The chronology of the Markan parables in Mark 4 is neither random nor insignificant.
Indeed, before we turn to consider the significance of the parable of the mustard seed (verses 30 through 34), it is important to first note its position in this string of stories about the Kingdom of God. Join us as we step back for a moment and scan the whole horizon of metaphorical imagery that now stands before us. In Jesus’ parables about the His own kingdom, He has moved from small to great; He began with its people, before talking about its power and now finally He concludes, climactically, with its scope and breadth (i.e., its great size).
In short: not only will God’s kingdom on earth be the most powerful, but it will also be the largest, eventually taking over and sweeping every other kingdom under its feet (to see the earlier posts on Markan parables, click here).
Now, with that in mind, let us turn to the parable itself.
Jesus’ final metaphorical comparison to the kingdom is “a grain of mustard seed”, which “when sown on the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth” (verse 31). However, in due time, “it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (verse 32).
The dramatic change from the smallest of seeds to the greatest of trees is Jesus’ focus and its symbolism cannot be missed as it directly pertains to the surprise growth of the kingdom. Though the kingdom of God began small with the arrival of Jesus (at least by the world’s standards), eventually it will grow to an unfathomable size!
But let us dwell further on this metaphorical imagery in verse 32. For there is significance in each detail, from the tree as garden plant to the birds of the air that nest in it. The reference to a garden and “garden plants” undoubtedly links this tree to those in the first garden, the Garden of Eden.
There is no question that this new tree (and thus the new kingdom) will become a second Eden on earth, a new and lush garden in which God may once again dwell with His people, and certainly this is exactly what the Kingdom of God is all about!
Furthermore, while this tree is like other garden plants, it is also larger than all of them. Thus, while the Kingdom of God will be like the first Garden of Eden, it will nonetheless dwarf its predecessor in terms of breadth and scope. This second garden will be so much greater than the first! Finally, in considering the symbol of the tree, we know (from studying Old Testament books) that this image usually represents a nation.
If you glance back to Ezekiel 17; 31:1-9; and Daniel 4, you will see that powerful kingdoms on the earth were compared to plants that provided protection and nourishment for the birds and animals (i.e., its people) under it. Not only does Jesus infer that the Kingdom of God will grow so big that nations and peoples will dwell in it, but in fact that all nations and peoples will dwell in it. This great tree, that will dwarf all others, will be the one tree that all will want to flock to because it is better in every way. Do these descriptions of God’s Kingdom not amaze you and inspire you to worship?
Let us conclude today by considering why this great tree should matter to us today.
This greatest of the garden plants provides protection and nourishment to all, and that includes you, if you are a believer.
So go and rest in Jesus’ shade today. Find nourishment in His branches. There is nothing we need that cannot be satisfied in and through Him. May we be like those birds of the air who go and make their nest with Christ. For it is only in dwelling with Christ that our true peace, our true hope, and our true life can begin.