I am back from a little vacation, and some appreciated R&R…&G (golf). Today I want to get back into the book of Mark, and pick up where we left off in Mark 4:30-34.
In verses 30-32 Jesus uses a parable to explain the principle that the Kingdom of God starts “small” and grows to be “great.” Here it says, “And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” In these verses we find Jesus teaching the people again. He begins this session with two rhetorical questions. Jesus does not ask these questions because he doesn’t know the answer, but instead asks them to highlight the theme of the Kingdom of God. He wants to get His listeners involved, and get them thinking about this subject. This is why He asks them what they would compare the Kingdom of God to. In other words, He wanted them to think about how they would describe the Kingdom of God. I think that is a pretty good question, and so I will pose it to you. How would you describe the Kingdom of God? What would you compare it to? I think that if I had to describe the Kingdom of God I would compare it to something great and powerful. Maybe a giant army, or a huge corporation, or something like that… But this is not exactly how Jesus describes it.
In verse 32 Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a “mustard seed.” The particular seed that Jesus probably has in mind here comes from the black mustard plant which is commonly grown in this part of the world. These plants were, and still are, very useful. The seeds are used as a spice and, can also be turned into the condiment known as mustard. The seeds are also pressed to make mustard oil, and the edible leaves can be eaten as mustard greens. Jesus tells us that this seed is the “smallest seed of all the seeds on earth.” Literally, this little seed was about the size of a grain of sand.
There has been a lot of confusion over this statement because there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed. But really Jesus is not comparing the mustard seed to all the seeds on the planet. He is comparing this seed to all the other seeds that would have been sown in the garden. It is important to note that the word translated here as “earth” (τῆς γῆς) is not referring to the entire planet, but rather to the ground or soil that the seed was being sown into. In fact, it is the same word used earlier in the verse to refer to the ground.
We have seen that this seed was very small, but in verse 34 Jesus tells us more about this seed. Here we see that this seed is very small, “yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Here we see the contrast. Even though the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds in the garden the mustard plant eventually grows to be the largest plant in the garden. This particular type of mustard plant, grown in Palestine, grows to be anywhere between 10 and 15 feet tall. This is much larger than any of the other plants that the farmers would have been growing. It was even big enough for the birds to make nests in the branches.
This is how Jesus chose to describe the Kingdom of God. The question is what does it mean? What is the spiritual principle behind this parable? The answer is actually quite simple. Jesus uses this parable to explain the principle that the Kingdom of God starts “small” and grows to be “great.” One author put it this way, “The central idea of the new parable, then, is this: the kingdom of God, no matter how small and insignificant it may appear at first, will continue to expand and to become increasingly a blessing to all who enter it.” This means that we must not grow impatient, or discouraged as we wait for Jesus to come back and completely fulfill the Kingdom. This is difficult for us because we like for things done our way, and we always want to see the progress of what we are doing. However, the Kingdom of God doesn’t always work this way. Think about the example of Elijah (1 Kings 19:9-20). Elijah got frustrated with God. He thought that he was the only one left who had remained faithful to God. In His mind the Kingdom of God had fallen. However, what Elijah did not realize was that there were 7,000 people in Israel who had not bowed to Baal. From Elijah’s perspective things were not going well, and his work was insignificant. But from God’s perspective the Kingdom was growing just as He had planned it. The same is true today. We must resist the temptation to become frustrated and remember that even though our progress may seem insignificant it isn’t. In fact, this parable teaches us that God’s Kingdom will grow and it will be a blessing to the entire world. You see, in the OT the image of birds nesting in branches was occasionally used as a picture for the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s redemptive plan. Ezekiel 17:23 says,
On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.
With this parable Jesus is picking up on that prophesy to show that even through the Kingdom of God seemed to have insignificant origins it would ultimately provide benefit for the entire world. As on author put it, “Out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eyes, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the peoples of the world.”
 Hendricksen, 172.
Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, rev. ed., 149.