Jesus was an interesting guy. He went around saying a lot of things, and often times they were in strange stories called parables. I have heard people call these parables “earthly stories with heavenly truth.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with this concept, but I think we are missing the bigger picture within Jesus’ use of parables. I do think it is a heavenly story (as in speaking of the time when heaven and earth are to be reunited), and it is told in earthly terms so as to illustrate it, but Jesus’ use of the parable goes beyond wanting to tell a nice story as an illustration. I think to really get a feel for why Jesus uses the parable we need to first get a little background information, so hang on with me for just a second.
Before Jesus arrives on the scene telling these stories to the Israelite people, we have to take a quick glimpse backward as to where they had came from. Israel was God’s chosen people. They were the people through whom God was going to bless the world. With the promises made to Abraham (Genesis 17), God began this, but Israel experienced some setbacks. It was their sin and rejection of God that ultimately led them into an exile, far from the direction they were supposed to be heading. Although they were being punished for their sin, God promised that He would save a faithful remnant and bring them out of exile. Not only this, but God promised them a Messiah as well.
The Messiah was one whom was to vindicate Israel. He was supposed to take the throne of David and rule not only all of Israel but all of the world (2 Samuel 7:12-16). This was the hope of the Jewish nation. They were awaiting their God-sent deliverer. Their new King would come riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) and would establish a new kingdom. It was one that was to last forever. Israel would be vindicated and God would rule as King through this Messiah.
Here is the background we have to have in mind as we approach many of Jesus’ actions and teachings. When Jesus did arrive, Israel was under Roman oppression, so if the Messiah were to come surely he would overthrow Roman rule and establish himself as King. Surely He would make Israel the great nation they were destined to be. So naturally many people were trying to discern if this Jesus of Nazareth could perhaps be the long awaited Messiah. Was He the one to at last establish the kingdom? The short answer is yes, just not in the way that Israel was expecting.
This is where I think we get Jesus’ usage of the parable. Most of the times Jesus spoke in parables it had to deal with the “kingdom of God.” Now many people will want to brush this off and say the “kingdom of God” is a way to say heaven, being that place that we will float off to forever when we die. This is a huge mistake. Yes, if someone who is in Christ were to die they would be present with the Lord and would be at peace. It would be better than the current state, but it would not be where they would spend eternity and it would not be the final hope of the Christian. The final hope for the Christian is when God raises the dead and declares who are His people that will be vindicated and will live in God’s kingdom on the “new heavens and the new earth.” Earth will be reunited with heaven once more and all things will be made new. Everything will be restored and redeemed (awesome I know).
So Jesus was not talking about what “heaven” was like, but was indeed referring to a kingdom that was very much earthly and was very close to coming into power. Jesus was their Messiah and He was bringing in the kingdom of God, but it was so far off of the kingdom Israel had envisioned that He had to find a way to get them on track. That is where the parable fits. Jesus used these stories to describe the kingdom that was so far off of the one that they had been expecting to come in. This was a kingdom like no one had ever seen before. It was going to be brought into power in a way that none other had and would also not come in the rush of force that they had hoped. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when He tells the people who are listening the parable of the mustard seed. He needed a way to define the kingdom in a new light. He was adjusting their understanding by way of parable.
30 And He [Jesus] said: “How can we illustrate the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use to describe it? 31 It’s like a mustard seed that, when sown in the soil, is smaller than all the seeds on the ground.32 And when sown, it comes up and grows taller than all the vegetables, and produces large branches, so that the birds of the sky can nest in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32 HCSB)
This sort of kingdom being described is anything but the one that the Israelites had been hoping for. In their version Jesus would describe it as a boulder that gets dropped, not as a smaller seed that slowly grows. They want here and now but God is bringing humble beginnings with growth leading to something massive. This kingdom that is like a mustard seed is planted and growing. As we read this parable maybe we need to shift our view just as the Israelites needed to.
Many of us are content to sit back and say one of these days God is going to drop a big boulder on earth and smash everything that is bad and we just have to sit here and wait. However, that is not the way things are to happen according to Jesus. This seed has been planted and it is indeed in the process of growing. That seed was planted at the death of Christ. Jesus hung on wood to accomplish His kingdom. Other kingdoms were won over by violence and war. God’s kingdom was established by suffering and that is how it is to continue growing.
Just as Jesus assured His disciples that they too would drink the cup that He was about to, and just as He told them He was sending them out as sheep to be slaughtered, so He too sends us. We cannot sit back and wait for Jesus to crack the sky. The kingdom seed has been planted and we need to move forward as it grows slowly until it produces those large branches. New creation indeed dawned at the resurrection of Jesus. Sin, death, and Satan were dealt a mortal wound and a redeemed creation was launched with Jesus. He was the first fruits of those to be raised to new life, and all who are in Him will follow on the day when the kingdom is fully realized at Jesus’ return.
Until then we must be kingdom minded people. Jesus declared after being raised that “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of[f] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus is reigning. Jesus is King. That tiny seed should be growing by the same way of love, suffering, and service that established it. Now this does not mean that we are the ones building the kingdom. That is God’s work and God’s doing. Rather we are to be the ones embracing the new kingdom and living in it. Allow God to grow His seed as we are faithful to the calling He has placed on us. We work for the Kingdom and God uses us as He sees fit.
So take a moment now to ponder this. If the death and resurrection of Jesus is real, if a new day really had dawned, if that moment really had changed everything forever, how can we sit on the bench? Jesus has broken the curse and launched a kingdom that will one day rule over all of creation with Christ as Lord on earth as in heaven. If you are in Christ you are a new creation and member of this kingdom. You are to live accordingly. Embrace the mindset of a person being renewed as creation will be, and begin to move with it as it grows from that small mustard seed.
If you aren’t sure how life looks in this kingdom I suggest reading the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) and joining God in this new creation work by having your role as an image bearer of God redeemed and restored. Joining Him by becoming someone who can reflect God’s love and glory unto creation. Begin to care for it as mankind was originally intended to. You have been reconciled to God and your sins are forgiven. The victory has been won and God reigns. Now is only a shadow of what is to come. Let us live our lives in anticipation of that day.
Praise be to God our Father and to our Lord Jesus Christ.