Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 6/11/95
Luke 13:10 And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And behold, there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double and could not straighten up at all. 12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your sicknesss.” 13 And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made erect again and began glorifying God. 14 And the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the multitude in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; therefore, come during them and get healed, not on the Sabbath.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? 16 And this woman, daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 17 And as he said this, all of his opponents were being humiliated, and the entire multitude was rejoicing over all the glorious things being done by him. 18 Therefore he was saying, “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed which a man took and threw into his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and all the birds of the air nested in its branches.” 20 And he said again, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three pecks of meal until it was all leavened.”
The key to understanding this passage is the word “Therefore” in verse 18. It raises the question, “What have these parables got to do with the healing of a stooped woman on the Sabbath?”
It is a very good question indeed. The answer is not at all obvious if we limit ourselves to knowledge of English idioms. An idiom is a phrase or construction whose meaning cannot be deduced from its parts. For example, if I said, “You’re pulling my leg,” a person who was trying to learn English would have a hard time figuring out what I meant. He would be puzzled by the fact that he is not in any apparent way yanking on any of my ambulatory appendages. Looking up any or all of the words involved in a dictionary will not help him. You just have to know the idiom to realize that it means “You’re kidding.” Well, every language has these phrases, useful but hard on people dependent on a dictionary and a grammar book. And Greek is no exception.
The phrase “kingdom of God” in Greek is an idiom that means primarily the reign or rule of God, and only secondarily the realm over which he is ruling, which would be the primary meaning of the word “kingdom” in English. The phrase in English makes us think first of all of the realm or country that is being ruled. In Greek, you think first of the act of ruling. We miss a lot of the nuances of the New Testament teaching about the kingdom of God if we do not realize this. For example, in The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come” does not mean “May the nation or state over which you are going to rule come into existence”; it is closer to “May the time when you begin to exert your authority to take dominion and rule come; start reigning on earth now as you already do in Heaven.” “The kingdom of God is at hand” does not mean that the nation or kingdom is about to be set up so much as that God is about to take over, to enter decisively into history to rule it more proactively and directly rather than permissively and by a seemingly more distant Providence. The kingdom itself is not therefore primarily any political or social entity such as the Church. It is rather the reigning and over-ruling activity of God that brings the Church into existence. That is why Jesus stresses that the kingdom is not of this world. It comes to any individual to the extent that Jesus begins to act as Lord in that person’s life.
Alright, then. In verses 10-17 Jesus has prevailed, he has ruled, he has exercised dominion, in two ways. First, he has exerted his dominion over Satan as the perpetrator of disease by healing the woman. And second, he has exerted his dominion over the religious establishment by humiliating them in debate. So what he is saying is in effect, “You have just seen the triumph of the kingdom of God over its enemies. You have just seen what happens when God asserts his authority to rule. And I am just getting started. This is not ephemeral; it is not a flash in the pan. This kingdom is destined to triumph over everything. Let me tell you what it is like: it is going to happen just as surely as a seed grows into a tree, just as surely as leaven makes dough to rise.” And now we understand how the “therefore” connects the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven to the healing of the woman. Each parable has something important to tell us about the kingdom.
In this parable the mustard seed and the tree that grows from it are the Church; the man who plants the seed is God; the garden in which it is planted is Israel; and the birds of the air who come to nest in it are the gentiles. The point is not that the Church is going to take over the world, but that the calling out from the gentiles of a people for his name is the triumph of God’s rule, of the coming of the true King back into the kingdom of history.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed emphasizes the small beginning of the kingdom. The mustard seed is not in fact the smallest seed in nature, but it was the smallest seed that was planted in Palestinian agriculture, miniscule enough so that the large bush that resulted was particularly impressive as an example of growth. The Christian faith was not an impressive phenomenon in the beginning. It was just one more Jewish sect, just one more messianic cult. Such movements were a dime a dozen, and none of them lasted very long. The Sunday morning after the crucifixion it consisted of eleven cowardly men and a few hysterical women. Those people had very little formal education. Probably only the men were even literate. Several were fishermen, one a minor government official—a tax collector. They were basically peasants. Until the miracle of the resurrection smacked them in the face so hard they couldn’t miss it, not one of them believed. All but one of the men were deserters, and their leading spokesman actually denied even knowing Jesus. All of them were in hiding. Even after forty days of intensive post-resurrection training they did not understand anything very well. If you wanted to turn the world upside down, would you start with people like that? God did! The Apostle Paul wasn’t just making it up when he wrote, “Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that he might nullify the things that are, that no man might boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).
And from such small beginnings, think of the way the kingdom has grown. At Pentecost 3,000 people were converted in one fell swoop. The very persecution of the early Church is evidence that neither the Jewish, nor later the Roman hierarchy, was capable of ignoring them. By the mid sixties—less than two generations, with much of the first generation still living—there was a church in every major city in the Roman Empire, and the one in Ephesus was powerful enough to be a threat to the idol making industry. By the end of the first century the kingdom had spread to people of every class, rank, station, and province of the Empire. By the end of the twenty-first it may well have spread to people of every tongue, tribe, and nation on earth.
What does this tell us? The kingdom of God is the rule of God; it is not about us, the citizens, but about him, the one who rules, about his activity, about his glory. Small, even hopeless beginnings are no problem for him. In fact, they only add to his glory when the finished result is seen. I expect just about any conductor could probably make the Atlanta Symphony or the New York Philharmonic sound good. It would take a special maestro indeed to get the same results out of a junior high orchestra with little talent and no experience and unbalanced instrumentation. But that is what God is doing in his kingdom. And it’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, how many of us would get to play? There is also a very particular application to a small church like ours, hampered by a lack of resources. None of that is relevant when Christ is building his Church. If God wills to use us, none of that is necessary. What is? That is the subject of the next parable.
Here the woman is God, the leaven is the grace of God or perhaps the Holy Spirit, and the meal is you and me; the three pecks are perhaps the Church. The point here is not growth so much as transformation. The whole DNA of the mustard tree is in the seed. It just grows and unfolds. But leaven turns dough into a whole new thing. And so Peter, who denied the Lord, became his boldest ambassador, saying with John that he would obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19) and continuing stubbornly to preach Christ after a close brush with death (Acts 5:42). The ignorant and unlearned men now astonished the scribes with the power and clarity of their orations (Acts 4:13). And Saul of Tarsus, the most violent hater of Christ and persecutor of all who belonged to him, became his most ardent follower and spokesman. What happened to these people? Christ had begun taking control of their lives, reigning in their hearts through his personal Agent and representative, the Holy Spirit, acting as Lord. The kingdom of God had come to them! And it changed them; it transformed them forever.
We should pay attention to the details of the description of this transformation that Jesus chose to make. Comparing the process to the leavening of dough tells us in the first place that the transformation is inevitable. If the leaven is good and the conditions are right, the dough is going to be different. The leaven acts, and the dough cannot choose but rise. “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature. The old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). In the second place, the transformation is inexorable. The leaven is hid in the meal until it is all leavened; the key word here is “until.” The process of transformation can be slowed by cold, etc., but it cannot be stopped as long as the leaven is active. And that is what the whole concept of the kingdom is about: the sovereign activity of God. In the third place, the transformation is invisible. The results are not invisible: they are the fruit of the Spirit; they are light that shines before men so they can see our good works and glorify our Father who is in Heaven. But the process is invisible and mysterious. You cannot see it happening, but when you come back to the dough it is a loaf and not a cracker. In the fourth place, the transformation is extensive. The leaven is hid until “all” of the meal is leavened. Jesus must become Lord of the whole person, not just his emotions, his inner life, or his “spiritual” life. And in the last day his Lordship will be extended to the whole Church, which will no longer on that day have tares among the wheat. And finally, the transformation described here is intensive. The process of “hiding” the leaven in the meal means kneading. You work it in, using whatever force is necessary, for as long as it takes, until the whole loaf is affected. If dough could speak it would probably think it was ready for baking a long time before the baker was satisfied! This then is what it takes to make the Church grow like a mustard seed: not beginning with lots of smart and rich people, but continuing with people into whom the leaven of God’s grace is being kneaded day by day. I pray that this is the kind of church we are going to be.
To pray “thy kingdom come” in The Lord’s Prayer is to pray that in precisely this way God will take control of your life, to pray that Christ may act as Lord in your heart. It is to pray that the leaven of God’s grace will be kneaded into you and the other members in such a way that the Church will grow like a mustard seed, into a tree in which spiritual outcasts can find their spiritual home. Will you pray it like that? Let us do so together even now.
Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, On earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our debts As we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory Forever and ever. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams