The majority of Matthew 13 is taken up with seven so-called “Kingdom” parables which Jesus taught while sitting in a boat on the Sea of Galilee at Capernaum. We began our study of these parables with a look at the general nature and structure of parables along with Jesus’ answer to His disciples’ question why He only taught the crowd in parables, but in private with them He gave straightforward, literal teaching. We then examined the famous Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ own explanation of it to His disciples recorded for us by Matthew. Last time, we looked in detail at two parables concerning God’s upcoming final judgement on mankind – The Parable of the Tares, and the Parable of the Net.
Matthew 13:31-32 – The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Let’s continue now with an examination of another of the “Kingdom” parables – the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Unlike the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Tares, God’s Word does not record for us any private explanation Jesus gave His disciples about this parable. Thus it is left to us by the power of God’s Holy Spirit to determine for ourselves its meaning. Consequently there is significant difference among theologians about its correct interpretation.
31He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”Matthew 13:31-32 [ESV] (Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19)
Clearly this parable is about growth. Specifically, the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the other parables we have studied in this chapter, Jesus spoke of His sowing the seed of the Word of His Kingdom into the world. Here in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, He seems to allude to the idea that this seed of the Gospel – which seemed insignificant at its inception – will exhibit exceptional growth over time.
Assuming that the mustard plant is intended to represent the Church of Jesus on the earth, it would seem to be a no-brainer that its explosive growth is obviously something good. The preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an ever-broadening sphere of influence would seem like the ideal fulfillment of Jesus’ Great Commission given in Matthew 28:18-20 directing His disciples to go and make disciples of all the earth. Indeed, this is the most common view of this parable espoused by many Bible commentators whom I personally greatly admire such as Matthew Henry.
But other Gospel teachers whom I also greatly admire like J. Vernon McGee disagree. In his commentary on the parable, Dr. McGee says that the mustard plant is supposed to be a small bush which should never be allowed to grow into a tree large enough to provide nesting for birds. Since the common assumption is that the mustard plant in Jesus’ parable represents His Church, Dr. McGee maintains that the parable is actually chastising the Church for abnormal and improper growth. Dr. McGee reinforces this view with a reminder that the birds who nest in the abnormally large mustard plant are symbols of the same minions of the devil mentioned in the Parable of the Sower which snatched away the seed of the Gospel before it could take root (Matthew 13:1-9, Mark 4:1-9 & Luke 8:4-8). In particular, Dr. McGee decried the rise of the modern “megachurch” in America – a trend which was only just beginning at the time of his death. We can only speculate what Dr. McGee would have said about the emergence of the so-called “virtual” church which has become so prevalent worldwide since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, but I’m guessing he would have been aghast.
So is explosive church growth a good thing or a bad thing? Which of these diametrically opposed viewpoints on the Parable of the Mustard Seed is the correct one? I would personally have to say, “Both and neither!” The important consideration isn’t how much or how fast a church grows, but rather why it grows. Conversely, if a small church remains small, the important question is why? If the church remains static because its members have become spiritually stagnant and have begun “playing” church like the churches in Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea we read about in Revelation 2 & 3, then its static nature is indeed bad. But if the church isn’t growing in size because its disciples are going forth into the rest of the world making new disciples, then that is exactly what Jesus commanded in His Great Commission on the day He ascended to His Father.
There have been numerous periods of explosive growth throughout the history of the Church – the first of these being the very first day the Church came into being with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the 11 remaining of Jesus’ chosen apostles (Acts 2). On that first Pentecost after Jesus ascended to His Father, Peter preached a powerful sermon to the crowd that gathered at the sound of the Spirit’s rushing wind, and 3,000 of them were saved. The church continued to grow steadily over the next two centuries despite significant persecution first by the Jewish leadership (e.g. Saul of Tarsus) and later the Gentiles. Then the Roman Emperor Constantine first relaxed Roman laws against Christianity and later declared himself a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Consequently, the “church” grew significantly. After all, who wouldn’t want to profess the same religion as the Emperor in hopes of garnering the various political and economic benefits that went along with doing so. Thus the Roman Catholic church and later the Eastern Orthodox church continued to grow in wealth, influence, and membership throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance with practically all European people counted as its members from birth to death until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century begun by Martin Luther.
In the early 1700s in Europe and colonial America, a mighty revival known as The Great Awakening took place in which many thousands came to profess a saving faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ over a short stretch of a few decades in response to the faithful preaching of God’s Word by many church pastors – perhaps the most famous of these being Jonathan Edwards with his renowned message entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought the advent of huge “revival” meetings especially in the USA and United Kingdom where the powerful messages of famous evangelists such as Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and later Billy Graham brought many tens of thousands to profess faith in Jesus’ Gospel. Most recently, in the mid 1970s and early 1980s the so-called “Jesus Movement” began in California and spread through the rest of the USA. Many of my own personal friends came to saving faith in the Gospel as part of this powerful move of God’s Spirit among the “hippie” generation.
All of these great growth spurts of the Church of Jesus Christ (or at least the numbers of those professing faith) could be what Jesus was talking about when He spoke of the growth of the tiny mustard seed into a mighty tree-like plant. The question remains though, are these surges in the membership of the Church a good thing? The answer is – yes and no. The only thing that really matters in terms of the Kingdom of God is the hearts of those professing faith. If their faith is genuine, then obviously their coming to it is a wonderful miracle of God. Jesus taught that there is rejoicing among the angels of God whenever a single sinner comes to true repentance (Luke 15:10). This is the sort of spiritual revival certainly seen on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, and to some degree during the Great Awakening of 18th century America, the great revival meetings of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Jesus Movement of the 1970s and 80s. Many – if not perhaps most – of the “conversions” during these great revivals were genuine, and that is most certainly a good thing celebrated in Heaven.
However, if the profession of faith among the people isn’t genuine from the depths of their hearts, but is rather an act of political expedience, an attempt to garner earthly wealth and favor, or even just to bring a sense of belonging within a community, such false conversions are grieving to God’s Spirit. Indeed, such illegitimate profession of faith is fulfillment of the schemes of our great enemy, not the work of the Spirit of God. What’s even worse is that those who falsely profess faith in Jesus’ Gospel may actually deceive themselves into believing their false confession has saved them out of death into eternal life. Many people believe that if they follow the rituals of the Roman Catholic church or one of the many legalistic and ritualistic Protestant sects, they will be saved. These unfortunate ones may never even realize that unless they are born again of God’s Spirit, they are still condemned in their sins.
Certainly God leaves the choiceup to each individual person to believe and confess the Gospel of Jesus or not. But at least some responsibility also rests squarely upon those of us who are already true Christian believers, and have thus been tasked by the LORD Jesus Himself with sharing the Good News of His Gospel with others. This is why James gave us this stern warning.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.James 3:1 [ESV]
My pastor in California likes to say, “What you win people with is what you win them to.” How are we – the Body of Christ on earth – presenting the Kingdom of God to those who have not yet come to saving faith in the Gospel message? Just as importantly, why are we sharing the Gospel in the first place? Is our desire to see the lost come to saving faith and a genuine relationship with the LORD Jesus Christ, or is it simply to swell the membership rolls of our own local fellowship, or to win a reputation for ourselves as great evangelists? Many (not all) of the modern megachurches particularly in the USA have been founded essentially as businesses rather than as missionary outreaches with a strong – often singular – focus on growing the membership of the church. Why? Because members become tithers, who swell the church’s finances.
To accomplish this purpose, such churches attempt to make themselves “relevant” to the lifestyles of potential members, and to be “seeker friendly.” Above all, such churches soften the message of the Gospel to make it more palatable to those in the outside world. Although the resurrection of Jesus might be mentioned in passing, the reason Jesus went to the cross in the first place as our sinless Passover Lamb who took upon Himself the rightful punishment of death for our sins is glossed over. Instead, the focus is on the love and mercy of God without much mention of His intolerance of and judgement upon sin. Pastors of some churches refrain from teaching Biblical prophecy, and don’t emphasize Jesus’ reason for dying on the cross so that potential members won’t be “scared off” taking their sweet, sweet tithes with them.
Many, many churches – particularly in Europe and America (including the Roman Catholic church) have espoused support for all manner of sins – particularly sexual sins, and have even ordained church leaders who unashamedly partake in them despite knowing well God’s ordinances against them. Paul warned about this in his letter to the church in Rome.
1:32Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. 2:1Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.Romans 1:32 – 2:1 [ESV]
These approaches to church growth aren’t anything new. Jesus Himself spoke against the seeking of converts to a particular religion rather than simply sharing the Gospel message in one of the seven woes He pronounced upon the Pharisees.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.Matthew 23:15 [ESV]
The early church at Corinth thought they were being magnanimous allowing a man guilty of an egregious sexual sin to remain with them in fellowship. In his first letter to the church, Paul chastised them for this.
1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.1 Corinthians 5:1-2 [ESV]
We who are already members of a church fellowship need to check our own hearts as well. Why do we come to church gatherings? Are we coming to be entertained by a stirring musical performance complete with stunning visual effects? Are we coming to be mesmerized by a skilled and dynamic preacher? Did we come for the free coffee (probably not) and doughnuts? Do we just want to feel we belong to the community of fellow church members? Do we come because our parents or someone else forces us to come or shames us into coming because they think we ought to?
Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with inspiring worship music, or dynamic Spirit-filled Gospel preaching, or Christian fellowship with those who are of like mind in Christ Jesus. And there’s most certainly nothing wrong with free doughnuts. But these things can’t be our reason for coming. Our hearts should be seeking to worship our God in Spirit and in Truth, to draw closer to our LORD Jesus through the study of His Word of love toward us, and to remain accountable to our brothers and sisters in Christ in our daily struggle against sin.
Before we leave the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we can take great encouragement in the story of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California which became one of the main drivers and centers of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Pastor Chuck Smith had become disillusioned with the doctrines of his former denomination when he was invited to come and take over as pastor of a very small church with only a few families in the membership. Pastor Chuck made a conscious decision to begin teaching verse-by-verse through the entirety of God’s Word – not skipping over the difficult, cumbersome, uncomfortable, or obscure passages, but sharing with his little congregation the full counsel of God’s Word. Consequently, God’s Spirit was enabled to do a mighty work in that community. Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa grew to thousands of members within just a few years, and hundreds of affiliated Calvary Chapel churches have since been planted around the world. Calvary Chapel is an example of a sudden explosive growth in the Christian community from a tiny seed into a large tree with many branches which was Spirit-led, and therefore thrived just as God intended.
NOTE – Those familiar with the recent history of the Calvary Chapel movement since the death of Pastor Chuck Smith in 2013 and even while Pastor Chuck was still alive will be aware that it hasn’t all been unicorns and rainbows. This is because like any fellowship, Calvary Chapel is a human structure with all the flaws sinful people bring into the equation. But for a bright few years at the height of the Jesus Movement, Calvary Chapel provided one of the instruments by which the Spirit of God did a mighty work in the community and around the world.
Pastor Chuck’s initial decision to stick to God’s Word, and all of God’s Word that led to the explosive growth of Calvary Chapel is reminiscent of Paul’s establishment of the church at Corinth (Acts 17 & 18). Recall that Paul had crafted a clever presentation of the Gospel to the intellectuals and philosophers at Athens which revolved around a shrine he had seen in the city to “an unknown god.” Although Paul’s Gospel presentation was polished and clever, very few in Athens came to belief in Jesus’ Gospel as a result. Thus when Paul reached Corinth, he decided to change his approach.
1And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.1 Corinthians 2:1-5 [ESV]
Those who would like to see their fellowship grow would do well to remember the examples of the ancient church at Corinth and the modern Calvary Chapel. If our desire is truly to see people come to saving faith and not just to swell the church’s coffers and the pastor’s bank account, then such growth must be ordained and led by God’s Spirit, and those of us through whom God has chosen to do that mighty work, must remain humble and committed to devoted servanthood and stewardship. Recall the words of Gamaliel speaking to the Sanhedrin when Peter and John had been brought to trial before them.
38…if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”…Acts 5:38b-39a [ESV]
In closing, I’ll share with you a poem I first heard read by Dr. J. Vernon McGee on his Through the Bible radio program.
The Reverend Dr. Harcourt
The Reverend Dr. Harcourt, folk agree,Phyllis McGinley
Nodding their heads in solid satisfaction,
Is just the man for this community.
Tall, young, urbane, but capable of action,
He pleases where he serves. He marshals out
The younger crowd, lacks trace of clerical unction,
Cheers the Kiwanis and the Eagle Scout,
Is popular at every public function,
And in the pulpit eloquently speaks
On divers matters with both wit and clarity:
Art, Education, God, the Early Greeks,
Psychiatry, Saint Paul, true Christian charity,
Vestry repairs that shortly must begin—
All things but Sin. He seldom mentions Sin.
Next time, God willing, we will continue our study of Matthew 13 with the Parable of the Leaven.