Kingdom Parables

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

Matthew 13:31-35

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This is the fourth week in our series on Jesus’ parables in Matt. 13.  This morning we will look at two brief parables that teach the same lesson.


Read 13:31-35.  Notice that these parables are about “the kingdom of heaven” and that they “utter things hidden from the creation of the world.”  That is, they teach about a period of God’s kingdom that had not been revealed by the Old Testament prophets.  They taught that when Messiah came, he would dramatically terminate “this present evil age” and replace it with the world-wide reign of Messiah.  When God’s kingdom comes, it will come with dramatic, world-wide dominion (Isa.11:9; Jer.31:34). 

Jesus affirms this, but reveals a preliminary stage of God’s kingdom.  Messiah will first as a suffering Servant to die for our sins.  He will usher in God’s kingdom in the midst of this present evil age, and it will be different from God’s final kingdom in important ways.  (This is the period of God’s kingdom in which we live!)  One difference, according to these parables, is that it will start very small but grow very big and extensive

The mustard plant starts out as the smallest garden seed—but it grows into the biggest plant (12 feet) in the garden.  The “birds of the air” is probably a reference to non-Jewish people.  In other words, the kingdom will spread beyond Jewish people to include many non-Jewish people.

The woman places a tiny pinch of yeast into a big batch of flour—but eventually that yeast permeates the whole batch.  This doesn’t mean that all the flour becomes yeast—but that the yeast proliferates to affect all the flour.  In other words, the kingdom will become so widespread that it will affect every part of human society.

Jesus made this same prediction in a non-parabolic way in Matt.24:14 (read and explain).  By the way, this statement makes it impossible to view Jesus as just one of many religious teachers.  What would you think if I said this to you?  He was making a claim to be the unique Messiah, and he gave a prediction by which we can test his claim...

Is this being fulfilled?

The early Christian movement certainly fits the description of the mustard seed and leaven. 

Jesus was from the backwater part of a small nation on the outskirts of the Roman Empire.  He lived in such obscurity that apart from the New Testament we know very little about him (although the Roman and Jewish historical references corroborate the New Testament).  His brief three-year public ministry apparently ended in complete failure: rejected by his people, betrayed by one of his disciples, deserted by the rest, condemned by Rome, and erased by the most ignominious form of execution.

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, there were only 120 followers, and they were hardly the kind of people you would expect to start a worldwide movement—blue-collar workers who came from the wrong part of Israel and had no formal education, military might, or political clout.  This movement should have evaporated like hundreds of other small religious sects.

Yet by the end of the book of Acts, it has spread all over the northern Mediterranean Basin as far as Rome.  And by the end of the first century (less than 70 years later), the Christian movement had spread to over 1 million people, predominantly non-Jewish, as far west as Spain, as far north as Britain, as far east as India, and as far south as N. Africa.

From there, the Christian movement mainly moved westward into Europe and then into the Americas.  Today, many Americans view Christianity as a dying white, western religion—but it is a living movement that is in every political nation, in 10,000 of the world’s 13,000 people-groups—and exploding in the non-white, non-Western world:

The 10 nations in which Christianity is growing most rapidly are (in order): Northern Mariana Island (6.64%), Cameroon (6.07%), Aruba (5.588%), Guinea (5.02%), Togo (4.77%), French Guiana (4.77%), Nepal (4.69%), Jordan (4.64%),
and Oman (4.43%).

The political nation that has the highest population percentage of Christians is S.Korea (35%+; 7 of 10 world’s largest churches are in Seoul).  The nation which sends the most Christian missionaries is Singapore—sending out 1.44 missionaries per congregation (10 times the rate in the USA).    There are now more Christian churches in India than there are in the U.S.  There are now more Christians in sub-Sahara Africa than there are people in the U.S. (DONAL’S STORY ABOUT MALAWI).  The political nation with the largest number of Christians is the republic of China.  

The Christian movement in China is a replay of these parables.  150 years ago, there were virtually no Chinese Christians—only some European and American missionaries on the coast.  By 1949, there were around 1 million Chinese Christians.  Then Mao took over, kicked out all missionaries, and subjected the Chinese Christians to the worst persecution of the 20th century.  Today, there are 100-200 million Chinese Christians, mostly in underground house churches (mostly in rural areas, but now exploding in urban areas).  Chinese Christians are gripped by the vision of these parables, which they call “Back to Jerusalem.”  They see that the gospel has spread westward from Jerusalem, and they believe that they are to play a major role in taking it westward (through predominantly Muslim countries) to where it began.

Of course, Matt.24:14 has not yet been fulfilled.  3000 of the world’s 13,000 people groups still do not have an indigenous church—and these people groups comprise almost 40% of the world’s population.  But while in 100 AD there were 12 unreached people groups for every local church, today there are 600 local churches for every remaining unreached people group.   The resources are fully sufficient to complete the task—if we all participate in it!

This is what God is doing in the world during this stage of history!  It is a great privilege to be part of his global plan.  This is why we are gratefully committed as a church to sending people to unreached peoples (4 TEAMS), and to supporting quality Christian missions from the developing world (e.g., IGL).  This is why all of us should pray for nations (e.g., Operation World in our home group prayer meeting), give to support missionaries (HOW), and go (short-term trips; Internationals in Columbus).  What one step could you take today in this direction?

What is the dynamic of this growth?

But I want to stress that this is not simply a human effort or a human ideology.  An ideology like Marxism can make their people serve and sacrifice, and impose itself on nations by military power.  Religious cults can motivate their members by pride and/or fear/guilt to increase their membership.  Wherever this happens in the name of Christianity (and it does happen), this is not what Jesus is describing.  True Christianity has a totally different dynamic. 

In Col.1:5,6, Paul describes the growth of the early Christian movement (read 1:6a).  He says it is growing and bearing fruit all over the world—just as Jesus predicted in these parables.  But he says that the seed is the gospel—the good news that Jesus is God’s promised Messiah, that he came out of love to die for your sins, that he has been raised from the dead, and that he is inviting you to receive his free gift of forgiveness and new life through his Spirit.  When you respond to his invitation, he germinates hope in your soul (read 1:5).  He makes you to know that you are forgiven and secure in his love.  And this hope motivates you to love others and tell them about Jesus’ love.

So don’t get the cart before the horse!  Several months ago, I met a young man who had been attending a Bible study like this.  He was asking questions about the Bible, getting misconceptions about Christianity corrected, etc.  He said: “But I don’t want to have to try to covert others.”  I told him that wasn’t the issue—the issue was whether he wanted to receive Jesus’ gift of forgiveness so he could experience God’s love.  Not long afterward, he received Christ.  A few weeks later, he was telling me (excitedly) that he had had the opportunity to talk with two people that week about his new faith in Jesus.  When I asked him why he was doing this, he said: “I can’t help it—I’m just so excited about the reality of God’s love that I can’t keep it to myself.”  That is what Paul is describing here, and that is why the order is so important.

But this gospel, this grace of God, not only transforms new Christians into people who spontaneously talk to others about Jesus.  This same message has the power to keep revealing God’s grace to you (and your need for it) in deeper and deeper ways.  Read 1:6b.  That’s why Paul says that the gospel had been bearing fruit and increasing in them ever since they began to grasp its meaning in their lives (now 6-8 years).  He is describing an ongoing process, in which they keep grasping more of God’s grace “in all its truth,” and applying it to more and more areas of their lives.  And as they continue to do this, their hope and love get stronger and stronger—and the gospel goes out through them to touch more lives.  That’s why Paul’s letter to the Colossians is full of this exhortation and connections between the gospel and different areas of their lives.

This is what I think many of us need.  Many of us know God’s grace, and have experienced its life-changing impact on our lives.  But somewhere along the line (and I know this well in my own life), it’s easy to stop growing in our understanding and appreciation of God’s grace.  Other things—including good things (like parenting, marriage, even Christian ministry)—can become more important to us than this.  And gradually, the excitement of knowing Jesus’ love fades, and the Christian life becomes a duty rather than a delight.  We become like the Ephesian Christians that Jesus addresses in Rev. 2 (explain).  Have you left your first love?  Then remember what it was like, and decide that you want to return, and call out to him like you did at first.  Admit this to him, and ask him to open your eyes again to see and appreciate his grace.  He will answer this prayer.  He wants this for us even more than we do, and he delights in renewing us to his love for us and our love for him—so that still others may be attracted to him.

2020 Vision: Amazing Stories of What God is Doing Around the World, by Bill and Amy Stearns.  Statistics cited at:

Patrick Johnstone, The Church is Bigger than You Think (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), p.181.

Personal conversation with Dwight Smith on June 16, 2006.

For more information, see David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing (PUBLISHER INFO).

Ralph Winter, Mission Frontiers, November-December 1996, Volume 18, Number 11-12, pp. 18,19.