The Parable of the Mustard Seed | Mark 4:30-34

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown 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.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

Mark 4:30-34 ESV

When God spoke to Abraham (at that time named Abram), He gave the patriarch three promises: a son, a nation, and a land. During his lifetime, Abraham would only see the first promise come to pass, the birth of his son Isaac. Yet God would fulfill the others as well. More than five hundred years after his death, his descendants would number more than a million people, and they took conquest of the Promise Land so that “not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45).

Yet they still were not finished coming to pass. As the old Sunday School song rightly notes, “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them and so are you.” Paul told the Galatians that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (3:29). What began with one man is now, in fact, a mighty nation, a nation within all nations, and it only grows larger still.

THE SMALLEST OF ALL SEEDS // VERSES 30-32

As we come now to this final parable of Mark 4, we should find in it a great sense of familiarity. It again centers around a seed, but it is still unique from the Parables of the Sower and the Growing Seed. Both of those parables used an entire scene to illustrate the kingdom of God, although the Parable of the Sower placed great emphasis upon how the seed of God’s Word is receive by different “soils” (hearts), whereas the Parable of the Growing Seed focused upon the actual growing of God’s Word in the heart as an act of God’s sovereignty. Our present parable, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, is not however using a whole scene to illustrate the kingdom; rather, it is comparing the kingdom specifically to a grain of mustard seed. In some ways, that makes this parable’s field of vision much larger than the others and less individualized.

Let me explain what I mean.

In the Parable of the Sower, we asked ourselves what kind of hearer we are. In the Parable of the Measure, we asked ourselves how carefully we were hearing God’s Word. In the Parable of the Growing Seed, we asked what growth the Word is bringing in our lives. Each of these parables does indeed speak of the kingdom as a whole yet the hearing and growth of God’s Word is readily personalized.

Our present parable, however, is more like the Parable of the Lamp. It, of course, has personal implication and application, yet it is firmly focused on something so much larger than us as individuals. For the Parable of the Lamp, its subject was the radiance of Christ being inevitably seen by all. We rightly then ask ourselves whether we behold His light or not, yet that application is secondary to the message that Christ’s glory will be seen by everyone.

In the same way, while we will draw applications from this parable, the teaching of the Parable of the Mustard Seed is fixed upon the greatness of the kingdom’s growth from small beginnings. The Growing Seed gives us how the Word grows in each individual’s heart, together forming the kingdom. Here, however, the seed is the kingdom of God.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on the earth, yet when it is sown 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.

Before moving on, we should address a common question that arises from this parable. Many have pointed out that the mustard seed is not, in fact, “the smallest of all seeds on earth.” Does this, therefore, mean that Jesus made an error, which would certainly poke a hole in His claim of divinity. R. C. Sproul remarks that he once knew a seminary professor who had rejected the doctrine of biblical inerrancy because of this issue. Sproul goes on to write:

When I heard about this professor’s teaching, I thought, “Is there no room for hyperbole in the teachings of Jesus?” Consider this statement by Luke: “Early in the morning all the people came to Him in the temple to hear Him” (21:38). Must we understand this to mean that every man, woman, and child in Jerusalem, including invalids, came to the temple that day? No. What we see here is hyperbole, a literary device that is used for emphasis. Furthermore, in Hebrew idiom, it was common for the Jews to refer to the mustard seed as the smallest seed because it was superlatively small. There is small, smaller, and smallest, and the mustard seed was in the smallest category of the superlatively small. For this reason, accusing Jesus of falsehood in this passage is astonishing to me.

Those who make such arguments completely miss the point of this parable. A mustard seed is tiny, but if it is put into the earth, form it erupts a bush that grows into a tree so big that birds may build their nests in its branches. The kingdom of God is similar. God can use the smallest of words that we speak, the smallest service that we give, and bring the kingdom out of it.[1]

As with the the previous parable, the point here is evident: God’s kingdom starts small but grows large. Of course, the plant that grows from the mustard seed is not the largest of all trees or even shrubs. It is, however, very large in proportion to the smallness of the seed. And that is exact point. God’s kingdom appears small and insignificant in the beginning, but it grows disproportionately large.  

I want to bring out two main points about this parable. First, the kingdom of God will indeed come. Of course, it is already here. Jesus ushered in the kingdom as the King who came. Yet we still pray, “your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10) because the kingdom has not reached its finality. God’s kingdom is certainly much larger today than it was when Jesus’ one hundred twenty followers huddled together in prayer while awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit. But it is also not as large as it will be once Christ comes back and visibly places all nations under His feet.

This should bring to mind Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from Daniel 2[2], which contained a small stone that shattered the great image of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay and then grew into a mighty mountain that covered all the earth. Daniel told the Babylonian king that the image represented four earthly kingdoms, while the stone was a fifth and eternal kingdom that would break all the kingdoms of the earth. The same imagery is used by Jesus here. The kingdom begins small but grows large.

Yet notice the difference in what the kingdom does between Daniel 2 and this parable. In Daniel 2, the kingdom of God destroys, but here in Mark 4, the kingdom is a shelter, a place of refuge. Do they contradict? No. King Jesus does indeed break the nations “with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psalm 2:9). Yet He also sends out His disciples to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19). Just as all will hear but not all understand and all will see but not all will perceive, so will the kingdom fill all the earth, sheltering some and shattering the rest.

But even in this liminal state of already/not-yet, we should take courage, comfort, and confidence in knowing that the kingdom will come in all its finality soon. How soon? Only the Father knows. But even if it isn’t for another thousand years, we will not look back a million years from now and think that He was slow in coming. Therefore, we should not be a people whose moods rise and fall with each passing headline. Of course, we do not know how our present day will turn out, but God has revealed the closing act of history. We do not yet know all that we will be called to endure in this life, but we do know end of the story for all who are more than conquerors in Christ and for all who refuse Him. Again, God’s kingdom is mighty and becoming mightier. It is never on the retreat. We only need to learn from our brothers and sisters in places like China or Nigeria to see this truth.

Second, since God’s kingdom is compared to mustard seed, we must take care not to despise what appears at first to be small and insignificant. A documentary podcast has recently been released chronicling the collapse of a highly influential megachurch. The final episode focused largely upon the pastor’s pride with some of his former staff members noting that they knew things were going to collapse whenever the pastor said that he could not learn anything from any other pastor whose church was smaller than 10,000 people. Such thinking is antithetical to how God consistently shows Himself to operate. John Calvin wrote about our parable:

If the aspect of Christ’s kingdom be despicable in the eyes of the flesh, let us learn to raise our minds to the boundless and incalculable power of God, which at once created all things out of nothing, and every day raises up things that are not, (1 Cor. i. 28,) in a manner which exceeds the capacity of the human senses. Let us leave to proud men their disdainful laugh, till the Lord, at an unexpected hour, shall strike them with amazement.[3]

The proud rejoice in strength and might, while God uses “what is weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). As Calvin noted, this pattern began with God literally forming the cosmos out of nothing. We then see Him preserve humanity through a family of eight, while scattering a united humanity at the height of their strength. Abraham became His chosen servant at the ripe old age of seventy-five. Moses, likewise, began His service to God in His senior years at the age of eighty. God then chose Isaac, not Ishmael. Jacob, not Esau. Leah, not Rachel. He chose Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. He elevated Joseph to Pharaoh’s righthand and saved the world from famine through him, though he was nothing more than a slave in prison. God raised up David, the shepherd boy, to be king, while casting down Saul, Israel’s large and mighty champion.

Proving the wonders of marvelous grace, God chooses the younger brothers, the spotty brides, the know-nothings and nobodies. He chooses the sinners. It is sinners the Father loves!

And the King?

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
            and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
            a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
            he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa. 53:2-3)[4]

Indeed, Jesus, as the kingdom’s King, is the epitome of this parable, the small-becoming-great, while also being its opposite, the Great One who became small. Although He is very God of very God, Christ embraced humility and entered our world as an infant. He grew as all of us grew. He lived as we all live. He faced the daily temptations to sin that we all face. And though He never once committed sin, He still embraced the cross, an execution method that was so contemptible to Roman society that fourfold Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion are the earliest descriptions that we know of. It was a nothingness death, the removal of living scum from the earth. Jesus not only embraced infancy and humanity; He chose the humiliation of the cross. Yet from this smallness, He now receives even more honor, glory, and greatness. It is now His name that is above every other name, the name before which every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

In fact, because Christ is the King who conquers through humiliation, we must each hear for ourselves the words that Paul received after he prayed three times to have the thorn in his flesh removed from him:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

More than simply not despising weakness and smallness, we should rejoice in it, for when we are weak He is more clearly seen as strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). After all, did Jesus not tell us that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15)? And did He not elsewhere say, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12)? God’s kingdom not only began small and weak; it belongs to the small and weak.

AS THEY WERE ABLE TO HEAR IT // VERSES 33-34

After giving us this last parable, Mark concludes this teaching block of Jesus by saying:

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

We can glean three insights from these two verses. First, Mark freely admits that he did not aim to give an exhaustive representation of Jesus’ teaching in parables. Our Lord told many more, of which we have many in the other Gospels. But under the Spirit’s leading, the writer was unapologetically selective.

Second, we should consider briefly the statement, as they were able to hear it. As we began our study of the parables, we observed that Jesus knew that two kinds of hearers would hear His parables: those who would understand the secret of the kingdom within and those who would not. For the first group, the parables revealed God’s kingdom, but they concealed the kingdom from the second. And here again, Mark tells us that the people received Jesus’ parables as they were able to hear it.  God’s Word was scattered abroad by the embodied Word of God but only some had ears to hear and eyes to see.

Third, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. Again, this reveals that the disciples were no better than the crowds at interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ parables. Their greater understand came through their nearness to Jesus, although even one of them would still prove to be thorny soil. This is a reminder to us that Jesus alone gives us eyes to see and ears to hear. It is a reminder that the secret of God’s kingdom revealed in the parables does not go to the wisest or the most intelligent; it is revealed to those who know Him who is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30).

But why, we might ask, did Jesus give such special attention to these men? They were the mustard seed of God’s kingdom. Jesus knew that through His small band of slow-to-hear followers the kingdom would go forth into every nation on earth. Through them, Christ would build His church. Indeed, in Acts 2:42, we learn that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” Through them, our Lord continued to speak. Through them, the Spirit penned the New Testament, which is now alongside the Old Testament the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). The twelve apostles appeared to be quite insignificant and, as Mark will continue to show, rather incompetent, yet through them, God would use “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). After all, we have presently been studying the apostles’ teaching as passed down through John Mark, and the Bible is still going further into the world, being translated into more and more languages, taking root in people’s heart, and growing the kingdom one image-bearer at a time. We are still direct beneficiaries of Jesus’ refusal to despise what is weak and small, knowing that His kingdom would grow disproportionately large from its small and, seemingly, insignificant beginning.

Let us thank our God for displaying His glory through such inglorious vessels as us.


[1] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 76-77.

[2] We can also see a connection here to Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream in Daniel 4, where he was envisioned as a mighty tree that all the earth could see yet was cut down because of his pride.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, XVI.127.

[4] Jared Wilson, The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables, 167.

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