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“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. And again He said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened”—Luke 13:18-21.
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We are told in the beginning of this and the other Synoptic Gospels that John the Baptist came preaching repentance because the kingdom of God was at hand. The Lord Jesus took up the message as He began His ministry. For centuries, ever since the dispersion and partial return to the land, the Jews had looked for the King who was to deliver them from Gentile domination and set up the dominion of righteousness on the earth. Now the King was among them, and they knew Him not. The same prophets who told of the kingdom also predicted the rejection of the King at His first coming; and foretold a second and glorious advent when He should return in power and regal splendor, at which time the years of their mourning would be ended, and Israel would enter into fulness of blessing.
But what of the period lying between these two advents? Will the kingdom remain utterly in abeyance; or will it take some other form unpredicted by the prophets of old? These questions are answered, at least in part, in the two parables now before us. Here they are called parables of “the kingdom of God.” They are found also in Matthew’s Gospel (chap. 13), but there the term “kingdom of heaven” is used, an expression peculiar to that Evangelist. This is really synonymous with what we commonly call Christendom. There is a large part of the world where Christ is acknowledged outwardly as the earth’s rightful King, at least. There may or may not be heart-subjection to Him; but men professedly own allegiance to Him, as indicated by the very letters “A. D.”—”In the year of our Lord,” which we use in dating all our correspondence and other documents. “Christendom” really means “Christ’s Kingdom.” This is what our Lord referred to when He spoke of the mystery of the kingdom of God. It is the kingdom in mystery-form while the King Himself is absent in the heavens.
There are two different aspects of this kingdom brought before us in the two parables given here. Matthew gives both, as mentioned above, in a series with five other parables in the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel, where we have a remarkable outline of the whole history and the moral principles that were to characterize the kingdom of heaven while the King remains away. “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.” Elsewhere we are told that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. This does not mean that it is the smallest of all seeds in the vegetable world but the smallest in the herb gardens. And yet that little seed produces the greatest tree of all the herbs. It grows very rapidly and soon overshadows everything around it. Now this is the picture the Lord gave of the outward development of the kingdom of God. Have you ever stopped to think this through? When our Lord first ascended to heaven there were eleven men definitely committed to Him, recognized as His apostles, to bear His message to the world. There were some few hundreds of others throughout Judaea, Galilee and Samaria, who acknowledged His claims. That small beginning was like the mustard seed, the nucleus of the kingdom. These eleven were commissioned to go everywhere preaching the kingdom of God, and telling of the Saviour who had died to put away the sin of mankind and who had ascended to heaven, and is coming again to judge the world. You know how rapidly the kingdom expanded. Within a very short time after the ascension of the Lord Jesus we come to Pentecost, and on that day three thousand souls openly confessed their allegiance to Him. Then within a short time after the healing of the lame man at the temple gate, the number became five thousand; and as the days went on more and more throughout all Jerusalem and Judaea came out for Christ. The gospel reached Samaria, and many hundreds of Samaritans believed, and so it went on to the Gentile world. The remarkable fact is that though the gospel had to contend with idolatry of the worst kind, within three hundred years paganism in the Roman empire had been practically conquered, and Christianity superseded it. Early Christian writers about that time taunted the enemies of Christianity with words something like these: “Your temples are deserted. Christians are found everywhere throughout the Empire.” So the Word went on and on until today there are untold millions of people in the world who profess allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. But our Lord said the tree grew until it “waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.” If we turn back to the eighth chapter of this Gospel we find the parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed, “And as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.” When our Lord gives the interpretation of that parable in the eleventh and twelfth verses, He says, “The Seed is the Word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the Word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” In this our Lord shows that the fowls of the air represent evil emissaries, agents of Satan, who are seeking to destroy that which is of God, and to keep the good seed of the kingdom from bearing fruit in the hearts of those who hear. Is it not a remarkable thing then that only a short time afterward He likens the kingdom of heaven to a mustard tree, with branches spreading abroad in a remarkable way, but in which the fowls of the air actually find lodgment? But does not that agree with the history of Christendom? The way in which nation after nation has been brought out of the darkness of paganism to a knowledge of our blessed Saviour has been truly miraculous; but oh, what unspeakable evils have been hidden in the professing Church of the living God! When we think of the many emissaries of the devil who have found shelter inside the great Christian organizations, who are filled with bitter hatred for the gospel, and endeavor to turn people away from the truth, one might well be appalled and disheartened if the Lord had not foretold all this.
The next parable is that of the leaven, “which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Let me suggest a word of caution here: Do not say that the kingdom itself is like leaven. That is what many people believe. They have the idea that leaven is a symbol of the kingdom, and just as a housewife puts yeast in dough, so the gospel has been committed to Christ’s servants to be carried to the end of the world; and it will go on working and working until everybody will be converted, and this whole universe will be brought to the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now that would be a wonderful thing if it were true, but many scriptures show that it is not so. Our Lord Jesus put the question: “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” He told of ever-increasing apostasy as the end draws near. He said, “As it was in the days of Noah so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.” The whole world was not converted in Noah’s day; neither will the whole world be converted before our Lord comes again.
In an earlier section of this exposition we have discussed the meaning of leaven and seen that throughout Scripture it represents always that which is evil, either in practice or in doctrine. We are warned in both 1 Cor. 5:6 and in Gal. 5:9, that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” Leaven is ever and always evil. In the light of this fact, what do we really see here? The Lord was telling what was going to take place after He went away. He showed how the kingdom was going to spread throughout the world. He knew that millions would profess faith in His name, and to them His truth was to be committed. It was to be kept inviolate, unleavened. But He foresaw the efforts that false professors would make to turn His disciples away from the truth and to bring in the leaven of evil teaching. Like Jezebel of old, the woman here works surreptitiously to pervert the truth. Thus she, the false church, hides the leaven in the food of the children of God. In Revelation (Chap. 17) we have that evil woman, Babylon the Great, riding the beast and dominating the affairs of this world, professing to be the Lamb’s wife, but branded by God Himself as a false harlot and the persecutor of the saints. This, I believe, is the woman we have pictured here, coming from the outside into Christianity, professing to teach the truth which God revealed to His people. Think of the widespread perversion of the truth. For instance, Christ told His disciples to go into all the world and baptize believers from among all nations. Soon this simple ordinance was said to produce the new birth, and it was taught that only by baptism could we be assured of salvation. Jesus instituted the precious ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in memory of Him till He comes again. It was not long before people were taught that the bread and wine were transubstantiated into the very body and blood of Christ and offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead. That which was intended to be a beautiful testimony to the finished work of Christ was made to mean the very opposite. There are literally thousands of people who are taught to go to Mary instead of to Christ, to pray to Mary and to the apostles and other saints who came after them, as though the saints in heaven could hear. Nowhere are we told that the saints can hear our prayers. God, revealed in Christ, is the only One who knows our hearts, and who can hear the cry of our lips. “There is .one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.” A picture came to me this past week, sent by someone, I suppose, who desired to enlighten me. It represented two ladders leading to heaven. At the top of one was what was meant to be a picture of Christ, and at the top of the other was a picture of Mary, His mother. At the bottom of Mary’s ladder was a group of priests and nuns urging people to climb up to her for salvation. All such received a glad welcome. Those who insisted on taking the other ladder met, at the top, a scowling Christ, cold, severe and merciless. The picture showed some people climbing up that ladder, and after getting halfway up they tumbled off. But Mary was pictured as the blessed one with a kindly face, looking down in compassion upon the people as they climbed to heaven. They were making it through Mary when they could not make it through Christ! There you have an illustration of what I mean by the insertion of the leaven of error in the meal. Think of the Blessed Lord who said, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Is He cold and unconcerned? And is it His mother, Mary, who is tender and loving and ready to help sinners? What a travesty on the gospel! As our Lord looked forward He said, all this “is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” Oh, how thankful we can be that we can come right back and test everything by this Book, and rejoice today that we know Christ as the One who came down from His glory to accomplish the work that saves, and to give assurance of eternal life to all who trust Him!