In the Holy Bible there are less than a dozen references to pearls.
Some of those references simply refer to what is most valuable and precious. Thus Jesus tells us not to throw our pearls to pigs (Mat.7:6). I’ve often used that verses (and probably misused it too!) to justify not answering an antagonist who is having a go at me for my Christian beliefs.
In other instances pearls are used to refer to jewellery items and are simply included along with gold and precious stones. Thus Paul tells Timothy that Christian women should be marked by modesty and that instead of focusing on braided hair, gold and pearls they should be clothed with good deeds (1Tim.2:9,10). In Revelation the wicked city that oppresses God’s people, Babylon, is pictured as a woman dressed in purple and scarlet and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.
However there are two references to pearls that long puzzled me.
One of them is in a Kingdom parable that Jesus told (Mat.13:44). It’s about a merchant who is looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. The question we might ask is, “Why did Jesus use the illustration of pearls; why not diamonds or opals?” Is there some special significance in pearls?
The other is in the Apostle John’s description of the New Jerusalem that comes out of heaven prepared as a bride for her husband. (Rev.21:21). When John describes that heavenly city he tells us that it’s twelve gates were twelve pearls – each gate being a single pearl. That’s rather mind boggling when we stop and think about it. Pearls come from oysters and for a pearl to be the size of a city gate one would need a huge oyster indeed. Of course John’s language is symbolic. But it does leave us again with the question: Why pearls? Why not gates made from diamonds? Is there also here some special significance in pearls?
It seems to me that the answer lies in the nature of a pearl. Pearls are one of the few (maybe the only) jewellery item that is produced by a living creature. Gold, silver and precious stones are dug out of the earth – but not the pearl. The pearl grows inside a clam… an oyster. It also seems significant how that pearl grows inside that oyster. It begins when a grain of sand gets lodged between the shell and the body of the oyster. This irritant is a little like the oyster getting a splinter. The oyster then begins to spin some of its shell material around that grain of sand and eventually it becomes a pearl.
The symbolism of that is very meaningful. Here is suffering that leads to something of great beauty. From the pain of that irritant comes a gem for which divers risk their lives.
That makes pearls a wonderfully symbolic gem – in a way in which could never be true of a diamond or an opal. Glory out of suffering!
Can we see the symbolism of that in the Kingdom parable of the merchant looking for a valuable pearl? The pearl of great price is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The pain of His suffering on the cross led to the glory of forgiveness and eternal life. God, as it were, spun around that irritant, a pearl that has infinite value.
In the same way we could think of the pearls that make up the gates of the new heavenly Jerusalem. Gates are there to allow people to enter. But entrance is only through that which began with suffering. In fact Jesus is the gate for the sheep. By the pain of His bitter death He provided the glory of an entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem.