The Mustard Seed
William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"He told them another parable: "The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."
"Again he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade."
"Then Jesus asked, "What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches."
Few words — but pregnant truths! The aim of our Savior was to find some comparison or similitude that would best illustrate the outward growth and development of the Kingdom of God. In asking the question of those around him, "What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?" He did not design that they should answer it, for they could not, being ignorant of the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. But by starting the question, he excited their minds to action, caused them to feel more forcibly their inability to reply; and, by stimulating their curiosity, produced a deeper desire to understand the nature of that kingdom of which Jesus spoke. When, therefore, after bending to Him their attentive ears, they heard Him compare it to a grain of mustard seed, they must for the moment have been shocked at the insignificance of the resembling object, so different from their preconceived ideas of the glory and magnificence which they supposed would usher in the Messiah's reign.
Unbiased as we are by those temporal and national views of the person and reign of Christ, which blinded the minds of the Jews; and looking at this Kingdom of God, not from a prophetic standpoint, as something yet to take its rise — but from a historic one, wherein we see it already begun, and in process; we can see the felicity of the comparison, and mark its close resemblance.
The grain of mustard seed is indeed "the least of all the seeds that are sown in the earth," and it was in this sense, doubtless, that our Lord spoke of it — alluding rather to the relative size of the seed, and the developed plant, than to the seed in the abstract, because the seeds of poppy and rue are smaller than those of mustard, though the plants themselves never rise beyond the character, of humble herbs, whereas the mustard seed "becomes a great tree," and "shoots out great branches."
Thus small and insignificant was the first germ of the Kingdom of God in its earthly manifestations. We say earthly manifestations, because, as it existed in the mind of the Triune God, it was a Divine idea, compassing at once all its results, and could not, therefore, be either small or insignificant.
But on earth, how did Christ, who is Himself the grain of mustard seed, out of which grew the great tree of Christianity, first appear? As an infant! wrapped in swaddling-bands and lying in a feeding trough! Could reason see anything in Mary's child, born in a stable, to foreshadow such prestigious results? Certainly not. And when, after thirty years of obscurity, working, doubtless, in the mean while, at the carpenter's bench with his reputed father, "Jesus began to teach and to preach" — who saw in the plain Nazarene, anything to indicate a greatness that would fill the earth with its glory? Who would recognize in Him, the revolutionizer of the world? Or, beholding Him at the beginning of His ministry, selecting as His disciples — not the titled, the wealthy, the influential — but fishermen and tax-gatherers, ignorant and crude Galileans — who would not have said, looking at the subject on mere worldly grounds — that here, surely was a great mistake, to entrust to such uncouth and uneducated men, so great a treasure as the Gospel professed to be; that, if Jesus' design was to make converts and popularize His doctrines, He should have selected well-skilled Scribes, or learned Pharisees, or influential Sadducees — men who, from their social or intellectual position, would have been treated with respect, and listened to with reverence. But to call a man from his fishing nets and tackle, and tell him to go preach the Gospel; to call another from his publican's seat and tax-table, and commission him to declare the whole counsel of God concerning man's highest and eternal interests — seemed to finite minds like "casting pearls before swine," or attempting to achieve great ends by totally inadequate means!
And when at last, after three years, going up and down throughout the cities of Palestine, the founder of this new religion was arrested, condemned, and crucified like a slave — who would have supposed that his tenets could survive the dispersion of His disciples, and His own ignominious death?
Thus the life and death of Christ, in its human aspects, was emphatically, as to its apparent insignificance — a grain of mustard seed.
Nor does the case appear to be much better after Jesus had ascended on high. The disciples whom He left behind Him, had all at one time deserted Him, and were now so timid and so few that they all assembled in an upper room for fear of the Jews. The idea, humanly speaking, was absurd — that less than a dozen illiterate Galileans could overthrow the old religions of the world, and set up a new one, which would extend from the rising to the setting sun! The mind could see in it no relation between the insignificant cause and the desired effect:
They were to preach the Gospel to every creature — yet could speak no language but their provincial tongue.
They were to disciple all nations to Christ — yet every one of them had lately forsaken Him and fled.
They were to uproot the idolatries of earth — yet were themselves feeble and superstitious.
They were to overturn the skillfully wrought schemes of human philosophy — yet were themselves untaught in the schools.
They were to conquer the world to the scepter of Jesus — yet now shut themselves up in an upper room "for fear of the Jews."
Great names, literary honors, the patronage of kings, the favor of the people — they did not possess. To mortal view, it was the greatest absurdity — to commission poor, illiterate, unpolished men to convert the world, then just passing from the Augustan age of its glory, to the faith of the son of a carpenter in Nazareth, whom the Jews had cast out of their synagogues, and the Romans crucified as a malefactor!
The Stoics, with Zeno at their head, had tried to reform the world, and failed. Socrates, and Plato, and the Academicians had attempted it, with no better success. Aristotle and the Peripatetic school had aimed at it, and met the same signal defeat. How preposterous, then, to send out eleven fishermen, craftsmen, and publicans — without books, without money, without arms, without popular favor — and expect them to succeed where the proudest wisdom and the loftiest philosophy had signally failed!
Such was the small, and, in its earthly appearings, insignificant aspect of the beginnings of the Christian religion. How like a grain of mustard seed in its littleness and apparent worthlessness! But from this "least of all seeds" — we turn to behold its results in the great tree, shooting out great branches, gathering the birds of the air under its shadow.
In warm climates, the mustard seed grows to an almost incredible size. The Jerusalem Talmud says, at Shichin there was a mustard stalk which had three branches, and one of them was cut down, and they covered a potter's booth with it. One of the Rabbis says: "I have one stalk of mustard seed in my field, and I go up to it as one goes up to the top of a fig-tree." Ovalle, in his travels in Chili, thus confirms the Scripture account: "The mustard plant," he says, "thrives so mightily in Chili, that it is as big as a man's arm, and so high and thick that it looks like a tree. I have traveled many leagues through groves which were taller than man and horse, and the birds build their nests in them, as the Gospel mentions." This happily illustrates the wondrous greatness into which the religion of Christ grew from its small and obscure beginnings.
The Apostles, in obedience to the Divine command, tarried at Jerusalem until they were endued with power from on high. That power came in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Then it was, that they began to preach "Jesus Christ and Him crucified — unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness." And what was the result? Fifty days from the ascension of Jesus, three thousand were converted under the preaching of Peter. In less than three years, churches were gathered "throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria." In seven years, the Gospel was first published to the Gentiles; and in thirty years, Christianity had spread through the numerous districts of Asia Minor, Greece, southward to Egypt, and westward to Rome.
In a hundred years from the time of Christ, Justin Martyr, writing to the Emperor Adrian, declares: "There is not a nation, either Greek or Barbarian, or of any other name, even of those who wander in tribes and live in tents, among whom prayers are not offered to God the Father, in the name of the crucified Jesus." "We are but of yesterday," says Tertullian, writing a little later, "and have filled all places belonging to you. Your cities, islands, castles, towns, councils; your very camps, wards, companies; the palace, senate, forum; we have left you only your temples. Should the numerous hosts of Christians retire from the empire, the loss of so many men, of all ranks and degrees, would make you stand aghast at your desolation." In the fourth century, Chrysostom declares, "The Apostles of Christ were twelve, and they gained the whole earth. If you go to India, to Scythia, to the uttermost parts of the world — you will everywhere find the doctrine of Christ enlightening the souls of men."
Such was the "great tree," "shooting out great branches," which sprung from the "grain of mustard seed!" History has nothing that can compare with it; it stands an everlasting miracle of the Most High God.
Eighteen hundred years have passed since the Apostles went forth from their upper room — how does the religion of Jesus stand now? Survey a map of the world, and mark on it the countries most celebrated for law, order, civil and political rights — and there you will find the religion of Jesus. Point out on it the lands most noted for virtue and morality, for social blessings and individual happiness — and there you will find the religion of Jesus. Designate the places where learning is most encouraged, where the mind has wrought out its proudest triumphs, where intellect has scattered its richest treasures — and there you will find the religion of Jesus.
And why is this? Why is civil and religious liberty found only where the Bible is free? Why does learning flourish most under Gospel rule? Why is society the most elevated and refined where the tenets of God's word prevail? Why is all that is great, and good, and lofty, and inspiring in law, government, literature, science, are, and morality — are only found among the nations of Christendom; while all that is debasing in intellect, tyrannical in power, degraded in morals; whatever strips man of his glory, society of its safeguards, government of its virtue — are found where the religion of Jesus does not prevail?
Can we solve the problem on the principles of human philosophy? Gibbon tried it in his five celebrated reasons, but most signally failed. Can we explain it by the maxims of political science? Machiavel and Montesquieu, and Guizot and Bacon, each assert that its wondrous development is an anomaly in the government of the world. Can we match it by any parallel, in any country, of any religion, by any impostor? The voice of universal history answers, No! It stands alone, the wonder of the universe; the triumphal monument of Jesus, on the plains of a fallen humanity.
But its present triumphs are only a small part of its final conquests. Prophecy, reaching far into the future, has declared that "the islands shall wait for His law;" that "the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto Him;" that "the Gentiles shall come to His light, and kings to the brightness of His rising;" that "all nations shall be blessed in Him;" and that "the whole earth shall be filled with His glory."
Thus that grain of truth, as small as a mustard seed, sown at Jerusalem by the Son of man — has grown up into a tree of life, "sending out its boughs unto the sea, and its branches unto the river."
Thus has it already gathered flocking nations under its shadow; and it shall yet increase, until "the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ," and . . .
the Herod-hunted child of Bethlehem,
the despised carpenter's son of Nazareth,
the hated teacher of Galilee,
the crucified malefactor of Pilate —
shall reign as the King of nations, as He now does King of saints!