Occasionally, I’m asked questions about theology or Scripture interpretation by folks at church. This week I received a question, the answer to which I thought might be helpful to the rest of the church. Here is the paraphrased question followed by my answer.
What is the proper way to understand Matthew 13:44-46?
44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,
46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
The typical interpretation is that Jesus is the treasure of the Christian’s life and he calls all of us to a total surrender of our lives to be his disciple. Is that the intended meaning of these parables? Is it possible that the parables are teaching that the treasure is the church and Christ sold all that he had and bought the field/pearl of great value, which is the children of the Kingdom (Heb 12:2; 2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:7; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23)?
This is a great question and affords a good opportunity for a lesson on how to interpret parables.
Parables are actually quite easy to interpret once you know one main rule of thumb. Here it is: parables are typically intended to make one point. We should not interpret them allegorically, as if every detail in the parable represents something in reality. So rather than asking, “what does the treasure represent? What does the field represent? Who does the man represent? What does all that he sells represent?” we should simply ask, “what is the main point?”
In a parable, there is a reality part and a picture part. The picture demonstrates something about the reality. In both parables in Matthew 13:44 and 13:45-46, the reality part is the kingdom of heaven – “the kingdom of heaven is like...” So, what is being demonstrated about the kingdom of heaven? It is of great value and is worth the sacrifice of all one has.
Now, could the treasure represent the church? When we look to interpret a passage (any passage, not just a parable), we want to make sure we have done a thorough job of observing what the text explicitly tells us. In this case, “the kingdom of heaven” is what is explicitly described by the parable. So to say that the treasure represents the church, forces us to conclude that the “kingdom of heaven” is the church. That’s where we run into trouble here. If we take a look at the usage of “the kingdom of heaven” in all of Matthew, we find that it is not accurate to say that the kingdom of heaven equals the church.
“The Kingdom of Heaven” represents God’s reign through Jesus Christ over all people. It is a present reality for those who are in Christ, but its ultimate fulfillment is found in the second coming of Christ. It represents more than just a body of believers, but is the entire kingdom of God. If you were to look at each of the occurrences of the phrase in Matthew and try to substitute “the church” for it, you would have difficulty making sense of the passages.
For example, the phrase acts like bookends for the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3,10). To substitute “the church” for “the kingdom of heaven” here loses the thrust of the passage. These people are not inheriting a body of believers. They are inheriting the comfort, satisfaction, mercy, and sonship of the kingdom of God. It is the entire reality of the future kingdom.
Next, could we say that God or Christ is the one buying the field and the pearl in Matthew 13? Certainly, there are parables in the Gospels where God is depicted as finding something (sheep – Matt 18:10-14, wedding guests – Matt 22:1-14, a lost coin – Luke 15:8-10, the prodigal son – Luke 15:11-32). But another important principle in interpreting parables is that each one must be interpreted by itself. That God finds lost things in other parables does not mean that this is the correct interpretation here. To say that God is the man finding and buying the field and the pearl, we must have strong contextual reasons for doing so. We must return to the point of these two parables. Is the parable intended to communicate something about God or about the kingdom? It must be the kingdom since God is not mentioned.
Further, nowhere in the non-parabolic uses of “the kingdom of heaven” is it depicted as being purchased by Christ or God.
On the other hand, I think there are good contextual reasons to think that the emphasis is on the value of the kingdom to the person who finds it. First, Matthew 13 is where parables are first used in Matthew. The purpose of the parables is to hide the truth of the kingdom from the Jews (13:10-15). But to the disciples, Jesus says, “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (13:11a, 16). In the parables of vv44-46, something of great value that was hidden is being found. It is so valuable that one should abandon all to take possession of it. The placement of these parables at this point in the book highlights the fact that the kingdom that the Jews have sought for hundreds of years is hidden right under their noses, while others are seeing it for the value that it is, worthy of abandoning all.
Add to this the passages in Matthew that speak of the self-denial required to be a disciple of Christ (10:37-39; 16:24-28; 19:16-22), and you have a good contextual case for holding to the typical interpretation of these parables.
One last thing to do when evaluating the validity of your interpretation is to check the interpretations of others. You need to be careful what commentaries you consult because some are written by people with very troubling presuppositions, i.e. the Bible isn’t inerrant, these words were not actually spoken by Jesus, etc.
If you search the interpretations of strong orthodox interpreters and cannot find one that agrees with your interpretation, that should be a big red flag. I’ve probably said it a hundred times: in the 2,000 year history of the church, what are the odds that you or I will be the first ones to get an interpretation right on any given passage? Slim. Very slim. It’s not altogether impossible, but not at all probable. I was not able to find any commentators that held the view that these parables depict Jesus/God buying the church. Rather, they all held the traditional view.
If you would like to submit a question to be addressed on this blog, please email it to me. I cannot guarantee that it will be answered here, but I will do my best to at least email a personal response.
Posted by Greg Birdwell