Yeshua’s followers anticipated the Messiah leading a military campaign to overthrow Rome and establish an empire ruling over all nations. Yeshua wanted to reorient their perspective and convey a sense of the kingdom that was beginning prior to that day of final redemption. He wanted His followers to take hold of the Messianic Age in this present age. He considered the repentance movement that He and John the Immerser had begun within Israel as the seed that would blossom one day into the Messianic Era.
He compared His followers—the sons of the kingdom—to a mustard seed.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. (Matthew 13:31-32)
The sages often used the mustard seed to describe something small. Like the mustard seed, the followers of Yeshua seemed insignificant. Like the tiny mustard seed, however, the movement was destined to grow until it became the dominant plant in the garden. In Israel, wild mustard spreads rapidly, and in only a few generations, it’s tall yellow flowers quickly overtake an entire field. Likewise, Yeshua foresaw a day when the tiny kingdom movement he started would dominate the world. Yeshua borrowed imagery from the book of Daniel to describe a vast political empire containing many nations:
The tree that you saw, which became large and grew strong … under which the beasts of the field dwelt and in whose branches the birds of the sky lodged—it is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth. (Daniel 4:20-22)
When the Messianic Era arrives, the kingdom will dominate the world like wild mustard that has spread to dominate a field. It will be like a large tree in which the birds nest. As in Daniel, the birds represent the various nations contained within an empire.
The parable of the sprouting seed, the parable of the mustard seed, and the parable of the leaven all conveyed the same message. All three parables speak of a small inception which sets an irresistible process of growth into motion. Rabbi Yeshua wanted to adjust the people’s eschatology. The kingdom was not going to happen all at once. Universal peace was not scheduled for the immediate future. Those who were expecting Messiah to bring world peace and fix humanity’s problems in a single day were in for a disappointment. He compared His work to a man planting seed who must wait until the harvest, to a mustard seed which starts small but grows large, or to the little bit of leaven which permeates the whole batch of dough. All three examples speak of small beginnings. All three examples set a process in motion which results in a much larger yield. Yeshua was telling them, “The kingdom I am proclaiming may not look like much now, and it may not be without problems, but this is only the beginning. One day it will be universal.”