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.”
In Matthew 13, Jesus begins telling parables, explaining what the kingdom of God is like. He begins with the sower, moves on to the weeds, and then, to further answer the question of the kingdom, Jesus gives two more parables. First, a parable of the mustard seed. Second, the parable of the leaven. Each makes the same point with different images. The kingdom of God is growing and spreading, but you can’t see it, and that’s how God wants it.
A grain of mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth. Jesus wasn’t making a technical statement about which seed is the smallest. Rather, he was making a statement about which seed, being the smallest in use in farming in that day, grew to be the largest relative to its small start. The parable of the leaven teaches the same principle. It is a small thing that, when put inside something, grows into a large thing.
God has always worked this way. Unlike the ways of the world, where the loudest and most impressive receive the limelight, God goes after the small and insignificant. He chose Abraham of Ur and gave him his blessing. Out of Abraham, he created a nation that, even at its peak, was an unimpressive kingdom relative to the world. He chose a remnant out of Israel to preserve his gospel. He chose Mary, a virgin, to bear his Son. He chose a carpenter to father the Savior. He chose Nazareth to raise the Lord. From the smallness of the world grew the largeness of the kingdom. From weakness, his power comes.
This would have encouraged his disciples. They were nothing in their day: fisherman and tax collectors. But to them was given the keys to the kingdom. Even after their years with Jesus, they were considered by outsiders to be common, uneducated men. Their only authority was that they had been with Jesus. And that was all they needed. It’s all any of us need. That’s why Jesus tells us these stories—to show us how deeply he is with us, or, rather, how deeply we are with him.
Jesus was the ultimate pastor, and in his shepherding, he brings us into the depths of God’s purposes. He shows us God’s heart. He is not unconcerned with evil. He is against it. But his view is long-term, not short-sighted. His kingdom has come, his will is being done, and earth will one day transform into heaven. But that day has not yet appeared in its fullness. God is still patient, not wishing that any would suffer eternal death.
In his incarnation, Jesus endured what God should never have to face. He did it in no small corner of the world. He became the most famous person of his day and the most famous person of all time, but he did not start that way. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, through the womb of a virgin to a crib in a stall. He worked in the shadows, using the enemy’s strategy against him, coming in the veil of night whereby a star led his worshippers to his manger. On that Christmas Day, God’s armies of angels praised him, the war cry of heaven, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). When God waged war on the evil of this world, he sent a baby.
And that baby grew in wisdom and stature, like any baby before or after him—as a mustard seed would, or a bit of leaven in a lump of bread. Jesus brought the kingdom of God in the most fitting way possible: slowly, intentionally, effectively. He grew alongside his enemies, awaiting the time of harvest. But his harvest came early. The enemy would not wait for the end. He acted beforehand, according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). After the last supper, Judas went out to commit his sin, and it was night (John 13:30). And God was in control of it all.
Like an eclipse, the darkness overwhelmed the Son, nailing him to a cross. He hung there in condemnation, a Savior bearing the sins of the world. With a final gasp, he died. He was buried in the tomb of a friend. And he was gone. But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).
What the enemy believed to be victory was, in fact, defeat. Without his knowledge, the mustard seed had grown, and like bread too big for the pan, Jesus burst forth from the grave. The enemy may have had some whips and nails, but the Son had life, and his life outlasted the enemy’s death. There was Jesus, in his glorified body, shining like the sun in the kingdom of his Father. His present reality became the future hope of his people and the ultimate dread of his enemies.
What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like a sower spreading seed on the ground, wheat growing among weeds, like a mustard seed in the ground, like a little leaven in a lump. The kingdom of heaven is the rumble underneath the earth, waiting for the time of eruption. It’s growing by leaps and bounds, swallowing up the world, until that final day when Jesus returns and makes all things new. Until then, we remain, practicing patience. We may not be shining yet, but we have the Son himself to lean on. Evil may remain rooted in this world, but we have the Savior granting us the strength to carry on, giving us hope that his kingdom is swelling, and one day, at the end of the age, all will be set right.