"Bad Fish in the Dragnet"
(Delivered Sunday, December 3, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We have been studying the seven 'kingdom' parables that Jesus taught in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel. Each of these parables unveil a profound truth concerning the 'mysteries of the kingdom of heaven' (v. 11)—truth that could not be known unless God, in grace, revealed them.
Now; you may have noticed that we've taken our time in studying them; and I make no apology for that. Studying these parables has been time strategically and wisely spent. It would not be prudent to “hurry” through them.
For one thing, it is a great privilege to know and understand the things taught in them. People who know what these parables say are uniquely blessed. Jesus Himself has said so. To those who first heard these parables, Jesus has said, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righeous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (vv. 16-17).
And not only is it a blessing to know these things; it is also stratigic. Understanding the things taught in these parables will result in the Scriptures being opened up to us. As Jesus told His disciples at the conclusion of these parables, “Therefore every scribe [that is, every diligent student of the Scriptures] instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (v. 52). The significance of old biblical truths will become new to us in light of 'the mysteries of the kingdom'; and new insights will open up to us in light of old truths.
Today, we come to the very last of these seven parables. In some ways, it is the most crucial of them all. There is a sense of urgency behind this particular parable that makes it absolutely essential to hear. And it is a lesson Jesus teaches us about the kingdom through a very common thing that people saw in those days as they lived and worked and strolled along the Sea of Galilee—a dragnet. Jesus said;
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I'm not much of a fisherman. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I've never been any kind of a fisherman at all.
I went on a fishing trip a few years ago with someone in our church; and it was the first time I had a rod and reel in my hand for decades. As the boat drifted off from the shore and out onto the lake, I told him, “Believe it or not, I haven't caught a single fish in thirty-five years!” Four hours later—after circling the lake over and over, and not having even a nibble—I turned to my fishing host and said, “You know; we've been on this lake for four solid hours . . . and I still haven't caught a single fish in thirty-five years!”
But then, when most of us go fishing, it's usually for relaxation and sport anyway. If we didn't catch anything, it's not as if the day was a total loss; because we mostly go fishing in order to enjoy the peace and quite and admire the beautiful scenery—not because we need fish that we could far more easily go to the store and buy.
And even when we do catch fish, we're only really excited if it is a certain kind of fish . . . and a certain size. We spend money on a specific kind of lure or a particular kind of bate, so that we can draw the specific kind of fish that we hope to catch. Some weekend fishermen even equip their boats with a special “fish-computer”—one that shows them were the fish can be found before they even cast the line out for them. And even then, we always have to be careful to keep to our legal limit. All in all, “fishing” as a leasure activity is a pretty 'particularized' and 'picky' kind of operation.
Well; that kind of “fishing” is the exact opposite of what a “dragnet” was for. In the days of our Lord's ministry—and even today in many parts of the world—a dragnet was what professional fishermen used in order to get the job done quickly and profitably. It was large square net—sometimes made to hang upright under the water by means of floats and weights, or sometimes pulled along in the water by means of ropes attached to fishing boats.
The purpose of the dragnet was to draw everything that came into its sphere, pull it all to the surface or to the shore, and allow the fishermen to empty its contents into the boat or onto the beach and pick through it all—selecting only the best and most profitable fish, and discarding the rest. From a sportsman's point of vew, that sounds like cheating. But or a professional fisherman, that's the only sensable way to fish.
If you're a reader of the Bible, you're already familiar with how this kind of fishing works. Perhaps you remember the time that the Lord Jesus preached from Peter's fishing boat. After He was finished, He told Peter to let down his net for a catch. And when Peter and his co-workers did so, the Gospel writer Luke tells us that, “they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink” (Luke 5:6-7). And then, there was that wonderful story at the end of the Gospel of John—after Jesus had risen from the dead. He stood on the shore and commanded Peter and his fishing partners to cast their net out at a certain spot. When they did, “they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish” (John 21:6). Apparently, others had to come and help; and the boats came to the shore, “dragging the net with fish” (v. 8). The Lord had made a fire and invited them to bring some of the fish they caught; and we're told that “Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken” (v. 11).
And so, isn't it interesting that Jesus used that image—the image of fishermen fishing with a dragnet—to teach us this last and very crucial truth about the 'mystery of the kingdom of heaven'? Just as a dragnet draws all kinds of fish into itself, His kingdom would—throughout the unfolding centuries of its spread—draw into its influence many kinds of people.
This kingdom 'dragnet' would not only draw people from all people groups around the world; but it would also draw both the faithful and the faithless, both the just and the wicked. And Jesus is teaching us that not all who appear to embrace His kingdom will truly have a part in it. He warns that, at the end of the age—just after He returns to this earth to assume the full possession of His kingdom—He will separate out from it those who do not belong in it.
I suggest, then, that this 'kingdom parable' is the most crucial of all of them. It's not crucial simply because it is the last of them, but because it brings all of the others together into a very practical and very urgent call—especially to what we might refer to as 'church people'. Among the many lessons we might learn from it, I believe the most important is that those of us who are drawn into the influence of Jesus' kingdom must examine ourselves now—while we can—and be very sure that we truly have a part in that kingdom. Just because someone is in the net, that doesn't mean that they are 'good fish'! And how dreadful it will be for those 'bad fish' who will have assumed that they were a part of Jesus' kingdom just because they had been drawn along by its influence in this age of grace; but who will, at the end of the age, discover otherwise!
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Think with me, first of all, about . . .
1. THE CASTING OF THE NET
Jesus said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea . . .” This is meant to be a picture of the spreading-forth of the message of 'the gospel of the kingdom' into this world.
When it comes to the gospel, Jesus has already expressed His determination when He said, “And this gospel of the kingom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The gospel of the kingdom—the Good News of who Jesus is and what He has done on the cross for us—is to be taken to every spot in the world. No people group in the world was to be excluded from its influence; because Jesus commanded His disciples to make more disciples “of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). For that reason, the spread of the gospel is very much like the casting of a dragnet into the sea.
In this respect, then, spreading the gospel is not like fishing with a rod and reel. It's not as if a particular kind of tackle is being used in order to win only a particular group of people. It is our task to spread His gospel; and it is God alone knows who it is that He has chosen beforehand for faith. It is not our business to decide who becomes a part of His kingdom; but only to spread its message. The gospel is a “net” that He has commanded to be cast far and wide—and we proclaim it everywhere in the confident trust that the sovereign God will draw into its influence whoever He choses.
Now; there is a sense in which Jesus has already taught us this in one of His parables. He began that parable by saying, “Behold, a sower went out to sow” (v. 3). The sower cast his seed in such a way that it “fell” in various places. The seed fell on various different places and brought about a variety of different results. He said;
And so, one of the lessons in this parable for those of us who are followers of Jesus is that we are to spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere we can—and wherever He places us in life. We are to, as it were, 'cast the net widely' into the sea of humanity. And as we do, we are to trust God to bring whoever He wishes into its influence. As someone has well said, we are to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leave the results to God.
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Now this leads us next to consider . . .
2. THE DRAWING-IN OF THE CATCH.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like that dragnet that was cast into the sea, “and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore . . .” (vv. 47-48). Once upon the shore, the net was found to have drawn in fish that were good and fish that were bad.
What made fish literally “good” or “bad”? From a Jewish standpoint, there would be some fish that could not be used for food because the people were forbidden by the law from doing so. In Leviticus 11:9-12, God tells His people,
No doubt, many 'unclean' fish were drawn into the net along with the good. And even when it came to the fish that were considered 'clean' for food, some of the “clean” fish would be “bad” from a strictly professional standpoint. Some of the fish would have been of poor quality, or, for whatever reason, simply didn't have resale value and were not particularly good for food.
But the purpose of the dragnet wasn't to simply catch only good fish. It was to catch as many of whatever kind of fish came into its influence and draw it to the shore for inspection later. Jesus says that the dragnet was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind of fish; “which, when it was full, they drew to shore . . .” (v. 48)—that is, full of all kinds of fish, both good and bad.
Now; I suspect that this would have been an aspect of the “kingdom” that came as a surprise to Jesus' disciples. They understood that the kingdom was now at hand. But they—like many of their Jewish kinsmen—would have expected the kingdom to be commenced in a completely different way than that. They would have expected that, right then and there, Jesus would have selected 'the very best of the best' from the nation of Israel--exluding at the very beginning those who didn't belong; both sinful Jewish people and the unwanted Gentile Roman occupiers--and let His kingdom spread on the earth and grow in holiness and purity. But that is not our Lord's plan. Instead, He throws out His net into the sea and allows many—both good AND bad—to be drawn into its influence until such a time as the net is “full”.
People have been drawn under the influence of the kingdom because of its many attractions. They are sometimes drawn by the good that Jesus' kingdom citizens do in this earth; and they wish to be a part of it. Drive around our city and you'll see the 'kingdom' influence in the names that are on our hospitals: “St. Vincents”; “Good Samaritan”; “Emmanuel”; “Providence”. Think of the major universities and colleges in our country; and of how they began as institutions of religious education. The kingdom of Jesus Christ has inspired countless community service and relief organizations. Orphanages and schools are built in its service. Many people who want to be a part of it all are drawn in to the kingdom's influences in this way. And sometimes, people are inspired by Jesus Himself—but in a completely wrong way. They are inspired by the goodness of His teaching, and the charms of His life. They look upon Him as a great philospher or a religious leader or teacher. And sometimes, people are simply “religious” by nature, and love to be a part of a church community.
The kingdom of Jesus would draw all kinds of people under its influence for all sorts of reasons. And they will think that, just because they are 'in the dragnet', they must be 'good fish'. But many of those who are drawn by the kingdom's influences in this world—and who even attach themselves to Jesus' kingdom in active ways—will prove in the end to have no part in His kingdom at all. He said,
This means, of course, that Jesus' kingdom will grow and spread across this earth with—for a time—a mixture of “good” and “bad” in its midst. But then, again, He has already told us this in one of His previous parables. He said,
So; another lesson this parable teaches us is that we are not to be surprised when we discover that the “net” contains both good and bad in it. Jesus has chosen to allow His kingdom to draw into its influence both the good and the bad; and to make a final distinction between them at the end of the age.
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This leads us, next, to consider . . .
3. THE SEPARATION FROM THE GOOD.
Our Lord said that, once the net was full and was drawn to the shore, the fishermen “sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. So it will be at the end of the age.” (vv. 48-49). He tells us that, at that time, the angels will come forth and separate the wicked from among the good. He will, at that time, make a distinction.
Again, that's not the way you or I might have thought of doing it. Perhaps we would have thought of sending down scuba-divers who would have kept the bad fish out of the net, and directed only the good fish in. So, why is it that the Lord has chosen to grow His kingdom in this way? Why does He allow the bad to be drawn into the influence of the kingdom, and to be mixed up and mingled with the good for such a long period of time?
Ultimately, we must say that we don't know, and must bow humbly to our Lord's wisdom. But I can think of at least two reasons why it may be that He has done things in this way. For one thing, I believe that our Lord has allowed this because He is great in mercy and grace. As the apostle Peter has written;
He is a good and merciful Savior; and when the final judgment comes, no one who heard His gospel will be able to say that He did not give them ample opportunity to believe it and trust in Him. No one under the influence of His “gospel dragnet” will be able to have an excuse for not knowing Him and trusting Him as they should.
But another reason I can think of for why it may be that our Lord allows the bad to be drawn in with the good for so long is in order to, ultimately, show display Himself clearly as a righteous and just Judge who clearly distinguishes between the righteous and the unrighteous. He says;
This, then, is another lesson concerning Jesus' kingdom that we learn from this parable. We are to understand that though the kingdom will draw into its influence both the righteous and the wicked—and though we ourselves may not always be able to tell the difference—Jesus Himself knows those who are truly His within His dragnet. And on the great day of judgment when the dragnet is pulled to shore, He will see to it that the bad fish are separated from the good—both to the praise of His grace, and to the glory of His justice.
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And this leads us to a final and very sobering thing to consider; and that is . . .
4. THE JUDGMENT OF THE BAD.
I think it's very instructive that, in this parable, the Lord doesn't tell us about the destiny of those who are His “just” ones. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, He does tell us about their destiny. He tells us that, on that great day when He returns to this earth and commences His earthly reign with the great “separation”, then “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v. 43). But there is no such joyful note here in this parable.
Instead, Jesus ends with the dreadful word of warning that the angels “will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (vv. 49-50). And I suggest that this underscores the main purpose of this parable—a parable that comes at the end of all the others. It is meant to be a word of warning; calling us who have come under the influence of Jesus' kingdom to, with the utmost sense of seriousness and urgency, be very sure that we truly belong in His kingdom.
Some people say that they prefer Jesus' teaching in the Bible over those 'nasty and harsh' apostles. “Those apostles”, they say, “and especially Paul, preached a lot of talk about 'hell' and 'judgment' and 'fire'. But Jesus spoke of love and acceptance.” But the truth of the matter is that Jesus spoke more about eternal judgment than anyone else in the Bible. And what's more, He used horribly graphic terms to describe it. There is a reason. It's because He is the Savior of mankind who will also one day come as the Judge of all the earth. He loves people more than they realize, and does not wish for them to suffer the eternal punishment that He promises will be poured out on the wicked. Therefore, He speaks in horrible terms about eternal judgment. It's because He does not want people to experience it and has come to save them from it!
Look at what He says. He says that, “at the end of the age”—that is, at the end of this current period of grace; the time between His first coming as Savior and the day when He will return again as Judge; during this day when us poor wicked sinners may be drawn into His kingdom influences, and believe the gospel, and come to know Him by faith, and live in obedience to Him as “just” followers—at the end of this age, the wicked will be cast into the furnace of fire. “There,” He says, “will be wailing and gnashing of teeth”.
“Wailing” suggests anguish. The place of eternal judgment is a place of conscious torment. And I believe that one of the greatest aspects of that torment will be an eternal separation from the One who made us for Himself, but whom we did not desire. The wicked did not want to bow to Him or serve Him or even know Him; and then—to their eternal anguish—they will have what they wanted.
But it was startling to me to discover that “gnashing of teeth” suggests malice. Did you know that every other time that the phrase “gnashing of teeth” is mentioned in the Bible, it describes intense hatred and malice?1 King David wrote of how the wicked “plots against the just and gnashes at him with his teeth” (Psalm 37:12); or of how ungodly mockers at feasts “gnashed at me with their teeth” (Psalm 35:16). Lamentations speaks of how the enemies of Israel “have opened their mouth against you; they hiss and gnash their teeth” (Lam. 2:16). And in the book of Acts, after Stephen preached to the Jewish leaders—just before they rose up and stoned him to death—we're told that “they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54).
Could it be that those who once made a great profession of being in Jesus' “dragnet”, but who in fact refused to truly humble themselves before Him and know Him by faith, will one day in judgment show their true character and “gnash” at Him with their teeth? What a horrible thought!
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This, then, is the greatest and most important lesson to be learned from this most crucial of the seven “kingdom” parables: Those who are drawn into the influence of Jesus' kingdom must be sure—must be very,very sure—that they truly have a part in it.
The apostle Paul gave this word of warning once—to a church full of professing Christians, mind you;
Don't ignore that word of warning. Take it seriously. Examine yourself as if that self-examination was the most important thing you could possibly do; because it is. Your eternal desinty depends upon making it certain. Is Jesus Christ truly in you? Do you have an ongoing, growing relationship with Him? Do you demonstrate the clear, unmistakable evidence of a transformed life—the kind of transformed life that proves that He dwells in you?
This parable warns us that, just because you're drawn by the influence of the kingdom, that doesn't mean that you have a place in it. Make very sure that you have a place in His kingdom. Make very sure that you have trusted Jesus Christ by faith.
1The phrase in the Greek, as it is found in this verse, is ho brubmos ton odonton. The exception is in Mark 9:13, with reference to the demon-possessed boy. There, the word used is trizo; “to creak”; by analogy, to grate the teeth.
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