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Who the man?

So what are these parables about?

Matthew 13:44-46: "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. 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."

I remember John Piper taking quite a long time (in Desiring God??) to argue that the man is us, the treasure is Christ and so we should joyfully give up all for Him.  In fact I often read or hear Piper returning to these parables and this interpretation of them.  I think it's at least emblematic of three Piper distinctives:

1) treasuring Christ

2) joy as the atmosphere and motivation of our wholehearted service.

3) the gospel is not about Christ making much of us but freeing us to make much of Him


Now I have learnt as much from John Piper as I have from any contemporary Christian leader and I thank God for him.  Funnily enough though, it was his own arguments concerning the parables that convinced me of the other interpretation.  That is, the seeking man is Christ (just as Christ is the man throughout Matt 13), the found treasure is the church (eg Ex 19:6) and the world is the field (just as the world is the field throughout Matt 13).  Perhaps what tipped the balance most for me was the thought: if these were two parables about us finding Christ (rather than the other way around) they would be the only parables of their kind.  Elsewhere it is always we who are lost and Christ who seeks and saves. 

If this second interpretation is correct then it's about Christ giving all to buy the world so as to possess His church.  He is the great Seeker and He is the great Treasurer.  He is the great Rejoicer and He is the great Sacrificer of all. 

What happens when we go with the Piper interpretation?  We become the great seekers, we are the ones who treasure, we are the great rejoicers and the ones who sacrifice all.  The weight is thrown back onto our shoulders.  Now to encourage us in this gargantuan work, this sustaining power is held out to us: We are told to prize and value and esteem and treasure and glory in the inestimable value of Christ.  In that joy will we find the strength to give all for the possession of Christ.  But we are assured that this is the way it has to be because the gospel is definitely not about Christ making much of us.  It's about us being freed to make much of Him.  In fact I think it's this conviction (grounded in Piper's views of the self-centred divine glory) that underlies his interpretation of the parables.

What do we say to this? 

Well, first, just read the parables in context.  Shouldn't we assume that the main Actor of the chapter remains the same? 

Second, ask questions about the gospel.  Isn't Christ meant to be the active one?  Aren't we the ones acted upon?  The lost who are found?  And don't we love because He first loved us?

Third, ask questions about the nature of God's glory.  In the radical othercentredness of the triune life, isn't God's eternal glory precisely in making much of the Other?  Isn't it entirely fitting that this immanent love spills over in the economy of grace such that God is indeed glorified in His self-emptying exaltation of His people?  When we understand the trinitarian glory of God, don't we then realize just how glorifying it is for Christ to make much of us?  (And even to do so when people don't respond!)

Fourth, ask questions about the nature of the Christian life.  Sustaining joy is a wonderful thing, but doesn't it flow from receiving Christ's electing, sacrificial love first?  Doesn't it overburden the Christian to put them in the role of the electing, sacrificing seeker?

Just some questions.  Let me state again, I'm a Piper fan.  I've listened to hundreds of talks, read loads of his books.  Once I even described myself as 'a big fan' to his face (bowel shudderingly embarrassing!). 

It wasn't even my intention to write about Piper.  This post was meant to be the introduction to a mini-series on Christ in the parables.  Well, it is that too.  This is part one.  Christ is the man.  He is the merchant. 

There.  Point made.

Up next, the Good Samaritan, then the Two Sons.


20 thoughts on “Who the man?

  1. Otepoti

    On the money, Glen. I had a break-through in my thinking when I read an article on the "Prodigal Son" (perhaps by John Ortberg?) which pointed out that the prodigal doesn't, in fact, repent before his return - he's planning a comeback purely on the basis of works - "treat me as one of your hired men."

    That might be stating the bleedin' obvious for some, but it blew me away, that it's grace from start to finish.

    Somewhat later I began to apply this to worship and ask myself, who is being served here? Surely God in His mercy is deigning to serve me, rather than me Him. Endless grace.

    That's why "Christian Hedonism" as a phrase makes me a bit uneasy. It puts the cart before the horse so!


  2. glenscriv

    Yes yes yes Jocelyn! I'm all for hedonism. But let's begin with Christ's Hedonism - His omnipotent joy over us His bride. The first thing I need to remember is not 'I should be joyful'. The first thing I should remember is 'Christ rejoices in me.' Once the horse is in front of the cart, then I take the Piper points on board, but not first.

    And I'll definitely come to the Two Sons story soon. I remember a similar lightbulb moment listening to Alan Torrance say something like: 'Whatever repentance the younger son undergoes it happens in the embrace of his father.'


  3. Dan Hames

    Oh tasty stuff, Glen. I'm looking forward to what you bring out of the parables. They're so often painfully distorted, and even having said that, I'm sometimes clueless!


  4. glenscriv

    Literally it was Piper laying out the two sides of the debate (I'm pretty sure it's Desiring God, I'll check). I found the opposing interpretation much more persuasive.

  5. timothycairns

    If you want to start reading the parables better - by far the best book to start with is David Wenham's book "The parables of Jesus" (it used to be called "Pictures of a revolution" but that was deemed a bit too radical I think).

    A really great book from a really great theologian

    I am currently teaching an adult Sunday School class on the parables of Jesus and it has been a great challenge

    For parabolic interpretation in context you cant go past Poet and Peasant and the follow up "Through Peasant Eyes" by Kenneth Bailey. His work on the Prodigal has been most welcome.

    blessings as you study the parables.

  6. Matt

    I can thoroughly recommend the Kenneth Bailey books. In fact I did a whole series of 7 posts about Luke 15 exploring some of the issues raised by Bailey's book, "The Cross and the Prodigal" asking where is Christ and the Cross in Luke 15. It's phenomenal relevant as so many people are preaching it but doing so without preaching Christ and Him crucified and preaching an incarnation-less and atonement-less gospel. Is that what the parable really leads us to believe? I think not and Bailey gives some great reflections out of his interactions with Muslims and others in near Eastern contexts who'd made exactly these points.

  7. glenscriv

    Thanks Tim and Matt,
    I'm always hearing good things about the Bailey stuff. I'll have to check it out.

    Let me run past you something I'm going to say in the Prodigal post: In the story Jesus is the father. Just plain and simple - it's Jesus. Just like Jesus is the shepherd bringing in lost sheep and the woman bringing in the lost coin - Jesus is the father bringing in the lost sons. Luke 15:1-2 is the clue - it's all about Jesus eating with sinners and the religious being upset about that. And so Jesus tells a story about a guy who eats with sinners and the religious one is really upset. So the father is Jesus. And then all the stuff about him bearing the shame of his sons by going out to them and of course the prodigal's repentance aint really repentance, it's in the embrace of his father that true repentance happens. And both sons are actually scumbags wishing the father dead etc etc.

    Anyway, I'll get into all that when I post on it. Just wanted to run past you what you thought about just saying that Jesus is the father??

  8. glenscriv

    Marc - it's on p52 of Desiring God (my version anyway) and then he has a page and a bit footnote on p59. Though I'm afraid to say Calvin goes with Piper on this (or rather vice versa!). So that's my orthodoxy in question right there. You've been warned!

  9. timothycairns


    CH Spurgeon preached a sermon "prodigal kissing for the prodigal son" which makes this point

    Jesus is indeed the father and the parable is therefore not the parable of the prodigal - the correct title should be the parable of the father who offers forgiveness to his two sons.

    Bailey is excellent in his ending of this parable. He argues that the rest of Luke's gospel is the ending. The elder son picks up his staff and strikes the father dead - this is why the story has a pregnant pause.

    I think the honour/shame stuff is important in the parable as it gives it its exegetical framework, but in terms of the central message it is about the forgiveness of the father and the reaction of the sons - one who truly receives grace and the other whose anger burns to death of the father.

    Its my favourite portion of scripture so I could ramble all night!

  10. Steve

    I've been preparing to preach on this passage this weekend. One commentary (not that I'm appealing to the majority) mentions this interpretation, others are more Piper/Calvin-esque in their interpretations. You've put forward a good argument - now I'm a bit confused!

  11. Kevin

    Hi Glen/Steve,
    Just a quick thought - I'm wondering whether it has to be a strong either/or for these two options. For example while the parable of the Samaritan parable shows God's requirement to sacrificially love others - even our enemies, it's only as we see ourselves lying helpless beside the road, and Jesus costly mercy to us while we were his enemies that we are able to have the motivation/power to 'go and do likewise'. Similary here, it is in seeing the willingness of Jesus to give all that he had to glorify the Father and save his people, we receiving the motivation/power to give all that we have for his kingdom.

  12. Steve

    Been doing some more reading on this passage. Here's Carson:

    Two alternative interpretations must be dismissed.

    1. The first, represented by Walvoord, understands the treasure to represent Israel and Jesus as the man who sold everything to purchase her. He rejects the above view by making the parable mean that “a believer in Christ has nothing to offer and the treasure is not for sale” and proposes his own interpretation by noting that in Exodus 19:5 Israel is called God’s treasure. But any view, including Walvoord’s, can be made to look foolish by pressing a parable into a detailed allegory: for instance one could rebut his view by showing that it entails Israel’s being worth far more than the price paid. But would Walvoord be comfortable with this implicit depreciation of Christ’s sacrifice? He must come to grips with the nature of parables (see on 13:3a). And treasure has a vast range of associations in the OT and NT; on what basis does he select Exodus 19:5? Above all, his interpretation does not adequately handle the opening clause.

  13. Glen

    Hi Kevin - welcome to comments!

    I certainly go with "both" for the Good Samaritan - see here:

    But first it's Christ, *then* go and do likewise. Yet in Matthew 13, without the explicit command to "go and do" I don't think it's parallel.

    Hey Steve,

    That's a really infuriating (non)-argument from Carson there.

    * You can press the details of Carson's intepretation too to make it ridiculous.
    * Walvoord at least offers a Scripture by which to understand the treasure, what does Carson offer?
    * Of course Christ joyfully considers the purchase of His bride as "worth it"! That's obvious both from the parable and from the gospel in which Christ considers the cross worth it for the joy set before Him.
    * The nature of parables as outlined in Matthew 13 makes us look for significance in *every* detail. Christ leaves virtually no detail unexplained!
    * His interpretation handles the opening clause very well indeed. What is the kingdom of heaven like - it's like a Man who sells all for His treasure. That's just like other kingdom parables where the central character is not *us* but the King who throws a wedding feast for His Son, etc, etc

    What's most disappointing is that all these terrible non-arguments are made in favour of a man-centred interpretation which places the burdens firmly on our shoulders and turns Christ Himself into a passive benefit who needs discovering by bold, searching, sacrificial us.

    I'm sure you'll preach a good 'un Steve. But Carson's line here is completely unconvincing.

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  17. Andrew Dawson

    I have a few questions i'm trying to get my head around and would appreciate your input.
    Can you help me understand why the need for both parables (the treasure and the pearl), if both saying the same thing? Jesus is the man who finds the treasure and sells all to get it and Jesus is the merchant who finds the pearl and sell all to get it.

    I wonder about the connection between the treasure being hidden and the the purpose of parables (13v11-17). Revealed to the disciples, though others can't see it. There is no mention of the man finding the treasure after a search but just that he found it (We assume a treasure map scenario). This removes the man-centredness of the parable but placing the stoplight on the treasure. "The kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field..." In this reading then Christ is the treasure that is found. Selling all connects to Matthew summary of the Jesus preaching (4v17), 'Repent'

    The Kingdom of God is like a merchant... The spotlight here is on the merchant who is Jesus, who searches and sells all to buy the pearl

    I'd appreciate any thoughts.

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