He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:31-33)
Today, we come to the parable of the mustard seed, this tiny seed that grows to be a great tree, and the parable of the leaven, that is the yeast that permeates a whole batch of dough.
These parables have been understood in very different ways.
As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.
Goldilocks was wandering in the woods when she came across the house that belonged to the three bears. She went into the house and nobody was there. But there were three bowls of porridge on the table. So she tried the first and it was too hot. She tried the second and it was too cold. Then she tried the third and it was just right, so she ate it all up.
The three ways that these parables have been understood could be described as too hot, too cold, and just right. We will taste all three, and when we get to the third, I hope you will be ready to join me in eating it all up!
1. Too Hot: A Prophecy of Unrivaled Success
Some Christians have understood these parables to mean that the world will get better as the gospel spreads and the world is increasingly brought under Christian influence. Just as the leaven leavens the whole lump of dough, so the whole world will eventually be changed by the gospel. There is some truth to this: The expansion of the gospel across the world has been blessed with remarkable success in terms of education, wealth, prison reform, and on and on, but not with unrivalled success.
The problem with this understanding lies in the parable that we looked at last week – the parable of the wheat and the tares. We saw there that until Christ returns, the enemy will be sowing weeds. Here we come to an important principle: Always understand Scripture in the light of Scripture. We believe that God has spoken, that the whole of the Bible is the Word of God. God does not contradict himself. So we must not interpret one part of the Bible in a way that would directly contradict another.
In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, our Lord tells us quite clearly that the weeds of evil will remain: “Let both grow together until harvest.” In the light of other Scriptures, viewing these parables as a prophecy of unrivalled success is too optimistic.
2. Too Cold: A Warning of Relentless Decline
Far from seeing these parables as a prophecy of unrivalled success, some Christians have understood them to be a warning of relentless decline. They point out that leaven is often used in the Bible as a symbol of evil. Jesus says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mat. 16:6). Paul says, “Cleanse out the old leaven” (1 Cor. 5:7).
Then they point to the birds that our Lord says will ‘make nests’ in the branches of the mustard tree. That may seem like a picture of great beauty, but in the parable of the sower, the birds are the ones that take away the seed that was sown on the path. So, instead of understanding these parables as a prophecy of growth and success, these Christians understand the parables to be warnings of corruption and decline.
On this view, Jesus is warning the disciples that truth will be compromised, godliness will be corrupted, and the church will become a nesting place for birds, that is, it will be taken over by people who remove the Word of God from the church.
No less an authority than G. Campbell Morgan, writing in 1943, takes this line: “The popular conception of this particular parable is that our Lord predicted the great success of the kingdom… That view however has been distinctly disproved by history. There has been growth but it has been unsatisfactory.”
“We thought it would have been so different, that the kingdom principles were winning. We thought that was so, with a certain measure of arrogance, at the close of the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth. Then like the crack of doom, we found the kingdom ideal rejected by the philosophers of earth, and the earth bathed in blood, and muck and war.” 
Now again, there is some truth in what is being said here. Too often the church has lost its grasp of truth. That is undeniably the case if you study the history of the church. Too often genuine godliness has been buried in corruption or compromise.
But these parables are not primarily about the church. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” What is the kingdom of heaven? It is the rule of the Almighty. What does the rule of God look like in the world? The reign of Christ is not a story of failure and decline.
Here we come to a second principle for understanding the Bible: Always understand Scripture in its context. For example, if you were to ask what the serpent stands for in the Bible, the answer that first comes to mind is that the serpent speaks of the devil, the snake that came into the garden to destroy.
But then in Numbers, you have the story of the serpent in the wilderness. Moses puts a snake on a pole and everyone who looked to it was healed of disease. And in John’s Gospel this story is used as a metaphor to speak of Christ who is lifted up on a cross. It is the context that determines the meaning.
So the fact that leaven indicates something bad elsewhere in the Bible does not necessarily mean that it has the same meaning here. In this story, Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like leaven…” The kingdom of heaven is the rule and the reign of God, and that can only ever be good.
3. Just Right: A Promise of Sustained Progress
Put yourself in the shoes of the first disciples as they listen to the teaching of Jesus in these parables: “So Jesus, we are to be sowers of the Word with you, and you’re telling us that when we sow this seed, the devil will be at work snatching it away. Trouble and persecution will come to people who receive it gladly.”
“Our message will have to compete for space in the lives of people who are already overloaded, and whose hopes and dreams are already set on the things of this world. And on top of it all, when the seed falls in good soil, the enemy will sow weeds, and we won’t be able to pull them up. You want us to commit our lives to this? What chance do we have?!? How in the world are we going to sustain a lifetime of service with all of that against us?” To answer that question, Jesus gives us two parables that promise us sustained progress.
This progress comes in two ways:
Visible Growth (The Progress of the Gospel in the World)
“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field.” (Matt. 13:31)
Here is what the rule of Christ looks like in the world. It is like a tiny seed. Jesus says it is the smallest of seeds. It is the smallest of all the seeds that were used in Palestinian gardens. 
“When it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree” (Mat. 13:32).
Christ’s kingdom has a small beginning but it will lead to a great and glorious outcome.
Think about the small beginning of the gospel in the world. Our Savior was poor in this world, and he was put to death beside two criminals on a cross. After that, about 120 fearful followers remained, and they met for prayer in an upper room. His first preachers were a few fishermen and publicans who for the most part were unskilled and uneducated men. The first truth that they preached was the cross, which was bound to raise antagonism, since it was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles. The first movements of the faith brought persecution, first on the leaders, and then for the followers. 
The Christian faith began as a tiny grain of mustard seed. But the seed had life in it, and from these small beginnings, the gospel spread. As the gospel has been preached, the risen Christ has been laying claim to more and more people’s lives.
We could talk at length about how the gospel spread through the Roman Empire, and then to Europe, to India, to Africa, to Asia, and around the world. But I want to remind you of some things that are closer to home – the immediate commitments and responsibilities that we share together.
We have been praying for Indonesia, and our missions pastor, Brad Mullet, showed me a report indicating that in Indonesia someone is turning to faith in Christ every 15 seconds.  That’s 2 million people per year. That’s the second largest Muslim country in the world.
We pray for India. In the last few years our friends at the Delhi Bible Institute have planted over 2,000 churches, trained 4,000 students and pastors, and discipled 32,000 young people (age 18-25). Most of this has been done in the last ten years.
We are praying for the Balkan region of Europe. The church I grew up in (in Edinburgh, Scotland) was doing that 40 years ago. At that time is was said that there were no ‘known Christians’ in Albania, not a single one. Now we have Kujtim Rushiti here. He is a full time missions resident preparing for a life of church planting among Albanians in Kosovo.
What is Jesus Christ doing in the world? He is drawing people to himself. He is sustaining them in faith. He is taking them home into his presence. Think about this: The church of Jesus Christ is the only organization on earth that has never lost a member through death.
Every time a Christian dies, another member of the body of Christ is safely home.
The Bible gives us a glimpse of what Christ’s kingdom will look like in the future: “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10).
How is this going to happen? Never be discouraged that a work is small if Jesus Christ is at its center! The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed. It may be small now, but it is part of something glorious that will last forever. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). You shouldn’t be ashamed of it either.
Pervasive Influence (The Progress of the Gospel in a Believer)
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matt. 13:33)
We have been looking at what the kingdom of heaven looks like in the world. Here is what the kingdom of heaven looks like in the life of an individual believer.
If you’ve made your own bread, you know all about this: Leaven, like yeast, produces fermentation in the dough, causing it to rise when it is baked. Every time bread was made, a piece of leavened dough was put into storage. When the next batch of dough was made, the leavened dough was mixed into it, causing the new dough to rise before it was baked.
John Macarthur says, “When a Jewish girl was married, her mother would give her a small piece of leavened dough from a batch baked just before the wedding. From that gift of leaven, the bride would bake bread for her own household throughout her married life.”  Why? Because it’s a living organism. It keeps right on living and spreading.
Jesus is saying that a small amount of the leaven mixed into a batch of dough will permeate the whole lump and change its entire nature. Bake it without leaven and it is hard, crispy, and flat. Bake it with leaven and it rises light and fluffy, and delicious to eat. Think about this in relation to your experience as a Christian. When God’s grace comes into your heart, it is like a little leaven being mixed into the dough of your life.
Think about how that began. You began to feel an awakening to spiritual things. Maybe there was a dissatisfaction in your own life, or with the shallowness of other people around you. You saw something in Christ that drew you. Perhaps this is happening right now in your own life. You began to read the Bible and to pray, and at some point, you trusted him as your Savior and bowed before him as your Lord.
God began a work of grace in your heart, and gradually what he began in you permeates the whole of your life. God’s grace begins to influence your conscience, your affections, your mind. It is changing your nature from the inside out. Here is what the rule of Christ looks like in the life of a believer: It goes everywhere. No part of the dough is unaffected.
The rule of Christ in the life of a believer may have a small beginning, but it will end in a complete transformation: “He who began a good work in your will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
Never Lose Hope
When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn. 3:2)
When you become a Christian, you begin to see how far you are from what God is calling you to be. There is a new longing for holiness in your life. Sometimes all you can see is how far short of it you are. Satan keeps saying to you, “Look at what you were.” But Jesus says to you, “Look at what you will be!”
You are not yet conformed to the image of Christ. But the leaven of Christ is present in your life. His grace will permeate every part of your life. The entire dough of your life will be leavened. The nature of every part of you – soul and body – will be changed. And the day is coming when you will be like Christ.
Think about what you will be! You will not have one thought, affection, or desire outside of the reign of Christ! All that is in you will be captive to him. When you see what you will be, you will become renewed in your desire to press forward in your pursuit of holiness now.
He who has this hope in him purifies himself even as Christ is pure.
None of us is there yet. Right now we are a mass of contradictions. We love Christ, yet at the same time we feel the pull of the world and sometimes we behave in ways that grieve him. We trust Christ, yet at the same time we are subject to all kinds of doubts and fears. We have resurrection life, yet at the same time our bodies are subject to weakness, decay, and death.
But the day is coming when you will love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. You will love your neighbor as yourself. Temptation, pain, and disappointment will be distant memories. Your gifts will be fully deployed in the service of God. God will wipe every tear from your eyes. “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
 G. Campbell Morgan, The Parables and Metaphors of Our Lord, p. 55, 59, Revell, 1943.
 John Macarthur, Commentary on Matthew 8-15, p. 369, Moody, 1987.
 Adapted from J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, p. 20ff, Crossway, 1993.
 Strang Report 4/3/15 cited in ECFA Pulse May 2015.
 John MacArthur, Commentary on Matthew 8-15, p. 373, Moody, 1987.