Mel Lawrenz is Teaching Pastor at Elmbrook Church. His newest book is A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss (IVP).
One valid way of describing the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it is the promise of the restoration of dignity. God created humanity according to his image and his likeness, and thus invested humanity with incalculable worth. Because the human race has become twisted and corrupted by sin, barely reflecting Godlikeness, God chose to make redemption and restoration possible. This saving mission has many descriptions: reconciliation, justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification. The mission of Jesus was to seek and to save the lost. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit combine in this great saving feat, and human beings gain worthwhileness in the process. This is the gospel.
One of the most quoted verses of the New Testament is Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It is the “all things” idea that catches our interest.
Almost everybody is trying to understand the mystery that life sometimes seems so good, and at other times so bad. “All things” are full of contradictions. The people we love the most are those who can hurt us the most. The natural world can be breathtakingly beautiful, and then turn into a hostile environment. You can go to Washington, D.C. and walk among the stately pillars and facades, the monuments to the fallen soldiers, the memorials to great leaders—and wonder how the government can be replete with so many weaknesses and engender such a low level of confidence in the populace.
Life is full of crosscurrents and contradictions. In almost every area of life we are left wondering: Is there some good that can emerge from all these contradictions? What can be salvaged from “all things”? So when Romans 8:28 says that “in all things” God works for the good of those who love him, we want to know how that works.
Just before Romans 8, the apostle Paul describes the inner spiritual battle within the self: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (7:19). No wonder life is full of conflict and contradictions. No wonder we want to believe that somehow, “in all things God works for the good.”
The very next sentence in Romans 8 describes how “all things” can somehow work out in the grand scheme of life. Here we find again the idea of humanity created in the image of God: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (8:29, italics added).
Here is the big picture. God created a world and a special class of creatures known as human beings as a spectacular expression of God’s own glory, power, majesty, holiness, beauty, and love. But humanity became corrupted. Bent toward transgression; misguided by sin; blind to reality. Diminished, shattered, subject to every form of indignity. Men and women, gangs and governments, dictators and wife beaters and slave owners became the despoilers of dignity. And sometimes they construct whole bureaucracies of indignity or campaigns of murder.
God was not content to leave a broken world broken, and so a way of restoration was forged. This plan was “predestined,” which means to be arranged ahead of time. Paul’s point here is that the proclamation about Jesus’ mission and message was not a random innovation. No one spontaneously fabricated Jesus from Nazareth as savior figure.
The purpose of Jesus’ mission was to make a way for the restoration of human nature for anyone (“to be conformed to the image of his Son”). The “image of [God’s] Son” is not different from the creation principle of being created “in the image of God.” Humanity was created in the image of God; Jesus is the perfection of humanity, and thus the perfect picture of what this image is (see Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15).
This is the dignity of Jesus—a worth or value that exceeds simple human value. He suffered indignities at the hand of human authorities, but his true worth was never compromised.
As we begin our study today, note again that parables are usually stories drawn from everyday life. Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed and leaven illustrates this fact (Matt. 13:31–33). Men typically worked in agriculture, and women performed domestic chores like the baking of bread in first-century Palestine. In telling parables related to these tasks, Jesus conveys His message in terms that are familiar to ordinary people.
Our studies in Matthew have thus far shown that the Messiah ushered in God’s kingdom in a manner that did not meet the expectations of His contemporaries. Instead of an immediate and final entry of God’s saving presence, there was an inauguration of the kingdom that is followed by a long period of growth before the final consummation. The mustard plant’s growth and the leaven’s permeation, both of which take time, illustrate this point.
For clarity’s sake, the niv describes the mustard seed in verse 32 as “the smallest of all your seeds” (emphasis added). Smaller seeds than those of the mustard plant exist, but Jesus is not making an absolute statement on the size of seeds. Mustard seeds are the smallest of those commonly used by His audience and are used in the parable to make His point easy to grasp. Like the seemingly insignificant mustard seed, God’s kingdom starts out small and all but hidden. In time, however, it becomes so large that no one can ignore it — just like the Palestinian mustard plants that can reach ten feet in height. Despite its humble beginning, the kingdom will grow to an immense size (Dan. 2:31–45).
The parable of the leaven makes virtually the same point, albeit from a slightly different perspective (Matt. 13:33). A morsel of yeast is seemingly engulfed and consumed in the larger lump of dough; however, the leaven actually ends up permeating the flour, transforming the dough and making it rise. So too will the Gospel, with slow growth at first, penetrate and transform society. John Chrysostom comments, “The leaven, though it is buried, is not destroyed. Little by little it transmutes the whole lump into its own condition. This happens with the gospel” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 46.2).
Coram deo: Living before the face of God
Matthew Henry reminds us that yeast “works silently and insensibly, yet strongly and irresistibly.” The kingdom of God works in a similar fashion. Though Christians often suffer and the darkness looks overwhelming, the kingdom is growing nonetheless. One day it will be fully manifest in all creation. Consider today how you have seen the presence of the Lord in your life and pray for His kingdom to come.
For further study:
The Bible in a year: