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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 10

The Parables of the Mustard Seed & the Yeast

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 13:31-35
Mark 4:26-34

Jesus is predicting that the Gospel message of the Kingdom has an innate power that will cause it to grow even in hostile circumstances and what appears to be very small will end up having huge influence.

Jesus is predicting that the Gospel message of the Kingdom has an innate power that will cause it to grow even in hostile circumstances and what appears to be very small will end up having huge influence.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 10: ‘The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast.’ If you've been following recent episodes you will know that we are in Matthew 13 which has seven parables gathered together in the teaching of Jesus and we are now halfway through looking at those parables. The text is Matthew 13: 31 - 35. We'll also be looking at the parallel account in Mark which adds in another interesting little parable as an introduction to the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

Introduction and Recap

Welcome back and I hope you've read those other episodes so you can catch a feel of this discussion of parables - but a quick recap, I think, would be helpful. We're now in Series 5 and in Series 3, we described the extraordinary ministry of Jesus in his first tour of Galilee - his home district - where he travelled around, healed thousands and preached to thousands of people and had a huge impact. Then he created a moment of focus by appointing twelve Apostles amongst his many disciples and he gave some extended teaching to his disciples, which we call the Sermon on the Mount, covered in Series 4, which really shows how the discipleship community is going to be shaped in terms of its behaviour, its ethics and its spirituality. Now, we are in Series 5 and we're well established in the second tour of Galilee. We've looked at all sorts of interesting things that happened as Jesus went round and he's preparing his twelve Apostles to be sent off in pairs on their own - which is going to happen fairly shortly in the narrative. This is a period of preparation for them.

There's the usual mixture of conversations, confrontations with the Pharisees, miracles, crowds gathering and all sorts of interesting things happening. The event that we've noticed shapes the narrative, very particularly, is the one described in the second half of Matthew 12, which we looked at a few episodes ago when there was a head-on confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, with the crowd caught in the middle, concerning Jesus' messianic identity. A particular miracle - the healing of demonised man who was blind and mute - provoked the crowds to wonder whether Jesus was the Son of David, which is a title for the coming Messiah, and the Pharisees resisted that very strongly, claiming he was a false messiah, inspired by demonic power and not by the Spirit of God. It was really an incredible moment of confrontation. We saw that a few episodes ago and from that period, we can see this confrontation is going to increase and there are going to be two camps of people in the country. There are going to be those who become believers, become disciples, follow Christ, acknowledge his Messiahship, and those who don't - either because they directly resist him or because they're really confused by their religious leaders who resist him. The religious leaders (the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the priests) are going to exercise a huge influence over the people and persuade many not to believe in Jesus and so the nation is going to become very divided and polarised as time goes on. The early popularity of Jesus is going to give way to a polarised situation and Jesus begins to warn of the dangers of resisting his coming for the nation of Israel - we've discussed that in several recent episodes and that theme will come up again.

He starts to teach in parables, which are a form of prophetic storytelling, symbolic storytelling, that tend to have the effect that they accentuate either faith or unbelief. The person of faith is animated, illuminated and encouraged by a parable; they see more truth. The person who doesn't quite get what Jesus is talking about gets even more confused. We've discussed that process carefully and, two episodes ago, we looked at Jesus explaining how the use of parables has that tendency to divide. It's not there just to make spiritual truths easy for us, as some people have suggested. Parables are there to help those who are already on the journey of faith and to provoke those who are not, by telling them things they find initially confusing - and sometimes that really hardens them in their position. Jesus was very clear about that when we were discussing the Parable of the Sower where that's very explicitly taught. We've had two interesting parables: the Parable of the Sower, which is about evangelism and the fruitfulness of the Kingdom, and its main theme is that we just need to keep being faithful in sharing the message and trust that for some people it falls on good ground, so to speak, in their lives and their hearts are open and they become very productive. Then we looked at the Parable of the Weeds, in our last episode, where we see somebody comes in maliciously and plants weeds onto a field that's recently been planted with good seed (perhaps with wheat or something similar) and these two types of seed grow up, their plants grow until the harvest. Jesus explains the dynamic of two kingdoms growing together - the tension between them and the ultimate resolution through the Second Coming, the judgement of Jesus - and the distinguishing between the good and the evil and the vindication of the sons of the Kingdom and of the believers in Jesus.

Seeds that Grow and Develop

Now we move on to consider some other parables. First of all, I'm going to refer, very briefly, to Mark 4: 26 - 29. This is a very short parable that's similar to the other ones about the seeds that are growing, and it has a very similar theme to the Parable of the Mustard Seeds so I'm going to mention it in passing as we stick mainly to Matthew 13 and the seven parables there. This one is uniquely mentioned in Mark 4: 26 - 29:

26He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”’

Mark 4:26-29, NIV

This parable emphasises again what the Parable of the Sower has suggested and also the Parable of the Weeds, which is the potent power of the seed. In the Parable of the Sower, the seed is the message - the Gospel message, the message of the Kingdom. It has great power and when you plant that message - when you preach it, when you share it, when you testify about it - it's the message that has power not you. Sometimes it has a really dynamic effect on other people and you can think, “Wow! That's an amazing effect. How did I do that?” Well, of course, you didn't. It was the message; you're just the messenger. This parable points out that power of the seed to grow and develop and to become very productive (this is something emphasised in the Parable of the Sower). That's a useful introduction, with a fairly obvious meaning, to the Parable of the Mustard Seed, another agricultural-type parable, a very interesting one, which is the first of the two parables we're going to look at significantly in our study today.

The Smallest Seed

Matthew 13: 31 and 32. It's a very short parable but it's pretty well-known, you might be very familiar with this:

31He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32Though 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

A very simple short story.. What's the significance of the mustard seed? I wonder whether you're familiar with mustard seeds? It is a very small seed. In fact, I always keep some in my office. I've got a collection of mustard seeds in a little bag, and I've also got some put on a card which is displayed in my office. This is to remind me of the truth that we see in this parable. The mustard seed is a very small seed; it was the smallest seed in common use at that time in Israel and, proverbially, to the Jews it was the smallest of all seeds. It isn't literally the smallest of all seeds, from our point of view, knowing all the different types of seeds available to us but to the Jews listening, it was the smallest seed in the proverbial sense and in the practical sense that they didn't have any other seeds that were smaller. When you planted the mustard seed, it was very tiny in the ground. I wonder whether you've ever had that experience of planting a very small seed and wondering whether it's going to be productive? One of the interesting things about plants is the proportionality between the seed and the plant. A common thing in my country is, people plant sunflower seeds and get this huge plant that comes from a very modest seed; people find that fascinating and very interesting. How can such a big plant come from such a small seed? Very commonly in my culture, people often talk about the acorn and the oak tree. The oak tree can live for hundreds of years and it keeps growing slowly and steadily through the centuries and can become an absolutely enormous tree from a tiny little seed. It's all the same principle isn't it? To the Jew in the first century, the mustard seed was the most vivid example of this because the mustard plant could grow to about 3 metres tall (nine or ten feet) - that's pretty big - and so it appeared like a tree. It was a plant that turned into a small tree and so the mustard seed becomes, proverbially, something very small with lots of power.

Faith Like a Mustard Seed

Jesus uses the mustard seed to teach in another context with the same meaning for the mustard seed - same type of meaning. I'll give you this reference for interest. Matthew 17: 20: ‘“Because you have ... little faith.”’ He says, describing some miracle that didn't happen because his disciples didn't know how to bring it about. 

‘“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.”’‘“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed.”’

Matthew 17:20, NIV

Again, he's using the mustard as a proverbial example of something particularly small - the smallest of its kind. Faith, very small faith, can have a very big impact. A very small seed of the Gospel - of the Kingdom - a mustard seed, as it were, can produce one of the largest plants in the garden environment - or the smallholding environment - of the ancient Jewish people in the first century. It could grow to 3 metres. The Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, through the message of the Gospel, has the potential, from very small beginnings, to grow very significantly, with a certain growth, and produce a large result. That's essentially the message of the mustard seed and that's the message we need to keep in mind as we are seeking to live fruitful Christian lives: the very small faith we have, and the powerful message that we have, can be very fruitful in our lives.

Yeast in the Dough

There's another parable, which is even shorter in its wording, but a similar meaning: the Parable of the Yeast in the bread dough - in the bread making process. It's just one verse, Matthew 13: 33,

‘He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”’

Matthew 13:33, NIV

Bread-making was done, for the most part, domestically at home in those days. It was mainly done by women - women working at home - housewives, mothers. The quantity described here - sixty pounds of flour - is an absolutely gigantic quantity. It's enough to feed a village - not a family. I think Jesus has chosen a particularly large quantity - something you would hardly ever do in a domestic situation; you wouldn't possibly need that amount of bread unless you're organising a feast for the whole village. Jesus gives this extraordinary large quantity because he's illustrating again the power of the yeast. A very small amount of yeast is needed to penetrate, over a period of time, the whole of the batch of dough - however large it is, the yeast will penetrate it. A particularly large quantity is described in this parable to make people sit up and they can say, “Hang on a minute! I'd never make that much bread; it's almost impossible to do so in my household, where would we put it all?” People's response to the quantity would be provoking them to think, “What is the point of the story?” and, of course, the point of the story is about the power of the yeast. It'll spread; it'll make the bread rise; it'll extend very far. As far as the dough is, the yeast will extend and have its impact, making the final product, the bread - the bread to be eaten. Indeed, the Kingdom message will spread throughout the whole world.

We'll come back to that theme in just a moment but let's just note verses 34 and 35. Here are some summary comments from Matthew (the author). He's commenting, as Jesus is going along, bearing in mind that Jesus has only just started speaking in parables - it's something that is prominent at this particular time in his ministry, after this major confrontation with the Pharisees and after the division in the nation of Israel - they're becoming prophetic stories that illustrate the division in the nation. Verse 34 and 35:

34Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”’

Matthew 13:34-35, NIV

That's a reference to Psalm 78: 2, probably written by Asaph, one of the Psalm writers of the Old Testament and one of the worship leaders in the Temple, who used parables probably, to illustrate spiritual truths. Jesus is doing the same thing as Asaph did in the Old Testament and he's revealing truths that had never been clearly understood before.

Two Stages to the Kingdom Coming

I want to reflect on these parables. There's some momentum building up here. We're discussing the fourth of seven parables that Matthew has described here as Jesus giving, during this particular form of teaching and we've had one extra small parable from Mark's account which we've added in from Mark 4, which is on a similar theme. These parables in Matthew 13 are a major block of Jesus' teaching. Matthew describes this, very clearly, as what we would call a discourse and the theme of this discourse is the growth of the Kingdom. All these parables are telling us the dynamic of the growth of the Kingdom across the world and through time. They have  the time-frame of the whole of Church history - not just the period that Jesus is talking about, not just the experience that you and I might have or maybe a thousand years ago at a particular time. No, these are general statements about the way the Kingdom of God is going to advance through time.

I want to reflect and think what would all of this have meant to the listeners and what can we learn from it in the 21st century, as we listen to these well-known parables and try to make some application for ourselves in all the different parts of the world that we come from. I think the first thing that I would like to say is that, to the listeners, there's a real shock in this type of parable because they believed, in general, that when the Messiah came he would bring in God's Kingdom instantaneously. There'd be a confrontation with demonic powers of evil. There'd be a confrontation with worldly systems. There'd be confrontation with Gentile rulers in Israel who'd conquered the land and overtaken it - such as the Romans at the time. There would be an immediate vindication of the nation of Israel, an immediate restoration of the presence of God. There would be the development of worldwide peace emanating from Jerusalem. These are the thrust of some of the Old Testament prophecies about the messianic Kingdom and many of the teachers of the day taught that this would happen immediately on the arrival of the Messiah. Now, Jesus is presenting a different picture. He's basically teaching that the Messiah comes to this world twice. We've mentioned this on many occasions in our teaching so far, you'll have heard me say this if you've followed any number of episodes that we've already had, but I need to emphasise it again because this was difficult for the Jewish mindset. His first coming, bringing in the Kingdom, did not bring all the immediate results straight away. It basically brought a foothold of the Kingdom of God in an otherwise hostile world, a small foothold to start with. We know that Jesus will come again a second time and all the things I described earlier on - about the messianic Kingdom, the age of peace and the restoration of the Jewish people to faith and Gentile salvation - all these things are still true and will happen. Those Old Testament prophecies are valid and important for us but they won't be fulfilled at that particular moment - it's a two-stage process and so there's a shock.

An Innate Power

On the positive side, Jesus is predicting that the Gospel message of the Kingdom has an innate power that will cause it to grow even in hostile circumstances and what appears to be very small will end up having huge influence. The mustard seed appears tiny; the yeast in the vast amount of dough described in the parable I've just read would look tiny (proportionately it's a tiny percentage of that enormous amount of dough that could feed the whole village) but it has innate power and the growth of it is certain, despite setbacks. Here's an interesting balance, isn't it? We know the Church suffers setbacks. I'm a complete realist about this. I've seen it in my own life in different parts of the world. Some of the setbacks experienced, for example, in the Middle East in my lifetime for the Church have been very significant but what I do know is that there is certain growth despite setbacks. Wherever there are setbacks, there will be further growth. In the Western world, for example in Western Europe, the Church has been declining throughout the whole of my lifetime. We could say, “Well that trend is going to continue permanently,” but actually there are signs of God renewing the Church, very substantially as well, and so the innate power of the Gospel will have its effect even when certain things look as though the Church is declining fast.

The perspectives provided by these parables strengthen our spiritual muscles to address the question of mission in all sorts of different cultures and countries around the world. There'll be slightly different applications (and we'll come to one or two examples of those in just a moment as we conclude this talk) but the principle is the same. We know the Church is going to keep growing and it is still growing very fast in my lifetime and in the early 21st-century. That's encouraging and not surprising, given what Jesus says here.

The Book of Acts as an Example

We can see the same pattern in the book of Acts. Let me comment on that as an application of this. The book of Acts describes a very small group of people - 120 in Jerusalem, just after Jesus had ascended. 120 people in the remote eastern region, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, believing something new about the Jewish Messiah. What was their chance of influencing the whole Roman Empire and beyond? It didn't look much but the book of Acts describes one part of the mission, especially that led by Peter and Paul, most significantly, as spreading further and further into the Roman Empire until, by the end of the book, Paul has reached Rome and is witnessing to Christ very openly within a very short distance (a kilometre or two perhaps) of the Imperial Palace of the greatest empire of the day. That story illustrates the sort of thing that we describe here in these parables. It's basically showing that the power of the Gospel, despite many setbacks, will just keep causing it to spread. There are many setbacks in the book of Acts: you'll see bouts of persecution; you'll see martyrdom; you'll see Christians scattered from Jerusalem for example; you'll see Paul (the leading Apostle) in prison for long periods of time; lots of dislocation geographically; and health problems - there's just so many things, - opposition from demonised people, opposition from rulers, opposition from Jews and synagogues all over the place. It's a really complicated story but, if you read it as a whole, the growth continues because the seed is powerful; the mustard seed is powerful, the yeast is powerful - to use the metaphors from the two parables that we have just discussed today.


As I look around the world today, I can see numerous examples of where the Gospel (the Gospel of Jesus Christ) is spreading remarkably quickly. We've seen a great revival in the 20th century in South Korea. We are experiencing a tremendous revival in some parts of China with unknown numbers of disciples, too difficult to calculate how many millions are following Christ. We're seeing tremendous growth in the Church in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America. We're seeing some great advances of the house church movement in countries like Iran. We could go round the world and say many exciting things about what God is doing and all these illustrate the truths that we see in these parables - the ones we've discussed today and the previous ones that we discussed in the last two episodes.

My concluding point today, is to encourage you to gain strength from the parables of Jesus in your conviction about the Gospel in your own culture, your own town, or village, or city, in your own country. You may face tremendous difficulties; you may think it's impossible that people will come to Christ but that word has power. That seed can fall into the good soil and reproduce thirty, sixty and a hundred times, to take the Parable of the Sower. That mustard seed can grow from a very small, tiny plant to a really big tree in an extended garden environment. That yeast can spread through the whole dough and the Gospel can spread through the whole of your country and its culture and all the surrounding countries as well. I'm encouraging you, as I'm encouraging myself, let us play our part to believe in the greatness of the Gospel we've got: to believe that it's all moving towards the Second Coming and Jesus' return, and to prepare the way for that by drawing people into the Kingdom of God and trusting in the message and in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring that message to conviction in the lives of countless people.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Each of us has the same seeds but they can be planted creatively, reflecting personal experience and testimony. Consider the best way for yourself. (In a group you may be able to help each other in this)
  • Discipleship
    1. In what small ways could you spread the gospel that might have a big impact?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How can you raise your expectation levels when sowing seeds? And the expectation of your church?
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