The Mustard Seed and the Leaven

Matthew 13:31-33

31 “He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

It’s like a Mustard Seed

The mustard seed is miniscule, about the size of the tip of a pencil lead. Your eye would barely notice it.

Nevertheless, if this mustard seed falls into the soil and if rain and sun nurture it, months later you could see a remarkable bush that has grown from that very small seed. How is that possible? 

When it was a seed, it looked like nothing. It seemed worthless and lifeless. But after it has nestled in the soil and received sun and water, the bird that didn’t notice the seed before might soon find this bush to be good place to build its nest.

Likewise, the kingdom of God may look insignificant, worthless, and lifeless to us. We might be tempted to pass over it in our thinking and instead dwell on things like earthly governments, the media, popular trends, political figures, human institutions, and so on.

The same would have been true of the kingdom of God in Christ’s time. If you had lived then, perhaps your atten­tion would have been focused on the Roman government as it controlled the then-known world. 

Uprisings, taxes, political intrigue – many such things would have seemed a lot more significant than a wandering rabbi from the back country of Galilee with a band of twelve followers. 

How many people in the Roman Empire do you think noticed what happened one Passover outside of Jerusalem, when Jesus was crucified between two thieves, with all His followers scattered and offended? 

Don’t you think what happened there seemed like just a mustard seed compared to things that must have seemed more important?

What lasting good could come out of an odd group of people spreading the news about things they saw and heard?

Yet, when we survey the growth of God’s kingdom since Christ’s death, what a gigantic “bush” has grown up! And it continues to spread, over lands and nations, across oceans and deserts. 

People from every corner of the earth have seen this “bush” branch out right in front of them, and, like birds, many of us have found a place to hide and shelter in its branch­es – all from a single, miniscule “mustard seed” planted in the soil outside of Jerusalem long ago.

Jesus goes on to teach another aspect of the kingdom of God and its growth. 

It’s like Leaven

Leaven or yeast is a fermenting fungus. What Jesus refers to would have been a piece of fermented dough from a previ­ous baking, which a woman would knead into a new batch of dough. 

Imperceptibly, the leaven would move throughout the whole dough, powerfully impacting all of it and making it rise.

Sometimes the Bible uses the picture of leaven for some­thing evil, such as “the leaven of the Pharisees” (Luke 12:1) or “the leaven of malice and wickedness” (1 Cor. 5:8). 

Evil can indeed move imperceptibly and powerfully. However, in this passage, Jesus is not referring to something evil; He is again referring to the kingdom of heaven and its growth within individuals throughout the world. 

So how does the kingdom of heaven work like leaven?

  1. Its work is hidden from view. The process of leavening cannot be seen with the human eye. Neither can the growth of the kingdom of God in a person’s heart. The Holy Spirit changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. This new heart is soft and pliable.
  1. It changes from the inside out. Jesus accused the Phari­sees of cleaning only the outside of their “cup,” while the inside remained dirty. Their lives might have seemed righteous on the outside, but their hearts remained unclean and evil. This is not how the kingdom of God works in the heart. Like leaven working from the inside out, the changed heart brings forth a changed life.
  2. It works as a comprehensive change in the end. Leaven makes the whole loaf rise. It makes it light and airy and tasty throughout; not one bit of loaf is left unaffected. In the same way, someone whose heart has been affected by the gos­pel, will ultimately show in his whole life that a change has taken place. 

It’s true that, on this side of eternity, believers will still continue to be plagued by sin. Yet, the growth of the kingdom within us will impact all of us: our thoughts, our habits, our actions, our words, our pursuits, our priorities – in short, our life as a whole will be dramatically changed.

So Let’s not despise the day of small things. Just because we don’t see anything happening on the surface doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing is going on below the sur­face. Let’s continue to pray earnestly that the Spirit of God would do His mysterious invisible work. 

Let’s adore the secret work of God. The Spirit’s work in each heart is mysterious and powerful. It reaches where no one can reach. In the secret depths of sinful hearts, God implants a new principle that radically changes peo­ple in every possible way. 

Has this change been worked deep in the recesses of our hearts? Do our lives pass on the leaven of the gospel in our families, churches, workplaces, and communities?

The Mustard seed is small but powerful, and leaven penetrates and permeates everything, and a little of either will go a long way.

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