Mark 4:30-32 “Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”
Sometimes God’s people worry about the numbers. That is nothing new. Do you remember the prophet Elijah? He became so depressed by how weak and small the congregation of believers had become in Israel in his day, that he ran off into the wilderness, hid in a cave, and asked God to take his life. “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” The situation was 7000 times better than Elijah thought, but he couldn’t get past the fact that the Word of God seemed so unsuccessful, and the number of believers so few.
Look at Jesus and his disciples. “Have no fear, little flock,” Jesus assured them at one point in his ministry, and a little flock they were. Beyond Jesus and the twelve, there were perhaps 500 believers by the time Jesus returned to heaven. That may seem like a healthy size for one congregation, but that was it for the entire planet. It was these 500 little souls in a sea of millions. The beginnings were rather small.
“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground.” Small beginnings are nothing new for God’s kingdom. Nor are they a reason to worry or a reason to give up. “Yet when it is planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” We are in the business of planting the seeds of God’s kingdom. God makes those seeds grow into something far grander than we can see now.
But like the mustard seed, God’s kingdom grows into something far larger, far more grand than we might have expected. That’s his promise. About one out of four people in the world are nominally Christian. Those who possess a genuine saving faith may be far fewer. But you know that the kingdom of God is far bigger than your little congregation, or church body, or even all of the visible Christian churches in the world. It includes the whole population of heaven waiting for us to join them.
If you want a little glimpse of what the mustard tree looks like in the end, then, you have to turn to the last book of the Bible. There the Apostle John shares his brief view of it, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:9-10). In the end God’s kingdom grows to such a grand size that no one can count its members.
Judging by what we see happening in his kingdom today, maybe that exceeds our expectations. Judging by the love and the power of the God who gives us this kingdom, this is no real surprise.
In the meantime, don’t judge God’s kingdom by the numbers you see today. There is power in the gospel seed, and far more believers than you know.