"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." (Matthew 13:45-46, ESV)
This parable, like the one that preceded it (The Hidden Treasure) consist of two sentences. The first sentence says the same, "the kingdom of heaven is like..." The second part of the sentence contains the main point or the teaching of the parable. As previously stated these two parables are only found in Matthew's gospel. This is significant. The Holy Spirit determined that Matthew record these parables for the benefit of his audience, which is Jewish Christians. These two parables seem to form a pair.
However, if you look closely they are not balanced. In the previous parable the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure. In this parable the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant. This is why I chose not to expound them as a pair and why I have chosen to explain them separately.
In today's parable, we discover that a merchant is searching for pearls. As a matter fact he is looking for special pearls or as Matthew says, "fine" pearls. Our text says that this merchant found one pearl of great value and so he went and sold all that he had in order to purchase the pearl.
It seems that in the Old Testament period pearls were not well known. However by the time of Jesus pearls had become a status symbol of very wealthy people. For example, Paul told Timothy to teach the godly women that they should not imitate the way of the wealthy world, "women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire." (II Timothy 2:9) Revelation 18:11-12 says, "And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for them, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls..."
Even valuable teachings were considered important enough not to be shared with those who had no use nor desire to understand them, "Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you." (Matthew 7:6) Pearls have become popular and quite valuable. Pearls were in great demand. Merchants traveled to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and even India in order to find good pearls. Apparently the pearls that came from the Red Sea were considered inferior. The best pearls came from the Persian Gulf or off the coasts of Ceylon and India. A merchant had to travel far and under difficult circumstances to find bigger, better, and more valuable pearls.
So what does this parable mean? What does Jesus want his disciples to know? What would they have understood?
First, the pearl is not the church nor is the pearl Jesus. Remember the first part of this sentence begins, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like..." Like what? A merchant who is searching for fine pearls. It does not say the church is like or Jesus is like. Remember any time you interpret scripture you must know who the author is, who the audience is, the age (history/timing) of the passage, and most importantly the argument of the passage. Who is our author? Matthew, a Jewish tax collector. Who is his audience? Primarily Jewish Christians. When was it written? In the mid 60's and certainly prior to AD 70. What is the main argument of his gospel? Matthew is demonstrating Jesus' Messianic identity and that he is the inheritor of the Davidic kingdom and that he is the King of the Jews who will establish the long awaited mediatorial kingdom of heaven. So, our job is to discover the meaning of this parable in line with Matthew's purpose of recording them.
Jesus is teaching a contrast with these two parables. Remember, Jesus is now beginning to experience severe persecution and opposition. John the Baptist is having some doubts about Jesus and sends a delegation to him to see if he really is the Messiah. Jesus is now denouncing cities with curses, (Chorazin and Bethsaida.) Many wanted to see a sign from Jesus to prove his claims and they wanted proof of his authority to teach and to do what he was doing among them.
Jesus uses the parable of the buried treasure to show that some will come upon the truths of the Kingdom of Heaven (God) by "dumb luck." They will seem to stumble over the kingdom and find forgiveness and entrance without having looked for it. They will have to be willing to exchange all that they are for this kingdom. They must be willing to deny themselves, pick up their cross daily, and follow Jesus. They must "pay" the purchase price. The point is they really weren't looking for the kingdom of heaven. God sought them, He came looking for them in the form of Jesus. Jesus came to his own. He came to the Jews and sought Jews for the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus uses the parable of the pearl of great value to show that some people are searching for something that they think is a God who will forgive them or show them mercy. They may have searched all of their life for what is the greatest "value." For example, think of the Apostle Paul. All of Paul's life he had been seeking the peace and joy of God. Martin Luther said that if ever a man could be saved by monkery that man was he. Think of Nicodemus, he was a Rabbi and sought for God and his truth. Justin Martyr describes his search as wandering from one philosophy to philosophy until he found the elusive secret peace of Christianity.
Granted, men are dead in trespasses and sin. They are born spiritually blind and Romans makes it clear that none search for the God of the bible. John makes is clear that no one comes to the Father unless the Father draws him to God. This parable shows men search for a pearl of value, peace, salvation, hope, etc. and one day due to God's grace they come upon the pearl of the greatest value, the kingdom of heaven, and like the man who found the buried treasure, he too must exchange all that he has and is for all that the kingdom is.
Kistemaker says in his book, The Parables, "It is Christ who offers the treasure and the pearl to people traveling along life's highway. Some of these travelers are searching. Some are wandering. Suddenly they meet Jesus and find in him a priceless treasure. Their response is one of total surrender."
This would have been good news for the Jews. This would have been very encouraging for the disciples as opposition grows and interest in Christ wanes. The kingdom has already been likened to that which starts very small but grows very huge in benefit and promise. Now they hear that some of their countrymen whether by stumbling across Christ or by searching for a true religious experience will find their way into the kingdom of heaven.