In a memorable and intriguing parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a microscopic mustard seed that grows into a towering tree. It is presented without elaboration, a bare comparison that’s pregnant with possible meaning, and the interpretive task is left to the listener.
What does it mean? The main point is obviously the contrast of beginning and end, as is obvious in the emphasis of “smaller” and “greater” language. Beyond that, the meaning of the parable depends on the significance of a few things:
- the tree and the birds
- when and how the change occurs
- the context of the parable
The basic question is, Does this represent a positive or negative development?
There have been two basic interpretations to this parable, one vastly more common. In this post I want to look at how they are not as mutually exclusive as they may at first appear to be, and that both can be held in creative tension, if understood properly. Things will get pretty technical along the way so get ready!
I think there are a few key points to make in approaching the interpretation of this parable, so I outlined things to make it easier to follow and jump between sections.
1. Must a parable have the same meaning in two different settings?
This is this first thing to ask. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain this parable, but in very different contexts. If only one meaning is allowable, then it’s an either/or scenario and one interpretation is simply wrong.
But given how different their contexts are, I think various applications are possible. And it’s clear that certain sayings and illustrations of Jesus do have different meanings when they appear in different contexts.
A text can have at least two different contexts: a textual one and a historical one. These two different contexts can effect the meaning we draw from a text.
a. Textual Setting
It is clear that the evangelists use some parables, sayings, and stories differently and in different contexts. Although the same words are used, context determines meaning.
This is an important point. As Witness Lee notes, the “basic principle” of interpreting a verse is “taking care of the context of that chapter.” He then radically expands this principle in ever-widening concentric circles:
To interpret any verse you need the entire Bible. First you need the context of that verse, then you need the context of the entire book, and finally you need a bird’s-eye view of the entire Bible.
As Kevin Vanhoozer memorably put it,
The prime rule for hermeneutics, as in real estate, is “location, location, location.” In the case of determining meaning, “location” means context.
“Location, location, location” equals chapter, book, Bible.
Here are some examples that illustrates this. If you are on board with this point, then feel free to skip this section.
The above three sayings all appear in different contexts, in different narrative arrangements, and are applied in different ways to mean different things.
i. “No one lights a lamp and places it under a bushel”
Matt 5:15 // Mark 4:24 // Luke 11:33
In Matthew, disciples are the light and they ought to do good works that express this fact, i.e. our behavior should reflect our nature and lead others to glorify God. In Mark, Christ is the light (“the lamp that has come”) and the mystery of His identity and kingdom will not remain concealed. He did not come to remain hidden. Those who give heed to His teaching, will see and perceive that He is in fact the Messiah and understand his mission. Luke makes essentially the same point as Mark although the context is completely different. Luke is saying that even though Jesus refuses to pander to sign-seeking crowds, His identity cannot be hidden if you focus on the wisdom of His teaching and the power of His preaching.
ii. “The lamp of the body is the eye”
Matt 6:22 // Luke 11:34
In Matthew, the context is storing up wealth and the corresponding anxiety over financial security. Matthew uses the saying to mean that we can’t focus both on serving God and the security of money. In Luke, the context is stubborn demands for signs to validate Jesus’ identity. Luke uses the saying to mean that seeking signs blurs our vision and makes us blind to see Jesus’ wisdom or respond to the message of his preaching. For Matthew, it’s impossible to focus on (“serve”) God and mammon; in Luke, you can’t focus on Jesus’ teaching and seek miraculous proof at the same time.
iii. “With what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you”
Matt 7:2 // Mark 4:24 // Luke 6:38
Mark uses this in relation to how we listen to the Lord’s word. The more we listen to His word, the more capacity He will give us to take it in and understand it. Matthew and Luke apply this saying to how we treat others. For Matthew, how we judge others becomes the measuring stick by how we will be judged. For Luke, the “measure” of our financial giving to others determines how much we will receive from the Lord. So, one saying of Jesus, three applications: listening to God’s word, judging others, and material giving.
Overall structure of the Gospels
Beyond how an individual text is applied, the Gospels sometimes vary widely in how stories are arranged (see chart below). Stories don’t always appear in chronological order, as if the gospel writers were simply transcribing Jesus’ daily itinerary. The writers aren’t neutral reporters, but passionate believers pressing home a portrait of someone they want their readers to see as they do. They are painting real events in a certain light to convert and instruct. They all use the same paint palette but are mixing different colors. Or maybe better, they are all painting the same figure but from different perspectives. Their accounts are already interpretations (albeit inspired ones). They rearrange and dogmatically structure their source material to highlight a theological point.
As Witness Lee frequently repeats about Matthew:
Matthew’s record is not according to the sequence of history, but according to the sequence of doctrine.
Here is a sample section of the Synoptic Gospels to show how their narrative order varies (Mark is shown in order here):
Each Gospel writer made creative yet inspired use of a body of tradition to form a composite whole. Although each “mountain” of revelation shares similar contours, the overall vista seen in each gospel is site-specific. The reason the Spirit inspired four Gospels is to reveal different aspects of who Jesus is (glorious king, suffering servant, compassionate man, life-giving God). While much of the basic interpretation of an individual passage may apply to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, what it means in the grand scheme of each gospel and why it is placed in a certain order may differ among them. Turns out the “according to” (κατα) in the full “title” of each Gospel is rich with implications.
b. Historical Setting
Also, a text may be applied or understood in new ways at different points in history.
This is commonly observed about OT prophesy and poetry. The virgin with child in Isaiah 7:14, is both Isaiah’s wife and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
This is also true of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. They had an obvious application to the actual churches that existed in Turkey in the first century. They have an enduring relevance to all churches at any time (each letter to one church is said to be spoken to the “churches”). And they have a prophetic meaning regarding specific stages of church history.
M. Eugene Boring puts it like this:
The church responded to and saw meaning in Jesus’ parabolic teaching, in the light of its post resurrection situation, often developing allegorizing interpretations to express its new insights.
As the parables were handed on and around in the church’s teaching and preaching, they were interpreted and modified to address new situations.
This doesn’t mean that every interpretation or application that has arisen in church history is equally “true” or valid. Not all interpretations “cut the mustard.” The point is, that certain texts require a certain “reader community” within the church to be raised up before the Spirit’s intended meaning in a text can be adequately perceived.
As Kerry Robichaux says,
Not only has [God] authored the text, but He has also ‘authored’ the interpretive community and fashioned it to read the text in such a way that only it as an interpretive community can. Hence, He needs not only the human authors to bring forth His meaning but also the human readers to grasp His meaning. By His grace He operates to produce authors and by His grace He operates to produce the reading community.
2. Did the gospel writers appropriate this parable differently?
To recap where we are so far: a text can have different meanings when it is set in different contexts, and this could very well be true for this parable.
What I want to look at now is how the contexts for this parable differ among Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The point here is that these differing contexts may point to the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have different intentions in their appropriation of this parable. Its placement in each of the synoptics seems to suggest this.
Here is how this parable is grouped with other parables:
It’s helpful to see how the Gospels group these parables and how they function together. This means that a different grouping and arrangement can change how the parable functions. Not only does the parable have an internal, self-contained meaning, but when grouped with other parables it functions with those other parables in a network of meaning.
Mark creates a 3 parable unit. Matthew expands Mark’s simple scheme into a 7 parable unit. Luke separates the sower and soil parable and groups the mustard seed and leaven parables into a 2 parable unit. Also, in this unit Luke’s mustard seed parable functions as a commentary on a healing that arouses synagogue opposition. It is a “live” response to a situation, which is very different from Mark and Matthew’s contexts, which are isolated blocks of teaching.
Also, notice that the parable of the mustard seed is deployed differently in each Gospel. Specifically, that:
- Mark doesn’t join the mustard seed with the parable of leaven.
- Mark’s mustard seed concludes his unit, whereas Matthew’s is in the middle section.
- Matthew’s mustard seed is bounded by two parables with negative meanings.
So it’s clear that the Gospel writers have placed this parable in very different contexts, and I think this can point to how they intend it to be understood.
3. The Negative Interpretation
Here is my main point: I think it is possible that Mark uses the mustard seed positively, while Matthew uses it negatively. Luke’s is the most ambivalent to me, but also the one I am least concerned about for this post. Let me start with Matthew.
Matthew very clearly intends his grouping of parables to represent some sort of comprehensive sketch of the history of the kingdom of the heavens from inception to consummation.
This seems undeniable. Jesus tells us that he is unveiling the “mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens” (v. 11). The mystery is a history. The first parable represents Jesus’ preaching (v. 19) and the last parable portrays the end of the age (v. 49). Also, Matthew expands his parables to the highly symbolic number 7, which in many places represents completeness. Matthew’s scheme is programmatic and highly developed.
Witness Lee says,
The mysteries unveiled in these parables cover the entire span of Christian history… To interpret these parables properly, we need to take care of the facts of history. Otherwise, what we say about them will be imaginary and not practical.
Bengel had already made this point in 1742:
These seven parables have a most recondite meaning, applying especially to distinct periods of the Church’s history and condition, besides the common and universal principles which they teach concerning the course and administration of the kingdom of heaven.
G. H. Pember, writing in 1885, said:
They are a continuous prediction of the whole career of the Church between the two advents. Undoubtedly they will also yield an abundant supply of more general instruction; but in this context, at least, the prophetic is the primary meaning. (emphasis added)
Seeing how Matthew’s seven parables function together is essential for determining his use of the mustard seed parable. Their connectedness is also indicated by the fact that, after delivering them, Jesus asks his disciples: “Have you understood all these things?” (v. 51). If only they had said “no” and asked for explanation!
In Matthew’s scheme, a parable can point to a negative development in kingdom history. This is especially clear with the parable of the tares—sons of the devil populate the field of the kingdom (v. 39). The devil has planted a bug in the system. Tares represent false believers in the kingdom. The text itself leaves no doubt that parables 2 and 7 have negative elements to them that will persist until the end of the age.
Since this is the case, we have to ask whether the other parables represent positive or negative developments in the kingdom. I take Matthew’s use of the mustard seed and leaven to be negative. This makes a lot of sense historically too, because false believers don’t just sit there doing nothing; they effect how things proceed. Paul is already dealing with them at his time (Gal. 2:4).
Main Elements of the Interpretation
The Brethren teachers were the first group of interpreters take this approach to the text in earnest. G. H. Pember’s major work The Great Prophecies (1885) might have been one of the first books to lay it out so clearly. Pember sees in this parable an “ominous hint” and “an evident intimation of something wrong.”
Those who view this parable negatively base their interpretations on four main points:
- That the seven parables work together as a sort of rough prophetic sketch of the kingdom in its historical development.
- That the herb becomes a tree—this represents a violation of the creation principle that every plant must reproduce after its own kind (Gen. 1:11-12). This is taken to mean that the church has undergone a monstrous transmutation in nature and function and has become rooted in this world.
- That the birds roost in the tree—in the first parable, the birds represent “the evil one” who snatches the word away (v. 19) and this significance is carried over here. This is taken to mean that evil persons and things now lodge in the “branches” of the church’s vast enterprises.
- That there seems to be a historic fulfillment in Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the massive change Christianity underwent in becoming a state religion wielding political power. This negative link was made at least as early as Bengel (1742) and John Wesley (1811).
In summary, in this interpretation, the church has become something other than what God intended it to be—a political world power housing corruption. George Campbell Morgan (1907) sums up the main point with two phrases: “unnatural development” and “unintended issue.”
An important factor in this interpretation is not just the two proof texts, as tenuous as they may seem to some, but that the herb becomes a tree in the course of church history (I will revisit this in Mark’s version, in which the transformation appears after the harvest). Lee says that recognizing this is the “controlling principle for interpreting the parables in Matthew 13.”
When viewed alongside the other parables, Matthew’s scheme of kingdom history in chapter 13 runs like this:
Some time after the kingdom took root in human soil through Jesus’ activity and began to grow, false believers populated the church, resulting in a mixed multitude of true and false believers. Then the church underwent an outward mutation in organization and appearance and an inward corruption of doctrine and practice. And yet hidden in the field there is still solid treasure and a valuable pearl that are worth giving all for. At the end of the age, evil and falsehood will be separated out of God’s kingdom and burned up for good. Then the righteous will shine in their Father’s kingdom forever.
Taken as a whole, the interpretation makes a lot of sense and perfectly matches church history in its main contours. It is by no means “obvious,” but once grasped, it’s a perfect fit for what actually happened. And it matches Matthew’s overall message of the kingdom and his repeated emphasis on a differentiation among the characters in his stories (e.g. the many parables of someone being cast out).
Matthew’s unit looks like this:
In this scheme Matthew’s middle section represents a negative development in church history, related to 1) false constituents, 2) outward appearance, and 3) inward corruption. The great tree is most conspicuously seen in the medieval church with papal primacy, the Holy Roman Empire, and the crusades, where the church became a powerful, wealthy, corrupt institution seeking world dominance with the help of the state.
This picture of the church is powerfully captured by Dostoevsky in his famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor,” in Brothers Karamazov. Ivan tells a story he’s made up about the Grand Inquisitor visiting an imprisoned Jesus awaiting trial in Seville, Spain around 1500. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that, in his absence, the church has accepted the three offers from the devil that Jesus foolishly refused in the wilderness. The Grand Inquisitor says,
Exactly eight centuries ago [755 AD] we took from him what you so indignantly rejected, that last gift he offered you when he showed you all the kingdoms of the earth: we took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, the only rulers, though we have not yet succeeded in bringing our cause to its full conclusion… And it is then that the beast will come crawling to us and lick our feet and spatter them with tears of blood from its eyes. And we shall sit upon the beast and raise the cup, and on it will be written: “Mystery.” But then, and then only, will the kingdom of peace and happiness come for mankind… They will marvel and stand in awe of us and be proud that we are so powerful and so intelligent as to have been able to subdue such a tempestuous flock of thousands of millions.
The passage goes on and on. It is an extremely powerful and moving chapter.
Dostoevsky mentions Babylon the Great as the zenith of this great tree. The great tree is unmasked as the great prostitute sleeping with kings, intoxicating the world with its wine, and riding on the waves of the nations. It is an interesting textual link, as Babylon the Great is described as “a hold of every unclean and hateful bird” (18:2), which matches the birds in the branches of the tree in Matthew.
But Babylon the Great’s greatness is a false, wrongly-wrought, and man-made greatness, which is not great (not good) in the Lord’s eyes. It is a deceptive and destructive path to greatness. It is the antithesis and counterfeit of what the church is supposed to be.
Could the early church have known this?
There is certainly no way that the first century audience could have understood all this. But that hasn’t been a problem to many Bible teachers. There are many things in the Bible that the first century audience didn’t fully understand. Or, maybe it’s better to say that they understood some things provisionally, until a more accurate interpretive model arose and a paradigm shift occurred, or until a new interpretive community rose up.
This coincides with what the Lord said about the Spirit, who will guide us into the reality of all the things Jesus had to say that the disciples couldn’t bear (John 16:12-13).
Augustine famously put it like this:
What evil is it if an exegesis [that an interpreter] gives is one shown to be true by You, light of all sincere souls, even if the author whom he is reading did not have that idea and, though he had grasped a truth, had not discerned that seen by the interpreter?
In another place, he says something even more striking:
Perhaps the author too saw that very meaning in the words which we are trying to understand. Certainly the Spirit of God who worked through the author foresaw without any doubt that it would present itself to a reader or listener, or rather planned that it should present itself, because it too is based on the truth.
In the Gospel of Luke this parable has an entirely different context. Even if you accept the interpretation given above, it’s hard to see how it exactly fits, or works in just the same way, here.
Modified Matthew—Negative Development
The context is Luke 12:54—13:21. After a tightly knit sequence of verses, Jesus introduces the parables with an interpretive “therefore” (13:18). That is crucial for understanding the intended meaning of the parables, since it connects it to the healing story that comes right before it.
The context exhibits a roughly chiastic structure:
The section starts with Jesus’ example of how a properly read weather forecast produces an appropriate response. Before the storm erupts, you know it will happen based on the meteorological signs. And if you know a storm’s coming, you take shelter! The point is: you can predict a consequential future event based on antecedent signs. The little reddening of the morning sky is an indicator of an approaching thunderstorm. Jesus then calls them hypocrites for not being able to discern “this time,” i.e. the time of his ministry. His ministry is the reddening of the spiritual sky over Jerusalem.
Then He gives an example of being released from your opponent at law. Next, Jesus explains that the appropriate response in light of the “weather signs” of his ministry is repentance. He then tells a parable about a tree in a man’s vineyard. Israel is a barren and useless fig tree, if it doesn’t repent (the fruit of repentance, 3:8) it will be cut down. There seems to be a link in the transition to the next pericope with the number “18.”
The ruler of the synagogue, representing the Jews, needs to repent. He is also the opponent at law, representing the Mosaic law, from which this woman needs to be released (12:58, 13:16). Under his hand, Judaism has become useless to those in bondage to Satan. Jesus’ opposition is lodged in heart of Judaism. Satan is “roosting” in the synagogue and working within it. Jerusalem is crumbling, barren, and binding. It is about to be cut down. The ruler is a hypocrite for being inconsistent in his response to pressing situations that call for obvious and similar action.
“Therefore” what is the kingdom of God like? A tree with birds. A negative interpretation may go something like this: The fig tree in the vineyard (v. 6) is now seen as the transmuted tree in the garden (v. 19). The growth here is the negative development of Judaism. Judaism is not what it was divinely planted to be (that’s obvious in the NT). Then comes leaven, which has already been associated with the Pharisees’ hypocrisy (12:1). The whole of Judaism is corrupted. If it doesn’t repent, Jerusalem will fall (like tower of Siloam in v. 4) under the rage of a Roman ruler (like Pilate in v. 1), not because Israel is composed of worse sinners, but because it didn’t do the right thing in the right time. It didn’t properly respond to the obvious signs of the coming of the kingdom in Jesus ministry.
By extension, this interpretation could be developed to make the point that a similar thing can happen in church history. The church can become a source of opposition to true seekers and is always in need of a fresh experience of repentance so that it doesn’t fail to live in the jubilee that Jesus inaugurated.
Missing the Kingdom’s Coming
The way this parable is commonly taken also applies here: the synagogue ruler can’t see the presence of the kingdom in Jesus’ ministry, even when Jesus performs a healing right in front of him. This is because the kingdom appears minuscule and insignificant in this carpenter-turned-preacher, contrary to the expectation of the Jews, who were waiting for a magnificent, political Messiah who would liberate Israel from Roman rule. But this insignificant little group of disciples with Jesus (a tiny seed operating underground and a powerful pinch of yeast hidden in flour) is the seed of a great kingdom led by One who will be great (1:32). And despite its apparent insignificance, its power is already manifest.
Jesus’s ministry brings in the prophesied jubilee (4:18-19), but a spiritual one, not a material one. He is freeing spiritual captives not political ones. He is dealing with spiritual oppressors, not political ones. Bigger powers than Rome are being overthrown—Satan’s kingdom is the target of this attack. The healing of the bent-double woman is a release from Satanic dominion (13:16), a release from captivity. It is the kingdom of God coming in the present right before their eyes. When Jesus casts out demons “the kingdom of God HAS come upon you” (11:20).
But amazingly not all can see or admit this. Not all can tell what time it is (12:56). The synagogue ruler is a hypocrite who can’t read the “weather signs” in Jesus’ activity and therefore doesn’t respond rightly. Jesus later says that Jerusalem will fall because it “did not know the time of its visitation” (19:44). So the kingdom of God has come in Jesus’ ministry of jubilee enactment, but not all can see it or will respond to it. But that inability does not undermine or negate its glorious, certain consummation in a kingdom over all the earth.
Summary of the negative perspective
To wrap up this long section, it’s possible that:
- Matthew uses this parable in a negative way looking forward at the history of the kingdom in the church.
- Luke uses it in a negative way looking at the present history of the kingdom in Israel. Or, Luke uses it according to its common sense, but still with a negative application related to Israel’s inability to see the kingdom’s inception.
4. Mark’s Positive Use
What about Mark? I think a serious case can be made for taking Mark’s use of this parable positively, as a picture of the manifestation of the kingdom at Christ’s second coming.
If Mark intends the mustard seed to have a positive meaning, then the three factors I listed at the very beginning must work out positively.
1. Tree and birds
The first point to notice is that Mark doesn’t actually say the mustard seed becomes a “tree,” but rather “greater than all the herbs.” So the point about violating the principle of Genesis 1 doesn’t exactly fit here. A full grown mustard plant can be very large compared to other herbs—around 10-12 feet tall, according to many. A mustard seed is a perfect fit for a “smaller than, greater than” illustration.
What about the birds? It depends what we understand the primary referent to be. Yes, Mark has birds devouring seeds a few verses prior (like Matthew does), but given its context could there be another allusion? There certainly are options. A couple of times in the OT a tree housing birds is used to represent a splendid kingdom with other nations dwelling under its rule. Ezekiel 31 and Daniel 4 describe Assyria and Babylon like this. Ezekiel 17:22-24 portrays Israel as a tree. A twig is cropped from this tree, transplanted, and then grows into a magnificent tree. And under the shade of this tree’s branches “all birds of every kind will nest.” Lee interprets this twig-become-tree as Christ who will rule over all nations (birds) in the next age.
Ezekiel 17 echoes loudly in Mark 4:
2. When and how
So there will be a time when the kingdom of God will become a great tree, it will house the birds of the nations, and it will be a positive development. It is obvious that a major point of the biblical storyline is the glorious manifestation of God’s kingdom at the end of time which will unite, shelter, and nourish all the nations of this world.
The nations will walk by the city’s light; and the kings of the earth bring their glory into it. (Rev. 21:24)
The difference here is in timing. The radical and unexpected transformation this parable points to, is initiated by Christ’s return, not before it.
Eugene Boring helpfully clarifies what this parable is not saying:
The parable portrays neither the worldwide success of the church, as in medieval theology, nor the gradual development of the kingdom within history until the political and economic structures of society are permeated by the ethic of Jesus, as in the older liberal theology.
The experiential dimension
Although the magnificent kingdom tree appears at the end of the age, it is developing within God’s people throughout this age, by their growth in life. This insight makes Mark’s shorter and simpler parable unit actually more impressive than Matthew’s. This is one of the clearest portions in the NT that reveals the connection between the believers’ growth in life, the second coming of Christ, and the reality of the kingdom.
Lee says that Mark 4 shows that the kingdom is the essence, issue, and goal of the gospel. “First, the kingdom is the issue of the gospel, and then it is the goal of the gospel. Between the issue and the goal we have the church.” The eternal kingdom of God will be “the full development of the gene sown in the Gospels by Jesus.”
“Issue” refers to the inward reality of the kingdom today. “Goal” refers to the outward manifestation of the kingdom in the future. The essence of the gospel is Christ as the seed of life sown into our being. The reality of the kingdom is the issue of our reception of the divine life. The manifestation of the kingdom is the goal of our growth in the divine life. Our growth in life has cosmic consequences!
He elaborates by saying,
It is crucial for us to see that the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom of God. This gospel is actually the God-man, Jesus Christ, sown into us as a life seed, a seed which is the seed of the kingdom. This seed is now growing and developing in us. Eventually, a kingdom will issue from the growth and development of this seed.
This interpretation fits well in Mark’s 3 parable unit, since this parable is the concluding parable (contra Matthew). It also makes sense to apply this to the manifestation of God’s kingdom since Mark’s second parable ends with the harvest (4:29), which represents Jesus’ return with crown and sickle at the end of the age to reap his people (Rev. 14:14-16). Like the tree with birds image, the harvest was also a well-known eschatological OT image that Mark alludes to.
Let the nations rouse themselves and come up… for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Send forth the sickle, for the harvest is ripe… (Joel 3:12-13)
His third parable picks up at the point where the second parable leaves off, just like the second picks up where the first parable leaves off. Growth brings in harvest, harvest yields universal kingdom.
Finally, Mark’s Gospel concludes with Jesus claiming to be the eschatological Son of Man referred to in Daniel 7 who receives an eternal kingdom over all nations. Jesus refers to himself “coming with the clouds of heaven” with “great power and glory” (13:26; 14:62).
The reference is to Daniel’s prophecy and the allusion and claim is unambiguous to the Jewish leaders:
There with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming; and He came to the Ancient of Days… and to Him was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages might serve Him. His dominion is an eternal dominion… (Dan. 7:13-14)
This is the kingdom that Jesus will bring in at his second coming.
Since Mark’s narrative ends with this image of Jesus as glorious King over the nations, it make sense that his mustard seed parable captures this final development of the kingdom—a kingdom that was so small and insignificant in its beginnings, founded by an uneducated preacher who was “counted as nothing” (Mark 9:12), murdered, and buried in the ground. Little did the Roman rulers know what they were planting and what would one day spring up from that small seed.
Summary of the positive perspective
This interpretation renders Mark’s three parables as a unit showing the positive history of God’s kingdom in three stages: initiation, development, and consummation. These short parables represent the fulfillment of Genesis 1:26—image (parable 1-2) and dominion (parable 3). Lee says that Mark 4 “serves the particular purpose of revealing the kingdom to us in this way” and embodies “the intrinsic element of the entire teaching of the New Testament”
This, then, is how Mark’s parable unit looks:
Despite this being a really long and dense post, my main point is simple. Matthew is using the mustard seed parable negatively, to portray an unnatural and disastrous development of the church within history. Mark is using it positively, to portray the what the kingdom will be in its glorious and full development at the Lord’s second coming. Both of these points are virtually incontestable as far as the facts are concerned. Seeing both facts represented by the one parable can clarify our understanding of the present and future, and also create fellowship among believers who hold to different interpretations of this parable, by allowing us to affirm the fundamental point in their view.
1. Witness Lee, Elders’ Training, Book 3: The Way to Carry Out the Vision, Ch. 3
2. Lee, Elders’ Training, Book 4: Other Crucial Matters Concerning the Practice of the Lord’s Recovery, Ch. 1
3. Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, p. 112
4. Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, Ch. 34
5. M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentarty (The New Testament Library), pp. 119, 129
6. Kerry Robichaux, Affirmation and Critique, “A Prolegomenon to a Hermeneutic of the Bible According to the Intrinsic Being of God”, [July 1999] IV.3:10. See also the end section entitled “Discerning Interpretations” in this post for more on this.
7. Boring calls attention to this fact, saying that Mark 4:1-34 is “a discrete unit… designed by Mark to be grasped as a whole.” (p. 112)
8. Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, Ch. 41
9. Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 145
10. G. H. Pember, The Great Prophecies, p. 291
11. Ibid., p. 306
12. Bengel, p. 151: “It became a tree, one may say, in the time of Constantine.” John Wesley, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 9, p. 274: “An eminent writer; who supposes, the New Jerusalem came down from heaven, when Constantine the Great called himself a christian… I cannot but believe, he would have come nearer the mark, if he had said, that was the time when a huge cloud of infernal brimstone and smoke came up from the bottomless pit. For surely there never was a time wherein Satan gained so fatal an advantage over the Church of Christ, as when such a flood of riches, and honor, and power, broke in upon it, particularly on the clergy… he would, doubtless, have expected a hero, like Charles of Sweden or Frederick of Prussia, to carry fire and sword, and Christianity, through whole nations at once. And it cannot be denied, that since the time of Constantine, many nations have been converted in this way… a warrior rushing through the land, at the head of fifty or sixty thousand men! But is this the way of spreading Christianity… is it in this manner that a grain of mustard-seed grows up into a great tree?”
13. George Campbell Morgan, The Parables of the Kingdom, p. 98
14. Lee, CWWL 1978, 1:3
15. Augustine revisits this point again and again. See Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, pp. 172-173, ed. Allan Fitzgerald. Online.
16. David J Bosch has an excellent summary of the main features of this period in his book Transforming Mission. The chapter is called “The Medieval Roman Catholic Missionary Paradigm.” I wrote about that chapter here.
17. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, pp. 257-259
18. Augustine, Confessions, 12.18.27
19. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 3.27.38
20. Recovery Version, Ezekiel 17:22, note 1
21. Boring, p. 139
22. Lee, Life-Study of Mark, pp. 120-121, 131, 137
23. Ibid., p. 128
24. Ibid., pp. 150, 137, 128, 134. It is really interesting to me that although in his Life-Study of Mark, Lee explicitly interprets the mustard seed parable just like he does in Matthew, he hardly spends any time developing this interpretation. Instead, he spends multiple chapters expounding the incredible and experiential revelation touched on above which perfectly coincides with a positive interpretation of the mustard seed parable as the manifestation of the kingdom in the next age. His messages from this perspective on Mark are truly classic and are the basis of a compelling approach to the big picture of Mark’s gospel that he fully develops in the fourth volume of that study.
Wow, Kyle! Yet another clear, well-reasoned articulation of a potentially controversial topic. I appreciated your setting the tone at the start by showing precedent for different interpretations given different contexts. I have heard the two conflicting interpretations of the mustard seed and have been a little bothered by the potential discord. I see this post as a part of “reconciling all things”, and I wish we had more of this kind of nuanced treatment in Christian dialog. You made us work for it, with the long post, but I feel it has been worth it. Thanks for the time and energy you put into it!
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Very interesting post! I agree with you completely on the use of the parables. Since the disciples (and second generation, since Mark and Luke weren’t disciples) only had 3 1/2 years with Messiah (the Word made flesh) and only had a limited amount of sayings/parables/etc., they had to use the same parables for different purposes. No doubt in my mind that Messiah intended for the multiple purposes to be understood.
In terms of the interpretation of the Mustard Seed parable, may I suggest something? Look into Matthew 13 being modeled after Leviticus 23. I’m almost certain Mark 4-5 is modeled on the same structure just more focused on the latter half of the structure. Luke 8-14 also appears to be modeled similarly but I haven’t quite figured out the details (still studying it out). From what I’ve gathered so far (and from elements you’ve mentioned in this post), I think Luke is focused almost entirely on just the first element of the latter half of the structure. But using Leviticus 23 as a guide will show that the interpretations aren’t necessarily positive or negative.
Thanks for taking the time to write the post!
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I am using this post as the main inspiration for a presentation on this topic. I am amazed how miss interpreted this parable is. You put a brilliant percpective on this topic and I see this as the only proper fit to the parable! Very intellegent take on an otherwise confusing topic! THANK YOU !