God’s answer is exceeding abundantly above all that you asked or even thought. It was to plant a mustard seed of grace in your life, to begin a good work in you which he will most certainly complete in the great coming day of Christ when you see him and you will be like him. The mustard seed of grace always results in incredible fruit, to total likeness to Christ in body, soul and spirit, to the stature of the fulness of Christ. It does this to everyone. What begins in a humble place with humble people with a humbling message – the mere mustard seed – ends with a sight of God the Son and being like him with great joy – a glorious tree of grace. So be steadfast and unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
20th March 2011 GEOFF THOMAS