The kingdom of heaven is worth far more than anything else we have, or could have. It beats winning the Superbowl. It is better than the best sex, or the most delicious food, the most powerful drug. Having the kingdom of heaven is worth more than being fabulously wealthy in this life. It’s better than being stunningly good-looking, incredibly healthy or amazingly talented. All these are things many of us want or aspire to. But Jesus paints a picture that says these are nothing compared to being in the kingdom of heaven. This is a challenge for all followers of Jesus. Do we believe it, or not?
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Matthew #44. Matthew 13:31-58
This time we’ll try to cover four more parables, and finish Matthew chapter 13.
Remember that last time we observed how Matthew recorded three “sets” of parables, each one made up of two different stories. We covered one of those sets, which was The Wheat and the Weeds and the Two Kinds of Fish. The theme of both of those was good and evil mixed in the real world, with a promise that at the end, it will be sorted out and made right.
Another set from Matthew 13 is this one: The Yeast and The Mustard Seed. Both of these illustrations carry the same theme, so let’s look at them right now.
He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the vegetables and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into 50 pounds of flour until it spread through all of it.” (Matt 13:31-33, HCSB)
A mustard seed is about as thick as an uncooked grain of rice, but only about 1/3 as long. The mustard plant, when full grown, is not a tree exactly, but it is bush that grows up to twelve feet high. The idea is that something very tiny can have a disproportionate result. The parable of the yeast is similar. Jesus talks about a small amount of yeast spread through “fifty pounds” of flour. Our modern bread is typically one to two pounds per loaf, so we are talking about 25 to 50 loaves of bread. Again, the idea is that a small amount of yeast has an impact that is surprising considering its size. Jesus is saying “the kingdom of heaven is like these things.” What does he mean?
I think there are several possibilities, and perhaps all of them are intended by Jesus.
First, the influence exerted by the seed and the yeast are way out of proportion to their size. A tiny seed results in a big bush; a handful of yeast makes fifty loaves of bread. Another way to put this is that they are powerful. So maybe one way to state Jesus’ message is: a little bit of “kingdom of heaven” goes a long way.
Historically speaking, Jesus’ point here has been proven magnificently true. Jesus started with twelve peasants in the “boondocks” of the world, a tiny, no-account backwater part of a tiny, no-account backwater province of the Roman empire. His life and simple message were captured by Matthew in about thirty pages. Yet, the kingdom of heaven through Jesus has profoundly affected the entire course of world history.
Within forty years, the message of the kingdom had caused a noticeable stir in the Roman empire, exerting enough influence to draw persecution from Roman emperors. Within four-hundred years, this message with such a tiny, humble beginning dominated the Roman Empire, and continued to dominate the history of Europe for sixteen more centuries. It went out from there to all parts of the globe.
Set aside for a moment the spiritual things which Jesus has accomplished for us. These of course, are the main and most important thing. But to help us understand how huge the impact of Jesus and his message have been, let us look at it from a purely secular point of view. The kingdom of heaven brought by Jesus is responsible for modern universities. In fact, it is responsible for the foundation upon which most of the world’s learning is based. Modern hospitals and standards of patient care exist because of the “mustard seed” planted by Jesus. The idea of religious tolerance comes from the same mustard seed, as do most of our notions of human rights, and many of our laws. The very concept of democratic government, which has blessed countless millions and led to the preservation of many lives, comes from the “yeast” introduced by Jesus.
The art of Michelangelo, the music of Bach and the Mathematics of Sir Isaac Newton were all done in the name of Jesus for the glory of God. Some of the most awe-inspiring architecture in the world, the most profoundly moving literature were produced by Jesus followers because they were moved by his mustard-seed message. It would be difficult to overstate the influence that Jesus has had. Yet, in his own time and place, as we see at the end of Matthew chapter 13, he was seldom appreciated.
I think there is something here for our immediate encouragement also. Often, when we are a part of small and insignificant-seeming things, we are prone to be discouraged. I recently read the story of Dr. William and Clara Leslie, missionaries to the Congo from Chicago about a hundred years ago. They spent seventeen years at a mission station called Vanga, on the Kwilu river. Eventually, Dr. Leslie’s relationship with the village elders near Vanga deteriorated, and he was asked not to return to Africa. He left in 1929, considering his mission work a failure.
In 2010, some missionaries led by Eric Ramsey made an exploratory trip across the Kwilu river to the remote region past Vanga, to evangelize the Yansi people, who were believed to have no Christian churches. What they found, to their surprise was a network of vibrant, reproducing Christian churches, who traced their spiritual roots to Dr. William Leslie, a hundred years ago. Apparently, in addition to his ministry from Vanga, once each year Leslie traveled across the Kwilu river for about a month, trying to evangelize the people of that even more remote region. He died, not knowing that he had succeeded in starting something that would lead generations of people to Jesus. He planted a mustard seed. It didn’t look like much when he left, but it grew into a beautiful network of churches.
When I was going to primary school and high school, I noticed that most of the people who were world-famous and highly honored were also dead. It wasn’t until after their lives were over, sometimes long afterwards, that people could see the impact made by such individuals.
During my own lifetime, however, that has changed. The rise of 24-hour television and the internet have created a market for thousands of celebrities who are famous and hailed as great, long before their real contribution to society can be evaluated. President Obama was given a Nobel peace prize when his only accomplishment was to win a presidential election. History may view him a great president, or it may not. Regardless, the Nobel prize was given before he had actually done anything significant. This is merely a symptom of how our society views greatness. YouTube has created many overnight celebrities and successes. All this this has led to a situation where we are often discouraged when we don’t see immediate results and rewards from our efforts.
But God may use us to plant a mustard seed that we won’t see full-grown in our own lifetimes. Certainly Peter, John, Paul and the other apostles died long before the Christian faith became the incredible force in history that it is. They were neither widely famous nor well-respected before they died. They received no awards, prizes or great financial benefits. I think the mustard-seed idea should encourage us that God can use in ways beyond anything we might imagine.
What the mustard seed/yeast parables come down to is the long-term power of the word of God. Not everything with small and humble beginnings has power and influence and changes history. But what makes the yeast effective, what makes the seed grow, is God’s word.
For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” (Isa 55:10-11, HCSB)
Let’s us stand firm in our faith that God’s word is a mustard seed, or a little bit of yeast, with the power to work in us and through us in ways that might one day be absolutely mind-blowing.
There is one more set of parables in Matthew 13 left to discuss. The two stories in question are the Treasure in the Field and the Pearl of Great Price.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it. (Matt 13:44-46, HCSB)
The idea is pretty straightforward. You give up everything in order to get that which is greater than everything. A modern equivalent might be like a man who wants to buy a farm. He find out that one farm he is looking at is sitting on top of an oil well. Even if it is more money than he thought he could afford, he’ll find a way to buy it, because he knows it will pay him back many times more than what he invests. The treasure in the field was worth more than everything else the man had, put together. Likewise with the pearl.
I think Jesus is making two main points with these parables. The first is that the kingdom of heaven is worth far more than anything else we have, or could have. It beats Superbowl tickets. It beats winning the Superbowl. It is better than the best sex, or the most delicious food, the most powerful drug. Having the kingdom of heaven is worth more than being fabulously wealthy in this life. It’s better than being stunningly good-looking, incredibly healthy or amazingly talented. All these are things many of us want or aspire to. But Jesus paints a picture that says these are nothing compared to being in the kingdom of heaven. This is a challenge for all followers of Jesus. Do we believe it, or not?
That leads us to the second point Jesus is making. It is worth giving up anything to be in the kingdom. Paul knew this, and lived accordingly:
But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ — the righteousness from God based on faith. My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead. Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:7-14, HCSB)
Paul was not the only one. Just this past week twenty-one Egyptian Christians had a choice to renounce Jesus, or have their heads cut off by Islamic terrorists. They chose death. But what they really chose was Jesus, and therefore, abundant, eternally renewing LIFE. They knew that the kingdom of heaven was worth far more than anything that could be offered by this life. Christians throughout the ages have suffered and even died, holding fast to this truth. As missionary Jim Elliot wrote, a few years before he, too, was killed for his faith:
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.
Matthew closes chapter thirteen with a reiteration of the truth of these parables in real life. Jesus asks his disciples:
“Have you understood all these things? ” “Yes,” they told Him. “Therefore,” He said to them, “every student of Scripture instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old.” (Matt 13:51-52, HCSB)
I have mentioned this before. This is reiteration of the power of God’s word, the scriptures. Jesus is encouraging them to see that both the Old Testament, and his own teachings, have that mustard seed/yeast power.
He went to His hometown and began to teach them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “How did this wisdom and these miracles come to Him? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother called Mary, and His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, aren’t they all with us? So where does He get all these things? ” And they were offended by Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his household.” And He did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief. (Matt 13:54-58, HCSB)
Jesus’ own people did not recognize him at the time. He was like the hidden power of the yeast, the insignificant seed. They didn’t see what God was doing. In addition, they were offended at the idea of giving up their preconception and receiving the kingdom of heaven through Jesus. They were the opposite of the pearl merchant. They looked at the priceless pearl and said, “Nah. I like my own pearls better.”
So, what do we do with these messages? How do we let them become real in our own lives? Perhaps you need to be encouraged. What the Lord is doing in your life right now is only the size of a mustard seed – one third the size of a grain of rice. If you my age or older, you can’t even see it without reading glasses. So, let the scripture be your reading glasses. See that God uses tiny, insignificant things to great result.
Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. (1Cor 1:26-29, HCSB)
Perhaps you need to be reminded that kingdom of heaven is worth more than anything else you might be seeking. You might even need the reminder to be willing to give something up in order to take hold of that kingdom. I know that giving things up for God may be difficult sometimes, but I say again, with Jim Elliot, that it is clearly a good bargain to trade what you cannot keep (anything or anyone on this earth, including your own life) for something that can never be taken from you (the love of God in Jesus Christ, and the abundant, vibrant eternal life that comes with Him).
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!
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