Pearl and Leaven

Sermon by Cory Brock on Oct 6

Matthew 13:33-35, 44-46

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We’re starting a new series at nighttime in October looking at some of the parables in the gospels, and we’ll look tonight at Matthew 13:44-46. Parables are simple stories that Jesus was taking daily life experiences that people had all the time in the first century and telling a very simple story but teaching a cosmic lesson from a normal life happenstance that people would have experienced all the time. And in the bulletin it says I’m going to do the pearl and the leaven, which is really four parables. It’s the mustard seed and the leaven and the treasure and the pearl because they come together in sets of two. But that was way too ambitious after I started looking at it, so we’re just going to look at the second set of two, which is found in Matthew 13:44-46. It’s a tiny little text tonight with a really, really big point. So let’s read God’s Word. Let’s pray and then we’ll read God’s Word. Let’s pray.

Come, O Spirit of Christ now, and change us, we ask, with Your living and holy words. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.

So Matthew 13, verses 44 to 46: 

“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.

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.”

This is God’s Word.

So we’re going to learn three lessons tonight from these two little parables. The fact of the one pearl or the one treasure, and then the identity of the pearl, and finally finding and seeking the pearl.

The Fact of the One Pearl or One Treasure 

So first, the fact of the one pearl or the one treasure. Jesus is taking normal things in the life of a first century person and using it to tell stories and make metaphors to teach us something. And the two that He uses here are the man who is working in a field and a merchant, a salesman, who buys and sells pearls and probably other gems at the marketplace. And we know that the people at the time were very, very familiar with those two activities and we are somewhat familiar with those two activities, but let’s just think a little bit about the context of each of them. The first one, a man is working in a field and he finds treasure. And finding treasure, we all know, is a universal story in the human mind. We write stories about people finding treasure. It’s the basis of every pirate’s career, right? And for us, as modern people, the idea of finding treasure in a field is pretty farfetched. We don’t really think of it as an actual possibility. It’s the stuff of Treasure Island and the stuff of Indiana Jones - finding treasure. 

But not so much at this time. Back in the ancient world, in the first century world, finding treasure wasn’t that uncommon because there are no banks. There are no banks. So if you have gold or silver or pearls or you come across currency that you want to keep, you don’t have the option to put it in First Commercial or Regions or whatever. You would maybe bury it in your house or you would take it out to your field and you would walk and find granddad’s great oak tree and walk ten paces south and bury it next to the river. Or maybe that’s a bad idea because of erosion! But you would bury it somewhere! And the commentators say that there were reasons for that. One, not only do you not have a bank, but it’s not uncommon that you in your lifetime, living in a place like Jerusalem in the first century, would be overrun by another clan, tribe, nation, people, attacked. Somebody would ring the bell in the village and say, “The Orks are coming!” And what would you do? You would take your goods, your money, your silver, your gold, and you would bury it and hope that you survived. But sometimes you didn’t survive. Or the other circumstance is you might be called to war, or if you’re a merchant you might have to travel all over the Mediterranean and before you left you would bury your goods and hope that you came back. And sometimes people didn’t come back and so a hundred years later, farmhand Joe is plowing the field and he strikes a box and there it is - treasure! 

In fact, I found this week as I was looking into this that in 1933 there was an Oxford PhD student named G.F. Hill who did a study of Roman and Jewish laws concerning the funding of treasure. It’s called, Treasure Trove: The Law and Practice of Antiquity. I’m sure you can find it in all the bookstores nationwide! But this parable, it’s probably a poor man, normally a farmhand, a man working in the field like this would have been poor. And he finds something great. And he liquidates, he sells everything, he gets rid of all his possessions so that he can possess that which he’s found. He turns his life upside-down to get it. 

Now in the second one, in the pearl, normally a merchant who deals in pearls in the ancient world would have to travel to the sea, to the Mediterranean in this case, and he would exchange oysters or pearls with fishermen and he would take them back to the cities and he would be part of a more elite market where he would sell pearls and he was probably very, very wealthy because he did this. And so in the first parable you have an incredibly poor man who finds treasure accidentally in a field, and the second you have a rich, wealthy merchant who is already searching for pearls. And the reason we think he is probably so rich and that he would have sold to the elite is because gems and stones, pearls, gold, was so much more valuable in the first century than it is today, proportionally. There’s the famous tale of Cleopatra who dies just before Jesus is born, the great queen, that she, in proportion to our modern money, claims to have possessed a pearl that was worth $4 billion if it would have been transferred to the 21st century. Gems, pearls, stones - they were much more valuable proportionally then than they even are today. 

And so this was probably a man who had a lot of money and was trading pearls all the time, but the sense of the text here is nuanced. He’s looking for pearls to sell to make money, but then, as the text says, he finds the one. The one pearl. Totally unexpected. One that he never thought was out there, that he never thought existed, that enraptured his heart, that was so beautiful, that was beyond all measure in this sense. It doesn’t tell us this explicitly, but the passage just ends and the implicit idea is that he went and he sold everything, even his business, all the other pearls, to get the one. He didn’t want to sell it; he wanted to possess it.

And what does it mean, the two stories together? They only have, together, one meaning. And what’s the meaning. Well since I’m the first one to talk about parables, I thought I might just say a little bit about how you interpret a parable to get at the meaning here, exactly what’s going on. The New Testament scholars, when you read them, will say that all the parables can be classified as three-point parables, three-point complex parables, two-point parables, or one-point parables. And the only three-point complex parable is the parable of the prodigal son because it has so many different angles and sides to it. But most of the parables, the forty-six parables in the gospels, are one-point parables. You’re not meant to look at the details and all the characters, at all the little aspects of it, but that fades into the background when only one real simple message emerges. 

And this is the point; the message. The meaning of this one-point parable - there is a treasure, there is a pearl, one, that is so valuable that it is worth sacrificing anything to get it. There is one treasure, one pearl, that is so beyond value that it is worth giving anything to get it. And when you find this treasure, when you find this one pearl, it doesn’t just change a part of you. It doesn’t improve your life. It doesn’t exist as a compartment that you add to your weekly life. It reorders you; it changes everything. It reprioritizes; it turns you upside-down.

The Identity of the Pearl

So what is it, the identity, secondly, of the pearl, of the treasure? What is it? When we were living in Edinburgh I was pastoring at a church there and the senior minister was named Derek. And one day, a little boy before the service came to Derek and he said, “I find the preaching here to be very boring.” And you know, that was no surprise to us, we figured that! But we asked him, “You know, why are you saying that?” And he said, “Because no matter what you start off talking about, by the end of it you always say the same thing. It’s Jesus this, or Jesus that, and I want you to talk about other stuff!” And you know, when I asked you, “What’s the identity of the one pearl, of the great treasure that would change everything, this of course, we all know we’re going to say, ‘Jesus. Jesus Christ is the answer to that question.’” 

Yes, but also no. Yes, but there’s more to say than that and that’s because of the subject of the parable. Did you catch it? These parables are similes. A simile is a comparison using the word “like.” And what’s the subject of the simile in verse 44? It says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like the one pearl.” The one treasure, the one pearl - we can say the point this way - Jesus is telling you, me, all of us tonight, “The kingdom of heaven is so valuable that it is worth sacrificing everything for.” 

And so that begs the question, “What is the kingdom of heaven?” The kingdom of heaven, if you’ve read through Matthew’s gospel, appears all over the place throughout the gospel of Matthew. The Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Right? And in Matthew 4 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry it says that the first thing He did after He was baptized, after He was tempted by Satan, is that He went into all of Galilee preaching, teaching about the kingdom of heaven. That was His message throughout all of Galilee. What is it? Well everybody who goes to RTS Jackson - I think they still do this - has to read a book by a guy named Herman Ridderbos, and it’s a big old book called, The Coming of the Kingdom. It’s not the most fun book, but it is an insightful book and it’s all about this idea of the kingdom of heaven. And Ridderbos says that more than anything else in the Bible, the kingdom of heaven is a power that’s come down. The kingdom of heaven is a power that’s come down. It’s a King who has come down with power, is what he says. 

And sometimes the best way to understand a tough concept that’s all over the Bible that we can’t flesh out entirely right now is to ask, “What is the opposite? What’s the opposite in the Bible of the kingdom of heaven?” And that can help you kind of wake up and see, “What is the kingdom of heaven?” What’s the opposite of the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus tells us really explicitly what it is. He says, “The kingdom, My kingdom, the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom of this world.” So Jesus says that the opposite of the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of this world. What’s the kingdom of this world? The kingdom of this world in the book of John and in other places in the Bible is the fact that when God created a good, perfect world and put humanity in the Garden of Eden that Satan, the great power of evil came in and tempted it and brought it into the reality of sin. The kingdom of this world is the fact that right now Satan and the principalities and our own flesh dominates, reigns, rules as a king over much of creation; that we’re dominated in this lifetime by the flesh, by Satan, and by the world. That’s the kingdom of this world. It’s a power, the power of evil, the power of the absence of the good that exists in all of us. That’s the kingdom of this world. And so the kingdom of heaven is the opposite. It’s the power of a King come down who can dispel the kingdom of this world, who can put away the kingdom of evil that dominates the world as it exists right now. 

What’s the kingdom of heaven? Well you can just hone down in on that words “heaven” to get at it. What’s heaven in the Bible? We heard tonight from Billy that one of the ways the Bible uses the word “heaven” is that it’s a place where people go when they die if they believe in Jesus. That’s what heaven means sometimes. But most of the time in the Bible the word “heaven” simply refers to the sky and the stars and the space that’s above us. And then sometimes in the Bible there’s a third sense to the word “heaven” and it simply means anywhere where God lives. The most basic idea of heaven is anywhere that God lives. And so one theologian says this, “The kingdom of heaven is God’s presence with God’s people in God’s place.” It’s wherever God dwells. That’s the kingdom of heaven. Wherever God reigns, wherever God rules, wherever God comes as light and dispels the darkness. And so Ridderbos is telling us the kingdom of heaven is the King that’s come down. He’s brought heaven down to earth. It’s the ultimate point of all of existence. Ephesians 1:9-10, Jesus Christ came to unite all things in heaven with things on earth, to bring heaven down, to bring the presence of God, to dispel the powers of darkness.

In Matthew 4, Jesus went around Galilee. That’s 2800 square miles going to every single village preaching about the kingdom of heaven. And He brought the message of the kingdom of heaven - that the King had come. But the question is, “What does it look like?” And it says not only did He proclaim the message of the kingdom of heaven, but He was there casting out every single disease. What does the kingdom of heaven look like? It’s the power of a King who can come cast out every disease, who can calm every storm, who can dispel all darkness, all evil, who can make sinners clean, who can raise people up from the dead, who can put away all the bad in the world. That’s the kingdom of heaven and Jesus Christ is the King. So Ridderbos says this, “The kingdom is the power of the King to bring universal and cosmic salvation as far as the curse is found, as far as the curse is found.”

There is a treasure that is worth giving up everything for. There is one pearl in all of existence that is worth giving up everything to. And the answer is that it’s the kingdom of heaven, the power of Jesus Christ the King to come and dispel all darkness, to put away all that’s wrong in the world. Oliver O’Donovan is my favorite living theologian. Every pastor has their favorite dead theologian and their favorite living theologian, and my favorite living theologian is a guy named Oliver O’Donovan. He’s a British man. And this is what he says about this. He says that “Paul teaches us that right now, if you’re a Christian, you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of the kingdom of this world.” And in the kingdom of this world, we all know that we need prisons and judges and lawyers and hospitals and nurses and preachers. And he says this, “The Church exists right now to proclaim to the world, to show the kingdom of this world the possibility that there could be another, another world, another kingdom.” And this is his example. He says this, “The state must imprison the criminal, but the Church comes to the prisoner and says, ‘It need not always be this way.’” He says, “To the prisoner, the Church says, ‘You have a choice. There is a King and there is a kingdom so valuable where your wrongs could be made right, where sorrows give way only to joys, where the prisoner is freed and forgiven, where the judge and the preacher, the doctor and the nurse, the policeman and the guard are forever relieved of their duties.” This is the hope of the kingdom of heaven. The real treasure. The one pearl.

Finding and Seeking the Pearl

Now let’s close tonight, thirdly and finally, by saying two confusing things. Not the best way to start the final point, but! The question is, “How do we respond to this tonight?” And let me say this. Some of us need to seek in order to find and some of us need to remember what we have found in order that we might seek. Some of us need to seek in order to find tonight, and some of us need to remember what we’ve found in order that we might seek. There’s two commands, one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament that governs both these ideas, directly from the mouth of God. In Jeremiah 29, God says to us, to humanity, “Seek Me and you will find Me if you seek Me with all your heart. Seek Me and you will find Me if you seek Me with all your heart.” And then in Matthew 6, Jesus, earlier on in Matthew, says what - “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

Alright, Jeremiah 29, “Seek Me and you will find Me.” Some of us tonight need to seek Him in order that we would find the treasure. Underlying the basic idea in this parable of seeking and finding something beyond imagine, a value beyond imagine, is the fact that every single human being - Charles Taylor, the Catholic philosopher in Canada says that every single human being’s greatest desire is what he calls “fulfillment.” And he defines fulfillment as “a sense of purpose, meaning in this life; a reason to exist,” and “a value.” Not only do you have a reason to exist but you are also loved. You are an object of love from somebody that you love. And the older and older we all get as we walk through life - and some of you know this much more than me - that every accomplishment that you hit along the road of your life, every new stage that you enter into, brings all sorts of joys and sorrows but oftentimes if you were looking at it as the next thing that would make you fulfilled, that would give you contentment, that would fill that hole in your heart, your utmost desire, you know that it leaves you empty. One of those moments for me was the day I finished my PhD. And it was great, but it was just the next day for me. It leaves you empty. There’s a hole; there’s something missing. There’s something you haven’t tasted yet, that hasn’t truly fulfilled you. And this is where he says every single human being awakens to a religious consciousness, to a fact that they are searching for something, for something bigger, for something better, for a meaning, for a value, for something that has not yet filled that sense of fulfillment that they’re looking for. 

And this passage is saying that there are all sorts of treasures and pearls out there in the world that you can find and taste and seek, but there is only one that can truly satisfy your heart’s greatest desires. And some of us tonight I’ll bet, I would imagine, are you know, they’re like the people when they heard in the first century old Joe the farmhand was selling all of his possessions to get this one field. You know, they said, “I’ve walked by that field a thousand times and there is nothing special about it. It’s rocky! He’s not going to be able to grow anything there! It’s pure dirt!” Maybe you’re there tonight where you’ve walked by the treasure a thousand times, a million times. You’ve sat here over and over again and heard that there’s only one - there’s one Man, there’s one King, there’s one kingdom, there’s one hope, there’s one cross and resurrection that is the only hope beyond death. You’ve heard it a thousand times and you’ve walked by it and said, “It looks really ordinary.” 

And what this parable says to you is, “Seek the truth. Consider. Think about it. Explore the facts. Get away from cultural religion and search for the real answers.” Is there another religion that makes these claims? Is there anything else out there that’s like this? Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese man who’s one of probably the most important Christian leaders of the past 200 years that’s totally unknown in the Western world for all sorts of reasons, but everything he wrote is worth sitting down with and pondering over for a long time, but he says this about his own search growing up in Japan for the One, for the pearl, for the treasure. This is what he says, “I am grateful for Shinto, for Buddhism, for Confucianism. I owe very much to these faiths. But they could not meet me at the moment of my heart’s deepest needs. I was a pilgrim journeying on a long road that had no turning. I was weary, I was footsore. I wandered through a dark and dismal world where tragedies are thick. Buddhism teaches great compassion, but since the beginning of time who has ever said, ‘This is the blood of My covenant which is poured out for the remission of sins for the whole world’? I learned a lot from Buddhism, but Buddha never said, ‘My blood has been poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of the world.’”

Now for the rest of us tonight, this parable is calling us to this. We need to remember what we have found in order that we might now seek. Seek, Christian, first the kingdom of God above all else in this life. If you’re a Christian tonight, you’ve come to the field. You’ve uncovered the treasure. You’ve searched after the pearl; you’ve found it. God found you! You’ve believed it. But maybe you can remember years ago when you were like that merchant who first found that pearl and you sold everything. You had fire. You were, as they say, you had spiritual fire and now there’s little ambitions that have taken the place of the one great treasure, the true pearl of great price. The question that this passage is asking us Christians is, “Are you seeking the kingdom of God that you’ve now found? Do you desire it more than anything? Are you searching after it? Are you seeking it? Are you wanting it?” It’s calling for a reordering of all of life around this one great treasure. One commentator says this, “The problem with most of us Christians is that we would like a little bit of the kingdom as an add-on to the rest of our lives and this parable is urging us to abandon what we thought was the focus of our lives.” Paul, you remember, says “I have been beaten, I have been scoured, I’ve lost all my credibility among my peers, but these sufferings are nothing in the light of the glory that is being revealed” - the kingdom of heaven.

And so let’s just close with two tests I want to ask all of us believers tonight. Two tests. One is a test of solitude. When I’m alone, not being watched and not being measured for my performance, does my heart, my mind, my soul desire the kingdom of God, the face of Jesus Christ? Do I ponder Him? Do I want Him? Do I make sacrifices when I’m totally by myself for the sake of that pearl, that treasure? Tim Keller asks it like this, “Can we look at anything in life and say, ‘Nothing is more important to me than Jesus Christ’?” If it’s a choice between that and Jesus, if it’s a choice between that and Jesus, if it’s a choice between that and Jesus, can I suffer the loss of any of it for the sake of Jesus Christ? And the second test, the final test is, “Have I been in a work environment, in a social environment, in a neighborhood environment, in a social media environment for months and months and years and years perhaps and no one knows me to be a distinctive follower of Jesus Christ? Does anyone know me in my environment as that guy who would make unusual decisions in the face of the world because of Jesus Christ? If not, is my image still more important to me than the kingdom of God?”

Now I got to see a great example of this. A professor of mine, we had just been in a seminar, an academic seminar, and this professor of mine had a prestigious chair at a prestigious university and we sat down to lunch with a big group of people. And in the seminar, the lecture had basically talked about the mythology of the Old Testament. And this great professor who was sitting there with us, a different one, said to all the feeble-minded students around him, me included, “Of course anybody who does real scholarship on the Bible knows now that Genesis 1 to 11 is not to be taken as history but it’s mythology and fable that was constructed over the centuries and handed down to us. No reputable scholar in a university like this would ever believe that.” And my professor, who had a chair himself at that university, at the table with all these people, all these professors, said, “Well I do.” And he explained very kindly and gently for five minutes the reasons why he thinks it’s actually worth saying Genesis 1 to 11 is real history.

And you know, there’s a reason why British people are always the villains in all the movies because they have that professor stereotype like scoff; you know the eyes and all of it. Strain’s not here tonight so I can say that, right? Everybody looked at him with those eyes and the scoff and the snicker and the laugh and he had lost serious reputation there. But the Word of God for the sake of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven was way more precious to him than his academic reputation. Is Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven precious to you? Monday is tomorrow and it’s a good day to start the rhythm of life with prayer, asking God in the Spirit that He would make you desire the kingdom of heaven above all else.
Let’s pray.

God, we ask that You now would help us desire the kingdom of heaven, the treasure, the pearl, above all else. In Christ’s name, amen.

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