Christ knew very clearly what He was saying, and He was by no means uneducated or incorrect about His statements regarding the proverbial mustard seed.
He stated in Matthew 13:31-32:
“Another parable He put forth to them, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
The spiritual application of this parable is very clear. Christ compared the Kingdom of God with a very small seed, as it begins in a very small way. It is like a little bit of leaven, which will ultimately leaven the whole world (Matthew 13:33). Today, the gospel of the Kingdom of God is not accepted by very many, and very few–the firstfruits–respond to its message and become converted. Once they receive the Holy Spirit, they are begotten children of God and of His Kingdom–which is the Family of God that will rule on this earth, when Christ returns. Ultimately, the knowledge of God will cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea. The government of Christ will increase and will have no end (compare Isaiah 9:7). The Nelson Study Bible explains: “… the number of people who will inherit the kingdom of God will be very small at first. But though it begins like the smallest of seeds, the nucleus will enjoy growth completely out of proportion to its initial size.”
But did Christ err when He compared the steady growth of the Kingdom of God with a mustard seed? Didn’t He know that the mustard seed was not the smallest of all seeds, and that it would not become the tallest of all herbs?
For instance, the Broadman Bible Commentary points out:
“Under cultivation, the mustard plant… grew to a height of eight to ten feet [or 2.5 to 3 meters]… If pressed literally, the details of the parable do not conform to exact scientific data. The mustard seed [which was only 0.95 – 1.1 millimeters in diameter]… was not the ‘smallest of all seeds…'” Rienecker adds that certain birds, especially goldfinches, loved to live in that tree, and that the oil from the tree was also used for medical purposes.
We will address shortly whether Broadman’s comments as to the “scientific inaccuracy” of Christ’s statements are correct.
But first of all, as the Broadman Bible Commentary itself points out, “The contrast between the smallness of the mustard seed and the greatness of the plant it produced was proverbial. It is not necessary to press the matter of the actual size of either.” In addition, the commentary of JFB observes, that the reference to the “least of all seeds” must be understood “not absolutely, but popularly and proverbially, as in [Luke] 17:6, ‘If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed’… ” Likewise, the reference to the “greatest among herbs” must be understood “not absolutely, but in relation to the small size of the seed, and in warm latitudes [it is] proverbially great.” The commentary of Barnes adds the following:
“The plant here described was very different from that which is known among us. It was several years before it bore fruit and became properly a tree. Mustard, with us, is an annual plant: it is always small, and is properly an herb. The Hebrew writers speak of the mustard-tree as one on which they could ‘climb,’ as on a fig-tree. Its size was much owing to the climate. All plants of that nature grow much larger in a warm climate, like that of Palestine, than in colder regions. The seeds of this tree were remarkably small, so that they, with the great size of the plant, were an apt illustration of the progress of the church and of the nature of faith, Mat.17:20.”
However, we DO want to carefully review what Christ said, in order to show that He was ALSO very accurate from a “biological” and “scientific” standpoint.
As the translation of the New King James Bible, which is quoted above, shows, He spoke of the “least” of the seeds and the “greatest” of the herbs–not necessarily of the “smallest” and the “largest.”
When Christ said that the mustard seed was the “least” of all seeds, the Greek word for “least” is “mikros.” When using the phrase that it would become the “greatest” of all herbs, the Greek word for “greatest” is “meizon.”
Thayer defines “mikros” as follows:
“small, little: … of size… length… space… age… time… quantity [and] of rank or INFLUENCE.” Strong’s defines the Greek word “mikros” as “small (in size, quantity, number or (figuratively) dignity): – least, less, little, small.”
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, states that the word “mikros” literally means, “small” or “little,” (in regard to age, quantity, size or space), but that it is sometimes translated as “the least” (for example, in Acts 8:10 and in Hebrews 8:11), with reference to rank and INFLUENCE.
We see, then, that the word “mikros” can be translated as “little”–it does not even HAVE to be translated as “the least.” In addition, the Greek word “mikros” does not HAVE to address size at all, but it can refer to “influence” or “dignity.”
Likewise, the Greek word for “greatest”–“meizon”–can be translated as “greater”–by comparison. It does not have to address size; it can also refer to IMPORTANCE or INFLUENCE.
Young’s defines the word “meizon” as “greater” or “larger.” The meaning is primarily one of COMPARATIVE IMPORTANCE, and not necessarily of size. In Matthew 18:1, the same Greek word “meizon” is used to describe IMPORTANCE, STATUS or RANK (“Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven…”); the same is true in Matthew 23:11 (“But he who is greatest among you…”). Paul uses the word likewise to address IMPORTANCE, in 1 Corinthians 13:13, when he says: “the greatest of these [faith, hope and love] is love.”
We might also note that there is by no means unanimity as to how to translate Matthew 13:31-32.
Here are some alternative renderings:
“… which indeed is LESSER among all the seeds; but when it is grown is GREATER than the herbs, and becometh a tree…” (The New Testament from the Greek Text, edited by Ivan Panin, Toronto, 1935).
“Though it is the smallest of all YOUR seed [Christ was addressing His audience in Judah], yet when it grows, it is the largest of GARDEN PLANTS and becomes a tree…” (NIV; similar Rotherham and Zuercher)
That Christ was not actually saying that the mustard seed was the tiniest and smallest of all seeds, and that it would become the tallest and largest of all plants, can also be seen by reviewing the parallel passage in Luke 13:18-19, where He simply stated: “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”
All that Christ was doing was to compare the growth of the Kingdom of God–and its increasing importance and influence for man–with the growth and increasing usefulness and importance of the mustard seed, as is clear from Luke’s account. Christ knew very well what He was saying, and even though He used a PARABLE to convey a SPIRITUAL LESSON, He did in no way state something which was biologically or scientifically incorrect.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link