And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32 ESV)
In Mark chapter 4, we get a somewhat abbreviated version of the parables of the Kingdom. These are a series of parables that Jesus tells to illustrate what the Kingdom of God will be like in this current age (“this current age” being defined as the “Church” age, or the period between the first and second comings of Christ). During this age, the Kingdom is a present reality, but not a fully consummated reality. There is, as some theologians like to phrase it, a tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” In other words, what Jesus did during his earthly ministry was to establish the Kingdom of God in this world, but not in its fullness. When Jesus returns at the end of the age, the Kingdom will be manifest in all its fullness and glory.
Note the imagery in the parable: The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in a debate as to whether or not the mustard seed is “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” Skeptics like to point to this as one of the ‘glaring contradictions’ in the Bible. To which I say to the skeptics, “Get a life!” If this is the best you can come up with as far as ‘contradictions’ in the Bible, I fear for your credibility. The point of the parable is to compare the Kingdom of God to something small that eventually grows to something very large. When Jesus came to earth, he came in the most humble of circumstances; the King of creation was born not in a palace, but in a manger. He was born to a lowly carpenter and his young wife. He was raised in the town of Nazareth, which is like the Detroit of his day (sorry, no offense intended to citizens of Detroit). His followers were the dregs of society — ignorant fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and prostitutes. Yet the religion he founded has persevered (or has been preserved by God) for nearly 2,000 years and has followers from nearly every tribe, tongue and nation.
Furthermore, when Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, he did it through the means of the Church. When Jesus died, the Church consisted of Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples and a group of women. After he was resurrected and ascended into heaven, the Church was barely 120 strong. Yet after the Holy Spirit was unleashed, the Church began to grow geometrically; first 3,000 converts on Pentecost, then 5,000 converts some time later. Finally, the author of Acts quit putting a quantity to the conversions that were taking place. In the approximate 30 year span of the book of Acts, the Church grew from 120 scared disciples in Jerusalem to tens of thousands of followers spread throughout all parts of the Roman Empire. The mustard seed, which starts out small, grew to be a very large plant indeed; providing shelter to all who flocked to it.
The Kingdom continues to grow to this day. As mentioned earlier, the Church is comprised of people from nearly every tongue, tribe and nation of the world. The Church of Jesus Christ (a.k.a., the Kingdom of God) has a significant presence in every continent of the world. However, we must understand this “already/not yet” tension of the Kingdom. Though the Kingdom starts out small and grows to be very large, this does not mean the Kingdom of God will eventually encompass the entire world during this age. There are some who hold to a Post-Millennial viewpoint that believe that the Kingdom of God will triumph in this age and that when Jesus returns, he will return to an already Christianized world. This view, in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on the “already” of the “already/not yet” tension. Conversely, there are those who hold to a Pre-Millennial viewpoint who believe that the Kingdom won’t even be established until Christ returns again; this is to place too heavy an emphasis on the “not yet” of the “already/not yet” tension.
The Kingdom of God is here, it is a present reality; but it is not a consummated reality. The Kingdom of God is like that mustard seed; it had very humble beginnings, but will grow to have an enormous influence in the world. But until Christ returns at the end of the age, it will not be here in its fullness. There were two phrases used from the early church that described the Kingdom of God in this age and in the age to come. In this age, the Kingdom of God is described as the “Church Militant.” Not militant in the sense that the Church is waging a military offensive against the powers of darkness, but in the sense that the Church has to strive and persevere in this age. In the age to come, the Kingdom of God is described as the “Church Triumphant” in that the Kingdom of God will triumph over its enemies and Christ will rule and reign over all. To which all I have to say is “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!”
Soli Deo Gloria!