Don’t Misunderestimate the Kingdom

Posted: June 11, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 13:31-35, “Don’t Misunderestimate the Kingdom”

Back in the 2000 Presidential election, then-Gov. George Bush made headlines with a grammatical mistake, telling people not to “misunderestimate” his campaign.  “Misunderestimate” is obviously not a word, but it got the point across.

A lot of people make the same mistake with the kingdom of heaven: they “misunderestimate” it.  They hear a message of a God who dies for all mankind, and instead of being amazed at His love, they wonder what kind of weakness God might have.  They hear of Christians surrendering their lives to follow Jesus, and they scoff at what they believe is foolishness.  They hear of people having hope in the promise of heaven, and they think it’s a pipe dream.  They don’t understand – they underestimate (or misunderestimate) Jesus.

The people to whom Jesus was speaking had the same problem.  They had the toughest time understanding how this son of a carpenter from Nazareth (with a questionable family history, at that!) could be teaching the way He taught & doing the things He did.  They had a tough time understanding how a kingdom could both exist now, and still yet be realized in the future.  Or how the Messiah who was supposed to reign victoriously, could in reality both model and teach incredible humility.  They “misunderestimated” Jesus.

Jesus addresses this issue head-on in these two parables.  The kingdom might start of small – even inauspiciously – but God had great plans for it.

Matthew 13:31–35 (NKJV)
31 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, 32 which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

  1. In this chapter full of parables, these are actually the first parables given without explanation from Jesus.  He had taught the parable of the sower/soils, and the parable of the wheat & tares, and in addition He had given the explanation of the parables to His disciples.  Why are the explanations for the other parables not given?  We’re not told – but perhaps Jesus explained a few in order to give us a pattern by which we can interpret the rest.  Remember that we’re not looking to explain an allegory (by which every single element of the parable must have a corollary interpretation), but rather a parable.  We’re looking for the main idea of what Jesus is to teach.
  2. This parable of the mustard seed actually has quite a bit in common with the first two parables (the soils, and the tares).  There is a sower & there is seed.  But that’s where the similarities stop.  We need to be careful not to merely assume that the characters and elements in one parable are going to be exactly the same in another parable.  It’s most obvious in this case with the seed. 
    1. In the parable of the soils, the seed had been the word of God…
    2. In the parable of the wheat & tares, the seed had been people…
    3. In the parable of the mustard seed, the seed is the kingdom of heaven itself.
    4. Be careful to always interpret Scripture in light of its context!
  3. What about the sower?  Considering the kingdom of heaven is something that is planted by the sower, it might be safe to assume that this is a reference to Jesus again.  This seems to picture the work of Christ Jesus within the world as He plants His kingdom.
    1. Jesus does the work of building and establishing the kingdom of heaven.  He is the one to build His Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it!
  4. Notice what happens to the seed: it grows…and grows…and grows!  Everything started as a tiny little seed – a mustard seed, which Jesus described as “the least of all seeds,” indicating how tiny it was.  The idea here isn’t so much a botanical statement of fact declaring that a mustard seed is the tiniest of all possible seeds (it’s not – orchid seeds are much smaller), but rather this is a statement of comparison, showing how much the little seed grows.  To be sure, a mustard seed IS small – in fact, it was the smallest seed that Jewish farmers would have typically dealt with.  This just isn’t a scientific pronouncement from Jesus (and we shouldn’t try to force that interpretation upon the text).  But this seed GREW.  Mustard seeds don’t usually grow into trees, but rather into a medium-to-large flowering plant.  Many Bible scholars say that the plant referred to can grow to sizes of 12 feet, though mustard plants today seem to rarely grow to that size.  Certainly, they do not become “trees,” even if they were short, they wouldn’t be considered trees at all.  A Jewish farmer listening to Jesus would say, “That simply doesn’t happen!  A mustard seed never becomes a big tree.”  That’s the point – what Jesus refers to is a supernatural difference.  What was supposed to be a tall flower has grown into a tree.  Imagine a basil plant growing to the size of an oak…it just doesn’t happen.  Something’s not typical here – it’s atypical – it’s supernatural – and again, that’s the point.  There’s nothing special about the mustard; what’s special is the change of size from the seed to a tree.  What WAS tiny is NOW huge.  That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.

33 Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”

  1. Jesus goes from gardening to baking.  He goes from a parable that spoke primarily to men, to a parable that spoke primarily to women (Jesus leaves no one out!).  Like the farmers listening to Jesus, the bakers listening to Jesus would have noticed something pretty unusual here.  One amount of leaven (or yeast) would be rather tiny to attempt to affect three measures of meal (flour/dough).  Granted, depending on what sort of bread someone is making, different amounts of yeast are used.  Jesus purposefully uses an illustration of a little bit affecting a lot.  As if a baker was going to bake enough bread to provide for a feast, and only using a tiny bit of leavening to get the dough going.
  2. What the leaven represents is actually the subject of quite a bit of disagreement.  Some teachers understand the leaven to be an absolute reference to sin, due to how leaven is typically pictured in the Bible.  OT & NT alike generally liken leaven to sin.  A little sin affects a lot of people & a lot of lives.  It grows & grows & isn’t good. Paul chastised the Corinthian church for allowing a man in gross immorality (having a sexual relationship with his mother-in-law) to continue fellowshipping with the congregation.  It wasn’t merely the man who was in sin, it was the congregation…they were taking pride in the idea of how “tolerant” they were being. 1 Corinthians 5:6–8, "(6) Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (7) Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (8) Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." []  The reason for unleavened bread at Passover was to remove the symbolism of sin within God’s people.  Jesus died to forgive us of our sin & to cleanse us from it – we’re not to go about the business of getting soaked in it all over again.  Sin has a tendency to grow (as anyone with an addiction can attest).  What starts off small rarely stays small…more and more is needed to get the pleasure from the addiction – or more lies are necessary to maintain the fiction – or more unforgiveness is necessary to maintain the grudge, etc.  What starts off as a complaining spirit ends up with a whole group in the church gossiping, etc.  Leaven grows.
    1. The problem with this interpretation?  Sin just doesn’t seem to fit the context.  Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like leaven.  Not “hell,” not “sin,” not “the world,” but very specifically the “kingdom of heaven.”  Granted, it’s true that sin can affect the church and spread quickly among a congregation (and other congregations), but this doesn’t seem to be the point of Jesus’ parable.  The whole context of Ch 13 is the kingdom of heaven: how it begins, who is included, how it grows, how it’s valued, etc.  For Jesus to include an oblique reference to possible decay simply doesn’t fit contextually.  The idea is one of blessing; not problem.
  3. Some people understand the leaven to be a reference to the message of the gospel working in a person’s life.  It starts off small, but gradually affects all areas: body, soul, and spirit.  Certainly, the work of the gospel in someone’s life could be described in a similar fashion to yeast.  Someone shares the gospel with us & we hear it with our ears – we dwell upon it & it works our way to our hearts – we repent & receive Christ, and the Holy Spirit changes our world from the inside-out as we become a new creation.  Eventually our entire lives change because of the work of Jesus within us.  The sin we used to cling to we now abhor – the people we used to hate, now we have compassion upon – the God we used to rebel against, now we love.   Our lives change when we come to faith.  (Actually, when our lives aren’t changed by the gospel, we need to double-check our faith, to ensure to we know Jesus at all!)
    1. The problem?  Again, this doesn’t seem to fit the context.  Jesus is speaking of the kingdom of heaven; not the “gospel” of the kingdom or “citizens” of the kingdom.  He seems to be speaking of the kingdom as a whole, in all its entirety.  Whereas the idea of the individual change certainly fits in the area of personal application, it’s difficult to make it the actual interpretation.  [Oberservation – Interpretation – Application]
  4. Another option for the leaven is that it represents the kingdom itself.  Jesus started the whole kingdom with just Himself and the apostles.  He didn’t take the disciples out of the world, but left them in the world – hidden away, so to speak.  Yet the kingdom didn’t stay small…it grew!  The kingdom grew so much that the apostles were accused of turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6).  A little leaven ended up affecting the entire world!  And it did…wherever the gospel when, lives were changed & the culture was impacted within the Church.  Wives were given equal value to their husbands – slaves were put on the same footing as their masters – landowners sold their holdings to provide for the church – widows who were normally abandoned were cared for – orphans who were discarded were brought into a family and loved, and much more.  All we need do is look around at our geography today to see the impact of the kingdom of heaven upon planet earth.  The countries in which Christianity has had a major impact are countries in which individuals are respected and minorities are protected.  (Not perfectly, to be sure…but generally speaking.) In comparison with the countries in the 10/40 window in which Christianity is by far the minority religion, the protection of the individual is almost non-existent.  If the gospel is pictured as a type of leavening agent, it’s easy to see the difference it makes.

What’s the difference between the two parables?  Both teach basically the same point: what starts off small doesn’t necessarily stay small.  There can be massive growth – miraculous growth!  Yet there is at least one obvious distinction between the mustard seed & the leaven: one grows on the outside; one grows on the inside. * The seed grows into a tree – something that could be seen from the moment the sprout topped the soil and started to grow.  Eventually, it gets so bit that even the birds can find a home there.  * The yeast/leaven grows too, but from the inside-out.  What begins as a very small quantity of active yeast begins to bubble & ferment & grow until the whole batch of dough is eventually affected by it.  Granted, the dough itself will experience growth as it rises, but that external growth is due entirely to the internal action of the yeast/leavening.  Likewise, the growth of the kingdom is both external and internal.

  1. The kingdom grows externally.  This is easily seed through history.  It began with one (Jesus), spread to the disciples, went to Jerusalem where over 3000 were saved on Pentecost, and proceeded to spread to every corner of the world.  Just by the numbers, we can see the growth of the kingdom.  It’s still growing today!  People sometimes wonder, “Where are all of the revivals of past years?  Whatever happened to the days of the Great Awakening?”  There’s no doubt that our culture has entered a post-Christian phase, in terms of what is generally accepted – but there’s also no doubt that people are still getting saved!  All over the USA, people are still recognizing their need for a Savior, and putting their faith in Christ (even if it’s not in the numbers that we once saw).  And to look beyond our borders is to really see the growth of the Church.  In Muslim countries, Christianity is going forth rapidly – people are getting saved all over the Muslim world!  Afghanistan is a amazing case-example, as only a few years ago a few dozen Christians were even known to exist in all the country, and now there is evidence of at least 10 underground churches.  There are churches all over India, the Middle East, amazing growth in Africa, and much more.
    1. It will also keep growing.  What exists now in the Church alone will one day spread over all the earth.  Never forget that there is the promise of a literal, physical kingdom.  Today, the kingdom is spiritual, but it won’t always remain so.  Jesus’ millennial kingdom will one day span the entire earth.  Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord…not only the knees & tongues of Christians.  The whole human population throughout history will eventually recognize Jesus as the King.
  2. The kingdom grows internally.  We’ve already noted how individual Christians are changed.  We continually grow and mature as the Holy Spirit does His work within us after we surrender our lives to Christ.  Very few people are instantly mature (spiritually speaking) the moment they receive Jesus as their Lord & Savior.  They’ve received a new birth, and like any newborn child, it takes time to grow and mature.  But praise God we can be sure that God WILL do it!  The work that Jesus has begun in you, He will be faithful to bring to completion. (Phil 1:6)  But as we’ve seen, the context seems bigger than the individual.  The kingdom grows internally.  How?  By the effect of Christians upon the rest of the world.  The leaven as “left in” the dough in order that the dough might be affected.  Jesus has left us in the world in order that the world might be affected.  The world sees the witness and lives of the Christians in its midst, and it cannot help but be affected.
    1. The Church is a restraining influence upon evil.  The Bible tells us that even with all of the evil in the world now, there will come a time when evil becomes unrestrained as the one known as Antichrist rises to power and rules over the earth during the time of the Great Tribulation.  Right now, the Holy Spirit restrains this from taking place (2 Ths 2:7).  How so?  By His presence within the Church.  We are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).  When we are removed from the earth in the Rapture, evil will go unchecked.
    2. The Church is a living testimony of God.  Our lives have been changed by the Lord Jesus Christ, and no matter whether or not the people of the world like the testimony we bring, our changed lives cannot be ignored.  Our very existence is a testimony of the Lord Jesus.
    3. The Church brings the gospel unto the entire world.  Of course our lives aren’t merely a demonstration of the power and reality of Jesus, but we bring the life-changing message of the gospel as well.  We go into every corner of the world, making disciples of all nations – affecting the world from the inside-out.  Of course the world is going to be affected…how could it not?!
  3. All of this is not to say that we should look for the full realization of the kingdom of heaven in THIS life & in THIS world, as if the literal millennial kingdom does not exist.  It’s not to say that we should expect this world to become a better & better place…the Bible actually tells us the opposite.  The NT is very clear that the earth will get worse in the last days (the days in which we are now living)! (1 Tim 3:1-5)  Yet we can and should expect the Church to have an influence upon our culture.  Whether they love us or hate us, they will be affected in some way by the heavenly leaven, the kingdom of heaven.
  4. With all of this explanation in mind, it brings up the question: why did Jesus teach this way?  Why did He use all of this symbolism in parables?  Matthew tells us in vss 34-35…

34 All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, 35 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.”

  1. Jesus already gave some reasons why He taught in parables.  They mysteries of the kingdom had been given to the disciples to understand, but it had not been given to everyone.  Those who humbled themselves before Jesus and came to Him in faith could be sure of receiving understanding of Jesus’ teachings through the Holy Spirit.  Yet those who stubbornly hardened their hearts and rejected Jesus as Lord (such as the majority of the Pharisees) would hear and not understand, and see & not perceive the meaning of the parables. 
    1. Our salvation is not found in our ability to grasp theological concepts; it’s found only in the grace of the One whom theology speaks – Jesus Christ.  If we don’t come humbly to Him in faith, we can be sure that we will never truly understand the mysteries of God.
  2. So Jesus taught in parables.  He taught in a lot of parables.  At this point in His ministry, it seemed to be the primary way that Jesus would communicate to the multitudes.  Even the disciples got so used to Jesus’ symbolic language & teaching that they were amazed on the night of the Last Supper that Jesus actually stopped teaching in figurative language! (Jn 16:29)  Of course, it’s not that Jesus didn’t want His disciples to understand Him – He did!  It was given to them to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. (vs. 11)  The righteous men & prophets of the past had longed to experience the teaching that the disciples received. (vs. 17)  So if it was supposed to be made plain to the disciples, why did Jesus teach in parables?
  3. Matthew gives us one more reason here: it was the plan of God.  Prophecy had been declared that the Messiah would teach in parables, so that’s exactly what Jesus did.  (BTW – Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies perfectly!  Some were fulfilled in His 1st coming; some are yet to be fulfilled in His 2nd coming – but every prophecy what was supposed to have been fulfilled has indeed BEEN fulfilled!)
  4. What’s interesting about this is that this seems like an unusual Scripture to declare as a prophecy.  Matthew quotes (loosely) Psalm 78:2.  Psalm 78:1–4, "(1) Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. (2) I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, (3) Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. (4) We will not hide them from their children, Telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wonderful works that He has done." []  What is unusual about this?
    1. It was written by Asaph, who doesn’t usually seem to be a prophetic writer.  Generally prophetic psalms were written by David, and as a result the Son of David (Jesus) can be seen as the singer of the psalms, and we get insight to Jesus’ own perspective as the Messiah King.
    2. Contextually, Ps 78 doesn’t seem to refer to the Messiah at all, or hardly anything in the future.  The psalm is a look back at the history of Israel & how God intervened in miraculous ways through provision, protection, and discipline.
    3. So how exactly does this relate to the teaching ministry of Jesus?  Ps 78 is the story of God’s miraculous intervention and plan of establishing the earthly kingdom.  If God had a plan for the Kingdom of Israel, surely He has a plan for the Kingdom of Heaven!  Thus what was spoken to the nation by the psalmist Asaph was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus as He made known the things of the kingdom.

Note what is prophesied here about Jesus: (1) the Messiah is a teacher, (2) the Messiah reveals the eternal plan of God.

  1. Jesus is a teacher!  He opens His mouth in parables.  Of course, some people complain, “Parables are so hard to understand!”  Sometimes, yes – they are.  But never forget what a parable is: a teaching illustration.  The whole point is to reveal the mind and plan of God unto the people of God.  To be sure, this teaching is concealed from the prideful and rebellious, but it is revealed to the born-again Christian (who seeks Jesus in humility and faith).
    1. Do you want to know the things of God?  Look to Jesus.  Do you want to know the plans of God?  Look to Jesus.  Do you want to know the person, heart, and love of God?  Look to JESUS!  He is our teacher!
    2. He has opened up His mouth to teach us – are we listening to what He has to say?  Too often, it’s too easy to look for our instruction anywhere BUT Jesus.  People wait to hear what their favorite political pundit has to say – or they hang on the words of Oprah – or they follow the counsel of the crown and what’s popular.  Christian: you have a teacher in Christ!  Listen to Him.
  2. Jesus reveals the eternal plan of God.  These were “things kept secret from the foundation of the world.”  IOW, God has always had a plan for the kingdom of heaven.  God always had a plan to bring forth a Savior who would die for the sins of mankind allowing everyone to be redeemed to God, purchased by the blood of His Son.  God always had a plan to grow His kingdom starting with the Jews, and going into all the world – even unto us.  God always had a plan to save you.  That’s not to say that it was always understood.  These were things that were secret.  But that ARE things that Jesus makes known.
    1. Take a moment to thing about the scope of this: God’s plans for the kingdom were already made up from the foundation of the world.  Before you were born – before Jesus was incarnate – before David, Moses, and Abraham – before Adam and Eve…  Before Day ONE of creation, God already knew about our sin and planned for our sin, long before there was any man created yet available to sin.
    2. THIS is the love of God for mankind and for you: that all along His plan has been to build His heavenly kingdom and make it possible for you to be a citizen within it.  Amazing!

Don’t underestimate the Kingdom!  It may start small, but God gives it great growth.  That’s not by accident – it’s been His glorious plan all along.

  1. The Kingdom grows externally like a mustard seed.  It might have had small beginnings, but it reaches into every corner of the world.
  2. The Kingdom grows internally like leaven.  It affects our culture around us as we demonstrate the life-changing message of the gospel.
  3. It’s taught to us by our great King, whose plans for this stretches back into the regions of eternity.

As a Christian, how do you respond to the growing kingdom work of God?  Let me suggest three things:

  1. Don’t despise small beginnings
  2. Know that God can do a LOT with a little
  3. If that’s what God can do with the kingdom as a whole, just imagine what He can do with you!

Be careful of underestimating the Almighty God of the Universe.  He can do exceedingly abundantly more than we can ask or think!


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