The Parables of Jesus
The Kingdom Parables

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Peter Ditzel

The previous parables we have examined in this series centered on the planting of grain. The next two parables we will look at are different. The first one is about a mustard seed that grows into a large tree. The second (which will be discussed in our next installment) is about leaven that leavens the entire three measures of meal. As we study into these parables, we will find that the Bible reveals that their meanings are far different from what most commentators and preachers assume. This means that what you have heard about these parables is probably not what the Bible teaches.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

The Parable of the Mustard Seed appears in the three synoptic Gospels. I will here quote them side-by-side.

Matthew 13:31-32 Mark 4:30-32 Luke 13:18-19
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.

Symbols and Explanation

Jesus does not directly explain the meaning of this parable. Nevertheless, we can understand what the symbols stand for by their use in other parables and in other parts of the Bible.

I. The Kernel of Mustard: The King James Version has an unnecessary redundancy in saying "grain of mustard seed." "Mustard seed" is translated from the Greek word sinapi. This simply means "mustard." The word "grain" is kokkos, and it means a "grain" or "kernel." Thus, the Bible really says, "kernel of mustard." There are only two other places in the entire Bible where mustard is ever referred to. In Matthew 17:20, we read Jesus' explanation for why the disciples were unable to cast out a demon: "And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." In other words, their faith was so little, it could not even be compared to a little grain of mustard. But with faith as much as a mustard seed, they would be able to move a mountain. Luke 17:6 is similar. In response to their asking Jesus to increase their faith, Jesus said, "If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you." Thus, letting the Bible interpret itself, we see that the kernel of mustard represents a small quantity of faith that is able to do great works. Perhaps its power to do this is pictured by its being mustard seed. Bite into a mustard seed and you will know what I mean. Also, from the parable itself, we see that the mustard seed is the beginning of something that grows. So, we can say that the mustard seed is small but powerful faith that later becomes something else that is big.

Kernel of mustard=small, powerful faith that becomes something else

II. The Man: In the parables we examined earlier, the man sowing the grain is identified as Jesus (e.g. Matthew 13:37). There is nothing in the Parable of the Mustard Seed to make us think any differently.


III. Field, Earth, Garden: A different word is used in each of the Gospel accounts. Matthew's account says, "field." In explaining the Parable of the Tares, in Matthew 13:38 Jesus says the symbol of the field stands for the world (kosmos—the earth or the world system). Mark's account says, "earth." This is from the Greek word . It means "soil" or "ground," "land," "region," "country," or the entire earth. We might have difficulty understanding how to apply the word here if it were not for the fact that in every other place in Mark 4 where this word is found, it means "soil" or "ground" (see verses 5, 8, 20, 26, and 28). So, we should take that as its meaning here. Luke uses the word, "garden." The Greek word is kēpos, and it means "garden." Notice that it says, "his garden," or an even better translation would be, "his own garden." I believe this is a reference to the specific land in which the mustard seed is sown, Israel. So, we see that the seed—the small beginning—was planted on the earth, in the land, and specifically, in Israel. 

Field=the world

Earth=the land


IV. Herb, Tree: Mark says that the seed "groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs." "Herbs" is from the Greek word lachanon. It doesn't mean just culinary herbs for flavoring or medicinal herbs; it means vegetables. Luke says the seed "grew, and waxed a great tree." "Tree" is from the word dendron, which is from the word drus, an oak. This is talking about a woody tree, not a vegetable. The seeming discrepancy between these two accounts is explained by Matthew's report. The World English Bible makes Matthew's explanation clearer: "...whenever it is grown, it is greater than the garden vegetables and becomes a tree." As this translation correctly shows, the King James Version is incorrect in saying "greatest among herbs." What Jesus was saying is that the seed doesn't just become a big vegetable; it becomes bigger than the vegetables. It becomes a tree. Notice that Mark also says that the seed becomes "greater than all herbs." The word for "great" in Luke 13:19 is mega, and the words "greater" and "greatest" in Matthew and Mark are comparatives related to it. Mega means big. Today, we find it in such words as megachurch.

Most commentators say that this parable is simply an illustration of the fact that the kingdom of God starts off small and grows big. They say that Jesus simply meant that the mustard seed grows into a big mustard plant. They explain that some varieties of mustard are pretty big. But Jesus' words cut through such confusion. He said the mustard seed grows into something bigger than all vegetables. That includes mustard itself. In other words, the mustard seed grows into something beyond mustard. In fact, Jesus said it grows into a big tree. Notice that it is not a shrub, as some commentators say. It is not even a small tree. It is a big tree, a megatree. Even the biggest mustard plants are dwarfed by a big tree.

The fact that in this parable a mustard seed becomes bigger than all herbs or vegetables and, in fact, becomes a big tree should cause us to be suspicious of the simplistic explanations given by most commentators. In the previous parables, grain seeds grew into grain, tare seeds grew into tares. But in this parable, a mustard seed becomes a tree. Surely, this has meaning. If we ignore it, we will not understand this parable.

What we see, then, is that the mustard seed—the small but powerful faith that was planted on the earth in Israel—grows into something else entirely.

Tree=something much bigger than and different from what one would expect from the mustard seed

V. Branches: Something we see in all three Gospel accounts is that the tree has branches; Mark says, it "shooteth out great branches." Branches are divisions that stem from a main trunk. If you search a concordance, you will find that this natural explanation is found throughout the Bible. Whatever the tree is, we must expect that it will have divisions or branches.

Branches=divisions of whatever the tree is

VI. Birds: Matthew and Luke say that the fouls or birds (both translated from the same Greek word) of the air "lodge in the branches" of the tree. Mark says that they "lodge under the shadow of it." This is not a discrepancy as lodging in the branches of a large tree could very well be to lodge in its shadow. The word "lodge" is from kataskēnoō. It literally means to "camp down." Letting the Bible interpret itself, the birds are easy to identify. In Jesus' explanation of the Parable of the Sower, He said that the fowls of the air were the "wicked one" (Matthew 13:19). This is Satan the devil. Since the birds are plural, perhaps we should see them as Satan's agents, the instruments through which he acts, doing his bidding. So now we see that things are certainly not as simple as most commentators teach. There is something evil going on here.

Birds=Satan's agents

VII. Shadow: Mark's account says that the birds "lodge under the shadow of" the tree. The word "shadow" is skia. It means shadow or shade. In Matthew 4:16 and Luke 1:79, it is used in reference to those who were sitting in the shadow of death being given the light of Jesus. In Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 8:5, and 10:1, it is used of Old Testament laws which were a shadow of things to come. In other words, this word is used in these verses to refer to the relative spiritual darkness that the Jews were sitting in under the law, as opposed to the light of the Gospel of Jesus. The law was only a shadowy type of the glory that came under the New Covenant. So we should be interested in the fact that this tree casts a shadow and that the birds, which we have seen are the agents of Satan, prefer lodging in the shadow.

Shadow=spiritual darkness

The Least of All Seeds

Before continuing, I want to address what many see as a problem with this parable. Jesus calls the mustard seed "the least of all seeds." Now, mustard seeds are small, but the reality is that they are not the smallest of all seeds. I believe that Jesus wants to convey to us, not a botanical fact about mustard seeds, but a truth about what the mustard seed represents. He wants us to see that the faith represented by the mustard seed is not only a small amount of faith, it is also considered the least important thing on the earth. Mark specifically records Jesus as saying that the "mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth." Anyone reading of Jesus' ministry would have to agree that the powers that be despised Him and scorned His message. Of His followers, 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, tells us, "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are." The faith, the message and ministry of Jesus and His followers, is what I believe is represented by the mustard seed. And this message and ministry that Jesus brought, compared to what people in high positions of government and religion in the world and in Israel considered important, was the least important thing.

Nebuchadnezzar's Dream

In Daniel 4, we read that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about "a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great. The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth: The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all: the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the fowls of the heaven dwelt in the boughs thereof, and all flesh was fed of it" (verses 10-12). Notice that this is a dream about 1) a tree of great height, 2) beasts that have shadow under it, and 3) fowls of heaven that dwell in the branches. The similarity to Jesus' parable is striking. In verse 22, Daniel explains that the tree is Nebuchadnezzar. Now, what can this have to do with Jesus' parable?

Certainly, Jesus did not intend that we understand the tree in the Parable of the Mustard Seed to be Nebuchadnezzar, who had been dead for centuries. But the correspondence between Nebuchadnezzar's dream and Jesus' parable is too close to be ignored. I believe that Jesus must have intended that we understand His parable by understanding Nebuchadnezzar's dream.

The tree in the dream represented Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was the head of an empire that dominated the then-known world. As can be seen in Daniel 3, the empire was a church-state; Nebuchadnezzar not only held secular power, but he also controlled worship. Through his empire, Nebuchadnezzar gave shelter to many people, the beasts and fowls of his dream. But these people lived in shadow. On a hot day, we may consider shade a good thing, and Nebuchadnezzar's people may have considered themselves fortunate to be under the protection of his strong empire. But the fact remains that shade exists where light has been blocked out. The Bible says that God is light (1 John 1:5). As I already pointed out, the Bible also depicts being in shadow as being in spiritual darkness. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar, through the false worship he promoted, kept his people in spiritual darkness.

The Israelites of the Old Testament were a type of true Christians under the New Covenant. But Nebuchadnezzar was not an Israelite; he was a Gentile. Therefore, neither he nor the tree that represented him, were Old Testament types of a true Christian. Nevertheless, Nebuchadnezzar came to know something about God and made a sort of confession of his faith or, at least, an acknowledgment of God's existence and power:

And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation: And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? At the same time my reason returned unto me; and for the glory of my kingdom, mine honour and brightness returned unto me; and my counsellors and my lords sought unto me; and I was established in my kingdom, and excellent majesty was added unto me. Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all whose works are truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.
Daniel 4:34-37

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Copyright © 2012 Peter Ditzel