Who Is Like the Mustard Seed in Jesus’ Parable? (Mark 4:30-32 and parallels)

The parable of the mustard seed is a favorite parable of Jesus. Jesus says that it is a parable about the kingdom of God (Mark 4:30). The mustard seed is presented as a tiny seed that grows into a great plant or tree (Matt 13:32; Luke 13:19), where the birds can nest. The mustard seed plant of Jesus’ parable is not one of ordinary size, but the grandest mustard seed plant ever. One would not normally think of a mustard seed plant as growing into a tree where a bird could make its home, much less multiple birds. The kingdom of God grows from its very humble beginnings to a grand size that is surely miraculous. Therefore, it is common to stress that the mustard seed parable points to the way in which something small can grow into something great if God is truly at work. But what might the parable mean in its original context? In its relation to the ministry of Jesus?

Mustard Seed Parable and the Ministry of Jesus

When we think about the mustard seed parable in relation to the ministry of Jesus, its connection to the kingdom of God becomes obvious and the prophetic nature of this parable becomes clear. As interpreters often note, Jesus and his first followers are basically like the mustard seed. Jesus came announcing that “the kingdom of God has drawn near” and that the proper response to his message is to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). The most genuine response to his message was to become one of his disciples. It would have been easy to dismiss Jesus and his first followers as an insignificant movement that would amount to nothing. The mustard seed parable suggests that the movement that Jesus is starting is a new phase in the history of the kingdom of God. It is small like a mustard seed, but it will grow and grow until it becomes something truly grand. The mustard seed parable predicts the wondrous growth of the kingdom of God from its rather humble beginnings.

Mustard Seed Parable and Biblical Theology

This is not the first time in the Bible that God’s kingdom grows from humble beginnings into something great. God seems to like to work in this way. He tells Abraham that he will be the father for the people of God through his one son, Isaac (Gen. 17:6-7, 16), and that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). Long before Jesus, God reveals to David that his sons are to see themselves as rulers over all the nations (Pss. 2:8-9, 89:27). It seems that God likes to raise up great things from rather humble beginnings. Perhaps God wants to show us in these cases that he is at work and that his kingdom is not merely the result of human maneuvering or political prowess.

What could God be doing in our own time that we might fail to appreciate, because it is not grand enough to impress us and meet our expectations?