The Pearl of Great Price

The Bible is written in such a way that it is completely and inextricably interwoven with the cultures and the customs of the times and places in which its events occurred. While the cultural references were well known to the people who lived in biblical times, many of them are unfamiliar to us today. Learning biblical customs has many advantages. It makes reading the Bible more enjoyable when we know about the people and how they lived. It clarifies things in the Bible we would otherwise not readily know, or that do not make sense to us at first. It alerts us to mistranslations, or possible mistranslations, in the Bible. Also, it gives us great insight into how to properly apply the Word of God in our lives.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told a wonderful parable about the attitude we should all have about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom that Jesus himself will set up on earth in the future. The book of Revelation tells us that Jesus Christ will come down from heaven to earth, fight the Battle of Armageddon and conquer his enemies, and set up a kingdom in which there will be no war, no hunger, no injustice, and even animals such as the lion and lamb will live together peacefully.[1] Only people who are righteous in the sight of God (“saved”) will be resurrected into Christ’s kingdom, or allowed to enter it at the Sheep and Goat Judgment after the Battle of Armageddon (Ezek. 37: 1-14; Matt. 25:31-46). Because of that, it is not wrong to equate the Kingdom of Heaven with salvation in most of the Lord’s teachings. To be worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven was to be saved.

Matthew 13:45 and 46 ESV
(45) “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,
(46) who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Anyone reading the parable of the “Pearl of Great Value” can immediately grasp the sense of it—being in the Kingdom of Heaven and getting to live forever is worth more than all our other possessions combined, and the wise person will spare no effort or expense to be in Christ’s kingdom.

As clear as the parable seems to us, it was much clearer to people who lived before the 1900’s. The early 1900’s saw the collapse of the pearl industry and the decline in the value of pearls as a status symbol, because it was then that the Japanese invented a way to grow cultured pearls. Worse, not too long after that, plastics and resins were also used to produce very realistic pearl look-alikes. Then finally, the invention of the scuba diving system made getting the real pearls much easier, safer, and more reliable. The result of all this was that pearls, which for millennia had been a mark of high culture, social standing, and financial wealth, were suddenly seemingly being worn by anyone and everyone. This caused them to be both devalued as symbols of status and wealth, and less attractive. As their attraction wore off, they were worn by fewer and fewer people, even being ignored by those who could afford the “real” ones. Sure, there are pearls of great value still around, but the desire to own and wear them, and the status they project, are not nearly what they were in years past.

That brings us to why “the pearl of great value” in Jesus’ parable is part of the customs and culture of the Bible. In order to really understand the parable, and why Jesus chose a pearl instead of something else, we need to understand the biblical value of pearls. In the biblical world, the pearl was incredibly expensive. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD), said this about pearls: “The topmost rank of all things of price is held by pearls.”[2]

Oysters that produce pearls are found all over the world, in both salt and fresh water, and yet the round, white pearls that have been so prized in history are amazingly rare. Although the translation “pearls” is disputed, Job 28:18 (ESV) certainly shows the value of pearls when it is trying to show the value of wisdom: “the price of wisdom is above pearls.” When pointing out that women should not dress extravagantly, 1 Timothy 2:9 says women should not dress with gold and pearls.

Part of the mystique of pearls in the first century was that, even by the time of the early church, people were not sure where they came from. Expensive pearls that came into the Roman world from the Persian Gulf (still today perhaps the most reliable source of natural pearls) and from India had traveled far, and anyone who deals in vulnerable and expensive items knows that creating an air of mystery and guarding your sources can create value in the item and also protect your source of supply. “Pliny claimed that pearls rose to the sea’s surface and swallowed dew to achieve their luster and beauty, while other authors suggested that lightning hitting an oyster produced the gem.”[3]

In actuality, although some pearls were discovered in shallow water, most pearls in the ancient world were brought up from the depths of the ocean. In the Persian Gulf region, a fruitful source of pearls in biblical times, they were often found at a depth of about 40 meters (almost 45 yards). To get down to the oyster beds, divers held a weight on a rope to make a quick descent to the beds. The weight was pulled back up to the ship by the rope, while the diver swam back up, having put the oysters he had gathered into a sack he had with him. Until the invention of scuba gear, this diving-with-a-weight method of pearling was the common way of pearling, with only slight improvements over the years, such as hand and foot protection from the sharp oysters, and face masks to enable better vision and protect the eyes. Needless to say, it was a dangerous way to make a living and a major reason that natural pearls continued to be so expensive until our modern times.

When we understand the rarity of a round, white pearl in the biblical world, and understand the mystique that surrounded them as well as the monetary and social value they had, we are in a position to see why Jesus compared gaining the Kingdom of Heaven to finding and buying a pearl of great value. The pearl of great price was valuable, but nothing is more valuable than salvation and everlasting life. And just as no merchant in the ancient world would hesitate to sell everything else he owned to gain a very valuable pearl, no person should hesitate to make every effort to be saved and be assured of everlasting life.

Endnotes

[1] For more on the Millennial Kingdom of Christ, see Schoenheit, John. The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul. Christian Educational Services, Inc., 2004.
[2] Pliny the Elder is a great source of information about the first century, because he was born before the Day of Pentecost, and lived until after the death of the Apostle Paul. He died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy that destroyed Pompeii on August 24, 79 AD.
[3] Andrew Lawler, “The Pearl Trade” (Archaeology Magazine, Claudia Valentino, editor. March/April 2012), p. 48.

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3 comments

  1. Is there any value in viewing the Merchant in the pearl of great price parable as God who gave up His only Son to purchse you. That would seem to go along with how much value God puts on each individual.

    1. Hi Chris, It is true that God does value each os us as a “pearl of great price,” in the sense that He did spend the price of His son for us, but that does not seem to be the original meaning that Jesus was conveying.

      1. I agree, Chris (I’m not going to say I’m positive of it though), lest we start to think that we could give up everything to buy Christ or salvation. Which is not the gospel. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure…” “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant.” I think he flips the script. Even in the parable after this one the kingdom of heaven is the thing searching for the thing: a dragnet cast into the sea and gathering fish of every kind. If this parable were in the lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son passage we never would have seen ourselves as the merchant. We’ve learned humility so well that this parable is unfathomable. Again, I’m not positive about this. The above is a well written article and I mean no disrespect.

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