What Is the Kingdom of Heaven Like?

Jesus’ Parables of the Mustard Seed, Leaven, Lost Treasures, and Pearls

by Troy Lacey on January 3, 2023
Featured in Parables of Jesus

In Matthew 13, Jesus told the crowds a number of parables, including several very short ones. We’ll examine four of those in this article: the parables of the mustard seed, leaven, treasure hidden in a field, and the pearl of great price. One of these (mustard seed) is also recorded in both Mark 4 and Luke 13, and the leaven parable also occurs in Luke 13. All four of these parables begin with Jesus using a simile to compare the subject to the kingdom of heaven.

The Mustard Seed

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31–32)
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30–32)
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.” (Luke 13:18–19)

Matthew records Jesus telling this parable right after the parable of the wheat and the tares, and Mark records Jesus telling it after the growing grain parable. Luke records Jesus telling it after the parable of the fig tree. The Gospel writers record only selected parables, not all of them, so this parable fits naturally with the other “sowing seed” or “planting” parables.

Jesus uses a simile to compare the mustard seed to the kingdom of heaven. It is a very small seed,1 yet grows to be a large shrub—in some cases over 10 feet tall. There are two types of true mustard grown in Israel, black mustard (Brassica nigra) and white mustard (Sinapis alba). In addition, there is a tree called the toothbrush or mustard tree (Salvadora persica) which can grow to over 20 feet tall. Most theologians believe that Jesus was speaking of black mustard in his parable, but we cannot discount the other two as potential candidates.

What Does the Parable Mean?

There are two basic interpretations on the meaning of this parable (as well as the leaven parable). The first is rather basic, that the kingdom of heaven is one which is constantly growing—including the Old Testament saints as well as every person who comes to trust Christ as his Savior. We know that Christianity started out small with Jesus’ disciples and some friends and family, then rapidly exploded at Pentecost and has grown to millions upon millions of people over the past two millennia (e.g., Revelation 5:9–12). In this interpretation, the birds represent gentile people. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God will include other nations and not just Israel. Many commentators notice the similarity of this parable to God’s prophecy given in Ezekiel 17:22–24, where God states that he himself will plant a twig on a high mountain and it will grow into a large cedar with birds nesting in its branches.

The second interpretation is that it is thematically related to the “wheat and tares” parable which just preceded it in Matthew’s Gospel. The allusion of birds nesting in the branches of the mustard bush/tree is taken by many theologians to symbolize evil that coexists with the kingdom in this present age. Birds are often portrayed as carrion eaters in Scripture (1 Kings 14:11, 16:4, 21:24) and as signs of God’s wrath with idolatry (Jeremiah 7:33, 15:3, 34:20; Ezekiel 29:5, 39:4). Jesus mentioned birds in the “parable of the sower” as agents of Satan who snatched the gospel away before it could take root (Matthew 13:4; Mark 4:4; Luke 8:5) and also mentioned them in connection with judgment at his second coming (Matthew 24:28; Luke 17:37; Revelation 19:17). But Jesus also mentioned birds in several other texts and usually in a positive light (Matthew 6:26, 23:37; Luke 9:58, 13:34).

Since Jesus does not explain this parable any further, it is unlikely that the debate over the two interpretations will be settled, and indeed both agree on the fact that the kingdom of God is growing and has been for thousands of years. It is also evident from the parable of the wheat and tares, that there are some weeds amongst the wheat, but whether Jesus was again expounding on that same theme in this parable is unknown. Regardless, we know that many who think they are in the kingdom of God will be denied entry by Jesus himself (Matthew 7:20–23).

Parable of the Leaven

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)
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 13:20–21)

This parable has the same two interpretations as the mustard seed parable. Basically, that it is mentioning the rapid and continual growth of the kingdom of heaven or that the leaven illustrates professing (but not actual) Christians or even wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Leaven is mentioned often in Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. It is usually associated with breaking God’s commands or evil in general (Exodus 12:15–20; Matthew 16:6, 16:11–12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 1 Corinthians 5:6–8; Galatians 5:8–9) but not always, as leavened bread was also to be offered in certain sacrifices (Leviticus 7:13, 23:17; Amos 4:5). Again, whether Jesus was teaching only about the growth of the kingdom of God or its growth along with unsavory elements within it is not specified nor explained by Jesus.

The Treasure Hidden in the Field

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)

Like the two previous parables, this one also has two interpretations, although they are much more different. The first interpretation is that the treasure in the field represents humanity, and the one purchasing the field is Christ. Just as the man in the parable sells all that he has to buy the field, so Christ sacrifices his life in order to redeem humanity. This interpretation accords with passages such as Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 3:16; Romans 5:6–8; 1 Corinthians 6:20; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 5:25; and Titus 2:13–14.

The second interpretation is focused on Christians and their response to Christ’s redemptive work and their desire to see Christ again in glory. This view teaches that eternal life exceeds anything on earth and is worth everything we have. Eternal life requires Christians to give up our own wishes and desires, but the benefits outweigh anything we can imagine. Jesus (and the apostles) reminds us that there isn’t anything we can give up that is more valuable than his kingdom. Every sacrifice we make to submit to the lordship of Christ and seek his kingdom is absolutely worth it. This view accords well with passages such as Matthew 6:19–21; Luke 12:33–34; Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:6–8, 4:17; Philippians 3:8; Colossians 3:4; 1 Timothy 6:18–19; 2 Timothy 2:10; and Hebrews 11:26.

There is also no reason that both interpretations can’t be correct; they are two sides of the same coin. We love and serve him, because he first loved and served us (1 John 4:7–12, 4:17–19).

The Pearl of Great Price

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45–46)

Like the treasure in the field parable, this one has the same two interpretations—either it is speaking about Christ’s love and sacrifice for his own people or about our love and sacrifice in response to Christ saving us. However, there are some minor variants to both interpretations. The first is that the merchant is Christ and the pearl is his church, which he bought and which will one day be presented to him as spotless and holy (Ephesians 5:27). The second variation regards the merchant as Christians and the pearl as the Word of God. As Christians, we are to hold Scripture in such high regard, we are to sacrifice everything for it. It is truth, guidance, and the means by which we can know God (Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 9:10; John 17:17; 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16).

Scripture does not shy away from describing the great sacrifice that Jesus made for his flock, nor does it neglect to mention Christian love and responsibility because of that sacrifice.

Once again, there is much biblical truth in both interpretations, and without Jesus specifically explaining his own parable, we can understand both interpretations to be in accord with biblical principles. Scripture does not shy away from describing the great sacrifice that Jesus made for his flock, nor does it neglect to mention Christian love and responsibility because of that sacrifice.


These four parables, while all short, give us much to think about and contemplate in our Christian life. Whether we meditate on Christ’s redeeming work on our behalf (the very heart of the gospel) or on our response to that redemption, growing in the knowledge and love of Christ daily, we are following the commands of Christ. When we think of the kingdom of heaven, we are certain that it will grow and that nothing can prevail against it (Matthew 16:18), but we also know that tares will grow alongside the good seed. And when we think of God’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:25–29), we should also consider our love for his Word, which he gave to us to teach us (Psalm 119:11–16) and cause us to love him more (Psalm 119:47–48). Loving his Word will also cause us to think of his coming kingdom, even now while we face persecution (2 Thessalonians 1:4–5) and also when Christ returns (Psalm 145:13; Matthew 6:9–10; Colossians 1:13; 2 Timothy 4:18).


  1. Regarding the “smallest of all seeds” statement of Jesus here, see this article: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-questions/are-mustard-seeds-the-smallest-or-was-jesus-wrong/.


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