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.”
A common interpretation of this parable is that the kingdom starts small but becomes the biggest reality. While I think there’s some validity to this interpretation, I think it is rather more valid for the parable that goes before this.
Instead, because Jesus seems to emphasise the difference in both stature and size of the mustard seed and the tree it grows into, I am led to interpret this parable from a redemptive-historical point of view (I’m pretty sure there’s a nice phrase for this). The mustard seed of which he talks about is the smallest of all seeds on earth, and likewise, Jesus who became man, became the lowliest of all men on earth, taking the very nature of a servant. He came to serve all men, effectively placing himself at the bottom of the worldly hierarchy of man. Yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the largest of trees. Likewise Jesus died, and by his death the kingdom of God would established. His death bought a people into his kingdom. His death sounded the death knell of the kingdom of Satan, whose power was bound up in the power of death.
And this tree which becomes larger than all the garden plants, puts out large branches SO THAT the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. The branches are not there simply because it’s a tree. The branches are also there for the birds to find a place to rest. Who are the birds of the air? My educated guess on this would be that this refers to all believers, although I’ve also heard that it refers to the Gentiles.
This certainly helps to bring out some of the nuance behind Jesus’ statement in John 12:23-24:
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
By the death of the king, the kingdom grows, that all men may find rest in Christ, and that Christ might be glorified.