Jesus mentioned the mustard seed three times in His teachings: in a parable about His family, the kingdom (Mark 4:30-32); in teaching about faith Matt. 17:15-21), and in teaching about forgiveness (Luke 17:3-6). In each instance, He used the tiny item as the star of a different lesson. It wasn’t necessarily the very smallest seed of all, but its abundant production from such a minuscule size made it a readily-identifiable figure.
Three gospel accounts record Jesus’ parable about the kingdom, (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; & Luke 13:18-19), where He compared the growth of a mustard seed to its expansion:
“And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31 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: 32 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 4:30-32).
A parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly truth,” and this one takes the planting and astonishing growth and production of a mustard seed to convey some vital principles about the operation and growth of Jesus’ family, His kingdom, the church. The parable can be divided into three significant phases:
First, FORMING: The seed must be planted. The outcome of the great harvest would not have been possible without the initial contribution of planting the seed. The seed had to be planted in order for the process to be activated. Nature was not going to unilaterally empower it to grow out of sympathy for its being so tiny. Action had to be taken for it to join the soil. If you want the results that God has promised, you must take the steps within your power to participate in the process. “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:12).
Second, STORMING: Once planted, and with healthy conditions, the small seed will experience rapid and exponential growth. Christianity began with one Man and a dozen close followers, then 120 (Acts 1), then 3000 (Acts 2). Isaiah prophesied, “A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation: I the LORD will hasten it in his time” (Isaiah 60:22).
Throughout His ministry, Jesus was conditioning His disciples to expand what they expected from the Heavenly Father; it’s a message hidden in plain view in the gospel accounts. Consider these quick hits: He called the disciples, many of whom were fisherman, to follow Him and become fishers of MEN; in the Sermon on Mount, He taught us to live by a higher standard and to a higher level, follow the Golden Rule, go the EXTRA mile; He promised the apostles, GREATER works will ye do; in Matthew 11, He pointed out, Greater are those in the kingdom of heaven; for His kingdom, He explained, “We’re going to need NEW wine skins;” Who has sinned? There’s forgiveness for ALL through Him; when He fed the multitude, they had their fill AND THEN SOME; see Him on the cross? Something INCREDIBLE is coming next; and in His parting commandment, He commissioned His disciples, “Now teach THE WORLD.” Jesus extends our expectations to the degree that only God knows how amazingly good they can be!
Third, PERFORMING: The tiny seed grew into a tree. It’s not only good for shade, but the birds can rest there, make their home there, and find food from it. As a result of its growth, it’s able to share its blessings with others. Jesus was pointing out the benefits His kingdom would bring: Internally, it is coherent and congruent, reflecting its sound doctrine and spirit; externally, it is welcoming and engaging, part of its being loving and serving. In the process, “both he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together” (John 4:56).