Continuing the theme of turning the parables right-side-up again, here’s the latest from the King’s English on “The Pearl of Great Price”…
Recently a friend emailed me with a question. He’s not yet a Christian but he’s been attending bible studies for a while. The previous night they had used Christian-sounding language that he didn’t understand. He wrote:
“They asked me if I had ever ‘given my life to God.’ I was unsure. What does that mean? Is it in the bible?”
I wonder how you would respond?
Every evangelical sinew in my body twinged: “Of course you need to give your life to God! What is a Christian if not someone who has given their life to God?? As it is written in the book of…” Hmm. That’s funny. I’m usually pretty good at citing bible verses. I can proof-text in my sleep. But it took me a long time to come up with any “giving-your-life-to-God” language.
Eventually a couple of verses in Romans sprang to mind (6:13; 12:1). But both of them assume that becoming a Christian has happened. Even in these verses, “giving your life to God” is the response to salvation, not the way towards it.
And far, far more, the Scriptures speak of Christ giving His life for me! That’s the great theme of the bible. Whatever offerings we make to God, the good news is the other way around. He offered His life for me!
With that in mind, let’s read a couple of parables that Jesus told. And let’s see how to understand them:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
Here is how I usually hear these stories explained:
The ‘treasure’ / ‘pearl of great price’ is Christ. There He is – precious but passive. Inert. Waiting.
The ‘man’ / ‘merchant’ is us. We are the spiritual seekers. Active. Adventurous. Sacrificial.
And – well done us! – we sell everything to gain the treasure of Jesus.
But I wonder whether such an interpretation misconstrues all the literary clues of the passage. More worryingly, I fear it misconstrues the very nature of “the kingdom”.
“Treasured possession” is a famous way of describing the people of God (Exodus 19:5).
“The man” who is active throughout the parables of Matthew 13 is not us but Christ.
At the same time we are consistently represented by impersonal and passive objects (i.e. the soils).
If these were two parables about us finding Christ they would be the only parables of their kind. Elsewhere it is always we who are lost and Christ who seeks and saves.
Given these facts, surely the most natural interpretation is this: Christ is the Man who gives everything to purchase the world so as to possess His church. He is the great Seeker and He is the great Treasurer. He is the great Rejoicer and He is the great Sacrificer of all.
“For the joy that was set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:2)
We are the purchased treasure, not valuable in ourselves but only in our Redeemer’s eyes. He is the Glorious Giver, we are those bought at a price. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like!
And yet… what happens when we opt for the first interpretation?
We become the great seekers. We are the ones who treasure. We are the great rejoicers and the ones who sacrifice all. The weight is thrown back onto our shoulders.
What do we say to this?
Well, first, we ought to read the parables in context. Shouldn’t our first assumption be that the main Actor of the chapter remains the same?
Second, we ought to understand the fundamentals of the gospel. Isn’t it Christ who seeks and saves what is lost? (Luke 19:10) And don’t we love only because He first loved us? (1 John 4:19)
Third, we ought to think about the nature of kingdom living. Sustaining joy is a wonderful thing, but it flows from receiving Christ’s electing, sacrificial love. There is a great danger of over-burdening the Christian when we insist that they play the role of the electing, rejoicing, sacrificing Seeker. I learn my true place in the kingdom when I realise that I am not Chooser but chosen. I am not Lover but beloved. I am not Redeemer but purchased. I am not Seeker but found. Then my heart is won, then I treasure Christ, then I rejoice, then I consider all things as loss for His sake. But such a reaction is always just that – a reaction. Christ is always the self-giving Actor.
So what did I say to my friend?
I told him that every Christian ought to say “I belong to God.” If my friend couldn’t say that, then he probably wasn’t a Christian.
But here’s how we belong to God. Not by “giving our lives to Him.” Instead we look to Jesus on the cross and there we see the most incredible truth: He has purchased me at an incredible cost. Keep looking there until you are won by His love. Whatever response we make at that point is belated. The ultimate and eternity-defining truth is this: He gave His life for me. Of course I belong to Him.