The Parable Of The Mustard Seed - Who Are The Birds Of The Air?
In Matthew 13 we see Jesus move away from teaching the people directly, instead switching to the style we call parables. The term literally means to place two things side by side. It was a popular form of teaching among Jews and Arabs of the time, and when done well, was considered an excellent way to help cement an idea in the mind of the listener.
Jesus had a second reason in mind, one filled with both heaviness and mercy. In Matt. 13:13 Jesus said; "Therefore I speak unto them in parables: because they seeing see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand." That which a man hears and understands he is then responsible to obey. If he chooses to not hear or disobey, that man faces a greater judgment than the man that has not heard at all. Jesus knew the hardness of the peoples hearts, and chose to speak in parables. This was merciful, because those who don't have an open, truth-seeking heart, will never catch the truths of the parables. I'll expand more on judgment in a coming article, but let's focus on the mustard seed for a moment.
In Matt. 13:31-32, Jesus puts forth this parable to the people. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof."
One point to make is that the small size of the mustard seed can result in something the size of a tree. In Luke 17:6 Jesus says "If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you." So Jesus was pointing out that the spiritual seed of faith, though incredibly small, can result in a magnificent tree.
This tree then becomes a place where some can come and lodge and find food. The common view over the centuries for this parable was that the birds of the air are the members of the church. Yet if we look at the first parable in this chapter, (vs.3-8), we read the parable of the sower. In this parable, we encounter the same birds of the air (vs.4) and the explanation for the birds (vs. 19) which states that the birds of the air are the "wicked" or "wicked ones".
We can reason from this that Jesus was warning that the Church, built on faith, would eventually become of such size and structure that "the wicked ones" would come and take root in it. Sounds far-fetched? Look at the parable that follows the mustard seed.
"The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened." (Matt. 13:33) Leaven in the scriptures is always a symbol of sin. Unleavened bread represents holiness and purity, leavened bread represents unholiness and sin. So was Jesus saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like sin?
I don't think that was His intention. He was talking about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom that would have perfection (Jesus Christ) as the ideal, but real, flawed human beings as the Body of Christ. Christians struggle because even though the spirit is redeemed, the physical body is not. We will always struggle against the flesh as long as we live. As Paul so eloquently wrote, "For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do, I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." (Rom. 7:14-15) If you read the rest of Romans 7, you will find the encouragement of Paul, telling us that all will struggle with sin in the flesh. As long as I "delight in the law of God in the inner man" (Rom. 7:22), I am on the right track. Grace is a wonderful thing.
|We are all part of the Body of Christ|
So what should we think about these birds of the air (wicked ones) in the church? First, don't assume that everyone you meet in your church is a Christian. Many are not. Possibly most of them are not. Secondly, we must acknowledge that we as Christians face real spiritual warfare every single day. The only days off are the days when we aren't pressing ahead for the cause of Christ. Third, don't expect the churches to welcome with open arms everything the Lord has commanded. Men are easily swayed by a little power, and it should not surprise us when individuals wanting to help the church are rejected by those in power. Remember, the birds of the air are in the branches. We face resistance to God's will, not just in our own body, but within the structure of each individual church itself.
Jesus was warning in the parables that the work of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth would be one that has a holy Savior, a holy scripture, but a less than holy body of believers. Our necessity in understanding this is to plead for God's help and intervention at all time. There is a story about an unrighteous judge and an old woman pleading for help (Luke 18:1-8), but we will leave that one for another day.