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CAN IT MEAN TWO THINGS?Wrestling with Scripture #30

Updated: Apr 23

This week, let’s look at two more parables: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44), and “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Mat 13:45-46).


The widely accepted interpretation is that the treasure and the pearl of great price represent Jesus, and that both parables reveal the infinite value of the kingdom as demonstrated by the man and the merchant who happily sell, or abandon, all they have to possess the treasure and the pearl. Proponents explain that, for born-again believers, nothing should be too great a sacrifice for God, just as Paul said in Phil 3:8, “… I count all things as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Christians should be “all in” for Jesus, because as Matthew 6:21 teaches, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”


This explanation is straightforward enough and seems to adhere to the study method of letting “Scripture interpret Scripture,” but years ago, I noticed that the first parable likens the kingdom of heaven to the buried treasure while the second compares the kingdom to the merchant. Although most dismiss that as semantics, if one story focuses on the object being sought and the other on the one doing the seeking, I wondered if they could really mean the same thing. Likewise, if the field still represented the world as Jesus explained previously, I struggled with the incongruity of Jesus being buried, or hidden away, from those out searching for Him. And if the treasure found is Jesus, why did the man rehide his discovery rather than sharing it with others? The NT clearly teaches we are not to hide our light under a bushel but to display our faith to the world. Finally, the idea that any of us have anything in our possession sufficient to “buy” salvation clearly contradicts the entire story arc of God’s plan for redemption. Jesus came and died for us because we were slaves to sin and completely unable to free ourselves.


In all honesty, I admit I’m still wrestling with these verses. If the Kingdom parables are related by theme, as many commentaries suggest, it seems reasonable to me that the symbolism Jesus used would be consistent throughout and that the man, which represented Jesus in the preceding parables, does in these two as well—although I’ve found very few Bible scholars who agree with me.


One who does is A.W. Pink, (1886-1952). He insists that this group of teachings are wildly misinterpreted, pointing out that Jesus spoke the preceding parables (of the soils, tares, mustard seed, and leaven) to the crowds as cryptic yet prophetic warnings that the Gospel would not be received well by many in His largely Jewish audience or bear a large or immediate harvest. Instead, it would be met with rejection or apathy, with false teachers and various heresies bent on undermining its truth, and with the Evil One actively working to sabotage their efforts.


But, Pink states, Jesus then sent the crowds away, went into the house, and privately explained the meaning of the Parable of the Tares to His Disciples. Immediately after this, He compares the kingdom to the treasure and the pearl. Pink believes Jesus is encouraging the disciples by revealing that although they won’t see the results they might expect, God’s plan will not fail and will ultimately overcome all opposition.


Given that context, it’s possible the focus of our two parables is on God’s commitment to us, His motives, and the ultimate triumph of His plan of redemption rather than on us or our devotion to Him. Jesus said He taught in parables, which typically ended with an unexpected twist, to reveal hidden mysteries to His followers. Viewed as a Jew awaiting Messiah rather than as a twenty-first century Christian, the revelation of these two parables is that the man/merchant, whom I believe represents Jesus, is about to “sell” all He has to redeem mankind, a foreshadowing of His death on our behalf. Certainly, a mystery hidden to His followers that they would not have expected and a theology that fits better with the rest of the NT message.


And there’s more. Although I’ve always assumed the treasure and the pearl symbolized the church—the precious body of believers that Christ died to save— Pink considers the two parables as a prophetic progression with different meanings. He points out that the NT never refers to the church or to the saints (believers) as a treasure; therefore, he believes the treasure represents Israel—something His Hebrew audience would have recognized from OT passages where God often refers to Israel or His chosen people as His “treasured possession,” for example in Ex 19:5; Deut 7:6; Psa 135:4; and Mal 3:17—and only the pearl represents the church. This distinction seems supported by the fact that these parables are only included in Matthew—the most “Jewish” of the Gospels.  


If Israel is the treasure, in what way did Jesus “rehide” her? Pink explains that Jesus knew most of His people would reject Him but revealed that God was not done with Israel and would preserve a remnant—“hidden” throughout the world—despite subsequent scattering and deportations (and, I’d add, the modern-era Holocaust).


If the pearl of great price represents the church, consider that some say pearls were not considered valuable to ancient Jews—as they were obtained from unclean shellfish—but that pearls are mentioned in Revelation as a symbol of purity in the gates of New Jerusalem. Therefore, the pearl, symbolizing the Church--called the spotless bride of Christ adorned in white—may reveal the great mystery that the kingdom would include both Jews and Gentiles, those traditionally considered unclean. And although most Jews would regard the early church as worthless, it would be precious to God.


Agree or disagree, my hope is that wrestling with God’s Word draws us all deeper into His presence.

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1 Comment

Pamela Pfankuch
Pamela Pfankuch
Apr 22

As usual, you blow me away on how much you know scripture and especially your understanding. You are so right that scripture must interpret scripture! I agree with your comments!

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