Parables - the Mustard Seed

In Matthew 13, Jesus told several parables, which have been read and re-read by the church for eons. We can quote them, even give a mild interpretation, yet I’ve discovered, through my own personal study, we really have no idea what they mean.

I feel to go through them and share the Lord’s heart as He explained them to me. But to do that, first, a little backup information is required. I must set the scene.

In John 10, Jesus spoke about His role as the Door and the Shepherd of the sheep. In the same way, we’ve read Jesus’ parables and overlooked their deepest truths, we like to quote these verses without putting them in context. John 10 follows immediately after the action in John 9. In John 9, Jesus healed a man born blind without identifying Himself, and the Pharisees, seeing the man, now healed, became irate and dragged the man then his family before their counsel, demanding to know who did this.

These were men trained in God’s law, those wearing priestly garments, who instead of rejoicing that a man who’d never seen before was now completely well, used their power to create fear and toss the man and his parents out of the synagogue. (Jn 9:22,34) This was the environment Jesus operated in, the people He dealt with, and we must see what happened next. Jesus, hearing what had happened, went and found the man and told him who He was. Several Pharisees overheard the conversation and took offense.

Now, I must point out that nothing Jesus ever said was by mistake. He knew who would hear Him and gave the Father’s response. Nothing He did was happenstance. This is a key to understanding His ministry. Nothing ever came as a surprise. Therefore, we know that the conversation that ends John 9 leads immediately into John 10. In John 9:41, “Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” Then in John 10:1, He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.”

Who was Jesus calling a thief and a robber? Let’s read two more verses.

John 10:8: “All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers.”

John 10:11-13: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep. But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.”

The “thieves and robbers” He’s talking to (and calling of the devil, John 10:10) are the Pharisees. They are the “hireling” who He said cannot be trusted to care for the sheep. Jesus was not afraid to mince words, and the gospel has several other examples of this. In Matthew 23, He repeatedly calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” and “serpents”, going so far as to say upon them “may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth.” (Mt 23:35) That’s a pretty serious accusation.

But it did not solely come from Him nor was it an emotional outburst. Jesus said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” and, “The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.” (Jn 14:9-10) He only spoke what the Father gave Him to speak, and it was always under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. (Mt 3:16)

So, given all of that, knowing Jesus’ boldness to confront 400 years of negligence in religious leadership, turn with me back to Matthew 13. All of these parables have more than one interpretation. They are (a) an instruction to the church on principles of faith and spiritual growth, as has been taught, and they are (b) also a prophetic parallel to His life and ministry.

Remember, Jesus was never in the dark about why He was on earth or what He’d been sent to do. He did not approach the cross and wonder what came next. 1 Peter 1:20 says Jesus’ sacrifice was “foreordained before the foundation of the world.” Read now also, Matthew 13:14. Here, Jesus’ disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables, and He quoted Isaiah.

“And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.” (Mt 13:14)

Here is another verse we’ve read and thought we understood. “Well, that was for them,” we’ve said. “Those people did not get His words, but certainly, we do today.” Except, what Jesus showed me proved this wrong. At least, in my own life.

Starting with the parable in Matthew 13:31-32, let’s read.

“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” (Mt 13:31-32)

At first glance, this parable is about faith. Jesus spoke about faith as a grain of mustard seed, and what we’ve heard there is correct. (Lk 17:6) But here, He was not simply talking about what our faith in Him can do. All of these parables are about what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. When I began this study, I asked the Lord a simple question. I wanted to know what He meant by the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God.” His answer I will go over another time, but that was WHY I was reading this chapter.

So, we see the “kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed.” Note, a single grain, not many grains, not a handful of seeds. A seed. Galatians 3:16 says, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” The single SEED is Christ.

There is much debate over what species of mustard this verse means, and though that is interesting, it isn’t the point of the verse. But I will say it is a tree variety and not the salad greens we grow here in the South. We see this when we keep reading the verse. The verse tells us “a man,” notice, one man, and that would be the Father, planted the SEED, singular, and that single SEED eventually became the GREATEST TREE.

But back up a few words. What else does it say about the SEED? That it was the LEAST of all seeds. Here, we need another history lesson. The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah to come as a conqueror, to ride in with an army and defeat the Romans. But Jesus came, not to destroy the Romans, but to save them, and He came as a BABY, as the LEAST OF ALL SEEDS. Those listening didn’t believe that. They didn’t even accept He was born in Bethlehem, and the Pharisees felt justified in their hatred of Him.

Now, notice the growth of that SEED. It became the GREATEST, a TREE. 1 Peter 2:24 states, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body ON THE TREE, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” The BABY, the LEAST SEED, would hang ON A TREE, and from that TREE would come what?

Branches. John 15:5 says, “I am the vine, YE ARE THE BRANCHES: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”

Jesus spoke a prophetic narrative in this parable, except those listening didn’t “hear” at all. He came as the LEAST OF ALL SEEDS. He would die on a TREE and grow BRANCHES that would form a new CHURCH made up of Romans and Greeks and Jews and Gentiles they’d never heard of. He’d come for this purpose, to destroy the devil and create something GREATER than they’d ever seen. (1Jn 3:8)

In those BRANCHES, would roost BIRDS. Who are the BIRDS? This I will go into more fully later, but in short, the BIRDS are the nation of Israel and the surrounding countryside. This ties back to the first parable of the sower (singular) sowing the WORD (Christ). There, the birds consume the seed. Here, they are roosting in the branches. In short, the CHURCH (the BRANCHES) supports Israel. We provide SHELTER. We read this as an instruction in the psalms. Psalm 122:6 states, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.” Jesus foresaw Israel as a nation and gave its care, its shelter, unto His church.

Now, this interpretation does not mean our faith when planted, watered, and exercised, will not grow and produce a harvest. Nor does it take away the interpretation of the church as shelter to the oppressed. But the underlying narrative that Jesus pronounced here was His life and what it would accomplish IN THE KINGDOM. He spoke to the multitudes in parables, revealing who He was, yet they … and us, in large part … had no idea what He’d said.

These are His words in Matthew 13:34-35. “All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

He told His disciples, “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 13:11) And “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.” (Mt 13:16-17)

To them He revealed the kingdom. The church is not meant to walk in the dark. We are children of light (which is another parable), and knowing these things is available to us. We need only ask, and the Savior is more than willing to answer, and that answer will change how WE SEE everything.

Suzanne D. Williams, Author