We are familiar with the mustard-plant both in a wild and in a cultivated state in our own country. Although not the smallest, it is by no means the largest of our herbs. On this point it is necessary to recall and keep in mind the fact that when a given plant is indigenous in a southern climate, the corresponding species or variety that may be found in more northerly latitudes is generally of a comparatively diminutive size. I have seen a mahogany-plant cultivated in a flower-pot, the best representative that could be obtained here of those forest patriarchs in tropical America which constitute the mahogany of commerce. The diminutive proportions of our mustard-plant prove nothing regarding the magnitude of the herb which bears the corresponding name in Syria. We know, in point of fact, that it grows there to a great size at the present day. "I have seen it," says Dr. Thomson, "on the rich plain of Akkar as tall as the horse and his rider." Irby and Mangles found a tree growing in great abundance near the Dead Sea possessing many of the properties of mustard, which they suppose must be the mustard of the parable; but this suggestion seems incompatible with the main scope of the representation, for its turning-point lies in this, that a culinary herb became great like a tree. That a forest tree should be large enough to afford shelter to the birds, is nothing wonderful; the parable is hinged on the fact that the garden herb ([Greek: lachanon]) became a tree ([Greek: dendron]).
 The Land and the Book, p.64.
But in this case an investigation exact and minute into the natural history of the plant is by no means necessary to the appreciation and explanation of the parable. It is not needful to determine what amount of credit is due to the witness who declared that he had seen a man climbing into the branches of a mustard-plant, or how far the fact, if real, was uncommon and exceptional. This plant obviously was chosen by the Lord, not on account of its absolute magnitude, but because it was, and was recognised to be, a striking instance of increase from very small to very great. It seems to have been in Palestine, at that time, the smallest seed from which so large a plant was known to grow. There were, perhaps, smaller seeds, but the plants which sprung from them were not so great; and there were greater plants, but the seeds from which they sprung were not so small.
But the circumstance that most clearly exhibits and indicates the appropriateness of the choice, is the fact that the magnitude of the mustard-plant, in connection with the minuteness of its seed, was employed at that day among the Jews as a proverbial similitude, to indicate that great results may spring from causes that are apparently diminutive, but secretly powerful. The expression, "If ye had faith as a grain of mustard-seed," employed by the Lord on another occasion, is sufficient to show that both the conception and its use were familiar to his audience.
The spiritual lesson of the parable diverges into two lines, distinct but harmonious. By the kingdom of heaven, as it is represented in the growth of the mustard-plant, we may understand either saving truth living and growing great in the world, or saving truth living and growing great in an individual human heart. In both, its progress from small beginnings to great issues is like the growth of a gigantic herb from the imperceptible germ that was dropped among the clods in spring.
I. The kingdom of heaven in the world is like a mustard-seed sown in the ground, both in the smallness of its beginning and the greatness of its increase. The first promise, given at the gate of Eden, contained the Gospel as a seed contains the tree. It fell among Adam's descendants as a mustard-seed falls between the furrows, and lay long unnoticed there. With the Lord, in the development of his kingdom, a thousand years are as one day in the growth of vegetation. A man who in his childhood observed the seed cast into the ground, may live long and die old before the plants have reached maturity; but the seed of the kingdom has not lost its life, the God of the covenant has not forgotten his own. At the appointed time he will visit his husbandry, and fill his bosom with its fruits.
Never to human eye did the seed seem smaller than at the coming of Christ. The infant in the manger at Bethlehem is like a mustard-seed -- an atom scarcely perceptible in the hand, and lost to view when it falls into the earth. Yet there lay the seed of eternal life -- thence sprang the stem on which all the saved of mankind shall grow as branches. Israel was feeble among the nations -- a little child writhing in the grasp of imperial Rome; Judea and Galilee, with the heathenish Samaria between, constituted his beat throughout the brief period of his public ministry. The range was short in its utmost length, narrow in its utmost breadth. In a map of the world of ordinary size, the spot that indicates Palestine can scarcely be seen; yet from that spot radiated a power which is at this day actually paramount. The Christ who seemed so small both in private life at Nazareth and in the public judgment-hall of Pilate at Jerusalem, is greatest now both in heaven and in earth. Christendom and Christianity are both supreme, each in its own place and according to its own kind. This world already belongs to Christian nations, and the next to Christian men. So great has the religion of Jesus grown, that its body overshadows the earth, and its spirit reaches heaven.
As the leaves and branches of a tree tend to assume the form and proportions of the tree itself, so subordinate parts in the development of God's kingdom follow more or less closely the law of the whole kingdom -- a progress secret, slow, and sure, from a diminutive beginning to an unexpected and amazing greatness. Take, for example, the history of Moses, which is a vigorous branch shooting out from the mustard-tree under the ancient dispensation. The branch, a part of the tree, is, like the tree itself, small at first and great at last. A poor Hebrew slave-mother, counting her own "a goodly child," as every true mother will to the end of time, strove, by a strange mixture of ingenuity and desperation, to preserve him from the cruel executioners of Pharaoh. When she could no longer hide him in the house, she laid him in a wicker basket, and set it afloat in an eddy of the Nile. How small the seed seemed that day! A slave's man-child, one of many thousands destined by their jealous owners to destruction, cast by his own mother into the river, that he might not fall into the more dreaded hands of man -- how small that germ was, and yet how great it grew! From heaven the word had gone forth, "Destroy it not, for a blessing is in it." On the mighty stream, and the cruel men who frequented it, the Maker of them both had laid the command, Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophet no harm. From that small seed, accordingly, sprang the greatest tree that grew in those old days upon the earth. Moses, the terror of Pharaoh, the scourge of Egypt, the leader of the Exodus, the lawgiver of Israel -- Moses in his manhood was to the foundling infant what the towering tree is to the imperceptible seed from which it springs.
The operation of the same law may be observed in later ages. In the Popish convent at Erfurt a studious young monk sits alone in his cell, earnestly examining an ancient record. The student is Luther, and the book the Bible. He has read many books before, but his reading had never made him wretched till now. In other books he saw other people; but in this book for the first time he saw himself. His own sin, when conscience was quickened and enlightened to discern it, became a burden heavier than he could bear. For a time he was in a horror of great darkness; but when at last he found "the righteousness which is of God by faith," he grew hopeful, happy, and strong. Here is a living seed, but it is very small an awakened, exercised, conscientious, believing monk, is an imperceptible atom which superstitious multitudes, and despotic princes, and a persecuting priesthood will overlay and smother, as the heavy furrow covers the microscopic mustard-seed. But the living seed burst, and sprang, and pierced through all these coverings. How great it grew and how far it spread history tells to-day. We have cause to thank God for the greatness of the Reformation, and to rebuke ourselves for its smallness. Through the grace of God it made rapid progress at the first, and by the passions of men it was arrested before its work was done; -- not arrested, but impeded; it is growing still, and growing more vigorously in our own day than it has done in any generation since its youth.
But the present time supplies examples of the kingdom's growth from small to great, as distinct and characteristic as any period since the apostles' days. The revivals of these times are vigorous off-shoots from the great stem of Christ's kingdom in the world, and the part observes the same law of increase that operates in the whole. Trace any one of the local awakenings back to its source, and you will discover that the interest in spiritual, personal religion, which now overtops and overshadows all other interests in the neighbourhood -- which has led many wanderers back to Christ's fold -- which has caused friends to sing aloud for joy, and enemies to stand mute in astonishment -- which has emptied jails and filled prayer-meetings -- which has changed the wilderness into a garden, and drawn wondering witnesses from distant lands -- sprang from some upper or lower room in which two or three unnoticed and unknown believers were wont to meet at stated times for prayer. Many of those small but living seeds have burst through the ground and made themselves known by their magnitude; and many similar seeds are lying hid to-day under the capacious folds of our vast and earnest industry. May great trees spring from these small seeds in the Lord's good time!
Robert Haldane in Geneva, with his Bible in his hand and a group of students around him, is a modern example of the same law in the growth of the kingdom.
II. The kingdom of heaven in a human heart is like a mustard-seed, both in the smallness of its beginning and the greatness of its increase. In the grand design of God, moral qualities hold the first place; physical magnitude is subordinate and instrumental. We may safely accommodate and apply to space the principle which the Scripture expressly applies to time: One man -- as a sphere on which his purposes may be accomplished and his glory displayed -- one man is with the Lord as a thousand worlds, and a thousand worlds as one man. There is room, brother, for the whole kingdom of God "within you." In one sense, it is most true, we ought to abase, but in another we ought to exalt ourselves. We should reverence ourselves as the most wonderful work of God within the sphere of our observation. The King, as well as the kingdom, finds room in a regenerated man. Here the Lord of glory best loves to dwell.
In this inner and smaller, as well as in the outer and larger sphere, the kingdom of heaven, following the law of the mustard-plant, grows from the least to the greatest. All life, indeed, is, in its origin, invisible; and the new life of faith is not an exception to the rule. The Lord himself, in the lesson which he taught to Nicodemus, compared it in this respect to the wind. In its origin it is imperceptible; in its results it is manifest and great. To wash seven times in Jordan seemed a small thing to the Syrian soldier, and such it really was; but when his leprosy was cleansed, and his flesh restored like that of a little child, he perceived that a great effect had sprung from simple means. The little-child look unto Jesus which the Gospel prescribes for the saving of the soul seems to the wisdom of this world as inadequate to heal a leprosy as the waters of the Jordan seemed to Naaman; yet from that small seed springs the tree of life, with all its beautiful blossoms of hope, and all its precious fruits of righteousness.
The first true, deep check in the conscience because of sin; the first real question, "What must I do to be saved?" the first tender grief for having crucified Christ and grieved the Spirit; the first request for pardon and reconciliation made to God, as a child asks bread from his parents when he is hungry; -- the kingdom, coming in any of these forms is small and scarcely perceptible; but it lives, and in due time will grow great. Be of good cheer, ye who have felt the word swelling and bursting like a seed in your hearts. That plant may not yet have attained maturity in your life, but greater is He who shields it than all who assail it: the enemy cannot in the end prevail. He who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it until the day of Christ. You could not make a living seed; but God has given it. Thus far all is well, but you are as helpless at the second stage as you were at the first; you have no more power to make the seed grow than you had to make the seed. The Author and Finisher of this work keeps it from first to last in his own hands. It is He who gives rain from heaven and fruitful seasons. The small seed of the kingdom has fallen on your hearts, and been hidden in their folds; it has taken root, and sent up into your lives some tender shoots of faith, and hope, and love. It is well; thank God for the past, and take courage for the coming time. The plant is small now; it will be great hereafter. It is small on earth; it will be great in heaven. Weed it and water it, sun it and shelter it. Be diligent on your own side of this great business, and God will not withhold his power. Cultivate the kingdom in your own hearts, and count on the blessing from on high to make it prosper. From the tender, diminutive life of grace, the life of glory will in due time grow.
When painters have drawn their figures in light, they throw in dark shadows beside them, that the positive forms may thereby be more prominently displayed. So, beside the kingdom of heaven, under the aspect of its growth from small beginnings, let us throw in the outline of the kingdom of darkness, that thereby the glory of light may be better seen.
Although one kingdom differs from another in character and aim, all kingdoms are like each other in the method of their operation. The kingdom of darkness, like the kingdom of light, grows gradually from very small to very great. The kingdom of Satan hangs on and follows Christ's kingdom like a dark shadow, and the shadow depends upon the light. The first sin against God was a very small seed, but the tree which sprang from it was the fall of man. "Thou shalt not eat," is a small point -- its smallness has sometimes supplied unbelievers with wit, if not with argument -- but on that point a door was hung, which, turned this way, opened heaven and shut hell; turned that way, opened hell and shut heaven. In its beginning the kingdom of evil was small; but from that small seed a mighty tree has grown.
 "Good is like the mustard-seed; from small it becomes great: evil resembles it not less. Here, too, the great springs from the small. An evil thought, when once it has made its way into a poor soul, may become mighty enough to cast it into hell." -- Draeseke vom Reich Gottes, ii.238.
As there is no sin so great that the blood of Christ cannot blot it out, so there is no sin so small that it cannot destroy a soul. A little sin is like a little fire: stand in awe of the spark, and rest not till it is quenched. As Christ our Lord is tenderly careful of spiritual life when it is feeble, and cherishes it into strength, we should sternly stamp out evil while it is yet young in our own hearts, lest it spread like a fire. He will not quench the smoking flax of beginning grace, and we should quench with all our might the smoking flax of sin. He commanded the Church in Sardis to "be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die" (Rev. iii.2). The counterpart and complement of that command is binding, too, upon his disciples: Be watchful, and weaken -- if possible, kill outright -- the germs of evil that are springing from unseen seeds within your own heart and around you in the world. "The God of peace will bruise Satan under your feet shortly:" He will bruise Satan, but Satan must be bruised under your feet.