Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 30. The Final Assessment
Mt 13:47 Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.
Chapter 13 of Matthew is the start of the real parables teaching that Matthew has collected together. We saw it started with the Parable of the Sower, all about the different ways people respond to the word of God. Although it didn’t start with a reference to the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, the implication was there (see v.11). Thereafter, however, each parable starts with “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (v.24,31,33,44,45,47), explaining how weeds grow alongside wheat, how mustard seed grows to be one of the biggest plants, how yeast spreads through dough, how a man reacts to finding hidden treasure or how a merchant reacts to finding a priceless pearl, all of which have different applications in respect of the rule of God on earth – the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. The explanation of the Parable of the Weeds, and then the parables of the treasure and the parable of the pearl and now the present parable, are all given to the disciples in private (see v.36). In this batch in this chapter, Matthew has collected seven parables (seven, the perfect or complete number?) the first about the beginning of the work of the kingdom and now the last, that we are about to look at, about the ‘end’ of kingdom.
Two verses tell the parable and two verses explain it. First the parable itself: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.” (v.47,48) As so much of Jesus’ teaching was done on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this is for his listeners, and now specifically his disciples of whom at least four are fishermen, a very obvious illustration. They go fishing with their nets and when they pull in their haul, they pull it into shore and there they sort out the fish, good from bad, probably meaning either large from small, or fish good for eating from those that are not good for eating.
Then next, the explanation: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.49,50) The lesson is very simple and very obvious: at the very end of all things of this present earth, there is coming a great accounting and at that time there will be a distinguishing between the righteous and the unrighteous.
This teaching is exactly that which is found more generally in the New Testament, for example, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” (Heb 9:27) and “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead,” (Acts 17:31) and “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ ” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God,” (Rom 14:10-12) and “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad”. (2 Cor 5:10)
Now theologians differ over whether this happens the moment you die, or whether it is simply the next thing you are aware of after death, or whether it does literally take place in time-space history after Jesus has returned (Rev 19:1-21), and after the apparent thousand year reign (Rev 20:1-6), all spoken of in the book of Revelation.
It is there we receive the clearest of pictures of all this: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.” (Rev 20:11-13) Various explanatory comments might be helpful.
First the Revelation material is pure prophecy and prophecy is often largely allegorical, portraying the truth through pictures. So will there be a literal book with details in? I suggest, very simply, it is more likely to mean God who knows everything knows every detail of your life.
Second, the phrase, “according to what he had done,” seen in the light of the whole of the New Testament refers to each person’s reaction to the Son of God and the life they then lived as the outworking or reality of that response.
Third, in both the present parable and the parable of the weeds, the bad fish and the weeds are thrown “into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.42,50) It is worth noting that again theologians down through the ages have disputed the meaning of this. The traditional approach is that this describes hell, an ongoing punishment (eternal fire – Mt 18:8) for the unrighteous. Some find this conflicts with the teaching of “God is love” and an answer would be that this might have to be because spirit and soul cannot be destroyed (although scripture seems to challenge that – see Mt 10:28 – “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” which might limit it to only ‘spirit’ cannot be destroyed.)
The alternative teaching is that actually ‘hell’ is simply a description of this destruction that is available throughout history (‘eternal’ in Mt 18:8 meaning always available) and that the person is utterly destroyed (annihilated) by the fire, for anywhere else fire utterly destroys. The ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ is therefore seen as the responses of those who are about to be cast into this fire. This fire is referred to by Jesus in Matthew a number of times – 5:22, 6:30, 7:19, 13:40, 18:8,9, 25:41. In the book of Revelation it is only Satan and the Beast who are thrown into the fire for ongoing punishment. All other references to people are that they are destroyed. (For a very detailed study of this, see my book, ‘The Judgments of a Loving God’ with a link on this page.)
Whatever the truth (which we shall only know when we meet Him) there is a clear warning that comes through Jesus’ teaching again and again – there are choices and there are consequences and whether those consequences are ongoing pain or simply destruction they should be avoided and the alternative is gloriously wonderful and it will only be the utterly hard-hearted and blind who will refuse it!