The Kingdom of God starts small (Matt. 13.31-33)
When we look at the earthly ministry of Jesus, it was relatively unsuccessful, numbers wise. There were around 120 followers of Jesus immediately following his return to heaven after his resurrection. And of those 120, they were really not very powerful or even have much status in their society. But within a little more than 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection, this movement that he started grew to almost half of the population of the Roman Empire (or around 32 million people at some estimates). How did this happen?
Exposition Matt. 13.31-33
Jesus told many parables to explain the Kingdom of God. These were little word pictures of concrete examples from their everyday life to explain various aspects of the Kingdom, what it would look like, how one entered it, what one must do when they encountered it, what it would ultimately look like. We will look at several of these as the semester goes along. Now we are going to look at a couple of short parables where Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as something very small and seemingly insignificant to the naked eye, but it turns out to be quite impressive as it works toward its goal.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…In the ancient world, the mustard seed was known for its smallness. Later Jesus would say that faith the size of a mustard seed would be able to move mountains (that is, such small, pure, concentrated faith would be able to accomplish the seemingly impossible.) It is from this “smallest” of seeds that a very large bush like plant eventually emerges, large enough to accommodate the nests of birds.
It is similar with the yeast. It has this gradual, almost unobservable fermentation process that makes it a good simile for the impact of the kingdom. What we have is the dynamic power of yeast where a small amount (almost imperceptible) when first mixed into a lump of dough has an eventual, astonishing effect on the whole. When Jesus says that a small amount of leaven goes this dough, he is describing a very small amount that mixes with three measures of wheat flour. That is about 40 liters (or about 10 gallons) producing 50 kilograms of bread (or 110 lbs). Enough to feed 150 people.
The point that Jesus is making here is that in spite of the expectations of many (a grand entrance by God the King who would usher in a military victory and establish a physical kingdom on a real throne), the kingdom has begun. It is very inconspicuous but it has begun. In the end the greatness of the kingdom in size will provide a contrast as that between the mustard seed and the tree. You wouldn’t think that such a great tree could come from such a small source. So it will be with the kingdom. As is with the yeast, that what at the beginning looks unimpressive will have an effect that is out of all proportion with that beginning. The kingdom’s coming did not overwhelm the world, as expected. Yet it is destined to become a tremendous entity, in spite of its small origins. The Kingdom’s growth can only be attributed to God. It has always been this way. God uses such insignificant people and instruments to expand his kingdom and give glory to him. Since it starts so small, its success can only be explained by God’s power.
This is the way God has been doing things since he began his plan of redemption. The Bible begins with God creating a good creation and the first humans who had this unbroken and free relationship with the Father. Their disobedience ruined it all. It unleashed the power of sin in that things seemed to spiral out of control as we see in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Then, God begins his plan of redemption. Who does he choose as his agents of redemption? A tribe of great warriors? A tribe who was advanced in creating tools for advancement? A tribe of artists and poets who could praise him? No, he chooses a childless old man and old woman to begin his plan to redeem all people. He chooses Abraham and Sarah. God makes a promise to him:
Genesis 12.1-3 – I will make you into a great nation…I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
This man was 75 years old, his wife 10 years younger who was not able to conceive. That is what God does. He begins his plan of salvation with these seemingly insignificant people and plans to redeem all humanity through their offspring.
The descendants of Abraham become the people of Israel. After a few generations, we find these people not in the land that was promised to them, but in Egypt working as slaves. Yet, God hears them in their distress, remembers his promise to their Father, Abraham. He delivers them. He calls them to be a light to the rest of the world. And yet, in spite of their failure over and over again to obey the God who rescued them, and their failure to be a blessing to all the nations, God still uses them. He comes as one of them. He doesn’t come as a royal figure from an earthly perspective. He doesn’t come from a wealthy or important family. He is born to a small town carpenter and his fiancée. This family even has to flee the country after the birth of this child because important people are threatened by him. This son lives in obscurity for thirty years and announces that the king is near. And he doesn’t do this by raising an army or revealing himself to the powerful. He hangs around insignificant people like fishermen, and hated tax collectors and sinners like prostitutes. To them he reveals his kingly credentials. And it is among these “insignificant people” that Jesus resumes God’s plan of redeeming and blessing all of the nations. Through these “mustard seeds” and through this seemingly insignificant amount of yeast that needs to ferment a huge amount of flour. It was from this beginning that the Roman Empire was over half Christians in about 300 years. How did this happen?
We have to start with God’s power. As we talked about last week, God pour out his power on his people starting with 120 followers of Jesus who were gathered together and praying for Jesus to make something happen. Jesus kept his promise to come back to them through the presence of his Spirit, the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 we see the Spirit empowering these men and women, who previously were in hiding after Jesus’ crucifixion. Now they are boldly proclaiming what they have seen and heard. And they are speaking to a large crowd and telling them to change their way (repent) and follow Jesus. They would receive forgiveness for their sins and receive this same power (Acts 2.38). At this point we see 3000 people receive this message. The next few verses give us a clue as to how this community began to grow.
They were devoted to proper teaching of the Bible (or doctrine); they were devoted to fellowship (eating together, worshiping together, praying together), basically loving each other (which Jesus commanded them to do). The Spirit enabled them to perform great signs and wonders. They became generous and shared everything. They met together in some form or fashion worshiping, praying, eating every day. And God continued to allow them to grow.
So the next element of growth was they were committed to each other. They were committed to community.
Looking back at that passage, we see that they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. They were committed to orthodoxy (or proper doctrine). They were extremely devoted to preserving the teaching of Jesus and devoted to passing it down. We see throughout early church history challenges came to the apostles’ teaching. We have groups like the Gnostics, Marcion, Arius and many others who tried to divert the mission of the church to follow human perversions of Jesus’ words. At each instance, the church came together to meet these challenges head on. These challenges made these early followers examine which of the great writings of the apostles were actually inspired by God. That is why the church developed many of the great creeds and statements of the faith.
One of these, the Apostles’ Creed, developed out of a formula that early Christians would recite before baptism to affirm that they stuck to the true teaching of the church.
Do you believe in God the Father almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and of Mary the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended into heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?
How did this movement spread? Was it due to some more of these big meetings like we see in Acts 2? Was it due to the work of missionaries like Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Peter and others? Somewhat, but most of the spread of the church came from normal everyday believers. Most were not esteemed in the eyes of society. In fact, one opponent of Christianity pointed out that Christianity spread in the kitchens, shops, markets by the uneducated rabble. It seems that Christianity spread through the great cities of the Roman Empire by normal people who traveled for commercial or personal reasons and as they went, they shared their faith with their family members and with coworkers and/or clients.
This movement spread in spite of brief, but at times intense, periods of persecution. Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Decius and Diocletian. These are some of the emperors who enacted state sponsored persecution over the first 300 years of the church’s life. How did the church survive times when there were forces actively trying to stamp it out? They kept their eyes on the end. They kept their focus on the final reward. I don’t think you can properly understand the book of Revelation without keeping the issue of persecution in your minds. There is a constant call from Jesus to “the one who is victorious” or “to the one who overcomes…” Revelation shows what the scene in heaven looks like, a portrait of praising the lamb who was slain (who also has experienced what they’ve experienced). This same lamb is the one “who sits on the throne” and to him be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever (Rev. 5:13)! There is even a scene where those who have been killed for their faithfulness to Jesus are shown to be serving Jesus day and night in his temple and experiencing his presence. Rev. 7:16-17. Earlier, these martyrs were asking how long until God would avenge their blood? They were told to wait until the full number of their brothers and sisters who were to be killed first (Rev. 6.9-11). Then, God would pour out his wrath on the wicked and judge the evil ones and avenge those who were killed for their testimony. This book was to assure those people who were suffering that Jesus was on his throne now and that he saw it all and was waiting, but that he would act.
How did this movement spread in spite of attacks on its beliefs and attacks on the believers? It continued to follow Jesus and obey his commands. One of the strongest statements come from a pagan emperor who wanted to stem the growth of Christianity. Emperor Julian tried to revive paganism in the Empire after the rise of Christianity. He wrote to a prominent pagan priest: “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans (Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Rodney Stark wrote a book on the rise of Christianity and made this observation:
"The power of Christianity lay not in its promise of otherworldly compensations for suffering in this life, as has so often been proposed. No, the crucial change that took place in the third century was the rapidly spreading awareness of a faith that delivered potent antidotes to life’s miseries here and now! The truly revolutionary aspect of Christianity lay in moral imperative such as “Love one’s neighbor as oneself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”…”When you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.” These were not just slogans. Members did nurse the sick, even during epidemics; they did support orphans, widows, the elderly, and the poor; they did concern themselves with the lot of slaves. In short, Christians created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.” Support for this view comes from the continuing inability of pagan groups to meet this challenge."
What does this mean to us? I hesitate to compare Missio Dei to the early church, but it does cause me to think what this small group of people could accomplish through the power of God. In the big picture of this campus, we are just a speck, 20+ people surrounded by 30k. We have some people who are with us in other campus ministries and churches, but we face a large task: to share with those around us what we’ve experienced in Jesus. I hope your experience with Jesus has been good news to you. Hopefully you constantly reflect on your experience and you seek to share it with those you know need to experience the same good things you’ve experienced.
It is my hope that we model those elements of the early church: devotion to the Word of God, to fellowship and community, to prayer, to worship and generosity and service. Even with such humble beginnings God can accomplish great things and perhaps even inaugurate a movement that we might get to be a part of.