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.—Matthew 13:45-46
In this article, we turn our attention to one of Jesus’parables about the kingdom of heaven. In the
Authorized King James Version the parable is called The Pearl of Great Price. As I normally use the New International Version, we’ll refer to it by the title given to it in that translation, The Pearl of Great Value.
Here’s a widely accepted Christian interpretation of this parable:
The merchant is you or me. We decide to look for Christ, and finally, after much effort, we find him. He is The Pearl of Great Value.
Having found Jesus, his gospel, the kingdom of God, and having recognized Jesus as The Pearl of Great Value, we forsake or sell all that we have. Because we have discovered Jesus we then turn our backs on everything we hold dear so that we might amass the necessary spiritual funds to secure The Pearl of Great Value.
That explanation made perfect sense to me for almost four decades. Then came God’s grace.
When I started to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus, who did for us what we cannot do for ourselves; when I started to read the Bible through the lens of God’s amazing grace, given to us on the basis of God’s goodness, not our own, I re-examined the interpretation I had of many passages. I eventually came to take another look at The Pearl of Great Value.
One of the first and necessary steps involved in taking a fresh look at a familiar biblical passage is to subject our assumed interpretation to the context in which it was originally given. The entire chapter of Matthew 13 is telling us what the kingdom of heaven is all about. Most parables in this chapter begin with the phrase, the kingdom of heaven is like…
God’s activity is one of the central characteristics and themes within all of the parables about the kingdom of heaven in this chapter. The kingdom happens, grows, survives and thrives by God’s grace, as compared with human effort. Have you ever heard the saying, often used about a rich, privileged person who inherits wealth and social status, that such a person “woke up, found themselves on third base, and concluded that they had hit a triple?”
The intent of that little bromide is to call attention to the fact that there are people who are born into or inherit great wealth and power and foolishly conclude that they are rich and important because of their own hard work. The idea of someone waking up on third base thinking they have hit a triple is often used disparagingly about those whom others believe haven’t paid their dues, those who haven’t worked their way up through the ranks. They are born, as another idiom relates, with a silver spoon in their mouth, and they act as if they put it there.
But you can’t blame someone who finds themselves in an advantageous position in life deciding that they had a lot to do with their good fortune. After all, in our culture the only acceptable way to wind up on third base, or to continue the baseball metaphor, to hit a home run, is to have earned it the old fashioned way. In our world, no one wants to be thought of as having received their wealth, status or position in life as a gift. We want others to admire us on the basis of our efforts.
As far as our culture is concerned, and for that matter the vast majority of the world of religion is concerned, arriving on third base by grace is just not acceptable. So people who do inherit vast wealth often have to scramble around attempting to make themselves acceptable to others, struggling to gain credibility in their own right, because in our world it is almost shameful to be given something you did not earn.
But you know, the parables in Matthew 13 about God’s kingdom of heaven are all about us winding up on third base because God, the umpire if you like, awards us third base. The Pearl of Great Value is all about the kingdom of heaven which is not secured, gained, apprehended or maintained on the basis of human enterprise.
Because Jesus tells us the pearl found by the merchant has great value, many Christians conclude that Jesus alone could be that pearl. But as precious as Jesus is, we must ask if Jesus should be identified as The Pearl of Great Value.
Is that the only interpretation of this parable? Or, for that matter, does that interpretation fit the message of the gospel, or is there something about that interpretation that doesn’t ring true when we consider the gospel of Jesus Christ? The parable tells us that the merchant sold everything he had because what he had found was of such great value.
Is that how most people react to Jesus? Do they put such a high premium on wanting to follow Jesus that once they discover him they immediately give up everything so that they can have him? Actually, the polar opposite often happens, doesn’t it? Many people react to Jesus with hostility. When we hear about God’s grace, we don’t immediately go and sell everything else. In the religious world, when Jesus is taught, people often cover their ears and hide their eyes. People often run home to their spiritual treasures and traditions and make sure they are secure. When Jesus is taught within religious strongholds people immediately start fortifying their own religious defenses to protect what they cherish. Jesus is a threat to the religious status quo.
If Jesus is The Pearl of Great Value, and we are the merchant, how could we ever have enough resources to purchase him? Isn’t this parable telling us the exact opposite, that only God can purchase The Pearl of Great Value?
What does Paul say, in 2 Corinthians 8:9? "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich."
Jesus came to us in a manger so that one day we would dwell with him forever, in heavenly mansions. We do not possess the necessary spiritual resources to purchase and own him, nor do we have the ability to find him on the basis of a search we initiate. The parable tells us that a merchant finds a pearl that has “great value.” Merchants see value that others might not see. Merchants who buy pearls are experts, they detect and see potential that others do not.
If Jesus is the merchant then this parable is teaching us that we have great value to Jesus. But that’s extremely difficult for us to accept. How could we be a Pearl of Great Value to God?
All of our lives we are taught that we have little or no value. We learn to believe that we have little or no value from every strata of our society. And when it comes to legalistic religion—well, the propaganda that we have no worth whatsoever is drilled into our heads, isn’t it? The central message of Christ-less religion is that we have no spiritual value apart from religious devices, methods, contrivances, ceremonies, elixirs, potions and tonics, which will, we are told, add value to our worthless, sad, pathetic souls.
Religious authorities often tell us that we are in spiritual debt and that we can never pay the bill (which is of course correct)—and they then conclude that the only way we can pay our bill is to “pay our own way.” Religious legalism holds out the hope that we just might be able to pay God back through a lifetime of striving, overcoming and building character. According to grace-less religion, if we catch God on a good day, he might examine our efforts and allow us to inherit the kingdom of heaven on the basis of our own contributions, or at least he will be pleased to see that we have paid down a great deal of the balance we owe.
But this parable doesn’t tell us that we can earn the kingdom of heaven through performance-based religion. This parable is about a merchant, who is in fact the Master, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who redeems people so that they may become of great value. This parable is a concise commentary about the difference between works-based religion and authentic Christianity.
Jesus, the merchant, does not find us as Pearls of Great Value by shopping for us in an exclusive jewelry store. Jesus doesn’t find us as we are displayed, exquisitely exhibited in a spiritual showcase, in all of our spiritual and righteous glory.
Jesus finds us in the murky depths of a spiritual swamp or in a dark dungeon of religious repression. We are not, when he finds us, a Pearl of Great Value. We become a Pearl of Great Value because Jesus purchases us, redeems us from our spiritual predicament, and then transforms us from what we were to what we become, in him and because of him.
In order to become a Pearl of Great Value we must start by accepting God’s grace. We must accept the reality of how useless and bankrupt and without value we are apart from him. But we must also accept the reality of the great value God will impart to us. As a pearl-in-waiting, we, as Paul says, count all of our past but loss that we may know Jesus (Philippians 3:7). We can only have such a perspective if Jesus finds us and extends his grace to us. Once we accept the rescue and redemption Jesus lavishes on us, he transforms us. God transfers the wealth of the riches of his grace to our spiritual account, we become heirs of his kingdom, and then, by his grace, we became a Pearl
of Great Value.
I’m not an expert on pearls, but let me share with you three attributes of a pearl—three attributes of a physical pearl that Jesus uses to depict our relationship with the kingdom of heaven:
# 1: Pearls are formed from all kinds of junk. Pearls are not produced by precious materials, but from common sand, old bone fragments and debris from the ocean. There’s an incredible picture that God inspired Ezekiel to write, having to do with how he finds us and transforms us, turning us into a thing of spiritual beauty.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites: your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised.
Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your own blood,and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, ‘Live!’ I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels. Your breasts were formed and your hair grew, you who were naked and bare.
Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.
I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.
But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his. You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution. Such things should not happen, nor should they ever occur. —Ezekiel 16:3-16
Ezekiel writes about a little abandoned girl, unwashed, naked and completely dependent. She was so despised that she was thrown out into an open field. God finds her, and tells her to live. Because of God’s grace this little girl, as Ezekiel says in verse 7, develops into the most beautiful of jewels, as Jesus says in Matthew 13, a Pearl of Great Value.
Spiritual pearls do not become pearls on the basis of who they are and what they accomplish, they are transformed into pearls on the basis of who God is and how he converts them into his new creation.
# 2: Pearls grow gradually. A cultured pearl, grown on an oyster farm, where oysters are, as I understand it, “artificially inseminated,” can take as long as three years to grow. A natural pearl, which of course is most highly prized, can take anywhere from 50-90 years to grow, depending on
size and quality.
Christians often become disenchanted with what God says he is doing in us and with us. We don’t see much growth. We don’t see much value. Sometimes we even wonder if God is doing anything at all. But pearls grow gradually, and Pearls of Great Value grow even more gradually.
# 3: One of the outstanding qualities about pearls is their ability to reflect light. As Pearls of Great Value, we are given God’s kingdom of heaven because we are given the Light of Christ. We do not produce the Light of Jesus Christ. We do not produce, perform or earn our way into God’s kingdom of heaven.
The light of Jesus shines from his pearls, for it is the very luster and quality of reflecting light that makes some pearls of extraordinary spiritual value. Their ability to reflect the Light of Christ makes them a Pearl of Great Value .
So let me summarize this incredible parable, which packs so much depth of meaning into two verses, by asking and responding to seven questions:
1)Who is the Merchant? Jesus Christ.
2) What did the Merchant sell to buy the pearl?
Everything he had (at least from a human perspective).
He voluntarily came out of the eternity, glory and splendor of heaven to become one of us. Born of Mary, he lived a human life, with all of its limitations, and in the greatest outpouring of love, gave his life for us.
3) What did the Merchant buy with the proceeds of everything he had?
He purchased a Pearl of Great Value .
4) What was the price of that pearl?
Jesus’ own life, as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:18-19.
It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
5) Who is The Pearl of Great Value? You are. We are. The body of Christ is.
All who accept Jesus, all who accept the fact that Jesus finds us and purchases us, all who accept God’s transformation, all who accept the fact that God does for us, by his grace, what we cannot do for ourselves are Pearls of Great Value. By God’s grace, we are Pearls of Great Value.
6) Where are we going? What is our mission? Why are we here? What should we do?
We should be who and what God has made of us. We should shine and reflect the light of Jesus Christ. Always Jesus. Only Jesus. Nothing but Jesus. Jesus must always be central in all that we do. He must be the center stage. He must be in the spotlight. He must be the foundation of all that we say and do. He redeemed us. He owns us. He is Lord. He is Savior. We are who we are only because of him.
We exist to tell a story, a precious love story. It’s a story that has no rhyme or reason, by human logic, but then God’s love often doesn’t “make sense.” Our story as God’s own children is a story of what his divine love has done. Our story is a story of grace.
7) What does God tell us to do with our beauty?
With the fact that he has cleaned us up, decked us with jewels, made us into his own special princess, his own special Pearl of Great Value?
He tells us to use what he has given us, to share his grace with others. He tells us to tell others about his grace. We exist to reflect the Light of Jesus. It’s all about Jesus— it’s all about God’s love—it’s all about God’s grace. Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.
Excerpt from Greg Albrecht's Spiritual Soup for the Hungry Soul - Vol. 1