May 7, 2023

Jesus Explains God's Kingdom In The Parables. Birds Among The Branches; The Parable Of The Leaven.

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written by David C. Grabbe

Those with this faith are “bought at a price” (I Corinthians 6:20; 7:23); they are of “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Peter writes that God redeemed us “with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:19). Truly, Christ sold all He had to purchase this pearl He found so valuable.
I added the picture above to the message I shared below.

written by David C. Grabbe

Matthew 13:31-32

The Mustard Seed parable describes a plant with the humblest of beginnings, representing the Kingdom's beginning with Abraham by faith. Its growth relative to its initial size sets it apart from other plants.

Hebrews 11:12 describes the same effect but with a different metaphor: “Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.” A mighty increase occurred from what God began with Abraham. However, the parable concludes with birds—used as a symbol of Satan and the demons (see Matthew 13:4, 19)—nesting in the branches, which shows the spiritually unclean state of the Kingdom at the time of Jesus' teaching.
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written by Martin G. Collins

Matthew 13:32

Birds are naturally attracted to the taste of the mustard seed. Matthew identifies the birds of the air as "the wicked one" (Matthew 13:4, 19). Mark connects them with "Satan" (Mark 4:4, 15), and Luke links them to "the devil" (Luke 8:5, 12). In Genesis 15:11, fowls swoop down on Abraham's sacrifices, and he has to drive them away (see Deuteronomy 28:26). The end-time Babylon becomes "a habitation of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird" (Revelation 18:2).

In the parable, Jesus predicts the birds of the air would lodge in the branches. These "birds," demons led by "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), have continually tried to infiltrate the church. Upon the unsuspecting early church, Satan moved quickly to implant his agents in it to teach false doctrine while appearing to be true Christians. Just as God permitted Satan to tempt Job intensely (Job 1:12; 2:6) and to sift Peter as wheat (Luke 22:31), He has allowed antichrists to lodge within His church (I Corinthians 11:18-19).

written by David C. Grabbe

Birds Among the Branches

A third element is that the final state of the mustard tree is as a host to birds. This third point is central because Jesus uses birds as a symbol for Satan and his demons in the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12). The humble mustard plant, with its faithful beginning and dramatic growth, in time became a place where the demons felt at home.

The Old Testament contains few mentions of demons, though enough to record that the Israelites had sacrificed to demons in Egypt (Leviticus 17:7) and that the practice picked up again as Israel rejected God (II Chronicles 11:15; Psalm 106:37). The law also contains prohibitions against having anything to do with familiar spirits (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27).

In stark contrast, the gospels highlight demon possession as a major problem in Judea and Galilee during Christ’s short ministry, and casting out demons was a significant part of His and the disciples’ work (Matthew 4:24; 8:16, 28-34; 9:32-33; 10:1, 8; 12:22-28; 15:22; 17:18; Mark 1:23-27, 32-34, 39; 3:11, 15; 5:1-17; 6:7, 13; 7:25-30; 9:17-29, 38; 16:9, 17; Luke 4:33-36, 41; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2, 27-38; 9:1, 37-42; 10:17, 20; 11:14-23; 13:32; Acts 10:38). Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God had removed His protection, and demons were “nesting” everywhere in the kingdom.

As we saw in Part One, this parable formed part of Christ’s preaching to the multitudes after He performed an exorcism, for which the Pharisees criticized Him (Matthew 12:22-30). Rather than give God glory for the man’s deliverance from the power of Satan, they mistook the power of God for the work of the wicked one! The parable thus immediately describes the nation’s then-current satanic state rather than, as many commentators hold, the growth of the then-future church.

Moses foretold what would happen when Israel—sometimes called “Jeshurun”—became large and prosperous:
But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; you grew fat, you grew thick, you are obese! Then he forsook God who made him, and scornfully esteemed the Rock of his salvation. They provoked Him to jealousy with foreign gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, not to God, to gods they did not know, to new gods, new arrivals that your fathers did not fear. (Deuteronomy 32:15-17)
God inspired Moses to write that when Israel grew large through His increase, she would also fall into idolatry, which involves demonism, an exact parallel to what Jesus describes in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Moses knew that Israel would “become utterly corrupt,” warning them that “evil will befall you in the latter days, because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 31:29). Israel’s corruption is a consistent Old Testament theme (Psalm 14:3; 53:3; Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 7:11; 10:21; Ezekiel 16:47; 23:11). Without the new heart and Spirit available under the New Covenant, she followed the world’s course into spiritual uncleanness and demonic activity.

The Parable of the Leaven

The Parable of the Leaven follows a similar theme: “Another parable He spoke to them: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened’” (Matthew 13:33).

The “three measures of meal” first show up in Genesis 18:6: “So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Quickly, make ready three measures of fine meal; knead it and make cakes.’” The occasion was God’s meeting with Abraham and Sarah to promise them a son, the next step—a miraculous one—in the growth of the family/kingdom. The meal symbolizes the fellowship between God and the family of Abraham.

The Jews in Jesus’ audience were quick to claim Abraham as their father (John 8:39), and the “three measures of meal” refers to something easily recognizable in their history. But then Jesus introduces a subversive element into the story. Over time, something happened to the fellowship between God and the expanding house of Abraham—the kingdom became “all leavened.” Many commenters hold that this parable teaches that the gospel will spread over all the earth in the same way that leaven spreads, but this interpretation overlooks both the context and the fact that God’s Word never uses leaven positively. Instead, leaven is universally a symbol of corruption, especially of apostate doctrine and practice (Matthew 16:11-12; Luke 12:1; I Corinthians 5:8; Galatians 5:7-9).

The parable indicates, then, that the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham’s family had completely degenerated. Israel “took” of pagan belief systems from the nations around her and introduced those corrupting ways into her relationship with God. The Judaism that Jesus encountered was a noxious blend of some Scripture with beliefs and practices picked up during the Babylonian captivity and flavored with Hellenism and the hardened traditions of previous generations. When Jesus delivered the parables, the major problem within the kingdom was not the idolatry of graven images as before the captivity, but one of false beliefs. He did not have to contend with pagan temples and high places, but with hearts hardened by anti-God doctrines and practices.

The beliefs and practices that Jesus encountered suggested a thoroughly leavened covenantal relationship, such that “He came to His own”—the descendants of Abraham, in particular—“and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). Therefore, as He later informed the religious leaders, God would take the kingdom from its current caretakers and give it to a spiritual nation—the spiritual seed of Abraham, those who are Israelites because of their faith in Him rather than their physical lineage.
The Context of Luke’s Versions

Luke also records the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven (Luke 13:18-21), and the setting in his gospel underscores Christ’s object in giving them: as a testimony against the kingdom’s condition and particularly its leadership. The context begins in Luke 13:10, with Jesus healing a woman with “a spirit of infirmity” on the Sabbath. Later, He describes the woman as being bound by Satan (verse 16), which again stresses the nation’s problem with “birds” (demons). The healed woman glorified God, but the ruler of the synagogue was incensed:
But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).
The Jews’ beliefs and practices had become so perverse that, even though they believed they were keeping the fourth commandment (the breaking of which was a major cause of their captivity; see Ezekiel 20:10-24), they completely misunderstood the liberating intent of God’s law. Their worldview was so warped that they could feel only indignation at divine deliverance from spiritual bondage, showing how far their hearts had turned from their Creator and how aligned they were with their spiritual captor.

As in Matthew 13, Jesus spoke the two parables to “the multitude” (Luke 13:17) in response to their skewed practices rather than to foretell the future growth and influence of the yet-to-be-established church. In reading through the whole passage, the concept of future church growth is wholly incongruous. In Luke 12:32, our Good Shepherd refers to His followers as a “little flock,” and He says God calls many but chooses only a few (Matthew 20:16). Likewise, James 1:18 calls us “a kind of firstfruits,” implying that the church is limited in number, a remnant (Romans 9:27; 11:5), while the more abundant main harvest will come later.

Using a different metaphor, Paul writes in I Corinthians 12:18, “But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased.” God alone adds individuals to the spiritual Body, so numeric growth is entirely in His hands—it will never expand beyond the limits He places on it. Paul also writes to Christians at Corinth that, because of Christ’s sacrifice, “You truly are unleavened.” His statement does not mean they were without sin but that God imputed righteousness to them based on Christ’s work. These scriptures contradict the interpretations that the true church will become either exceptionally large or “all leavened.”

Christ delivers the last four parables of Matthew 13 to the disciples—those to whom God would give an understanding of the mysteries of His Kingdom—and thus, the “kingdom” in those parables has a different emphasis. They do not primarily concern the physical nation, but the spiritual one. Jesus has a different audience, and thus, a different purpose and perspective. Interestingly, though, the two parables in the first group that Jesus explains to the disciples are ones in which we can glimpse the church: in the good soil (Parable of the Sower) and in the “sons of the kingdom” (Parable of the Wheat and Tares), who have faith.

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