Course Spotlight: Under the Influence: Hellenism in ancient Jewish Life

How and why and to what extent Greek culture was absorbed into the ancient Jewish world is not always clear, but that it was is undeniable. Read about Hellenism in ancient Jewish life in this Biblical Archaeology Review by Martin Goodman.


Digging Deeper: Least of All Seeds

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min.

Did you know that Jesus is criticized for comparing the growth of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, which He said was the smallest of all seeds?

Critics charge that this seed was not the smallest of all seeds, displaying Jesus’ ignorance of Holy Land botany. They claim such statements reveal that the Bible is unscientific. How should Christians respond to such a charge? This Digging Deeper delves into this issue to discover what Jesus meant by His bold statement.

Our focus passage is: “Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32 KJV throughout). Parallel passages are Mark 4:30-32 and Luke 13:18-19 which substitute “kingdom of God” for “kingdom of heaven,” used synonymously. Matthew’s audience was largely Jewish people who customarily employed a euphemism (heaven) when referring to God.

Which plant is it?

There is a degree of uncertainty as to which plant Jesus referred. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible reports that: “Scholars do not all agree about which plant is in view here, but ancient sources agree in describing the mustard seed as proverbially small (v. 32)” (Tecarta Bible App). Jesus said that when it is grown, it is “the greatest among herbs,” which the Companion Bible annotates as: “greater than [garden] herbs” (e-Sword 13.0.0). The KJV Study Bible explains that the Greek word lachanon for herbs describes “…garden plants or vegetables…” (Tecarta Bible App).

Describing it as the “least of all seeds” is explained by The ESV Study Bible: “It was the smallest of all agricultural seeds in Palestine” (Tecarta Bible App). There were smaller seeds, as The Biblical Theology Study Bible notes: “Scientists today know of smaller seeds than the mustard seed, but it was ‘the smallest of all seeds’ (v. 32) that anyone cultivated in first-century fields or gardens in Israel. Normally the plant grows into a medium-size bush, but eight-foot high small ‘trees’ have been discovered, even if rarely” (Ibid.).

In v. 32, Jesus declares that it becomes a tree. A Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke clarifies: “The term tree is applied by botanists to plants of the larger kind, which grow to the magnitude of shrubs; and for that reason are termed plantae arborescentes” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Additionally, Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible adds: “The Hebrew writers speak of the mustard-tree as one on which they could ‘climb,’ as on a fig-tree. Its size was much owing to the climate. All plants of that nature grow much larger in a warm climate, like that of Palestine, than in colder regions” (Ibid.). Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible illustrates: “The Jerusalem Talmud, tract Peah. fol. 20, says, ‘There was a stalk of mustard in Sichin, from which sprang out three boughs; one of which, being broken off, served to cover the tent of a potter, and produced three cabes of mustard seed. Rabbi Simeon ben Chalapha said, A stalk of mustard seed was in my field, into which I was wont to climb, as men are wont to climb into a fig tree.’ See Lightfoot and Schoettgen” (Ibid.).

Science or rhetoric?

We need to remember that languages use figures of speech, as explained by The NET Bible Notes: “This is rhetorical hyperbole, since technically a mustard plant is not a tree. This could refer to one of two types of mustard plant popular in Palestine and would be either ten or twenty-five ft (3 or 7.5 m) tall” (Ibid.). The biblical record often used trees to illustrate the change of governments, as Henry Alford’s The Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, Volume I declares: “The comparison of kingdoms to trees was familiar to the Jews: see Daniel 4:10-12; 20-22; Ezekiel 31:3-9; 17:22-24; Psalm 80:8-11” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

It is important to remember Jesus’ audience. The Defender’s Study Bible declares that “Jesus was not speaking to botanical specialists, of course, but to ordinary people, on their level. The actual Greek allows the meaning ‘among the least of all seeds’” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Every day terminology is often less technical than scientific language, as explained by Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: “The description is, of course, popular, and need not be pressed with microscopical exactness” (Ibid.). English speakers use metaphorical language and figures of speech all the time in everyday conversation, which is generally understood.

Why is Jesus not afforded that same liberty? Critics look for anything unusual to criticize but, in the end, they display their ignorance of the biblical record. Notice this remark from A Commentary on the Holy Bible by Thomas Coke: “The phrase, the least of all seeds, is a figure frequently used in common discourse, and signifies one of the least; or the least of all those seeds with which the people of Judaea were then acquainted; so small, that it was proverbially used by the Jews; to denote a very little thing. ‘The globe of the earth, say the rabbies [rabbis], is but a grain of mustard-seed, when compared with the expanse of the heavens'” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Using common expressions

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia provides additional rabbinical background: “Among the rabbis a ‘grain of mustard’ was a common expression for anything very minute, which explains Our Lord’s phrase, ‘faith as a grain of mustard seed’ Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6” (e-Sword 13.0.0). John Lightfoot’s Commentary on the Gospels illustrates: “Hence it is passed into a common proverb, According to the quantity of a grain of mustard: and According to the quantity of a little drop of mustard, very frequently used by the Rabbins, when they would express the smallest thing, or the most diminutive quantity” (Bible Analyzer

Some expositors interpret the birds of the air that lodge on its branches as demonic spirits. Contrariwise, The NKJ Study Bible explains: “The birds of the air do not represent evil as they do in the parable of the soils (vv. 4, 19). In the OT, a tree large enough to support nesting birds was considered prosperous and healthy (see Ps. 104:12; Ezek. 17:23; 31:6; Dan. 4:12, 21). The kingdom, though having only a small number of people at the beginning of the age, will ultimately be large and prosperous” (Tecarta Bible App).

What Jesus really meant

Describing God’s kingdom, The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible declares: “The ‘kingdom’ (v. 31) too will begin as insignificant in size and impact but become surprisingly large and powerful” (Tecarta Bible App). Jesus’ lesson is explained by The NET Bible Notes: “The point of the parable seems to be that while the kingdom of God may appear to have insignificant and unnoticeable beginnings (i.e., in the ministry of Jesus), it will someday (i.e., at the second advent) be great and quite expansive. The kingdom, however, is not to be equated with the church, but rather the church is an expression of the kingdom” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Mr. Herbert Armstrong years ago used a metaphor along this line: “The church is the Kingdom of God in embryo.”

The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable explains why Jesus chose this simile: “The Jews correctly believed that the messianic kingdom would be very large. Why did Jesus choose the mustard plant since it did not become as large as some other plants? Evidently He did so because of the small beginning of the mustard plant. The contrast between an unusually small beginning and a large mature plant is the point of this parable. [Note: Cf. N. A. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church, pp. 155-56.] Jesus’ ministry began despicably small in the eyes of many Jews. Nevertheless from this small beginning would come the worldwide kingdom predicted in the Old Testament. [Note: See Mark L. Bailey, “The Parable of the Mustard Seed,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155:620 (October-December 1998):449-59.]” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The lesson of this parable is the coming rapid growth of the kingdom even though it starts very small. It will expand beyond expectation from seemingly so small a beginning. Jesus was not ignorant of botany since, as Creator, He designed the various plants of the world. He metaphorically spoke in common language that His hearers would not have thought unusual. Critics look for loose bricks to sling at the Bible. However, it has withstood the critics’ charges throughout history. Understanding basic principles of common speech answer many supposed inaccuracies. Jesus said precisely what He meant. Faithful disciples give the benefit of the doubt as they strive to understand His meaning.

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Course Spotlight: Honoring God with our Prayers

Do we truly honor God in our prayers? What is our attitude and approach when we present to God our spiritual gifts, such as prayer, study and meditation (Matthew 5:23–24)? Read an excerpt from an article in the Living Church News that aptly highlights an important aspect of how we come before God in prayer.

Tools for Christian Growth: Prayer

Course Spotlight: Handwashing in Judaism

To gain an understanding of what Christ was dealing with as we read in Mark 7:1-23, a brief look at the “Traditions of the Elders” is helpful. Learn more about handwashing in Judaism!

COURSE SPOTLIGHT FROM  The Life, Teachings, and Ministry of Jesus Christ: (Unit 3) The Judean Ministry

Digging Deeper: Rejoice in the Lord Alway

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 12 sec.

Did you know that the apostle Paul instructed Christians to always rejoice in Christ?

In fact, he emphasized this point more than once to his readers. God’s people have just returned from the recent fall Holy Day season rejoicing. Conversations between brethren at the weekly worship services buzzed with enthusiasm and excitement. A spirit of rejoicing is now evident throughout the Churches of God. However, once they return to their normal routines along with associated problems and struggles, it can become challenging to maintain a spirit of rejoicing. This Digging Deeper explores Paul’s instruction on how to maintain a joyful spirit throughout the coming year.

Here is our focus verse: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4 KJV throughout). Notice that Paul reinforced his admonition with a double imperative. The verb tense in the Greek for rejoice represents a continuing, habitual action. Spurgeon’s Expositions on the Bible, Vol 3 explains the sense of it in English this way: “The very word ‘rejoice,’ seems to imply a reduplication; it is joy, and re-joy, joy over again; but here, you see, it is a fourfold rejoicing; joy, and re-joy; and again I say, joy, and re-joy; and this is to be the Christian’s continual experience, for the apostle says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always'” (Bible Analyzer

Encouragement sent from prison

When Paul wrote this instruction to the Philippian congregation, he was sitting under house arrest in Rome awaiting a hearing with the Emperor. As was customary in such a circumstance, he was probably chained to a Roman soldier on each arm or leg to prevent his escape. Nonetheless, he lived in his own hired house and even was permitted to invite guests to visit him. His circumstance is detailed at the end of Acts 28. Paul discovered how to be content in whatever circumstance he found himself (Philippians 4:11) and wrote to the Philippians from afar to help them discover contentment as well.

Why Paul emphasized this spiritual rejoicing to the Philippian congregation is explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “There were many reasons why the Philippian saints could have felt discouraged. Paul’s imprisonment and the possibility of his death, Epaphroditus’ illness, and the antagonism of unbelievers were a few. The attacks from legalists on the one hand and libertines on the other, plus friction among certain members of the church, contributed to this spirit. To counteract this attitude Paul prescribed rejoicing in the Lord. He repeated this charge in this verse for even greater emphasis” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings comments that “It has been well said that this whole Epistle may be summed up in two short sentences: ‘I rejoice’; ‘Rejoice ye!’ The word and the thing crop up in every chapter, like some hidden brook, ever and anon sparkling out into the sunshine from beneath the shadows. This continual refrain of gladness is all the more remarkable if we remember the Apostle’s circumstances. The letter shows him to us as a prisoner, dependent on Christian charity for a living, having no man like-minded to cheer his solitude; uncertain as to how it shall be with him, and obliged to contemplate the possibility of being offered, or poured out as a libation, on the sacrifice and service of his faith. Yet out of all the darkness his clear notes ring jubilant; and this sunny Epistle comes from the pen of a prisoner who did not know but that tomorrow he might be a martyr” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

The Philippian church in Macedonia (Greece today) was Paul’s first European congregation. They were a loyal and supportive church. However, they too were experiencing persecution for their newfound faith. Not only that, but they were experiencing deprivation, as explained by the Defender’s Study Bible: “In spite of their ‘deep poverty’ (2 Corinthians 8:1-2) as well as their ‘great trial of affliction,’ the Philippian church exhibited an ‘abundance of … joy.’ In Paul’s short letter, he used the words ‘joy,’ ‘rejoice’ and ‘rejoicing’ at least seventeen times!” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Joy is a characteristic Pauline theme in this epistle.  

Joy in the Lord

Notice that Paul did not write “Rejoice alway(s)”; rather, he wrote “Rejoice in the Lord alway(s) (emphasis mine).” This is something very different from general day-to-day rejoicing. What he meant is suggested by Adam Barne’s Notes on the Bible: “It is the privilege of Christians to do this, not at certain periods and at distant intervals, but at all times they may rejoice that there is a God and Saviour; they may rejoice in the character, law, and government of God – in his promises, and in communion with him. The Christian, therefore, may be, and should be, always a happy man [person]. If everything else changes, yet the Lord does not change; if the sources of all other joy are dried up, yet this is not; and there is not a moment of a Christian’s life in which he may not find joy in the character, law, and promises of God” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Additionally, this joy is to be centered on Christ, as the Bridgeway Bible Dictionary explains: “Joy in a special sense becomes the possession of believers when by faith they come into union with Jesus Christ (Joh 15:4, 11). This joy is more than simply a feeling of happiness when all is going well. That sort of joy will be only temporary (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). The joy that Christ gives is something that no circumstances can take away (John 16:22, 33; 17:13; Romans 15:13). It is a quality of peace and strength that enables believers to rejoice even amid trouble and sorrow (Habakkuk 3:17-18; Matthew 5:10-12; 2 Corinthians 6:10; Colossians 1:24; James 1:2; see PEACE)” (Bible Analyzer

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible notes that this kind of rejoicing is spiritually-based: “ Be continually happy; but this happiness you can find only in the Lord. Genuine happiness is spiritual; as it can only come from God, so it infallibly tends to him. The apostle repeats the exhortation, to show, not only his earnestness, but also that it was God’s will that it should be so, and that it was their duty as well as interest” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

Rejoicing in tough times

Difficult times can discourage God’s people. Christians are not immune to suffering, disappointment, and grief. What motivates them to retain their rejoiceful outlook is explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “Paul was not urging us to be unrealistic. He was not saying that we should never feel sad. Even Jesus wept (John 11:35). However, he was advocating focusing on the blessings we have in Christ and being grateful for these regardless of how sad we may feel at any particular time. He had set a good example by singing when he was in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25)” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible elaborates on why rejoicing may continue even through tough times: “…there is always cause and matter for rejoicing in Christ, even in times of affliction, distress, and persecution; since he is always the same; his grace is always sufficient; his blood has a continual virtue in it, and always speaks for peace and pardon; his righteousness is an everlasting one, and so is his salvation, and such is his love…” (e-Sword 13.0.0).

In no way was Paul scolding or correcting them. In fact, this is what he thought of them: “Even as it is meet [suitable, fit] for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds [chains], and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace. For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels [tender mercies] of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:7-8). Subsequently, he encouraged them to: “Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). One reason Paul admonished them resulted from a dispute between two of the congregation’s ladies, Euodias and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2-3).

In conclusion, Christians will face problems and challenges between now and next year’s festivals. How they should respond to them is summarized by The NKJ Study Bible: “In the midst of difficulties, in the midst of all situations, Christians are to rejoice. The joy of Christians is not based on agreeable circumstances, instead it is based on their relationship to God. Christians will face trouble in this world, but they should rejoice in the trials they face because they know God is using those situations to improve their character (see James 1:2–4)” (Tecarta Bible App). God preserved Paul’s letter as general instruction to the Church of God for all time. Understanding this, Paul’s text is God’s admonition to Christians today: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.

Forum Summary: The Work in Southeast Asia

Author: Ryan Price | Student, Living Education 2021-22

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 24 seconds.

Mr. Rajan Moses is the regional pastor for Southeast Asia.

He used his Forum to talk about the congregations in seven different countries he oversees: Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, and Sri Lanka. Each country has its own set of challenges, but Mr. Moses does not let this discourage him. He explained to the LE students the many ways God has opened doors for the Church and gave them a unique look into the Southeast Asian Work.


Mr. Moses lives in Malaysia, an Islamic-majority country. With only approximately 10% of the country identifying as Christian, the Church in Malaysia faces many difficulties in preaching the gospel. Christianity is not illegal, but it is illegal for Malays to convert to Christianity, and for Christians to proselytize. As a result, we cannot broadcast the telecasts or promote our magazine through normal channels. Still, God has provided a way to spread His word through the internet—He has opened a fantastic door in the form of a Malaysian Church Facebook page. Starting in October last year, we began to advertise the booklets and magazines on the page and the response has been very good. The subscription rate has gone up to over 2000 subscribers in the last two years. Before then the page had only around 100 subscribers. This has brought many potential members in contact with the Church, and God willing, will continue to yield fruit.


There is a big job to do in Thailand. Being a Buddhist country, many of the restrictions in Malaysia apply here as well. We can’t broadcast on radio or TV, but we still are able to distribute booklets and magazines. We’ve also started another Facebook group and have gained over 400 subscribers so far. The Church is able to function in an official capacity with the recent government approval of a foundation that helps in community service, and we have created an online curriculum for the members in Thailand, teaching them English and computer courses, among other things.


In Singapore, we only have two members in the country. Mr. Moses keeps in contact with them and serves them as he can.


Indonesia is the most religiously tolerant of the Southeast Asian countries, and is home to about 28 members, with whom Mr. Moses conducts weekly Bible studies. Unlike the afore mentioned countries, Indonesia’s culture of religious tolerance is reflected in mainstream church buildings standing right beside Muslim mosques. On the other hand, Indonesian schools require all students to attend a half day of classes on Saturdays, which has caused difficulties for the children of some of our members. To make up for this, the congregation has started a homeschool program to help the children study.


We have two congregations in India, and there is a small work being done there. Expansion is in the works in the form of a new Indian website and the beginnings of an effort to translate the magazines, booklets, and telecasts into Hindi—the native language of India. So far, the magazine in India has a sizeable readership. Mr. Moses put it this way, “We are sowing the seeds, and God is the one who’s going to do the harvesting.”


There are two congregations in Myanmar. Unfortunately, the pandemic lockdown has been hard on the country, restricting travel to and from it, but thankfully the members haven’t let the restrictions get them down. The brethren continue to hold online services every week and also conduct online Bible studies. Many of the brethren in Thailand originally came from Myanmar. In the ’80s, when Myanmar was taken over by its military, many of the brethren fled to Thailand as refugees. The Church helped them get settled in Thailand where they reside today.

Sri Lanka

So far, we only have seven members in Sri Lanka. Not much work is being done there for the time being, but we continue to fill the literature orders for the brethren. Like Thailand, Sri Lanka is also a Buddhist country. The people of Sri Lanka don’t want any other religion there. The government constantly wants to know what the church is doing. When we were registering the church there, they got the idea from Deuteronomy that we would try to destroy their idols and at first would not let us register. Eventually, God worked it out. We have been struggling with the government for a while now. Fortunately, things have calmed down a bit recently, but after this pandemic, we don’t know what might happen.

There have been many challenges, but the Work continues. With the Indian website in the works and the success of the Facebook groups in advertising the booklets and magazines, God willing, there will be continued growth in Southeast Asia.

This post is part of our series of student-written content for LivingEd-Charlotte. These summaries cover topics originally presented by our faculty and guest speakers in our weekly Forum and Assembly. For more Assembly-related content check out our Second Thoughts posts.

Course Spotlight: Who was James?

James was the son of Joseph and Mary, the half-brother of Jesus Christ, and so much more. Find out more about James and take a quick matching quiz to test your knowledge!

Course Spotlight From The General Epistles: (Part 1) The Letters of James and Peter

Course Spotlight: “The Second Sabbath after the First”

In Luke 6:1, we find a fascinating, hidden gem of understanding.  For those who use the NIV and many other modern translations, the gem is obscured.  But in the King James Version and the New King James Version, it is just below the surface.  What most modern translations hide is the phrase, “deuteroprotos sabbaton”.  Why is this important?

Course Spotlight From The Life, Ministry, and Teachings of Jesus Christ: (Unit 2) The Galilean Ministry

Course Spotlight: Cities of the Book of Acts

Did you know we have a interactive map with information on the cities mentioned in Acts? Make the scriptures come to life by visualizing where they are while you read about them!

Course Spotlight From Acts of the Apostles: (Unit 3) Paul’s Imprisonment