You are here

15 The Parable of the Net

– Chapter 15 –

The Parable of the Net

Matthew 13:47–50

Montreal, September 17, 1978


Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that 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 containers 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 fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47–50, ESV)

The kingdom of heaven attracts people of every kind

Today we continue our study of Jesus’ parables by looking at the Parable of the Net, or Dragnet, in Matthew 13:47–50. This is the seventh and last in the cycle of parables in Matthew chapter 13. By “cycle” we mean a sequence of parables, in this case the following seven parables: of the sower; of the wheat and the darnel; of the mustard seed; of the leaven; of the lost treasure; of the pearl of great price; and of the net. As the last of these, the Parable of the Net very appropriately emphasizes God’s judgment.

The Parable of the Net, like all the other parables in Matthew 13, deals with the kingdom of God, that is, God’s government. The word “king­dom” could just as well be translated “government”.

Why are we interested in God’s govern­ment, by which God is King in our lives? Because only when this is fulfilled will we have eternal life. Only those who live under God’s government, who have God as their King, will enjoy the life that He gives. It is 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.

If I don’t have Canadian residency and don’t live in Canada, then by Canadian law I don’t enjoy the benefits of life in Canada. But once I enter Canada, I am under the law of Canada. Even a visitor to Canada is under the law of Canada. If a visitor or a foreigner does something against that law, he will be punished according to its stipulat­ions. Even in minor things he is subject to its regulations: he will be fined if he parks his car on a wrong spot. It doesn’t matter whether you are Canadian or not, so long as you are in Canada, you are under Canadian law.

When you enter the kingdom of God, you are under the law of God. To enjoy the benefits of being in God’s kingdom, you have to be under His rule and government. I am reminded of Confucius’ saying, luan bang bu ru (亂邦不入): “don’t go to a country that lacks public order or a proper government”. To enjoy the benefits of life, don’t go to a country where there is no proper gov­ernment, but 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 in which there is righteous­ness, peace, joy, love, understand­ing and holiness? The place in which these things are found is the kingdom of God, in which you commit to live under God’s government.

The Lord Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.” Applying this imagery to a country with good govern­ment, you can see that a good government attracts people of all kinds, not just good people but also bad people. Strangely, even gangsters seek a country that has good govern­ment. That is why even good countries have moral problems.

Everybody is attracted to a good country because a good govern­ment provides a good economy and a high standard of living, things that people seek. Where there is bad government, the stand­ard of living goes down. That is why economics plays an important role in elections. During an election, the incum­bent government tries to demon­strate that during its adminis­tration, the standard of living has gone up, and inflation has decreased. When the inflation and unem­ployment rates are bad, the government is in trouble, for the people will then say, “We don’t want a government that doesn’t provide good governance. We need a new leader because our standard of living has been affected.” In every nation, all people, good and bad, want good government and a high standard of living. Thus the kingdom of God is like a net that is thrown into the sea and gathers fish of every kind.

Fishing in Galilee

Few of us are fishermen. I do a little fishing myself, but I am not a fish­ing expert, especially not in net fishing. I picture Jesus teaching this parable by the Sea of Galilee where the people watch the fisher­men draw in their nets. Let me try to paint for you a picture of what they see.

The method of fishing in the parable is called seine fishing, that is, fishing with seine nets, though the word “seine” doesn’t appear in your Bibles. Seine fishing is done with a very long net attached to one or two boats. One end of the net is fixed to the shore, the other end is drawn by a boat that sweeps out away from the shore. Then it sweeps back in to trap the fish against the shore. Or if two boats are used, they would go out together to circle the fish, and then approach each other to close the gap between them, trapping the fish. The boats would come to shore together, towing 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 deep, but only close to the shore. The top end of the net would float on the surface by means of floats such as cork or empty containers. The bottom of the net is weighed down, and dropped to the bottom of the lake. It sweeps along the bottom of the lake, or near the bottom, to prevent the fish from going under the net and getting away. This long net spreads out in the waters as it is being towed by the boats. Now you can picture how the net catches the fish.

To this day, this type of fishing is still being used for commer­cial fishing in the Sea of Galilee. The long nets are now drawn by modern fishing trawlers.

In the parable, when the boat comes to shore, the fishermen would haul the net ashore, which contains fish big and small, good and bad, all trapped inside. Once on dry land, they are sorted. Fishermen don’t want fish that had died in the nets, or are weak or not healthy; nor do they want fish that are too small, for they have little commer­cial value. That is the picture of fishing with these nets. Once you have the picture in your mind, you can see more clearly the Parable of the Net which the Lord Jesus uses to speak about the kingdom of God.

Fish as a picture of men is familiar in the Bible. Fish are like people in many ways. People swim and move about in life, doing their usual business of feeding on small fish, as the Chinese would say, da yu chi xiao yu (大魚吃小魚): the big fish eat the small fish, the small fish eat the smaller fish. The world in which we live is compared to a world of fish. Some experts have counted 24 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee. Out in the Mediterranean are hundreds and hundreds of species. These various species of fish portray the various nations and the var­ious types of people in the world. There is a great variety of fish. Some are big; some are small; some have sharp teeth; some just feed quietly on insects, crabs, and small lobsters. There are all kinds of fish, just as there are people with different appear­ances and differ­ent characters.

Habakkuk 1:14–15 says:

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. (Habakkuk 1:14–15, ESV)

Here peoples and nations are compared to fish. The con­text speaks of the Chaldeans (v.6), an aggressive people in ancient times, a power­ful nation that conquered the world. It is like what we see in the parable: bringing peoples and nations into the net. In this case, it is a power­ful nation that conquers other nations, bringing them under its power and influence. So in the Parable of the Net, the kingdom of God is pictured as going forth into the world and bringing in people through a spiritual rather than a physical conquest.

That is why servants of God are called fishers of men, as we see in Matthew 4:19 where Jesus says to his disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The scholar Alfred Edersheim says that the Jewish writings often compare men to fish.

In Ezekiel 12:13, especially in Symmachus (a Greek trans­lat­ion of the Hebrew Scriptures), God speaks of capturing Israel in a net:

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. (Ezekiel 12:13, ESV)

The picture of being caught in a net implies to some extent that they are taken unawares, drawn in by a certain power.

Other parables of a similar nature

Every aspect of the Parable of the Net is so rich in meaning that I have to be selective in how to present the parable. We are told in verse 48 that the net was drawn ashore “when it was full.” The word “full” reminds us of Matthew 22:10 in the Parable of the Wedding Feast, where the Lord Jesus brings out the same idea:

And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests. (ESV)

The servants were sent out to invite people to a wedding feast, similar to the picture of a net bringing in various kinds of fish. Every­one likes a wedding feast just as they want a good govern­ment, so they come to the feast. Both the good and the bad are gathered in; they come to the wedding feast — the kingdom of God — to get some­thing out of it.

In Matthew 13:47, which says that the net “gathered fish of every kind,” the Greek word for “gather” is also found in Matthew 25:32, in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, where it expresses the same idea:

Before him [Jesus] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Mt. 25:32, ESV)

Here the Greek word for “separate,” in regard to the separation of the sheep and the goats, and the righteous and the cursed, also occurs in the Parable of the Net: “separate the evil from the right­eous,” referring to separating the good fish from the bad (Matthew 13:49).

Hence several parables are similar to the Parable of the Net in meaning. The judging 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 brought to shore? When it is full. It reminds us of Romans 11:25 in which Paul speaks of the day when “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” at the end of the age. This has not yet hap­pened because the net is not yet full. But when it is full, God’s purpose will be complete, the end will come, and the net will be pulled ashore.

Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “gathered” in Matthew 13:47 (“gathered fish of every kind”) is translated as “welcome” in Matthew 25:35, 38, 43 (ESV, NJB, NRSV, RSV): “When I was sick … when I was in prison … when I was hungry … you did not welcome me.” But to the righteous the Lord Jesus will say, “you welcomed me”.

The kingdom of God extends a welcoming hand to every­one. The invitat­ion is not exclus­ive but inclusive. Every­one is invited to the kingdom even if you are not a Christian. That is more than can be said of most countries where strict immigra­tion laws are in place: we welcome you if you conform to a certain type of person, and meet our immi­gration require­ments. But the kingdom of God welcomes every­one! It doesn’t mean that the welcome is unconditional; yet it is a genuine and open welcome. For God so loved the world that whoever wants to may come!

It doesn’t mean that you are automatically saved just because you are in the kingdom of God. We are uncom­fortable with this truth because we tend to think that every­one in the kingdom of God is somehow automatic­ally saved. There are good fish and bad fish in the kingdom, and the bad will be thrown out at the end of the age. Many in the church claim to be Christians, but God will throw them out at the end of the age. That is the warning of the parable! Don’t think that because you are in the church or are a Christian, you are saved.

This brings us to a crucial point of this parable. Where is the dis­tinction between the good fish and the bad fish? What defines a good fish — a true Christian — and what defines a bad fish — a false Christ­ian? A key distinction is that false Christians will be thrown out at the end of the age, at the Judgment. We see that this parable warns of the Judgment.

If you claim to be a Christian, what kind of Christ­ian are you? That is the crucial question. Do you think you are safe just because you are in the kingdom? Then listen to what Jesus has to say. He warns us that just because you are in the kingdom of God now, that is not a guarantee you will be saved at the end. It will depend on a sorting that will take place at the end of the age. In this parable, in verse 13:48, when the net is drawn ashore, the fish will be sorted.

The sea represents the perilous unpredictable world

What does the sea symbolize? In the Bible generally, and not just in this parable, the sea symbolizes the world. The Lord Jesus uses picture elements which are familiar to people who have studied the Bible.

How is the sea a picture of this present world system? The sea is something that people imagine as unstable, uncertain, and unpredict­able. If you have ever gone on a boat, you would know what I mean. It is all the more so in the Lake of Galilee, where the waters are com­pletely unpredictable. You don’t know when a storm may hit. It may be calm and sunny in the lake, but within minutes, a storm may arrive, and your boat is bobbing up and down, thrown around quite a bit. Even experienced fish­ermen have gone down with their boats. The sea is unpredictable and unstable, changing all the time. And you sometimes even wonder what is underneath!

I wonder if you have ever done long distance swimming. I was once swimming across a wide river in China’s Hunan province, and I could not help feeling, “What lies underneath in the river?” You keep won­der­ing whether a strange creature might grab your leg! That’s because you have heard of good swimmers who disappeared without a trace while swimming. When one is swim­ming long stretches, especially alone, he would often wonder what may lie hidden in the depths of the waters.

The Bible pictures the sea as something unstable and uncer­tain. Paul speaks of “the 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. When they built the Titanic, they built solid compart­ments into it, and said the ship was unsinkable. Of course we know that it sank on its maiden voyage! It went down and never came back. It fell victim to yet another unpre­dictable danger in the sea: icebergs. Icebergs are mostly submerged and barely visible.

There are many dangers in the sea. The sea is pictured in Job 38:8–11 as a monster that has to be shut behind doors, controlled by God, because the sea can threaten you even on land: “thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (v.11). You don’t have to be in the sea to be wiped out. Great tsunami waves have swallowed entire towns, sweeping away tens of thousands of people, and inflict­ing enormous damage to the tune of billions of dollars. The sea is pictured as unstable, threat­ening, and dangerous, and limits have to be set on it.

The shore: The end of this age

The sea ends at the shore, at which it has reached its limits. What is the mean­ing of the shore? The shore is where a limit, a door, a barrier, is set for the sea. The picture of the shore is designed in this parable to tell us of the end of the present time in the world, the end of this age. Then the world will come under God’s judgment. As we read in the Psalms, at God’s judg­ment, when God bares His arm for 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 Red Sea to deliver His people from the perilous waters.

In the world we face restlessness, turmoil, and the instab­ility of war and peace. Will you be safe from God’s judgment by hiding yourself in the world? Of course not! Even if you flee and hide in the uttermost parts of the sea, God is there! (cf. Psalm 139:9–10) Don’t think that you are safe from God’s judg­ment by hiding in the world and thinking that He doesn’t exist.

As I said, unbelief is no grounds for security. If you don’t believe in something, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true; it only means that you think it isn’t true. Unbelief only says some­thing about you, not the facts. If I don’t believe there is a fire in this building when there is one, my unbelief won’t put out the fire. I wish it would, but it won’t. The fire of God’s judgment won’t disappear just because you don’t believe in the Judgment. Unbelief doesn’t remove the facts. It only deter­mines your attit­ude towards them.

I will believe that this house is on fire when a trustworthy person tells me there is a fire even if I don’t see it. He shouts, “There is a fire in the building!” I look at him and say to myself, “This guy never lies. So if he says there is a fire, there must be a fire.” I rush out so that I won’t get burned up in the building!

When the Lord Jesus tells me of the Judgment at the end of this age, I will say, “He never lies. If there is going to be the Judgment, I had better be ready for it.” You may say, “I don’t believe it,” but the Judgment won’t disappear just because you don’t believe it will come. It only determines your attit­ude and response to that event. When I talk to unbelievers, they would often say, “I don’t believe it,” thinking that because they don’t believe it, they are secure. How foolish!

I believe in the words of Jesus because I have tested his words for 20 years and they have never failed. I know that when he says some­thing, it will come true. He has never once made a mistake. The Lord Jesus is the only one who has dared to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24:35). If he says that there will be a judgment, then there will be a judgment. His words have never failed. If you say, “I don’t believe what Jesus says,” that’s up to you. When the Judgment comes, you had better figure out what you are going to do. By then, it will be too late to do anything. Now is the time to do something about it. It will be too late to flee from a building when the flames have encircled you. It is when the flames have not yet surrounded 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 Jesus’ warning in this para­ble: At the end of this age, at the end of this period of the world, when we reach the shore, there will be the hauling in of the net.

Bringing up the net: A picture of the resurrection

This parable has an interesting word, “bring up,” which is one word in the Greek. The Lord Jesus doesn’t waste words. I never cease to be amazed that he can say so much in so few words, whereas most of us need to spend much time to expound what he says. In verse 48, he uses one Greek word, anabibazō (ἀναβιβάζω), where it is tran­slated “drew it ashore” (ESV), but it literally means to “bring up” the net. The word anabibazō is unique for it occurs only once in the Greek New Testa­ment. Its significance comes out when you compare it with Acts 24:15, in which Paul says 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.” (ESV)

You may say, “I don’t believe in God or the teachings of Jesus. When I die, that’s the end of the matter.” If it were only the end of the matter, it wouldn’t be so bad. The problem is that it’s not the end of the matter.

Let’s look at the picture. The net is drawn up and out of the sea, and the fish are brought up. It’s an amazing picture of the resurrect­ion! Jesus uses this rare Greek word to bring out the idea of being lifted up at the resurrection — the just and the unjust, the good and the bad — such that even those who have already died will be brought back at the resur­rection to face the Judgment. They hope they won’t have to face the Judgment, but the Judgment won’t disappear just because they don’t believe in it. The bad fish hope that they will die and be buried, and that’s the end of it. But that’s not the end of it. They will be brought up at the resurrection to face God’s judgment.

In fact, the kingdom of God — God’s government — extends to the whole world. If you don’t acknowledge His govern­ment, that is not a reason for Him to exempt you from judgment. If you don’t obey His govern­ment, it doesn’t mean that you will escape His judg­ment. If a gangster in Montreal doesn’t submit to the law of Canada, it doesn’t mean that he is beyond the jurisdiction of Canada. On the contrary, precisely because he lived in utter disregard for the law of Canada, the law will be that much more severe with him. Everyone will fall into the hands of God, not only because He is King of the church, but also because He is King of the world by reason of His having created the world and providing redemption for every person. He has provided a pardon in Christ for everyone who has ever sinned. There is no excuse for anyone to be bad, or to remain in sin.

This parable may appear to be simple, but in it we have the key to all the various pictures. Let me summarize it like this: the sea is the world; the fish are people; and the bringing up of the net out of the sea is a picture of the resurrection.

The net: Proclamation of God’s word of salvation

What then is the net? Even the net itself is full of significance. In verse 47, the Lord Jesus uses the word “cast” of the casting of the net into the sea. In his teaching, he uses this word several times in various connections. In the Parable of the Sower, we see the casting of the seed, which is the Word of God. The Parable of the Mustard Seed speaks of the casting of the mustard seed. In each case, the casting of the seed has to do with the preach­ing of the Word of God, directly or indirectly. I am not giving you all the instances of this word “cast,” but when it is used of casting the net, it is a picture of the proclamation of God’s Word of salvation, which draws people into the kingdom of God.

People seek salvation out of various motives. It may be a purely selfish thing in which I just want to reserve a seat for myself in heaven. Or it may be something deeper: I am tired of sin and rottenness in my life, so I want to be healed and to be changed, in order to make a useful contribut­ion to my fellow humans in this world. That is already a much less selfish mo­tive. Or you may begin with a selfish motive, but God gradually changes it into something less selfish. What is import­ant is that there is a change in you. If no change has taken place, you may end up among the bad fish and be thrown out. The Greek word literally means “to throw out,” in this case out of the kingdom of God.

Are the bad fish the same as the darnel?

What do the bad fish represent? What the good fish represent is easy enough for us to understand, but what do the bad fish represent? In the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, we saw that there are two kinds of people in the kingdom of God: the wheat, which is the good Christians, the true dis­ciples; and the darnel, which has the outward appearance of wheat, but is not wheat. In fact darnel is poiso­nous, just as false Christians are poisonous and do terrible harm in the world. Such people are not neutral parties. How many people have refused to become Christians because of false Christians? The poison of these false Christians has done enormous damage to the gospel because they outwardly resemble wheat.

In the Parable of the Net, we have two kinds of fish. How do we understand the good fish and the bad fish? Is this parable similar to the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel? Yes, they are similar, yet not the same. Where is the difference? The difference is signifi­cant, and it lies in the fact that the darnel are darnel by nature, that is, they did not change into something else. That is the first point.

The second thing to notice is that it is Satan who sows the darnel into the church. These are the false teachers and false Christians who have come into the church, but have never changed their character. Yet they talk and 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 false Christians talk and behave like Christians in the church. They get baptized and partake of the sacrament of communion. They do everything that Christians do, but deep in their hearts, they have never com­mitted their lives to God, so they remain in their old nature. They have never been regen­erated, nor 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 sinners in their nature, and have changed only their outward appear­ance. The dirt on the outside has been washed off, but the dirt inside remains.

These false teachers and false Christians are “whitewashed tombs,” as Jesus calls them in Matthew 23:27. They are white­washed on the outside and look nice, but inside there is corruption and death — “dead men’s bones.” That is the picture of the darnel, people who have never been changed.

Many people become “Christians” but are not any different from non-Christians because they have never allowed God to change them. They have never become the new creation that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5:17. These people do great damage to the church and to its reputation, because everyone can see that they behave like non-Christians, in fact worse than non-Christians because at least the non-Christians don’t pretend to be righteous or religious. But false Christians have the outward appear­ance of being religious. They walk around with their big Bibles, go to church, talk piously, but inside is rottenness! In fact they are non-Christians in the worst possible sense.

The bad fish was formerly good

So what is the difference between the darnel and the bad fish? Again we have to turn to the Greek to understand it. A key word in the Parable of the Net is sapros (σαπρoς); it is used in Matthew 13:48 where it is translated “bad” (in the statement that the “bad fish” was thrown away). This is no ordinary word for bad. When it is used in Jesus’ teaching, it always refers to something rotten or corrupt. For example, Jesus uses sapros in Matthew 7:17, “A good tree brings forth good fruit, but a rotten tree brings forth rotten fruit.”

What does sapros mean? It basically means corrupt and rotten, a definition you can find in any standard Greek-English dictionary (one standard lexicon has rotten, putrefied, corrupt as the first definitions of sapros). When you check the usage of sapros, you will see that the meaning of this word is different from the general concept of bad­ness, for it implies a transition to bad. “Corrupt” implies that something was good before, but later became rotten. A cor­rupt or rotten apple was originally healthy, but became rotten over time. Perhaps a worm got into it, or it became diseased, hence what was originally healthy became rotten.

The word sapros is also used of a person who becomes sick. He was healthy at first, but became diseased. His health is being corrupted by disease. That is how the word is used. It is also used of the process of aging by which a young man becomes, over time, decrepit in his old age. You have seen elderly people who have become decrepit, crippled by this and that disease. Their mind slows down, and there is memory loss. A person who was once strong and healthy has become sick and weak, and then dies as the final result of this corruption.

From the word sapros, we see that the bad fish is quite a different symbol from the darnel. The darnel was never good in the first place; it was bad by origin. It has always been poison wheat. But the bad fish was once good but became bad. This distinction is important to notice.

Another point that we need to clear away: When the parable speaks of the bad fish, it is not referring to fish that are leviti­cally unclean in the Old Testament as in Leviticus 11:9–12. The Israelites were pro­hibited from eating levitically unclean fish that were regarded as ceremonially unclean for having no fins or scales. I am surprised that some comment­ators who ought to know better, say that the bad fish in the parable are thrown out for being levitically unclean. This is incorrect because the word sapros never means ceremonially unclean. Nowhere in the Greek Old Testament does it have this mean­ing. It always refers to something that was once good but then became bad.

Hence the Parable of the Net is not a mere repetition of the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel, for the word sapros brings in a new and important element: the fish are bad by corrupt­ion, not by origin. The fish were once healthy, but became sick or even died, leading to their being thrown out of the kingdom of God.

The German scholars are clear about this. For example, Rudolf E. 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.

Stier is saying that as the nets are being brought to shore, or as the fish are being sur­rounded by the net, the crowding of so many fish results in quite a number dying. This also hap­pens with animals when they are corralled; as they stamp­ede, some get crushed to death.

The great German scholar, H.A.W. Meyer, translates sapros as the “putrid ones,” where “putrid” means corrupt. He says, “These bad fish which were already dead and putrefying, are yet enclosed in the net.”

So both these German scholars say that the word sapros, translated “bad,” refers to something that was originally good but became corrupt within the net over time.

The first love for God grows cold

With that we come to a close. The basic lesson is this: The people represented by the bad fish responded to God’s Word of salvation, which is the net, and were drawn by it into the kingdom of God. But unlike the darnel, they were not planted in the kingdom by Satan. They are not the spiritual fifth column inside the church. On the contrary, they responded genuinely to the Word of God. So what happened to them? Eventually they turned away, this being a common pro­blem that the New Testament deals with: Their love grows cold, and they backslide to the point of departing from the faith.

We see this in Scriptural teaching. For example, in 1 Timothy 4:1–3, Paul tells Timothy that the Spirit explicitly says that in the last days, when the net is drawn ashore, many will depart from the faith. There is no point talking about “departing from the faith” unless you are in the faith. Here we find this very picture of people who came to God, and were even active in the church.

I think of the Chinese church in London that I was once in. I have shared with you that the young people in the church were enthusiastic for God. One person would be busy in this, another busy in that. One would organize a Chinese Christian Fellowship here, and another would organize another CCF there. We started one in Hong Kong House, then another in Malaysia Hall. Oh, we had a great and busy time! We were building up the church of God. My question is, where are these people today? Without exag­gerating, 90% of them are gone! Yes, some of them still go to church occasionally, but they now behave virtually like any non-Christian.

What happened? The fire that once burned has died. The spiritual health they once enjoyed has become corrupt. They have gone into spiritual degeneration. That is precisely the warning in the letter to the church in Ephesus: “You have lost your first love. Your love has grown cold. Repent and do the things you did at first, or I will remove your lampstand.” (cf. Rev. 2: 4–5)

That is exactly what happens in the parable. The bad fish were once healthy. As Stier says, they may have been good for food, but now they are rotten and corrupt. They died spiritually in the net. From this important distinction, we see that this parable is no mere repetition of the Parable of the Wheat and the Darnel.

Exegesis by John Chrysostom

I am not alone in my exegesis of this parable because it is in full accord with the early church fathers and the great mod­ern scholars I have mentioned, though I would sometimes differ with them. I would like to read to you something that John Chrysostom, the great Greek commentator of the early church, wrote on this parable. Chrysostom was the greatest of the early church preachers. He was called the “golden mouth”; the name Chrysostom consists of the Greek words chrysos (χρυσος, gold) and stoma (στομα, mouth) — “golden mouth.”

He was used powerfully by God in the early church of the fourth century. The following is what he preached in his 47th homily, or message, on Matthew. I now read some excerpts from the homily because they are stated so beautifully:

After this [the parable of the wheat and darnel], that we may not be confident in the gospel merely preached, nor think that faith only suffices us for salvation, he [Jesus] utters also another, an awful parable. Which then is this? That of the net.

When Chrysostom says that the Parable of the Net is “awful,” he simply means that it inspires fear or awe, because you must not think you are saved just because you hear the gospel. Or that you will be saved by a faith that is all talk and no works, with no holiness or righteous­ness. Chrysostom goes on to say:

And wherein does this differ from the parable of the tares? For there too the one are saved, the other perish; but there, for choosing of wicked doctrines; and those before this again, for not giving heed to his sayings, but these for wickedness of life; who are the most wretched of all, having attained to His know­ledge, and being caught, but not even so capable of being saved.

Chrysostom asks where does the Parable of the Net differ from the Parable of the Darnel? The darnel were wicked from the start and had never changed, whereas the bad fish are wicked people who were once good but have since become corrupt and no longer live in holiness. They came to know God like fish caught by Christ, the fisher of men who pro­claimed God’s Word of salvation. They came into the church, yet were “incapable of being saved” (Chrysostom). These people are most wretched.

Chrysostom was in fact the Archbishop of Constantinople, the leader of the church in the Eastern Roman Empire. But this great man of God was later put to death because he condemned the wickedness of the churches which were under his care. He goes on to say:

For lest, on being told, “They cast the bad away,” thou shouldest suppose that ruin to be without danger; by his [Jesus’] interpret­ation, he signified the punishment, saying, “They will cast them into the furnace” [Mt. 13:50]. And he declared the gnashing of teeth, and the anguish, that it is unspeakable.

Chrysostom is saying, “In case you think that being cast out is without danger, look at what happened to the bad fish. Were they merely thrown back into the sea? No, look at what the parable says: ‘throw them into the furnace of fire; there they will weep and gnash their teeth.’”

That is utter destruction! Yet many today think that being cast out is not a great danger; it only means that you won’t enjoy certain blessings, but you will still be saved.

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, by the tares, by the net. Not with­out reason therefore did he say, “Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go away by it.” [Mt. 7:13]

Chrysostom is saying that it’s not without reason that many go by the broad way that leads to destruction. In the Parable of the Sower, the birds ate the seed that fell by the wayside. As for the seed that fell into the rocky soil, when the sun came up, it destroyed those who initially received the gospel with joy. As for the seed sown among the thorns, they were choked despite having received the gospel. And in the Parable of the Net, some fish became corrupt and died in the net.

Chrysostom taught and preached in Greek, so he would quote Matthew 7:13 from the Greek text. Instead of saying “go into” des­truction by the broad road, he says “go away” to destruction. But “go away” from what? Go away from Christ and from God. Chrysostom was speaking of apostasy! This great preacher, like many early church fathers, did not teach a doctrine of “once saved always saved,” in which one is saved irrespective of the sinful life he lives as a Christian. Chrysostom would have none of that. This is how he concludes what Jesus taught in the seven parables:

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 saith, “Have ye under­stood all these things? They say unto Him, Yea, Lord.”

Chrysostom is saying that Jesus concludes his seven parables on a note that strikes fear in the heart, namely, the fear of being corrupt despite having been forgiven and healed from sin. Despite having received the new life, they become like those whom Peter speaks of: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mud.” (2 Peter 2:22)

The concluding warning

We now conclude. What does the Lord Jesus say in verse 49 of the Parable of the Net? At the end of the age, the righteous will be separated from the evil. Significantly, Jesus doesn’t speak of them in terms of believers and unbelievers, but in terms of evildoers and the righteous. Only the righteous will be saved.

What does Jesus mean by the righteous? One thing he makes plain in this parable is that we must beware of being corrupt. Recall the Lord’s powerful and frightening words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be careful lest the light in you become darkness. And if the light in you is dark­ness, how great is that darkness” (Mt. 6:22-23). If the salt of the earth — the Christians — “has lost its taste, how will its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.” (Mt. 5:13) And the fish that becomes rotten will be thrown into the furnace of fire (Mt. 13:50).

The Lord tells us that the righteous are those who, having been transformed by God, persevere in holiness without being corrupt. Let us pray that by God’s grace, we will not be corrupt in any way, or be among the fish that were once good and then became bad. It is vital to receive God’s life, and then persevere in it, going from strength to strength to become the righteous who will be saved.



(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church