And he said, ‘How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that ‘The birds of the air can next under its shade.’ Mark 4.30-32
To many people, this parable is enigmatic: what does it even mean? But as we dig deeper into the connections with Jesus’ words and the Old Testament, we get a better picture of what it means. Richard Hays points out the connection between Mark 4.30-32 and Ezekiel 17.23. This connection helps us make sense of all that Jesus is saying. Hays says that in understanding the Old Testament context, we actually see how the parable of the mustard seed is climactic to this collection of parables early in Mark.
In Ezekiel, we see this picture not of a mustard seed, but of a cedar sprig. Ezekiel is telling the story of the cedar sprig in reaction to the rebellion of God’s people and a proclamation that God will bring judgment. He says that God will plant the topmost of the young sprigs on a high mountain to bring forth branches and become a stately cedar. ‘All the birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I am Yahweh; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am Yahweh; I have spoken, and I will perform it.’
We see the picture of restoration always connected with judgment throughout the Old Testament, so when we see it here, it is not anything out of character with what God has always promised to do: when Israel fails, he will bring judgment through exile, but one day he will restore Israel. What is also clear in many of the Old Testament passages of the restoration is that he is not just going to restore Israel. Instead, he will bring a greater restoration, a re-creation. Notice how Ezekiel mentions planting the tree on a high mountain. This reminds us of the temple which was built on a mountain, but then also Eden, which seems to have been established on a high mountain (how else could it be the source of 4 rivers?). In addition, there is a picture of more than just Israel submitting to this cedar tree. We can remember that trees depict nations, and here the cedar tree is of a wholly different quality than the first tree, Israel. On this new cedar tree, birds of all sorts will come. In relation to the planting of this tree all the trees of the field (all the nations) will know that Yahweh is God. Through this new cedar (i.e. nation), God’s glory would be revealed to the whole world.
So when Jesus alludes to this in his collections of parables of the kingdom, there ought to be bells going off in our head about God’s restoration of Israel. The kingdom that Jesus preaches is correlated with the restored Israel. The kingdom that Jesus preaches anticipates that God will reveal himself to the nations, that they would know that he is God.
As we meditate on these things, we realize that this parable is becoming true through this age of the church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is to go to all the nations. ‘And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”’
What should be our response to this? First is to give glory to God! Salvation wasn’t just relegated to the Israelites who kept the law. Instead, salvation is given to any people who by faith repent of their sin whatever tribe or nation they are a part of. So it is a glorious truth that the gospel has spread to all nations: even to where we live on the other side of the globe speaking foreign tongues! Secondly, we can have hope. If we look at the newspapers, we can tend toward depression and anxiety, because that sort of story sells, even if it is full of untruth or not chastened by truth, goodness, and beauty. But this new cedar tree and this tiny mustard seed will grow. God will build his church, he will bring about the restoration that he promised in the beginning to Adam. So we can have hope even when our hearts groan under the weight of this sinful, broken world. And we cry out, come, Lord Jesus, Come.