Jesus gave a number of parables concerning the kingdom of God and the parable of mustard seed seen in this section is particularly interesting. The parable of mustard seed has been interpreted many different ways. I believe there is both a meaning for the community of God’s people and for the individual in this parable.
Let us take a literal look at the parable first. There are several key elements, the first of which is the mustard seed that Jesus describes as the smallest of seeds. Then there is the bush or tree that it grows into, which is described as the largest of shrubs. This tree is so large that birds come and nest in its branches. The two significant points here are the dramatic transformation from tiny seed to large tree, and the sheltering of birds in this tree.
The kingdom of heaven will start out small, like a tiny mustard seed. When planted in a field it will grow into a large mustard tree. If we consider this from the perspective of the community of God’s people, his church, then that is exactly what has happened. From Jesus’ beginning the Christian movement with a band of a dozen or so disciples, it has grown to millions of believers and changed the course of this world.
Whether the modern church is representative of the kingdom of heaven is questionable, just as the religion taught by the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees was not representative of the truth of the Old Covenant. There are many things taught in the modern church that have no basis in the scripture. There are also some teachers and preachers that twist scripture to their own purposes. Yet even in the church described as Babylon in Revelation there are people who are God’s people and part of the kingdom of heaven. He says, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Revelation 18:4-5)
When Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven in the parable of mustard seed, he is not necessarily talking about the physical church. Clearly there are people who are part of God’s kingdom that were found in the false church known as Babylon in Revelation. So the Kingdom of heaven cannot be described simply as a church. Instead it is the community of true believers who come to Jesus and worship according to the truth. This is evident when we see Jesus say elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Also in Romans 14:17 “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” So the kingdom of God is not a physical place, but a spiritual place. Jesus also said that, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)
When we meet together in Jesus’ name he is there with us in the spirit. Truly then the kingdom of heaven is in our midst when we meet together for the King himself is with us. And the kingdom of God is not about church buildings, protocol, laws and regulations, but how we live our lives in accord with the words of Jesus. The true kingdom of heaven that is in our midst exists in the spiritual realm amongst the community of those who worship God according to the truth.
So how does this apply to the parable of mustard seed? We see the kingdom begins as a small seed. Within that seed is the tree that will grow if it is planted, fed and watered. In the same way the kingdom of God may start with us as a single word and a grain of faith, as faith is also compared to a mustard seed elsewhere (Luke 17:6) As a community the kingdom of God begins with one person as it did when Jesus began his ministry, and when Paul went from town to town preaching the words of the kingdom. And within each of us as individuals it began likewise with a single word, or belief.
Then as we learn and grow, the kingdom expands. At an individual level our knowledge grows and we learn how to be stable in the word, not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. At the community level as people come to the kingdom it too grows and expands.
Which brings us to the second critical point in the parable of mustard seed being the birds that come and nest in the branches of the tree. When we consider this analogy we need to understand why the birds come. They nest in trees for protection from predators, security, comfort, rest and stability. These are exactly the same reasons why we come to the kingdom of heaven. We too as individuals and as a community of believers come to the Lord and his kingdom to find protection from the evil one, rest, security, peace and comfort from the problems of this life.
The kingdom of heaven provides these blessings in abundance and in the future the hope of an eternal salvation in God’s kingdom. May that day hasten and come soon.