Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Pearl of Great Price - What is it? or rather, Who is it?

In Matthew 13:44-46 you'll find two quick little parallel parables - the parable of the hidden treasure and the parable of the pearl of great price. The titles are almost as long as the parables themselves!
via Wikimedia Commons

Let's read:
44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
So this is the part where the preacher normally says something about how this kingdom, this treasure, this salvation is so very valuable! We should diligently seek salvation and when we find it we sell everything we have, we give everything we value, we even give our whole lives to keep it. And that pearl of great price, that's Jesus, and when we find him, we do whatever it takes to have him in our hearts.

Selling everything you have, giving everything precious to you, giving your life for the kingdom, that's the best investment you can make - that is how you gain this treasure, this pearl of great price.

Then I might ask you - What is the kingdom worth to you? What is your salvation worth to you? Does your life reflect that? And then you feel guilty about all the stuff you haven't sold yet, and we all go home for lunch.

Somehow that interpretation never did ring true, but I've only once ever heard this parable taught differently. That one time changed everything.

I believe that the common understanding of this parable has things all backwards. Sinners don't naturally seek Christ - Jesus draws men to himself and he is the one who seeks and saves those who are lost. We have nothing of value to contribute to our salvation. There is nothing we could possibly exchange to obtain Christ. Our salvation is a free gift.
CC Image courtesy of Alex Valavanis on Flickr

So what is it then?

We need to ask ourselves a few questions here, starting with: Who is speaking? To whom are they speaking?

Well, that's an easy one - We know it is Jesus speaking, and he is speaking, it seems from the context, to the twelve disciples.

So then, who is the 'man' in these parables? What is the treasure? Why a pearl?

In short, I propose that in these two parables Jesus is addressing the Jews as his treasure and the Gentiles as his pearl.

In all of the parables just before this one, the main protagonist in each one represents Jesus - he is the sower of seed, the baker of bread, the planter of the mustard seed and the wise wheat farmer - so why would it change for two parables where the listener becomes the man who finds the treasure hidden in the field or the merchant who finds the pearl of great price?

No, I propose that one key to understanding these verses is to see the man and the merchant in these parables as Jesus.

So that answers that question - but what about the hidden treasure and the pearl?

Jesus was Jewish and all of his disciples were Jewish, so looking at what a Jewish person would have understood about a treasure in a field, and about a costly pearl would certainly be helpful!

Let's start with the treasure...

His disciples were all Torah observant Jews in that they would have been highly familiar with what we know as the first five books of the Old Testament - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In Exodus 19:5, and Deuteronomy 7:6 (also Deut 14:2 & Deut 26:18), God says about the Hebrew people that he has chosen them as a special treasure. And Psalms 135:4 states 'The Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel for his special treasure.'

Jacob - who was later named Israel - was the father of the twelve men who would be the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, Jacob, and by implication, all his descendants, would be the special treasure of the Lord.

In contrast to this, it is doubtful whether the word 'pearl' appears anywhere in the Old Testament - there are some words that are sometimes translated as 'pearl' - but any one of them could as easily be translated as another word, like ruby or red coral or something else (Ref.).

What we do know is that pearls come from oysters and if we're going to be technical, other bivalve molluscs too, and molluscs, in general, were considered unclean according to Jewish law:
9 ...Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers, you may eat. 10 But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. 11 You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you. - Leviticus 11:9-12
Their value was acknowledged by Jews who could recognise that pearls fetched a high price in the marketplace, but pearls still had the undesirable trait of coming from an unclean animal. No Jew would be willing to harvest pearls, considering that one would have to go through a couple of thousand of their 'detestable carcasses' to get just a few pearls.

At that time, the most costly pearls came from regions outside of Israel - specifically the Persian Gulf - about 1700km away across a mountain range and a large desert.

So they may have understood the first of the two parables, but why then did Jesus tell a bunch of Jewish men that the kingdom of heaven was like a merchant who sold everything he had to buy a pearl?

Let's recap - we have a number of scriptures where God says that he chooses Israel as his 'peculiar' or special treasure. This is the only time that I can find where a specific group of people is referred to as a treasure.

Then in the same breath, as a parallel parable, he talks about pearls - something unclean and foreign. So what else would be considered unclean and foreign to Jews? Gentiles perhaps?

In case that word is foreign to you, a Gentile is anyone who isn't a Jew.

I propose that Jesus is saying that this group of people - unclean and foreign - these Gentiles - that's you and me, are his pearl of great price!

Isn't that amazing? You and I, we are the pearl of great price that Jesus redeemed by giving everything he had...

If that offends you, I understand - it offended me too... I was so wrapped up in my efforts to give everything I had to gain the kingdom, that the idea that he paid the ultimate price, rendering my efforts ineffective and pointless, was rather offensive.

I am
We are
The pearl of great price

If saying 'I am the pearl of great price' is difficult for you, take heart, it gets easier every time.

Just that on its own blows my mind, but if we know a little more about pearls it gets even better

CC Image courtesy of Behan
An oyster shell is really not much to look at. I've heard someone say that the first person to open an oyster shell must have been mightily hungry! It's not something one would generally do without good reason.

We have evidence that people of the ancient world ate oysters, not Jews of course, but others. Can you imagine the first time someone opened an oyster and found not only the odd-looking flesh but a pearl too? What a surprise! What a treasure!

And so it must have been somewhat confusing for the Jewish people that God would bring such a treasure from such an unlikely and unclean animal. And so it is with us - the Gentiles. It took quite some doing for the early church to realise that Jesus'' message was not only for them but the whole world, that God intended to include everyone in his plan, not only his chosen people. But, he chose the Israelite nation to be the vessel by which he brought forth salvation  - but not only for that nation but for the nations of the world.

Pearls and Amber are the only gemstones produced by living creatures. Amber is fossilized tree resin and pearls are formed when a foreign material somehow manages to get under the mantle of an oyster or other such creature. It's like when you have a label in your shirt causing an itch - you can't just leave it.

In the case of the oyster, it responds to the itch by coating the offending object in layers of something called nacre - that same substance that you see inside a mother of pearl shell. Nacre is translucent and each coat forms another translucent layer - with layer upon layer being added until it becomes a pearl as we know it.

via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the particular beauty of a pearl is that we can't do anything to improve them. Precious stones have to be extracted from the earth and then worked and cut and polished for them to look good - it takes a lot of work for a diamond to look like a diamond. But pearls come ready formed. Human intervention cannot improve their lustre and brilliance and we certainly cannot reproduce it.
CC Image courtesy of Michael Davis-Burchat
on Flickr

This is such a beautiful picture of the completeness of our salvation - it is finished! It is done! We are a new creation, holy and righteous, clothed in pure, radiant white. There is nothing we can do to 'improve' or 'add to' or 'work at' our salvation. 'Work out' perhaps, but certainly not 'work at'.

Furthermore, pearls are formed in the dark, in secret, and the oyster usually dies when the pearl is extracted. This reminds me of salvation and baptism. In baptism we are buried with him; we accept that we were in Christ in his death. in him we also rise from that death - this kernel of suffering he coats with layers and layers of himself, of his own substance. In his death and his rising, his beautiful pearl is revealed - ready to reflect his light.

Speaking of light, pearls are genuinely radiant. Light enters the pearl and bounces between the layers of nacre, and if you want to get scientific about it, the optical axis of each aragonite crystal that makes up the nacre is at right angles to its surface, from which I understand that light reflects outward in all directions.

So, how is it that something formed in darkness seems made for light?

It's as if God takes suffering and coats it in layers and layers of glory until it is wholly unrecognisable and transformed into something utterly beautiful, something that mirrors his glory. I love how this is a picture of how God can take the worst situation and really truly work it for the good of those who loved him. He doesn't just coat the grain of sand in one layer of himself, just to hide it, but keeps adding glory upon glory, layer upon layer, until the glory outweighs the suffering by many orders of magnitude - and it becomes a thing of great value and dignity.

CC Image courtesy of mrpbps on Flickr
It's also a picture of how Jesus took on flesh to bring forth his kingdom. We were bought with a price (1 Co 6:20 & 1 Co 7:23) and that price was his life. He gave himself for us to purify us. (Titus 2:14) He made us partakers in the inheritance of the saints in light, delivered from darkness into light and translated us into the kingdom of his dear son. (Col 1:12-14)

Just a side note - you may have heard that the lustre of pearls is improved when worn - this is because pearls are formed in a waterlogged environment. They can dry out if the environment is dry enough - so being on the wearer's skin exposes them to perspiration which helps to keep them hydrated and not crack. Feel free to make of that little factoid what you will! Hydration is important!

In closing, in Revelation 21 we read about the New Jerusalem, the holy city. This city has twelve gates - with each individual gate made of one pearl.
9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. - Revelation 21:9-14 (emphasis added)
The angel gives measurements and speaks of the various stones representing the 12 tribes and continues...
21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. ... 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. - Revelation 21:21, 25-27
Number 12 is believed to be significant as it is the product of 3 and 4. Three represents divinity - the Trinity - and 4 represents the earthly - the four points of the compass. Multiply the two numbers and you have the number of God's divine order on earth. Here it shows the perfection and completeness of the new heaven and the new earth.

So we have 12 foundation stones with the names of the apostles on them - which inevitably reminds one of Ephesians 2:20 which states 'we are being built as a holy temple, on the foundations of the apostles and prophets.'

Then there are the twelve gates with twelve angels. Verse 21 tells us that each gate was made of a single pearl - hence the term pearly gates - but what is astonishing is that each of these gates has the name of one the tribes of Israel on it, anyone entering the holy city will have to walk through a gate made of pearl. This also takes me back to Ephesians 2:11-22
11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
In his body, he has reconciled us to God, by covering us in his own substance to give us a whole new nature. 
CC Image courtesy of jev55

You are, I am, We are the pearl of great price that he gave everything to gain.
Our salvation is that ready made gem that cannot be improved by human hands.
Let that sink in.
He takes our suffering and coats it in layers of himself.
He gives us his perfect righteous nature and reconciles us to himself and to each other in his body.
He clothes us in pure white, radiant with his glory. 
You are, I am, we are the pearl of great price.

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  1. Wow Leigh. What a well thought out post. You really analysed the parables in an applicable way. I like thinking about that pearl and that God is coating my inperfections with His own beautiful covering.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! Just this last week I've experienced some hurts, and I just pictured myself tucking them into him, for him to cover them in his own substance, and later I'll get them back as pearls... Not quite what I'd thought of in the original post, but an encouraging picture for me!

  2. Great thoughts Leigh! I know this little 'pearl of wisdom' has been formed, coated and nourished in your spirit for a while now :) I remember chatting to you about it at essence in 2013. I love the way you looked at pearls throughout scripture, I find it helpful to get the holistic view through looking at various mentions in the Word.

  3. Wow! Thank you for sharing this beautiful discovery on Sunday morning. We were all so blessed by this beautiful amazing goodness of our God. Thank you for taking the time to mine this treasure and share with us.