NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part IV (con’t)
Verse 45: Also, God’s kingdom is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. One day he found a very fine pearl. He went and sold everything he had to buy it.
On the surface, this parable seems quite clear and understandable. A jeweler was visiting different bazaars looking for pearls to sell in his shop when he spotted a highly valued one. He must have been told the price, then went back home, sold every piece of jewelry in his store, came back and bought it. He knew, that once the word got out about his exquisite pearl the rich would come look at it and he would be able to sell it for double the amount he paid and be back in business again with that much more money in his hand to make further purchases and grow his enterprise.
Many times in life we find that money is not the only thing by which these pearls are acquired. Often it takes time, sweat and tears; long nights of work and study; days of research and composition, hours and hours of editing and corrections before the product is considered worthy of print and distribution. But it is all worth it when someone who read or hears what you’ve written and is blessed by it contents, that makes it all worth the effort and dedication. I read an ancient Jewish story along those lines and it goes like this:
Once, in Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah’s old age, his disciples came to visit him. “My sons,” he said to them, “what new interpretation or Scripture have you heard in the synagogue?” “We are your disciples,” they replied, “and it is only your waters we drink.” “Heaven forbid!” he exclaimed, “there is no generation lacking good teachers. Who was teaching that Sabbath?” “It was Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah,” they answered. “And on what text was the sermon based today?” he asked. They answered “It was on the text: ‘Assemble the people, the men and the women, and the little ones’.1 “And how did he interpret it?” he asked them. They responded: “This is how he interpreted it: As to the men, they come to study; as to the women, they come to listen. Why do the little ones come? So that a goodly reward might be given to those who bring them.” Said Rabbi Joshua to them: “A precious pearl was in your hands and you were about to deprive me of it! Had you gone to hear no more than that, it would have been worth it”.2
In other words, when Rabbi Joshua’s disciples came to him they more or less said they didn’t want to learn anything from anyone else but him. But when he pushed them and they finally told him what they learned at the Sabbath teaching of Rabbi Eleazar, Rabbi Joshua called it a pearl of wisdom. We have seen here in Matthew’s recollection of Jesus’ teaching, that He also uses “pearls” as metaphors of wisdom and learning.3 Also, his disciples referred to the teaching of Rabbi Joshua as “water.” Again we see where Jesus used “water” as a metaphor for wisdom and learning.4
An early church teacher and founder of a seminary gives us his take on this pearl. “Many who were entirely foreign to religion immediately recognized, by divine grace, the greatness of Christ, in that they despised all their former things and looked to this thing alone, recognizing that the One who is salvation is for them.” Then he adds, “That many people, even of those who have been exceedingly zealous about religion, when they recognize the greatness of the preaching, will turn aside from old things. Such, for instance, was Paul, who had displayed a great deal of zeal for the law, but who, when he came to see the greatness of the gospel, disdained everything having to do with the law. He himself says, ‘but what things were gain to me, those I counted as loss for the sake of Christ;’5 and again, ‘I count all things but loss, and count them as dung, that I may win Christ.’6 He seems to have said this both on account of those Greeks who were devoted to religion and, again, on account of the Jews.”7
Another thing to consider, is that these treasures were purchased at the “pre-assessed” price. Because, had the original owners known their true value, they would have sold them at the treasury price. As we often say: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” With the way the Word of God is being treated today by the world and skeptics, is it any wonder they are surprised when we trace many words of wisdom and insight back to the Holy Scriptures.
Verses 47-48: Also, God’s kingdom is like a net that was put into the lake. The net caught many different kinds of fish. It became full, so the fishermen pulled it to the shore. They then sat down and put all the good fish in baskets, but they threw away the inedible fish.
One will notice that in this illustration the sorting of the fish is paramount to declaring the catch successful. It must also be pointed out that once the bad fish are rejected they are not thrown back into the lake but just thrown away like garbage so other fisherman will not have to do the same chore. This portion of Scripture has oft come to mind after seeing thousands come forward for salvation in large crusades by well-known evangelists. Yet, when it is all over there seems to be little effective change in the city where the crusade took place. Could it be that the Holy Spirit sorted the fish that were hauled in by the altar call, and found only those worthy of keeping to nurture and grow in the Word and in Christ? Jesus goes on to explain what awaits the bad fish so that their disposal is made even clearer.
Our Lord is clearly speaking of the last judgment and what awaits saints and sinners. I do not believe that Jesus told this story to scare people into believing in Him, but to make them aware of the consequences if they ignored the opportunity given to them. Jesus was not just interested in whether or not they heard what He said or comprehended the parables He used, but that they were able to assimilate the whole thought and it’s cumulative effect. In each case, the Kingdom of Heaven is being portrayed by using wheat seed, mustard seed, sour dough, precious treasure, pearl of great price, and a dragnet. The individual parts: wheat, tares, flour, fish, etc., are believers and unbelievers. And finally, the calculated consummation is the end of the world and the final judgment. The variety of substances, situations, and stimuli all indicate the various ways and means by which the kingdom of heaven will be populated and governed.
As the saying goes, sometimes the proof is in the details. In my ministry I’ve encountered a variety of speakers: those who spend little time explaining the details, and use most of their time on the subject’s antithesis. Then, there are those who get bogged down in the details and never put them together to form a thesis. We need to be more like Jesus and proclaim the synthesis of our message for people to understand and be enlightened by the Holy Spirit as to what was meant for them.
Gregory the Great made this comment: “The church is compared to a net because it has been entrusted to fishermen and because all people are drawn up in it from the turbulent waters of the present age to the eternal kingdom, lest they drown in the depths of eternal death. This net gathers all kinds of fish because it calls to forgiveness of sins for everyone, wise and foolish, free and slave, rich and poor, brave and weak. Hence, the psalmist says to God: ‘Unto You will all flesh come.’8 This net will be completely filled when it enfolds the entire number of the human race at the end of time. The fishermen bring it in and sit down on the shore, because just as the sea signifies this present age, so the shore signifies its end.”9
The key here is that as fishers of men, believers are only given the responsibility to go out into the sea of despair and bring in as many as they can catch. But it will be up to God to decide who He keeps and who will be thrown away. This is exactly what our Lord says next.
Verse 49: It will be the same at the end of time. The angels will come and separate the evil people from the godly people.
Cyril of Alexandria left us this commentary: “The calling that is through Christ is to be extended throughout the whole world. The net of gospel preaching seeks to gather people together out of every nation. People who are expert in catching fish and are mariners by trade let down their net making no discrimination, but whatever has been caught up in the meshes, wholly and entirely, is hauled by them to shore. So likewise the power of preaching and the marvelous and intricate teaching of the sacred doctrines, which the apostles, as good fishermen, wove together, draw people from every nation and gather them together for God. This net will gather all fish together until the time of consummation. Then out of all those who have been dragged out and caught, the angels appointed by God will make a separation between the wicked and the just.”10
Verse 50: They will throw the evil people into the place of fire. There the people will cry and grind their teeth with pain.
Early church scholar Origen gives us a prophetic look at how he interprets this saying of Jesus: “Those who attended to the net that was cast into the sea are Jesus Christ, the master of the net, and ‘the angels who came and ministered to Him.’11 It is not until the net is filled full that they will draw it up from the sea and carry it to the shore beyond the sea—namely, to things beyond this life—but not until the ‘fullness of the Gentiles’ 12 has been drawn into it. But when that fullness has come, then they draw it up from things here below and carry it to what is figuratively called the shore. There it will be the work of those who have drawn it up to sit by the shore, there to settle themselves in order that they may put each of the good fish in its own proper place, into the right vessel. But they will cast outside those that are of an opposite character and are called bad. By ‘outside’ is meant the furnace of fire, as the Savior interpreted it as the end of time. Only it must be observed that we are already taught by the parable of the tares and the other similitudes set forth that the angels are to be entrusted with the power to distinguish and separate the evil from the righteous. But here it is said, The angels shall come forth and sever the wicked from among the righteous and shall cast them into the furnace of fire.”13
Verse 51: Then Jesus asked those following Him, “Do you understand all these things?” They said, “Yes, we understand.”
So far in this chapter Jesus has used seven parables to illustrate the construction and materials of the Kingdom of God. These parables included good seed, bad seed, mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and fish. The resulting moral of these parables concerning God’s kingdom is this: how it will be planted; attempted sabotage, yet it will still grow large; how its influence will be felt all around; many will find it by surprise, others will find it while looking for something like it; and in the end the good will be saved while the bad are sifted out as not worthy of keeping.
It also emphasizes the ability of the will to exercise its right to choose. However, it is not just man’s choice, but God’s choice as well. This is a case of Jesus making the gospel message simple enough for almost anyone to understand, yet profound enough to cause those who were interested in wanting to learn more. To me, that is the formula of good Bible preaching and teaching.
So often we despair because not every one we witness to is immediately drawn to Christ and accepts salvation. Jesus is trying to tell us that there are somethings He has entrusted to us, and there are other things that He, the Father and the Holy Spirit will take care of. So don’t worry about what they are in charge of, just do the work given to you by God and He will take care of the rest.
1 Deuteronomy 31:12 – The full text is: “Assemble the people — the men, the women, the little ones and the foreigners you have in your towns — so that they can hear, learn, fear Adonai your God and take care to obey all the words of this Torah.” Complete Jewish Bible
2 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 18
3 cf. Matthew 7:6; 13:45, 46
4 cf. John 4:13-15; 7:38
5 Philippians 3:7
6 Ibid. 3:8
7 Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary fragment 75
8 Psalm 65:2
9 Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies, 11:4
10 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 171
11 Matthew 4:11
12 See Romans 11:25
13 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 10.12