In Matthew 13:31-33, Jesus gave the parable of the Mustard Seed, which goes as follows:
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the most misinterpreted parables in the Bible. Because of the beauty of the songbirds that line our trees, and possibly even the portrayal of birds in Disney princess movies, we tend to think of birds as good, beautiful creatures. However, the birds that Jesus referred to were nothing like the mockingbirds, parakeets and robins we see today. The birds who inhabited Israel during Jesus day were more like vultures, buzzards and crows.
That explains why these birds were symbolic of demonic forces. In explaining the Parable of the Sower, Jesus said the fowl of the air symbolized the evil one which snatches up the seed of the Gospel before it takes root. Since the symbols of the parables remain consistent throughout them all, then the fowl of the air in the Parable of the Sower symbolize the same thing as the birds of the air in the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
So, to interpret the Parable of the Mustard Seed, let’s put the symbols to work. The man who sowed the mustard seed in his field is the Son of Man, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The field is the world. The seed is the word, the Gospel.
In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the man, (Jesus Christ), sows the seed (the Gospel) into His field (The world), and it grows into a mighty tree. Good story… now what does it mean? To answer that question, we must remember the reason Jesus gave us the parables. In Matthew 13:11, Jesus said, “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom.” The Lord wants us to understand what will happen with the Christian movement as we get closer to His return, and as we get closer to His establishing His Kingdom on earth.
Each of these parables follows a common theme. Things start out pure, then corrupt as time moves forward. The same can be said for the Christian movement. It started pure, with Christ preaching with His disciples on the shores of Galilee. Over the past two millennia, we’ve seen false doctrines, sin, and impure motives infiltrate Christianity to the point that there have been massive splits within the movement, with some denominations following heretical teachings, and others following scripture, but being marred with sin and scandal.
Seeing these things develop would most certainly be discouraging, if we did not understand how they fulfill the prophecies of Christ. Jesus told us 2,000 years ago that this is the way things would be, and that things would progressively get worse until His return. Thus, we have the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
In the parable, the man (Jesus) sows the seed (the Gospel) in the world. The seed is the least of all the seeds. Likewise, the Gospel is regarded as the least of all the philosophies in the world. Think about it. In academia, we study the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Jefferson, and many others. How much time is spent in academia studying and parsing the Gospel? Very little. Christianity is often criticized, with little attention paid to its central theme, redeeming love.
Yet, as disregarded as the Gospel is, it has transformed the world. Christianity spread rapidly in the Roman Empire, and even influenced people at the highest level of government. As disregarded as the Gospel is, Christianity has been extremely influential in western literature and culture.
With that in mind, let’s continue to follow the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus said that the mustard seed is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest of all herbs, and becomes a tree. Thus, we see the words of Christ fulfilled.
So far, so good. All who interpret the Parable of the Mustard seed agree on the interpretation I’ve given so far. It’s when the birds enter that we have controversy.
Most people interpret these scriptures to say that the kingdom started out small, but grew in power and influence into a huge, beautiful tree until the birds of the air came and built nests and sang beautiful songs from the branches. It’s a beautiful vision, but not one based on reality, and even more importantly, not one based on the prophecies of Christ.
Given the true symbolism of the birds of the air, and what a bird was to the people of Israel in the 1st century, we see that birds are not a good thing. It’s why Christ used them as symbols of demons. They pollute. They ruin. Don’t believe me? Have you ever seen what a group of buzzards will do to a tree? Furthermore, would you park under a tree in the Walmart parking lot that was inhabited by grackles?
When Jesus said, “the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof,” He was predicting that as the Gospel influenced the world more, and as it spread throughout the world, Satan would seek to pollute its presence and influence. Satan does this through inserting false doctrines into church teaching, by placing false Christians, teachers and pastors among the Lord’s churches, and by tempting Christians to sin in very public and profane ways.
That’s why there are so many scandals surrounding churches and Christian denominations today. Satan’s birds have roosted in the tree of the Lord’s Kingdom. Christ predicted it. And with the tree coming to near maturity, we know that the return of the Lord must be near, so we can take comfort in that. The Lord will return, and correct everything. And He will heal us.
So, when you see sin in the church, or you see a church rocked by scandal, don’t be discouraged, and don’t let your faith be shaken. The Lord told us these spiritual attacks would come. Keep looking to the sky, for your redemption draweth nigh.
Church hurt is real.
Too many times in my personal history, I have been betrayed by people who claimed to love me and pray for me. Too many times, this hurt has been done, “in Jesus name.” None of the following experiences happened at Life Point. In every case, reconciliation was made.
My personal experiences involve false accusations of alcohol abuse when I was still a teenager in youth group. I had a senior pastor try to end my ministry through character assassination before my ministry even began. I had a church member make the baseless accusation that I was compromising the word of God. (He even admitted he couldn’t identify any false doctrine I taught.)
I once called upon a lay minister in a congregation I pastored to preach in my absence. The Sunday I was absent, he called an emergency business meeting to discipline me for the behavior of my kids (all three of whom were preschool aged.)
Those are just my personal experiences. I have heard countless stories of others who have been hurt by the misbehavior of church members and clergy. I have ministered to those who were discouraged by high profile scandals.
As all of this continues, we are increasingly seeing leaders and churches abandon Biblical truth, and attack other churches who refuse to follow suit.
What is happening to Christianity? What is happening to the church in America? How can God be real, and in control, and allow such misbehavior among the people who are called by His name?
There are two simple answers, and then the really deep answer.
Simple answer #1.
People are sinners. The church is an assembly of scripturally baptized believers who have come together to carry out the Lord’s work. These scripturally baptized believers are Christians. They are saved. But they are still sinners. Sinners saved by God’s grace.
With the sin nature still tempting and deceiving these believers, they are still susceptible to sinful choices and self-deception, hence the hurtful behavior. Man’s base instinct is selfishness and pride. Most church hurt is caused by those two things. Selfishness and pride.
Furthermore, many who claim to be Christian aren’t. They don’t believe. They aren’t scripturally baptized. And they don’t gather with the church to advance the Kingdom of God. These false Christians (many of whom have deceived themselves into thinking they are) are often the culprits of church hurt, but not always.
Simple answer #2.
God has a history of being patient with sinners, and with His disobedient children. This patience is marked by His willingness to defer punishment in order to give His children time to repent. Read the history of Israel. They openly rebelled against God for 390 years before He allowed them to be taken captive by the Babylonians. God is patient.
While God’s grace and patience may aggravate those of us who scream for justice, it is incredibly important that we realize that the same patience God has extended to them, He has extended to us. We, too, benefit from God’s patience, for we, too, have sinned, and in some cases, are responsible for the church hurt of others.
And now, the really deep answer.
It’s safe to say that many Christians and churches are not following God’s word, and many have done wrong in the name of the Lord. Many Christians and churches have blasphemed God’s name by tailoring their beliefs and actions to the values of the day, rather than conforming their beliefs and actions to the Bible.
Over the past two centuries, we’ve seen people use scripture to justify racism and segregation, and to justify the marginalization of certain groups of people. We’ve seen people deny the truth of the Bible.
Even worse, we’ve seen high profile preachers fall to sexual sin, some refusing to repent, and others committing financial fraud. Many of these preachers were charlatans to begin with, but the sins of charlatans blaspheme the name of God.
It is easy to focus on our personal church hurt, and the public sins of high-profile Christianity, and (a) become discouraged, (b) assume that Christianity is bad, and (c) walk away from the faith. Such reactions, however, come from not understanding God’s plan with man. The things we see in today’s society do not surprise God. In fact, 2,000 years ago, Christ told us to look for them.
In Matthew 13, Jesus began teaching in parables by giving us the parable of the sower. The parables that followed in Matthew 13 are known as “The Kingdom Parables.” The Kingdom Parables are a prophecy of the future of the Kingdom on Earth, prior to the return of Christ. In them, Christ shows us the future state of the church.
These parables not only explain what is happening in modern Christianity, but they also show that the more these problems persist, the closer we are to the return of Christ. The Lord wants us to understand this, as He said in Matthew 13:11, “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus begins the Kingdom Parables with the Parable of the Sower. In Mark 4:13, Jesus said the Parable of the Sower is the key to understanding all parables. That means that the symbols used in the Parable of the Sower carry over to all of the Kingdom Parables. This is an important detail, because failing to apply the same meaning to the same symbols leads to the misinterpretation of the parables, which leads to false expectations, which leads to disillusionment.
Over the coming week, we will explore the Kingdom Parables. However, here is a quick summary.
- The parable of the sower – A man goes forth to sow. Some seed falls by the wayside and is snatched up by the birds (the fowl of the air). Some falls among the thorns and is choked out. Some falls upon stony ground and never takes root in itself. Some falls on good ground and brings forth fruit. Jesus later explains that the sower is the Son of Man (Jesus Himself). The seed is the word. The field is the world. The birds (fowl) is the evil one (Satan and his demons.) Again, these symbols carry over into all of the parables.
- The Wheat and the Tares – A man sows good seed in his field. His enemy sows bad seed (tares). As the plants grow, the man realizes what his enemy has done. Instead of rooting out the tares, the man allows them to abide, fearing that he would lose the wheat in the process. At harvest time, the wheat is separated from the tares. The wheat is gathered into the man’s barns, the tares are burned. This parable symbolizes the effects of a false gospel being spread throughout the world, and how the followers of that false gospel can infiltrate God’s churches. Instead of trying to root out the followers of the false gospel, we should bring forth fruit to honor our Lord. Doing so draws a contrast between the believers of the true Gospel, and the believers of the false gospel. This parable reinforces the symbolism of the Parable of the Sower.
- The Parable of the Mustard Seed – This is one of the most misinterpreted parables. A man (the sower, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ) sowed a grain of mustard seed (the word) in His field. The seed is small, but grows into a mighty tree, such that the birds (Satan and his demons) lodge in the branches thereof. This parable teaches that, as the Gospel and Christianity gain influence in the world, Satan and his demons will show up in order to pollute it. (Seriously, ever seen what an abundance of birds like grackles and buzzards will do to a tree?) This parable explains why bad things happen in churches.
- The Parable of the Leaven – Leaven is always symbolic of sin. It’s why the bread we use for the Lord’s supper is unleavened. Christ was, and is, sinless. It’s why the Israelites were told to sweep out the leaven from their homes in preparation for Passover. That massive cleaning effort symbolized repentance. In the Parable of the Leaven, a woman takes the leaven and hides it in three measures of meal, until the whole lump was leavened. This parable shows how infectious sin is. It can infiltrate everything, and it does. This parable shows that a time will come when even on its best days, sin will be rampant in the church. (And this should be no surprise. The Apostle Paul wrote that even when he would do good, evil was present within him.) This parable not only explains why bad things happen in churches, but also why sometimes it seems that everything is self-serving.
Following the parable of the leaven, the Lord further explains the wheat and the tares before giving a few more parables that explain our salvation and redemption. All together, the parables explain why things go wrong, and how the Lord redeems us from such.
So, when I experience church hurt, I remember that the ones who offended me were merely acting out of their own hurt and misunderstanding, that the Lord loves them, and that He loves me too. Understanding that, along with the fact that the Lord is still in control, and He is still coming to establish His Kingdom on Earth once and for all, I am able to better heal from such hurt, with my faith and relationship with the Lord in tact.
Have you experienced church hurt? Feel free to share your story with us.
Pastor Leland Acker has led Life Point Baptist Church since its founding in 2008.
Christianity has become such a mainstream facet of American culture that often we pursue the activities of the faith under the assumption that everyone knows the basics. As a result, we rarely discuss the basics because we don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence. As a result, many move forward on the false assumption that we all understand the basics.
One need not be offended by discussing the basics, or by having the basics taught to them. Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi often began his first practice of the year by holding out a ball and saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Lombardi then went on to discuss what all you could do with a football, as well as the objective of the game of football. Lombardi explained that the objective of football was to get possession of the ball, maintain possession of the ball, and advance the ball across the goal line for a touchdown. Then, the process repeated. The secondary objective, which was accomplished if you met the first, was to keep the other team from advancing the football across the goal line.
Advancing the football could be accomplished by running the ball, or passing the ball. He demonstrated how to carry the ball, and how to throw the ball, etc. This is riveting stuff for a football novice. However, Lombardi was talking to players who were professionals. These guys had been playing their entire lives. Still, he understood the value of fundamentals. And he was successful.
In that vein, we’d like to return to the fundamentals. And we begin by asking, “What is a church?”
The word, “church,” in the New Testament was translated from a Greek word, ekklesia, which means an assembly. This is important. As our Lord founded the Christian faith, He used words that were already widely in use in that culture. Our Lord did not sit down with the disciples and invent a new vocabulary and systems of practices for this new religion we call Christianity. No, He merely taught that we were to repent of our sins and trust His death on the cross for our salvation. He did so using common words of that day.
So, when the Lord said, “Upon this Rock I will build My church,” He didn’t invent a new word. That’s why none of the disciples said, “What is a church?” They already knew. Our English translations of the Bible say, “Upon this Rock I will build My church.” What the disciples heard was, “Upon this Rock I will build My assembly (ekklesia).”
The word “assembly,” i.e. “ekklesia,” was widely used, and practiced in the Roman Empire. Ekklesias were called out assemblies in local cities used to conduct business, take a vote, or discuss a pressing matter. There was a legal structure and framework for these.
You see this concept in action in Acts 19. The entire city was gathered to discuss the controversial teachings of Paul, who proclaimed that there were no other gods besides God, and that the way to God was through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, the local industry (sales of idols to the goddess Diana) suffered as more turned away from idolatry and toward Christianity. The town clerk realized that the assembly did not meet the legal requirements to hold such a meeting under Roman law, and as such, “he dismissed the assembly (ekklesia).”
When Christ said, “Upon this Rock I will build My church,” He said, “upon this Rock, I will build My assembly.” This verse, supported by other verses throughout the New Testament, shows that the will of Christ for His followers is that we are to assemble, conduct His business, and encourage each other.
Therefore, given the meaning of the word, and the will that Christ expressed, and the teachings expressed throughout the New Testament, a church is an organized assembly of saved, scripturally baptized believers who have come together to carry out the Lord’s will. This assembly is a literal assembly, a local assembly.
Which means that, in order to be a part of the church, you must assemble with the church. And the Lord’s will is that you be a part of the church.
At Life Point Baptist Church, we’d love to have you be a part of our church, a part of our assembly. However, if you do not feel led to join with us, we will encourage you to join a church where God is leading you, and that you follow His will there.
May God bless you richly as you follow His teachings.