We all love stories of how small, seemingly insignificant beginnings eventually turn into something great. Jeff Bezos started an online bookstore from his garage in 1994 and today Amazon.com is the largest online retailer in the world. In 1901, a 21 year old named William Harley and his childhood friend, Arthur Davidson, set out to build a motor to power their bicycle. They didn’t work out of a garage because there weren’t any cars in their town in 1901. Today, Harley Davidson is the most recognizable motorcycle in the world. In 1969, a 16 year old named Michael Kittredge melted some crayons and made a gift for his mom, a scented candle. She showed her neighbors who wanted Michael to make candles for them. Four years later he took over an old mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Today, the Yankee Candle Company is the largest manufacturer of scented candles in the United States. There are so many other stories, amazing stories, but I’ll just share one more. From a single store in Newport, Arkansas a man built an empire of what is today more than 11,000 stores and 2.3 million employees worldwide. Sam Walton started small, but today Wal Mart is known all over the world. That’s a great story, but I’ve got one that’s even better. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning and then we’ll talk about it.
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” 33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” 34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 13:31-35 NIVO)
How can we describe the Kingdom of God? What is it like? Where is it located? Who can enter into the Kingdom? When will it begin or has it already begun? Those are questions that every person asks at some time during their life, though maybe not asked in the exact same way. They are the questions of the Kingdom and the King. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, said “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). He was so right. The questions we ask today are the same questions people have been asking throughout time.
The disciples and others were asking Jesus questions about the Kingdom. One of the most interesting exchanges between Jesus and His followers happened in Acts 1, after Jesus’ resurrection and their recognition that He was indeed alive. Jesus was giving them instructions about what they were to do. Read along with me beginning in Acts 1:4.
4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:4-6 NIVO)
There it is. Thoughts of the kingdom were always lurking about in the back of their minds weren’t they? Jesus gave them an answer and it was, “It’s none of your business, none of your concern. You go and be My witnesses throughout the world.”
Jesus had taught extensively about the kingdom during His ministry. In Matthew’s Gospel, He shared 12 parables teaching about the kingdom, seven in Matthew 13 alone. Oftentimes Jesus began His teaching by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” Let me list the 12 found in Matthew. The Kingdom is like…
- The Sower and the four soils (Matthew 13)
- The mustard seed (Matthew 13)
- The wheat and tares (Matthew 13)
- A fishing net (Matthew 13)
- A hidden treasure (Matthew 13)
- A merchant in search of pearls (Matthew 13)
- Leaven (Matthew 13)
- A master hiring workers for a vineyard (Matthew 20)
- A king settling accounts (Matthew 18)
- A king preparing a wedding banquet (Matthew 22)
- Ten virgins with lamps (Matthew 25)
- The Talents (Matthew 25)
The problem so many were having in understanding the nature of the Kingdom of God was that the Jews fully expected the King, the Messiah, to return and overthrow the powerful Roman Empire in order to restore all power to the Jewish people. Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, set in place by the Roman Empire. When Jesus was on trial for His life, Pilate asked Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, in John 18:36,
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36 NIVO)
Everyone was talking, but everyone was confused about the true nature of the King and His Kingdom. Jesus talked and Jesus taught about the kingdom, but the vast majority just didn’t get it. We were made aware of that a couple of weeks ago when we studied Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the four different soils. Three of the four types of soil didn’t produce a harvest. Today we are turning to two more parables of the Kingdom: The Mustard Seed and the Yeast. Let’s dig in.
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 NIVO)
This is one of the favorite verses of skeptics who are quick to point out that Jesus was wrong about the mustard seed being the smallest of all seeds. Their argument proceeds from there to question every other thing Jesus ever said. The truth is mustard seeds are not the smallest of all seeds, that honor would go to tropical orchids. Jesus was referring to seeds relating to agriculture or “garden plants” as He later pointed out when He said the mustard plant is the “largest of garden plants.” The Greek word Matthew uses, which is translated as, “garden plants,” is “lachanon” and it appears four times in the New Testament. The word is used to describe crops, vegetables, or herbs.
Dr. Lloyd Shinners was a professor of systematic botany at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for twenty-five years. He was the Director of the Herbarium at SMU from 1947-1971. He wrote,
…The mustard seed would indeed have been the smallest of those to have been noticed by the people at the time of Christ. The principal field crops (barley, wheat, lentils, and beans) have much larger seeds, as do other plants which might have been present as weeds and so forth. The only modern crop plant in existence with smaller seeds than mustard is tobacco, and this plant of American origin was not grown in the old world until the sixteenth century or later. (Dr. Lloyd Shinners)
Jesus wasn’t giving a botany lesson, but He was describing the nature of the kingdom. The tiny little seed is hidden, buried in the earth, and then becomes a huge garden plant, so large that birds can nest in it. The Palestinian mustard plant doesn’t actually become a tree, but it can grow to twelve to fifteen feet tall.
Some Bible teachers say the birds Jesus speaks about are symbolic of demons or demonic activity in the kingdom. Where would they come up with that? Great question. The answer is found in the parable of the Sower where the birds came and ate the seed scattered on the path. Remember, Jesus interpreted the parable of the Sower for His disciples and He said,
19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (Matthew 13:19 NIVO)
I don’t mean to be mean, but for the sake of time those who say the birds in the parable of the sower are the same as the birds in the parable of the mustard seed are just plain wrong. We don’t want to get bogged down in the weeds. The parable of the mustard seed that grows into a huge plant that is a haven for the birds of the air is about small beginnings developing into something that could never even be imagined. If you read the Hebrew Bible you will recognize that God often used the imagery of a huge tree as representative of kingdoms. In Ezekiel 31, Ezekiel was told to speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt. Listen to what Ezekiel told him.
3 Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage. 4 The waters nourished it, deep springs made it grow tall; their streams flowed all around its base and sent their channels to all the trees of the field. 5 So it towered higher than all the trees of the field; its boughs increased and its branches grew long, spreading because of abundant waters. 6 All the birds of the air nested in its boughs, all the beasts of the field gave birth under its branches; all the great nations lived in its shade. (Ezekiel 31:3-6 NIVO)
The once great tree, which was Assyria, was cut down. In Daniel 4 we read about a dream the mighty Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had one time. He didn’t understand it, but Daniel interpreted it for him. Daniel told the powerful king,
20 The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth, 21 with beautiful leaves and abundant fruit, providing food for all, giving shelter to the beasts of the field, and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air– 22 you, O king, are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth. (Daniel 4:20-22 NIVO)
Can you guess what happened to the mighty tree of the Babylonian Empire? It too was cut down. And I can add, every great tree, every mighty empire, every powerful nation that has ever existed has been cut down at some point. It is only a matter of time before every powerful nation of our day too will be cut down to size. Why is this so? Because nations become arrogant, prideful, they misuse their power, and God’s judgment eventually comes. What a hopeless situation.
Oh, but there is a tree, a mighty tree, it may not look like much now, but don’t kid yourself it has been growing and spreading throughout history. It is a Kingdom where “justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). It is a tree that will continue to grow and spread, its effect will be felt in every nation when one day we are told,
4 They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4 NIVO)
We read in the book of Revelation, chapter 22, that one glorious day when God’s people gather together around the throne, they will see a tree, the “Tree of life.” We read, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2 NIVO) What a day that will be!
Let’s move on to our second parable for today. In Matthew 13:33 Jesus likens the Kingdom of heaven to yeast. Read it with me.
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13:33 NIVO)
Some Bible teachers have recognized that yeast, which is a leavening agent, is oftentimes associated with something negative in the Bible so they look for some negative interpretation of Jesus’ parable. They see the dough as the Kingdom of God and the yeast as evil that is mixed in with the subjects of the kingdom. That can’t be the case because Jesus clearly says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast” or leaven. The point of Jesus’ parable about yeast or leaven is that something small permeates and effects the entire batch of dough. The Kingdom of God will eventually permeate and effect the entire world.
For the Jews, the prohibition against leaven was tied to Passover. The Jews were to clear all of the leaven out of their houses and no leaven was to be eaten for seven days leading up to Passover. They were allowed to eat leavened bread during the rest of the year.
Every Jewish mother gave her daughter gifts before her wedding. One of the gifts given was a piece of leaven from the last dough she made before the wedding. The daughter was to start her first loaf of bread in her own home with the starter from her mother. The leaven symbolized all the best of her family of origin and laid a foundation for the future of the new family she was starting with her husband.
We tend to get our bread from the store today so we are not familiar with the process that is involved in baking bread. That wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day. The women would take flour, water, and a little piece of sourdough from the previous loaf that had risen and knead it into the whole batch of dough. Unleavened bread, like that used at Passover, is hard, dry, flat, and not tasty at all. It is made up of the same ingredients as bread, minus the leaven or yeast. Just a small amount of yeast changes the dough dramatically because as it is kneaded the yeast permeates the entire batch of dough.
And so it is with the influence of Jesus and the Kingdom of God upon the world. Born in Bethlehem, a simple Carpenter turned Teacher who was loved by some, but hated by many. He was so controversial that after only three years of public ministry they beat Him senseless, paraded Him through the streets bloodied and torn to pieces, and then nailed Him to a Roman cross. As He took His last breath only His mother, his mother’s sister, Mary Magdalene, and John were there. Yet, almost 2,000 years later there is not a country on the face of the planet that is not being influenced by Jesus. Henry G. Bosch wrote,
Socrates taught for forty years, Plato for fifty, Aristotle for forty, and Jesus for only three. Yet the influence of Christ’s three-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men who are among the greatest philosophers of all antiquity. Jesus painted no pictures, yet some of the finest paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo de Vinci received their inspiration from him. Jesus wrote no poetry, but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world’s greatest poets were inspired by him. Jesus composed no music, still Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn reached their highest perfection of melody in their hymns, symphonies, and oratories they composed in his praise. Every sphere of human greatness has been enriched by this humble carpenter of Nazareth. (Henry G. Bosch)
The early followers of Jesus were so transformed by their Savior and Lord that they traveled thousands of miles and everywhere they went they leavened lives, villages, nations, and empires. Throughout history we see the impact of Jesus through the lives of those who had been transformed by His love. It was William Wilberforce’s conversion that led the politician to spend the rest of his life working to end the slave trade in Great Britain. And in America, Christian abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, Theodore Weld, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Finney worked tirelessly to abolish slavery and free the slaves. It was the followers of Jesus who worked for women to have the right to vote. It was the followers of Jesus who worked to build hospitals to take care of the sick, orphanages to take care of children who had no parents, nursing centers to take care of the aged. Scientists like Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, George Washington Carver, and Francis Collins have worked to understand the deeper truths of God. I could go on and on describing the influence of Jesus’ followers around the globe to better people’s lives and communities. Sure there were Christians on the other side of every argument, but even in Jesus’ day there were religious people who opposed the cause of Christ. That’s the way it has always been and the way it remains to this day.
Jesus has called you and me, His followers, to be salt and light, to be leaven which impacts and influences every aspect of life. We are to carry His grace and mercy, we are to knead His justice and righteousness into our lives and into all the world. We are to use the gifts He has given us to leaven our professions and bless our communities, not simply make a name for ourselves and line our own pockets. Alexander MacLaren wrote,
We Christians are not doing our duty, nor are we using our capacities, unless we fling ourselves frankly and energetically into all the currents of the national life, commercial, political, municipal, intellectual, and make our influence felt in them all. The ‘salt of the earth’ is to be rubbed into the meat in order to keep it from putrefaction; the leaven is to be kneaded up into the dough in order to raise it. Christian people are to remember that they are here, not for the purpose of isolating themselves, but in order that they may touch life at all points, and at all points bring into contact with earthly life the better life and the principles of Christian morality. (Alexander MacLaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, St. Matthew 9-17, 247-8)
I know all of this sounds like some pollyanna, optimism that falls so far short of being based in reality, but I tell you it is true. Not only is it true, but it is the truest truth in all the world. The seed is growing, the yeast is bubbling, spreading, and permeating every corner of the globe and all of the evil intentions of people will not succeed. Our God reigns and His reign will culminate one glorious day as John tells us in Revelation,
15 The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15 NIVO)
I want to be a part of that moment, don’t you? The good news is this, you don’t have to wait until that day, you can come to know the King and experience His Kingdom in your own life right now. Won’t you invite Jesus to come in and take His place on the throne of your heart? Won’t you allow the King to begin to mold and shape you, give you a new set of eyes to see, new ears to hear, and a new heart that is set on honoring Him and glorifying Him in all you do?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
October 14, 2018