…in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
The parable of the hidden treasure is perhaps the most misunderstood parable in the Bible. It is frequently misinterpreted and incorrectly taught. I want to explain why I think that but first lets look at the parable itself.
“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.” Matthew 13:44
Now, I need to let you know that Jesus begins speaking in parables in Matthew 13 and once he starts he doesn’t really stop. He tells at least eight parables right in a row in Matthew 13. And we’ve covered five so far. Let me recap those because I think they’re important for interpreting the hidden treasure. Context is important.
Almost every single one of these parables happen in the context of a field with a sower or a farmer planting seeds. The first parable Jesus tells is about a sower. The sower went out to sow and as he cast his seed on the ground some fell on the path, some fell on rocky ground, some fell among thorns or weeds, and finally some fell on good soil and produced grain. In this parable it is clear that the field represents the world, and Jesus tells us that the seed is the message of the kingdom. Because the main character is sowing the message of the kingdom into the world we typically understand the main active character in this story to be Jesus, or God the Father.
Immediately following the parable of the sower, Jesus tells another short parable about a seed in Mark. A Farmer goes out and sows his seed and then goes back into his house to sleep, meanwhile the seed grows automatically. This parable, once again, teaches that the field is the world, the seed is the kingdom of God planted in the world by Jesus or God the Father. The big idea is that the kingdom of God will grow in this world automatically.
Next Jesus told a parable we call the parable of the weeds. Again, a man sowed seed in his field. And when Jesus interprets this parable he tells us literally that “the field is the world”, and “the seed is the sons of the kingdom”, and the man, or the main character “is the Son of Man” or Jesus. In this parable the evil one plants weeds in the field and and Jesus communicates that he will permit and allow the weeds and the wheat to grow together. So the big idea is that good and evil and going to grow together, side-by-side in this world until the harvest or the end.
Then without even taking a breath Jesus rolls into yet another parable about a mustard seed. Again there’s a field, symbolizing the world, and a seed, or the kingdom of God. This seed is very small, like a mustard seed, but will eventually grow very big and literally take over the entire garden, or world, and its branches will be inviting to all kinds of birds and animals, or those who are normally not invited into gardens. Jesus duplicates this parable in the parable of the leaven.
So clearly the first five parables that Jesus tells in this sermon all have very similar if not exactly the same elements. There is always a field, which symbolizes the world, and there is always a seed, which symbolizes the kingdom of God, or the message of the kingdom of God, or the children of the kingdom of God. And although it isn’t clearly stated it seems clear that the main character or the active agent of each story is divine. That is, he (or she in the case of the parable about the leaven) is either God the Father or Christ Jesus himself.
So tell me – why is it that when we get to the next parable, we seem to have no problem swapping the metaphors for something entirely different. Why, for instance, do we take the main character, who so far seems to consistently symbolize Jesus, and swap him with you, or me – us – all mankind. And – if we make ourselves the main character what does that do to our parable. Does that mean that we are supposed to purchase the world. That’s interesting. I can’t recall a single place in the Bible where we are called to buy the world. And what about the treasure? Is it the kingdom of God? Are we supposed to sell all we have in order to obtain the kingdom? Or does the treasure now represent our salvation – or Jesus? And if we are supposed to sell everything to obtain Jesus or salvation that just sounds like awful heresy to me. Who would ever conceive such an idea that we could afford that?
Do you see what happens when we do this fast shuffle of metaphors and characters? It forces us to think of, and teach, this parable in a way that always leads to this question: “How much is it worth to you?” Which makes this parable prescriptive. That is, Jesus is giving us a prescription for what we need to do in order to inherit the kingdom. Specifically, you must value it for all that it truly is. And – by the way – if you truly value it you will give it all. Go all in.
This is the way this parable usually gets taught. Which is why I am calling it the most misunderstood parable in the Bible. Sure, it might be a very good idea to do some stock checking and ask ourselves if we truly value Christ above all else. Clearly there would be no harm in that. And, I imagine every singe one of us would come to same conclusion. We do not value that treasure enough. But still — that is not what the parable is about. It just can’t be about that. And it’s a good thing too, because underneath that miss interpretation is the same worn out prescription that has all too often been preached on Sunday mornings. Try harder, do better, and be good’r. You don’t value it enough. You need to try harder. Thankfully, that interpretation is wrong.
The usual interpretation of this parable is that Christ is the hidden treasure and as we go through life we are the people who some day discover him. Then it is up to us to sell all that we have, give it all up, and buy him at any cost. But I submit to you that that is false, and obviously so. Never, anywhere in Scripture is salvation ever offered to us as something we have to buy, or can buy. Ray Steadman
The interpretation of the parable of the treasure, which makes the buyer of the field to be a sinner who is seeking Christ, has no warrant in the parable itself. The field is defined (v.38) to be the world. The seeking sinner does not buy, but forsakes, the world… Furthermore, the sinner has nothing to sell, nor is Christ for sale, nor is Christ hidden in a field, nor, having found Christ, does the sinner hide him again. At every point this interpretation breaks down. C. I. Scofield
Now watch this? What happens when we put all the metaphors back in their natural places. The field is the word, the buried treasure is the Kingdom of God and the main character is Jesus. How can we say that Jesus has purchased the world? Ahh, now the lights are coming on. I can think of several verses in the Bible that say just that. Specifically that Jesus died for the world and purchased us with his blood.
“Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all…” 1 Timothy 2:5
“You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.” 1 Corinthians 7:23
“God has purchased our freedom with his blood and has forgiven all our sins.” Colossians 1:14
And what about the kingdom? How can we say that Jesus came to the field, or the world, found this hidden treasure, covered it in order to come back again to claim it? Ahh, again with the lights. Jesus did come to the world once, and he left in order to sell all he had. Clearly he gave all that he had. Even his life. You could say he bought the farm. If you’ll allow the old colloquialism. He died, resurrected and ascend to heaven with the promise that he would return.
If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me… John 14:3
Meanwhile the kingdom is still hidden, in this world, growing automatically, slowly, and into something huge, unimaginable, and unbelievably valuable. That, I believe is the better, correct, way of interpreting the parable of the hidden treasure. It is not prescriptive, telling you what you need to do, rather it is descriptive, describing what the kingdom of God is like. It is very very valuable.
Do you see what that does to the big idea? Instead of asking, “How much is it worth to you,” putting the emphasis on you, it is simply asking, “How much is it worth,” putting the emphasis on the kingdom. Which, incidentally, is what all of these parables are about anyway. Or we could ask, “How much is it worth to God?” Ask yourself, for instance, “How much is the world worth to God,” and immediately I hear:
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
We could even take it a bit further. I don’t think it is a stretch at all to think of the world in terms of people or even to think of the kingdom in terms of the sons of the kingdom. Clearly Jesus has already presented it that way when he referred to the seed as kalon sperma to denote offspring or descendants of the kingdom. With that said – perhaps we should ask, “How much are you worth to God?” Maybe you are the treasure. Maybe God loves you so much that he gave his very life to purchase you with his blood. That would certainly preach. We could say that Jesus came, hid you in this world, where wheat and weeds are indistinguishable, and left with the promise to return for you. That, too, would certainly preach.
But – I want to let you know that there are still other ways to interpret this parable. For instance some have said that the treasure is the church and still others have insisted that it is Israel specifically. For instance, those who make the case for Israel will site several passages in Deuteronomy and Exodus like this one:
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” Exodus 19:5-6
And of course, those who make the case for the church site those NT verses where those same things are said about the church.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people acquired for a possession, so that you may tell out the virtues of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9
And there are other verses, of course, that speak of the church being purchased by his blood and sent into the world to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom to the world. I certainly have no problem with these interpretations. They are clearly more accurate than the typical and usual, how much is it worth to you, try harder interpretation. Whether you view the treasure as the church, or Israel, or you and me, please note that in each of those interpretations the main character is Jesus, the field is the world, and the treasure is God’s.
It seems to me that in our attempt to put ourselves into this story we missed the point altogether and put ourselves in the wrong spot. We put ourselves as the main character when really we are the treasure. We are not the treasure hunter but the the treasure being hunted. Think about that. You are God’s treasure, the apple of his eye, a diamond in the rough, a pearl of great price, and — it was with great joy that Jesus gave everything to purchase you as his treasure.
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
This, of course, leads nicely to Jesus’ very next parable, where he swaps the treasure with a fine pearl.
“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.” Matthew 13:45-46
The story about the pearl merchant is clearly the same story – with the same meaning. The only difference is the added element of searching. In the treasure parable the treasure is stumbled upon but in the pearl parable it is sought after. So if we were to continue with the common incorrect interpretation, where the pearl is Jesus and the pearl hunter is you and me, then we would have to conclude that Jesus, or salvation, is something we must desperately seek for. Again, the only problem with that interpretation is the rest of the Bible, which teaches that salvation, or God, is not something that we must seek or grope for, or even could find in our own efforts.
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Romans 3:11
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” John 6:44
Clearly, the problem with that interpretation is that it is completely backwards. The opposite is actually true. We do not seek him, Jesus seeks us.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10
A.W. Pink seems to share my frustrations with that incorrect interpretation:
The general conception of its meaning is this! Christianity is likened unto one who earnestly desired and diligently sought salvation. Ultimately his efforts were rewarded by his finding Christ, the Pearl of great price. Having found Him, as presented in the Gospel, the sinner sold all that he had: that is to say, he forsook all that the flesh held dear, he abandoned his worldly companions, he surrendered his will, he dedicated his life to God; and in that way, secured his salvation. The awful thing is that this interpretation is the one which, substantially, is given out almost everywhere throughout Christendom today.” A.W. Pink
That is still true today. These 2 parables are the most misunderstood parables in the Bible. But let me give you the good news – again. You are not the hunter. Jesus is the hunter – you are the hunted. In fact, the real good-news, or the Gospel, is precisely that God grants us salvation through Jesus as a free gift with out cost or work.
“We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” Romans 3:24
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Romans 11:6
So, why is it so important to understand this parable correctly? That is, that we are God’s treasure and that we are the hunted not the hunter. I think it is extremely important because the correct interpretation is good news. The incorrect interpretation is bad news. And if we do sloppy exegesis and teach this incorrectly we literally gut the Gospel of its power.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. Roman 1:16
The good news is that God loves you, not that you need to try harder in order to purchase his love.
In conclusion, these parables are about the kingdom of God. It is in this world, hidden, growing, slowly, automatically, and it is very valuable, so valuable that God sent his one and only Son, so valuable that Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but gladly gave all of that up in order to come to this word, for the distinct purpose to seek and save you – the lost. AND – finding you in this world, lost, he gladly, with the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:12) to purchase you as his treasured possession. AND – he is good for his promise that one day he is coming back – for you.