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15. The Parable of the Net


Chapter 15

The Parable of the Net

Matthew 13:47-50

Eric H. H. Chang

Montreal, September 17, 1978


“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Mt. 13:47-50)

Like a good government, the kingdom of God attracts all kinds of people

Today, we continue our study in Matthew 13:47-50 on the Parable of the Dragnet, or the Parable of the Net. This is the seventh and last of the cycle of parables in Matthew Chapter 13. By a “cycle”, we mean a group of parables. Being the last of these seven parables, it very appropriately emphasizes the Judgment of God.

Like all the other parables in Matthew Chapter 13, it deals with the kingdom of God, that is, God’s government. The word “kingdom” can just as well be translated as “government.” Why should we be interested in God’s government in our lives, that God should be King of our lives? It is because only so will we have eternal life. Only those who live under God’s government, who have God as King, will enjoy the life that He gives. It is very clear that if you don’t live under God’s kingship, if God is not King in your life, you cannot expect to have the benefits of His kingship. That is the teaching of the Lord Jesus.

If I don’t live in Canada, under the Canadian law, I cannot have the benefits of the life in Canada. Once I come into Canada, I am under the law of Canada. Even a visitor to Canada is under the law of Canada. That is to say, even if you are a visitor or a foreigner, and you commit wrong on the street, you are punishable by the law of Canada. If you park your car in the wrong place, you are going to be fined for it. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Canadian or not, because so long as you are in Canada, you are under Canadian law.

When you enter into the kingdom of God, you are under the law of God. If you want to enjoy the benefits of being in God’s kingdom, it is evident that you have to be under His rule, His government. I always remember Confucius’ words, “亂邦不入”, that is, don’t go into a country where there is disorder, where there is no proper government. If you want to enjoy the benefits of a good life, you don’t go into a country where there is no proper government, but you go to a country where there is good rule. That is the case with the kingdom of God. Do you want to enjoy the benefits of a life where there is righteousness, where there is peace, where there is joy, where there is love, where there is understanding, where there is holiness? Then the place where all these things are found is in the kingdom of God, where you commit to live under God’s government.

Now the Lord Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.” If we change the picture back to a good country with good government, you will see that precisely good government will attract people of all kinds—not necessarily just good people, but also bad people. It’s because strangely enough, even gangsters will look for a country where there is good government. So we find that good countries also have a lot of moral problems.

Everybody is attracted to a good country because a good government provides a good economy, and a high standard of living. Everybody likes to enjoy a higher standard of living. But where there is bad government, the standard of living goes down. This is the reason why economics plays such an important role in elections. Every government tries to prove that under their administration, the standard of living has risen, and inflation has decreased. Whenever the figures of inflation are high, and unemployment is high, then the government is in trouble. People say, “We don’t like this government. They don’t give us good rule. We want to kick them out because our standard of living is being affected.” Little wonder everywhere, people of every kind—good and bad—like good government and a high standard of living. Thus the kingdom of God is like a net which is thrown into the sea and gathers fish of every kind.

Catching fish in a net represents God’s power drawing in men

Most of us are not fishermen. I do a little bit of fishing, but I cannot claim to be a fishing expert, especially not with nets. I imagine that the Lord Jesus might have taught this parable by the Sea of Galilee, where the people might have just been watching the fishermen drawing in the nets. What is the picture that they see? Well, let me try to paint the picture for you. This type of fishing is called seine fishing, that is, fishing with seine nets, although the word “seine” does not appear in your English trans­lation. Seine fishing is done by a very long net with one or two boats. One end of the net is fixed by the shore, and the other end is drawn by a boat that sweeps out towards the lake, then it sweeps in again, and so encloses the fish against the shore. Or else two boats would go out together and then circle in closing the gap, therefore trapping the fish inside. Then the two boats would come to shore together, towing all the fish that got trapped in the net. This method of fishing is not used in the middle of the lake where the water is very deep. It is always used fairly close to shore. Now the top end of the net would have floats like corks or empty containers that will hold up the top of the net to float on the surface. The net is then dropped downward until it touches the bottom of the lake. Weights would hold the bottom of the net down, so that it sweeps along the bottom of the lake, or at least fairly close to the bottom of the lake, so that not all the fish go underneath the net and get away. In this way, this very long net being towed by the boats, spreads out in the water and sweeps towards the shore. Now you can imagine how this process traps all the fish within that net.

Even to this day, this way of fishing is still being used in commercial fishing in the Sea of Galilee. These very long nets are drawn by modern trawler fishing boats. Thus when the ships come to shore, fishermen haul the nets ashore, and draw in the big and small, good and bad fish, all trapped inside. Once on dry land, they are sorted out. Fishermen do not want fish which died in the nets; fish which are simply too weak, not in a healthy state, already turning onto their stomachs; and those which are too small, for they have little commercial value. That is the picture of fishing with these nets. Once you see that picture in your mind, you can see the parable the Lord Jesus uses to speak about the Kingdom of God.

What does the parable mean? In the Bible, the picture of men as fish is very common. Fish are like people in many ways. Men are often pictured as fish swimming and turning around out there in life, doing their usual business of feeding on small fish. As the Chinese say, “大魚吃小魚”, the big fish eat the small fish, and the small fish eat the smaller fish, and so this world in which we live is compared to a world of every kind of fish. In the Sea of Galilee alone, some experts have counted 24 varieties. Out in the sea, there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of fish. These different kinds of fish might portray the different nations, the different types of people in the world, and there are an awful lot of varieties of fish. Then there are some fish which are big, some which are small; there are some with very sharp teeth that are always biting others; and there are others which are very peaceful, and just feed on insects, or crabs and small lobsters. There are all kinds of fish, like different people with different appearances and different characteristics. For example, in Habakkuk 1:14-15,

“You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad.”

People and nations are compared to fish. In verse 15, the Chaldeans—who were very aggressive people in those days, a powerful nation that conquered the world—are described as bringing the nations into their net, rather like what the Lord Jesus is saying here. And “bringing them into the net” is a picture of this powerful nation conquering other nations, bringing them under its power and its influence. So here in Matthew 13:47, the kingdom of God is pictured as going forth into the world and bringing in people in a spiritual conquest, not a physical one.

Also, the servants of God are described as fishers of men, as we see in Matthew 4:19, the disciples of Jesus are “fishers of men”. The scholar, Edersheim tells us that in Jewish writings, it was very common to compare men to fish.

In Ezekiel 12:13, especially in the Symmachus translation of the Greek Old Testament, we see the picture of the Lord God capturing Israel in the net.

“And I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare. And I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, yet he shall not see it, and he shall die there.”

There is a certain idea of being caught in the net, which means that they are taken unawares to some extent. There is a certain power which draws them in.

Parables of similar nature

Every part of the parable is so rich in meaning that I have to be selective in how to present this picture of the parable.

We are told in verse 48, that when this net is full, it is drawn ashore. The fullness here reminds us of Matthew 22:10, in the Parable of the wedding feast, where the Lord Jesus speaks of the same idea:

“And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Here then you have the same kind of idea of people going forth and inviting everybody to a wedding feast, instead of the picture of a net bringing in different kinds of fish. Now everybody likes a wedding feast, just as they like good government. So they come to the feast. But what is gathered in are both good and bad, because they desire to come to the wedding feast, the kingdom of God, because they want to get something out of it.

In Matthew 13:47, the net “gathered fish of every kind,” and the same Greek word for “to gather in” is used in Matthew 25:32, in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, expressing the same idea,

Before him (the Lord Jesus) will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

The same Greek word for “to separate” the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the cursed also occurs in Matthew 13:49, “separate the wicked from the righteous”, the good fish from the bad.

All this means is that there are several parables quite similar in meaning to this Parable of the Net. And this means that judgment of the evil and the righteous in the kingdom of God is a very important element in the Lord Jesus’ teaching.

There will be judgment at the end of the age

When is the net being brought in? The net is brought to shore when it is full. This reminds us of Romans 11:25, where the apostle Paul says, when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come,” then the end of the age will take place. “Why is the end of the age not already taking place?” It is because the net is not yet full. When the net is full, when God’s purpose is complete, the end will come, and the net will be taken ashore.

Now the Greek word translated as “to gather” in Matthew 13:47, is translated as “to welcome” in Matthew 25:35, 38, 43—“When I was sick…, I was in prison…, I was hungry…, you did not welcome me.” Or to the righteous ones the Lord Jesus says, “you welcomed me”—in the ESV, NJB, NRS, RSV English Bibles. This means that the kingdom of God stretches out a welcoming hand to everybody. It is not exclusive in its invitation. Everybody is invited to enter the kingdom of God. If you are not a Christian, you are also invited today, to enter the kingdom of God. That is more than can be said right now for most countries, which have very strict immigration laws. You are only welcome if you are a certain type of person, and you meet the immigration requirements of that particular country. But the kingdom of God welcomes everybody! It is not that this welcome is unconditional, but it is a welcome. The point is, God so loved the world that whosoever wills may come!

However, it doesn’t mean that because you are in the kingdom of God you are saved. That is a striking thing! We are not quite used to this idea, because we used to think that anybody in the kingdom of God is somehow automatically saved. But look at this parable: There are good and bad in the kingdom of God, and the bad will be thrown out at the end of the age, not now. We have many people in the churches today, who claim to be Christians, but God will throw them out at the end of the age. That is the warning of this parable! Don’t think that because you are in the church, don’t think that because you call yourself a Christian, therefore you are saved. Oh no!

This brings us to the crucial point of this parable. What makes the distinction between the good fish and the bad fish? What defines a good fish—a true Christian? And what defines bad fish—a false Christian? The false Christian will be thrown out at the end of the age, at the Judgment. So we can see that this is a parable of warning of the Judgment. If you claim to be a Christian, what kind of Christian are you? That is a crucial question. Do you think you are safe simply because you are in the kingdom of God? Then listen carefully to what the Lord Jesus has to say. He is warning us that just because you are in the kingdom of God now, is no guarantee that you will be saved at the end. It depends on something else. What is that something else? It is because at the end of the age, there will be a sorting out to take place. So we find here in Matthew 13:48, when the net is drawn ashore, the fish will be sorted out.

The sea is a picture of the dangerous, unpredictable world

What does the sea mean? In the Bible, the sea is a picture of the world, not only in this parable. You see, the Lord Jesus uses in his parables, picture elements which are already familiar to people who have studied the Bible.

Why is the sea a picture of this present world system in the Bible? It is because the sea is something that is always pictured as unstable, uncertain, and unpredictable. If you have ever gone on a boat, you know just what I mean. This is more so in the Lake of Galilee. It is completely unpredictable. You don’t know when a storm will suddenly hit. It may be bright sunshine, and everything is calm, but within a few minutes, a storm will hit the lake, and your little boat will be going up and down, being thrown around quite a bit. Even experienced fishermen have gone down with the boat. The sea is very unpredictable—unstable, moving all the time, and you wonder what is underneath.

I wonder if you have done long-distance swimming. I remember once, I was swimming across quite a wide river in China’s Hunan province. I could not help feeling, “What is underneath in this river?” You keep wondering whether some strange creature might pop out sometime, and grab hold of your leg! It’s because you always hear of good swimmers, who disappear without a trace while swimming. When a swimmer is swimming long stretches, especially when alone, he often ponders, what is in the hidden depths of the sea?

The Bible pictures the sea as something unstable, uncertain. Paul speaks of “perils in the sea” in 2 Corinthians 11:26. The sea is a danger­ous place that hides many perils. Even powerful ships have disappeared into the sea. There are always unpredictable things happening. You remember when they built the Titanic, they built it in compartments, and they claimed that this ship was unsinkable. It sank on its first journey! It went out only once and never came back. It was hit by another unpre­dictable thing of the sea: the iceberg. Icebergs are mostly submerged, often nearly invisible.

There are many kinds of dangers in the sea. In fact, it is often pictured in the Bible as a monster that has to be kept behind doors, for example, in Job 38:8. God keeps it under control because the sea can threaten you even when you are on land. You don’t have to be in the sea to be wiped out. Even in recent history, suddenly, great tidal waves have swallowed up whole towns. Tens of thousands of people have been swept away with a tidal wave. Enormous damage has been done in terms of millions of dollars. The sea is always regarded as unstable, threatening and dangerous, and limits have to be set upon it.

The shore—the end of this age

The sea will come to an end at the shore. What is the meaning of the shore? The shore is where a limit, a door, a bar, is set upon the sea. This means to say that the very picture of the shore is designed in this parable to tell us of the end of this period in the world, the end of this age. The world will be under God’s judgment. So we read in Psalm 114:3, 5 that at God’s judgment, when God bares His arm in salvation, the world will tremble with fear and flee from His presence.

We read in Psalm 136:13 and Isaiah 43:16 that God makes a path through the sea to deliver His own people from being destroyed by the sea, destroyed by the restlessness, turmoil, instability of war and peace in the world. But does it mean that you are safe from the judgment of God if you hide yourself in the world? Oh, by no means! Even if you flee to and hide in the uttermost parts of the sea, God is there!” (Psalm 139:8-10) Don’t think that you are safe from the judgment of God, because you hide in the world and don’t believe in Him.

I have said before, unbelief is no ground for security. Because you don’t believe a thing doesn’t mean that that thing is not true. It only means that you think it is not true. Unbelief only says something about you; it says nothing about the facts. If I don’t believe there is a fire in this building when there is a fire in the building, my unbelief doesn’t put out that fire. I wish it did, but it won’t. The fire of God’s judgment won’t disappear because you don’t believe in the Judgment. Oh no!

Unbelief doesn’t remove any facts. It only determines your attitude towards those facts. I believe there is a fire in this house when the person who tells me there is a fire is trustworthy, although I don’t see the fire. He says, “There is a fire in the building.” I look at him and think: “Well, this guy never tells lies. If he says there is a fire, there is a fire.” I get out so that I am not burned up in the building!

When the Lord Jesus tells us that at the end of this age there is going to be the Judgment, I say, “This man never tells lies. If there is going to be the Judgment, I’d better be ready for it.” You might say, “I don’t believe in it.” That doesn’t matter. The Judgment won’t disappear because you don’t believe it. It will only determine your attitude and your response to that particular event. Let us be very clear about this. When I talk to unbelievers, they somehow think, “Well, I don’t believe it.” They think that because they don’t believe it, they are secure. How foolish!

I believe the words of Jesus because I have tested his words for 20 years and they have never failed. Therefore, I know when he says something, it is true. He has never once been mistaken. The Word of God has never failed. The Lord Jesus is the only person who has dared to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24:35). When he says there is going to be a judgment, there is going to be a judgment. He has never been wrong. And if you say, “I don’t believe what Jesus says,” that is up to you! When the Judgment comes, you had better figure out what you are going to do. By that time, it is a little bit too late to do anything about it. Now is the time to do something about it. There is no use trying to run out of this building when the flames have encircled you. It is when the flames have not yet encircled you that you can get out. It is when the Judgment has not yet gotten hold of you that you can still do something about it. That is the warning of this parable. He says, “At the end of this age, at the end of this world period, when we reach the shore, there is going to be the hauling in of the net.”

“Bring up the net”: picture of resurrection

Here is another very interesting word: “bring up.” The Lord Jesus doesn’t waste words. I have never ceased to be amazed that he can say so much with so few words. Most of us have to spend so much time trying to expound what he says. He uses one word in the Greek, ἀναβιβάζω in verse 48, where it is translated as “drew it ashore”, but literally, it means “to bring up” the net. This word, “bring up” is unique, because it occurs in the Greek New Testament only once. What is the significance of this word? Its significance strikes you once you compare it with Acts 24:15. There it says, that we will be brought up at the resurrection:

“having a hope in God which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (the good and the bad).

The Lord Jesus emphasizes this because you may think, “Well, because I don’t believe in God, or because I don’t believe in the teaching of Jesus, then when I die, that’s the end of the matter.” If it were the end of the matter, that wouldn’t be so bad. The trouble is that it’s not the end of the matter. Notice the picture. The net is drawn up out of the sea. All the fish are brought up! It is an amazing picture, a picture of the resurrection! The Lord Jesus uses this rare word to bring out this idea of being lifted up at the resurrection, good and bad alike, so that even those who have already died are being brought back at the resurrection to face the Judgment. Of course, they hoped very much that they would not to have to face the Judgment, because they thought that by not believing in it, the Judgment would simply disappear. They hoped that because they are bad, they will die and will be buried, and that is the end of it. That is not the end of it. They will be brought up at the resurrection to face the judgment of God.

You see, the point is this: the kingdom of God, God’s government, extends in fact, over the whole world. Just because you don’t acknow­ledge His government is no reason why He won’t judge you. The fact also that you do not obey His government, doesn’t mean that you will escape His judgment. If a gangster in Montreal for example, does not submit to the law of Canada, it does not mean that he is thereby automatically outside the jurisdiction of Canada. On the contrary, precisely because he lived in disregard for the law of Canada, the law will be that much more severe with him when he falls into the hands of the law. Thus every person is going to fall into the hands of God, because He is not only King of the church, He is King of the world, by reason of His having created this world, and by reason that He has provided a redemption for every person. He has provided a pardon in Christ for every man who has sinned. There is no excuse for any person to be bad, to remain in sin.

To summarize this rather simple-looking parable, we have the key to all these various pictures. Let me put it again like this: the sea is the world; the fish are the people; and the bringing up the net out of the sea is a picture of the resurrection.

The net: the proclaimed Word of God to draw people in

What then is the net itself? Even the net is full of significance. The Lord Jesus uses the word “cast” the net in verse 47. In the Lord’s teaching, he has used this word many times in different connections. For example, earlier in Matthew 13:3, in the Parable of the Sower, he used this word “cast”, of casting the seed, which is the Word of God. Again, in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, he speaks of the casting of the seed. Each time, the casting of the seed has to do with the preaching of the Word of God. I am not giving you all the instances of this word “cast”, but when it is used here with the net, the net pictures the proclamation of the Word of God of salvation, which draws people into the kingdom of God.

But people desire salvation for different reasons and different motives. It may be a purely selfish thing in which I just want to reserve for myself a seat in heaven. Or it may be a deeper thing in which I am weary of rottenness and sin in my life, therefore I desire to be healed and changed, so that I may make a useful contribution to my fellowmen in this world. That is already a much less selfish motive. Or you may start with a selfish motive, but gradually, God changes your motive into something less selfish. What is important is that there must be a change in you. If the change does not take place, you may end up being among the bad fish, not the good ones. The bad, as we saw, will be thrown out. The word in the Greek is literally “to throw out” of the kingdom of God. We find these striking pictures here.

Are the bad fish similar to the darnel?

So let us now come to the point and ask: What does the bad fish represent? What the good fish represents is quite easy for us to understand, but what does the bad fish represent? Now when we were expounding on the Parable of the Darnel, we saw in that parable we had two kinds of people in the kingdom of God. There were the wheat, which represented the good Christians, the true disciples, and there were the darnel, which has the outward appearance of wheat, but is not wheat. In fact, we saw that the darnel is poisonous, just like the false Christians are really poisonous, because they do terrible harm in the world. They are not just neutral. How many people have refused to become Christians because of these false Christians? The poison of these false Christians has done enormous damage to the gospel, but they have an outward resemblance to the wheat.

Here again, we have two kinds of fish. How are we to understand the good fish and the bad fish? Is this parable similar then to the Parable of the Darnel? Yes, it is similar, but not the same. What is the difference? The difference is very significant, and that is exactly the point—the darnel are by nature darnel. That is to say, they did not change into anything else. That is the first point.

The second thing to notice in that parable is that it is Satan that sows the darnel into the church. These are the false teachers who have come into the church, and have never changed in their character. They know how to talk as Christians, how to behave like Christians. The Lord Jesus portrays them in Matthew 7:15 as, “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

These are also false Christians in the church, who talk and behave like Christians. They have been baptized. They partake in the sacrament of Communion. They do everything that Christians do, but deep down in their hearts, they have never committed their lives to God, and have remained in their old character. They are simply people who have never been regenerate, never humbly surrendered to God to ask for His forgiveness and transformation. In other words, they are simply non-Christians dressed up as “Christians”. They are simply sinners in their nature, and they have only changed their outward appearance. The dirt on the outside has been washed off, but the dirt on the inside is all there.

These false teachers and false Christians are, as the Lord Jesus says in Matthew 23:27, “whitewashed tombs”. They have been whitewashed outside, and look nice on the outside, but inside them is nothing but corruption and death—“dead men’s bones.” That is the picture of the darnel. In other words, these people have never been changed.

There are so many people who become “Christians”, but they are not any different from any non-Christian, because they have never allowed God to change them. They have never become the new creation, as Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 5:17. These are the people who are a great damage to the church, and to the reputation of the church. It is because every non-Christian can see that these people behave like non-Christians. In fact, they are worse than non-Christians, because at least the non-Christian doesn’t pretend to be righteous or religious. But these people have the outward appearance of being religious. They walk around with their big Bible, they go to church, they talk like pious people, but inside is rottenness! They are simply non-Christians in the worst sense. There are non-Christians who are better than they.

The “bad” fish was once good but turned bad

So what is the difference with this parable? Again, we have to turn to the Greek to understand it. The key word in this parable is this word, σαπρός (sapros) in Matthew 13:48, which is translated as “bad”. This word, σαπρός is no ordinary word for “bad” , and is used elsewhere in the Lord Jesus’ teaching, always with reference to what is rotten. It is something that is rotten or corrupt. He uses it of the rotten fruit, for example, in Matthew 7:17: “A good tree brings forth good fruit, but a rotten tree brings forth rotten fruit.” That is how the word is used by the Lord Jesus. What does the word basically mean? This word means corruption, rottenness. You can find that definition in any standard Greek-English dictionary. When you check the use of this word, you will find that the character of this word is different from that of badness in the sense that it was always bad. Corruption means something was good before, but became rotten later on. For example, a corrupt fruit or a rotten apple was originally healthy, but in due time it became rotten. Some worm got into it, some disease hit it, so that what was originally healthy became rotten.

The word is used in the Greek, of a person who becomes sick, for example. He was healthy originally, but he became diseased. His health was corrupted by disease. That is how the word is used. It is also used for example, of old age, in the sense that a person was once young, but he became decrepit by age. You have seen old people who have become very decrepit, unable to move freely, because they are crippled by this and that disease. Their mind becomes slow. Their memory blanks out remem­bering nothing. A person who was once strong and healthy, has now become weak and then ill, as a result of this corruption, and dies. So this word gives the idea of something which was once good, then became bad.

You can see immediately, how different the meaning is from that of the darnel. The darnel was never good in the first place; it was bad by origin. It was never anything else but poison wheat. But here, the bad fish was once good and has become bad. That is very significant to under­stand. That is why when it speaks of the “bad” fish, it is not referring to fish that were levitically unclean, as mentioned in the Old Testament. Levitically unclean fish were fish that the Jews were not allowed to eat. They were fish that had no scales, and so they were regarded as ceremonially unclean. They were always so by origin; they did not change character. Thus the “bad” fish in this parable cannot be applied to this unclean fish.

I am surprised to see that some commentators, who really should know better, have given the notion that these fish that are thrown out are levitically unclean fish. This is not the case here. The Greek word σαπρός used here never means anything unclean. Nowhere in the Old Testament does it have this kind of meaning. No, it always means something that was once good and then became bad. That is the significance.

In other words, this parable is not a mere repetition of the Parable of the Darnel, which it would be if the ending were the same. But no, it brings in a new and very important element, which is that these fish were bad by corruption, not by origin. This means to say that the fish that are thrown out were once healthy, but became sick or even died, resulting in being thrown out of the kingdom of God.

The German scholars are very clear about this. I shall read to you what the German scholar, Rudolf Stier, says:

“The fish in question were fish indeed which might have made good food, but which, unfortunately, have died in the net, amid the swarm, and have become corrupt.”

What Stier is saying is that as the nets were brought in, or when the fish were surrounded by the net, the congestion caused by so many fish together resulted in quite a number of fish dying. It often happens with animals. When they are being corralled, they stampede, and some get crushed and killed. So that is Stier’s suggestion.

Or the great German scholar, Meier, translates this word, σαπρός as the “putrid ones”, and the word “putrid” means corrupt as well. He says,

“These bad fish which were already dead and putrefying, are yet enclosed in the net.”

So both these German scholars see very well that this word translated as “bad”, means something which was originally good, but became corrupt within the net in the process of time.

First love for God grows cold

With that we have to begin to draw to a close. The lesson basically, is as follows: this type of people responded to the proclaimed Word of God’s salvation, the net, and are drawn in by it into the kingdom of God. Remember, unlike the darnel, they are not planted in the kingdom of God by Satan. They are not the spiritual “fifth column” inside the church. They are those who responded to the Word of God, but what happened to them afterwards? Gradually, they turned away. This is a common problem that is dealt with in the New Testament: the problem of those whose love has grown cold, to the point where they have departed from the faith.

As we see in the Scriptural teaching, for example in 1 Timothy 4:1-3, where the apostle Paul tells Timothy, that the Spirit explicitly says that in the last days, when the net is being drawn ashore, many shall depart from the faith. Now there is no point talking about “departing from the faith” unless you were in the faith. Here we find exactly this very picture! Here were people who once came to God, who once were even very active in the church.

I think of the Chinese church in London that I once was in. I shared with you that all the young people were so enthusiastic for God. One person was busy in this, and another was busy in that. One person was organizing a Chinese Christian Fellowship here, and another one was organizing a Chinese Christian Fellowship there. We started one in “Hong Kong House,” and another one in “Malaysia Hall.” Oh, we had a great, busy time! We were building up the church of God. My question is, where are these people today? By no exaggeration, 90% of them are gone! Yes, some of them occasionally still go to church, but now, they behave virtually like any non-Christian.

Well, what has happened? The fire that once burned is gone. The spiritual health that they once enjoyed has become corrupted. They have gone into spiritual degeneration. That is precisely the warning in the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:4-5, “You have lost your first love. Your love has grown cold. Repent and do the things you did at first, or else I will remove you.”

That is exactly what happens here. These fish were once healthy. As Stier says, they might have been good for food, but now they have become corrupted, rotten. They have spiritually died in the net. This shows you some very important distinction. You should see from this, that this parable is no mere repetition of the Parable of the Darnel. But as you analyze the text, you’ll begin to realize how serious this teaching is.

Exegesis by John Chrysostom

I don’t stand alone at all in my exegesis of this parable, because it is fully in accord both with the Early Church, and with the great modern scholars that I have pointed out, although sometimes, I do have to differ from them. I would like to read to you something that the great Greek Early Church commentator, St. John Chrysostom, wrote on this parable. John Chrysostom was the greatest of Early Church preachers, so he was described as a “golden mouth” preacher. His name, “Chrysostom” is made up of the Greek words, χρυσος (chrysos), gold, and στομα (stoma), mouth—“golden mouth”.

He was so powerfully used by God, in the Early Church in the Fourth Century. This was what he preached in his 47th homily, or message on Matthew. I am reading some extracts of it to you because it is really so beautifully stated:

“After this (the Parable of the Darnel), he (Jesus) utters also another, an awe-full parable, that of the net, that we may not be confident in the gospel merely preached, nor think that faith only suffices for salvation.”

When John Chrysostom says the Parable of the Net is “awe-full”, he means it is a parable that inspires fear or awe. It means that you should not think you are saved just because you hear the gospel. Don’t think you will be saved by a faith that is all talk and no works, but don’t live in holiness and righteousness. Then John Chrysostom goes on to say:

“And wherein doth this differ, for there, too, the one are saved, the other perish? But there for choosing of wicked doctrines, but here for wickedness of life, who are the most wretched of all, having attained to his knowledge and being caught by Christ in the net, but now, even so, incapable of being saved.”

He says, where does this parable differ from the Parable of the Darnel? In the Parable of the Darnel, these people were wicked from the start as if they were never changed, but these fish that are thrown out are people who are wicked in life; that is, they have once been good but they have become corrupted; they do not live the holy life anymore. Although they have come to know God through Christ, although “being caught”—a well-known Greek phrase—by Christ, the fisher of men who proclaimed God’s Word of salvation, they came into the church, yet they were still “incapable of being saved.” These are the kind of people that are most wretched.

I remind you, John Chrysostom was in fact, the Archbishop of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern Church in the East Roman Empire. But this great man of God was later put to death, because of his condemnation of wickedness in the churches which were under his care. And he goes on to say:

“For lest on being told ‘they cast the bad away’, thou should suppose that ruin to be without danger, by his (Christ’s) interpretation, he signified the punishment by saying, ‘They will cast them into the furnace.’ And he declared the gnashing of teeth and the anguish that is unspeakable.”

He says, “In case you suppose that that ruin of being cast out is without danger, what happens to the bad fish? Were they just thrown back into the sea? No, look carefully at what verse 50 says: “and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” It is utter destruction! But there are many people today, who think that being cast out is not very dangerous. It is just that you don’t enjoy certain blessings, not that you don’t enjoy salvation.

Finally, John Chrysostom sums up like this:

“Seest thou how many are the ways of destruction: by the rock, by the thorns, by the wayside and by the net. Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go away by it.”

It is not without reason therefore, that he said that there are many who go away by the broad way that leads to destruction. In the Parable of the Sower, the birds ate the seeds that fell on the wayside; when the sun came up, the rocks resulted in the destruction of those who had first received the gospel with joy; those sown among the thorns were choked although they received the gospel; and some fish were corrupted and died in the net.

Then, because he taught and preached in Greek, he is quoting Matthew 7:13 in the Greek text, but he deliberately uses a different word, “go away” instead of “go into” in the Greek text. That is, in Matthew 7:13 it says, “go into destruction by the broad way,” now John Chrysostom deliberately uses the word, “go away to destruction.” But “go away” from what? Go away from God and Jesus Christ. He is speaking of apostasy! This great preacher, John Chrysostom, like so many of the Early Church fathers, was certainly no teacher of a doctrine that teaches being once saved and then always saved, no matter what kind of a sinful life you live. John Chrysostom would have none of that. That is why he concludes saying of the Lord Jesus,

“Having then uttered all this and concluded his discourse in a tone to cause fear, and signified that these are the majority of cases for he dwelt more on them, he says, ‘Have ye understood these things?’”

You see that having concluded this parable, the Lord Jesus says in Matthew 13:51, “Do you understand what I am saying to you?”

The final warning

I wonder whether you understand what the Lord Jesus is saying to you today. John Chrysostom says that the Lord Jesus concludes these seven parables on a note that strikes fear into the heart, the fear of being corrupted again, when once you have been forgiven and healed from sin by God through the blood of Christ, when once you have received the new life. As the apostle Peter says, “like a dog returning to its vomit, like a swine returning to the mud” (2 Pe. 2:22)

We conclude bearing in mind this important point. What does the Lord Jesus say at the close in Mt. 13:49? It is the righteous which are separated from the evil. He doesn’t speak about believers and unbelievers but about evildoers and the righteous. Who shall be saved? It is the righteous who will be saved. And on this point, we shall expound more fully what the Lord Jesus means by the righteous.

One thing he makes plain in this parable is: “Be careful lest the light in you become darkness. And if the light in you become darkness, how great is that darkness. If Christians, the salt of the world has lost its taste—then like the fish, they are no longer fit for anything, but are thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” Remember these powerful and frightening words that the Lord Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:13-14, 6:22-23).

Let us pray then that by the grace of God, we shall not in any way be corrupted, we shall not be among the fish that were once good and then became bad. It is so important that you receive the life of God today, and then persevere in God’s life, going on from strength to strength to become the righteous who will be saved.


(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church