The Parable of The Mustard Seed
and its alleged contradictions

by J. Timothy Unruh

Copyright * 1996

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Matthew 13:31-32)

The subject question of this study deals with another one of the infamous "apparent contradictions" found in the Scripture, this one regarding the physical characteristic of the mustard seed in the above quoted parable, namely the size of the seed itself. The passage refers to the seed as being "the least of all seeds" which is to say, the smallest of all seeds. Given this information from the Scripture, an objection has been raised that there are other seeds which are smaller than the mustard seed, among these are the petunia, the begonia and the orchid. While the mustard seed is about 1/20th of an inch in size, with the smaller petunia seed about 1/50th of an inch and the yet smaller begonia some 1/100th of an inch in size, the even yet smaller orchid seed is so tiny that a 10 to 30 power microscope is required for the eye to see it in any detail. Furthermore, the microscopic spores of mushrooms, lichens, and molds, which also are seeds, are so tiny and lightweight that even the slightest currents of air may carry them vast distances aloft. These too are seeds for the word spore itself means "seed." Therefore the mustard seed is technically not the smallest seed of all. The objection has been pressed even further to say something like, "Since the mustard seed isn't the smallest of all seeds then Jesus was wrong, and if Jesus was God and made everything, He should have known that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed!

At this point, a review of the occurrence of the word "seed" in scripture is in order. This word occurs more than two hundred times in the King James Bible. Of these only five references pertain specifically to the mustard seed, as mentioned in the famous parable. These five passages, all brief, include the following: Matthew 13:31; 17:20; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19; and 17:6. Of these five, only two make mention of the physical minuteness of the mustard seed, these being the Matthew 13:31-32 passage and its parallel in Mark 4:31. The word used in the former is "least" while the word in the latter is "less." Strong's Concordance, tracing the Greek to English, gives the meaning for both as "least, less, little, or small in size, number, or dignity." So we can see by the word itself and its context in these two passages that the mustard seed indeed is a very small thing, hence it is touted as the "smallest of all seeds."

At the outset, this seems like a rational objection to a seeming contradiction that begs for an honest answer. One honest answer, of course, is "I don't know." This may seem a satisfactory answer to most who have not given the matter much thought, although, for some of us it would be more interesting to see how a question as this is properly quenched. The intent of this study is to bring forth an honest, satisfactory, and conclusive answer to this issue as a whole.

Now that we have "split hairs" and technically established that the mustard seed "is not the smallest seed of all," it would make sense that we next turn our attention to an evaluation of the intent in the parable itself and then make a decision as to whether or not the Lord was trying to be technical or non-technical in His usage of the seed as an illustration. Naturally, any gainsayer would relish the technical interpretation at this point because therein he sees his opportunity to overthrow the integrity of the Bible. We must look at the passage in context of the objection and ask ourselves whether the parable is designed to be a lesson in botany, or a lesson of a much deeper significance and importance. To the casual reader with even an elementary understanding of the Word of God it should be rather apparent that the Lord had the latter purpose in mind. The parable of the mustard seed exemplifies the principle often exercised in Scripture which makes use of one thing in order to illustrate the meaning of a greater truth. In other words, an object lesson is being given here. Such is the mechanism which makes a parable so workable and meaningful. The Proverbs of Solomon are full of such illustrations.

Without really giving it much thought, we use figures of speech quite often in our own daily lives, like, "I must get on the ball" which is a parallel drawn from the sporting world to express an urgency to get busy and accomplish some task before it is too late, before someone else "beats us to the punch." In another sense, to be "on top of things" is sometimes said to express the advantage of understanding and knowing one's responsibilities within the workings of a coordinated, or "team" effort, for instance, within a corporate office environment in the business world. From the "top" we have a full view, or understanding, of all the "surroundings," or pertinent matters within the company. As creatures made in the image of God and in his likeness, we, like Christ, speak not only in parallels such as these but also in exaggerations in order to get our point across. For instance, when I was a boy, I once told a friend at school that I had "millions" of marbles in my lunch box. Obviously, a standard sized school lunch box containing a peanut butter sandwich, a bag of potato chips, chocolate chip cookies, and an apple, along with a Thermos bottle filled with milk, could not possibly contain enough room left over for literally millions of marbles. Such a container as would be required to hold just one million marbles must be a box with an inside clear space, depending upon the size of the marbles, of at least seven feet in height with the same dimensions on the depth and breadth. What I had said involved a common principle, or manner of speaking, in making a point. We do this all the time for emphasis, and the point of my exaggeration, or characterization, was that I had a sufficient abundance of glass rounds in my lunch box to entertain some challenging marble games with other kids on the playground. It is a way of communication. When we get back to the mustard seed as being "the least of all seeds" we are seeing the same effective form of speech or phraseology in action. Anyone in their right mind knew that I did not have millions of marbles in my lunch box, but they all knew what I meant. By the same token, any thoughtful listener of Christ would have known that there were seeds smaller than the mustard to be found in Palestine.

Granted there is a certain amount of discretion involved, we often exaggerate to give character to what we say. We make a pointed statements to give impressions that are easily understood and remembered. To say that some story is "as old as time" simply means that it has been known for a very long time. This manner of expression is called a hyperbole ('HI-pur-bol-ee'), an exaggeration for effect, not meant to be taken literally. Jesus himself is known for speaking in hyperbolic or parabolic statements, hence the parable. We should not think that people were any different thousands of years ago. It should, as well, be realized that the expression "the least of all seeds" is figurative and oriental, and that in a proverbial simile no literal or technical accuracy is to be expected. It was a hyperbolic expression to emphasize "very small." Of course, we know there are many seed types smaller than the mustard seed. It is thus quite evident that the Lord, in His popular teaching, adhered to the popular language, and the mustard seed was used proverbially to denote anything very minute. Very likely, in Israel the mustard seed was the smallest of all garden seeds. In such case the literal truth about the comparative size of the mustard seed in the parable still holds after all. The Scriptures simply do not find it necessary to make a habit of championing such careful and superfluous elaborations. The tiny orchid seed was not likely known, let alone planted, in ancient Israel. The mustard seed was simply a familiar convenience to draw from in order to make an important point.

The word "parable," by derivation means "putting things side by side," and is similar to the word "allegory," which by derivation means "saying things in a different way." The object of teaching by parables and allegories is the same. It is to enlighten the listener by presenting him with interesting illustrations, from which he can draw out for himself moral or religious truth. The value of such a method of teaching is twofold. First it makes the assimilation of such truth easier, for truth embodied in a tale shall enter at lowly doors. Secondly, the truth so learned is more likely to remain fixed in the memory, for by drawing his own conclusions from the illustrations the learner is in effect, teaching himself.

In the parable of the mustard seed the Lord used the seed to make a point, and that was to illustrate something which develops rapidly from small beginnings, namely the kingdom of heaven, or the faith of an individual. The seed represented the kingdom of heaven. The "mystery" surrounding the development of the divine kingdom was likened to that connected with the germination and growth of a seed. In the gospel kingdom, or one's personal faith, the development begins small and ultimately reaches vast proportions, "leavening" all institutions, philosophies and governments. In Matthew 17:20 the mustard seed is specifically used to illustrate faith and the exercise thereof. The point here is not the size of the seed but what one does with it, thus, the issue is not one of how much faith one has, but how he, or she, directs that faith. Faith is directional, not quantitative. This can be further illustrated by another example in Scripture, similar in principle, given by Jesus during his earthly ministry:
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury" (Mark 12:41-43).

From this passage we can further see that to focus our concern on the physical characteristics of the mustard seed is, in itself, rather trivial and misses the whole point intended by Jesus in the parable. The intent of the parable is to focus our attention on the patent eternal lesson of the seed, not the seed itself. To take the latter would be about as ludicrous as the behavior of a pet dog which stares at his master's pointing finger instead of looking out at the ball to be fetched from across the field as pointed out by his master's outstretched digit. Thus, the exact nature and physical characteristics of the seed is really a mute issue. Nevertheless, if we must continue to patronize our gainsayer who persists with other such secondary objections like "Well, if Christ is wrong on the lesser matter how can He be trusted with the greater issue which the lesser represents?" This rather begs the question when we realize the "wrong" is not found in Christ but in the objection. Nevertheless, giving our counterpart the benefit of the doubt by taking the attitude that any question is a "good" question," lettuce continue our analysis with the following evaluations.

Another objection, that the mustard is not really a "tree," is also rather superficial. Again the expression is figurative. It is an error, for which the language of Scripture is not accountable, to assert that the passage implies that birds "built their nests" in the tree. The original Greek word has no such meaning; the word merely means "to settle or rest upon" anything for a longer or shorter duration of time. Nor is there any occasion to suppose that the expression "fowls of the air" denotes any other than the smaller insessorial birds - linnets, finches, etc. It is likely that the birds came and settled on the mustard plant for the sake of the seed, of which they are very fond. The anise plant, common along roadsides and fields in California sometimes grows to a size similar to that of the mustard of old Israel. It is also large enough for small birds to alight in, as can often be observed by bird watchers. Varieties of mustard found in our own country do not generally grow so large or tall as those varieties found in the middle east. In California these typically grow from two to four feet and in some cases may, by their multitudes, cover a field with the distinct yellow color of their blooms in the early spring.

Again, it can be seen in another passage of Scripture that a strictly literal interpretation can be misleading. The passage in John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes should have eternal life. We know that God does not love the whole world. For one, He "canst look on iniquity" (Habakkuk 1:13) and we know that there are many iniquitous persons in the world. Furthermore "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated" (Romans 9:13). We see that God, by his own admission, actually "hates" some people. In fact the second part of the verse sensibly qualifies the first. It wouldn't take long for the gainsayer, who isn't concerned about spiritual things, to have a field day on John 3:16, or any other portion of Scripture for that matter. The point here is that what we read in Scripture is to be read in context and qualified by other pertinent portions of God's Holy Word. An important rule of Bible understanding is that we interpret the general in terms of the specific, or the more obscure in light of the clear. Almost all apparent contradictions are cleared up this way. God is not in the business of catering to the passions of the gainsayers, His mercies are disposed to raising up and sanctifying the souls of those whom He calls and who sincerely come forth to Him in faith believing.

Much has been written concerning the identification of this plant, although it has generally been agreed among Bible scholars that the mustard tree of Scripture is the common black mustard (Sinapis nigra L.) since in New Testament times its seeds were cultivated for their oil as well as for culinary purposes. The seed of this plant is about the size of a pin head and was one of the smallest known to the people of Galilee, and likely the smallest cultivated seed. Others have identified the mustard of Christ's parable with the white mustard (Sinapis alba L.) a closely related species. The remarkable phenomenon of these mustard plants is that, though they are really herbs, they may grow to be ten or twelve feet in height, with a stem the size of a man's arm. Thus they become a resting place for the smaller varieties of birds. Depending upon climatic conditions in their native semi-arid land, both the black and white mustard varieties have been reported to grow to a height of about 15 feet, although they do not normally exceed four feet at maturity. The wild plant has been known to grow as tall as a horse and rider. If then the plant may grow to such a height in the wilds, it stands to reason that the same might, in a cultivated garden, grow at least to the same or even greater heights, even as a small "tree." The common varieties of mustard plants that grow in our own country tend not to grow as large as those varieties found in the middle east.

This parable is a further development of the characteristics of the present spiritual kingdom of God. The point is that the seed of the gospel message will produce phenomenal growth. From small beginnings, the Kingdom which had only drawn near in the person of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:14-15), grew by reason of its own inner and supernatural vitality, to tremendous proportions, including multitudes of redeemed persons who through the years have come to swell its ranks to phenomenal size.

After one sees the magnitude, profundity, and significance of the good Lord's message in the parable of the mustard seed, the clever but foolish obsession of our gainsayers in their quibbling over the size of the seed becomes a wondrously self evident absurdity in itself, for such triflings boarder on insanity. It is to be remembered, as well, that the same whom we encounter daily represent examples of God's mercy, they are still alive and can repent, and believe while there is still time. They would, in reality, do well to abandon their frivolous, futile, and wasteful contentions and turn to the living God, calling upon Him while He is still near (Isaiah 55:6). For they shall find grace in the eyes of the Savior, as the truth, righteousness, and goodness of God leads a man to repentance and faith, hence salvation and glory in Him (John 8:32; Romans 2:4; 5:18; Ephesians 1:13).
Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be
able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1:9).


Dobelis, Inge, Ed., Magic and Medicine of Plants, Reader's Digest Association, Pleasantville, N. Y., 1986.

Douglas, J. D., The New Bible Dictionary, W. B. Eerdmans Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1962.

Halley, Henry, H., Halley's Bible Handbook, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1962.

Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Sovereign Grace Pub., Wilmington, Delaware, 1972.

Pfeiffer, Charles F., and Everett F. Hansen, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1974

Rickett,Harold William, Botany For Gardeners, Macmillan Co., New York, 1957.

Smith, William, Bible Dictionary, Winston Co., Philadelphia, Penna., 1884.

Postscript: It has been asked more than once how God could have created light on the first day when He did not make the Sun until the fourth. It can be seen, although, through the principle of correspondence, that where there is spiritual light there is often physical light. The physical reality of creation is not only consequential, but revelatory. The Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), has created a spatial-material-temporal universe, albeit finite, which is reflective of the Trinitarian nature of God, in its characteristics. The second person of the Trinitarian God is embodied in the Son, i.e., Jesus Christ, and it is he who is the visible manifestation of the invisible God. All that we know about God comes to us ultimately through the person of Jesus Christ. Likewise all that we perceive and know about the created universe comes to us through the second prime element or "person" of this reflective created order, namely its physical reality, by way of our senses. We do not see space, nor do we see time, for they are invisible, although we do know they exist because we experience them and they can be measured. After the Israelites fled Egypt the Lord provided the people with light by night through His presence in the wilderness. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face physically glowed from having been in the presence of God. At the birth of Jesus, the star which the wise men saw shining in the east went before them until it came and stood over the manger. In our day rationalistic and naturalistic explanations are most often offered up for these phenomena without regard for the truth of the supernatural reality of God, or the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, or the fact that in the Holy presence of God, nature sometimes puts on a light show. The Scripture bears this out. In each case it can be sensibly realized that the manifestation described is none other than the Shekinah, or "light glory" presence of God. On the fourth day of creation God consolidated His glorious physical light propagation into physical light sources, or celestial bodies (the Sun, Moon - by reflection of the Sun, and the stars). Certainly, a fuller expression of this intriguing matter is beyond the scope of this brief treatise.

(from Magic and Medicine of Plants, Reader' Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York, 1986).