Parables are engaging and intriguing at the same time. Jesus taught heavenly truths and concepts in simple stories about everyday occurrences. The parable of the mustard seed might be a simple story told to a group of people well familiar with agricultural practices, but the hidden truths are significant for us two thousand years later.
When I sat down to write this, I was prepared to take the parables and verses in context and begin a lengthy explanation about the content, cultural practices, and circumstances surrounding them. The more I prayed about it, the more God began to teach me the practical, everyday applications of His words.
God’s word is indeed living! Am I right?!
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The Parable of the Mustard Seed
The mustard seed is mentioned several times by Jesus. He mentions it in parables as well as in an illustration about faith. We will study the parables first and then take a closer look at what he teaches us about faith.
Jesus tells this same parable two times. First in Matthew:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32 NIV)
Then in Luke:
Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches. (Luke 13:18-19)
What Does the Mustard Seed Symbolize?
I have heard people get hung up on the fact that Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Now, if you’ve ever seen a carrot seed, you know that it is smaller than a mustard seed, and I read somewhere that scientists have determined that orchids have the smallest seeds (interesting tidbit to look into if you are curious).
Also, Jesus tells us that the seed grows to be a tree and that is simply not true. Mustard is a large shrub with some varieties reaching six feet.
I’m guessing there was a mix-up in the interpretation and while we could go back and diligently research the Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, we might lose focus on God’s point.
What does the mustard seed symbolize?
The “kingdom of Heaven” or the “kingdom of God” are used interchangeably. Matthew always uses the expression “kingdom of Heaven” referring to the ancient writing of King David “The Lord is King forever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.” (Psalm 10:16) and “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever.” (Psalm 29:10)
Jesus is referring to God’s kingdom here on earth. The one he was sent to establish and eventually rule over. God’s people, His family of believers, or His church are the kingdom of God.
The mustard seed symbolizes Jesus establishing his kingdom. This kingdom begins with 12 disciples. Twelve dedicated followers of Christ.
The first chapter of Acts tells us that there was a group of 120 that met together “constantly in prayer” after Jesus ascended into heaven. They were awaiting the promised Comforter.
After Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost we read,
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47)
It is estimated that by AD 150 the Christian population was 40,000 and by AD 200 the population had grown to 218,000.
If this isn’t our parable of the mustard seed coming to life, I don’t know what is!
Another interesting fact about mustard is that it not only grows to a large shrub from a small seed, but it spreads very quickly, often taking over gardens and other carefully planted areas. Gardeners might call it “invasive”.
The gospel of Jesus spread quickly, just like our mustard.
What is Faith of a Mustard Seed?
Let’s look at two more verses in which Jesus talks about the mustard seed.
He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. (Luke 17:6)
He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
We can draw the same conclusion from these two verses as from the parable. Faith makes things happen and it grows and spreads.
Have you ever been encouraged by God working in someone else’s life? That is their faith spreading and growing just like the mustard. Their faith planted seeds in your heart.
Have you ever faced a difficult situation and prayed your way through it? The act of praying and giving it to God is faith as a mustard seed.
I used to read these verses and believe that the tree or the mountain would be removed completely. The situation I was facing would miraculously disappear. Sure, this does happen, but I found that more often it is the mountains and trees in my heart that need to be removed.
If you are facing a difficult circumstance and praying for an answer, don’t forget to take a step back and see the work God is doing in your heart through this experience. Sometimes the mountains of fear, pride, idolatry, unforgiveness etc. are much harder to remove than the physical situations we face. These are the ones we need to pray that God casts into the sea.
Lessons from the Parable of the Mustard Seed
What is the moral of the parable of the mustard seed and how can we apply it to our lives today?
The parable of the mustard seed is such a powerful story that provides us with so many things that we can apply to our own lives. It gives us a perspective from which to approach the many struggles and obstacles that we will, no doubt, face throughout our earthly lives.
Mustard seed faith is powerful
The size of the mustard seed and the plant it grows into is significant.
The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that all we need is the slightest amount of faith. The smallest of things can turn into the greatest of blessings.
“Who dares despise the day of small beginnings?” (Zechariah 4:10)
These words from God come as the exiled Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. They are discouraged as they rebuild the temple remembering the glory of the one Solomon had built. Faith begins small. God’s work in your life, ministry, or family may feel small and insignificant, but do not be discouraged. It will grow! Remember how mustard spreads.
Allow God’s Kingdom to grow in your life
The kingdom of God is so much more than simply professing with your mouth that you believe that Jesus died for your sins. It is an active, living, and growing faith. Nourish that faith by reading God’s word, praying, worshiping, and learning. You will see the kingdom of God grow in your heart, in the hearts of your family, and in the hearts of all of those you come into contact with.
You don’t need a bucketful of faith; all you need is a seed.
When I lost my beautiful daughter in an accident several years ago, people would often tell me how strong I was. Truth be told, I wasn’t strong at all, I was simply enduring what life had handed me. I resented God, wanted to die, and pushed through solely on the prayers of those who cared about me.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)
My mustard seed of faith was that tiny glimmer of hope that maybe God really was all He promised us. Maybe He really hadn’t left me and was holding me up, keeping me from drowning. That seed of faith grew and I experienced a love so strong and a confidence so sure that I will never be the same woman I was.
Your heart is the fertile ground for mustard seed faith to flourish.
Sometimes your “mulberry tree” and your “mountain” are in your heart and not in your situation at all.
I know I already talked about this, but it was a game-changer for me so I want to be sure you don’t miss it. So often we are looking for a miracle from God, but the true wonder is being achieved in our hearts. We put up walls, embrace selfish desires, and keep ourselves at arm's length from the painful stuff. God uses the painful experiences in our lives to remove these things.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed in Action
I just finished reading “The Hiding Place” which is the story of Corrie TenBoom. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!
The Hiding Place follows the story of Corrie and her family during WW2. They are involved in the resistance movement in Holland and are imprisoned for this as well as for hiding Jews. Reading about their time in jail and in the concentration camps are not stories that are unfamiliar. Sadly, we know these horrific circumstances existed.
What stood out to me is that Corrie and her sister Betsie had grown up in a Christian home. They feared God and did His will the best they could, but it wasn’t until they were imprisoned that you see the real calling God had for them. Rather than becoming angry and bitter about their circumstances, they relied entirely on God to help them through.
This faith grew as they began having “church services” with the other prisoners, sharing a hope that the other women desperately needed. Starving and sick women living in flea and lice-infested dorms crowded around Betsie and Corrie as they read from the Bible they had smuggled in. These women were desperate for something to hang onto. Something to lead them through the darkest days in the history of our modern world.
Betsie and Corrie had been stripped of everything, but the Germans could not kill their faith. Instead, their faith spread to the point that thousands came to the knowledge of Christ during their otherwise horrifying experience.
After the war, Corrie continued God’s work in such a way that she has inspired millions (including me!). That tiny seed of faith grew just like the mustard plant, influencing and encouraging far beyond the reaches of the Ten Boom sisters.
That is the parable of the mustard seed in action!
It’s your turn, my friend! How are you going to put the parable of the mustard seed into action in your life?
Be sure to read more from our Parables Collection: