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You’ve Got Potential

When you open the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Lord Jesus is often speaking in parables.

With colourful language He sets a scene for us, and then from that He draws out some truth about the kingdom. Sometimes his parables are long, and they tell a story in several parts—think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes the parables are very short, like the one in Mark 4:31-32. But they’re always vivid, because Jesus takes his illustrations from the everyday things of life.

It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (Mark 4:31-32).

The key comparison in this parable is to the mustard seed. We all know mustard as the good stuff that comes in yellow bottles, but before it gets there, mustard has to grow on plants or trees. And the mustard tree begins as a very small seed. It was the proverbial thing to which you’d compare any small object, like Jesus does in Matthew 17:20, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” Such is the kingdom of God, Jesus now says: like a mustard seed sown in the ground, so small that it’s practically invisible.

The listener who is blessed with insight might hear this parable and think of Jesus and his ministry. There were some crowds around him, but his movement was pretty small. Next to the population of the Roman empire, or compared to all those living in Palestine, the kingdom that He’s “leading” seems laughably insignificant. Was anything going to come of this traveling preacher and his motley crew?

We could think the same about Christ’s kingdom today. For instance, see how insignificant your local church looks compared to the hundreds of thousands of people—even millions—within an hour’s drive. Or consider how many men, women and children there are in the world right now, and how few Christians. Or reflect on the power of evil today: the godless can be so convincing, their message so pervasive, their brand so interesting, that you wonder how the gospel is going to survive. How can the kingdom compete? Christ’s people seem very small indeed, and we could despair of what’s going to come of us.

But the mustard seed teaches us. Jesus forbids drawing conclusions about something based only on its modest beginnings. Because that mustard seed, “when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (v. 32). Though its beginning was impossibly minuscule, a mustard seed grows. That little seed can become something great. After some years it can be a strong bush, a mustard tree growing up to four meters tall.

That’s what the kingdom of God is like. Small and weak at times, but filled with great potential—God’s potential. Nobody should look at Jesus in Galilee and say, “How can this be the start of a glorious kingdom?” That’s the short-sighted human view. Sure, in a couple years Jesus will be dead. Then the movement will seem even smaller and weaker than it is now, like seed crushed into powder. Yet by dying the seed gives life. Jesus dies, He rises from the grave, and then He sends out his disciples to tell everyone the good news. Within forty years the gospel of salvation has reached all the centres of the Roman empire, and it has gone to many other places too. And since that time God’s chosen ones have constantly been gathered through the Word and the Spirit. The kingdom is growing.

The kingdom is like a mustard tree, so large that “the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (v. 32). That tiny mustard seed can grow not just into an average bush, but into the kind of tree where many birds will find a spot to nest. They say that birds were fond of the little black seeds of the mustard tree, so it was common to see a cloud of birds flocking around such a tree. The unlikely tree has become a refuge and sanctuary.

The prophet Ezekiel once used that image of a tree to describe the kingdom of God. He said that the people of Israel were like a cedar tree. For a long time it had grown and thrived until they sinned and it was chopped to only a small remnant, a little twig of what once was. But though they were so small God didn’t give up on his people. The LORD promises, “I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and plant it on a high and prominent mountain” (Ezek 17:22).

Then God will again cause his people to grow:

And it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell (v 23).

The church will again thrive and be fruitful because of God’s work among them. And the result will be a place of refuge for all nations. The small beginnings of Jesus’ ministry are the start of a kingdom that will offer shade to the entire world. Like birds flocking to a fruitful tree, people from all tribes and nations will be brought under the glorious rule of Christ.

Be encouraged by Jesus’ words about his kingdom. When we watch world events, or when we notice what’s happening in our society, or when we hear about persecution, we wonder what’s in store and we worry: the kingdom seems so small. Yet Christ tells us not to fear but to remember who God is, and what He’s promised. What starts small will end up as great. God’s work continues. He presses forward until the day of completion, when the kingdoms of the world will be the kingdom of God and of his Christ!

Until then, we have work to do. This parable teaches that when the seed is sown, things will happen. We don’t give the growth, but we do plant, and we do water. So let the seed be sown. May the victory of Christ be preached to all the world. May his Word be shared widely, with everyone God has brought into our life. May we pray often for the advance of Jesus’ kingdom, here and everywhere. And may we find our shelter in the shade of Christ!

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