By Ryan Shaw
The eight prophetic parables of Matthew 13 are pictures of conditions (and processes) taking place between the times when Jesus spoke and the end of the age.
The parable of the Mustard Seed (13:31-32) is the first parable Jesus provides no explanation. He has laid groundwork for us by interpreting the first two.
This parable, like some of the others, has had its true meaning skewed, until it is unrecognizable. The popular interpretation is the Kingdom of God will continue to grow throughout history until it becomes the dominant force in human history, taking over the whole earth.
It is thought the mustard seed becoming a tree represents the rapid expansion of Christianity globally. However, there are significant reasons why this is unlikely. In fact, Jesus was getting at something altogether different.
The mustard seed speaks of meekness & humility and being “the least”– traits of true believers. It is an herb and naturally grows into a shrub, not a tree (as stated in the parable).
There are rare occasions where a mustard seed could become the size of a tree, yet such situations are not of natural outgrowth. The natural growth pattern is a mustard seed becoming a shrub.
In our parable we see the unnatural growth pattern of a mustard seed becoming a “tree?” In this age, there will be an unnatural development of a so-called “Kingdom of God,” though it will not be the true kingdom.
It is unlikely Jesus would have used a mustard seed growing into a “tree” to picture the true people of God. A “tree” throughout Scripture always speaks of prominence, pride, ambition, worldly success. We want to let Scripture interpret Scripture.
Daniel 4:10-12 is a parallel passage for our parable. Nebuchadnezzar is symbolized as a “great tree,” interpreted as a great kingdom or empire. In Ezekiel 31 we find a tree representing a worldly kingdom – this time Egypt.
The great “tree” in the parable does not represent the Kingdom of God as it is meant to be, but as much of visible Christianity has allowed itself to become – worldly. In part this is due to the sowing of tares by the evil one – the imitation of the true.
Jesus is describing the temptation in Christianity to seek worldly greatness and self-centered expansion, not the pure and holy purposes of the true Kingdom of God.
Remember, the first four parables are not of the Kingdom as it is in its eternal sense but what it appears in the natural, on the earth.
This “tree,” leaving its commitment to humility and meekness (mustard seed) revealed its lofty ambitions and aims toward dominance, worldly greatness and fame. A core temptation throughout Church history has been pursuing a wrong understanding of greatness. Jesus’ own disciples argued about who was greatest.
Seeking power and worldly greatness is a primary mark of the sinful nature. Yet this has been what much of the Church has done over the centuries in the name of the Kingdom of God.
In 340 AD Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire supposedly became a Christian. In time he made Christianity popular and in doing so brought it to the forefront.
History reveals this as a devastating development. The true Kingdom principles of lowliness, meekness and cultivating humility were lost. The Church became favored, powerful and rich, losing its true emphasis.
Birds in Scripture generally refer to evil things and not something pure (the obvious exceptions are the dove symbolizing purity and the Holy Spirit and the eagle.)
In our parable, birds represent wickedness developing in the branches of the “great tree” of historic Christendom and current complacent Christianity. Wherever the Church has risen in worldly power embracing pride, it has become a place for all uncleanness and filth to nest.
Jesus is not giving us a picture of the true nature of the Kingdom of God or the ultimate victory of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God will be realized and the true manifestations of that Kingdom will be known. Jesus is not saying His Kingdom is failing nor will ultimately fail. It will not.
He is saying the Church has attempted throughout the centuries to use Him and His Kingdom for their own gain in fame, fortune, power and worldly greatness. The seed began well (with humility) but grew up along a false line into a tree of great power sheltering and protecting that which is evil and sinful in the eyes of God.
We are meant to align our hearts with the purpose of our King. We are not to pursue false greatness and instead seek true spiritual greatness according to Jesus.
We need the Holy Spirit to show us where seeking prominence, fame, wealth, selfish gain have taken root in our hearts. He is after cultivating meekness, lowliness, zeal and surrendered service, in being His hands and feet among the most needy.
When Jesus gave this parable He knew exactly what would happen in this age – His true Kingdom developing in hidden-ness while a false kingdom developed in pride (still in the name of Christianity).
He knew what was in the heart of humanity apart from Him and that the end would be pride and self-centeredness. We receive this parable as a warning to guard our hearts.
We deliberately go in the opposite direction of self-seeking, embracing what is right and true according to Jesus’ standards and ways of developing His true Kingdom.