Two Parables About Growth

Matthew 13:31-33


The story is told of a man attending a missions conference in England who made a startling claim. He claimed that he had started a mission in India. The reason it was startling was that everyone present knew that the man had never left England. How in the world could he have started a mission in India? Well, as it turned out, when he was a boy, he had asked his pastor how to send a package to India. He wanted to send a Bible over there. So, he wrote a message in the inside of the Bible, and, with the pastor’s help, sent it to India. Much later missionaries went to India to start a mission center. However, the place where they had decided to start it was already Christian. They were quite astonished when they found out about that. They asked the Christians there how in the world they had become Christians. The group pointed to a worn-out Bible that had a message in it from a boy, who was now a man. Zechariah 4:10 tells us not to despise the day of small things. It may be a small thing, but the kingdom of God, while starting small, can grow into something amazingly large.

What we have here in our passage is really two parables that are twins. Their point is the same. As good teachers do, Jesus gets His point across in more than one way, so that if one person didn’t get it the first time, they would understand the second time around. Both parables talk about something so small that you hardly notice it. Indeed, it starts in a very hidden way. The seed is sown in the ground, and the yeast is “hidden” in the dough. Both start small, and both start hidden. Of course, this is the very opposite of how anyone of the world would start a business. Instead of hiding themselves, they would advertise like crazy in order to get their name out as soon as possible, and call as much attention to themselves as possible, so as to get business going. But the kingdom of God is not like that at all. It starts in people’s hearts, a very hidden place indeed. The seed, as we saw in the parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the weeds, is the Word of God. It is sown in people’s hearts, which is very unobtrusive, very hidden. You cannot see it at first. Only later do you see the results. This is why these two parables are sandwiched in between the telling of the parable of wheat and the weeds, on the one hand, and its interpretation, on the other hand. In the parable we looked at last week, we saw wheat and weeds growing up together. In the parable of the mustard seed, we see how the good seed grows. It is not ostentatious or showy. It doesn’t call attention to itself. Instead, it is like a tiny mustard seed.

Mustard seeds are very small. They are about 1 millimeter in length. They are easily overlooked, just as the Word of God is easily overlooked. The Gospel in a person’s life is overlooked. Twelve disciples are easily overlooked. An infant in a manger is easily overlooked. A man dying on the cross is easily overlooked. Pentecost is easily overlooked. A word spoken at just the right time and just the right place is easily overlooked. And yet, what small things God can use to bring about His purposes! That’s what the kingdom of God is like. The mustard seed is 1 millimeter in length, and yet it can grow up to twelve feet tall. That is certainly large enough for birds to nest in the branches of what is really a tree. You might remember the language of Daniel 4 in which Nebuchadnezzar was described as a large tree in which birds came and made their nests. Well, here is a mustard tree that will last quite a bit longer than Nebuchadnezzar did. Jesus describes the whole kingdom of heaven this way. Twelve disciples is a small mustard seed indeed. But look at the kingdom of God now, which spans every continent, every major people group and most of the minor people groups as well. The Bible has been translated into well over a thousand different languages. And the kingdom of God is much larger even than that, since it includes all the angels, as well as all the Christians who have died, and it includes all the elect infants who died in infancy.

The second parable, as we have noted, is very much like the first parable. A woman takes some yeast, which is almost certainly a bit of the old dough, and she mixes it into the new batch of flour. Three measures of flour, which is what the text literally says, is a very large amount of flour. Various estimates place the amount at one entire bushel of flour, which is enough for 40 large loaves of bread. So, this is not your frail little woman making one or two loaves for herself and her frail husband. This is a strong woman making enough bread for her entire extended family, which would have lived with her. And she only needs a very small amount of yeast to work it through the entire amount of flour. You cannot see the yeast once it is worked into the dough, but you can certainly see the effect of the yeast, as the entire batch of dough begins to rise. Now, yeast is normally used as a figure of speech in the Bible for sin. The Israelites were instructed to get rid of all yeast in the house during the week of Passover. Paul tells us to get rid of the yeast of sin. So prevalent is this negative imagery for yeast that many interpreters have thought that the parable is about sin in the kingdom. However, this is not likely. As we have pointed out, this parable is a twin of the first parable, and certainly the first parable is to be interpreted of the kingdom itself, not sin in the kingdom. Therefore, it is far more likely that the second parable is really making the same point as the first parable.

The main application I wish to make from this parable has to do with our two churches here in rural North Dakota. If you look at them now, they are very small churches. And they have shrunk rather than grown, over the past forty years. So, it would be very easy to discount these parables and think that they have nothing to do with us. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The very thing that has made us smaller over the past years is the very thing of which this parable speaks. Think of how many young people our churches have sent out into the world to bring the yeastiness of the kingdom of God to wherever they are. Think of how many young people have grown up in our churches with the Gospel firmly in their hearts and minds. Think of how many people our young people have been able to influence for the cause of Christ. I would be willing to wager that the effect of our two churches has been far larger in the world than we might think. We may be small, but the effect that we have had on the church and on the world is almost certainly larger than we could possibly imagine. That’s how God works. So it doesn’t really matter if our churches eventually fold from lack of people. That does not mean failure. It means rather that the original lump of yeast has completely expended itself in working its way through the rest of the dough. I say this because I don’t want us to focus so much on the numbers in our churches. That is what the world does. The world loves big numbers. That is success according to the world. That is not success according to God and according to His Word. Success is whether we are yeasty or not, salty or not, having light or not. In short, success according to Scripture is being faithful. So, when we consider whether or not we have been successful as churches or not, we need to consider not primarily the number of people in our pews (although God does often bless churches this way), but rather whether we are growing in our faith. That is the more important kind of growth. For it is spiritual growth that will enable us as Christians to pursue evangelism and numerical growth. But the good quality of a Christian must come before that Christian is able to multiply numerically. And the multiplication may never come in our church. But maybe it will come in another church. Should we give up on the idea of bringing people into our church? Of course not. We should always be evangelizing. However, we need to make sure that we are not discouraged at our shrinking numbers. And believe you me, I am certainly preaching to myself when I say this. It is very easy to become discouraged as a pastor when there are fewer people in the congregation. I start to wonder if I am doing something wrong, or not doing enough of other things. But I have to remember that it doesn’t matter how conscientious I am about my duties, growth may not happen even then. Jeremiah was certainly faithful, and yet no one believed his message. The Lord told him to preach, and also told him that no one would believe him. Of course, such thinking is certainly no excuse for me to shirk my duties. Nevertheless, the growth comes from God, not from what I am able to do. Nor does my failure inhibit God’s plan, if He decides He is going to give us more members. Our call is simply to be faithful. That’s true of me, and it’s true of you. Once we get rid of our feelings of panic and discouragement and despair over the church, and realize that God is using us, even if it may be in ways that we cannot see, like the growth of a mustard seed in the soil, or the working of yeast in the dough, then we can be in a position to serve God cheerfully, no matter what the result. Do not despise the day of small things. Even if your small thing is not sending a Bible to India, never think that your small acts and sharings of the Gospel are to be despised. For they may grow into something great by God’s grace.

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