The Small Mustard Seed Becoming a Great Tree
Through the parables in Matthew 13, we see that the Lord is sowing Himself as the divine seed into us as the good soil. While He waits for His crop to mature, the mixture of tares comes in to frustrate the growth of the wheat. Tares represent mixture caused by unbelievers among the believers in the church. Until these unbelievers are regenerated, it is impossible for them to understand spiritual things. But more often the frustration comes from the old, untransformed, tare-like nature in the believers themselves.
A Messy Church Life
Based on these parables, we should expect the mixture of tares to come in. The church will never be as pure as we would like. All kinds of bothersome things will happen in a normal church life. When we see something negative in the church, we should be encouraged that we are in something real. If everyone is so perfect, that church must be fake, full of man-made wheat, not the wheat of the divine life.
A church that has young people should be a church full of problems, because young people are naturally tare-like. If they are not, they are either spiritually dead or they don’t care. Of course their problems should not involve sin, but their zeal for the Lord and the church should often upset things for the older ones. When there’s a lot of life element, there’s also a lot of problems. How wonderful it is when the young people pray too long and testify too much! How joyful it is when they preach the gospel and bring in more young trouble makers like themselves! These are wonderful problems. Every young person has the full right to make trouble like this.
The church ought to be messy. It ought to have problems. When the elders complain of problems, I congratulate them. That means the church is alive. When I go to a place where they say that everything is fine, I have the feeling that they must be pretty dead. In a cemetery, there are no voices at all. Everyone is quiet, not causing any problems. A healthy church will always be a little tare-like.
The positive thing is that tare-like behavior cannot change the nature of the wheat. A church is still a church, and the saints are still the saints, even with all their problems. The essence of what the Lord has sown is unchanged.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
– Matthew 13:31–32
The third parable the Lord told is of the small mustard seed becoming a great tree. This parable shows Satan’s desire to change the essence and nature of the church. Mustard seeds are not supposed to grow into great trees. If they do, they are no longer mustard. By nature mustard seeds grow into small mustard plants.
Jesus said that the mustard seed was “smaller than all other seeds.” Smallness is an important characteristic of the mustard seed and the mustard plant. This is therefore also an important characteristic of the Lord’s church and His work. Yet so many of His servants want to do something grand, not small. They want to do something that is seen and appreciated by all, not something hidden and unknown. They say, “I want the church to become so big! I want to bring hundreds of thousands of people to the Lord! I want to be such a blessing to the Lord’s work!” The Lord may choose to bless us, but this desire for greatness is contrary to the nature of the mustard seed.
Anything big is not good. We try so many things to be big, but the Lord by nature wants us to be small. We have a different philosophy from Him. When the Lord says “mustard seed,” we say “tree.” The Lord emphasizes the smallness of the mustard seed, but we shout, “We want a big tree, the bigger the better!” So we do everything to make it bigger, and as we do, Christ is lost. The Lord said,
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.”
– Luke 12:32
He called us His “little flock” because that is what He desires, a little flock that simply follows Him.
Stirring Up the Appetite
Mustard also heals people and stirs up their appetites. This means the church should have the healing ability to take care of people and create in them an appetite for the things of Christ. Our gospel should be like this.
If some would go out four times a week and sit in a café with a drink while reading their Bible or some other book, they may be surprised how often others come up to ask about what they are reading. It is easy to turn the conversation to Christ when someone else is asking questions. Tell them that you are interested in what you are reading because you are a Christian. This is the principle of the mustard seed: it is a small work that stirs up the appetite of others. If we would do this faithfully, it will eventually lead to a simple home gathering with just a few who are hungry for Christ. What a blessing this would become to the church. Yet we don’t do it because we think that to read a book in public is too small and insignificant to have any value. We want something that works fast and has big results. We want a big tree.
To be big means to become institutionalized. The biggest Christian works have all become institutionalized. That is how they survive. For example, John Wesley is known for having had three meetings every day, riding between them on horseback. He was in one town in the morning, another in the afternoon, and still another in the evening. Every year he gave around one thousand messages. In this way he raised up many small congregations, each one a “little flock.” Today what he raised up continues as the large Methodist denomination, supported through a hierarchy of clergy, formal committees, and centralized finance. This is to become institutionalized.
I have a dream that I will soon see strong testimonies for the Lord in fifty major cities in China, and that each city will care for at least ten churches around them. In the country I dream of another 500 churches cared for by serving ones who travel between them, not by horseback, but by bicycle. I dream of the Lord raising up similar testimonies in Africa, North America, and other places.
This may sound ambitious, but all these churches may be quite small, just “little flocks.” We should never institutionalize them by setting up a hierarchy. These are the Lord’s churches, not ours, so we have no need for bishops and archbishops. If any have such ambitions, they are worse than tares. They are trying to change the nature of the church from the small mustard seed to a great tree.
A mustard plant lasts only one season and offers only one harvest. Its span of life is short and new seeds have to be sown every year. Trees last for many years and give many harvests. Some trees even last thousands of years. This is like the Catholic Church, which has lasted over 1500 years.
I am happy that the mustard plant has such a short lifespan. This shows that God is happy to work with each new generation of His people. The young people in the church are the new generation, and God is happy to work with them. If the older ones think they are still in charge, they are not wise. If we think like this we can only frustrate the Lord’s move. No matter how spiritual we are, we cannot last forever. As one generation begins to disappear, the Lord will raise up another. We can only last one season.
This is a sober word. We must mean business if we want the Lord to use us. We only have one lifetime, and we are part of only one generation. If we refuse to invest ourselves and instead become careless in our spiritual life, the Lord may not even count us as being part of our generation. He may not see us at all.
As one generation grows old, the Lord will raise up another. The spiritual ones of that new generation will begin to render the church much help. But they dare not throw the older generation away. If they do, they throw away much experience and spiritual weight that can help them. As long as I am here I intend to be a blessing to the churches, even while I am expecting the next generation to enter into their operation. The same attitude should be with all the older serving ones and experienced saints.
The reason we can do this is because our goal is only Christ. We want to lead people to Christ, never to ourselves. The new and old generations can work together because no one among us wants to be a pope. If at the end everyone knows a giant leader but no one knows Christ, we have failed. Christ is the nature and essence of the church. As long as this is so God will bless us.
The church as seen in the New Testament is very simple: every local church answers to Christ as their head, and all the local churches fellowship with one another as His body. The servants of the Lord serve the saints and walk with Him among the local churches. But, in this parable, the simple essence of the church is changed. The many small mustard plants become a single great tree. Once this happens, the Lord can no longer walk among them because they are not individual plants. He must stand outside, apart from them (Rev. 3:20). It is a very serious matter for the nature of the church to change.
The Lord said that this tree becomes so big that many birds come to nest in its branches. These birds are the birds of religious practice, accumulation of wealth, and theology (cf. 13:4, 19).
Some brothers are very pure, yet damaged by some kind of religious practice. I once took my family to visit an Amish community in southern Ohio. I took the chance to ask one of them how they select their ministers. He told me that they draw lots every few years from all the eligible men in their parish. This way they feel the selection is up to God. Whoever is selected must drop his work for the duration of his term and serve as pastor of the community. When his term is over, a new pastor is selected and he goes back to his work. The man I spoke with said that when such a selection is made, he prays that it will not be him. He was so pure, yet there was no Christ, only a practice. This and their many other practices produced a great Amish tree.
The Catholic Church and the many big denominations are grand trees today. They are each full of specialized practices and absolutely institutionalized. If we meet some of their members and ask if they are Christians, they may reply, “We are Catholics.” We should not accuse them of being a big tree, because the tree is the institution, not the members. Nor should we say, “Oh, you are a Catholic? I am in the local church!” because then we make ourselves to be an institution just like the Catholic church. We should instead have sweet fellowship with them if they believe in Christ, or share the gospel with them if they do not. Everyone is precious. It is so bad that the institution they are in damages them.
The Catholic church and the large denominations make up a whole forest of great trees. They each have their own theology, their own practices, and almost unlimited wealth. Anything that becomes an institution will become rich. This is why we have never been wealthy. We refuse to be wealthy. We would rather look to the Lord and trust Him for our daily bread. Sometimes, such as when we have lengthy trainings, the need is great. Yet we have learned not to trust anyone’s donation and not to expect anyone to give a large amount. We would rather trust the faithfulness of the Lord to provide for us. A church that relies on the wealthy will eventually find itself doing things to please the wealthy, and its nature will inevitably change.
Theology is full of terminology, and it is easy for those in an institution to hide behind their own peculiar terminology. I was once greeted by a government official in another country who told me, “God has an economy and Christ is the triune God and His economy is fulfilled on the earth through this one ministry.” I looked at him and said, “Are you a Christian?” “No, I am not a Christian, but I taught myself to talk like this. If I didn’t, I couldn‘t work with you. If I want to talk with you I have to use your language.” As we continued, he often said things like, “God has an economy,” “He has His eternal purpose,” and “Hallelujah for this one ministry.” He had no idea what he was talking about though he almost sounded like he did. Nothing was real because he was not saved, but he could talk using terminology that he had learned from some books. If he could do this, how many genuine Christians are doing the same with no reality. Terminology can really cheat us.
People don’t think it is a bad thing when they join themselves to a big tree. It makes them feel secure, protected, and comfortable. When they see us, they see nothing that is secure. We don’t have even one large congregation, and we have no headquarters. We are just a bunch of poor Christians who love the Lord. People feel comforted in the shade of the big trees, but they don’t realize that those comfortable things cause them to lose the presence of the Lord.
There are a number of reasons something may start out as a fresh move of the Lord and then degrade into an institution. The chief reason may be politics. Consider Martin Luther, a great man used by God to stand up against the Catholic church and who, in doing so, began the Reformation. He would have been burned at the stake by the Catholics were it not for the German government which protected him. I do not believe there was any way to avoid politics in his time. The same is true in some places today. Luther was able to fulfill his ministry even though he was joined to politics. If we are wise enough, we will remain pure, and politics will not institutionalize us.
Another cause for degradation is a surprise to many—spiritual ministry. Genuine spiritual ministry often produces trees. That is why Luther produced Lutherans, Wesley produced Methodists, and Calvin produced Presbyterians. These very spiritual men each produced an institution. Yet spiritual ministries are given by God for the building up of the body of Christ. Without such ministries, the saints have no way to grow.
Don’t miss any opportunity to be blessed by the ministries among us. When there are conferences, be there. When there are trainings, be there. Anytime there are gatherings, be there. Without ministries, the saints have no way to grow, the church has no way to be built up, and the testimony of God has no way to become manifest.
When such ministry operates, coworkers are raised up and some kind of work results. For example, the apostle Paul had many coworkers with him. He had Timothy, Luke, and Titus. I think the New Testament names at least fifty persons who served together as the Apostle Paul’s coworkers.
However, in many cases, work that is produced by a spiritual ministry produces a tree. It’s very easy for this to happen even though it is not according to God‘s desire. Although Paul had the highest, the most heavenly, and the richest ministry, he did not use the fruit of his labor to grow a big tree. However, if a spiritual man is not balanced by other brothers, it is very possible that such a tree will be produced. I often tell the brothers near me to learn to say “no” to me and tell me when something is not right. I need them to help me, to tell me to be careful, and to stop me from growing a big tree.
A third cause for degradation is wealth. Some who are so wealthy might use their wealth to start a church. It is too easy for them to have the best training facility with all kinds of resources. They can easily raise up full timers and provide generously for them. They do not even need to pray. Eventually all this becomes a great tree.
We should pray, “Lord keep us from degradation.” Tares are not as serious. There may be many tares, but the church is still a church. What is serious is the change in the nature of the church. The mustard seeds should never become a tree. May the Lord have mercy.