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The Parables of Jesus Part 7
Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19 - Our faith has grown from a tiny beginning to a worldwide shelter for believers.
“He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.””
Matthew 13:31-32 NASB1995
“And He said, “How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade.””
Mark 4:30-32 NASB1995
“So He was saying, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and threw into his own garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.””
Luke 13:18-19 NASB1995
This is the third parable in a row from Matthew that references seed that is sown. If it seems familiar to some readers, it is because I covered the Luke version in the parables in Luke, although the parable is common to all three testaments. In that analysis from before, I latched onto commentary that theorized that the size of the mustard plant and the fact that birds can use it for nests and shade was meant to demonstrate the inevitable corruption that would come in a huge church.
Well, my research for this devotional has found other, more logical (and simpler) conclusions that commenters have written concerning this parable, from Precept Austin. The commentary I used before was not necessarily wrong, but it had a single interpretation. Jesus has already talked about the bad soils and the tares in the wheat as cautionary statements to His disciples. The Precept Austin resource cautions us about trying to find TOO much deep meaning in the parables (the embedded link goes to a resource that defines allegorical interpretation):
The mustard seed parable and specifically the meaning of the birds is open to the danger of allegorical interpretation. [Christian educator and author] Roy Zuck writes that "Allegorizing is searching for a hidden or secret meaning underlying but remote from and unrelated in reality to the more obvious meaning of a text. In other words the literal reading is a sort of code, which needs to be deciphered to determine the more significant and hidden meaning. In this approach the literal is superficial, the allegorical is the true meaning." In summary, using allegorical interpretation, makes it possible to “find” all manner of meanings beyond the plain sense of the text.
David Turner [International Ministries] adds that "Both church history and Christian experience testify to the prevalence of imaginative interpretations of Jesus’s parables. Multitudes of such “heavenly meanings” have been superimposed upon the “earthly stories” of the parables. The patristic transformation of the parable of the good Samaritan into the story of Adam’s fall and redemption (Kissinger 1979: 2–4, 18, 26–27) may be the most notorious example of this allegorizing approach, which atomizes the parables and tends to ignore their historical and literary contexts." (See Matthew Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
The photo above is a mustard seed tree at maturity; more often they resemble giant shrubs, but can become very tree-like in their appearance. Although the mustard seed is not the tiniest seed (orchids apparently hold that record), it does have one of the most impressive ratios of seed size to plant size. Jesus is telling His disciples that patience and time will result in a Kingdom of great size. Those disciples were chomping at the bit to stake out their lofty positions in the immediate kingdom on Earth, but Jesus is really warning them (and encouraging them at the same time) that the church will indeed grow mighty, just not overnight and not in their lifetimes.
So let’s look at three interpretations from Precept Austin commentary on what it means to have the birds nest in the tree or in its shade; links go to commentary or Biblia.org. Brackets include my comments or enhancements to the language because I’m picky:
…there are three common interpretations of the birds:
The fact that they can nest on the mustard plant emphasizes its substantial size and incredible growth
[They] Represent Gentiles/nations who come into and contribute to the growth of the Kingdom of God
[They] Represent evil forces that come into the Kingdom of God, infiltrating the Church [This was the interpretation I used previously, which, in my honest opinion was woefully incomplete]
#1 -[John A.] Broadus writes "Nor are we to find any distinct spiritual meaning in the birds lodging in the branches, which simply shows in a vivid way how large and strong the plant becomes. Several passages of the Old Test., represent an extensive kingdom by a great tree, with the birds dwelling among its branches. Ezek. 17:22–24; 31:3–14; Dan. 4:10 ff." (Matthew 13 Commentary)
#2 - Other commentators (e.g., John MacArthur) interpret the birds as representative of "nations" or Gentiles (#2). In the interpretation of the birds as nations or Gentiles, the birds would represent believers who by grace through faith come into the Kingdom of God. There is support for this interpretation in at least two ways:
Gentiles coming into the Kingdom of God contribute to the growth of that Kingdom In the book of Acts the spread of the Kingdom of God from "Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8+), a spread which begin primarily with Jewish believers but soon included Gentile believers as the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire.
There are OT passages that equate birds with Gentiles. For example Ezekiel writes “On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches." (Ezekiel 17:23)
#3 - Some commentators say the birds are "representatives of Satan" (#3 above) (Ironside) based on Mk 4:15+, but places great weight on interpreting the figure of birds in the same way it was interpreted in the parable of the soils. However there is nothing in the context of the mustard seed parable which dogmatically supports this interpretation. MacArthur agrees writing that "Some interpreters have held that the birds of the air represent demons or other evil forces, as they do in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:19). But there is no reason to expect a given figure to always represent the same thing, and the idea of evil is alien to the context of this parable."
I agree with the writer of Precept Austin (Bruce Hurt) on the likelihood that #1 or #2 are the best interpretations of this parable (and you can see how varied those interpretations are, which is a cautionary tale in itself, as I noted). Birds are as different in their appearances and their types of nests and the trees they use as the people on Earth are with their cultural preferences and homes. But you can go into a church like ours today and see people from many other countries and other ethnic groups - our guest preacher today was the head of our church partnership in Pakistan - all gathering in the peaceful shade of our Lord and Savior as they worship Him. The mustard seed is indeed powerful!
My next devotional examines the parable of the yeast or leaven, found in Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21.
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer:
Dear Lord - I humbly thank you for the parable of the mustard seed, which is inspiring to so many people. Because of your salvation and resurrection, millions have now come to you in repentance to rest in eternal security and peace. Amen.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. lockman.org
The personal testimony for the Precept Austin collection of commentaries and sermons can be found Here (Bruce Hurt).