Introduction: John MacArthur illustrates well the primary point made by these two parables:
Small things can have, ultimately, very large effects. All music, all symphonies, concertos, oratorios, hymns, songs, all music comes basically from eight notes. All the profound words that have ever been uttered or written in the English language come from 26 letters. Small beginnings; profound, extensive results.
Lord Kelvin provides us with an interesting insight into this by an experiment which he once made. He suspended a large chunk of steel weighing many, many pounds. It was hanging there in his lab to prove a point. He then proceeded to wad up little bits of paper about the size of a pea and systematically throw the wad at the steel. At first, that rather gentle tap had no affect at all. But eventually the steel was swaying back and forth and back and forth because of the relentless tapping of the little piece of paper. Small things, profound results.
That's really the lesson of these parables. And if you understand that you will understand what these parables are teaching. (Online sermon entitled, “The Power and Influence of Christ's Kingdom Part 1: Matthew 13:31-32”)
Today I want us to take time to examine each of these two parables so that we can try to learn the lessons Jesus was teaching through them.
I. Parable of the Mustard Seed
This parable is found in verses 31-32:
NKJ Matthew 13:31-32 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, 32 which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (See also Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18)
There are three points about the mustard seed that are emphasized by Jesus, and thus three ways in which the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
This stresses the small and seemingly insignificant beginnings of the kingdom in Jesus' ministry. His kingdom came in a way that they did not expect, through a king that was born of a poor family and placed in a manger, and who was raised a carpenter in a small and insignificant town in Galilee. Most of His own people didn't even believe in Him or in His message, but that did not mean that the kingdom of heaven hadn't arrived in His ministry.
Second, it grows to be “greater than the herbs and becomes a tree.”
This stresses that – in spite of such small beginnings – the kingdom of heaven will indeed become large. But this will take some time. It will not happen right away. Just how long it will take Jesus does not indicate. The nature of the growth of the tree and the time it takes to grow is not the focus. He intends only to point out that there is a period of time between the small beginning and the grand becoming.
Third, it provides shelter “so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
This clause certainly reflects Old Testament metaphorical language that was sometimes used to refer to the greatness of a kingdom that can provide shelter and protection for nations. But many commentators see here a specific allusion to a prophetic passage found in Ezekiel:
NKJ Ezekiel 17:22-24 Thus says the Lord GOD: 'I will take also one of the highest branches of the high cedar and set it out. I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and will plant it on a high and prominent mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort [i.e. including Gentiles]; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the LORD, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the LORD, have spoken and have done it.
I think it is likely that Jesus is deliberately utilizing imagery from this passage, hinting at the way in which His kingdom will include the Gentiles and at the way in which the small, seemingly insignificant beginnings of the kingdom will result in greatness. Just not yet. The kingdom is here already, in Jesus' ministry, but its fullness awaits the future. This surprisingly small beginning, along with the already/not yet nature of the kingdom, comprise some of the “mysteries of the kingdom” mentioned earlier in verse 11.
As Klyne Snodgrass observes with regard to the scholarly discussion of this parable that:
… [T]here is surprising agreement about the intent of the parable. Here, virtually unquestioned, we hear the voice of Jesus asserting a vital and central element of his eschatology, his understanding of what God was doing to set things right. Whatever else is debated, this parable pictures the presence of the kingdom in Jesus' own ministry, even if others do not recognize it, and Jesus' expectation of the certain full revelation of the kingdom to come. (p. 222)
[And he is also quite helpful when he goes on to say that] Parables address questions, whether the questions are explicit or implicit. Nearly all agree that this similitude addresses the implicit question about the unimpressiveness and unexpected nature of the kingdom Jesus claimed was already present. Could what was happening with Jesus and his disciples really be the establishment of God's kingdom? Was not the kingdom supposed to be a mighty display of God's defeat of evil and the removal of the nations afflicting Israel? Jesus' miracles are nice, but where is the rest of the story? Such questions would have gone through the mind of many of Jesus' hearers, whether friend or foe. The Mustard seed similitude urges, possibly warns, that no one should be put off by what appears unimpressive. Like the tiny mustard seed which grows to a large plant, so the kingdom is present, even if hidden, unnoticed, or ignored, and its full revelation with its benefits will come. (Stories With Intent: A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 225)
I couldn't agree more with Snodgrass's view of this parable. In fact, it is a good description of the essential meaning of the next parable as well.
II. Parable of the Leaven
This parable is found in verse 33:
NKJ Matthew 13:33 Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid [ἐγκρύπτω] in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”
There are three important things to observe about this parable.
First, the “leaven” here refers to something good, not something bad.
I think that a misunderstanding of this fact has led many commentators – even those typically reliable in their interpretation of Scripture – to misinterpret this parable. For example, A.W. Pink states:
To make the “leaven” a figure of the Gospel and its power, of that which is good, is to contradict every other passage in Scripture where this figure is used. Christ was speaking to a Jewish audience, and with their knowledge of the O.T. Scriptures none of them would ever dream that He had reference to something that was good. With the Jews “leaven” was ever a figure of evil.
[And later he states that] The “leaven” symbolizes the corrupting of God’s truth by the introduction of evil doctrine — compare Mat 6:12. The unadulterated truth of God is too heavy for the natural man: the sovereignty of God, the helplessness of man, the awfulness of sin, the totality of human depravity, the eternal punishment of the wicked, are indigestible to the carnal mind. Therefore, Rome and her “daughters” have introduced the lightening “leaven,” so as to make, what they hand out, more palatable to their dupes. And thus has history repeated itself. Of old God complained to Israel, “Ye offer polluted bread upon Mine altar” (Mal 1:7). So today priestcraft and clericalism have corrupted the bread of God. (The Prophetic Parables of Matthew 13, e-Sword)
Pink is correct in assuming that leaven can be and often is used in Scripture as a metaphor for something evil, but he is wrong in assuming that leaven must always be used with reference to something evil. For example, even though getting rid of leaven in the Old Testament feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread appears to be symbolic of getting rid of evil influences in one's life, leaven can also be seen as denoting something good:
NKJ Leviticus 7:11-14 This is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which he shall offer to the LORD: 12 If he offers it for a thanksgiving, then he shall offer, with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, or cakes of blended flour mixed with oil. 13 Besides the cakes, as his offering he shall offer leavened bread with the sacrifice of thanksgiving of his peace offering. 14 And from it he shall offer one cake from each offering as a heave offering to the LORD. It shall belong to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the peace offering.
NKJ Leviticus 23:17 You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the LORD.
In these passages leaven is clearly seen as indicative of something good to be offered up to God. In the same way, even though Jesus Himself can use leaven to refer to something evil – such as when He later warns the disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6, 11-12) – it is nevertheless clearly used in this passage to signify something good, the kingdom of heaven on earth.
It is also worth pointing out before we move on that – as Klyne Snodgrass observes – the leaven referred to here “is not the same as yeast, the small substance we use to cause leavening. In the ancient world leaven was merely fermenting dough. Some fermented dough is kept back from baking and used to ferment the next batch” (Stories With Intent: A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 231).
Second, the “leaven” is hidden (“which a woman took and hid”).
I think Jesus' emphasis on this idea – given the context – is intentional and emphasizes one of the main lessons He has been teaching the disciples. For example, earlier in Matthew Jesus taught about things that God had hidden from many but had revealed to the disciples:
NKJ Matthew 11:20-25 Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” 25 At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden [κρύπτω] these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.”
Also, immediately after telling this parable, Matthew goes on to tell us:
NKJ Matthew 13:34-35 All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, 35 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.” (Citing Psalm 78:2)
These “secret” things are being revealed to the disciples. It has been given to them “to know the mysteries of the kingdom” (vs. 11). And, of course, we too have been blessed to know these mysteries, which have been preserved for us by the Holy Spirit in this very passage. One of these mysteries is the very fact that the kingdom of heaven has come in a way that is hidden to many.
Third, the “leaven” permeates the whole batch of dough (“till it was all leavened”).
With these words Jesus emphasizes that the kingdom truly is at work in the world, however hidden that work may appear. God is accomplishing His purposes, even if we sometimes struggle to see it.
Klyne Snodgrass again does a good job capturing the essential point:
The point again is that what you see with Jesus is the beginning of what you hope for in the kingdom and will surely lead to it. The focus is not the contrast between small and large but the hidden beginning which will result in the completion of God's work, the leavening of the whole. Something has happened … and will have its full effect. A hidden power, hardly discernible to some, is already and irresistibly working. The kingdom in Jesus' ministry has its beginning and is at work, even if in a hidden or unanticipated way. (Stories With Intent: A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 234-235)
Conclusion: I would like to conclude by calling your attention to how we might be encouraged by the teaching of these parables. We can readily see how the teaching of these parables applies to us, for the kingdom of God may often appear to us as small and relatively insignificant in the world. As we look about us, the true Church of Jesus Christ may often seem difficult to find. And the influence we hope to have in the world may seem as but a drop of water in a massive sea. We may often cry out with Asaph, “O God, how long will the adversary reproach? Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?” (Psalm 74:10). Or as another Psalmist lamented, “LORD, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked triumph?” (Psalm 94:3).
But remember what the Apostle Paul has taught us:
NKJ Romans 8:18-25 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.
Be encouraged! What God has begun in Christ He will bring to fruition. We must learn not to “despise the day of small things” – as the LORD put it to Zechariah (4:10) – but instead to recognize the greatness of God's work even through what may appear to us as small and insignificant. In fact, we should always remember that God delights in using the apparently small and insignificant for His purposes:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence. 30 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God-- and righteousness and sanctification and redemption -- 31 that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.”
Let us join with our Savior in thanks to the Father that He has hidden such truths from “the wise and prudent” (11:25) and has revealed them to us! Let us boast in the Lord, who is able to use such weak and insignificant people as us to bring about His kingdom purposes in the World! And let us be assured by these parables that, just as certainly as the kingdom truly is here now, it will also certainly come in all its fullness in the future, when the Lord Jessu Christ returns and when He “delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For 'He has put all things under His feet.' But when He says 'all things are put under Him,' it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28).