If you’ve been in or around church for any length of time you’ve probably heard someone quote the parable of the mustard seed in one context or another. Often it is used when speaking about faith, or prayer, or even the preaching of the gospel. It’s one of those parables and sayings of Jesus that we just seem to take for granted and believe that we already know all there is to know about having faith as a mustard seed. Just because you have a jar of mustard in your fridge doesn’t mean that you understand everything that Jesus was saying in Mark 4:30-32 (see also Matt 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19), because there is so much more here than you could have ever imagined.
Throughout the gospels we have at least three instances where Jesus uses the humble mustard seed to make a point to the disciples. Since repetition is such a significant means by which God speaks to us through the scriptures (Gen 41:32) we need to pay extra attention to what Jesus is saying about these little seeds. But first let’s look at most recognizable place Jesus talks about mustard seeds:
Mark 4:30-32 “30 Then He said, “To what shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what parable shall we picture it? 31 It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; 32 but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade.” (NKJV)
What Is A Mustard Tree Anyway?
Through this parable Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples different pictures to describe to them what His Kingdom looks like and how it operates. In this case Jesus choose the smallest of the seeds in the region to show how something so unassuming can grow to be large and important. We look at this story and think that a mustard tree must grow to something large like a cedar, an oak, or even a pine. The thing is most of us have never actually seen a mustard tree, so we tend to imagine other trees we are familiar with when we read this story.
The reality is though is that it was less of a tree and more of a shrub. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (USA CANADA) speaks of how for the most part this tree was probably only four feet high, although some are able to reach over 12 feet in height. This is far from the picture that most of us think of when we read this story of a mighty tree filled with birds and fruit.
What is also interesting is that mustard trees are annual plants, so every year they die off and have to grow up all over again, it is not a plant which endlessly endures like the might cedar. This need to constantly regrow is probably why Jesus compared the mustard seed to our faith in Matthew 17:20, where he speaks about mustard seed sized faith being able to move mountains. The disciples had just failed to heal a demon oppressed child so they run to Jesus for help, and after healing the child He once again spoke to them about mustard seeds.
This idea of an annual tree and our faith are one in the same, both require constant regrowth, and both are unable to just sit back and relax while waiting for the next season. The mustard tree must grow and drop fresh seeds which will grow the next year. If it doesn’t grow there are no seeds for the next season and eventually there are no more trees in the area. Our faith must be constantly built up through prayer, scripture, relationship with God and going outside our homes and doing either the great commission or the discipling of believers. Faith must be constantly refreshed or one day we will find the garden of our hearts has become barren because we neglected our faith and relationship with God by relying on the cold hard stones of our natural ways.
We must resist the temptation to become complacent in our relationship with God, our prayer lives, our studying of the scriptures and the work we do to spread the gospel and build up the Kingdom. It is a hard thing to say but victories in life don’t produce faith, it is faith which produces victories in our life. When we realize that our faith is like this mustard seed and not a great cedar we can then begin realizing that what you did three years ago won’t benefit you today in what ever situation you may be in. You can’t draw water from a well once and expect that bucket to sustain you for months on end.
The Mustard Seed Is Only Doing Its Job
In Luke 17:5-10 Jesus puts an extra spin on his discourse on mustard seeds and trees, here the disciples are asking for their faith to be increased after hearing about their requirement to be forgiving. The disciples were asking for the ability to forgive according to Jesus’s standards and instead get a statement about faith as a mustard seed being able to throw mulberry trees miles away into the sea.
Then Jesus goes on and speaks about how servants are not praised or rewarded for what is expected of them to do. This is quite the contrast, in the same breath Jesus speaks about demonstrating supernatural power and being held responsible to do what the disciples as servants are expected to do; be forgiving in this context.
The mustard seed has one job and one job only, to grow into a shrub so other seeds can be developed and dropped into the ground around it. We as believers also have a singular job, to serve Jesus and see ourselves developed from seeds to trees which can reproduce and see the land around us transform from barren rock to a lush garden. It is our duty to live this way and to serve Jesus in whatever capacity He has called us in.
We can have all of the spiritual power there is but if we are not faithful in living out our lives as Jesus commanded us to then we are still in darkness, and often are doing more harm to the Kingdom than good. When we stand before Jesus we won’t gloat over the number of visions we have seen, or healings we have performed, or the number of books we have written.
No our statement will be “we have done what was our duty to do.” That is how faith works, we serve Jesus and we go out and do what needs to be done so our master is glorified and others can see Him in His true light. Be it through preaching, compassion, miracles, prophecy, service, conversation, leadership, forgiveness, love or any other means.
To accomplish this we must be like mustard trees which must be continually refreshed and regrown so that our seeds never stop being produced. Our faith may begin small as a mustard seed but as Jesus has said it can have immense impact on this world.
But Wait There’s More!
This is where most people stop when they speak about the parable of the mustard seed, we focus just on what it means for us and how we can develop our faith. You see everything we have seen so far is only half of the story. The entire picture about mustard seeds and trees is not just about our faith or what we can do, but it paints a picture of who Jesus is. In all of the instances of the mustard seed Jesus was painting two very different but interconnected pictures. He was teaching us how our faith works but at the same time He was revealing not just the Kingdom but how He was the long-awaited King of the World.
We dedicate our lives to being like the servants in Matthew 17:20 not just because of the nice things Jesus has done for us but because He is our King. This isn’t just a theological idea it is reality, by confessing Jesus as your savior and Messiah you have declared Him to be King of Heaven and Earth. In the parable of the mustard seed Jesus was speaking to the disciples who He really was, but today we are oblivious to what Jesus was saying.
A Mustard Flavored Kingdom
Throughout the age of the Old Testament and into the time of Jesus it was a common metaphor to speak of a kingdom as a tree. We see this in scriptures such as Ezekiel 17:22-24, 31:6 Daniel 4:10-12 which use a picture of a tree to describe a nation or a kingdom. The Commentary on the New Testament Use of The Old Testament (USA CANADA) talks about how “Mark 4:30-32 is an ironic fulfillment of Ezekiel 17:23 the lowly annual shrub rather than a might cedar, lamb not a lion maybe. The people expected a mighty cedar, but God came as a lowly shrub which would be exalted over all else.”
The lost message of the Kingdom of God hidden here in the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus the great shrub has come to rule the world. Not a mighty cedar or acacia, or mulberry the humble mustard shrub despite its size and appearance had sprouted and would rule over all. Jesus didn’t come as a superpowered reincarnation of King David, He came as the suffering servant and laid hold of a greater kingdom then anyone of that time ever imagined.
The people and religious leaders were looking for a cedar but got a shrub, so they rejected Him. They were looking for a warrior but got a shepherd, so they persecuted Him. They were looking for an angel of death but got the forgiving Son of God, so they killed Him.
They forgot about Isaiah 11:1 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 where God spoke about a humble branch which was coming to rule and exercise judgment on the people. Jesus executed judgment on sin, He rules over His covenant people and one day He will judge those who rejected His Kingship.
We can’t have the benefits of mustard seed faith until we bow down before the mustard tree of Christ. None of what we claim to believe matters at all if Jesus isn’t the King of not just the universe but our individual lives. Our faith doesn’t matter, the miracles we see doesn’t matter the lives we see changed doesn’t matter if Jesus isn’t our King and if we don’t act as grateful adopted servants.
Finding a Nest in His Branches
The last part of the parable has Jesus speaking about the birds of the air making nests in the branches of the fully-grown mustard tree. We take this statement for granted and don’t realize that to the disciples this was ridiculous. You see because the mustard tree regrows every year it can’t be developed enough to be ready for the time when birds make their nests. If one tried the branches would be too small or tender to support just a bird on it let alone a nest.
Here Jesus is again speaking in irony, just as the lowly shrub is King of the forest, so to is this tree which couldn’t before support dwelling places for the birds now be able to provide shelter and covering for them (Daniel 4:12).
We see then that Jesus has come to bring us a covering for our lives and that it is a foundational part of our faith. That covering of grace and atonement is our constant reminder that we can trust Him and remain committed to Him despite the problems of the world. Ezekiel used this same picture of birds finding rest in a tree to describe Egypt in Ezekiel 31:6, so how much grander and wonderous should that covering and shelter be for us who follow Christ our King.
Through faith we are able to go from mustard seeds to mustard trees and see great and mighty things happen in our lives. But we are only able to see such a transformation because Jesus the first seed which fell into the ground then died and came back as a King who has brought us under His covering of atonement. Now as redeemed, adopted servants we go out into the world and deposit new seeds into the ground so the whole world can be covered by the offspring of the great mustard tree.
Question: What can you do today to recognize Jesus as the King of your life?
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Faith That Transforms A Mustard Seed Into A Mustard Tree Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.