18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
20 And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” – Luke 13:18-21 ESV
Luke seems to indicate that, immediately after healing the woman in the synagogue, Jesus began to discuss the nature of the kingdom of God. This comes across as a rather abrupt change in topic but, in a sense, Jesus is simply returning to something He had discussed earlier: The kingdom of God.
Throughout this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been attempting to help His disciples understand the true nature of the kingdom. He had begun His ministry declaring that the kingdom of God was near at hand.
Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14-15 ESV
And once the 12 men whom Jesus had chosen to be His disciples became convinced that He was their long-awaited Messiah, they fully expected Him to set up His earthly kingdom at any minute. As the days passed, they began to question why Jesus was delaying the inevitable. What was He waiting for? When was He going to enter Jerusalem and declare Himself the rightful king of Israel?
Now, as He began to draw His earthly ministry to a close, Jesus was back in Judea and on His way to Jerusalem. This likely stirred the interest of His disciples, causing them to wonder if the moment they had been waiting for was finally here. Maybe this would be the time when He revealed Himself to be the Messianic deliverer the prophets had promised. But the closer they got to Jerusalem, the more Jesus talked about the kingdom, and what He had to say didn’t line up with what they were expecting. The disciples were expecting Jesus to establish an earthly realm located in the royal city of David. And that realm would usher in a time of renewed power and prosperity for the people of God. But Jesus had warned His disciples about storing up treasure for themselves in this life. Instead, they were to be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21 ESV).
And Jesus had gone on to contrast an obsession with earthly, material possessions and a desire for the kingdom.
And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” – Luke 12:29-32 ESV
When Jesus told His disciples to seek God’s kingdom, He was not suggesting that they look for an earthly realm, but that they desire the rule and the reign of God. The term “kingdom” in Greek is basileia and it most often refers to “royal power, kingship, dominion, rule.” It should not be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom. So, Jesus was encouraging His disciples to seek the rule of God – in their hearts and lives, not in a geographic location.
This message of the kingdom was central to Jesus’ ministry and mission, and He was declaring Himself to be the one who was ushering in that kingdom. Most Jews believed that when God’s Kingdom came to earth it would be in the form of an earthly king who ruled over the restored nation of Israel. They were expecting a descendant of David to arise from among the people and re-establish the Davidic dynasty. This human savior would be a warrior-king who would set them free from their enslavement and subjugation to Rome. He would restore the political, military, and financial fortunes of Israel, making them a force to be reckoned within the region.
But Jesus presents a much different picture of the kingdom than the one they held, and He describes it through the use of two simple parables. In both cases, His focus seems to be on the mysterious nature of the Kingdom. It was not going to come quickly or through the use of military power. Jesus utilizes agrarian imagery to make His point. His use of these rather bucolic descriptions of the kingdom must have seemed odd to people who were expecting something a bit more aggressive and revolutionary in nature.
Jesus gives the impression that He is searching for just the right metaphor to use and He lands on the image of the mustard seed. Mark records this same parable in his gospel and adds that Jesus referred to the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds” (Mark 4:31 NLT), a fact that everyone in the audience would have known. And Jesus points out that, when planted, this minuscule, seemingly insignificant seed “became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:19 ESV).
Everyone in His audience knew what a mustard seed was and they all knew what kind of tree it produced. But they had no idea how the transformation from one to the other took place. It was a mystery. And that seems to be Jesus’ point.
Jesus is using the imagery of the mustard seed to illustrate the nature of God’s kingdom. And what He has to say stands in direct contrast to the expectations of the Jews. They were not looking for a small, insignificant kingdom that would ultimately grow into something more impressive and impactful. They wanted immediate results. They had been waiting a long time for God to make things right. It had been hundreds of years since Israel had been a powerful nation with its very own king. So, the thought of having to wait for the “seed” to take root and grow would not have been something they found attractive.
But again, Jesus had come to establish a different kind of Kingdom. Several years later, as He stood before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus would declare, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NLT).
Jesus had not come to sit on a throne, but to hang on a cross. He had not come to be exalted to the highest office in the land, but to take “the humble position of a slave” and be “born as a human being” (Philippians 2:7 NLT). Paul went on to state that Jesus “humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 NLT). And as a result of His willing humiliation and sacrificial offering of His own life, “God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11 NLT).
And one day, the exalted King is going to return and set up His kingdom on earth. But Jesus wanted His disciples to know that now was not the time. Much to their shock and dismay, the kingdom was not going to show up as a result of military action and a revolutionary overthrow of the Roman government. It was going to begin small and grow over time. And to further stress the mysterious nature of the kingdom, Jesus used the metaphor of yeast or leaven.
Like a tiny mustard seed that eventually grows into a massive tree, the kingdom of heaven will start small but greatly expand over time. Its influence will be like that of a little bit of leaven hidden within a measure of flour. It would be invisible to the eye and impossible to distinguish from the flour. But with the addition of water, kneading, and time, the yeast will begin to permeate its way through the entire batch. While the yeast remains impossible to detect, its influence slowly becomes obvious for all to see. In the same way, the kingdom will begin as an invisible and seemingly inconsequential movement that appears doomed to failure. But in time, it will mysteriously permeate the surrounding society.
In these parables, Jesus is revealing an aspect of the kingdom that is far-distant in its focus. He is speaking of the millennial kingdom which will come at the end of the period of the Great Tribulation. It will be at His second coming that Jesus establishes His kingdom on earth and its influence will be all-pervasive. He will rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem and it will be a period marked by perfect righteousness and justice.
The day the disciples longed for was coming, but its arrival lies in the distant future. In the meantime, Jesus wanted them to understand the role they must play as they waited for that day to arrive. The present phase of God’s plan was going to allow the kingdom to remain relatively hidden, but far from inactive. Like yeast, it would continue to spread. Like the tiny mustard seed, it would slowly transform into something unexpectedly large and significant.
With His incarnation, Jesus had come to earth as the king, with the full power and authority of God at His disposal. But for time being, the form of the kingdom would remain a mystery. It would not be an earthly realm with a royal palace and a throne. As Jesus would later tell the Roman governor, Pilate:
“My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” – John 18:36 NLT
The king had inaugurated the kingdom, but its consummation lies in the future. In the meantime, the rule and reign of God were to permeate society through the lives of those who, by placing their faith in Jesus, had become full-fledged citizens of the kingdom to come. Their presence on this earth was to be like leaven in a lump of dough, slowly and imperceptibly permeating and spreading the good news of the kingdom. And in God’s good timing, the tiny seed planted by the Messiah, would eventually and mysteriously transform into a massive tree.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson