In Matthew 17, we learn that the disciples had attempted to cast out a demon but were unsuccessful. They then came to him privately, whether out of shame or discretion, and asked Jesus why they were unable to cast out the demon (v19). Jesus, instead of offering comforting words or gentle instruction, admonishes his disciples for their small faith and starkly explains why they could not cast out the demon. “Because of your little faith,” He says, “for truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt 17:20-21).
This verse is familiar to any Christian who has even a cursory understanding of the Christian faith. Anyone who grew up attending Sunday School knows this verse and how it fundamentally informs our understanding of what it means to have faith. We don’t need a lot of faith, we were told, because the mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds and, therefore, look at what amazing and incredible things we can do when we have even the smallest measure of true faith.
But is having “faith like a mustard seed” more to the Christian than what spinach is to Popeye?
In chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses the mustard seed to teach an important lesson, saying that “the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field. Although it is the smallest of all seeds, yet it grows into the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32). Again, an example of how the small size of the mustard seed is set in contrast to the potential it has to grow into something much larger.
There is no shortage of sermons and biblical commentary on these passages, many of which eloquently articulate the beauty of Christian faith. As well they should, for the true Christian faith is a beautiful thing and an aspect of the Christian religion that must be rightly taught and understood by all who belong to Christ. But the goal of this article is not to challenge in any way how we understand faith, nor is it to challenge those voices with which I may disagree theologically, but rather to offer a brief glimpse into the depth of these verses in a way that is probably unexplored by many professing Christians.
The premise of my thought is that by examining the context of how Jesus refers to the mustard seed, we can get a sense of the divine sovereignty of God. Without getting into a long etymological or linguistic study of the mustard seed, let us instead agree that the mustard seed is small simply because Jesus says it is the smallest of the seeds. So why even introduce the idea that the etymology or linguistic study of the mustard seed if all we are to do is agree that it is small? Because the idea of tracing back the origins of a word to discover how it means what it means can be applied, in a general sense, to the idea of a mustard seed.
In a linguistic sense, if I tell you to look at that stop sign, you would only know what I am talking about because you know what a sign is and what distinguishes a stop sign from other road signs. When this principle is applied to these passages, Jesus’ use of the mustard seed only makes sense because of what a mustard seed was and what distinguished it from other seeds. It’s important to remember that Jesus was not teaching his disciples about mustard seeds, but about the kingdom of heaven and faith. In literature, metaphors and allusions only make sense to the audience if they already understand the reference or comparison being made. The disciples knew all about the mustard seed, which is why it made for the perfect metaphor.
When I read these passages with the perspective that Jesus did everything purposefully and intentionally, what I discovered is that the mustard seed effectively becomes an example of the sovereignty of God. Mustard seeds did not spontaneously begin to exist when Jesus used them in his parables, neither did Jesus randomly choose to use them. Instead, they had already existed for generations within an agrarian society that had learned how to cultivate them and understand its life cycle long before Jesus placed one in his hand to show to his disciples. They were part of God’s creation, which meant that they were divinely designed and designated to be what they were and to do what they did. This also means that Jesus, who was present with God in the creation and is part of the Triune Godhead, was fully aware of the entire history and design of the mustard seed when he used it in his parables. In other words, God created the mustard seed, knowing Jesus would use it as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven and the Christian faith. If mustard seeds were created for no other purpose than this moment, it would be enough to justify their existence.
In Luke 21, Jesus, again in a parable, tells his disciples to “look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near” (Luke 21:29b-30). In Matthew 21, Jesus curses a fig tree that did not bear fruit when it was supposed to be full of fruit, much to the astonishment of His disciples (Matt 21:18-20). If we apply the same perspective used to examine the mustard seed to these passages about fig trees, we can come to the same conclusion that Jesus was not teaching his disciples about fig trees, but rather about some important aspect of being His follower. Again, as with the mustard seed, the context is important. Before the disciples were amazed at how quickly the fig tree withered, the audience would have been surprised to hear that a fig tree was not bearing fruit in the season in which it was supposed to be bearing fruit. Like the mustard seed, the fig tree and its entire cultural and agricultural context did not spontaneously begin to exist when Jesus used it as a metaphor and made it an example.
While this may not be a revolutionary thought, I think it is still a point worth pondering because it helps us realize that nothing, not even the smallest seed, is an arbitrary part of His creation or outside of His divine purpose and will. If a tiny mustard seed or a common fig tree were so carefully planned and placed into God’s divine plan for the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, how much more is the Christian carefully planned and placed in the lives of the people around us or in the ministry of the church? If anything, at least for me, the fact that Jesus uses the mustard seed and the fig tree in his parables is a powerful source of hope because they remind me that God is orchestrating even the smallest details of His creation for His divine purposes.