Mustard and yeast
Some encouragements from a past Bishop of Liverpool, commenting on the two parables of the mustard seed and the yeast from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, verses 18 to 21. You might have a different exegesis to offer, but you will nevertheless appreciate Ryle’s sound Biblical sense:
There is a peculiar interest belonging to the two parables contained in these verses. We find them twice delivered by our Lord, and at two distinct periods in His ministry. This fact alone should make us give the more earnest heed to the lessons which the parables convey. They will be found rich both in prophetical and experimental truths.
The parable of the mustard seed is intended to show the progress of the Gospel in the world.
The beginnings of the Gospel were exceedingly small. It was like “the grain of seed cast into the garden.” It was a religion which seemed at first so feeble, and helpless, and powerless, that it could not live. Its first founder was One who was poor in this world, and ended His life by dying the death of a malefactor on the cross. –Its first adherents were a little company, whose number probably did not exceed a thousand when the Lord Jesus left the world. –Its first preachers were a few fishermen and publicans, who were, most of them, unlearned and ignorant men. –Its first starting point was a despised corner of the earth, called Judea, a petty tributary province of the vast empire of Rome. –Its first doctrine was eminently calculated to call forth the enmity of the natural heart. Christ crucified was to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness. –Its first movements brought down on its friends persecution from all quarters. Pharisees and Sadducees, Jews and Gentiles, ignorant idolaters and self-conceited philosophers, all agreed in hating and opposing Christianity. It was a sect everywhere spoken against. –These are no empty assertions. They are simple historical facts, which no one can deny. If ever there was a religion which was a little grain of seed at its beginning, that religion was the Gospel.
But the progress of the Gospel, after the seed was once cast into the earth, was great, steady and continuous. The grain of mustard seed “grew and waxed a great tree.” In spite of persecution, opposition, and violence, Christianity gradually spread and increased. Year after year its adherents became more numerous. Year after year idolatry withered away before it. City after city, and country after country, received the new faith. Church after church was formed in almost every quarter of the earth then known. Preacher after preacher rose up, and missionary after missionary came forward to fill the place of those who died. Roman emperors and heathen philosophers, sometimes by force and sometimes by argument, tried in vain to check the progress of Christianity. They might as well have tried to stop the tide from flowing, or the sun from rising. In a few hundred years, the religion of the despised Nazarene, –the religion which began in the upper chamber at Jerusalem,–had overrun the civilized world. It was professed by nearly all Europe, by a great part of Asia, and by the whole northern part of Africa. The prophetic words of the parable before us were literally fulfilled. The grain of mustard seed “waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.” The Lord Jesus said it would be so. And so it came to pass.
Let us learn from this parable never to despair of any work for Christ, because its first beginnings are feeble and small. A single minister in some large neglected town-district, –a single missionary amid myriads of savage heathen,–a single reformer in the midst of a fallen and corrupt church,–each and all of these may seem at first sight utterly unlikely to do any good. To the eye of man, the work may appear too great, and the instrument employed quite unequal to it. Let us never give way to such thoughts. Let us remember the parable before us and take courage. When the line of duty is plain, we should not begin to count numbers, and confer with flesh and blood. We should believe that one man with the living seed of God’s truth on his side, like Luther or Knox, may turn a nation upside down. If God is with him, none shall stand against him. In spite of men and devils, the seed that he sows shall become a great tree.
The parable of the leaven is intended to show the progress of the Gospel in the heart of a believer.
The first beginnings of the work of grace in a sinner are generally exceedingly small. It is like the mixture of leaven with a lump of dough. A single sentence of a sermon, or a single verse of Holy Scripture,–a word of rebuke from a friend, or a casual religious remark overheard,–a tract given by a stranger, or a trifling act of kindness received from a Christian,–some one of these things is often the starting-point in the life of a soul. The first actings of the spiritual life are often small in the extreme–so small, that for a long time they are not known except by him who is the subject of them, and even by him not fully understood. A few serious thoughts and prickings of conscience,–a desire to pray really and not formally,–a determination to begin reading the Bible in private,–a gradual drawing towards means of grace,–an increasing interest in the subject of religion,–a growing distaste for evil habits and bad companions, these, or some of them, are often the first symptoms of grace beginning to move the heart of man. They are symptoms which worldly men may not perceive, and ignorant believers may despise, and even old Christians may mistake. Yet they are often the first steps in the mighty business of conversion. They are often the “leaven” of grace working in a heart.
The work of grace once begun in the soul will never stand still. It will gradually “leaven the whole lump.” Like leaven once introduced, it can never be separated from that with which it is mingled. Little by little it will influence the conscience, the affections, the mind, and the will, until the whole man is affected by its power, and a thorough conversion to God takes place. In some cases no doubt the progress is far quicker than in others. In some cases the result is far more clearly marked and decided than in others. But wherever a real work of the Holy Spirit begins in the heart, the whole character is sooner or later leavened and changed. The tastes of the man are altered. The whole bias of his mind becomes different. “Old things pass away, and all things become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17.) The Lord Jesus said that it would be so, and all experience shows that so it is.
Let us learn from this parable never to “despise the day of small things” in religion. (Zec. 4:10.) The soul must creep before it can walk, and walk before it can run. If we see any sign of grace beginning in a brother, however feeble, let us thank God and be hopeful. The leaven of grace once planted in his heart, shall yet leaven the whole lump. “He that begins the work, will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6.)
Let us ask ourselves whether there is any work of grace in our own hearts. Are we resting satisfied with a few vague wishes and convictions? Or do we know anything of a gradual, growing, spreading, increasing, leavening process going on in our inward man? Let nothing short of this content us. The true work of the Holy Spirit will never stand still. It will leaven the whole lump.