Adapted from sermon preached at PCC evening service on 23 April 2000

The Lord’s parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Mt 13:44–46) should be considered together because they belong together when they were spoken. They are also parallel in content and have very similar emphases. In this brief study of these twin parables, we want, firstly, to discuss the parables in their original cultural setting, for after all, we live in a very different time, in a very different culture. Secondly, we want to offer an interpretation of the parables, which we believe to be correct. Thirdly, we want to ask ourselves what all these mean to us today.

The Parables in Original Context

The Hidden Treasure

“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” (Mt 13:44).

With beautiful and swift brush strokes, the Lord paints for us a field, which has treasure hid in it. Maybe it is a treasure chest, or maybe it is something else valuable.

How did the treasure get there? We are not told; but it was common in those days for people to hide their treasures in the earth for fear that they might be robbed. Remember how the foolish servants hid the money in the ground in the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Pounds. But there were many other reasons why people hide their treasures in the field. During times of war, especially, when the exchangers were not operative and when treasures hid in the house would most likely be pilfered, many people took to hiding their precious belongings in the earth or in caves.

Remember that when we read about fields in the Scriptures, they are not to be understood as lawns or soccer fields. The Greek word translated “field” (agros) usually refer to a piece of land reserved for agriculture, and in many parts of Palestine, the fields could have caves in them. Remember the “cave of the field of Machpelah” (Gen 23:19), in which Abraham buried Sarah? Remember how the money that was used to betray the Lord Jesus was used to buy a potter’s field to bury strangers in (Mt 27:7). In those days they buried in caves, not in the ground. But that treasures were also hidden in the ground is a known fact. Josephus, the Jewish historian, referred to the incredible wealth that the Jews buried underground but were discovered by the Romans.

In any case, treasures were hidden in the hope that after the war they could be retrieved. Many rich persons fleeing the country would no doubt had hid part of their treasures in the earth or in caves. But many died during the war, before they could retrieve the treasures. Now, Israel was a land acquainted with war. About 170 years before the Lord began to preach, the Maccabean War was raging in the land. That was followed by the invasion of the Romans in 63 B.C. It was only when Herod the Great was made king of Judea that there was some peace. But even then, Herod was quite a distrustful madman, so anything could have happened. After the wars and periods of unrest, it would not be uncommon to find treasures hidden in the fields. Stories of such findings would have spread very quickly: such and such a pauper was walking by a field or taking shelter in a cave, and found a treasure trove and became the richest man in town. It is interesting to note that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered this way. Only that the Bedouin shepherd boy who discovered it did not get much for it because he did not recognise the treasure for what it is.

Here in the Lord’s parable, a man discovered such a treasure trove. We are not told how he discovered it. But it appears that he was not intentionally searching for it. He seemed to have just stumbled upon it. The Greek word translated “find” (euriskô) does not usually speak about seeking for something. It simply says you found it—whatever the means or non-means may be. Many commentators talk about the man searching for treasures. I do not think so. Indeed, most of these commentators will be stuck when they are asked the question: How could the man be digging in somebody else’s field to find the treasure? I believe that the Lord intended to say that he simply stumbled on it. He might have been employed to dig the field for agricultural purpose, or he might have been taking shelter in a cave, or he might have been looking for his stray goats like the Bedouin Arab who found the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he was not intently looking for treasures.

When the man found it, he was filled with joy. We can imagine him exclaiming: “I am rich! There are more riches here than all that I have. This is a treasure that I must have!” But there was only one problem. He knew that the treasure belonged to the owner of the field. If the field belonged to him, the treasure belonged to him. But if he took the treasure and went off, it would be considered theft. And besides, there might just be too much treasure in the field to remove without being noticed. But the good news was that the field could be purchased. During those days the Civil Laws of the Old Testament pertaining to prohibition of selling the land of one’s inheritance was no longer enacted. Also, the law, under certain circumstances, did allow the person to buy a field without disclosing why he was buying it. The field might not have been up for sale. But the man who found the treasure was determined to have it. He hid the treasure back in its original place. He sold all his possession and was prepared to pay the highest asking price for the field.

His determination was rewarded. He managed to buy the field. And of course, he obtained possession of the treasure.

The Pearl of Great Price

“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” (Mt 13:45–46).

Here’s a merchant man, a business man, or as the Greek (emporas) suggests: “a travelling wholesaler.” Unlike the man who found the treasure, the merchant man was seeking goodly pearls. The Greek word translated “seeking” (zêteô) is unmistakable. It speaks of effort and zeal. The merchant man made it his mission to look for goodly pearls.

We all know what pearls are. They are the only organically produced precious stone in nature. They are formed by oysters or clams,—molluscs. When a grain of sand or a parasite gets into an oyster’s shell, the oyster gets irritated, but it does not know how to get rid of it, so it coats it with a substance,—commonly known as mother-of-pearls—that makes it very smooth. And it continues to coat it and coat it until the foreign particle becomes a pearl and is no longer irritating to it. Pearls are usually regarded as precious stones in ancient time. Most of them come from the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. They were and are used for necklaces and other ornaments. The Scripture usually speaks about pearls in association with costly attires, gold, precious stone and other precious materials (1 Tim 2:9; Rev 17:4; 18:12, 16). During the days of our Lord, pearls were very valuable and highly esteemed.

Pearls, however, have different qualities. There are goodly pearls or fine pearls, and there are poorer quality pearls. There are even some pearls that are eaten by Chinese for medicinal values. To me they look the same. I can’t even distinguish a plastic pearl from a real one. But an expert merchant man is able to tell the difference between a good quality pearl and a poor quality one. A good quality pearl can cost a fortune, and their prices keep increasing because they are highly sought after.

Well, the merchant man, in our parable, was seeking goodly pearls, but he found a Pearl of Great Price! You can imagine how he must had felt. He was so thrilled that he went immediately, and sold all his possessions, not just the pearls that he had, and he went to buy the Pearl of Great Price. We are not told what he did with the Pearl, but it came into his possession.

Interpretation of the Parables

Kingdom of Heaven

First of all, we must remember that these two parables are about the Kingdom of heaven. The Lord prefaced both parables with “the kingdom of heaven is like unto….” The Kingdom of heaven, or the Kingdom of God, we must remember, is the Kingdom where Christ is King and Christians are members. Kingdom parables deal with various aspects of the Kingdom of heaven. Sometimes it speaks about the numerical growth of the Kingdom; sometimes it speaks of the inward growth in grace of members of the Kingdom; and other times, it speaks about the outward manifestation of the Kingdom, the church. What does these two parables talk about? Let me suggest that they have to do with the value of the Kingdom of God.

Similarities and Differences

The two parables are parallel in four ways: (1) a reference to something of value; (2) the finding of it; (3) the selling of all that the finder has; and (4) the buying of the thing of value.

They are, however, significantly different in several ways: (1) The Treasure in the field was found quite by accident; whereas the Pearl of Great Price was sought after by the merchant. (2) In the Parable of the Treasure, joy at finding the Treasure is mentioned; in the parable of the Pearl, it is not—though we may infer somewhat of the man’s feelings when he found the Pearl, but the Lord makes no mention of his joy. (3) The Treasure was hidden again and the plot of land was purchased; whereas the Pearl was simply purchased with the money that the merchant obtained from selling all that he had. (4) In the Parable of the Treasure, the action of the man after he found the Treasure is related with the present tenses: hideth, goeth, selleth and buyeth; whereas in the Parable of the Pearl the same actions are related with the past tenses (aorist, perfect and imperfect): found, went, sold, and bought.

Quite obviously then, the two parables may have similar meanings, but they are not exactly parallel. But because of their similarities, we can be quite sure that the central focus of the two parables are in exactly the points where they concur, i.e., (1) the thing of value; (2) the finding of it; (3) the selling of all for it; and (4) the buying of it.

The differences, however, give us different aspects of looking at the central. But some of the details are simply not important. For example, I do not think it is important that the Treasure in the parable of the Treasure was hidden again. He had to hide it in order to go and sell all he had to purchase the field. In the case of the parable of the Pearl, the merchant could have paid a deposit, and the effect would be the same. I believe there is no significance in this step. Remember that parable is not an allegory. Similarly, it is very tempting to interpret the field in the parable of the Treasure as being the Bible. It sounds quite right, we should search the Scripture and dig for treasures from within. I have heard expositors preach this way. I have read it in commentaries, and I have preached this way myself. But this is simply not what the parable is intended to teach. And moreover, remember that in the parable of the Treasure, there is no indication that the man searched for the Treasure. So we must abandon this idea of looking at the field as being the Bible, no matter how attractive it sounds. We must be true to the Scriptures.

Meaning from Similarities

What does the Treasure or the Pearl of Great Price symbolise? The Lord does not tell us in clear. But each item is valuable, is to be sought after, and gives great advantage to the person who finds it and embraces it. What is it in the Kingdom of God that has this quality? I have no doubt it is Christ Jesus our Lord Himself! The Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price both symbolise Christ. In Him there is an abundance of all that is rich and useful for us in this life and in eternity.

The Apostle Paul is emphatic that any spiritual blessing that we receive comes through Christ. He says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3). Paul is primarily talking about our salvation. This alone is worth forsaking all to obtain. But that is not all, Paul also says: “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” (Eph 4:7–8).

This is how we must understand Paul when he says in Colossians 2:3, “In whom [i.e., Christ] are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Similarly the Apostle John reminds us that we may receive grace only through Christ: “And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace” (Jn 1:16). Every spiritual gift, whether of wisdom, knowledge, righteousness, holiness, grace, mercy and peace, these are laid up for us in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:30). When we embrace Christ, these gifts are bestowed on us. Christ, then, is something to be sought after and something of great value.

What should our attitude be toward Christ when we have discovered Him or discovered of Him, and known Him to be the source of all spiritual blessing, and to be the most important treasure in our life? The man who found the Treasure in the field did not even inquire how much the field costs, he sold all that he had to obtain the Treasure. The merchant man did the same. He sold all he had to buy the Pearl of Great Price. So it is with Christ and the Gospel. When you have discovered Christ and tasted of His infinite value, then you will not let anything stand in your way of having Him. You’ll do all you can to obtain Christ—whatever price it may cost you.

Everything that must go in order that I may have Christ must go. My sins must go; I will gladly cast them aside. My bad habits must go; I will strive to overcome them. My friends who entice me to sin must go. I will give them up. If the riches of the world hinder me from knowing Christ, then I must rid my life of the world. This was what Moses did when he gave up the good life in Egypt in order to lead the Jews out. So the author of Hebrews tells us that Moses “[esteemed] the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward” (Heb 11:26). If I have been relying on my good works, and I know that I cannot rely on my good works and have Christ at the same time, then I will count my good works as dung, that I may win Christ. If you would have a saving benefit by Christ, you must be willing to part with all that you have, that you may make Christ sure to yourself. You must count everything but loss, that you may win Christ, and be found in Him. Possessing Christ and being found in His Kingdom must become the highest priority in your life.

Now, of course, the parables are not teaching that a person’s efforts or sacrifices will gain his or her salvation. They are simply emphasising the need to be wholeheartedly submitted to Christ and His cause regardless of personal costs and disadvantages. The question of whether salvation is by works or by grace is not even in focus in the parables. We are taught in other parts of Scriptures that our salvation is entirely by grace through faith in Christ, and based on His finished work of Redemption. Christ died on behalf of His Church that they may have salvation in Him. We get a hint of this fact in the parables when we consider that nothing apart from Christ matters. All the possessions of the man and the merchant became worthless to them when they compared their worth to the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price. All our righteousness, apart from Christ, are filthy rags in the sight of God. We can do nothing to save ourselves. Only Christ can save.

Meaning from Differences

Firstly, we note that the most major difference between the two parables is that in the parable of the Treasure, the Treasure was found without the man looking for it; whereas in the case of the Parable of the Pearl, the merchant spent much time travelling and looking for goodly pearl until he found the Pearl of Great Price. What is the significance of this difference? I believe it is this: that there is no one standard way by which a person comes unto Christ. We must never straightjacket Christ and our salvation and say that unless you come by this particular way, you are not saved. No, some will discover Christ without having diligently looked for Him.

A man meets someone on the street and he witnesses to him, and as providence has it that he is all ready to receive the Gospel. The Lord changes his heart and he is saved. Rarely does this happen, but can we rule it out?

Someone is invited to hear a sermon on the Lord’s Day for the first time. He heard the Gospel; and his heart is pricked and repents wholeheartedly of his sin, and he embraces Christ. Must we doubt his salvation? It rarely happens this way, but can we rule it out?

Someone else spends much time seeking, questioning, attending sermons, arguing, and reading. For a long time he is not convinced. Then one day, it dawn upon him how silly he was to oppose the command of Christ, and he forsake his ways and he embraces Christ. Many were saved in this way during the days of the Puritans and during the time when great preachers were preaching. Many of the Christians saw the light only after an intensive period of seeking or preparationism. But we must never say that unless you come this way, you are not saved. Some would be seeking, some would not be, when the Lord converts. Though I personally believe that in most cases, there is a period of seeking and searching, I must not be tempted to brush aside the testimony of anyone who claim to have found Christ suddenly—unless of course their lives glaringly speak about their being deluded.

The Scripture abounds with examples of sudden conversion and of those who seek. We think of Paul, Nathanael, the Samaritan woman at the well, etc., who discovered Christ without so much as searching for Him. On the other hand, the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, and the Bereans would be examples of those who went through a time of seeking.

Now, the second significant difference is that the Parable of the Treasure speaks of joy at finding the Treasure, whereas there is no mention in the case of the Parable of the Pearl. We must not make too big a case out of this, but I suggest that this is related to the previous point that we all come to Christ in different ways. And because we are made differently, some of us may have great expression of joy. Some of us may feel relief. Some of us know it in our hearts and are grateful to Christ for granting us salvation, but we do not know how to express ourselves openly. So let us not judge one another or a new convert base on the conversion experience. None of us may say: “You did not come through this way, therefore you are not saved.” Salvation is found in Christ and Christ alone, but the way to Christ, and the immediate response can be varied as the number of persons who come to Him at any one time.


What do we say to these two parables?

First, I must say a word to those of us who are already in Christ. Bear in mind that these parables are not only directed at unbelievers. They are directed to believers and unbelievers. In fact, the two parables were spoken to the disciples only. You see; our salvation is not just something that happens at a point of time. Yes, we first embrace Christ at a point of time when the Holy Spirit first changes our heart, and for once we find Christ lovely, and then as we embrace Him and are justified in Him. But then our salvation does not stop there. We are saved, and we are being saved and we will be saved. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, says the Apostle Paul.

Every Christian must be constantly dying to sin and living unto righteousness. And so the parables teach us that we must be willing to abandon anything that may stand in our way of knowing, and being wholeheartedly submitted to Him. Are you laying up treasures upon the earth and neglecting to lay up treasures in heaven? You must re-order your life. Is there anything in your life that hinders you in your growth in the faith? Is it sin? You must repent of it. You know it in your heart. Is it a matter of indifference, but it is weighing you down? You must by the grace of God cast it away. Do you find yourself very tired on the Lord’s Day and find yourself not benefiting from the sermon because you keep falling asleep? Resolve to sleep earlier on Saturday. Resolve to be found at home on Saturday evening unless there is no other day to do what you need to do. Make knowing Christ and growing to be like Christ the greatest priority in your life.

Now, I would like to say a word to anyone who may be out of the Kingdom. Allow me to use the picture of the merchant seeking goodly pearls. I would suggest that there is a sense in which every person in the world is seeking goodly pearls. Everyone born into this world knows that there is something missing in his life. What is this something? May I suggest that it is ‘happiness.’ Happiness is, you may say, the chief end of the natural man. It is not intended by God, to be the true end of man which is the glory of God, but it is the natural inclination of the natural man.

Every individual in this world is pursuing happiness by seeking the pearls which he believes will bring happiness. One man will be seeking the pearl of wealth; another will be seeking the pearl of honour; another will be seeking the pearl of learning, another will be seeking the pearl of professional qualifications. But all these, you realise, are not able to produce one bit of happiness that will fill the deep void that is in man. These are all counterfeit pearls. They do not address the part of man in which true happiness can be cultivated. They do not touch the soul. The soul of the natural man is dead. He has no means to be happy because he has no means to commune with his Creator. Yet man spends his time looking for all these counterfeit pearls.

Jesus Christ is a Pearl of Great Price, a pearl of infinite value, which will make those who have it truly rich, and truly happy, and have a life that is truly abundant. Jesus Christ alone is able to fill the void in the hearts of man. If you want to commune with God, you must have Christ as your mediator. If you want to have true happiness, you must have your soul resurrected, and it can be resurrected only if you embrace that Pearl of Great Price.

In our Lord’s parable, the merchant saw the Pearl of Great Price, and he immediately recognised it. He says: “I must have it. All the other pearls that I have are not worthy to be compared with this one. All the other pearls may not bring true happiness. I know this one will. I will sell all I have to obtain it. I will sell all the other pearls in my collection if they must go.”

Do you not see that your life is one of collecting pearls. And all the pearls you have in your bag are of no real value. They will not bring you any real joy or peace, but will weigh you down on the day of judgement.

Oh friends, do you not see the Pearl of Great Price presented in the Gospel. He alone is able to give you the peace and the meaning in life that you are looking for. But you cannot have Him if you are clinging on to the other pearls in your bag. The Lord Jesus said: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Mt 7:13–14). The way that leads to life is very narrow. You cannot enter in but that you have the Pearl of Great Price, but you cannot carry anything else. Are you carrying a bag of pride? You must discard it. Are you carrying a baggage of certificates and degrees, and you have been relying on them, thinking that these will be your source of happiness? These must be discarded from your heart, or there would be no place for the Pearl of Great Price. Are you carrying a bag of sin and vices, with which you derive fleeting enjoyment? You must discard the bag and bury it, you cannot have the Pearl of Great Price, but that your hands be free of such as may entice you to sin. Amen.

JJ Lim