The parable of the mustard seed is both an analogy and a prophecy, for it tells of the growth of the church of Christ. The seed that was cast into the earth in the previous parable (Mark 4:26-29) spoke of the work of grace in the believer’s heart, whereas the mustard seed shows us the progress of Biblical Christianity until the Second Coming of the Saviour.
The small seed
“And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth” (Mark 4:30-31).
The mustard seed was used as an illustration for the Jews to explain a very small and insignificant thing. The black mustard seed (brassica nigra) was the smallest seed sown by a farmer in the Middle East. Jesus used it to reveal that even a little faith can produce marvellous results, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you” (Matthew 17:20) … “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you” (Luke 17:6).
The mustard seed speaks of the history of the visible church. It was small and weak at its beginning. Even the King of Kings came into this world as a feeble infant, born in a manger, without riches or armies. It was from the fishermen and tax-collectors He chose His first followers, the most unlikely of people to turn “the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The church’s foundation rests upon the sacrificial blood of the Saviour, which is a “stumblingblock” to the Jews and “foolishness” to the world (1 Corinthians 1:23). Yet the death of the Lord brought about eternal life for all who will believe. To the fleshly mind this was a ridiculous way of starting a new religion. From a position of weakness and insignificance, along with the contempt of the world, this seed grew mightily until it filled the earth with its presence.
The surprising success
“But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it” (Mark 4:32).
The mustard seed grows into the largest of the herbs, for it can reach a height of 3.7 metres (12 feet) in Israel, large enough to hold a bird’s nest. The church, which sprung up on the Day of Pentecost, grew so rapidly that it took the Jews, Romans and Greeks by surprise. On the first day 3,000 souls were added to its number (Acts 2:41), and a few days later another 5,000 were converted (Acts 4:4). As the message of salvation spread to Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth and Rome many more believers came into the church. It has reached Africa, Europe, and distant lands despite persecution and opposition.
The growth of the church has been one of the greatest miracles this world has seen since the resurrection of Christ, one which will not be completed until the Lord returns for His own. Despite the predictions of atheists and philosophers, the church remains and continues to call souls into the Kingdom.
The spiritual stories
“And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples” (Mark 4:33-34).
Jesus taught people to the level they were able to understand, by building upon their previous knowledge of everyday things. Because everyone likes to hear stories, He used them as a means for His hearers to assimilate spiritual truth. He never overwhelmed anyone with more than they could take in. This is what He meant when He said to His disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16:12), and is similar to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3:2, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” There will always be those preachers who think that it is spiritual to preach above people’s heads, but Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:16), not “Feed my giraffes.”
It was important for the disciples to receive fuller instruction than the parables could provide. Therefore Jesus taught them in private. He always gives greater understanding to those who desire more of His word.
The Lord has never despised small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10), so neither ought we. The seed that He planted has and continues to spread throughout the world. One day it will penetrate stubborn Islamic nations and atheistic governments with the word of God, “For the LORD taketh pleasure in his people: he will beautify the meek with salvation. Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a twoedged sword in their hand; To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all his saints. Praise ye the LORD” (Psalm 149:4-9). Millions are destined to come under the shadow of the branches of the church. Just one conversion can spark a revival and bring in a harvest of souls.