18 Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.” – Luke 13:18-19
The story is told of a young preacher fresh out of seminary who was scheduled to preach his first message. He was full of theology and hermeneutics. He had the perfect message that he was sure would impress not to mention spur on a mighty revival for which he could add to his legacy. He couldn’t wait to make a name for himself.
When the time came for him to preach he bounded up to the pulpit with a zealous bounce, opened his Bible, and began to deliver his message. But as soon as he opened his mouth, an anxiety came over him. He began to stammer and stumble over his words. He had written out this message with great pride. He even included notes about when and how to gesture in his delivery so as to emphasize his point. But none of his pre-planned gestures seemed to move the congregation. All he got was coughs and sleep-nodding heads. Not even his pre-planned witty jokes and “powerful” illustrations had any effect. It was brutal.
The first five minutes seemed like a day and the rest of the message seemed like an eternity in sermon delivery hell. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience. He was cut down to size for sure. He went up with head held high but came down with head hanging low. He felt knee high to a grass hopper. As the disaster ended and the young preacher descended the pulpit, one old wise saint commented, “If he’d have gone up like he came down, he’d have come down as he had gone up.” Truer words have seldom been spoken.
There is a great need for humility in ministry. Indeed, God says very clearly in His word, “’God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5b-6). Humility is a prerequisite for successful ministry. Jesus was the perfect example of such humility. He was born to unprivileged parents and birthed in a poor man’s stable (Luke 2:4-7). He submitted Himself to His parents as a child (Luke 2:51). He likely learned manual labor as a carpenter’s son (Matthew 13:55). So humble was Jesus that His opponents didn’t even know where He was from (John 9:29). He never owned a house or had anywhere to permanently lay His head (Luke 9:58).
Jesus submitted Himself to be baptized according to the Law even though He never sinned (Matthew 3:13-15). He came to serve not be served, and to give His life a ransom for the lost (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 22:27). He associated with sinners even if it meant the religiously prestigious in high places frowned on it. He wasn’t bothered that His associations with the lowly led the religious establishment of His day to call into question His authority and used it to tarnish His reputation (Matthew 9:10-11; Luke 15:1-2). Jesus didn’t seek nor did He receive glory or accolades from men (John 5:41). He refused to be put up on a pedestal or be prematurely made King (John 6:15). He knew that before the crown comes the cross. When the people tried to force kingly rule on Him He rode the saddle of a lowly donkey, not a white stallion.
Jesus did this humbly knowing that it fulfilled prophecy at the expense of earthly position (Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:15). Jesus emptied Himself and was a willing servant (Philippians 2:7). He came from the wealth of heaven and willfully made Himself poor to reach humanity (2 Corinthians 8:9). Jesus came and adopted a position of complete submission to His Father in Heaven (John 6:38; Hebrews 10:9). He came and experienced weakness to give us confidence He could empathize and relate to our weaknesses (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus washed His disciple’s dirty feet! (John 13:5).
JESUS SUBMITTED HIMSELF TO THE BELLIGERENCE OF SINFUL HUMANITY; to false accusations; to false arrest; to false beatings; to brutal scourging; to crucifixion; to death (Isaiah 50:6; 53:3, 7; Matthew 6-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19). Jesus was willing to be called “a worm” (Psalm 22:6). He laid down His life in humility in order to save lost sheep (John 10:15). Jesus obeyed and lived the Father’s plan even as it led to death on the cross (Philippians 2:8). He did this all with humble joy (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). These words of Jesus call those who follow Him to a humble walk. It is impossible to know Jesus and live closely to Him without experiencing humility. In the beginning humanity could walk with God in the Garden and do so freely in beautiful loving fellowship (Genesis 2). But a sinful choice rooted in pride and a disregard for the holiness of God led to a loss of that fellowship. There was an eviction from that Garden. There was a distancing from the presence of God (Genesis 3). From that point on those who came into the presence of the great I AM needed to be told to take off their shoes for they stood on holy ground (cf. Exodus 3). Sin leads to a loss of the sense of the holiness of God. A loss of the sense of the holiness of God leads away from humility and toward pride. God opposes the proud.
In Luke 13 Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God. Jesus stated His purpose in coming was to preach the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43). He sent and sends His followers out to preach that same Gospel kingdom of God message (Luke 9:2). He connected the kingdom of God with poverty (Luke 6:20). I wonder why so many in the church today connect prosperity where Jesus preached poverty? I’m all for Making America Great Again. But until the church becomes great again, in Jesus’ name, everyone is going to suffer.
Jesus said the one who was least in God’s kingdom would be greater than the great prophet John the Baptist (Luke 7:28). John the Baptist didn’t have a donkey, horse, or even a goat. He didn’t have a vehicle. He didn’t have a suit, nor did he dress with trendiness. John the Baptist humbly dressed in smelly scratchy camel’s hair. He ate no calorie conscious, protein and carb perfectly balanced diet. He ate locusts and wild honey.
Jesus called John the Baptist great. If John the Baptist was great, and those in God’s kingdom are greater, doesn’t that mean those who live in God’s kingdom should in some way exceed his life principles? I know we are greater by virtue of the covenant of grace being greater than the covenant of Law under which John lived, but shouldn’t our greatness also include, perhaps, a greater humility than John? Shouldn’t we be even more humbled by the incredible superiority of God’s covenant of grace? The Law exposes and makes crystal clear the depth of sin and distance from God all humanity lives in (e.g. Romans 1-3 and 7). Shouldn’t the new heart of God’s New Covenant in Christ offered by His grace which opens the door to His Holy Presence, shouldn’t that humble us more?
Jesus associated the kingdom of God with “glad tidings” (Luke 8:1). But when you talk about humility to many in the church today they aren’t glad about it. They yawn when they should be yielding. They feel threatened by talk of humility. They immediately wonder if that means they should give up some of their “stuff.” “Does humility mean I have to give up my home? My honors? My homies?” The church today is becoming more and more focused on how to be the best “you” with emphasis on Y-O-U. The church today is very human centered; humanistic. We might not like to hear it, but really, when you look at the church through the lens of scripture what you see are people on the throne where only God should be.
There are a number of causes of the decline of the church. I believe this worldly view crept into the church through the well-intentioned efforts of the Christian psychology self-esteem movement. Unfortunately, as people in the church were told to deal with their issues by resorting to secularly psychological practices, it led to a preoccupation with self. This mindset directly feeds into pride and self-centeredness. The world is moving further and further away from God and toward self. One has to wonder, how long before those in the church are seeking out “safe spaces” outside the refuge we find in Jesus? As long as the church looks to the world for answers her standards will remain low and common rather than high and holy. The church of God’s kingdom was never meant to be commonly like other earthly institutions. The church was meant to be distinctive, different, run by “His divine power” (2 Peter 1:3-4). Unfortunately, the church is choosing a broad worldly path. The church is filled with people who are for the most part worldly, carnal to the core “Christians.”
Then there are those who worship at the idol of academia. Their theology of grace is warped. It frees people to sin instead of freeing them from sin. Those who hold such views think nothing of proudly flaunting their “freedom” in God’s “grace” to indulge in ever increasing worldly lifestyle practices such a drunkenness, profanity, and profligate prosperity. But any definition that winks or condones sin is counter to scripture. Paul said, “Certainly not!” to any idea that grace allowed for sin rather than hallowed living. Jesus spoke in parables to clearly reveal the before unknown mysteries of God’s kingdom (Luke 8:10). Those who “see” God’s kingdom as looking lightly at sin are those who in reality are, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” It’s no accident that the best educated religious leaders of Jesus day were amongst those who just didn’t get Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. Its’ too frequently the same situation today. When Jesus launched out into His ministry of preaching the kingdom He did so proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Repent” is a clear call to turn from sin. How on earth did the church come to its present ungodly-kingdom living? It arrived here by compromise fueled by pride.
The church is in dire need of some of the healing associated with the kingdom of God (Luke 9:11; 10:9). Those first disciples and Apostles would see the beginning of the kingdom of God once Jesus had died on the cross and risen from the dead. Jesus said as much (Luke 9:27). We see the kingdom of God stage one in the book of Acts. I say “stage one” because the kingdom of God will be fulfilled in the Millennial Kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth (Revelation 20). But until then we are to live the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit as those first disciples of Jesus did in the Book of Acts.
Jesus said preaching the kingdom of God was to be our top priority; even more important than burying our dead (Luke 9:60). We are to seek the kingdom first in all we do and in all we are (Luke 12:31a). We were not to turn back from this mission (Luke 9:62). It holds true for us today. We are to bring the kingdom of God to others with our very presence; by the way we live (Luke 10:11). We are to cast out demons with the finger of God according to the message of God’s kingdom (Luke 11:20). Jesus promised, if we tend to the mission of God’s kingdom everything we need will be provided for us (Luke 12:31b). That’s everything we need, not everything we want will be provided to us. God never condones spending like drunken sailors or indulging our flesh. That’s true no matter how off course the modern church message has become.
The church itself today has in many cases become nothing more than the establishment of our own little kingdoms. We have deduced a modern day very much secular view of what God meant by “the kingdom of God” and forced our misinterpretation on it. Jesus initial kingdom parable in Luke’s gospel account gave a precautionary word in this regard. “Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19). We look with longing eyes at these words of Jesus and lustily with sugary salivation welcome the words “a large tree.” For us big is better, just like the world has taught us to believe. We think, that means those with more academic degrees, bigger church buildings, bigger bank accounts, more visible media ministries, must be the ones with God’s kingdom blessing upon them! Sometimes, too frequently, nothing could be further from the truth.
We want BIG churches. Pastors question their call and value based on the size of their ministries or churches. The enemy batters them with feelings of inadequacy. And such feelings are reinforced by the church who says all pastors are valued but tips their hand as to how they really feel by only inviting pastors of BIG churches to be the speakers at their conferences. Have an inspired message for a book? Good luck finding a publisher to publish it. You need to guarantee them a BIG audience of potential buyers. This BIG mentality in the church is perilously close to crossing the line into Matthew 23 where Jesus had some very strong words for those He boldly and loudly called “Hypocrites!”
It doesn’t matter to us that there is no evidence of mega churches in the Bible! There are accounts of large numbers of conversions to Christ (e.g. Acts 2). But churches in the New Testament, (especially once Jews who had accepted Jesus as their Messiah were kicked out of the synagogues) met in people’s homes (e.g. “from house to house” – Acts 2:46; cf. also Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19). So, when we adopt a bigger is better mentality of the world and apply it to the church and ministry, we set ourselves up for some potential problems. We need to beware forcing a worldly deduction on the word of God.
When we see Jesus mention in His parable that in this version of “the kingdom of God”, “the birds of the air nested in its branches” it’s not really a pretty site. We have to go beyond the shallow thinking, Oh, isn’t that sweet, birds nesting in a big tree. Instead, we should look inductively at scripture to see what would be the most accurate interpretation based on God’s word. When we look in the biblical context, “birds” are most commonly used as symbols of evil. We see this in one of the patriarch Joseph’s interpretations of a chief baker’s dream (Genesis 40:19). We also see this interpretation in Jesus foundational Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:4; Luke 8:5, 11 and 12).
In the Word for Today Study Bible note from Pastor Chuck Smith on Luke 13:18-19 he states, “First of all, mustard doesn’t grow into trees. Mustard grows as a bush. So, the growth here was unnatural. And sometimes birds represent evil in the Bible. Therefore, Jesus was predicting the great growth of the church, but acknowledging it won’t all be good.”  This statement comes from someone who pastored a “mega church” for many years and who headed up the Calvary Chapel movement that now spans the globe with over 1600 churches worldwide and numerous radio stations and other forms of ministries. Pastor Chuck was known for quoting from Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” Pastor Chuck was one of the few pastors of larger type churches who was able to keep a humble perspective knowing that anything and everything that had been accomplished in Calvary Chapels was because “God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7). Unfortunately, not every pastor is able or willing to keep such a humble perspective; and that is true of some Calvary Chapel’s too.
Big is not always better. It isn’t always necessarily bad. But it isn’t always good. In fact, when we look at scripture we see that God used the imagery of a big tree to describe Egypt which He assessed as having a proud “heart” that was “lifted up,” and to be full of “wickedness” (Ezekiel 31:10 and 11). Its’ a pretty stunning word from God against something that looked so great. We need to take a step back and make sure our churches and church leaders are not similarly guilty. We can be big and still be under the judgment of God.
Jesus followed His initial parable of God’s kingdom with mention of “leaven” (Luke 13:20-21). Leven appears around 98 times in scripture and every time it is used to represent evil. There is something wrong with the church today. We are not making the impact that we should. We are focused on building bigger more than making a bigger impact for the glory of God. We have a big tree mentality. That is bad.
Thankfully God gives grace to the humble. When we begin to prayerfully attend to God’s word and begin to consider and then experience the Holy Presence of God Almighty, it humbles us. Like Isaiah, if we come into God’s presence we will be convicted of our sinfulness and unworthiness before Holy God Almighty (Isaiah 6). When the Holy Spirit comes, He convicts us of sin (Jon 16:8-11). The closer we come to Jesus, the more clearly we see our sin. The closer we come to Jesus, the more power over our sin we will have. But much of the church cares little about moving closer to Jesus, unless doing so helps them get something bigger than what they already have. That’s leaven-likes. Much of the church cares little about their sin. And that has opened the door to proud big tree followers of Jesus, an oxymoron if ever there was one.
It is a position of humility that leads to all that we need in this life and the next. Humility is the window that opens the floodgates of God’s grace from above. We need to follow the route Jesus described as “the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24). This is the way of the word of God (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Church authority and a pastor’s authority should not be gauged on the basis of merely the numbers of people who follow them on Facebook or radio or online or the size of their church or ministry. A church and pastor’s authority and legitimacy should be solely based on their adherence to scripture. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Truly the power and effectiveness, the eternal worth of a ministry is in proportion to its reliance on scripture. We need to get back to God’s word.
When Paul writes the church in Corinth and says, “Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2) it should be understood in the context of his preceding inspired words about not being duped and deceived by worldly wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:18-23). To be a faithful steward is to understand, “that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16). The church should be concerned about being big in relying on the Holy Spirit rather than being another big tree.
The language of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Scriptures. The focus of the scriptures is Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:7). And the Jesus of scripture is all about the humbling redemptive work of Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 2:2) and His resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Paul was inspired to emphasize these truths to the church in Corinth which was a very carnal or self-serving selfish church (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1ff.). We should take that to heart. We don’t want to be a big carnal church. We want to be a Spirit-sized scripturally sound church.
I have a strong conviction that we are living in the End Times. Jesus wrote one of His seven letters to the End Times church at Philadelphia. Some have looked at Jesus words to those in the Philadelphia church describing them as having “a little strength,” and seen that as meaning they were spiritually anemic in some way. I would contend that Jesus description of this church as having a little strength put them in the most advantageous of positions.
I believe Jesus is making a positive statement about the Philadelphian church. It’s possible that Jesus is pointing out that the people of this church are aware that they have little strength on their own and are therefore more dependent on Jesus for their strength. If that is so, then this puts the Philadelphians in a great position to be empowered by God. The apostle Paul conveys this truth when he writes:
- 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 - “And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
This church was a kingdom of God type church, a spiritually perfect or mature and complete church because it didn’t rely on its own wisdom or resources, it didn’t devise gimmicks or programs or try to veil its weakness. No, it acknowledged its weakness and relied on the power of God. That’s what we especially need to do in our day; no matter the size of the church. The church at Philadelphia wasn’t trying to be a big tree in the forest of the world. They weren’t into fudging figures to market themselves as a big church. They weren’t relying on their bank account (or accounts) or their technology or their dress or their marketing schemes and five-year building plans. No, they simply, humbly, abandoned themselves to the will of God.
The power of God is manifested in proportion to our awareness that we need to rely on Him. It’s not about being the biggest tree, it’s about being humbly reliant upon Thee. The Bible states, “Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:5b-7). When we humbly admit our weaknesses to God and declare our dependence upon Him, it opens the flood gates of heaven for God to pour out His grace and power upon us.
Are you relying on your own “strength” to get things done; your own wisdom and knowledge and ability? Do you pray? If not, you may be infected with the leaven of pride. Prayer is a declaration of dependence on God. A lack of prayer exposes our independence from God. Are you able to justify all you do in life and ministry by referencing God’s word? If someone asks you why you do something and where in the Bible is found a basis for what you are doing, can you give an accurately inductive and scripturally sound response? If not, there may just be some leaven in you and or your church. Are you depending on God’s power to sustain you and bring your victory? Do you look to the Holy Spirit to determine the size of your ministry or do you prefer a more corporate or market friendly model of the church? If so, you’re very possibly caught up in that big tree mentality. If these are the End Times, (and I believe they are) we need more than big trees, we need people and churches that are looking to Thee. Help us Lord to look beyond big trees to Thee.