Much of the material in the kingdom parables of Matthew 13 revolves around farming. But the last parable references fishing, instead. However, it is not the fishing reference that we are accustomed to.
In Matthew 4:18 we read, “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’”
The Greek word for net in that passage is Amphiblēstron. This net was a large circle with weights around the outer edge. The trained fisherman would watch until he saw a school of fish, and then he would spin that net out over the water, opening it to a full circle, and capturing the fish as it sank around them. That is the net we find in the context of Jesus’ invitation to be fishers of men. But that is not the type of net we find in the parable of Matthew 13.
Instead, we find a different Greek term indicating a different kind of net. It is the word Sagene and it speaks about a very large net—a troll net or dragnet.
R.C.H. Lenski says some of these nets covered a half-mile in length. Such a net could not be thrown. It had to be slowly dragged. One end of this net was attached to the shoreline, while the other end was attached to a boat. As the boat left the shore, it pulled the net, stretching it out tight. Then the boat moved in a slow circle, until it came all the way back to where the net was attached to the shore. In this way, the huge net gathered all the life that was in the sea area surrounded by the drag of the net.
Understanding how this particular net works helps us understand Jesus’ teaching in his parable of Matthew 13:47-50.
Jesus said, “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. 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 blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Plain and simple, this parable is about judgment. This parable is about hell. As much as that topic makes us uncomfortable, as much as it has become out of vogue to talk about or even to believe in its existence, the fact is that Jesus talked about hell a lot. He described it as a place of eternal torment, of unquenchable fire, where people will gnash their teeth in anguish. He called hell a place of “outer darkness.” Jesus talked about hell more than he talked about heaven, and he described it more vividly.
Now earlier in chapter 13, Jesus also spoke about judgment in the parable of the wheat and the weeds. He said the two would grow together until the harvest or judgment, meaning that there will be a long time in the kingdom before the harvest, for our God is patient, not wanting any to be lost but all to be saved. (See 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4.)
But in the parable of the net, there is one simple point. It is not co-existence. It is separation. “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous, and throw them into the fiery furnace…” (Matthew 13:49). Jesus used the casting net of Matthew 4 to speak in a positive way about the disciples catching people for Christ. With the dragnet of chapter 13, however, Jesus illustrates the gathering of people for judgment, and the angels are the agents of God’s judgment.
Now in an attempt to be gracious, kind, or fair, we could refrain from talking about such a horrible topic as hell. This would be like a doctor keeping silent about a patient’s fatal disease. Instead the doctor, not wanting the patient to be sad, tells the patient everything is ok. But everything isn’t ok. They are going to die. And the net is coming ever closer and closer.
The prophet Joel writes:
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come (Joel 2:1-2).
It is vitally important to note that Jesus doesn’t talk about hell just to make people sad. He didn’t come to earth to “rub it in” that hell was coming. Instead, he speaks of hell for the purpose of warning, just as God graciously told the Hebrews about the last plague in Egypt and gave them a way to be saved from it—to be passed over.
And it works. Did you notice that there were good fish in this net (verse 48)? Romans 3:10 tells us that no one is good… no one is righteous. So how are there good fish in the net? It is by grace alone that those who repent and believe are not only rescued, but are transformed from “bad” to “good” and from “wicked” to “righteous.” What good news!
There is one more important thing to remember at the close. We aren’t the ones with our hands on the dragnet. It is the angels who hold this net. There may be times that we, in our flesh, want to pull in that judgment net a little faster on someone who is a thorn in our side. But that is not our job. Instead, we are given the casting net and told to fish for people—before the dragnet gets all the way to shore—so that they too may by grace be collected with the “good” and the “righteous.”
Rev. Roger Viksnes serves as lead pastor of Bethany Lutheran Brethren Church in East Hartland, Connecticut.