Compared with the huge edifices of pagan religion and with the splendour of Judaism, the infant Christian Church must have felt very small and insignificant. The semi-literate disciples of Jesus must have felt even more so while Jesus was with them in the flesh. Maybe they were asking why is the Kingdom so insignificant, if Jesus is the King? And why is the Kingdom so hidden? Perhaps some of us are asking similar questions?
Well Jesus answers those questions in the following two parables. Are we hungry to learn from them this morning and listen to Jesus' answers? For Jesus' parables reveal truth to the hungry and conceal it from those who are too lazy to look for it or too spiritually blind to discern it. The parables are meant to be a spur towards decision. The Kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God (which is both already realised and yet also future as it will only come in its fullness when Jesus returns and which describes the realm in which God's kingly rule is acknowledged) cannot be understood from the outside. The parables challenge people to think again.
So first, THE PARABLE OF THE MUSTARD SEED vv. 31-32
Look at v31-32:
Jesus told them another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 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.
The point of comparison here is not the seed in itself, but what happens when it is sown. A mustard seed was proverbially minute in Jesus' day. And it was the smallest seed used by Palestinian farmers and gardeners at that time. But when it was planted it grew to be the largest of all the garden plants, often 3 metres high. Those of you here this morning from overseas will know of a very small seed used in your country which grows into a big bush or a tree. Here in England we have a phrase 'big trees from little acorns' which comes from the acorn seed growing over time into a huge oak tree.
To go back to the microscopic mustard seed which grows to be the largest of the garden plants. The point of the parable lies in the contrast between this insignificant beginning and the largest of garden plants which results. So with the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus then adds that it "becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches". Jesus was thinking of the OT use of the tree as an image for a great empire (cf. Ezekiel 17:23 & 31:3-9; Daniel 4:10-22) again suggesting that the Kingdom of heaven will expand to world dominion. Those OT passages also contain the picture of the 'birds…in its branches'. In those passages the birds represent the nations gathered under the protection of the empire and it seems that Jesus is referring to the coming of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of heaven. But the main point of the parable lies simply in the huge extent of this Kingdom which has developed from such small beginnings.
So although the Kingdom of heaven will seem to have an insignificant beginning, it will eventually spread throughout the world, and people of all nations will find rest in it. Which brings us to the two sub-headings on your sermon notes: the growth over time of God's Kingdom in the world and the challenge. As Jesus states in this parable the Kingdom of heaven did seem to have an insignificant beginning. It was
"like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field". Its King, Jesus Christ himself, was poor in this world. He was born in a stable and during his ministry had "nowhere to lay his head". (Mt 8:20)
He was put to death on a cross like a common criminal. His first followers were very small in number, while the crowds who were amazed at his teaching and at his miracles shouted for him to be crucified and for a murderer called Barabbas to be freed when he came before Pilate. The religious leaders plotted to kill him. The Kingdom's membership probably didn't exceed one thousand when Jesus, after his resurrection, ascended into heaven. (1 Cor 15:6) Its first preachers - preaching the good news of the Kingdom - were a few fishermen and a tax collector and a Zealot, many of whom were not learned. Its first geographical starting point was in Judea - which in the world's eyes was a petty tributary province of the vast Roman Empire. Its doctrines regarding sin and the Cross of Christ challenged the natural human heart. As the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 1:23,
Christ crucified was to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness.
Its values and ethics also challenged the natural human heart and unrenewed mind. Its first missionary movements and churches met with persecution from Jews and Gentiles. It was a sect which many hated and opposed. The Kingdom was like a mustard seed at its beginning. But the growth of the Kingdom of God and the Christian Church and the progress of the Gospel, after the tiny seed was planted in the field, was great, steady and continuous. The Lord Jesus Christ said in this parable that it would be so.
"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."(verse 32)
In spite of persecution, opposition and violence from Jewish religious leaders, Roman emperors and others Christianity gradually spread and increased. Country after country in the then known world was reached with the gospel and church after church was planted. Read the book of Acts to see how the early church grew and spread. How the apostles filled with the Holy Spirit helped to reach many Jews from Jerusalem and from different parts of the world with the Gospel on the day of Pentecost. And how three thousand of them responded to the message of Jesus' death, resurrection and exaltation, that God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ and became members of the church and the Kingdom by repenting, believing and being baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. For entry to the Kingdom is by repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And how the Kingdom began to spread through the Gentile world with the first largely Gentile local church being established at Antioch, where in fact disciples were first called Christians. For as it says in Acts 10:34-36:
God does not show favouritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace with God through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
Wherever we are from this morning there is a home for you in the Kingdom of God if you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. From Antioch Paul set off on his three missionary journeys to Asia, Macedonia and Achaia. Some Roman emperors and heathen philosophers tried in vain to check the progress of Christianity. But as JC Ryle points out, "They might as well have tried to stop the tide from flowing, or the sun from rising. In a few hundred years, the religion of the despised Nazarene, had overrun the civilised world".
The Christian faith was professed by many in Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe. v32:
"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".
The Kingdom of heaven will expand throughout the world, the tiny seed will grow to a remarkable size and people from all nations will find rest in it, said Jesus and so it did. The Kingdom might have looked insignificant to Jesus' hearers and to the readers of Matthew's Gospel but it wasn't to stay that way.
Perhaps it looks insignificant to some of us here this morning but it isn't when we look world wide. The growth of the Kingdom and the progress of the Gospel continues today. Yes there has been the decline of the church in Western Europe. But there are more Christians in the world today than ever before in spite of there also being more persecution of Christians than ever before, especially in such places as the Sudan, Indonesia and China. According to the book Operation World the number of people who are willing to call themselves Christians in the world today stands at over 1.7 billion out of a world population that now numbers 6 billion. Almost a third of the world's population. Ten percent of the world's population are evangelical Christians.
Most nations have been reached with the Gospel. Though not every people group. There are still 4,500 languages to translate the Bible into, although, praise God, 1,200 of them are in preparation now. In Africa, South America and Asia there is phenomenal church growth. For example, the Anglican Church in Nigeria is the fastest growing and largest of all national Anglican Churches in the world. It has 11 million worshippers every Sunday. Here in England the Anglican Church has 1 million worshippers.
Yes there is opposition and persecution. Some of you here this morning may know more about that than we do in Britain, despite the attempts of some wilful graffiti artists this past week who desecrated the church building. But in spite of men and devils, the seed that God sows will become a tree. Some of you will remember that a few weeks ago 7 teenagers were killed by a gunman as they attended a youth service at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Texas USA.
Well the pastor reports that God has used that tragedy to further spread the Gospel throughout the world. Through live news coverage in the USA 200 million people heard the good news of Jesus Christ. CNN broadcast the memorial service for the seven who were murdered throughout the world. As a result 35 people in Japan gave their lives to Christ. In local Texas schools 135 students accepted Christ and one teacher led 22 students to Christ in her classroom. And the pastor ended his report with v8 of Romans 1 which says: "I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world".
We've mentioned the murder of 17 year old Christian Cassie Burnall for her faith at Columbine High School a few times from the pulpit before. But we've not mentioned much about what God has been doing since. The Baptist pastor at Colorado Springs reports that after the shootings many young people have turned to Jesus Christ. He shares that "they don't want to hear about peer counselling and psychology, they're falling on their knees and crying out to Jesus Christ. One life Lord. Give me one 17 year old who is not just willing to die for Jesus but willing to live for Jesus". He ends by quoting Joshua 24:14: "Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshipped beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord".
The tree is growing - how will you choose if you've not already done so - for Jesus or against Jesus? There are several other challenges for us in this parable. Let us learn never to despair of any work for Christ because its beginnings are small. Whether we're the only Christian teacher in a school trying to start a school CU or the only Christian at work seeking to win colleagues for Christ or a lone minister in a hard parish or a lone reformer in the midst of a fallen and corrupt church let us remember the parable and take courage.
"We should not begin to count numbers and confer with flesh and blood. Instead we should believe that one man with the living seed of God's truth on his side, like Luther, may turn a nation upside down. If God is with him, none shall stand against him. In spite of men and devils, the seed that he sows shall become a great tree." (Ryle)
We should not forget that great things can sometimes be achieved by a tiny cell of believers, such as what the Clapham Sect achieved in England in the late 18th century. What about your home group or some other small group? Significance cannot be measured in terms of numbers. So we are to make the most of every opportunity to help further God's Kingdom. And we are to pray. But we are also to be patient. For Jesus' disciples there was the natural impatience to see God's Kingdom in all its glory, and the total eradication of all that opposed it:
"To them and to us today who may expect God to act dramatically and without delay, Jesus points out that the full growth is assured from the moment the seed is sown, however unpromising its appearance and whatever opposition it may meet in its development. The way of God is not that of ostentation but of ultimate success. Little is great where God is at work." (France)
Which leads us on to the second parable which we'll look at very briefly.
Secondly, THE PARABLE OF THE YEAST v.33
Look at v33:
Jesus 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'.
Again the contrast is between the tiny quantity of yeast and the size of its effect. The large amount of flour would be about 40 litres, enough to make bread for 100 people. Just a little bit of fermented dough, and it transforms the whole. And when the yeast is mixed in it is hidden but still at work. So with the Kingdom. Obscure and hidden it will pervade society and permeate the whole world. As yeast permeates a batch of dough, so the Kingdom spreads through a person's life and throughout society. God transforms people and then transforms society through them.
Certainly the Church over the last two thousand years has had a major impact on the society around it in terms of medicine, education and social work. Apparently the first institution for the blind was founded by Thalasius, a Christian monk. The first free dispensary was founded by Apollonius, a Christian merchant. The first hospital was founded by Fabiola, a Christian woman. Hidden and obscure the Kingdom may be, but it has had and continues to have an undeniable effect upon society. It is yeast in the flour.
The parable also shows the spread of the Gospel in a person's life. The first beginnings of the work of grace in a sinner are usually very small. Like the mixture of yeast with a lump of dough. It could be a single verse of the Bible or a sentence of a sermon or an act of kindness received from a Christian. Often those are the starting points in those who are to receive Christ. The work of grace will gradually leaven the whole lump and a thorough conversion to Christ takes place. Wherever a real work of the Holy Spirit begins in the heart the whole character is gradually leavened and changed. 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it like this:
"If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come. All of this is from God".
The leaven of grace shall yet leaven the whole lump. As Philippians ch1 v6 says:
He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Do we know anything of a gradual, growing, spreading, increasing, leavening process going on in us? Or do we simply have a few vague wishes and convictions? Let us not be content with anything short of the former. The true work of the Holy Spirit will leaven the whole lump.
In v34-35 we leave the crowds. They've had their teaching through parables and they have much to consider. The dough is rising, even though its effect is small and hidden. How will they choose? For Jesus or against him? How will we choose if we've not done so already? When the effect is greater and less hidden? For Jesus or against him?