Another parable put He forth unto them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like 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). Background The opening verses of Matthew 13 are significant to understanding its seven Kingdom parables: “The same day went Jesus out of the house and sat by the sea. And great multitudes gathered unto Him.” The end of Matthew 12 tells us that Jesus had been in a house with His disciples – a more intimate, private setting. This changed when the parables were about to be taught.
In the Bible, the sea depicts the nations – sinful, restless and discontented. Its angry winds and waves can only be calmed by the Son of God as seen in Matthew 8:23-27. The winds – the same word means “spirit” – also show us the influence of demonic forces which so much shape this world’s culture (Dan. 7:2-3; Rev. 13:1; Isa. 57:20; Prov. 8:29; Mt. 8:23-27; Mk. 4:37-41; Lk. 8:23-25; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; Ps. 104:4; 1 Jn. 5:19).
Also, in Matthew 12 a serious controversy regarding the Sabbath erupts, the outcome being the determination of the Pharisees to destroy Jesus. They also attribute the power of God seen in His miracles to Satan, thereby committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:24, 31-32).
In addition to this background, we are further helped in that, though these parables were told to hide the truth from unbelievers, the Lord actually interpreted two of them (Mt. 13:18-23; 36-43). The Sower was explained publicly to the crowds, but the Tares privately to those in the house. There is then, both a private aspect, for disciples only, and a public aspect to the interpretation and application of the parables.
That there are seven parables in Matthew 13 suggests a completeness in their teaching, since the number seven in Scripture speaks of completeness. We have here a complete picture of God’s dealing with the world and His people. We are also shown how Satan subverts the work of disseminating the Word of God.
All seven parables are about the Kingdom of Heaven, but in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels four of them are about the Kingdom of God. For many readers and some Bible commentators the difference is incidental, but why did the Holy Spirit use different terms if He did not mean different things?
A suggestion is that these two concepts overlap like two circles where parts of the circles share the same area. Entry into the Kingdom of God is by new birth (Jn. 3:3-5). Here is the sphere of God’s direct rule. However, in the Kingdom of Heaven, God has allowed responsibility to powers who rule, some even being fallen angels called “the rulers of the darkness of this world, wicked spirits in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:12, Newberry note).
Seed And Birds
The Sower shows us that the seed is “the word of the Kingdom” (Mt. 13:19-23.) John tells us that “the whole world lies in the wicked one” (1 Jn. 5:19, Newberry note). In interpreting the Tares, the Lord tells us that “the field is the world” (Mt. 13:38). The world is both under Satan’s control and the sphere of God’s love and the gospel (Jn. 3:16; Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15).
The birds in these parables appear to be demonic forces whose aim is to subvert the preaching of the Word and corrupt those who hear it. In the Lord’s explanation in Matthew 13:19, “the fowls” are “the wicked one” who “catcheth away that which was sown in his heart,” or “by the wayside.” Luke gives a fuller rendering of the Lord’s words: “Then cometh the devil, and taketh away the Word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Lk. 8:12). Therefore, in the parable of the Mustard Seed it is assumed that the birds are the same – evil spirits.
The context is very helpful; in Matthew 12 the Pharisees not only reject the Lord’s message but actually plot to destroy Him (Mt. 12:14). The religious leaders in Israel had become Satan’s instruments. This incident divides Matthew’s gospel in two. After chapter 12 the Lord is Israel’s king in rejection. The parables are told, as the Lord Himself explained to the disciples, “because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (Mt. 13:11).
A second point is that, though Judaism was the only religion ever given by God (Christianity being a relationship), it had become the vehicle for avarice and ambition. According to Jesus on two separate visits, the very temple of God had become “a house of merchandise” and “a den of thieves” (Jn. 2:13-17; Mt. 21:12-13.) Here the temple and the Jewish religion had become like the leprous house of Leviticus 14:33-45, condemned to be pulled down after two visits by the priest. What had been built by God through Moses, David and Solomon became, like Babylon, a “habitation of demons, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird” (Rev. 18:2). Instead of being the guardians of Israel’s Law, the priests exploited it. Also, in bowing to the corrupt Herodian family and the power of Rome, they became like noxious birds, led by demons to take over religion and obstruct the Messiah’s coming.
Today, the gospel of God’s grace has sometimes been subverted to a religion offering an uncertain salvation gained only by religious and good works, thus diminishing the perfect work of Calvary. Even in apostolic days there were “false teachers” motivated and inspired by the demons, “even denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1). Satan has worked in this way from the beginning. Adam and Eve, who should have been blissfully happy in the Garden, became, through Satan, the means of passing on suffering and death to their descendants (Gen. 3).
Later we see the human race and religion corrupted by the fallen angels who “saw the daughters of men that they were fair and they took them wives of all which they chose” (Gen. 6:1-2.) The demons gathered like vultures to feast upon the corrupt and vulnerable human race, a travesty resulting in beings neither angel nor human but a mixture of both. The Bible refers to them as “giants” (Gen. 6:4), but in Hebrew the root of this word means “fallen ones.” To the deluded human they were great heroes – such as Hercules, Dionysus, Apollo – who were worshiped in the ancient world and are still worshiped by some today. Eve, “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20), became Satan’s model for Isis, Aphrodite and Venus, the goddess of motherhood, fertility and licentiousness. She has been worshiped all over the world under such names as Ishtar, Ashtoreth, Tannit, Kali and Shing Mu. Childless women and expectant mothers entreat her, and some sacrifice their innocence and their purity to her. This horrible fascination with idols is still with us, and is on the increase.
Satan likes to pervert whatever is originally of God. Even when the Lord – to demonstrate His compassion and power – performed miracles of healing, he had to silence the demons who “came out of many, crying out, and saying, ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of God.’ And He rebuking them, suffered them not to speak; for they knew He was Christ” (Lk. 4:40-41). Satan is all too eager to subvert what is of God for his own ends, and direct to himself the worship rightly due to God. Our only defense against such determined attack is in reliance upon prayer and Bible study. Of ourselves we have no power or wisdom, but we depend totally upon God, “Who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).
The false gods and goddesses, who came into human culture after the flood, still lurk wherever pagan rites are celebrated. They are being recalled by neo-pagan movements and by renewed interest in all religions, but not biblical Christianity. Many are getting involved in this religious revival, and the demons are using it to keep people from the love of Jesus. Even the leader of a major Christian denomination has been enrolled as a druid, the order of priests of the ancient Celtic religion. The demons, driven out by the evangelical movement in the 19th century are now returning and bringing with them “seven others worse than themselves” (Mt. 12:43-45). If this was true in the Lord’s day, it is also true today.
With the “salt of the earth” (Mt.5:13) already corrupted, it is no wonder that Paul’s terrible vision of the last days is coming true: “Perilous times” when “men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
Indeed, the “birds of the air” have lodged in “the branches” of the tree that is the Kingdom. The world is full of religions that have their origins in the cunning and twisted mind of the devil, a liar and murderer from the beginning (Jn. 8:43-46). We do well to heed the Spirit’s warning through Paul: “In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1-2).
By Roger Penney
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.