Editor’s note: The seven parables in Matthew 13 have an important significance: they enable men to find the true church through knowledge of the kingdom of God. In the first parable, the parable of the sower, seeds are widely sown but only those that fall on good soil will become deeply rooted, grow, flourish and bear fruit. Everyone has an equal chance to find the heavenly kingdom. However, only a truly receptive heart will understand the gospel, come to the true church and continually walk in God’s word. In the second parable, the parable of the tares, tares are sown among the good seed. Although troublesome, the tares will ultimately be weeded out and destroyed. The devil attempts to disrupt the true church through false brethren. This is a trial of faith. True believers should not lose heart but trust God to eradicate these sons of the wicked one.
This instalment continues with the third parable.
THE MUSTARD SEED
After delivering the parable of the tares, the Lord Jesus immediately spoke the parable of the mustard seed. He said:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Mt 13:31–32)
Birth: The Gospel Seed is Sowed
Jesus used the mustard seed as an analogue for smallness (Mt 17:20). In this context, the parable of the mustard seed highlights the “small” or modest beginnings of the kingdom of heaven. This mustard seed was sown by a man in his field. This man refers to the Lord Jesus, who began the gospel work in the house of Israel.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (Jn 12:24)
He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name. (Jn 1:11–12)
Jesus had come in the flesh to preach the words of the kingdom of heaven to the world, humbly commencing the gospel work. Although His people, the Jews, rejected and crucified Him, when He is lifted up from the earth, He will draw all peoples to Himself (Jn 12:32). He was one humble grain, but His death, burial, resurrection and ascension produced much grain. In fact, after Jesus ascended to heaven, the Holy Spirit descended to establish the church on earth. His Spirit guided the apostles to preach the words of life and be His witnesses, not only in Jerusalem and in all Judea, but also in Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:6–11).
Growth: Spirit’s Abidance and Satan’s Attacks
Although it is the least of all the seeds, the mustard seed grows into a tree, greater than the herbs. This prophecy of growth was fulfilled during the apostolic times. With the presence of the Holy Spirit, the church was full of spiritual wisdom and power. She expanded outwardly, in accordance to the instruction and prophecy of the Lord Jesus prior to His ascension (Acts 1:8).
When the church carries out the gospel work diligently, the devil will just as diligently seek to attack and destroy. The Lord is not willing for any to perish, but the devil is not willing for any to be saved. Thus, the devil perpetually strives to mislead and confuse man regarding the truth. For instance, when Barnabas and Paul went to preach in Salamis, Cyprus, Elymas—a sorcerer and false prophet—tried to hinder their work so that the proconsul would not believe in the truth. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, saw through this work of the devil. Elymas was rebuked and became temporarily blind. The proconsul believed when he saw what had been done (Acts 13:4–12). On another occasion, when the gospel was preached from Asia Minor to Europe, a spirit of divination tried to cause trouble through a servant girl. So Paul cast out the devil in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 16:16–24).
Jesus had already sounded the warning through the parable of the tares: growing pains are inevitable. The devil will relentlessly undermine the true church’s gospel work. But the church can triumph by relying on the sending and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The apostolic church is proof of this. Despite the devil-instigated slander and hindrance from the Jews and Gentiles, the gospel prevailed. The church grew continually amidst persecutions and difficulties. Paul even preached the gospel truth to Rome in chains. His epistles transcend time and space to edify those who read them.
Infiltration: Distortions of the Truth
When the mustard seed has grown and becomes a tree, the birds (plural) of the air come and nest in its branches. Three points are noteworthy:
- Becomes a tree
In the land of Palestine, mustard can grow to approximately ten feet (about three meters) in height. However, it remains a bush. If the small mustard seed has grown to become a great tree, with branches so large that birds can build nests therein (Mk 4:32; Lk 13:19), it means that this particular plant has changed its essential nature. God created all things according to its kind (Gen 1:12). Herbs and trees may grow but should remain as they are, nature unchanged.
- Birds of the air
Birds may prefigure or represent different things in different parables (cf. Prov 1:17; Mt 6:26). However the parables in Matthew chapter 13 all pertain to the mysteries of heaven and are thus related. Therefore, as the Lord Jesus Himself explained in the parable of the sower, “birds” in these parables refer to the wicked one, i.e., Satan (Mk 4:15) or the devil (Lk 8:12).
- Nest in its branches
The tree grown from the mustard seed has become the dwelling place of the wicked one, Satan.
PARABLE FULFILLED IN CHURCH HISTORY
Holy Spirit Departs from the Church
The fulfillment of the prophecy that “birds of the air” will nest in the branches (Mt 13:32) and under the shade (Mk 4:32) of the mustard tree, whose nature has changed, was seen after the apostolic period. Infiltrated by worldly customs and heresies, the church was no longer able to uphold the pure doctrine. Satan could nest within the church. During this period, the secularized church grew in terms of size, but she no longer had the abidance of the Holy Spirit or belonged to God.
When the apostles were still alive, their defense and exhortation helped to keep at bay the heresies creeping into the church. But new challenges arose. One of these was persecution. The Romans had previously maintained a neutral policy towards the faiths of the nations within their empire, but this changed because of the Jewish revolt in 66 C.E. The Roman authorities became more alert to uprisings within different ethnic communities. In contrast to the enclosed culture of Judaism, Christianity was preached to all peoples, and its doctrines opposed the polytheism and pagan practices common throughout the Roman Empire. Not only were Christians perceived as a political threat, many also hated them, making them the ideal scapegoats when the people needed to be appeased. In the period of 60–300 C.E., around ten Roman emperors persecuted Christians. From Nero (54–68 C.E.) to Diocletian (284–305 C.E.), Christians were subject to varying forms and degrees of persecution.
However, many believers remained undeterred and continued to evangelize. As a result, even some pagans were moved to believe. One of these was Constantine I, or Constantine the Great (306–337 C.E.), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. His conversion was a turning point. In 313 C.E., the edict of Milan provided Christians with limited freedom within the empire. In 315 C.E., various anti-Christian practices and regulations were abolished, and in 325 C.E. an edict was issued, advising all people within the empire to convert to Christianity. For Christians, this was hope amidst darkness.
While Constantine’s conversion had removed persecution, the new challenge of secularization emerged. The emperor convened the first Ecumenical Council in 325 C.E. in Nicaea. Among the key achievements of this council were consensus on the Christological issue of God the Son and His relationship to God the Father, and the adoption of the Nicene Creed, the first uniform Christian doctrine. The creed became the basis on which subsequent Christian denominations defined their statements of belief on the Godhead and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy. These efforts resulted from Constantine’s earnest desire to unify the church and the nation. However, at that point, he was still not baptized! Not only did he attend the council as a non-believer, he even chaired the entire meeting. This was not a trivial issue. The resolutions of the council would subsequently become the standard of general church belief, and breach of these beliefs would be deemed heretical. Evidently, the Nicene Creed had a significant negative impact on later church development.
Several implications from Constantine’s effort to unify the church and the nation serve as important reminders for the true church today. First, only God, and God alone, is the source of truth (Jn 8:40). God’s word is the truth (Jn 17:17), and is bestowed upon those whom He has selected through the Holy Spirit (Jn 17:6–8, 14–19; 1 Cor 2:10–13). Truth is revealed only through God’s inspiration, not artificially constructed and driven by man’s desire to unite church and state, or different denominations. Otherwise, “truth” will just be the compromised articulation of the pre-existing, and flawed, beliefs that we are seeking to integrate.
Second, the truth should not be ascertained by a resolution passed by the majority, without reaching a consensus or common understanding. Biblical examples remind us that the majority decision can often be erroneous (Num 13:31–33; Lk 23:23), especially if the general population does not have deep experience and knowledge of biblical exegesis, is not in full possession of the facts, or is susceptible to manipulation. World history is rife with examples of the latter. The tolerance that Constantine I had towards Christians stemmed mainly from political strategy. He wanted to make use of Christianity to restore the corrupt hearts of the people, and to unite the various races within his jurisdiction. As such, his decision to embrace the church led, ironically, to her eventual corruption.
In 321 C.E., Constantine I allowed the church in Rome the right to accept bequests. At first glance, this opened up a great channel of wealth for the church—a blessing indeed. However, church history shows that this move diverted the focus of the church ministry away from pastoral care and evangelism, towards money generation, power and status, resulting in people fighting for wealth and power within the church. Constantine stipulated the first day of the week as a day of rest for all people except farmers. Taking Sunday as a day of rest gradually replaced the rest and worship of Sabbath.
In 380 C.E., Theodosius I (347–395 C.E.) made Christianity the national religion. When everyone claimed (or was compelled) to be a Christian, the church started to become a worldly organization filled with people with no genuine faith. Although the entire nation converted to Christianity, many of them were unwilling converts, and many races were unwilling to forsake their old traditions and practices of worship, such as Saturnalia—the worship ceremony of the solar deity.
Worse, the political ideologies and structure of the Roman Empire were brought into the church. This resulted in the essence of the church being changed, turning it—eventually and inevitably—into a political organization. The papal system emerged, resulting in further corruption of the church, and making the church a nest for the devil. By then, because the Holy Spirit had departed from the church, the church leaders argued endlessly over their own theological ideas, based on their own thoughts and opinions. As for the believers, many of them became lost in their faith because they were unable to receive genuine spiritual food: they were taught to kneel before images, to worship angels, Mary and the relics of the deceased. As a result, the church departed further and further from the Bible.
A church that has lost the truth is like a herb that has grown into a tree—it has changed in type and in essence.
The True Church Must Remain Alert
The Lord Jesus prayed to the heavenly Father:
“Sanctify [My disciples] by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” (Jn 17:17–19)
The apostolic church was established through a miraculous downpour of God’s Spirit. But with the demise of the apostles, heresies infiltrated, the truth was lost, and the church was no longer sanctified by the truth. The church became an organization as secular as any other, subject to the same political intrigues, personality-led decision-making and the introduction of celebrations and festivals to please the masses. This is the period of church development described in the parable of the mustard seed. Although there was significant growth in the number of churches and believers, it was no longer the church that the Holy Spirit established during the apostolic era—the church which had the truth.
The true church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). At all times, and through all time, she must firmly uphold the truth.
 Lin Dayi, Research on the New Testament Background (Taichung: Palm Press, 1990), 316.
 “First Council of Nicaea,” Wikipedia, accessed April 1, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea.
 Lin Dayi, Research on the New Testament Background (Taichung: Palm Press, 1990), 308–317.