A Precious Treasure
New Testament Portrayals of the Church
is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
An old adage says the New Testament in the Old is concealed while the Old ..Testament in the New is revealed. That is certainly true of the church, something Paul said was a great mystery (Ephesians 5:32). The church was talked about only in symbols in the Old Testament, because it could not be properly understood until Jesus Christ made plain what previously had been hidden. Even when Jesus spoke on this and other subjects, he frequently used parables and “dark sayings” (Psalm 49:4). Those with a hearing ear understood; the others did not (Matthew 13:10,11,16).
The Lord’s called-out ones are like precious jewels: “They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him” (Malachi 3:17). Because of the New Testament, we know this prophecy refers to the church, even though the word “jewels” is not found in the New Testament. But there are references to specific jewels such as those in the wall and gates of the heavenly Jerusalem: “He measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits … And the building of the wall of it was of jasper … and the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones … And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl (Revelation 21:17-19, 21).
“The fabric or composition of the wall (including the twelve foundations) is described as ‘jasper,’ which in verse 11 is said to be ‘clear as crystal’ and is thus the diamond. … Only the foundations of the wall of the city are adorned or overlaid with all manner of precious stones; that is, each of the twelve foundation stones is garnished with numerous jewels of the variety peculiar to that foundation. The different stones in the twelve foundations picture variety in the Church not from the standpoint of character importance but from the standpoint of authority and jurisdiction.
“The pearl represents Jesus’ costly sacrifice, one of the first lessons those who walk into the city will have to learn; that is, the only reason they could even begin to enter is because the man Christ Jesus gave his life for them. The gates emphasize the price the Saviour paid, his supreme sacrifice, which brings to mind his parable in Matthew 13:45,46 [the pearl of great price]. Jesus purchased the spiritual Church primarily and the world secondarily (Acts 20:28). Therefore, since each gate is a pearl, no person can enter the city without first recognizing Christ. … The lesson of the pearl-gate wall calls attention to this fundamental truth.”—Frank Shallieu, The Keys of Revelation, pp. 549, 551, 552.
A one-verse parable preceding the parable of the pearl of great price describes a treasure: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field” (Matthew 13:44).
The man in this parable is Jesus Christ who “sold all that he had” including even life itself. After he rose from the dead and ascended up on high, he bought us with his own “precious blood” (1 Peter 1:18,19). “Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). Christ appeared “in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24).
And so the church is personified as a treasure which brings great joy to the buyer. The buyer gets more than a treasure: he gets the field too, an apt picture of the earth and the entire world of mankind: “The field is the world” (Matthew 13:38). “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
One of the oldest cereals known to man is wheat. It is one of the first mentioned in the Bible (see Genesis 30:14). Wheat figures prominently in a parable of our Lord which appears with the parable of the treasure and pearl of great price: “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:24-30).
The disciples were intrigued by this parable and asked what it meant. Our Lord’s explanation begins in verse 37. He explains that he is the sower, the enemy that sowed tares is the devil, the field is the world, and the good seed [the wheat] are the children of the kingdom. All the wheat is gathered into the barn.
This is an accurate picture of the church of God which starts with the good seed of the word of truth from the hand of the master sower. Under normal circumstances, it would grow to maturity and be harvested. But an adversary with other plans surreptitiously sows tares in this field. Tares are “imitation wheat.”
“There can be little doubt that the [word translated tares] of the parable denotes the weed called ‘darnel’ a widely distributed grass and the only species of the order that has deleterious properties. … The grains of [the tares] produce vomiting and purging, convulsions, and even death. The darnel before it comes into ear is very similar in appearance to wheat.”—McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. X, ppg. 201,202.
And thus the true church which was started by our Lord was infiltrated by false, wheat-like imitators. No effort has been made to separate the true from the false during this age. But now, at the time of harvest, at the end of this age, the separating work takes place (Matthew 13:39, NIV).
This parable does not teach the literal burning of false Christians. If the fire were literal, the tares would be literal as well. The parable says the imitation wheat will be gathered into bundles which eventually will be destroyed as worthless. Those who are a part of the true church of God are not gathered into bundles; they are gathered into the heavenly “barn” which the Lord said he would prepare for his true followers: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2, 3).
Wheat is ground into flour which is used to make leavened or unleavened bread. Leaven is uniformly a symbol of sin in the Bible and so combining it with flour means to adulterate the true with the false: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:33, RSV). This parable has a similar lesson as the wheat and the tares.
On the day of Pentecost when the holy spirit descended upon the first members of the church, the priest was waving two loaves of bread which were specifically to be of “fine flour” baked with leaven (Leviticus 23:17). These two loaves beautifully illustrate the church (and the Great Company) which are offered to God even though contaminated with sin. In God’s sight, they are acceptable because of Christ’s righteousness, the point of the parable of the wedding garment (see Matthew 22:1-14).
The church is frequently described as a virgin in the New Testament. Paul used the term to describe the saints in Corinth: “I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2).
The wonderful, almost lyrical description of the church, the one hundred forty-four thousand, describes them as being virgins: “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. … and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. … These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:1,3,4).
These virgins collectively are the bride of Christ: “One of the seven angels … talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Revelation 21:9). United with the Lord, like a king and queen, they reign over the earth (Revelation 5:10).
Another parable of our Lord used wise and foolish virgins to teach an important lesson: “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps” (Matthew 25:1-4). All the virgins went to sleep until a cry at midnight that the bridegroom had arrived. The wise virgins went in with the bridegroom to the marriage; the foolish virgins had no oil in their lamps and left to buy some. “Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 25:11-13).Although there is no mention of a bride, it is the virgins for whom the bridegroom comes. And like the two loaves of fine flour baked with leaven which were presented to God on the day of Pentecost, we again see two groups. Although all are pure, separated from the world, and lovers of the bridegroom, they are not the same. The wise virgins are equivalent to the bride; the foolish virgins, although they are blessed eventually, are not the bride. Revelation calls them a multitude: “I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude … saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife [the bride, the wise virgins] hath made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6,7).
Different parables use different symbols to teach the needed lessons. It is virgins here, but it is servants in other places. This includes the parables of the talents (Matthew 25:14), the pounds (Luke 19:13), a man on a journey (Mark 13:34), watching servants at the end of the age when the Lord returns (Luke 12:37), and at best unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10). Peter indirectly called the assembled disciples on the day of Pentecost servants when he said in a quotation from Joel, “On my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:18).
Vine and Its Branches
At the time of the last supper, our Lord said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit” (John 15:5). By the use of symbol this is another description of the church. If we are joined to Christ, we draw sustenance from him and are “alive.” We receive this life so we might bring forth pleasing fruit. It is a similar lesson to the grain of wheat which goes into the ground and from which springs a great fruitage (Matthew 13:8).
Paul used a similar symbol when he talked about branches placed into a different tree from which they originated: “For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:24).
Sometimes it is not the vine but the workers in a vineyard that picture the Lord’s faithful church: “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1). These workers are recruited at various times over the course of a day and all are paid generously by the Lord. And thus it has been with all who have gone to work in the “Lord’s vineyard.” As Jesus himself said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29,30, RSV).
The true saints of God are called stewards by Paul: “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1,2). Our Lord gave a parable about an unjust steward in Luke 16. Although undoubtedly directed at the scribes and Pharisees, the principle applies to every prospective member of the church: those to whom the Lord entrusts his “riches” must demonstrate faithfulness in their responsibilities. Otherwise they will not be rewarded.
Paul likened the church to body members: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27). Of course the head of this body is Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 4:15 and 5:23). The church united with Christ has sometimes been called “The Christ—head and body.” Notice too that the voice from heaven asked Saul, “Why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 22:7). Saul never answered, “What do you mean, Lord? You’re in heaven. I’m only pursuing heretics!” In his heart Saul understood the symbol of “body members.”
Sometimes instead of the church collectively as shown by wheat, jewels, branches, and body members, a symbol demonstrates the characteristics an individual member of the church must develop. One example of the necessity of having the characteristic of forgiveness is contained in the answer of our Lord to Peter when he asked how often he should forgive someone. Jesus talked about a king who reckoned with his servants. One owed a gigantic sum and could not pay. He is forgiven, but rather than show mercy to a fellow servant who in comparison owed him a pittance, he demanded immediate payment and when he did not get it, he abused the man. The lord of the parable heard what he did, brought the man back to him, and said: “You wicked servant. I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed” (Matthew 18:32-34, NIV). The lesson for all of us is in the next verse: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” Note that the king in the parable never told the one who had been forgiven a gigantic debt that he would be expected similarly to show forgiveness to others. It was considered such a basic principle that it was to be understood without being specifically mentioned.
Another lesson shows the importance of doing what’s right, not just saying the right words. A man had two sons. He asked both to go work in his vineyard. One said he would not go, but afterward changed his mind and went. Another said he would go, but he did not. Our Lord asked which son did the will of his father. The audience correctly said it was the first (see Matthew 21:28-32). Although Jesus applied “the first” to the publicans and sinners of his day, the principle is still applicable today: it is what we do, not what we say we will do that counts with God.The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33) had compassion on one who had been assaulted by thieves; the priest and Levite—ones who should have known the characteristics God expected in them—passed by on the other side, not wanting to get involved with something that would slow them down, or possibly defile them were the man to die and they be guilty of touching him. Our Lord then speaks to the lawyer who had asked who was his neighbor: “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke10:36,37).
The ministry of Jesus Christ and his redeeming work on behalf of the human race is the main message of the Bible. And the wonderful associated message is that Jesus is to have others with him who become a part of him. These others are collectively called his church. What a wonderful prospect is in store for those who love God!