Mustard Seeds and the Greatness of God


When Jesus described the mustard seed as the smallest seed, was He wrong? How can we reconcile His error with the inerrancy of Scripture?

In the 1980s, I was involved with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which sought to call the Church and scholars within the Church back to a firm defense of the inspiration and infallibility of Holy Writ. There was a New Testament professor at one of the largest seminaries in America who had abandoned the doctrine and was teaching his students that no one could believe in the inerrancy of sacred Scripture because there is a clear mistake in Mark 4:30-32. He would tell his students, “Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds, but botanists have discovered seeds that are more minute than the mustard seed.” This man had rejected the inerrancy of Scripture based on that issue.


When I heard about this professor’s teaching, I thought, “Is there no room for hyperbole in the teachings of Jesus?” Consider this statement by Luke: “Early in the morning all the people came to Him in the temple to hear Him” (Luke 21:38). Must we understand this to mean that every man, woman, and child in Jerusalem, including invalids, came to the temple that day? No. What we see here is hyperbole, a literary device that is used for emphasis. Furthermore, in Hebrew idiom, it was common for the Jews to refer to the mustard seed as the smallest seed because it was superlatively small. There is small, smaller, and smallest, and the mustard seed was in the category of the superlatively small. For this reason, accusing Jesus of falsehood in this passage is astonishing to me.

The Greatness of God

Those who make such arguments completely miss the point of the parable in Mark 4:30-32. A mustard seed is tiny, but if it is put into the earth, from it erupts a bush that grows into a tree so big that birds may build their nests in its branches. The kingdom of God is similar. God can use the smallest words that we speak, the smallest service that we give, and bring a kingdom out of it. This points not to the greatness of the mustard seed but the greatness of God, who works everyday to bring about His plan for the ages.

God is at work even now, building His kingdom; not with entertainment, not with flash, not with all of the pizzazz that we try to conjure up, but by obedience to His Word, which is attended by His Spirit, so that the kingdom grows and grows until the day when the Lord of the harvest comes for His fruit.

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