This is Part 4 in a series about reclaiming the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings (Part 3 here). Today I’ll cover three parables: The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44), The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46), and The Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-48).
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.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.
Jesus only explained the third parable (Matthew 13:49-50):
This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The meaning of the third parable is similar to that of The Parable of the Weeds: believers and unbelievers will coexist in the world until the final judgment, at which point the righteous will enter Heaven and the unrighteous will enter Hell.
Notice that the Greek word for net in this passage (sagéné) is different than the normal word for net (amphiblestron). The normal word for net refers to one that is cast from a boat and then pulled back into the boat. In this case, the word for net refers to a much larger dragnet, where one end is tied to shore and a boat pulls the other end in a long, slow arc, looping back in upon itself to close the trap. Once the trap is shut, the fishermen on shore haul in a massive catch containing many varieties of fish.
You can imagine the picture that Jesus is illustrating with this parable. All people go through life with the illusion of freedom, and imperceptibly the judgment is steadily closing in upon them. By the time people realize that judgment is upon them, it’s too late, and their fate is sealed.
Jesus didn’t explain the first two parables, but they’re relatively simple and both tell the same story, each with a slightly different focus. In these parables, both the treasure and the pearl represent the Gospel. The explanation goes like this:
- Both the treasure and the pearl are items of incomparable value, and the man is willing to give up everything else for the sake of what he has found. In the same way, the Gospel is priceless, and we must be willing to forsake everything else to inherit eternal life (Matthew 6:24, Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:21, Luke 9:23, and Philippians 3:7-8).
- Both the treasure and the pearl are hidden beneath the surface so they are beyond the view of any superficial lookers. Similarly, the Gospel appears foolish to nonbelievers (John 1:9-10, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 1 Corinthians 2:14, and 2 Corinthians 4:4).
- Just like the hidden treasure brings joy to the one who inherits it, so too does the Gospel bring true joy to those who inherit eternal life (John 16:24 and Romans 14:17).
- In both parables, the treasure and the pearl were within the man’s grasp, but he had to take the final step to inherit them. Therefore, the focus of both parables is on the responsibility of the believer to repent of his or her sins and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, it’s not enough just to know the Gospel; it must be personally appropriated. Just going to church or praying a prayer won’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
- The parables are put in contrast to each other because of the different ways in which the treasure and the pearl are obtained. In the first parable, the man’s not really searching for anything, he just sort of stumbles across the treasure. In the second parable, the merchant is quite familiar with pearls, but none of them meets his standards. While he may not have known exactly what he was looking for, he certainly recognizes it when he finds it. In the same way, there are those who sort of stumble across the Gospel and get saved. For example, the apostle Paul was actively attacking the Church when he was saved (Acts 9). There are also those who are actively searching for truth, meaning, and virtue in their lives, and they may try out several pagan religions before finding Biblical Christianity. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 or the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts 10 were both studying the Old Testament to learn about God when they were introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some object to this interpretation, claiming that it implies a false gospel of works: if we have to do something to buy the Gospel, then it’s no longer a free gift from God but a wage that we earned. They also argue that the field in the first parable represents the world, so this interpretation is like saying that we have to buy the world to obtain the Gospel, which doesn’t make sense. In addition, they point out that in the second parable, the merchant is searching for the Gospel, but Paul says that “there is no one who seeks God.” (Romans 3:11)
First, this interpretation isn’t saying that we must do something to buy the Gospel, just that we must first repent of our sins and trust in Jesus for forgiveness. In exchange, Jesus takes away all of our sins and gives us His robe of righteousness to wear. It’s not a transaction that costs money, but it absolutely costs us something: we must give up control of our lives and trust in our circumstances. If salvation didn’t require a transaction, then everyone would be saved, which is the false gospel of universalism. Supporting verses: Isaiah 55:1, Isaiah 61:10, Matthew 10:37, and Luke 9:57-62)
Second, I think these folks may simply be overanalyzing the details, which is never the right way to approach a parable. When Jesus told a parable, He would point to something commonplace that His audience was familiar with and use it to make a single theological point. Sometimes minor details can be important to the spiritual meaning behind the parable, but other times the details can simply be common to the everyday situation.
For example, in The Parable of the Leaven, some people make a big deal out of the fact it’s a woman who mixes the yeast into the dough. This idea gets them way off track, and before long they’re calling this woman Jezebel or the Whore of Babylon and accusing her of introducing a false gospel into the Church. The reality is that the woman isn’t important to the theological point that Jesus was making, it was just something to help the audience picture the everyday situation. If Jesus had said that a man was mixing the dough, then his audience would have been too busy wondering why a man was doing women’s work to consider the spiritual meaning of the parable.
In the same way, the fact that the man had to buy the field to legally obtain the buried treasure, and the fact that the merchant made a habit of searching for fine pearls, those are both simply a normal part of these familiar situations, nothing more.
Furthermore, I believe that this interpretation best fits with the overall flow of Matthew’s Gospel narrative. When the disciples ask Jesus to explain The Parable of the Weeds, He responds with three more parables: two warnings to appropriate the Gospel and one more warning about the coming judgment. Jesus concludes by asking the disciples if they understand (Matthew 13:51-52), because He is about to send them out into the mission field (Mark 6:7-13 and Luke 9:1-6), and they need to warn others about the coming judgment.
There is a second, less popular interpretation of these parables which isn’t necessarily wrong, but again I don’t think that it best fits the overall flow of the narrative text.
According to the less popular interpretation, the field in the field in the first parable represents the world, and the man represents Jesus. The hidden treasure is the assembly of God’s elect from all the ages, including Old Testament saints, New Testament saints, and Tribulation saints. Here’s the argument:
- A few verses earlier, Jesus explained The Parable of the Weeds, and in that case the field represented the world (Matthew 13:38). Although it can be dangerous to mix metaphors between parables, there doesn’t seem to be any problem doing so in this case.
- The man sells all he has to buy the field (the world). Jesus paid the ultimate price by sacrificing His own life and redeeming us with His blood (John 15:13, Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 1 Peter 1:18-19, and Revelation 5:9). As a result of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, He now has all authority over the Earth (Matthew 28:18 and Ephesians 1:22).
- Although the man bought the field, it was really the treasure that interested him. In the same way, Jesus died for the whole world, but especially for the elect (1 John 2:2 and 1 Timothy 4:10).
- The Greek word for treasure (thésauros) refers to a treasury or a storehouse, which could contain a wide assortment of precious valuables. In the same way, God’s elect are chosen “from every tribe, nation, people, and language.” (Exodus 19:5, Psalms 135:4, Malachi 3:17, and Revelation 7:9)
- The treasure was hidden, then uncovered, and then hidden again until the man should return to retrieve it from his newly purchased field. In the same way, we cannot identify the elect from birth; they are scattered throughout the world and only revealed once they are born again. However, even after they are revealed, they must still wait upon the Earth (or within the Earth for those who have already died) until Christ returns to retrieve them during the Rapture or the Second Coming (Romans 8:19 and Colossians 3:3).
According to the less popular interpretation, the merchant in the second parable represents Jesus, and the pearl of great price is the assembly of God’s elect from all the ages. Here’s the argument:
- Based on the same line of reasoning as the previous parable, Jesus is the man who gives up everything to redeem the elect.
- The pearl symbolizes God’s elect, who will one day dwell in the heavenly city of New Jerusalem. Notice that the city gates are each made of a single pearl (Revelation 21:21).
- Pearls come from oysters, which were classified as unclean under the Mosaic Covenant (Leviticus 11:9-12 and Deuteronomy 14:9-10). However, once a pearl has been separated from the oyster, then it’s considered a precious stone (Proverbs 8:11 and Job 28:18). In the same way, the elect are considered unclean due to sinfulness until we’re washed in the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Ephesians 5:25-27, Hebrews 10:22, and Revelation 7:13-14). In addition, removing the pearl from the flesh of the oyster is symbolic of our spiritual circumcision by Christ (Deuteronomy 30:6 and Colossians 2:11).
- Pearl oysters come from under the sea, which can be a symbol for the realm of the dead, also known as the Abyss (Romans 10:7 and Deuteronomy 30:13). In the same way that a pearl merchant might finance the rescue of pearls from the deep, Christ has paid the price to redeem us from the pit (Psalm 103:1-4).
- Whereas the treasure in the first parable symbolizes the diversity of the elect, the pearl in this parable symbolizes the unity of the body of Christ (John 17:20-23 and 1 Corinthians 12:12).
- Pearls have no intrinsic value. They are essentially just an irritant that the oyster coats in layers of nacre. Pearls are assigned value by those who see them as beautiful, and they become ornaments to glorify the beauty of the wearer. In the same way, we have no intrinsic value because our sinfulness makes us like an irritant to God (Isaiah 65:5). However, Jesus assigns us value because we become a symbol of the great love that exists between God the Father and Jesus the Son (John 17:1 and John 17:24).
Again, this interpretation isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, I like the way that it takes the focus off of us and puts it back on Jesus. However, at that point in Jesus’ ministry the disciples still didn’t understand that He was going away for more than 2,000 years during the Church Age, and yet they said that they understood these parables. It makes more sense that Jesus was telling these Jews, who were going out to evangelize to a bunch of other Jews, that they wouldn’t avoid the judgment simply by being one of God’s Chosen People.