THEME: Pervasive Evil
These parables show the subtlety of Satan is evil.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
The next two of Christ’s parables (vv. 31-33) belong together. Each should help us to understand the other, but of all the parables Christ told, none has produced such diametrically opposed interpretations as these two. What are those diverse interpretations? On the one hand, some teachers see these as parables of the kingdom’s expansion and growth, so that in time it actually comes to fill the whole world. An example is William M. Taylor, who has left us an excellent book on the parables. He writes of the story of the mustard seed: A great result from a small beginning, a large growth from a little germ—that is the one thought of the parable, and of that the Lord declares that the kingdom of heaven upon the earth is an instance.
He writes of the yeast,
The great truth here illustrated, then, is that the Lord Jesus Christ, by his coming and work, introduced into humanity an element which works a change on it, that shall continue to operate until the whole is transformed—therein resembling leaven, hidden by a woman in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened.1
Most postmillennialists and many amillennialists take this view since it fits their eschatology to have a parable that tells of the kingdom’s triumph in the world before Christ’s return.
The other viewpoint is represented by a man like Arno C. Gaebelein, who sees the parables as teaching an abnormal and harmful bureaucratic expansion of the church and the devil’s work of undermining it by the infusion of sin, represented by the yeast. He writes, “All these parables show the growth of evil, and are prophecies extending over the entire age in which we live.”
What are normal people to think about these two interpretations?
We should say first that, whatever our interpretation of the parables might be, there is nevertheless much more theological agreement between people who take these two sides than the interpretations themselves would indicate. To be sure, there is a profound disagreement as to whether the kingdom of God is going to be victorious in this age. Postmillennialists would say yes. Premillennialists would say no. But even here there is a measure of agreement. Both acknowledge that Christians are sent out into the whole world with the gospel—the essence of the Great Commission. Both would agree that there has certainly been an effective and striking growth of Christianity from its small beginnings at the time of Christ’s death to its position as a dominant world religion today.
Again, to look at the parable of the yeast, each side would acknowledge that the devil has certainly been effective in working evil into the visible church, greatly harming its effectiveness. So we may begin by realizing that—with the sole exception of whether the church is to be victorious in the world or only affect a part of it—most of the points any one interpreter would insist on would be accepted by the other side.
But we do have to think of the stories one way or the other. Since last week I indicated that I lump them together with the parable that tells of the devil’s work, in tomorrow’s study I will give my reasons for seeing them as I do.
1 William M. Taylor, The Parables of Our Saviour Expounded and Illustrated (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1900), pp. 55,60-61.
Premillennialism: the doctrine or belief that the second coming of Christ will precede the millennium
Postmillennialism: the doctrine or belief that the second coming of Christ will follow the millennium
Millennium: the period of a thousand years during which Christ will reign on earth (see Rev. 20:1-7)
What two opposing interpretations have been made of Jesus’ parables of the mustard seed and yeast?
How do these two interpretations point out the differences between postmillennialists and premillennialists?
What can be agreed upon when looking at this text?
Pray for Christians who honestly disagree.