Within Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom, there were Israelites who were Old Testament types of Christians. They had been captured and held in Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. Some of them, such as Daniel and his friends, even held responsible positions in that Babylonian captivity.
Let’s summarize these points about Nebuchadnezzar’s tree: 1) The tree protects, 2) the tree creates shade, which is a type of spiritual darkness, 3) the tree (that is, Nebuchadnezzar) has a form of godliness, but not true godliness, 4) the tree is not Israel and thus its counterpart in the parable cannot be a type of true Christianity, 5) the tree has captured Israel, and Israel was a type of God’s people under the New Covenant.
The Identity of the Parable’s Tree
If we apply this information from Nebuchadnezzar’s tree to the tree in Jesus’ parable, we can see the following: 1) The tree protects, thus, the birds find shelter there, 2) the tree, by promoting a false religion, creates shade, which is a type of spiritual darkness, 3) the tree has a form of godliness, but it is not the true religion, 4) the tree does not represent true Christianity, 5) the tree has captured true Christians. We must add to this the fact that Jesus says that birds, when used as a typological element in His parables, represent the “wicked one,” Satan the devil. Thus, the tree lodges Satan.
What Jesus planted in the earth, represented by the mustard seed, was the small but powerful faith in Him. The planting took place in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire. Jesus was a small-town carpenter in a back-woods district known as Galilee. It was “the least of all seeds.” But something grew from that seed that was like Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian Empire. Compared to the natural growth from a mustard seed, it was an unnatural grotesque.
What, precisely, is the tree? The tree grows from the seed, so it certainly is something that is in some way related to the original faith. The tree in the parable is an allusion to the tree in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. The tree in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was Nebuchadnezzar—a person.
I don’t believe that we are to take the tree in the parable as a specific person only. But there is someone who fits the bill and may be seen as the first appearance of the tree. He was connected to the faith represented by the mustard seed. Like Nebuchadnezzar, he even made a profession of faith. Yet, I do not believe that he fit the description of a true Christian. He provided protection, yet at the cost of spiritual darkness. His corrupt religion attracted the agents of the “wicked one,” who became involved in his politics and religion. He “captured” Christians, putting some even into responsible positions. This person is Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from A.D. 306 to 337.
Before the time of Constantine, many Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith. They were harassed and shunned, but they continued and even grew in number. Then Constantine claimed Christianity, thereby connecting him to the original faith. Scholars are unsure whether Constantine adopted the Christianity of his mother, or whether he came to it gradually. But, in the course of his life, he often made professions of his faith. Constantine (along with Licinius) granted religious tolerance in the Edict of Milan and began to build church buildings, thus offering protection and shelter, and by doing this “captured” Christianity, which at first came to be the favored religion and eventually the state church of the Roman Empire. Those who sheltered with this church fell under its shade. All they believed came through the official channels of the church, filtered by the church. Constantine personally sent out letters threatening persecution for all who dissented from what he called “holy Catholic Law.”
But I think we would be making a mistake if we assume that the typology of the tree ended with the death of Constantine. Like the pagan emperors before him, Constantine held the religious office of Pontifex Maximus, which literally means “greatest bridge-builder” (between men and God). Gratian, who reigned from 375 to 383, seems to be the last emperor to have been called this. But it was then used by the bishops of Rome, the popes, and it continues to be used by them to this day.
But I think that we are to see the tree that started as Constantine as more than just Constantine and the popes. I think we are to see it as the entire religious system of state-sanctioned, institutional Christianity that Constantine began to bring about. The springing up of this corrupt church under Constantine has been termed the Constantinian Shift. It is the shift in emphasis from simple, personal faith to an institution with rulers, clergy-laity distinction, religious formalism, legalism, and relations with the state powers. An extreme of this is Caesaropapism, a merging of the authority of church and state, such as the Roman Catholic Church exercised in the Middle Ages, many Protestant states had during the Reformation, and Henry VIII took to himself when he made himself head of the Church of England. As Wikipedia puts it, with the Constantinian Shift, “Christianity became a religious justification for the exercise of power and a tool in the expansion and maintenance of empire, a Christian empire, also known as Christendom.” Wikipedia also states, “American theologian Stanley Hauerwas names the shift as the foundation for the expression of Christianity in the United States today that is closely associated with patriotism and civil religion.” I heartily agree. These ideas are completely out of line with the teachings of Jesus.
It is this Christendom, the visible Christianity we see around us from the Vatican to the church on the corner, that is the tree of the parable. I say this because that system also fits the description of the tree. 1) It has a connection by name and a similarity of some teachings to the original, mustard seed faith, 2) through its clerical system and church laws and rules, it gives a sort of protection and security, 3) it creates shade, blocking the light of the Gospel and replacing it with spiritual darkness, 4) it has a form of godliness, but it is not the true religion, the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3), 5) it has “captured” and holds true Christians among its ranks, 6) it harbors the “wicked one,” Satan the devil, and his agents in its clergy (these were around even in Paul’s day—see 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Yes, the Roman Catholic Church certainly fits this description. But, as the branches of the tree show, it goes beyond that one church. I believe that the basic meaning of the Parable of the Mustard Seed is that the original faith that Jesus planted was to be transformed into a giant, man-made system that Satan’s agents would use to keep people in darkness while making them think that the institution they belonged to was the Christian church to which they could entrust their salvation. It is, in fact, the Christendom that we see around us. It is the immense and influential church that is visible in the world today with its trunk and many denominational branches of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It is Satan’s master stroke, his application of the proverb, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” with the intent of subverting them to your way. And he has succeeded in deceiving millions upon millions of people. And let’s remember that tree in the parable is based on the tree in the dream that was Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.
The Fate of the Tree
The fact that Jesus used a figure in His parable that was used in the Old Testament to represent Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonian Empire, has far-reaching implications. This is especially so when we realize that the tree of Jesus’ parable is the corrupt and grotesque Christendom we see today. Babylon is mentioned six times prophetically in Revelation. In Revelation 17, Babylon is depicted as a harlot riding a scarlet-colored beast. Scarlet is the color of the robe that the Roman soldiers put on Jesus when they were mocking Him (Matthew 27:28). It is a symbol of worldly authority. In Revelation 14, 16, and 18, we read of the fall of Babylon. I simply do not have the space here to go into detail about these prophecies. But I will quote three verses. Revelation 18:4 says, “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” This shows that God does have His people in Babylon. Revelation 18:23 says, “And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.” I have quoted this to show that the “sorceries” or false doctrines and practices of Babylon have led the nations astray. And Revelation 18:24 says, “And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.” With this, I want to show that Babylon has, through persecutions, murdered many of the true saints of God.
The Lesson of the Parable of the Mustard Seed
The parable shows us that we ought to know and expect that the institutional church system in this world—Christendom—is not the ekklēsia of Christ and it is not genuine Christianity. Certainly, there are Christians in it. But it would save them much frustration and heartache in trying to deal with that system if they would just come out of it. They would also better understand the Scriptures through their own study without hearing them distorted week-after-week by a “fowl of the air.” I’m not saying that all speakers in institutional churches have evil intent. They may be elect Christians who need to come out of Babylon as much as the Christians sitting in the pews. But even God’s elect can teach false doctrine because it is what is taught to them in seminaries and what they hear from other preachers. This “lodging in the shadow” blinds them and their hearers to the truth.
So, the lesson of the parable is to not be fooled by the impressive big church or the cute country church or the promise of fellowship or the interesting seminars or the silver-tongued speaker or the Th.D. or the media personality or the warm handshake or the contemporary music or the traditional music. The Bible is clear: “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.”
Application of the Parable to Our Lives
What are we to learn from this parable?
1) We are to learn that the faith that Jesus brought to and planted in this world was small, powerful, and simple.
2) The parables we have already examined in this series teach us that the simple application of God’s Word brings forth the fruit that God has ordained. Additionally, the Parable of the Tares taught us Satan will also sow his seed that will result in false Christians who look very much like real Christians. They will invent false doctrine and establish their institutional Christian church with its branches to try to root out real Christianity. Thus, the Parable of the Mustard Seed pictures this false, institutional church. With this parable, Jesus was warning us of this so we could be prepared to expect the large, visible church (and its branches) to not be the church He established.
3) What should we do with this information? Many, who are not aware, fall under the shadow of the large tree and have the light of the Gospel blocked from them. They come under the influence of the agents of the wicked one who are skilled in distorting the truth and keeping them under their thumb. But if we are aware, we should know to avoid the Christendom of this world, learning the simple truth directly from God’s Word, and fellowshipping in the local ekklēsia (which the Bible always locates as being in the home—see “Ekklēsia or Church, Does It Matter?“).
After writing most of this article, I checked online to see if there was anyone else who taught this parable with basically the same understanding as I have here. I was surprised to find that the popular twentieth century Baptist preacher A. W. Pink explained the parable in much the same way I have. In fact, he has put it so well that I have decided to quote a section of his book, The Redeemer’s Return (quoting this section does not mean that I agree with all of what Pink says in this book), as a good summary and ending to this article:
This [Parable of the Mustard Seed] then looks forward to a later period and presents a prophetic picture which saw its materialization in the fourth century of our era. The growth of the little mustard-seed into a great tree represents the development of the Christian profession from an insignificant commencement into a system of imposing proportions. In the fourth century A. D., Christianity was popularized by Constantine who adopted it as the State religion and compelled more than a million of his subjects to be baptized at the point of the sword. The parable of the Tares shows us Christianity corrupted by the insidious introduction of the children of the Wicked One among the children of God: the parable of the mustard-seed forecasted the growth and spread of a corrupted Christianity. This assertion of ours may easily be verified by the details of the parable itself.
The mustard-seed developed into a great tree – an abnormal thing in itself, nay, a monstrosity – so the popularization of Christianity in the days of Constantine produced an unnatural and ungainly system which was foreign to its spirit and nature. Observe that the “fowls of the air” came and lodged in the branches of the great tree. In the first parable of the series the Lord Himself tells us that the birds of the air represent the emissaries of Satan. The great tree then, stands for a nominal and national Christianity, a monstrous, world-system, that which in our day is the aggregate of the so-called “Christian nations.” In a word, the great tree symbolizes Christendom which in Rev. 18 is said to be the “hold of every foul spirit and a cage for every hateful bird.”
Further confirmation of our assertion above, that the great tree which issued from the mustard-seed represents the abnormal growth of a corrupted Christianity is furnished in Daniel 4 where we have recorded a dream which came to the first head of the Gentile powers. In this dream Nebuchadnezzar also saw a “great tree,” and in the fate which it met with we learn the end which is appointed to the tree of our parable. To quote – “I saw, and behold 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. I saw in the visions of my head upon my bed, and, behold, a watcher and a holy one came down from heaven; He cried aloud, and said thus, Hew down the tree, and cut off his branches, shake off his leaves, and scatter his fruit: let the beasts get away from under it, and the fowls from his branches” (Dan. 4:10-14).
To sum up our comments upon this parable. Instead of lending favor to the position of post-millennialism, its teaching – viewed in the light of Daniel 4 – absolutely shatters the foundation of that system. Instead of teaching that the professing Church shall conquer the world, it shows that the world has conquered the professing Church. The mustard-seed symbolizes the outward character of the Christian profession at the beginning of this dispensation, when its devotees were few in number, poor in this world’s goods, and despised by the great ones of the earth. In the third century A. D., the professing Church was like unto a humble little seed, unpretentious in appearance and insignificant in its dimensions. But in the fourth century there was a dramatic change. Constantine became a nominal Christian and adopted Christianity as the State religion. Then it was that the “tree” grew and became strong in the earth, putting out its branches in all directions. But then it was, also, that the fowls of Satan found shelter within its imposing boughs. However, great as the tree has become, its end is sure. Just as we learnt in the previous parable that the tares shall yet be consigned to the fire, so shall this great “tree” yet be cut down and brought to nought.
Before closing, I want to point out that nothing in the parable implies that all Christians will be captive to the tree/Christendom system. The very fact that God tells His people to come out of it implies that some will not be or remain in it. God always has His faithful remnant.
The next parable we will examine in this series will be the Parable of the Leaven.
Copyright © 2012 Peter Ditzel