Parable of the Growing Seed
26 Jesus also said, "The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, while he's asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. 28 The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. 29 And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come."
Parable of the Mustard Seed
30 Jesus said, "How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? 31 It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, 32 but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade."
33 Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. 34 In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.
In the parable of the growing seed, Jesus compares the way in which God's kingdom grows with the way in which a farmer plants his field. The farmer needs only to be faithful in planting the seed, since God has already foreordained the circumstances necessary for its growth and development.
Seed sprouts and grows (Mark 4:27)
How God's kingdom grows and develops is, to a large extent, beyond our human understanding and even contrary to our human reasoning.302 Jesus said "[t]he soil produced crops by itself"- that is, spontaneously or automatically.303 As one source explains:
The secret of growth is in the seed, not in the soil nor in the weather nor in the cultivating. These all help, but the seed spontaneously works according to its own nature. ... So we sow the seed, God's kingdom truth, and the soil (the soul) is ready for the seed. The Holy Spirit works on the heart and uses the seed sown and makes it germinate and grow, "first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear." This is the law and order of nature and also of grace in the kingdom of God.304
While Jesus' reference to the sickle may be nothing more than a figure of speech meaning to "send in/forth the harvesters,"305 it is quite possible that he was hinting at the "judgment that arrives with the kingdom."306 To be sure, the harvest at the end of the age will be a time of great joy for believers - but also great sorrow for those who have rejected Jesus' offer of the kingdom.
A mustard seed (Mark 4:31)
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus teaches that, like a tiny seed that grows into a large plant, God's kingdom begins small but grows to be strong and healthy. (This is also true of Jesus' teaching in general which, although seemingly insignificant at the time, has grown and spread throughout the world and one day will completely dominate it. From that perspective, the "birds" most likely represent Gentiles.307) The mustard seed was used proverbially for small things (app. 750 seeds = one gram).308An annual plant, the mustard shrub grows to an average height of four feet, but may grow as high as ten or even fifteen feet in only a few weeks.309 Thus it was said to be a "tree" in comparison to other garden herbs. It is also worth noting that in Jesus' day the mustard seed was considered pungent and beneficial, and was not easily removed once it had taken root - all qualities associated with God's kingdom.310 The closest OT parallel to Jesus' parable of the mustard seed is Ezekiel 17:3: "On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches" (NASB). Note, however, that whereas in the OT God's kingdom is spoken of as a tree, Jesus likens the kingdom to a garden shrub, quite possibly reflecting its unexpected spiritual nature and Jesus' role as a Messiah who must first suffer and die before assuming his reign.311
When seen from the perspective of the Christian Church, there are some very interesting points to be made, beginning with the mustard seed's representing Jesus:
We think of the little Babe in Bethlehem, of the small following of Jesus when his work seemed to end with his death, and then of the phenomenal development during all the years since that time. In a despised corner of the world, from a carpenter's home, came a teacher who gathered a handful of ordinary disciples and then fell into the hands of his enemies and died a wretched malefactor's death. This was no tower of Babel, nothing big in the eyes of the world. Yet this was the kingdom that was to encircle the world and that is to shine in glory forever ... The great branches are not the great Christian denominations but the Christian believers in all the lands of the earth.
The result of this growth is ... "so that under its shadow the birds of the heaven (meaning the wild birds) are able to go tenting" ... Only their stay is mentioned and not their eating of the seeds of the great mustard plant. Since the mustard tree itself is the kingdom, all who are in this kingdom are part of the tree. The wild birds who tent in the branches are not members of the kingdom; their stay in the branches is only temporary. These wild birds are men in general who are living in all lands and find the church beneficial and enjoy its wholesome influence in the world.312
[G]race or religion in the heart is of gradual growth. It is at first tender, feeble, perhaps almost imperceptible, like the first shootings of the grain in the earth. Perhaps also, like grain, it often lies long in the earth before there are signs of life. Like the tender grain, also, it needs care, kindness, and culture. A frost, a cold storm, or a burning sun alike injure it. So tender piety in the heart needs care, kindness, culture. It needs shelter from the frosts and storms of a cold, unfeeling world. It needs the genial dews and mild suns of heaven; in other words, it needs instruction, prayer, and friendly counsel from parents, teachers, ministers, and experienced Christians, that it may grow, and bring forth the full fruits of holiness. Like the grain, also, in due time it will grow strong; it will produce its appropriate fruit - a full and rich harvest - to the praise of God.313
While we are incapable of - and hence not responsible for - producing spiritual growth and maturity in either ourselves or others, we certainly are capable of - and hence responsible for - nurturing it.
??? What are some ways we can nurture spiritual life in ourselves and others?