by John W. Ritenbaugh
If we want to understand certain parts of the Bible, we must understand parables. It is truly a shame that our Western culture has not developed and used parables nearly as extensively as people did in the ancient Middle East. This form of instruction has not taken root here because it often requires a great deal of time and imagination from both teacher and pupil.
One reason we do not use parables is that we have learned to live life in a rush. We do not have time for the observant, thoughtful and imaginative preparation they require. The Western form of teaching is not wrong, but it is deficient because it lacks the developed use of parables.
Undoubtedly, Jesus brought teaching by parable to its greatest heights. Matthew writes:
All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." (Matthew 13:34-35)
We have to conclude that, from Jesus' use of parables, the Father Himself highly recommends them as teaching tools. Parables are not restricted to the New Testament, however. The first true parable in the Bible appears in Judges 9, where Jotham uses one to dissuade the Shechemites from choosing so vile a man as Abimelech to be their king.
In this parable, Jotham draws attention to the relative values of olive and fig trees, grape vines and brambles. It forces the hearer to make comparisons and conclude that the teacher intends him to conclude that Abimelech, like a bramble, is worthless.
The Bible employs many other parables. When Nathan comes to reveal David's sin with Bathsheba, he uses a parable to lead David to recognize his guilt clearly and with great impact. Later, Joab uses one similar to the Prodigal Son to move David to make a decision about readmitting Absalom into his presence.
One entire Old Testament book, Proverbs, is titled by the Hebrew word mashal, translated as "parable" in other places. Mashal means "to be like." In his book, All the Parables of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer writes that it means "proverb, similitude, parable" (p. 11). We define a proverb today as a "maxim" or a "pithy saying," and so is a parable. Usually, the only major difference between the two is length, but using the Old Testament as a guide, a parable can be very short. Since a proverb is a comparison, it could truly be called a parable.
In the New Testament, two Greek words are translated as "parable." The most commonly used is parabole, defined by Lockyer as "likeness" or "resemblance" (p. 12). It suggests nearness or being beside to compare for likeness or difference; similitude, or the placing of one thing beside another.
The other Greek word is paroimia, meaning "a dark saying, a presentation deviating from the usual way of speaking." Interestingly, the apostle John uses this word more frequently than Matthew, Mark or Luke and never uses parabole even once.
Most of the well-known parables (Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Sower and the Seed, etc.) have a story connected to them. But parables, even Jesus', are not limited in that way. Jesus' parable in Luke 4:23, "You will surely say this proverb [parabole] to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself!'" contains only three words! Matthew 15:14-15 is similar: "‘They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.' Then Peter answered and said to Him, ‘Explain this parable [parabole] to us.'"
In Matthew 24:32-33, Jesus says, "Now learn this parable from the fig tree." He tells no story following this statement but simply makes a comparison. In Hebrews, parabole is translated "symbolic" (9:9) and "figurative" (11:19), indicating something like a shadow that instructs us about the reality.
Even very brief parables contain mental pictures to convey a truth. For example, "the blind leads the blind" brings to mind a picture of two blind men struggling to lead each other along a path. They wander from side to side, trip over ruts and rocks, blunder into puddles and collide with people and perhaps even trees. Jesus compares this to the spiritual leadership of the Jews. The spiritually blind Pharisees had assumed to guide the equally blind mass of ordinary Jewish people. Together, they were careening along the path of life, headed for eventual disaster, but sharing hurtful experiences as they went. From one perspective, this may appear amusing, but at the same time, it is tragic, dangerous, frustrating, painful and vain. This illustration vividly teaches that we had better look for spiritual leadership that is not blind to the truths of God.
In the Parable of the Fig Tree, Jesus uses one step in the normal growing cycle of a fig tree to illustrate several teachings. He cautions us that when we see all the things happening that He had previously said would occur before His second coming, that His return is not far off; the fulfillment of the hope of our deliverance is near; our sense of urgency should rise considerably; and we should be extra alert.
Parables and Similes
Often the author introduces a parable by using a word similar to our English word "resembles," and this helps us to understand parables more clearly. In a word, a parable is an extended simile. A simile compares one thing to another. Thus similes and most true parables begin with a statement similar to the one Jesus uses so frequently in His parables: "The kingdom of heaven is like . . ." (Matthew 13:31, 33, 44, 45, 47). According to E. W. Bullinger, they are comparisons by resemblance.
The well known Psalm 1:3-4 is an especially clear example of a simile: "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind drives away." Dr. A. T. Pierson writes that "a parable proper is, in Scripture usage, a similitude, usually put in narrative form, or used in connection with some incident." A parable, then, is a simile in story form.
A parable brings together two different things so that one helps explain the other. In a biblical context, a parable harmonizes two different things, the physical and the spiritual, so that the spiritual can be understood by the physical.
Though it is not a parable, Romans 1:20 shows this principle:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
Thus, the Bible teaches that we can learn much about the spiritual realm from the things we can physically see.
On the Parables, a book containing many quotations about the parables by Reformation thinkers, quotes Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as stating, "Truth [biblical] and nature differ only as to seal and print." The spiritual is the seal, the reality, and the material is the print, the impression made only because the reality exists. God intends that the material represent or resemble truths and relationships that are spiritual and eternal. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) agrees when he writes, "All visible things are emblems. What thou seest is not there on its own account; matter only exists to represent some idea and body it forth."
A parable is an analogy. In story form, it illustrates a truth drawn from the natural, material world to testify of spiritual and eternal truth. It can teach eternal truth only because a unity exists between the material and spiritual. If the material had no similarities with the spiritual, it could not convey truth about the spiritual realities. Remember, "parable" suggests side-by-side comparison. An earthly truth is the similitude of a heavenly one. Biblical parables thus show that the external, visible material world is a mirror through which we may understand the internal, invisible spiritual realm.
Paul writes in Ephesians 3:14-15, "For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named." A few years ago, high-ranking ministers made a great effort to discredit the teaching that God is a Family. But our Savior, who is God, and was with God and came to reveal God, describes God as a Father, Himself as Son, the brethren as His brothers and sisters who are children of God, and the church as a bride preparing for marriage to Him as Husband.
All these terms are family analogies comparing the physical with the spiritual reality. Was Jesus a liar who used false analogies, giving His followers false goals and false teachings of how to live or what to expect in the future? How could we trust what He says in other areas with such doubt cast upon this important understanding? Through His parables, Jesus was clearly teaching the very close similarity between those relationships now and in His Kingdom.
We easily understand this example, but not all parables are so easy to grasp. Matthew 13:35 quotes a prophecy of Christ in Psalm 78:2, "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." Here, parables refer to dark sayings. We might today call them riddles, mysteries or enigmatic.
An earlier event (verses 10-13) prompted this quotation:
And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand."
When we consider I Corinthians 2:7-14 with this, it becomes clear that God also uses parables to hide the meaning from those He has not yet chosen to reveal Himself. Parables may require the hearer to be familiar with the area of life from which the speaker draws his illustration. Without that familiarity, the parable is enigmatic. How frequently Jesus had to explain His parables to His disciples! As babes in Christ, they lacked sufficient background in the revelation of God to understand the spiritual application of Jesus' parables.
The Pearl of Great Price
Parables usually have only one purpose: to illustrate one main point. Although one may learn a few secondary lessons from it, experience shows that when a person tries to find several meanings, he multiplies his chances of failing to see the main point.
A parable in Matthew 13:45-46 contains a beautiful and encouraging lesson for everyone looking forward to the Kingdom of God. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it." Though it is one of the better known parables, the Pearl of Great Price also happens to be misunderstood frequently. Herbert Lockyer in All the Parables of the Bible seems to have unlocked the correct interpretation.
The common explanation is that the merchant represents a Christian, and the pearl of great price is the Kingdom of God to which he gives his all so he can be a part of it. Another interpretation is that the pearl is Christ, and a Christian gives his all to Him. As meaningful as these interpretations may be, another is far more meaningful, and the evidence given in the narrative favors it.
In this parable the merchant is seriously and deliberately searching the world to secure the best and costliest gems. It is the very business of his life. He travels widely with zeal and a lofty purpose because he can do so and appreciate the best when he sees it.
The common interpretation shows the sinner, the merchant, diligently searching the world and sacrificing all to find the Kingdom of God or Christ. This cannot be true! On several counts it is totally out of alignment with Scripture as well as experience. This approach puts the seeker totally in control of his destiny.
Three scriptures disprove that we are the merchant seeking to "buy" the Kingdom of God, Christ or eternal life.
Romans 3:11 There is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God.
Luke 19:9-10 And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
John 6:44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.
It is Christ who seeks the sinner! The Shepherd seeks the sheep, not vice versa. Furthermore, if the pearl is either Christ, the Kingdom of God or eternal life, it contradicts other scriptures regarding God's grace. Notice II Corinthians 9:15, "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" Romans 6:23 adds, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Finally, in Luke 7:41-42 Jesus says in the Parable of the Two Debtors:
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?
The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price shows the merchant willing to buy a pearl at high cost. Can we possibly buy the Kingdom of God or eternal life or forgiveness if we have nothing with which to buy? If we think we have something with which we might barter with God, or if we think we have something to sell in order to buy from Him, then grace ceases to be grace!
The Bible consistently reveals we have no righteousness, skills or intellect that is of any value in purchasing anything from God. Isaiah 64:6 confirms this: "But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags." Peter's denunciation of Simon Magus plainly shows that men cannot buy the things of God. "But Peter said to him, ‘Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!" (Acts 8:20).
We are not the active agent in choosing Christ. John 15:16 specifically refers to Christ's apostles, but the principle extends to us: "You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you." Jesus clearly states in Luke 19:10, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
By this time it ought to be clear that Jesus Christ is the merchant, the price paid was His life, and the church (the individual Christian in a very narrow sense) is the pearl. The church is one pearl, one body, composed of those He has sought out through the ages to be a habitation for God by His Spirit and who will be His bride at His return. This beautiful and meaningful little parable shows some of the extent of His labor of love for us.
The individual parts of this parable are also interesting when examined more closely.
The word "merchant" has had an interesting evolution. It originally meant a passenger on a ship, but gradually became applied to the wholesale dealer as distinguished from a retailer. This is how John uses it in Revelation 18:3, 11, 15, 23. The merchant made trips far and wide to buy specific merchandise in which he had expertise. The context of the parable gives no indication he was pursuing anything but pearls. He knew the real worth of pearls, and in this case, he assessed the value and was very willing to pay the price.
This is another strong indication that the merchant is not a human seeking Christ, the church, eternal life or the Kingdom of God because before conversion we had only a vague notion of what to seek for. Before God sought us out, we were commandment-breaking sinners. I John 2:4 says, "He who says, ‘I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.'"
Jesus knew merchants well. Nazareth, where He grew up, was very close to a major trade route linking Babylon, to the northeast of Palestine, to Egypt, to the southwest. Caravans bound in either direction had to pass by His door.
Even the use of "seeking" (Matthew 13:45) helps to identify the merchant as Christ because it means "to depart from one place and arrive at another." Jesus did this Himself to pay the price of the pearl. He departed from heaven and arrived on earth to complete His mission.
From this perspective, this parable presents a beautiful picture of the purchase of the church. Paul writes, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). Psalm 45:11 adds a tender touch to this, "So the King will greatly desire your beauty."
It ought to inspire and encourage us to know that He never seeks us as a legalistic, grudging response to duty. He does not merely stumble across us, but He seeks us out. He desires us and pursues us as a man courts a woman to be his bride and wife. His is a whole-hearted and loving response to our Father's purpose and our eternal well-being.
It is no accident that we are part of His church. He sold all to possess us! Will we ever fathom what it cost Him to redeem us? Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7, "[Jesus], being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men." He adds in II Corinthians 8:9, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." We should also understand, lest we get the wrong impression, that the pearl's value resides not in its own intrinsic worth, but in the immensity of the cost paid for it.
One final thought: Ordinarily, a merchant would buy a gem of this nature with the idea of selling it and making money on another's desire to adorn himself with its beauty. In this case, however, the merchant's intent is different: "That He might present to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27). Jesus Christ purchased us so He can eternally possess us.
Our English word pearl is derived from Sanskrit, meaning "pure." The biblical concept of holiness carries the idea of purity with it.
The pearl is an interesting study. Unlike other gems, pearls are produced by a living organism, an oyster, as the result of an injury. It usually begins forming around a grain of sand or an egg of some parasite that invaded the oyster. The oyster protects itself by layering the irritant with nacre—mother-of-pearl—until, out of pain and suffering, it forms an object of great beauty. The offending particle actually becomes a gem of great worth!
So it is with us spiritually. We are an irritant, a botch, a scab on God's creation because of our nature and our sins. But because He loves us, we are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, and gradually we can become a thing of beauty, clothed with the righteousness of Him who bought us.
We can make a number of other comparisons between pearls and other objects used as teaching vehicles in the Bible, such as the mustard seed. Both begin as something quite small but achieve different results. The mustard seed grows into the largest of herbs, but the pearl remains small. What is the lesson? Size does not determine value.
We can make a second comparison with ourselves. The pearl is first embedded in a mass of live but corruptible flesh, then separated and cleansed from its surroundings so that it can appear in its purity and beauty. So it is with the church. It is surrounded by, deeply embedded in, this corruptible world, and must be separated from the world before it can make a proper witness. As long as the pearl (church) remains in the oyster (world), it is of no value.
The production of the pearl is a gradual, even tedious, process. Slowly, the oyster adds layer after thin layer of nacre until the pearl is transformed. So it is with the church. For nineteen-and-a-half centuries, it has been in the making. If we add all who will be in the first resurrection from the time before Christ, then God has been working and adding to its lustrous value for almost six thousand years! All of this has occurred, and the world has hardly noticed, if at all, that this awesome process was progressing right under its nose.
In essence, the formation of the pearl is happening in secret. Colossians 3:3 says that our "life is hidden with Christ in God." Jesus tells His disciples: "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19). The world does not know where God's truth is transforming people into beings of glorious beauty. They are now just as we were before God revealed Himself to us. They are blind to the beauty of holiness. In fact, they are not merely blind, but as this verse shows, hostile to it.
Drawing the comparisons further, we know the oyster is at home in the depths of the ocean, a scavenger living off the garbage that sinks to the bottom of the sea. Revelation 13:1 shows the beast rising out of a sea: "Then I stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name."
The Bible often uses a sea to represent multitudes of people, sometimes multitudes of enemies. Revelation 17:15 says, "And he said to me, ‘The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues.'" Isaiah 59:19 reads, "the enemy comes in like a flood." God must take the pearl, the church, from among the ungodly just as the oyster must be lifted from the muck and mire of the sea bottom.
Psalm 18:4-6, 15-16 expresses this analogy beautifully:
The pangs of death encompassed me, and the floods of ungodliness made me afraid. The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple, and my cry came before Him, even to His ears. . . . Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were uncovered at Your rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils. He sent from above, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.
So the church, an object of beauty to God, is presently hidden from the world because they do not really know true value when they see it. But it will not be that way for long.
The Main Lesson
Ephesians 2:4-10 summarizes the main lesson of the Pearl of Great Price.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
The world may not honor us now. They may not consider us worthy of anything. But when He displays His church, He will reveal us for what we are: a glorious and wonderful creative act of the great God, arrayed in the radiating splendor, the sun-like brilliance, of His righteousness.