A Small Seed And A Little Leaven—Luke 13:18-21


In the last passage, we saw Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. He healed a woman and confronted the hypocritical ruler of the synagogue when he objected to healing on the sabbath. Now we get a piece of what Jesus was teaching that day…

18 Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. 20 And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. (Luke 13:18–21)

Jesus moves from the miracle of the healing of the woman to discussing the kingdom of God. I think the link is that the healing was just a small indication of the coming of the kingdom, in the same way that a small mustard seed produces a large tree. Let’s see how that plays out. First…


For both parables, Jesus says that he is making a comparison to the kingdom of God:

Luke 13:18 Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble [i.e., compare] it?

And in verse 20…

Luke 13:20 And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God?

What does Jesus mean by “the kingdom of God”? A good, quick definition is that the kingdom of God is—

God’s sovereign rule over the sphere of salvation; at present in the hearts of His people (Luke 17:21), and in the future, in a literal, earthly kingdom (Rev. 20:4–6). (MacArthur Study Bible, 1997)

Even in that simple definition, you can see that the idea of the kingdom of God is quite expansive and detailed…there’s a lot to think about.

Here in Luke 13, I don’t think it means anything really complicated—just the influence of the Gospel. In fact, J.C. Ryle simply substituted “Gospel” in his outline in this passage and it worked just fine.

Jesus says that the spread of the Gospel—God’s Kingdom—will be like a mustard seed that grows into a tree and like leaven working its way through a loaf of bread.

From these two parables, we can see at least three obvious truths about the growth of God’s Kingdom:


Luke 13:19 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.

A “mustard seed” is a very tiny seed (Matthew 13:32). In fact, the Jews used it as a proverb to refer to small things. Jesus, in Matthew 17, says…

…If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)

A mustard seed can grow into a bush or a tree that is six to twenty feet tall, sometimes even up to thirty feet tall. It can grow big enough for the birds to land in and make their nests. Pretty good for a little seed!

What is the point of this parable? Just as the smallest of seeds grows into the largest of garden plants, so the Gospel had small beginnings and grew into the largest of influences in the world.

Just consider the beginnings of Christianity. Jesus chose twelve, very fallible disciples. They were from the rough side of society—fishermen and tax collector sorts. One betrayed him. Another denied him publicly. Only one stayed to see the leader of their movement die on a cross. Not the best of beginnings, was it?

But what happened from those humble beginnings? The apostle Paul, once a persecutor, turned into the greatest evangelist of Christianity. Churches sprang up all over the Roman Empire. Christianity grew, despite persecution, until the Roman Empire made it the official religion.

Later, European Christians carried the Gospel to the New World of America. People like David Brainerd worked to spread the good news among the Native Americans.

Then missionaries from Great Britain and the United States took the Gospel to places like Africa, China, Southeast Asia, and South America.

All this from a rag-tag band of disciples following a despised teacher around in a backwoods land 2,000 years ago. Is this not proof to you that Christianity is real? The small seed that was planted grew, and since it has grown, and grown greatly, that is one proof that it was a good seed!


In the first parable, we read that the kingdom of God…

Luke 13:19 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.

The “mustard seed,” like any seed, grows because there is life in the seed. It’s almost an unstoppable growth, especially if it’s a tree. Stories abound about acorns growing up and break through something like a headstone. The kingdom of God grows like that!

In the second parable, we read that the kingdom of God…

Luke 13:21 It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

The word “leaven” means yeast, it’s the stuff that makes bread dough rise. Leaven often has an evil connotation in the Bible—it refers to the spread of sin in a person’s life. For instance, we are told to “Purge out therefore the old leaven” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to something evil? Well, he doesn’t. Not every use of a word in the Bible means the same thing in every place. He is simply referring to the ability of “leaven” to cause it to rise. It’s a positive thing.

There are two aspects of kingdom growth that we can look at here. One is the kingdom growth that occurs in a person’s heart.

Kingdom Growth In The Heart

The kingdom of God is like leaven because it gets into a person’s heart, it causes change. Think about comparison between a rising loaf of bread and the changes the Gospel makes in a person.

1) The bread dough rises imperceivably. It takes a few hours for the dough to rise so, unless you are really bored, you never see the dough actually rise. The same is true of the mustard seed. You won’t actually see the mustard tree grow. In the same way, most of the growth that happens in a Christian happens over a long period of time.

2) If the yeast is good, the bread dough will rise. If a person has truly trusted in Christ, they will change. This is also true of the mustard seed. If it’s a good seed, it will grow. The old commentator, J.C. Ryle said:

The work of grace once begun in the soul will never stand still. It will gradually “leaven the whole lump.”…Little by little it will influence the conscience, the affections, the mind, and the will, until the whole man is affected by its power…In some cases no doubt the progress is far quicker than in others…But wherever a real work of the Holy Ghost begins in the heart, the whole character is sooner or later leavened and changed. (Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, 1879)

Kingdom Growth In The World

The second aspect of kingdom growth that is in view here is the growth of the church in the world.

In Acts 1, one hundred and twenty showed up for the beginning of the church at Pentecost. In Acts 2, three thousand were added to the Christian church. The growth continued at such a pace that it made Christ’s enemies nervous. Soon the church was being persecuted, but it did not stop the growth. The truth of the Gospel was more important to people than even certain death.

When a person adds yeast to dough, the next thing they do is knead it. Sometimes this is done quite vigorously by punching the lump of dough and slamming it to the counter over and over.

A novice looking on might think that there would be no hope of the bread dough ever rising—but what happens? It rises and it rises better then if the person hadn’t handled it so roughly. As the persecution of the bread dough caused the leaven to spread throughout the whole loaf, so the persecution of the church caused the Gospel to spread.

This leads us to our final truth. God’s kingdom spread not just among the Jews, but also the Gentiles. That’s because…


We see this in two small details, one in each parable:

In the second parable, the woman puts a little leaven (we can tell it’s a little, because she “hid” it) in “three measures” of flour. I’ve never looked this up before—do you know how much flour three measures is? It is in the neighborhood of 50 or 60 pounds of flour! She is making enough for a hundred or more people. In other words, she is making bread for more than just her immediate family. That’s one hint at what Jesus was thinking.

In the mustard seed parable, Jesus says that, after the tree grows,

Luke 13:19 the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it.

In the Old Testament, the “fowls of the air” often refers to the Gentiles. In Ezekiel 17:23, God says that he would plant his people on a high mountain, where it would grow into a tree…

…and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell. (Ezekiel 17:23)

I have also read that in some Jewish writings, this phrase, “fowls of the air,” refers to Gentiles. So Jesus was talking about how the Gospel would spread everywhere, to every culture and nation.

We can take this phrase, “fowls of the air” to refer to non-Christians who benefit from the effects of the Gospel on a culture. They are like birds who come and nest in a tree, but do not share in the life of the tree.

The Gospel grew in a culture that looked a lot like ours today. For example, sexual immorality was rampant. Homosexuality, even between men and boys, was normal. Adultery, divorce, and prostitution were commonplace and accepted. When they happened, it wasn’t a scandal for the newspaper to report. But because of the Gospel, sexual immorality became immoral in most people’s minds, until recently.

I mention this because it can give us hope as we live through these days in two ways:

1) Are these changes for the worst happening—a chopping away of the branches of the Gospel mustard tree—because the end is near? If so, we should rejoice and not be sad, because it means that Jesus is coming soon!

2) Or, perhaps the mustard tree is damaged, but just as the Gospel changed the entire Roman culture—including what they thought about what was sexually permissible—so it’s possible that the Gospel could do so again in our culture.


As we wait, the three truths that we’ve picked up can encourage us:

1) The truth that God’s kingdom reaches all peoples should remind us that our group of people, our nation, is not the only place in the world where God’s kingdom is growing.

Christianity in North America is declining. But the Gospel tree has new, vibrant branches growing in places like China and Africa. Let’s rejoice that God’s kingdom is still growing even if it might not be among our own people right now.

2) The truth that God’s kingdom grows ought to remind us that spiritual growth in our lives will happen, if we have trusted in Christ as our Savior. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a bad season or two.

Look at the rings on a tree. Some are wide and others are narrow. What makes the difference? Some seasons are wet and wonderful for growth, but others are dry and hard to grow in. But the tree was still growing!

The same is true for the Christian, except it’s often the dry seasons where we grow the most spiritually. The wet seasons cause us to depend too much on ourselves! But the tree is growing nonetheless!

3) Finally, the truth that God’s kingdom starts small might encourage us if we have not committed ourselves to Christ for salvation.

Maybe we are seeking some spiritual truth in our lives, but we have doubts about God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ. Yet, there is that faint spark in us that says: there just has to be something more than the physical world. J.C. Ryle comments on this by saying…

The first actings of the spiritual life are often small in the extreme… A few serious thoughts and prickings of conscience,—a desire to pray…to begin reading the Bible…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. (Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, 1879)

Perhaps this describes you. Perhaps you are sensing the small seed of the Gospel pushing up through the floor of your heart. Won’t you respond?

LDM-42-Luke 13:18-21-LKA#072-20190915FBCAM-SERMON—Levi Durfey

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