The Astonishing and Mysterious Growth of the Kingdom (Matthew Sermon 62 of 151)
July 20, 2003 | Andrew Davis
In so many ways, I am in awe of Jesus Christ, He just takes my breath away. The things that He does are astonishing, and we know of his mighty miracles. We know He spoke to the wind and the waves, and they were completely still, and we know how He raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, dead though he was four days, yet that word of power that he was able to speak. But what takes my breath away in this passage is the perfection of his teaching. He's the greatest teacher that ever lived. John Calvin in his commentary, the preface to his commentary to Romans, said that what he was seeking was loosed brevity, in other words, clarity and brief-ness, to coin a phrase, that everything should be made as Albert Einstein said, as simple as possible, and not simpler. Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address was able, somehow, to capture what was being fought over in the Civil War better than anyone that had ever seen it up to that point, and he did it in 271 words. He was able to capture what was going on, that there was a test of our governmental system going on and that was what was at stake. The apostle Paul in his preaching asked the Colossians church to pray that he would make it clear as he should.
But none of these teachers have compared to Jesus Christ who, in 17 words in the Greek language encapsulates all of human history in a homely, home-maker parable in which a woman is baking bread. Seventeen words, and He gets all of human history together. Not only that, but He gets my history as well, what's happened in my life since the time I heard and believed the gospel. He's got the two together, both the individual and the global in one little homely kitchen parable. Only Jesus could do that. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in a large amount of flour until it permeated the whole lump." There it is. There's human history. It doesn't sound like it to me. We must come like spiritual beggars and humble ourselves and say, "Lord, Jesus what does it mean?" The parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the yeast, how can we understand these things? Once the spirit has come and has opened our eyes, we are in a great position to understand better than any generation that has ever lived because we have seen the fulfillment of these two parables over the last 2000 years, then at last we can wonder and be amazed at the teacher who sits before us, and instructs us on world history. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden, though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet, when it grows, it becomes the largest of garden plants and the birds of the air, come and nest in its branches. The kingdom of heaven is like a little amount of yeast that a woman took and mixed or hid into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough. All of human history and my personal history too, wrapped up in these two little parables.
Two Parables: One Message: The Kingdom Grows
The one message of the two parables is that the Kingdom starts small, and grows huge, as a matter of fact, dominates in the end. That's what they mean together. The mustard seed is a proverb. The Jewish people knew that the mustard seed was proverbial for something small. "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed," Jesus said, "You can say to this mountain, move from here to there, and it'll move." Jesus Himself said, "Though, it is the smallest of all your seeds." The point is, it was the smallest of the seeds that they used to plant in the garden; all the others were larger, significantly larger, and yet, this one grows to dominate in an impressive way. Within that seed is the genetic code for explosive growth. God ordained seeds from the very beginning in Genesis 1, there would be seed-bearing trees, fruit with seed in it, animals would have seed, we would have seed, there was an explosion of growth. “Fill the earth, subdue it, rule over it, populate it.” All of it built into the seed, the genetic code only recently being understood, and we'll never finally understand it. So, it was with Jesus, what they call this one solitary life, within his life, within his example, and within his teaching and even more, in His sacrificial bloody death on the cross, and His resurrection, there in seed form is the Kingdom of Heaven.
With the proclamation of that life and that death and that resurrection comes a kingdom which will someday conquer the world. In the end, it's the largest of all your garden plants, and it becomes a tree so that the birds of the air can come and take rest in its branches. The Kingdom starts small, seemingly from nothing and grows to an imposing height. Now, the leaven. The leaven starts small in one corner and it comes to final and total complete permeation. Leaven, or yeast, is frequently seen to be a symbol of evil. Jesus said in Matthew 16:6, "Be careful, be on your guard against the Yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” By that He meant their bad teaching, their false teachings, be careful about it. But actually yeast is not necessarily a symbol of evil, it's really a symbol of permeation, a symbol of spreading, many times, connected to something evil as Paul does in Galatians 5:9, "A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough," meaning you get this bad idea, of legalism and circumcision, it's going to affect your whole faith, it's going to affect everything. It really is a picture of permeation. In the Old Testament, bread with yeast included in it was part of the Levitical offering in Leviticus 7. Yeast is not intrinsically evil. To me, the parable proves it, the Kingdom of Heaven, is like yeast, therefore it can't be evil because the king heaven is good, and therefore, if it's like yeast, then the yeast is not intrinsically evil. The issue is spreading, it's permeation really in a kind of a hidden sort of way. Yeast is a one-celled fungus that connects and bumps into other things and starts to generate carbon dioxide gas and ultimately alcohol if it's left long enough. That's fermentation and it just spreads through one side of the lump. Jesus is lavish in his picture here. The housewife took and mixed this little amount of yeast, just hid it in the corner and just let it do its work. How much is 40 liters? Imagine 22 liters bottles of flour poured into a big vat and mixed up, and a pinch of yeast from the last leaven lump put it in and pretty soon the entire lump has risen, it's permeated. It's a picture of permeation. The central lesson of both these parables, is growth from small and insignificant to imposing and dominant.
Why two parables? What's going on? What does the one teach that is different than the other? I think that one teaches a showy display of constant progress. You can look and see it growing. You can come in the garden and you can look and it's six inches tall, then it's a foot tall and pretty soon it's five feet tall and it just keeps growing. You can see its progress. In the end, it's very big and imposing all over the place. The other is a hidden internal mysterious growth. A permeation really that just kind of spreads. You don't really know what's going on and the true story is really quite hidden, and you can't see much evidence of the permeation. The two parables together give the whole picture of the growth of the kingdom of heaven. In one sense, it can be marked and measured. We can see milestones along the way. In another sense its internal, hidden and mysterious and will only be fully understood at the end. That's how I understand in a big picture these two parables.
Let's try to get in and see what's really going on. The parables would have been in their key message a shock to the Jews. Why? They were expecting a big glorious kingdom. They just didn't expect to have to wait for it like this. They didn't expect a humble, despicable, lowly start to that kingdom, and they didn't expect that it would be internal and spiritual. They will really be kind of shocked and stunned at the kingdom that Jesus is preaching here. They expected world domination, and they had reasons for it. There were prophecies, for example, like the one in the book of Daniel. There's a huge statue that represents all these Gentile kingdoms — the head of gold, and the chest and arms of silver, and the belly and the thighs of bronze, and legs of iron and then the feet of partly iron, partly clay. The whole statute that Nebuchadnezzar dreamed about represents human history; it represents all of these Gentile kingdoms. Suddenly there's a stone cut out, but not by human hands, and it flies through the air and strikes the statue at the feet and they crumble. They just chaff on the threshing floor, and a wind blows them away, but the stone cut out but not by human hands grows until it becomes an impressive kingdom that takes over everything. "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed nor will it be left to another people, it will crush all those kingdoms [all those Gentile kingdoms]. We understand clearly, "It will crush all those kingdoms, and bring them to an end but it will itself endure forever.” This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of the mountain but not by human hands." They expected a Jewish world-wide kingdom in which the Son of David would sit on the throne and all of the Gentile enemies would come and basically lick the dust at their feet. That's going to be exciting and enjoyable when you are a first-century Jew and you're licking the dust of the Roman Centurions feet and hating every minute: You feel like you're in your Promised Land, why should you have to pay taxes? Why should you have to bow down to these tax collectors? Why should you have to follow rules and regulations made by an emperor who's never been here. This was their land, given to them by God. But there are prophecies that someday the Gentiles will come and lick the dust at the feet of the Son of David. It said, “lick the dust.” It was a big theme in Jewish prophecy. For example, in Psalm 72 written by King Solomon, speaking of the Son of David, this king, this Messiah, "In his day, the righteous will flourish, prosperity will bound till the moon is no more. He will rule from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before Him and His enemies will lick the dust."
There it is, Psalm 72:9, "The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him, the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts, all kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him." They were ready for that; they were ready for an impressive worldwide dominating kingdom in which the Gentiles would come and lick the dust. They were ready for another prophecy too. Zechariah 8:23, "This is what the Lord Almighty says, in those days, ten men from all languages, and nations will take firm hold, of one Jew, by the hem of His robe and say, ‘Let us go with you because we've heard that God is with you.’” Oh, they were looking forward to that, too. They were looking forward to being part of that Messianic Kingdom and it was going to be impressive with world domination. They were so weary of the Assyrians, and the Babylonians and the Persians, and the Medes, and the Greeks and the Romans whoever comes next, weary of it, they wanted a king.
They were ready of a king, but they weren’t ready for the kingdom that He was living and proclaiming, they weren't ready for that. They were wondering when Jesus began to preach, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," wondered if the time had come, especially intrigued by his miracles. Now, that was never really, I think, in their mind, that the King would be a miracle worker for David and Solomon never did that. So that's an enhancement. But we're troubled by the way He's living His life; we're troubled by the Kingdom. It's so quiet, it's so humble, He gets along too well with the Romans. This is not what we had in mind. He was even healing one of their centurion servants, what is going on here? He's not quarreling and crying out in the street and rabble-rousing and getting an army together, he's not doing what they expected. He spoke of redeeming Gentiles, not of destroying them. Because of the mysteries of the kingdom, that's why He told these parables, that they would understand the kingdom isn't like what they thought. It's going to start small, and even contemptible, in some ways it's going to be repugnant. Christ was born of humble origins, born as a baby, raised in a rejected part of Israel in Nazareth: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" said the Jews. He wasn't trained in the halls of power; He wasn't instructed in Jerusalem by the Pharisees and the best teachers. He was of a humble origin and He carried on a confusing ministry. He challenged people, "Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead, follow me and you may not know where you're going to lay your head tonight, follow me and your parents will reject you or your children and you may die." They didn't understand this, this didn't make any sense. Even worse He was clearly on the outs with the Jewish leaders, rejected by them. They hated him, and they it seemed were plotting against him. They had already decreed that anybody who claimed that he was the Messiah, would be thrown out of the Synagogue. This isn't what they had in mind. “Why are you dividing our people? We're supposed to be united, and then taking on the Gentiles.” They didn't understand. Look at your followers, Jesus, a motley band of ignoramuses, of what we would call blue collar workers. Galilean fishermen who don't even know the simple basics of biblical instruction. They're workers and even worse look who is following you: tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners. This is not what they had in mind. It's going to get worse. He gets rejected and scourged and nailed to a Roman cross, with the ultimate insult, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews," over his head as He bleeds to death, as an executed criminal. The Jews cannot understand, they can't accept it. Ugly, ugly, ugly the beginning of this kingdom, not what they had in mind. A small band of women, John standing there at the foot of the cross, that's it. A very, very tough way to leave the world, a very ugly picture.
"Who has believed our message," said Isaiah, "And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before Him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, like one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised. And we esteemed Him not.” That means we rejected him. We thought nothing of him, he was low and despised, this tender root out of dry ground. So, the kingdom was going to start from despicable origins, lowly and despised, and it wasn't just the Jews who despised him. When Christianity began to make its progress and they began to preach a dead Jewish Messiah on the cross, the message made no sense. It was foolishness to the Gentiles, and they didn't understand. Celsus, who Origen wrote against in the third century, a bitter foe of the Gospel, attacked the very concept that God would send His son in such a low in contemptible way to the despised Jews in one corner of the world. This is what he wrote, "God is good and beautiful and blessed and that in the best and most beautiful degree. But if he come down among men, He must undergo a change and a change from good to evil, from virtue to vice, from happiness to misery, and from best to worst. Who then would make choice of such a change? It is the nature of a mortal indeed to undergo change and re-molding, but of an immortal to remain the same and unaltered. God then would not admit of such a change. God would never become a man and if he did, just for a joke," that's what he said. "If he's like Jupiter coming to the Athenians he sure wouldn't come to the Jews in that corner of the world," so said Celsus. His ways are not understandable to us, His ways, are not our ways.
For the kingdom to start like a tiny seed stuck in the ground, or like a little amount of yeast off in the edge makes no sense. To me this is great encouragement for every generation, especially for ours, that God delights in small things. He delights in humble beginnings; He delights in just a conversation sparking at all. Just a thought that popped in someone's head and then look where it's gone. God delights in small things and doing great things with small things. We forget that the universe is made up of atoms and they're really small. God delights in small things, in putting them in order, and building a history out of it. And so, Zechariah 4:10, "Who despises the day of small things?" Yet we need constant encouragement because the Kingdom of Heaven never seems equal to the task, does it? It always seems overwhelmed by the obstacles and the odds. We have to hear 1 Corinthians 15:58, "Therefore my dear brothers stand firm, let nothing move you, always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” You need to be told that, don't you? Do you ever get discouraged in the Christian life? I need to be told my labor in the Lord is not in vain, because it sure seems like it, sometimes. All of us as Christians, we need to hear that. Hebrews 12:12 says, "Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and your weak knees," because the kingdom doesn't seem to match up. We're wasting our time here. In one 24-hour period almost a quarter million people in one day are added to the world population. People think, "We're losing ground. There's a sense of urgency. Is the kingdom up to the task?" What do these parables tell you? Yes, the Kingdom of Heaven will permeate the entire dough. The Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Lesson of the Mustard Seed
The lesson of the mustard seed is outward invisible growth. Jesus said in Matthew 5:14, "You are the light of the world, you're a city on a hill which cannot be hidden. The growth of the Kingdom can't be hidden, it's going to leave markers along the way in history. It's going to start small, but we're going to see marks of its progress along the way. It started with 120 believers in the upper room. That's a small church. 120 believers in the upper room and then the Spirit poured out and in one day, 3000 were added to their number that day, just like that. Now that's outward, visible change. Suddenly boom, 3000. Pretty soon the number grew to 5000 men, it kept growing and growing. Soon the call came to send missionaries to Gentile regions. The Gospel spread along Asia Minor. Back up the roads of conquest where Alexander the Great and the Roman Legions had marched down to conquer Palestine. The Gospel went back up those pipelines across to the man from Macedonia who said, "Come over and help us.” The Gospel was preached there, in Philippi, and Thessalonica. It starts to spread, it starts to move, it starts to conquer. So that by the time Paul writes in Romans, he says, "It's always been my ambition to preach where nobody's heard of Christ, but I'm having trouble finding that place these days," because the gospel had come from Jerusalem all the way around to what is modern Yugoslavia, right across from Rome. Soon the gospel would be there. Within two and half to three centuries, the Gospel would have so permeated and so dominated in the Roman Empire that Constantine would declare himself to be a Christian. Incredible. What a marker in history. The progress that this Galilean carpenter, executed on a Roman cross, has made. If you had told Pontius Pilate, what was going to happen in the next three centuries, "The man you're about to kill will someday be the God worshipped by the Emperor of Rome," what do you think he would have said to you? "You're insane." It didn't stop there. It continued to grow and to explode. Missionaries traveling. The Norsemen coming down, the Vikings coming to faith in Christ. It continued to spread, clear markers of progress. They left behind physical remnants: cathedrals built, art, hospitals, works of theology and writings. Clear markers of the progress of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that just explodes, and everyone can see where it's heading, a visible legacy of Christianity.
Lesson of the Yeast
But the kingdom of heaven is also like yeast which a woman took and hid, it says, in a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough. So yes, there's an outward invisible marker of the progress, but there's an internal mysterious transformation. It says, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast which a woman took and hid.” The Greek word is “enkrupto”, from which we get “to encrypt”. A hidden thing, a mysterious thing. So, there's this hidden nature of the kingdom. You can't see what it's doing, but it's making progress all the way through. I think this individually describes your own salvation if you're a Christian, doesn't it? You hear the Gospel, maybe John 3:16 something as simple as that. You read a tract, and all of a sudden it takes hold in your life. Little by little, it starts to conquer everything. It conquers the way you talk, it conquers the way you dress, it conquers the way you think, the way you make your living, the way you pray, what you hope for, what you dream, it conquers everything. It just starts to permeate within.
Jesus said in John Chapter 3, that the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound, but you can't tell where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who's born by the spirit, that internal transformation changing everything, if anyone is in Christ, he's a new creation. The old is gone, everything has become new. All things have changed, and so that from the inside out, it permeates and conquers. The biggest grief of your life is that it hasn't conquered everything yet. But it will someday. Isn't that glorious? It's going to permeate everything, and there'll be no sin left: no wickedness, no violence, no temptation, no pull toward evil. No, as it says in Romans 7, "sin living in me that does it," all gone.
The Gospel will have permeated everything, and you will be glorious and perfect. Amen and amen, the glory of the internal transformation, but you can't see it from the outside. You look like the same person but there's something different about you, an internal transformation that conquers everything. Jesus was also talking about the world, wasn't he? He had his eyes not just on the individual, but on the whole world. It would be down in the catacombs, under the streets of Rome where nobody could see it. Celsus was frustrated. He said, "You know something, they won't talk about this, when the masters and better learned people are around. But when everyone's gone, they'll start to talk to your children and then kind of take on the weak and the lowly and share with them."
The gospel spreads through the slaves, and the weak, and the despised and the lowly, and it just takes over, permeates, influences, just by hearing. Sometimes, the gospel is gossiped almost like news.
I love the story of John Bunyan's conversion. John Bunyan was a tinker by trade, went around sharpening knives and fixing pots and pans which was obviously not a lucrative employment. But he went around, and he was in a kitchen, sharpening some knives, fixing some pots and pans one day when he heard three or four women. This is what he says, he overheard, "Three or four poor women sitting at a door in the room and talking about the things of God." And later he said, "I thought they spoke as if joy did make them speak." Like they couldn't hold it in. Christ had so filled their hearts they couldn't help themselves. They're just filled with the gospel and with Christ, and they're just talking, gossiping Jesus. They never knew that Bunyan was overhearing, unconverted but listening. Later he gave his life to Christ and wrote Pilgrim's Progress, and so, from just a little affect, a little permeation, it spreads to the whole world.
I love the story that my Mission's Professor Christy Wilson, told of what's happened in China. The same thing. I love this story because it shows the power of the gospel, how the Gospel was opposed by Mao Zedong. It was attacked and Christians were murdered and slaughtered down to a certain level and finally he stopped and said, "I can't continue, I've got to denounce the idea of Christianity, not just kill Christians. I've got to take these few Christians that are left who are gaining strength and get them out of being together. I think what I'll do is I'll scatter them all over China so that they're alone, and lonely, and they'll die disgraced." Christy Wilson said that the communist party in China is the greatest mission sending agency of the 20th century. Mao Zedong said, "What I'll do is I'll humble them further, I'll give them jobs like garbage collector, where they go from house to house every day, collecting garbage." You're in a new town, never been anywhere. You've got Christ inside you and you're going from house to house. What do you think you're going to do? Could it be that you're going to share the Gospel, and could it be that there are over 100 million Christians in China today? And could it be that Mao Zedong is dead?
Kingdom of heaven is like yeast. Hidden in a little corner, it permeates the whole thing. You can't stop it. But it's hidden. It never made the headlines in The New York Times. But it is the story of China, just like it is the story of the entire world which the gospel is conquering and advancing, and the gospel is winning. The kingdom is immense but it's unfinished. We live in a great time, brothers and sisters, a time in which the gospel is accelerating, a time in with a local church like ours can send out our own people across to the ends of the world, and they can influence, they can share the Gospel with some student who's studying English. That study of English becomes a bridge that the Gospel could get across into their minds, and they could believe and be saved. This is a great time, and we can look back over 2000 years and say, "Lord, you've done it, it's not finished yet, but I see it, I can connect the dots. We're 95% there but I see what you're doing. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a small mustard seed, which has grown to imposing size, yes, Lord, the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which is tucked in a little corner, Jerusalem, upper room, and then spreads through the whole world. And yes, Lord, the kingdom of Heaven has conquered my heart and it's taking over everything inside me. Oh, let your work be finished in the world and in me, let your kingdom come.” We never despise the days of small beginnings.
I think about, for example, the haystack prayer meeting. It was a sultry Saturday afternoon, in August 1806. Samuel J. Mills and four other students at Williams College in Massachusetts were talking and discussing the things of God, when suddenly the skies broke overhead, thunder and lightning and they ran and found protection kind of in the back side of a haystack. They just started to pray about world evangelization, they prayed that they would be used in a mighty way by God to spread the influence of Christ to the unreached people, what they called the heathens. This was just a short time after William Carey, but there were no mission-sending agencies in America at the time. It wasn't long after that, two years later, that they met a student from Brown named Adoniram Judson. He got involved, caught their vision, and he and his wife and a number of others set sail for Calcutta to join up with William Carey. En route, of course, they became Baptist. En route, they realized that they needed some financial support because the Congregationalists were not going to support them anymore, and so they sent Luther Rice back. Luther Rice went from Baptist church, to Baptist church, saying, "You guys have missionaries in the field, and you're obligated to support them financially." That was the beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention. That's how it started, from a prayer meeting in a haystack. Do not ever despise the day of small beginnings. God loves to do this kind of thing, again, and again, and again. To advance the kingdom with just a little mustard seed of faith, to see what God can do.
What kind of applications can we take? First of all, can I say to you come to Christ, if you're not a Christian? The things I'm saying to you make no sense whatsoever, if you don't trust Christ. If you don't know Him as your Lord and Savior, if you don't see Jesus bloody and dead on the cross as your substitute for sin, Jesus your sin bearer, and put your trust in your faith in him because he didn't stay dead. God raised Him from the dead on the third day. Is he your life? Is he your righteousness? Is he your hope? If not come to Christ today. But for you who are Christians, first of all, could you worship Christ for His sovereignty and fulfilling his prophecy? These were prophecies, weren't they? The kingdom of heaven is going to take over and it has. Worship Him. He got it right. It's not finished yet, but you see what He's doing, worship him for what he's doing. Secondly, never be discouraged over the seemingly slow progress of the kingdom. Never be discouraged about what He's doing here, in this church. As long as we are faithful to teach and live obey His word, He will bless this church. Even if the progress seems slow.
Thirdly, expect great things from small beginnings. God does this again and again. Fourth, put priority on internal spiritual transformation, that comes first. The outward shows and the markers along the way come from a genuine internal transformation. Put the yeast ahead of the mustard seed. The internal transformation happens first, and out of that, comes the fruit that we've been talking about. Influence your surrounding world. Be yeast in your world, let there be lots of Christ about you. Lots of tracts handed to people if you only have a minute, invitations to church, going this afternoon to witness. Take a chance, I don't think you're going to get killed, but even if you do, you'll rejoice and be glad and have the resurrection of a martyr.
Rejoice, be an influencer for Christ, pray for an unreached people group. Adopt one and pray for it for the rest of the year for six months. I prayed for Nepal for eight years, and I have personal stock in the company that God set up there, of over 100,000 Nepali Christians. There were almost none when I began praying. So, pray for them. Start a lunch time Bible study and rejoice if one person shows up. I saw a Bible study like that, start from one person and grew to 23 people. That's how it all started. Start a lunchtime Bible study, be an influencer for Christ. The kingdom of heaven in the end will conquer all things. Be faithful and serve Him.