“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 end 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)
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee and he saw the two brothers Simon (called Peter) and Andrew casting a net into the sea. He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And Matthew tells us “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matt 4:19). When Jesus told them the parable of the net they understood every nuance of the story. Jesus was touching upon their very livelihood of their earlier working days.
In fact the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee is one of the best fishing areas in Israel. Plants that are swept along the Jordon River are deposited here. These plants attract and feed a large number and variety of fish. Once source states at least 25 natives species have been identified in that lake. The village of Bethsaida, home of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44) means “house of fishing”.
One of the most effective methods of fishing was the dragnet. A dragnet was a very large net about two meters in height and up to 100 metres in length. One end was often tied to the shore and the other end to a boat which would then travel in a half-circle onto the lake and back to shore. Or, two boats went out from shore, forming a semicircle with the net, pulling it through the water to catch the fish and then gathering them into the boats. The dragnet required a fair bit of manpower, requiring the efforts of half a dozen men. Some rowed, others pulled on the net and others would beat the water to drive the fish into the net. The catch would be a mixed one. The net drew in the edible fish as well as the inedible, the good as well as the bad. Then they were sorted. The inedible fish go back in the water. The good fish are put into containers.
That’s the parable in its simplicity; now let’s look at the interpretation.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet” Jesus says. How is like a dragnet? How does the work of a big fishing net describe and illustrate the kingdom of God? Think about it. Think about people. Think of souls swimming as it were in the sea of the world, going about their daily business. And then a net is thrown. What is this net? It is the gospel. The gospel net is cast into the sea. The message of Jesus is proclaimed to the utter most parts of the world. People from all tongues and tribes and nations respond to this message and are drawn into the net. But not all responses are genuine. Not all are true followers of Jesus. We don’t always know who is real and who isn’t, who has the Spirit of God indwelling them and who doesn’t. The net is drawn onto the shore. What shore? The shore of eternity. And then a separation takes place. The angels will come and separate those who are truly Christ’s who aren’t. There will be a sifting of the good from the bad; the wicked from the righteous.
I would like now to draw your attention to some thoughts regarding application. I believe Jesus has a message here for 3 different groups of people:
1. A word to believers
What is Jesus’ message to believers? I believe it is this: we are to spread the Gospel net wide so as to catch all kinds of fish. “The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus says, “Is like a fishing net that was thrown into the water and caught fish of every kind” (13:47). The gospel – the good news about Jesus Christ – his birth, death, resurrection and his soon appearing, is to be cast wide and indiscriminately. That’s our task; that’s our mission. We are to cast the Gospel net into the water to catch as many people for the kingdom as we can. We are to say to everyone,
“There is a Saviour for you. You’re dead in sin, you stand under the wrath and curse of God, but there’s a Saviour for you in Jesus Christ. He has borne the wrath and curse of God on the tree at Calvary in your place. Trust Him. Flee to Him. He can save you. I have good news for you.”
I have a net to cast and so do you. It’s called the Gospel of grace and we are to go and proclaim it to all people. If we are followers of Jesus then we are fishers of men. We have no business leaving our nets coiled up on the shore. And we are not to be selective in our targets. Notice that carefully in the parable. The dragnet can’t be selective can it? By definition and design the dragnet catches all kinds of fish. The word “kinds” in verse 47 is the Greek word genos. It means nation, ethnic group, or race. Jesus is speaking about people – Asians, Europeans, Maori and Pacific Islanders, Africans and Mexicans, Russians and Ukrainians. The gospel doesn’t lend itself to selectivity. It is to all people. It is to be cast wide.
Now, it will be wise for us, like fishermen to know the best places and times to fish. It is wise to think strategically about evangelism and understand something about the people we are trying to reach – what are their struggles and issues, what are their doubts and their beliefs. But we must never hesitate to share the gospel based on a person’s race or religion or social standing. We must look them in the eye and lovingly and winsomely offer them Jesus as the only way.
This is our calling – to go spread the Gospel net wide that we might catch all kinds of fish.
2. A word to the church
What is Jesus’ message to the church? I believe it is this: we must be realistic in our assessment and expectation of the church. I touched on this in the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds but let me speak to it again. The great gospel net gathers in all kinds of fish – people from all tongues and tribes and nations. It gathers the rich and the poor; the healthy and the sick. And it also gathers the true and the false. There are true and false converts. There are real and counterfeit believers. There are those who have attached themselves to the church, been caught in the net as it were, for all kinds of reasons other than repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The church is and will remain a mixed assembly of regenerate and unregenerate people, born again and hypocrites, until the end.
What does that mean? It means the church is never going to be perfect. It means there will be people in the church who let you down, who offend you and may even leave you devastated. Sometimes it’s because they are not converted and they don’t know better. Sometimes it’s because they are converted and should know better. The church – the gospel net, is full of sinners. And they will let you down. So we must adjust our expectations accordingly. This is not heaven. So we should not be surprised that the church that now is fails to be the church it will one day be. The parable of the dragnet reminds us we must be patient with the church of Jesus Christ. It is an imperfect church – even when it is striving to be all that God wants it to be.
So we see there is a word here to believers and a word to the church. Thirdly and lastly, there is a clear word here to the unconverted.
3. A word to the unconverted
The Lord’s word to the unconverted is simply this: you may think you can hide from God now. You may think you can hide in the fishing net, undetected. But day is coming when you will be judged. So come clean now. Come to Jesus in repentance and faith. Look again at verses 49-50,
“So it will be at the end 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.”
This is the most solemn part of the parable. The words are chilling. It echoes Jesus’ words in verses 41-42 in the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Jesus is reminding us that the true character of those who attach themselves to the visible church cannot remain hidden forever. They will be separated out.
There is a clear warning here for the unconverted, for those who are Christians in name and appearance only. But there is no fruit. There is no deep love for the church or the people of God. There is no heart of repentance. There is no desire to please God. And there is no true joy. You know the words, you can ape the behaviour, but you don’t know Jesus. You don’t have the life of Jesus in you.
If you are one of those individuals, you are in the dragnet. And you are being pulled slowly to shore. Every day it comes closer. Every sunrise and every sunset is one less sunrise and sunset on God’s clock. Soon the catch will be landed and the separation will occur. If you are in the net but not converted a terrible destiny awaits you.
Jesus says, “You will be thrown into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We know what he is talking about here don’t we? Jesus is speaking about hell. Some people who want to minimize the horror of hell say, “This is just a metaphor. Heaven is not really a furnace.” Which is partly true, hell isn’t really a literal furnace. It’s worse – far, far worse. Jesus is using the strongest possible imagery to warn us all of the reality of eternal judgment.
He’s like the fireman who runs into your house in the middle of the night and yells, “Wake up, wake up! You’ve got to get out. If you don’t get out you’ll be burned to a crisp.” What would you say to the fireman, “Oh don’t be silly. I won’t really be burned to a crisp. You’re exaggerating. I will merely receive 3rd degree burns.” What’s the difference? The end is still bad isn’t it?
Jesus is sounding the alarm. He is telling you to get out of the burning house. And denying the fact that there is a fire offers you no immunity to its flames. Jesus is also offering you a way out. He has provided you with an escape ladder. It’s called the cross. On the cross Jesus quenched the flames for all who will turn to Him and trust in Him. No one need die or perish or face the wrath of God; no one.
The alarm is sounding. Don’t sit there and wait to be burned. Act now while you still have time. Respond now while you can.
 G. Cansdale, Animals of Bible Lands (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), p. 216