Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

Vol. 2, No. 4 Page 2 April 2000

Gospel Gazette, Bible Articles

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19

By Louis Rushmore


The “busy day” of Jesus continued as he recited additional parables.  The Parable of the Mustard Seed and The Parable of the Leaven are called by some “sandwich parables.”  These two parables appear between the initial presentation and later explanation of The Parable of the Tares.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed has the distinction of being the first fully developed parable of our Lord (in Matthew) for which he gave no interpretation.  Jesus only interpreted two of his parables: The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Tares.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed is outstanding for its brevity, contained within two verses in each of the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark and three verses in Luke.  However, the parable adequately conveys the single point regarding the kingdom for which Jesus uttered it.  No extraneous words clutter this message.  Yet, there is no apparent void due to a lack of words.  As one would expect, considering that the parable was spoken by the Master Teacher, it is perfect the way it is.

Sometimes commentators stumble over the simplicity of the parables.  Each of the parables of our Lord emphasizes one main idea, but often they are twisted to teach additional lessons and not infrequently false doctrine.

It should be the goal of every student of the Bible to ascertain what the original recipients of a divine message were expected to understand.  It is equally indefensible to teach truth from a passage that does not teach that truth as it is to teach error.  Truth should be taught from verses that respectively teach it and error should not be taught at all.

The Parable

“Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:  Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32).
One writer concisely noted the purpose of this kingdom parable.  “The application of the parable is that the kingdom would commence with a small beginning, but would grow into a great institution.”1   Another brother described the emphasis of The Parable of the Mustard Seed with these words:  “The kingdom would have an insignificant beginning, but there would be phenomenal growth!”2

Modern man attributes success to big things.  Hence, we boast super-tankers and mega-stores.  In this parable, though, Jesus emphasizes something small and therefore perceived to be insignificant.  The Lord’s kingdom, especially in its beginning, like a small seed, is also imagined by worldly souls to be equally insignificant.  However, like the mature mustard plant, the growth of the kingdom of God far exceeds its modest beginning and cannot be ignored.

Efforts by some commentators to elevate parable details to the same level of the primary thrust of the parable are unwarranted and dangerous.  For instance, the birds and the branches do not have special significance in this parable.  Those details merely contribute to the main point regarding the obvious contrast between the small beginning and the expansive growth.

Parables were built upon familiar circumstances with which the auditors of the parables were aware.  Doubtless the original beneficiaries of many Bible discourses had a better understanding of some references with which they were contemporary than we do (e.g., some of the figures of speech in the Book of Revelation).

In this parable, we are unfamiliar with the type of mustard plant herein described.  We are removed from this plant by distance and geography if not by climate and time also.  Resources to which we can turn, though, verify the existence of such a shrub like herb.

Citations regarding the height of a mature mustard plant range from five to 20 feet.  The mustard plant under discussion attains its greatest growth when it is nurtured in a “garden” (Luke 13:19).  Though this mustard plant may resemble a tree, it lacks the woody-fiber of a tree.  It attains all its growth in one growing season and dies after it produces flowers and seeds.

Several observers have noted that the mustard seed is not literally the smallest seed.  Occasionally someone remarks that the mustard seed is the smallest herb seed.  Jesus said that the mature mustard plant is the largest herb (Matthew 13:22).  Additionally, “[t]he mustard seed was proverbial [among the Jews] for its smallness (Matthew 17:20).”3   Another suggests the mustard seed was the smallest seed with which the audience to whom Jesus was speaking was familiar.4

The dramatic difference in size between the minute mustard seed and the mature plant was immediately obvious to the audience to whom Jesus told The Parable of the Mustard Seed.  They were also aware of how quickly this transformation occurred.

It was fitting, then, that Jesus compared the kingdom that he came to establish to the growth of the mustard seed.  Both the mustard seed and the kingdom have humble beginnings.  From their germination, both experienced an extraordinary spurt of growth.  Additionally, the acute contrast between the beginning and the maturity of both the mustard plant and the kingdom was no less impressive.


Jesus compared the progress of his kingdom (prophetically then since he had not yet established his kingdom) to the robust growth of a living thing.  On the inaugural day of our Lord’s kingdom (church, Matthew 16:18-19), about 3,000 souls were added to the charter members (Acts 2:41, 47).  Shortly thereafter, the membership increased by thousands more (Acts 4:4).  Periodically, the citizenry of the kingdom multiplied (Acts 6:1-2, 7-8).  The multitude increased daily (Acts 16:5).

The growth of the kingdom was visible.  Persecution, regardless of the source from which it came (Jewish or Gentile), failed to hinder the expansion of the kingdom.  Instead, persecution proved to be a catalyst for broadening its borders (Acts 8:1, 4).  Horrific persecution of Christians after the period of biblical history failed as well to thwart the kingdom of God.  The blood of martyrs, it was said, rather became the seed of the kingdom.  Under Constantine, Roman policy changed to favor, encourage and manipulate Christianity (the kingdom), since it could not be eradicated.  This more than persecution severely harmed the spread of the true kingdom of God.

The foregoing stamina of disciples of Christ under duress highlights the power of the seed of the kingdom, the Word of God (Luke 8:15; Romans 1:16).  That power, though, like the mustard seed, is not activated until it is planted.  The Gospel seed must be planted in honest hearts (1 Peter 1:23).  God’s plan requires human involvement in the planting, nurture and harvesting (Romans 10:13-17; 1 Corinthians 3:6-9).  Despite difficulties of every variety, it is possible to widely sow the seed of the kingdom (Matthew 24:14; Colossians 1:23).

Truly in the figure of the prophet, a small stone has filled the entire earth (Daniel 2:31-45).  “For who hath despised the day of small things? . . .” (Zechariah 4:10).  The humble preface to the Lord’s magnificent, universal kingdom included: (1) his impoverished, untimely birth in a stable, after which he was cradled in an animal’s food dish; (2) his childhood in an obscure yet despised town, in a province itself held in low esteem by Judaean Jews (John 1:46; Acts 2:7); (3) his officers were uncultured, uneducated and unrefined (Acts 4:13); (4) Jesus had no rabbinical training (John 7:15); (5) our Lord also lacked the material wealth usually associated with earthly kings (Luke 9:58; 2 Corinthians 8:9); and (6) he himself was executed by the government.

Such circumstances ordinarily would doom any other movement besides that which God himself determined to establish.  After the beginning of the kingdom, it became the object of intense scorn and persecution by the government and the Jews.  The new kingdom’s principals and members alike were hunted, imprisoned, beaten and killed.  That this kingdom succeeded and encircled the globe and has stood so far for thousands of years attests the glory of Almighty God, and not the contributions of mere mortals.  “People should not stay out of the church because it is small in some places.”5   Those who absent themselves from small pockets (congregations) of the Lord’s kingdom, perhaps despising such smallness, are misguided.

Why did Jesus pronounce The Parable of the Mustard Seed?  They knew first-hand from the missions on which Jesus sent them that not everyone was willing to conform to the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 10:1-25).  Rejection is unpleasant.  God’s prophets and the messages of God that they heralded were often rejected (Romans 10:13-21).  “But they have not all obeyed the gospel.  For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?” (Romans 10:16).

Later, Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry abruptly concluded with his crucifixion.  Not convinced that Jesus would be resurrected, having rather expected a physical kingdom (Acts 1:6), fearful and in despair, the apostles scattered (Mark 14:24, 50).  Even after our Lord’s resurrection they returned to their professions (John 21:3-14).

The apostles needed frequent encouragement.  Additional to these discouragements, some of our Lord’s parables were depressing, too.

In the parable of the Sower, the disciples had heard that only a fourth part of the seed sown prospered; in the Tares, they had heard of the hindrances which beset even the part that remained.  Lest they should be tempted to despair, our Lord speaks these two parables [The Mustard Seed and The Leaven] for their encouragement.6

The Parable of the Mustard Seed, though short, is rich with meaning for children of the kingdom in every generation.


1 Gaddys Roy, Sermon Outlines on the Parables of Jesus, W. Gaddys Roy, 1974., p. 24.

2Joe Gilmore, “The Parable of the Mustard Seed,” The Parables of Our Saviour, Garfield Heights church of Christ, p. 260.

3Wayne Jackson, The Parables in Profile, Star Bible & Tract Corp., p. 6., p. 21.

4R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, p. 528

5Gilmore, p. 270.

6R.C. Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1990, p. 39.

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