The Pearl of Great Price


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, November 23, 2008

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. (MAT 13:45,46)

The Old Testament is remarkably silent on the matter of the nature of heaven, hell, and the life after death. It appears that the children of Israel were not able to receive truths about heaven, and so were allowed to continue in their belief in the shadowy spirit world which they called “Sheol.” Sheol is related to the Greek concept of Hades and is often translated as “hell”. Perhaps the most powerful teaching of the Old Testament regarding Sheol is in First Samuel Chapter 28 where Saul begs the witch of En Dor to raise the prophet Samuel’s spirit up from Sheol so that he can once more be advised of what to do by the Man of God.

[13] And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.” [14] So he said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down. [15] Now Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”

Saul’s conversations with the witch and with Samuel’s spirit constitute the majority of the teaching of the Old Testament regarding the life after death. The most that can be said for this doctrine is that it affirms that there is life after death without defining its nature. This graphic scene speaks of a terrible bleakness of spirit that pervaded the people of that church in that time. It shows how they were not able to know anything of what heaven was really like because they were far too interested in personal property, honor, and gain.

In the New Testament however, the Lord frequently taught about heaven, comparing it to many kinds of experiences and places which were common to the people of the day. He began to open the doctrine of the spiritual world in such a way as to take away the fear, while at the same time opening their minds to the knowledge of eternal life. In the Gospel of Matthew alone, the Lord taught that the kingdom of heaven was like:

                  1. a man who sowed good seed” (13:24);
                  2. a mustard seed” (13:31);
                  3. leaven” (13:33);
                  4. a treasure hidden in a field” (13:44);
                  5. a merchant seeking beautiful pearls” (13:45);
                  6. a dragnet cast into the sea” (13:47);
                  7. a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (13:52);
                  8. a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants” (18:23);
                  9. a landowner” who hired workers for his vineyard (20:1);
                  10. a certain king who arranged a wedding feast” (22:2);
                  11. and “ten virgins” with lamps who came to the wedding feast (25:1).

The Lord had to speak in these parables, because the people of that church were not prepared to understand His new truths in any other way. The only way to explain a totally new idea to someone is to say that it is like something he does know well.

When someone takes a new job, they look for the things that are familiar and already understood to form the basis for the things that must be learned because they are new.

When trying to learn a new language, the mind eagerly latches on to those words that have similar roots to words they already know. People who speak English as a first language often find Latin easier to learn than Greek because the Latin alphabet is familiar and so many English words have a Latin root. On the other hand, native English speakers probably find that Greek is easier to learn than Hebrew because even though both use a different alphabet, there are far more English words with Greek roots than with Hebrew roots.

For most people, in most circumstances, the comparison of something new and unknown with something familiar and common will often calm the fears enough so that learning can begin. This is but an application of the Lord’s teaching technique to a modern circumstance: explain what is totally new, unknown and unimagined in terms of what is well known and familiar. The kingdom of heaven is not a mustard seed, nor is dying the same thing as going to sleep, but they both can serve as useful illustrations making what might be strange and frightening seem less so. The Lord sought to give the truth to His people, but at the same time to comfort them – not frighten them with new and strange ideas. And so He taught them that the kingdom of heaven was like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, and having found a pearl far superior to any he had ever seen, he sold everything he had to purchase this one perfect pearl.

In the internal sense, the “kingdom of heaven” refers to both heaven and the church on earth. A “merchant” signifies all those people who are seekers of truth and who live according to the new truths they have acquired from the Lord through the Word. Our ability to seek out and acquire new truths comes from the spiritual affection of truth; which affection consists in loving the truth itself and esteeming it above every good in the world, because through truth, we have eternal life. The spiritual affection for truth can be said to be loving truth for the sake of eternal life. This is to be compared to a natural affection for truth, which would be to love truth for the sake of knowing things – natural curiosity – but not for the sake of spiritual goals.

It is important that each of us form a spiritual affection for truth within ourselves, for we are taught that the only means by which eternal life is implanted in man is by means of the truth, consequently by means of the Word, for it is through the Word that the Lord teaches truths to man. The spiritual affection of truth, which is to love truths above every worldly delight and treasure, is what is described by the parable of the merchant seeking to buy one precious pearl of great price. This is so because in the internal sense to “buy” signifies to appropriate to yourself, or make something your own through your own free choice.

As an illustration of this point, reflect for a moment of what happens when we go shopping in a large store. We are faced with literally thousands of decisions about whether or not we should buy a certain thing or not.

                  1. We might see something that would be nice to have, but decide not to buy it because it seems to be priced too high to be a good value.
                  2. We might see something to replace something we already have that’s wearing out, but decide to wait a little longer.
                  3. We might see something that is almost what we want, but we decide to look a little farther before buying.
                  4. When we see something that is just right, that fits our desires and needs exactly, then we decide to buy it, to make it our own.

This is very similar to the process by which our character is formed during life in the world. Ideas are constantly flowing into our minds from the world of spirits. Some are from heaven, some from hell, but most are fleeting thoughts, unable to remain with us because they find no common ground, no similar affections in our mind to hang on to. Such things are so far removed from our own loves that we do not even notice their passage.

Other ideas enter that are interesting enough for us to turn them over in our minds for a moment, until we see a flaw or a discordant affection, at which point we discard the thought.

But many ideas are delightful to us, so we choose to “take” them, make them our own. We “purchase” some of the ideas that flow in, and as it were take them home and make them a part of our particular lives. This describes how our free will functions in the development of our own unique personality and character – the free selection of ideas and loves that agree with what we love and with what we want ourselves want to be.

We can imagine a merchant, a dealer in pearls, going through his life, buying and selling unremarkable pearls, always searching for one perfect pearl. We too go through life making our decisions based on very mundane and common things most of the time, decisions about what to have for lunch, how to deal with a problem with the children, which course to take in a business deal. These are natural things, so called because they relate to things of the natural world, and so involve the natural degree of the mind.

There are some truths that, once they enter into the natural mind, become quite irritating. We try to ignore them, but they will not go away or be quiet. One the one hand, these can be truths that irritate us because they point out our own weaknesses and failings.

On the other hand there are things in others that irritate us, such as when a normally open-minded and loving spouse becomes very stubborn on one particular topic. There comes a time when we must take a lesson from the oyster, and form a pearl around that irritation. If an otherwise kind and thoughtful spouse has a character flaw that irritates, you can either fight it, rub it, and irritate it until it becomes an open wound, or you can surround it with thoughts of the spouse’s many good qualities will qualify and soften the effect of that single irritating point.

We need to remember that the other person may have been working on that particular problem for some time, and our comments have the effect of reminding them of their failure to conquer it yet. We must be merciful to those we love, and as far as possible look to the good in others.

The “one precious pearl,” long sought by the merchant, is the knowledge and acknowledgment of the Lord in His Divine Human. This is the central, essential idea of faith that qualifies all others, the one precious pearl of wisdom which gives value and meaning to all the others is the belief that the Lord God Jesus Christ is the One God of heaven and earth, and that He

                  1. actually took on a body from Mary,
                  2. lived among us on earth,
                  3. suffered and conquered in temptations,
                  4. restored the hells to their proper place and order,
                  5. and rose into heaven on the third day with His glorified Human.

This is the pearl of true wisdom, more precious than any other: that God Himself came down to earth in a Human body to free us from the dominion of hell and free us to choose to follow His commandments, to become Christians, that is, to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

In our parable, when the merchant finds the precious pearl, he sells all that he has that he might acquire the precious pearl. To go and sell all that you have does not refer to ridding yourself of all material possessions, though some have interpreted the passage in this way. The Word speaks in the spiritual sense in terms of spiritual possessions and deeds. To “sell all you have” then refers to cleansing yourself of those things in your thought and will that are contrary to the knowledge and acknowledgment of the Lord in His Divine Human as the One Only God of Heaven and earth, to shun evils as sins against God.

We read in our second lesson (Revelation 21) that the Holy City New Jerusalem, which represents the Lord’s New Church in the Heavens and on the earth, has 12 gates, each of which is formed of a single pearl. There are twelve gates into the city, because twelve represents the idea of all things of good and truth universally. This is significant, for it tells us that there are really as many different ways for people to approach the Lord’s church as there are people, that no two individuals will approach the Lord in quite the same way, yet He has provided that there will an entrance for everyone into His church – as long as one condition is met. That condition is revealed by the fact that the gates are each made of one pearl: Only those shall enter the Holy City New Jerusalem who have as the basis of their faith the belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as the one God of heaven and earth.

We all need to become spiritual merchants. We all need to have a spiritual affection for truth, that is, look to the things of the Word because they lead to eternal life. We need to seek the One Precious Pearl in the only place where it will be found, in the Word. And when we have found the Lord Himself in His Word, we must sell all that we have, that is, give up all that we have that is from self and the world, so that we can enter into the Holy City New Jerusalem through one of the twelve gates, each made of a single precious pearl, unimpeded by false ideas and evil desires. AMEN.

First Lesson: MAT 13:44-52

(Mat 13:44-52) “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. {45} “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, {46} “who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. {47} “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, {48} “which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. {49} “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, {50} “and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” {51} Jesus said to them, “Have you understood all these things?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” {52} Then He said to them, “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” Amen.

Second Lesson: REV 21:9-21

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying, “Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” {10} And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, {11} having the glory of God. Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. {12} Also she had a great and high wall with twelve gates, and twelve angels at the gates, and names written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: {13} three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, and three gates on the west. {14} Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. {15} And he who talked with me had a gold reed to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. {16} The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal. {17} Then he measured its wall: one hundred and forty-four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of an angel. {18} The construction of its wall was of jasper; and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. {19} The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all kinds of precious stones: the first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, {20} the fifth sardonyx, the sixth sardius, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. {21} The twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. Amen.

Third Lesson: Apocalypse Explained 863a.

For they are virgins, signifies for the reason that they are in the affection of truth for the sake of truth. This is evident from the signification of “virgins,” as being affections of truth, which are called spiritual affections of truth. For there are natural affections of truth which exist in almost every one, especially during childhood and youth. But natural affections of truth have reward as an end, at first reputation, and afterwards honor and gain. These are not the affections here meant by “virgins,” but spiritual affections of truth are meant, which are such as have for their end eternal life and the uses of that life.

Those who are in such affections love truths because they are truths, thus apart from the world’s glory, honors, and gains; and those who love truths apart from such considerations love the Lord; for the Lord is with man in the truths that are from good. For that which proceeds from the Lord as a Sun is the Divine truth, and that which proceeds from the Lord is the Lord; consequently he that receives truth from spiritual love because it is truth receives the Lord. Therefore of such it is said “these are they that follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.”

Moreover, such are meant by the Lord in these words in Matthew:-

The kingdom of the heavens is like unto a treasure hidden in a field, which a man having found hideth, and in his joy goeth and selleth all things whatsoever he hath, and buyeth the field. Again, the kingdom of the heavens is like unto a man a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one precious pearl, went and sold all that he had, and bought it (xiii. 44-46).

The treasure hidden in a field” and “the pearls” signify the truths of heaven and the church; and the “one precious pearl” signifies the acknowledgment of the Lord. The affection of truths because they are truths is meant by “the man went in his joy and sold all that he had, and bought the field” in which the treasure was hidden, also by “the merchant’s going and selling all that he had, and buying the precious pearl.” Amen.

 Bible Meanings Home

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