Tuesday, March 9, 1999

The Seed Growing of Itself, the Mustard, and the Leaven


Chapter 2

Mark 4:30-32 (Mathew 13:31-31; Luke 13:18-19); Mathew 13:33 (Luke 13:20-21); Mark 4:26-29

Jesus went about his work in an unspectacular manner. When he healed the leper, Jesus told him to say nothing to anyone. After feeding the multitudes and people wanted to make him their king, he quietly disappeared. When people mocked him to come down from the cross, he patiently endured the suffering. The disciples, who were expecting a miracle-working Messiah who with supernatural power and miracles would deliver Israel from the bondage of Rome, questioned his claim to be the Messiah when they saw Jesus acting this way. Even after the resurrection, Jesus did not seem to be actively working to usher in his kingdom. In fact he seemed to be doing just the opposite.

When Jesus fed the 5000, his disciples must have taken this miracle as evidence that he was the looked-for Savior of Israel. If he could multiply food, he could gain a great following, and his army could be sustained under any conditions. Impressed by this signal manifestation of his power, the people cried out, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world" (Jn 6:14). But Jesus did nothing to encourage their support. "When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (Jn. 6:15)

Jesus' refusal to be made king, may have been the reason for Judas' betrayal. He might have reasoned that if an attempt were made to arrest Jesus, he would use his miraculous power to deliver himself and liberate the nation of Israel. When Jesus meekly yielded himself to the authorities and allowed himself to be beaten, mocked, ridiculed and finally crucified, Judas and the other disciples gave up all hope that Jesus was the looked-for Messiah. But when he rose from the tomb, their hope grew again. And so they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). In response to their questions, Jesus told them the Parable of the Seed Growing of Itself.

In this parable, Jesus explained that his kingdom was to be established in the same way a farmer planted seeds. Once the ground had been prepared and the seeds sown and watered, the farmer must wait for the seeds to sprout and grow. The farmer can rest and sleep and go about his business confident that the plants will sprout and grow without his overactive, fussy oversight. He does not have to stretch the leaves to make them grow or open the flowers to hurry their fruition. In time the grain is ripe. That is the time for the farmer to become involved, and he goes out with a sickle to harvest his crop.

Christ is the sower. The seeds he sows are the Good News, the Gospel of His Kingdom. These seeds contain the dynamic power of God. Growth will take place and the harvest is sure. It is not something that is ushered in by heroic feats of arms, sensational miracles or powerful leaders. The disciples need not worry. The seeds Jesus was sowing would germinate. In time they would bear fruit, and at harvest time, the consummation of his kingdom would take place.

Jesus had sown the gospel seeds throughout his lifetime. He lived according to the will of God. He did not make stones into bread or jump off the pinnacle of the temple anticipating a spectacular display of divine power. When he healed people, he told them to tell no one. When crowds followed him, Jesus went off into solitary places. He avoided publicity when he could, and yet the gospel seeds germinated and grew and ripened.

People expected the Messiah to lead a large army of stalwart followers in triumph over their enemies. Jesus' "army" was made up of a few, humble, poor, powerless men and women who wondered why Jesus who proclaimed to have a kingdom did not do more to bring it into reality. In answer to this question, he gave them the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

According to Zohary the mustard seed referred to in the parable was the "brassica nigra, source of the most important condiment black mustard, which has long been extensively cultivated and was in biblical times the source of mustard-seed oil and a medicament. . . . the black mustard is an annual herb with large leaves clustered mainly at the base of the plant. Its central stem branches abundantly in its upper part and produces an enormous number of yellow flowers and small, many-seeded linear fruits."1 The seed is about a millimeter in diameter but grows to at least six feet within a season. In New Testament times, the mustard seed was a metaphor for something extremely small and insignificant. Jesus used the contrast between its seed and final size of the plant to illustrate the incredible growth of his kingdom.

Christ's Parable of the Leaven also is an illustration of extraordinary growth. While the mustard seed references the male world of farming; leaven was a daily science in a woman's. 2 The people in Jesus' day did not use fresh yeast. A piece of fermented dough was used from previous bread making. The three measures of flour mentioned in the parable was a large amount, about fifty pounds, and enough to make bread for a hundred people.

These two parables teach that while the kingdom of God had a small, unobtrusive and unnoticed beginning, its growth in power and influence would be astronomical.

The history of the Christian church is astonishing. This tiny group of ordinary people, living and working in the obscure villages of Galilee, in a small corner of an insignificant state, governed by a hostile world empire, was the seed and leaven of a movement that captured that empire without violence in three hundred years. Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world, not just in numbers, but in the effect and influence of its teachings.

What do we learn from these three parables?

1. While we need to do our part, there are some things that we cannot do, that we must trust God to do. Ellen White says, "There is a point beyond which [a person] can accomplish nothing. No strength or wisdom of man can bring forth from the seed the living plant."3

As Jesus plainly taught, what is true in nature is also true in the spiritual realm. When we blame ourselves when our ministry is not immediately rewarded, and when we take the credit when it is, we need to remember the parables of the mustard seed and leaven. We can sow the seed, but we cannot make it grow.

"While we are to preach the word, we can not impart the power that will quicken the soul, and cause righteousness and praise to spring forth. . . . Only through the divine Spirit will the word be living and powerful to renew the soul unto eternal life . . . He taught that it was nothing they possessed in themselves which would give success to their labors, but that it is the miracle-working power of God which gives efficiency to His own word."4

Casimiro Jose de Costa was one of the worst men in the city of Manaos. He drank, gambled, and physically abused his wife and children. Several times he was imprisoned because of his selfishness and cruelty. But a gospel seed had been planted in his heart, a bit of gospel leaven had touched his mind, and Casimiro Jose became a follower of Christ and a loyal member of the church at Manaos.5 It is his testimony that while others brought him the gospel message, only God could have made possible his changed life.

2. We can never tell what will become of an apparently insignificant and modest beginning.

One step, and then another,
And the longest walk is ended;
One stitch, and then another,
And the largest rent is mended;
One brick upon another,
And the highest wall is made,
One flake upon another,
And the deepest snow is laid.6

When the Seventh-day Adventist church first began, It was like a tiny mustard seed, an insignificant piece of leaven, and many wondered whether it would survive. It began with a disappointment of monstrous proportions, and it has been plagued with one type of extremism after another. Yet today it has over ten million members in over 180 countries throughout the world.

3. God works quietly, without fanfare, to accomplish his purposes. Jesus avoided the spectacular and sensational. Frequently he commanded those he healed not to tell anyone. Like the quiet but powerful effect of leaven, he works among us and accomplishes his purposes. Though God uses human agents, the triumph of the "Way", the Kingdom of the Gospel, is not ultimately dependent on human effort.

1 Michael Zohary, Plants of the Bible, p. 93 quoted in Wenham, p. 53.

2 Ibid., p. 55.

3 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1900), p. 63.

4 Ibid., p. 64.

5 Walter Streithorst, "Faith Never Faileth," Review and Herald Publishing Association

6 W. G. Branch, By Unknown Ways (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946), p. 80.

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