Parables of a Mustard Seed and of Leaven

Mt 13:31-35; Mk 4:31; Lk 13:19; Mk 8:15; Lk 13:21 . . .

The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.  Another parable [Jesus] spoke to them:  the kingdom of Heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.

All these things Yeshua spoke to the multitudes in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.’ (Ps 78:1-2)

Let us remember that Yeshua says the first parable governs the rest of them:  if we are to understand the parables, we must understand the first one about the sower and the seed. (Mk 4:13)

1.  All hear the Word of God.
2.  Not all who hear the Word understand it in order to believe Him.
3.  Not all who believe Him abide in the Word, but fall away.
4.  Not all who do abide in the Word bear fruit.
5.  Not all who do bear fruit produce the same amount or quality.

The parables reveal things hidden from the foundation of the world, but now are made known through the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, who, being the Light of the world, brings things to light and tells us the truth.  When Jewish people tell Christians that Jesus is not the Messiah, one of their main objections is that if He were, everyone would know and there would be peace. But Yeshua/Jesus IS the Messiah, and in these parables of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God He is speaking of things kept secret from the foundation of the world:  there is evil at work within God’s Kingdom for now, and it is found even within the very midst of all that the Father is doing to bring His children back home. This is similar to YHVH giving Moses and Israel the beginning chapters of Genesis, to bring truth to His people in contrast to all the legends and fables of the world. He loves us, and we are still learning to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We demonstrate this through obeying Him with faith. (1Jn 5:3-5)

These two short parables of a mustard seed and of leaven use something very basic to the life of agriculturists and to home-makers. Plants and bread were well known by all the people, and both plants and bread begin from something very small: either a seed or a little leaven.

In the case of the mustard seed, the black mustard seed was the smallest of seeds used in Israel in those days, and the mustard plant could grow to almost 4 meters (about 12 feet).  This is certainly large enough for birds to nest or to rest in its branches. Yeshua encourages believers in our faith, that even if our faith is only as large as a mustard seed, we can uproot trees and move mountains! (Lk 17:6; Mt 17:20)

From the parables which Jesus began to tell, the reference to ‘a man’ and ‘his field’ refer to the Son of Man – Jesus Himself  – and to the world, where both Israel and the Church are.

In the first parable, the reference to ‘birds’ has a negative meaning, and Jesus mentions again in this parable the ‘birds of the air’, some of which would be clean birds and others unclean (Lev 11:13-19; Dan 4:14). In the Revelation (Rev 18:1-3), John saw and heard an angel speaking of Babylon the Great fallen, and described as being a cage for every unclean and hated bird.  Remember, before beginning our studies of these parables of the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven/God, we looked at the mystery of iniquity, which is already at work (2Thes 2:7). The devil is trying to deceive the elect, if possible, and he does so by mixing in the ‘name’ of YHVH or of Jesus with false teachings, another gospel, an unholy and unclean spirit. In Israel, we had the advice of Balaam that the Midianite women should seduce the Israeli men; we had Jezebel and Ahab bring in Baal worship into ‘mainstream’ Israeli religion. In the New Testament, we have many warnings about false teachers and false prophets within the church; and in the letter to the church in Thyatira, Jesus speaks and warns against “that woman Jezebel” within the church who teaches and seduces His servants to practice idolatry and immorality.

So here, too, in the parable about the little mustard seed which grows large enough to be a tree, we see a picture of the small beginnings of God’s Kingdom being established on the Earth: firstly through the promise of the [small] Seed of the Woman who will overcome and put away the evil one and evil that was already at work in the Garden of Eden!; then much later through choosing a man, Abram/Abraham, on through a small nation, Israel, and especially through the gospel being preached after Pentecost, all this taking place in a small land among a small number of Jewish Israelis. YHVH God’s kingdom has grown to a large size, beyond normal expectation from such small and humble beginnings! And like a mustard plant, it doesn’t look all that glorious now! All this is to the glory of our great God and Savior!

At the same time, though, in the wisdom, goodness, and long-suffering of our God,(who desires that all should repent unto salvation through Jesus Christ), He allows all kinds of uncleanness and evil to not only exist, but to operate within and enjoy His creation and works, to the point of  danger for those who do not discern good from evil, clean from unclean, holy from profane, and to risking the honor of His holy name. The devil comes into the household of God, whether it be Israel or the Church.

The day of judgment will come, when God will once more shake not only the Earth, but also  the Heavens, removing those things that are being shaken, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire! (Heb 12:26-29; Hag 2:21-22)

The parable of the leaven is similar to that of the mustard seed in that Jesus takes something ‘small’ which becomes something ‘big’.  A difference in a seed, though, from leaven is that a seed has the bigness already in itself, whereas the leaven is an outside agent for causing the increasing corruption of grain. (The leaven works properly when it is used under proper control in dough prepared for the oven to make a loaf of bread, for example (Gen 18:6). If the leaven is mixed into sitting grain/meal, it spoils it; and that is the picture in this parable.)

Throughout the Scriptures, leaven nearly always carries a negative implication:
Ex 34:25   You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leaven. . ..
Lev 2:11   No grain offering which you bring to YHVH shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey in any offering to YHVH made by fire.  (The new grain offering required at Shavuot/Pentecost does contain leaven (Lev 23:16-17), and that is significant for us as believers, and for the Lord’s Supper.)

Mt 16:6,11-12; Mk 8:15   Then Yeshua said to [His disciples], ‘Take heed and beware of the leavenof the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’   ‘How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?  But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Then they understood  that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees (and of Herod).

Lk 12:1   . . .[Yeshua] began to say to His disciples first, ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

Lk 13:20-21   . . .To what shall I liken the Kingdom of God?  It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.

1Cor 5:6-8   Your glorying (i.e., self-satisfaction despite unjudged serious sin within the church) is not good.  Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?!  Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened.  For indeed Messiah, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.  Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened [character] of sincerity and truth.

The issue of leavened/unleavened is NOT about bread/food, but of truth and godliness!  It is about US.

Gal 5:9  A little leaven leavens the whole lump. (Paul is rebuking those who have allowed themselves to be taken in by teaching which would ‘estrange them from Messiah if they again seek justification by law; they have fallen from grace and the hope of righteousness by faith.) God has cut a NEW covenant, not a renewed one!

Who is “the woman” who has taken and hidden the leaven in the three measures of grain?  I believe it is both Israel and the Church – both of whom are described as wives. It could be said that it is the harlot at work within each of them, doing the work of iniquity as the devil’s agents to spoil – if possible – the glory of God in His people who are called by His name. (Num 6:27; Ex 20:7; Is:65:15; Acts 11:26)  We have been given the privilege and the responsibility of being servants of Messiah and stewards of the mysteries of God, and it is required in stewards to be found faithful. (1Cor 4:1-2)

Judgment begins in the household of God. God’s judgments will be seen to be righteous.  Israel and Jewish people are under His judgment until today for still rejecting the truth of Messiah being Jesus/Yeshua. The Church and Christians will be judged for being similar to what Israel and the Jews have been – but even moreso, for born-again believers have the whole of the revelation of God and the Holy Spirit within us. (Heb 10:26-31)

The seven letters of Yeshua to the churches in the Book of The Revelation show the expansion of the leavening – the loss of integrity and the spoiled testimony – within the Church over the centuries. The last state is so far from the Lord, despite their ‘religiosity and presumed spirituality’, that the Christians inside do not even realize that Jesus is outside!  They are also so blinded and lukewarm and complacent, that it is evident they are not looking for the blessed hope of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth, as it is in Heaven.

All of these parables of Jesus are intended to teach and exhort us to depend upon our God and Savior in the fear of YHVH, which is the beginning of [true] knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. God loves us, and we are still learning to obey Him with faith– which is the proof, Jesus says, that we love Him. (Jn 14:21) We are saved by grace through faith in who He is and what He says in His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins against Him.

This is part five in a seven-part series of articles on the parables in Matthew 13.

Part 1: Parables, and the Mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven

Part 2: Mystery of Lawlessness/Iniquity

Part 3: Parable of the Sower and the Seed

Part 4: Parable of the Wheat and Tares

This article originally appeared on Streams in the Negev, October 23, 2010, and reposted with permission.