The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13
The Gospel in a nutshell.
What are the treasure and the pearl?
Note: All Scripture quoted is NASB unless otherwise stated.
In Matthew 12, Jesus’ stories and parables are directly aimed at the Pharisees, following their criticisms of Him for crimes such as breaking the Sabbath. In chapter 13, He addresses the “multitudes” and His disciples with a string of parables of the Kingdom of Heaven:
- The sower and the seed (v3-9) – implied as a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven in v11;
- The wheat and the tares (v24-30) – “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…”;
- The mustard seed (v31-32) – “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”;
- The leaven (v33) – “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”;
- The hidden treasure (v44) – “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”;
- The valuable pearl (v45-46) – “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”;
- The dragnet (v47-50) – “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”;
- The head of the household (v52) – “… every scribe who has become a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
The term ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is unique to Matthew’s gospel. In the other gospels, it is called the ‘Kingdom of God.’ Matthew 13:11 and Luke 8:10 among others show that the terms are interchangeable.
The Kingdom of Heaven should not be confused with ‘Heaven’. A look at the Kingdom parables in chapter 13 alone should show that it is not the same. A word search will further convince one that it is, rather, a heavenly view of what is happening on earth within a certain time frame.
Jesus talks about entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Heaven belonging to the poor in spirit. It is clearly a desirable kingdom to which one may belong, but it is not an earthly state (John 18:36) even though it impacts on the earthly state.
Looking at the Kingdom parables, we see that:
- It begins with Jesus’ earthly ministry. Matthew 13:37 – “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.”
- It involves the spreading of the gospel. In this time, the gospel is accepted by some and rejected by others. The Devil is active in deception. (Matthew 13:3-23, the parable of the sower)
- It involves a valuable crop and weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, the tares and the wheat). These co-exist, though they will be separated at the harvest.
- It involves something that starts small and grows (Matthew 13:31, 32). Not only does it grow in size, but it attracts others from far and wide and gives rest.
[Some argue that the tree is Satan’s influence, but I have seen enough references to suggest that the tree is, in fact, the Kingdom of Heaven and its influence. The context alone demands this.
Ezekiel 17:22-24 – Thus says the Lord GOD, “I will also take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and set it out; I will pluck from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the high mountain of Israel I will plant it, that it may bring forth boughs and bear fruit and become a stately cedar. And birds of every kind will nest under it; they will nest in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I am the LORD; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will perform it.”
Isaiah 11:1 – Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.]
- It involves an influence that permeates and spreads, changing the nature of the thing it is in (Matthew 13:33). This is not the leaven of the Pharisees, but the influence of God’s Kingdom in the world.
- It involves something that is valuable, and has been paid for by a great price (Matthew 13:44-46). There are two parables here: the treasure in the field and the pearl of great value. There are differences, but both have the same general theme. The traditional view is that the thing of value is the Kingdom of Heaven. More on this later.
- It involves a separation of good from bad, holy from profane (Matthew 13:47-50, the dragnet and the fish). This is clearly the judgement, the separation foreshadowed in the tares and wheat parable.
There are many other Kingdom parables in Matthew’s gospel, but chapter 13 appears to cover everything from Jesus’ ministry of spreading the Word all the way to the judgement “at the end of the age.” (v40)
If this is the case, then what would be the most important event that would have occurred in this span of time? The answer would have to be ‘the death and resurrection.’ This is the key to atonement. The preaching of the gospel is important, but what is preached? The judgement is the climax of Jesus’ ministry, but where is the means of salvation?
If the parables of Matthew 13 cover the span of the Kingdom from Jesus’ ministry to the judgement, where does the atonement figure in these Kingdom parables?
I believe the answer is in the parables of the treasure and the pearl. Traditionally, a majority of Christians (at least the ones I have asked) say that the treasures are the Kingdom itself.
Jesus made known the secret things of the kingdom by parables, but they remain hidden for most people, who cannot see their value. But like the man who finds treasure or the trader in pearls, those who do perceive the value of the kingdom will sacrifice anything to obtain it (Philippians 3:8) – Footnote to Matthew 13:44,45, New Geneva Study Bible, 1995, Foundation for Reformation.
Although the above is a reasonable statement in the light of the Scripture it cites, such an interpretation has problems:
Is the Kingdom of Heaven something we can obtain by any sacrifice of our own?
Is the Kingdom of Heaven some passive thing that is hidden, which we might discover in our search, by accident as it were? Or, is it something presented to us as it is presented to everyone, but only recognized by us because of our eyes being open by God?
In the case of the first parable, do we really, upon recognizing the value of the Kingdom, hide it until we can possess it?
On the other hand, if these parables described the atonement, these problems do not occur. Let us suppose the treasure is God’s people to be redeemed:
The treasure is hidden in the field. The field is not valuable in its own right. It is just ‘dirt’. The treasure is mixed in with it, not separate, like the tares and the wheat. The field is the world, and it belongs to someone other than the man. Now, although the whole universe belongs to God, God has given it over to another: this is why we had to be redeemed:
1 Corinthians 6:20 – For you have been bought with a price…
1 Peter 1:18-19 – knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.
In the same way, the pearl obviously belongs to someone else. It is one pearl amongst others at the market.
The man and the merchant both desire this thing of value, but they do not yet own it. They cannot claim it until the price has been paid. That price: everything they own.
Do these men represent God? His only begotten Son was the price He had to pay to redeem His treasures. Were these men Jesus? He gave up His position and His very life to buy us back. However the hearers understood the symbolism of the men, they would have understood (if understanding had been given to them) that in the Kingdom of God, a great treasure was bought and paid for. They would find out later what the price was, as their Saviour was taken off to be crucified.
Now the story is complete. The Kingdom of Heaven centres on these two parables. The story of the Redemption would spread like leaven through a lump of dough; would grow like a seed to produce fruit; would be actively attacked by the enemy, and would ultimately separate humanity in judgement.
The idea that God’s people are his own treasure is found elsewhere. Note in the following Old Testament passages, the word used in Hebrew is segullah, meaning a closely kept possession, translated as “own possession” in the NASB, and “peculiar treasure” in the KJV.
Exodus 19:5 – Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine (KJV)
Psalms 135:4 – For the LORD hath chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure. (KJV)
Malachi 3:17 – “They will be Mine,” says the LORD of hosts, “on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.”
Although it is certainly true that the message we have been given is a treasure, it is not something we have obtained or paid for, but something we have had given to us.
2 Timothy 1:14 – Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.
“So what?” you ask. Of what importance is it whether the treasure and the pearl represent us or the Kingdom of God?
The Jews were God’s chosen people, His peculiar treasure. Now Jesus is saying that there is a new peculiar treasure, one which was to be paid for by His sacrifice. This was something only God could recognize as valuable, in a field of dirt, or among a market full of pearls. The former treasure is now so much dirt – weeds, even, that had to be discarded and burned up, thrown out like bad fish.
Matthew chapter 13 is the whole gospel in story-book form, including the spreading of the word, the effect on the nations, atonement, and the judgement.
And doesn’t it feel special to be called a pearl of great value? That’s how God sees us, anyway.