How to Grow the Church

As we continue through Jesus’s kingdom of Heaven parables, we see an interesting idea. We desire revival. We desire to see explosive growth regarding Christ’s kingdom. Jesus tells us how His kingdom grows, and it’s not what we expect from a human perspective. When we think about the next two parables, we will be prepared to hear Jesus’s explanation of the wheat and the tares next week. How does Christ’s kingdom grow? Should we be discouraged when we don’t see the growth we would like? How important is it that we are liberated from the success syndrome of ministry?

Matthew 13:31-35

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.”

He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.”

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 

“I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Kingdom growth (v. 31-33)

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.”He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.”

Jesus is speaking to the crowds (v. 34). These parables are not about individual faith. Jesus illustrates the kingdom of Heaven using both a mustard seed and leaven. These illustrations parabalize the same point. The kingdom of heaven begins small and slowly grows until it is the largest kingdom. It grows in the midst of the world because Christ’s kingdom people are among the peoples of the earth. Jesus presents an interesting picture, here, which follows from the previous parables. The kingdom of Heaven will engulf the whole world, overshadowing the kingdoms of the world. Jesus by no means insinuates that all people will become Christians or that the kingdom of Heaven will be the only kingdom. He is not necessarily getting at eschatology, or end-times events. Imagine how bold His claim is. When Jesus came, He announced that the kingdom of Heaven is here (4:17). He claims that the kingdom of Heaven will at this time begin to grow and leaven until it is the greatest kingdom and leavens the whole world. Jesus is making a prediction that is not absent in the rest of His teaching. In Matthew 24:14, Jesus will teach that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all nations before the end comes. This means the leaven must be scattered to all nations until the whole world is leavened. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus will instruct His disciples to scatter to all nations to teach them about the kingdom of Heaven. In Acts 8:1-4, God scattered the believers in Jerusalem so that they would go about preaching the word of Christ’s Kingdom.

In a sense, Christ’s prediction is fulfilled in Acts. It is also perpetual until Christ’s return. It would be easy to disprove the Bible at this point. All we need to do is show that the kingdom of Heaven is not slowly growing and leavening the world as Jesus predicts in this text, when there are only a few disciples. When we observe the history of world religions, we see that virtually every major world religion was established and grew very quickly except for Judaism (the seed of the kingdom of Heaven) and Christianity (the offspring of Judaism in Christ). There was even a moment when it looked like Islam would quickly overtake Christianity (c. AD 700). Yet, like Jesus predicted, Christianity has slowly grown and been leavening the whole earth. As I write this, there are:

  • 2.4 billion Christians,
  • 1.8 billion Muslims,
  • 1.2 billion Hindus,
  • 520 million Buddhists,
  • 500 million Atheists and Agnostics, and
  • 400 million pagans worldwide.

These are merely the top general religious worldviews. Jesus started with 12 disciples and there are not 2.4 billion Christians. This number does not even account for the cumulative nature of Christ’s kingdom. Formal religious history simply presents a picture. It merely helps us to see the world’s trajectory. This does not mean that the whole earth will become Christian. It does not necessarily mean that formal Christianity will become the world’s foremost religion (though it has in appearance). It does not mean that everyone or every tradition that claims to be Christian is actually Christian. It does not mean that Christ isn’t saving His people among different religious cultures. It does mean that Christ’s people and message will be present in the midst of all peoples, which is a different concept than formal religious history can present. Yet, Jesus’s prediction is confirmed. It is good to have some hindsight 2000 years after Jesus made His prediction. We can see that Jesus was correct. That’s simply bad news for other religious viewpoints that start quickly and slowly die, are contained to one culture, or can only spread by means of violence or some degree of force. God is saving a people for Himself among the nations. Just as it did when it would have certainly fallen victim to the violence of Islam at the end of the first millennium, Christ’s kingdom will continue to grow and leaven the whole world until the leavening is done no matter what enemy comes against it. Christianity thrives under persecution because God is winning His glory among the nations. Christ will ensure the success of His word among the nations because His reputation is, in this way, on the line. Despite our failures, Christ’s does His work and has proven to do so over the centuries since He made this parabolic prediction.

Why parables (v. 34-35)

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 
“I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Jesus has already stated that He speaks in parables because the crowds generally do not have ears to hear, the ability to understand the kingdom of Heaven (13:13). Here, Matthew claims that Jesus spoke in parables to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet in Psalm 78:2.

Listen, O my people, to my instruction; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done (Psalm 78:1-4; A Maskil of Asaph).

In the Maskil Matthew quotes from, Asaph is having a conversation with his people. This is a beautiful responsive song in which the king converses with his people about the nations failures and God’s faithfulness despite the nation’s failures. The piece is highly organized with different choral elements and overlapping parts sung by different groups. Asaph is the one speaking parables to the people in order to remind them of God’s works through the ages. Matthew refers to Asaph’s Maskil as a prophecy. Indeed it was a singing prophecy. Jesus fulfills this prophecy, as He fulfills the whole Tanak (Law, Prophets, and Writings). Jesus’s parables, like Asaph’s Maskil, are meant to remind people that God will do His work despite their insufficiency and their blatant rejection of the Gospel because they have not ears to hear—exactly as described in Asaph’s Maskil. In a sense, Matthew is proving that God is already doing the work through Israel that Christ claims He will do in the coming centuries.

As Christ’s people, we should be greatly encouraged by these two parables. Christ is playing a long-strategic game and He will not lose. Like Christ, we resolve to preach His word. We are not concerned about accomplishing explosive growth for our churches or religion. We do not desire to have our churches filled overnight. We recognize that explosive revival is the exception to the rule. By the preaching of His word, Christ is slowly and patiently building His true church among the nations. Though apostasy, rebellion against God, and human-centered religions abound, Jesus is doing His work. He is tending His tree. He is leavening His world. His timing is perfect.

When we talk about evangelism and missions, it is easy for us to make the work all about us. It’s easy to try measuring our success according to the number of people in church or the numbers of people we serve. Christ has not called us to build our numbers. He has not called us to be relevant and so manipulate more people into attending a church meeting. He has called us to preach His word. Even Jesus resolved to invest in 12 men. When the crowds did follow Him because of what they saw Him doing, they forsook Him when He began to preach because the teaching was too difficult (John 6). This is the way. He will do His work like He has in past centuries, even when it seemed His church would be annihilated. If you are not in Christ, we invite you, now, to repent. The kingdom of Heaven is at hand. If Christ has called you into His kingdom, we invite you to plug into a Biblical local church where you can serve our king.

Questions:

  1. What is the difference between slow growth and quick growth?
  2. Do we err if we do things in such a way that we instigate quick growth? Why or why not?
  3. Is our desire to simply preach Christ’s word or to manipulate people with showmanship or works?

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