Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Two Verses, Three Interpretations

My preferred interpretation of yesterday’s kingdom parable has precious little in it that directly applies to the church, so I thought today we might consider two more verses from Matthew 13’s prophetic look at the kingdom of heaven from the perspective of the first century Jew.

In this case, the text is even shorter than yesterday’s parable (at least in English), but the folks that gave us chapters and verses in our Bibles elected to chop this verse in half.

And so long as we’re all talking about the same two verses, what does it really matter how they have been divided?

Verses 45 and 46 of Matthew 13:
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Okay. Again, we have a series of terms in the Lord’s story that require us to find something in the spiritual realm to which they correspond. Let’s start with (1) merchant; (2) search; (3) fine pearls; (4) one pearl of great value; and (5) sold all he had and bought it.

And let’s bring on our first candidate …

Interpretation #1

From the venerable Matthew Henry:
“All the children of men are busy; one would be rich, another would be honourable, another would be learned; but most are deceived, and take up with counterfeits for pearls. Jesus Christ is a Pearl of great price; in having him, we have enough to make us happy here and for ever. A man may buy gold too dear, but not this Pearl of great price. When the convinced sinner sees Christ as the gracious Saviour, all things else become worthless to his thoughts.”
Let’s chart this again for ease of reference:
Term Interpretation
merchant convinced sinner
search quest for meaning in life
fine pearls riches, honor, education
one pearl of great value Jesus Christ
sold all that he had and bought it regards everything but Christ as worthless
Now, the Lord Jesus is compared to many things in scripture. A pearl is not one of them. Nor is the “convinced sinner” required to “sell all” and “buy” Christ. Salvation is a free gift, as Paul’s epistles declare. The sinner adds nothing to it, no matter how convinced he may be.

And sure, discipleship can be costly, but entering into a relationship with the Lord Jesus today does not in every instance demand that we first reject riches, honor or learning. We may, as Paul did, come to the place where we have no regard for them by comparison to the Lord Jesus, but we do not all start there, nor must we.

Further, the similarities between this parable and the one in v44 are significant; the two are almost parallel. And the best interpretation of the “hidden treasure” parable I have seen has Christ as the man who found the treasure and purchased the field. Henry’s explanation inverts the image only one verse later, making Christ himself the treasure. That seems unlikely.

Thus I find Henry’s view a bit of a stretch both theologically and with respect to interpretive consistency. I think we can do better.

Interpretation #2

Courtesy Ellicott’s commentary:
“The man has been seeking the ‘goodly pearls’ of wisdom, holiness, and truth, and has found them in at least some of their lower forms. Then he is led to the higher knowledge of communion with the life of Christ, and for that is content to resign all that he had before prized most highly. Such, in the records of the New Testament, was the history of St. Paul when he counted ‘all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Philippians 3:8)”
This not too far off Henry’s take, but different enough to note:
Term Interpretation
merchant spiritual seeker
search spiritual inquiry
fine pearls wisdom, holiness and truth
one pearl of great value knowledge of communion with the life of Christ
sold all that he had and bought it counted all things but loss
Okay. Here Ellicott improves on Henry by eliminating the theological problem of “buying” Christ, so let’s give him credit for that. He makes the pearl the “knowledge of communion with the life of Christ” rather than salvation. His “merchant” is not said to be a sinner; he is already pursuing righteousness, presumably in a relationship with God. (Really, in Ellicott’s take on the parable, the questions of relationship and salvation are not addressed at all, and this is almost surely deliberate.)

Still, I’m not entirely satisfied. The inversion of the identity of the purchaser from the treasure parable just doesn’t sit comfortably.

One more try?

Interpretation #3

Here’s my personal favorite, as set out by John W. Ritenbaugh:
“We are not the active agent in choosing Christ. John 15:16 specifically refers to Christ’s apostles, but the principle extends to us: ‘You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.’ Jesus clearly states in Luke 19:10, ‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’

By this time it ought to be clear that Jesus Christ is the merchant, the price paid was His life, and the church (the individual Christian in a very narrow sense) is the pearl. The church is one pearl, one body, composed of those He has sought out through the ages to be a habitation for God by His Spirit and who will be His bride at His return.”
Ritenbaugh’s interpretation maps out like this:
Term Interpretation
merchant Jesus Christ
search “The Son of Man has come to seek …” (Luke 19:10)
one pearl of great value the church
sold all that he had and bought it gave his life
This view eliminates both the theological difficulties and interpretive inconsistencies that accompany Henry’s and Ellicott’s explanations.

A variation on this interpretation makes the “one pearl” specific to the Gentiles of Revelation 7:9-14 who are said to have come out of the great tribulation, as set out here.

The problem I have with getting that specific about the “one pearl” is threefold:
  1. While the merchant is seeking fine pearls (which surely includes the aforementioned tribulation group), it is the “one pearl of great price” which prompts him to sell all he has, something that accords well with the devotion of the Lord Jesus expressed in passages like Ephesians 5, the object of which is specifically said to be “the church”.
  2. It seems to me that making the Gentile tribulation martyrs the “one pearl” requires taking too narrow a view of the phrase “kingdom of heaven”, limiting it specifically to the tribulation / millennial periods. Such a view of the kingdom makes it difficult to consistently interpret the other five parables found in Matthew 13, some of which inarguably encompass the Church Age.
  3. William MacDonald’s view of the “treasure” in the previous parable is not limited to the tribulation period. He takes the treasure to represent the godly remnant throughout Israel’s history, as referenced in Kings and Malachi, and the language used by the OT prophets well supports his view. If the two parables are indeed parallels, which I think they are, then the church as a whole is simply a better fit than Gentiles coming out of the great tribulation period.
Once again, this is an area of scripture about which good expositors differ. All the same, some explanations are more plausible and consistent than others.

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