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 220.127.116.11).
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 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.