He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” -Luke 13:18–21

Have you ever seen a mustard seed? If you have, you know it’s pretty tiny. When deciding how to describe the kingdom to us, Jesus purposely used the smallest known seed at the time. The leaven is hardly anything in comparison to the amount of dough it is placed into.

Surely this picture of the kingdom of God must have been disappointing to the disciples gathering around Jesus. No doubt most of them were staking their lives on the idea that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and as Jewish Messiah, he was going to raise up a large army, kick out the imperialist Roman powers, and set up his throne to rule a world of peace forever (with them in positions of power next to him, of course). The kingdom is like a mighty redwood tree—that’s better! Strong, impossible to cut down, and imposing. But that is not the picture he uses. Instead, he uses the very unimpressive mustard seed to describe his kingdom, and his disciples have a hard time accepting it.

Over and over throughout the gospel accounts you hear this viewpoint expressed by the disciples. James and John jockey to “sit at his right and left” when he comes in his glory (Mark 10:37). Peter rebukes Jesus when he tells them that he’s not going to wear a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns, promising that he’ll lay down his life for him before that happens. In every case, Jesus insists that his kingdom isn’t going to operate that way. First there will be a cross before a crown.

This description of the apparent smallness of God’s kingdom can be disappointing to us as well. When we pray for greatness, and instead he humbles us we’re disappointed by his kingdom. We would like God to rule by placing just the right leaders in political office so they can pass laws to make our country “great again,” but it doesn’t happen. The constant temptation is to try to bring the kingdom from the top down rather than the bottom up. But that’s not how God’s kingdom operates.

Helmut Thielicke was a pastor in Germany during the height of World War II. He illustrates the smallness of the kingdom of God for us well:

“When I became a Pastor and conducted my first Bible-Study hour I went into it with the determination to trust in Jesus saying: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” I said these words to myself in order to assure myself that even Hitler, who was then in the saddle, and his dreadful power machine were merely puppets hanging by strings in the hands of this mighty Lord. And in the Bible study hour I was faced by two very old ladies and a still older organist. He was a very worthy man, but his fingers were palsied and this was embarrassingly apparent in his playing. So this was the extent of the accomplishment of this Lord, to whom all power in heaven and earth had been given, supposedly given. And outside marched the battalions of youth who were subject to altogether different lords. This was all he had to set before me on that evening. What did he have to offer anyway? And if it really were nothing more than this—then isn’t he refuted by this utterly miserable response?”

Well, no, that’s just how his kingdom operates. When I was a boy growing up, I never wanted to go to church, except for a short time when I was five or six. The reason I wanted to go at that time is because in the children’s ministry there was a young adult named Steve who for some reason took me under his wing. I don’t remember anything he said to me, nor do I remember really much about him. All I know is that he had a reddish afro and he was nice to me. And because he was so nice to me, for a short time I actually wanted to come to church. You see, the kingdom of God operates in small, unimpressive ways. I’ve been reminded of this whenever I listen to my son Lincoln (who is now six years old) praying at night words that don’t really go together all that well:

“Thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus, for Mommy and Daddy, for my Batman toy, and I want a Batman game. I want a Spiderman toy too. Thank you for dying on the cross. Thank you for my brothers too. Thank you for Chestnut. [That’s our dog.] Amen.”

The kingdom of God operates in small, seemingly insignificant ways. This is the way it’s always been and it always will be until heaven is our permanent home. The first disciples were a ragtag bunch of fishermen, ex tax collectors, and zealots. There were former prostitutes hanging out alongside disgraced pharisees. The people Jesus healed were not people of great cultural influence most of the time, but they were oddballs, strangers, and outcasts. And even our Lord himself had nothing attractive by his nature that would draw us to him (Isaiah 53:2). After all, if we look at it from the perspective of the average person in the first century, there could be nothing seemingly more insignificant than a Jewish man from a small corner of Palestine that was murdered by crucifixion. But that’s how the kingdom of God operates. And yet, as unimpressive as it may look, God’s kingdom is growing.

This is an excerpt from the new book Scandalous Stories: A Sort-Of Commentary on Parables. You can buy the book by clicking the button below.