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.