Rising Above Average: Of Mustard and Yeast

Matthew 13:31-33

Most scholars see these two parables as a pair, with the first one (the mustard seed) referring to the outward growth of the Kingdom of Heaven and the second one (the yeast) referring to the inward growth of the Kingdom.

The traditional interpretation of this pair of parables is likely familiar to most church-goers because it is what we have been taught since Sunday School:

The traditional [view] held from the early days of the Church…affirms that Jesus is here describing the two-fold growth of the Church.  In the parable of the mustard seed it is the outward growth; in the parable of the leaven it is inward, spiritual growth—or its influence in leavening society.  (Ralph Earle)

The traditional view is that the Holy Spirit, working in the hearts of believers, like yeast in dough, causes the Kingdom of Heaven to grow steadily from its tiny beginning, like a mustard seed.  Eventually, thanks to the transforming power of God at work in the hearts of citizens of the Kingdom, that Kingdom will blossom, like the tiny mustard seed that grows into a large plant and yeasts permeates the dough.

This view is empowering, positive, encouraging and, sadly, incorrect.  In the past 150 years or so, another view, which has actually been around for centuries, has come to the fore as reality takes precedence over utopian ideology.  The fact is, as one looks around at the state of the Church on earth today, the Kingdom of Heaven is obviously not going to “take over” the world.  When we look at the impurity and impotency of the Church it becomes obvious that the Church of Jesus Christ has little or no influence over the affairs of man.  If the traditional view is incorrect, what is the mystery of Kingdom that Jesus is trying to impart in this pair of parables?

1.  Context, context, context

Before looking at what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 13:31—33, we need to recap what Jesus has been teaching up to verse 30, because the whole chapter must be looked at as unit of teaching; one message given using several different illustrations to explain it.

Jesus had been teaching a large crowd by the sea a number of “mysteries” concerning the Kingdom of Heaven.  The first thing He wanted people to understand was that not everybody in the Kingdom of Heaven is what they appear to be.  Of all the citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven today, a mere one-quarter are fruit-bearing believers in whom the Word of God, planted by Jesus Himself, has taken root.  The vast majority of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, the remaining three-quarters, is made up of mediocre-to-average believers who are hot one day and cold the next.  These are the “double minded” people described by James in his epistle.   Within the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is sowing the seed, but so also is Satan; the enemy of God and His people, sowing destructive seeds of heresy causing many of the majority to abandon their lukewarm faith.  Jesus knows that this is happening, but since we are currently living in the Dispensation of Grace, He is allowing this to happen in order to accomplish His eternal purposes for man.

So today there exists within the Kingdom of Heaven a strange kind of plurality:  mediocre, hypocritical, and false believers mixed in with genuine, true believers.  This is the context in which Jesus proceeds to tell His story which will further advance the revelation of these Kingdom mysteries.

2.  The mustard seed:  unnatural growth, verses 31—32

MustardPlantsHe told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

In simplest terms, the illustration of the mustard seed speaks of the abnormal and insubstantial growth of the Kingdom of Heaven, especially of the Church, which is the visible side of the Kingdom on Earth today.

Normally throughout the New Testament, believers are compared to fruit-bearing trees; the mustard plant is not a tree, it’s an unimpressive desert shrub.  While fruit is healthy and good for you, mustard has no nutrient value at all.  It is a condiment; it is not a food you can live on.  It tastes terrible if you get a mouthful.   So right at the beginning of this illustration we know something different must be being taught by Christ.  It makes no sense to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to mustard—a scraggly, grubby shrub that produces a nasty tasting herb— in any positive sense.mustard_field

That Jesus compares the Kingdom to the mustard shrub is a negative lesson, not a positive one.  The fact that this shrub grows to gargantuan proportions so that birds can come to rest in its branches shows a freakish, abnormal plant!    In fact, this story reveals the outward growth of the visible Church; it grows at an unnatural pace because Christianity, though it began small and pure, is not today fulfilling its normal calling of holiness and separation from the world and worldliness.  The Church of Jesus Christ today is a compromised and compromising organization; so much so that even the birds, which traditionally symbolize unconverted people, find a place of shelter in it.  Since when to those hostile to the things of God want anything to do with Him and His house?  That occurs when the sinner feels comfortable enough with his sinful state to remain in God’s house; he does not experience conviction of sin because that is addressed.

In the 21st century, the Church and the world have become a tangled mess.  It is getting harder and harder to tell the Christian from the sinner.   That is why Jesus describes Christianity of this present age as a weird, almost other worldly shrub:  it bears no resemblance to what it is supposed to look like.  Christians are called to be the salt of the earth, not mustard!

2.  The yeast:  a gospel of destruction, verse 33

breadHe told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

If the preceding story illustrates the outward growth of Christianity, then this story shows how that growth was achieved.  This one, single verse is extremely important in our understanding of the great dispensational truths Jesus is revealing in Matthew 13.

Traditionally, the interpretation of this story goes something like this:  The woman is Christ, and the yeast is gospel and the dough is the world.  The point of this verse is to show how the Kingdom starts of small and insignificant—like yeast—yet over time it grows and grows until it takes over the world.

Those who teach that the yeast represents the Gospel have a lot of explaining to do since everywhere else in Scripture yeast represents the principle of evil.  The word “yeast” or “leaven” occurs almost 100 times in both Testaments and always in a negative sense.  So it seems unlikely in the extreme that Jesus would all of a sudden take a negative and turn it into a positive!   No, symbolism in Scripture never, ever contradicts itself and is always consistent.

In fact, while the yeast is something evil, the Gospel is represented in this story by the “large amount of flour.”  Don’t forget about the “good seeds” and the “wheat” of the previous parables; they show up here in this parable in the form flour.

making breadThe woman in the story does not represent Christ; she is seen handling evil, which Christ would never do, and when women are mentioned in connection with faith or doctrine in the Bible, they are always representative of evil.  Just a quick reading of Proverbs, for example, will illustrate this.   Furthermore, if you believe the woman is Christ then she is doing a very strange thing with the yeast of the Gospel:  she is hiding it!  Nowhere in the New Testament are we taught that the Gospel was something to be hidden!  The Word of God is supposed to proclaimed loudly and clearly for all to hear.

Here is what is really happening in this brief and powerful story:  Just like we see in the previous parables, the woman represents some form of false teacher and the yeast represents various forms of false teachings that corrupt the dough.  What Jesus is explaining, and what He wants us to be aware of, is that in this present dispensation there is a lot of false teaching to be found throughout the Church.  He is making a statement of fact.

3.  Combining the two:  a picture of the modern Church

If we take this pair of parables as a unit, then Jesus is teaching us one very startling truth that can be distilled into three words:  numbers mean nothing. We live in a culture today where numbers mean everything.  The number of members a church has on its roll is almost always seen as an indicator that that church is “doing something right.”  But is that an accurate statement?    According to the essence of what Jesus is teaching, that is not an accurate statement at all.

While there is nothing wrong with a church having a large congregation, that factor in and of itself is no guarantee that the Gospel is being preached and sinners converted in that church.   According to the story of the mustard seed, that large church could, in fact, be experiencing abnormal and freakish growth that has nothing whatsoever to do with a move of God.

When yeast is introduced into dough, it causes fermentation and the dough rises.  Not only that, it makes the dough taste good.  If you have ever eaten genuine unleavened bread—bread with no yeast in it—you know how utterly bland it is.   But toss in some yeast and all of a sudden that bland recipe becomes tasty indeed.  And if you don’t put that dough into the oven, it will just continue to ferment and rise until it becomes nasty.

circusMany churches, desperate for members, use a little yeast to make the Gospel tasty.  But to those who need saving, the Gospel is not supposed to be tasty.   The Kingdom of Heaven is not supposed to appeal our fleshly nature.  The Church of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with meeting man’s supposed temporal needs; it has everything to do with the glory of God who is alone is able to meet man’s eternal need of salvation.

What Jesus described in parabolic form two thousand years ago we are witnessing in reality today.  Today we have churches that no longer preach against sin for fear of offending somebody.  We have so-called Christians who hop from church-to-church looking for that one church that will meet the needs they think they have.  What they don’t know is their need can be met only by Jesus Christ and His Word, and you don’t need programs and gimmicks for that.

But what we really see happening today is exactly what the Word of God has prophesied would happen as the age of man draws to a conclusion.  The overwhelming teaching of Scripture is that the world, including the Church in this present age, will continue to deteriorate and degrade so that even the smartest person will be deceived at the end.  Jesus Himself posed this question:

However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8b)

Within the context of that verse, and the way the sentence is constructed in the Greek, a negative answer is the correct answer.  When Christ returns, the world He left will be a mess, thanks in large part to a lumbering, freakish, apostate church.  While we look at the world around us and rightfully observe how offensive it has become to God, we need to realize that we are part of the reason the world has fallen so far.  John MacArthur once remarked:

hinn-tbn“TBN has done more harm to the gospel than Jerry Springer. For a false representation of God is more damaging than a true display of sin.”

Hard Questions

The title of this series of teachings (that is, my title, not our Lord’s) is “Rising Above Average.”  My prayer is that those who have been reading these teachings learn something about themselves.  The question each of us need to ask is a simple one:

Within the Body of Christ, am I part of the 25% minority or part of the 75% majority?

Only those who are completely sold out to Jesus Christ are dedicated to Him wholly, and those are the 25% believers of excellence.  Of these men and women, boys and girls, the Lord will say—

‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’  (Matthew 25:21)

But to those mediocre, double minded Christians, Jesus has warned—

Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.  (Matthew 25:28—29)

You don’t have to be that person.  You can become a believer of excellence simply by yielding to the Holy Spirit within you and the drawing of God.  There is no better way of living than living a life consecrated to Christ.  Francis Havergal expressed it in a powerful way:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

pray-bible(c)  2009 WitzEnd


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1 Response to “Rising Above Average: Of Mustard and Yeast”



  1. 1 The mustard seed parable « Memmaina's Blog Trackback on November 15, 2010 at 7:40 am
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