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On your Mark

The mustard seed

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.” (Mark 4:30-32, NIV)

Three times in Mark 4 Jesus compares His kingdom to seed.

The story of the soils (vv. 1-20) tells us that His kingdom meets with different responses. It is not externally imposed, but internally received.

The parable of the scattered seed (vv. 26-29) informs us that His kingdom is developmental. None of us is fully formed on the first day we begin to follow Him.

The third story, the mustard seed, shows us the extensive reach of His kingdom. It grows from tiny to huge.

Jesus starts the parable with a question: “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?” As the Master Teacher, Jesus sought to get students to think on their own. “Peter, Thomas, Matthew, the rest of you — what you do you think?” I suspect that before Jesus gave His own answer He engaged in a discussion with them and got their viewpoints.

How would you answer that question?

Kingdom is not a word we use in a democracy. But, Jesus’ hearers were well familiar with the term because it expressed the political realm in which they lived. Herod ruled as king in Galilee. Rome’s kingdom extended throughout the Mediterranean world.

So, it would be natural to assume that the disciples’ first answer would be: “The kingdom of God is a government that has authority to impose its will and law on all its citizens. As God’s kingdom, it is mightier in armament and power than any human institution. The leader of that kingdom is God’s Messiah who will overthrow Rome, Herod, and any other human leader or power that stands in His way.”

But that’s the wrong answer.

Jesus compares the kingdom to the smallest of seeds.

Like the mustard seed, Jesus’ kingdom didn’t look like much in the beginning. He spent His days and nights investing most of His time in a small band of unknowns, whom others would have discarded for their lack of potential.

In launching His kingdom, Jesus truly used the smallest seed possible — including you and me. Like the disciples, we don’t appear to have much potential.

But Jesus knows the transforming power of His presence in those who follow Him. Collectively they become “the largest of all garden plants.” Jesus sees into the future and knows from the beginning that He will have more followers than any person in the history of humanity.

What began as small will end up as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

The mustard plant is therefore a descriptive term for the Church. And, to that Church come “the birds of the air.” These birds are not sinister beings, as some commentators have falsely assumed. They’re simply looking for a safe place to land, a place to rest in the shade from the boiling sun of life’s burdens and searing sorrows.

That’s what every church is meant to be — a refuge and safe place for all in which shelter and shade can be found.

GEORGE O. WOOD is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God.

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