Introduction: In a sermon on this passage, John MacArthur gives the following sober reminder:
Our Lord spoke very much and very often about hell. He said many things about the abode of the damned, the wicked, the Christ rejecters. But of all of the startling, terrifying things that Jesus ever said, perhaps the most startling was when He said to the Jewish leaders – How can ye escape the damnation of hell? In Matthew 23:33. How can ye escape the damnation of hell?
It seems strange to us to hear words like that coming from the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ. For we don’t associate the Lord Jesus Christ with hell, as often as we ought. He said more about hell than he did about love. He said more about hell than all the other biblical preachers combined. And if we are to model our preaching after His, then hell is a major theme for us.
The other night I heard a teen age punk rocker being interviewed. And the reporter said to her – What are you looking forward to? What is in the future for punk rock? She said – Death. I’m looking forward to death. He said – Why? She said – I want to go to hell. Because hell will be fun. I hope I go to hell, I want to die so I can get to hell and have fun.
What deception. Hell is not fun. One writer said, “There is no way to describe hell, nothing on earth can compare with it. No living person has any real idea of it. No madman in wildest flights of insanity ever beheld its horror. No man in delirium ever pictured a place so utterly terrible as this. No nightmare racing across a fevered mind ever produced a terror to match the mildest hell. No murder scene with splashed blood and oozing wound ever suggested a revoltion that could touch the borderlands of hell. Let the most gifted writer exhaust his skill in describing this roaring cavern of unending flame and he would not even brush in fancy the nearest edge of hell,” end quote. (The Furnace of Fire)
I think that MacArthur is right in seeing the primary emphasis of this parable as being on the coming final judgment of the wicked in hell. This will become clear as we look first at Jesus’ expression of the parable of the dragnet and then at His explanation of the parable.
Jesus’ communication of the parable is found in verses 47-48:
NKJ Matthew 13:47-48 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet [σαγήνη] that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, 48 which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away.
There are a couple of things we need to know about the background for this parable.
First, the “dragnet” refers to a type of net commonly used for fishing in the Sea of Galilee. Klyne Snodgrass describes this kind of net in his treatment of the parable:
Such a net could be quite long with cork floats along the top and lead weights along the bottom. It could be stretched between two boats or laid out from one and then pulled to shore by ropes. Everything in its path would be caught as it was pulled in. (Stories With Intent: A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 486)
Jesus no doubt used this as a metaphor for the judgment (as we shall see later) because it captured the idea of gathering every kind of fish – which He will go on to describe as both good and bad kinds – and also because it would have been recognizable by the disciples as a metaphor for judgment. The metaphor of a net was used in several familiar judgment passages in the Old Testament:
NKJ Ezekiel 32:1-3 And it came to pass in the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, that the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him: ‘You are like a young lion among the nations, and you are like a monster in the seas, bursting forth in your rivers, troubling the waters with your feet, and fouling their rivers. 3 Thus says the Lord GOD: “I will therefore spread My net over you with a company of many people, and they will draw you up in My net.”’”
NKJ Habakkuk 1:14-17 Why do You make men like fish of the sea, like creeping things that have no ruler over them? 15 They take up all of them with a hook, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their dragnet. Therefore they rejoice and are glad. 16 Therefore they sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their dragnet; because by them their share is sumptuous and their food plentiful. 17 Shall they therefore empty their net, and continue to slay nations without pity?
So, not only would a dragnet itself have been a familiar thing to His disciples, but its use as a metaphor for judgment would have been familiar as well. Although the idea of a net being used to teach the gathering of people for judgment may seem odd to us, it would not have seemed so to the Jews in the first century who were knowledgeable of the Old Testament teaching about judgment.
Second, the statement that “they gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away” assumes the background of the Old Testament law. Klyne Snodgrass is again helpful when he observes:
There are as many as twenty four species of fish in the sea of Galilee. While any fisherman would sort his catch to exclude inedible fish or undesirable creatures, Jewish law necessitated sorting, for it allowed only fish with scales and fins to be eaten. The “bad” (sapra) fish would be fish without scales or fins – “unclean” for Jews, not fish that had become spoiled. (Stories With Intent: A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, p. 486)
The specific restrictions can be found, for example, in Deuteronomy:
NKJ Deuteronomy 14:9-10 These you may eat of all that are in the waters: you may eat all that have fins and scales. 10 And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.
Thus, it is against the background of clean and unclean fish that this parable must be understood, and this background makes it easy to understand why this metaphor becomes useful for describing the ultimate judgment of men, as Jesus goes on to explain.
Jesus’ explanation of the parable is found in verses 49-50:
NKJ Matthew 13:49-50 So it will be at the end of the age [συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος]. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just [δίκαιος, righteous], 50 and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
This parable immediately calls to mind Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares earlier in verses 37-43, so lets go back and read that explanation, noting the similarities. In the process, we will also see significant differences, which will help us see the focus of this parable a little better:
NKJ Matthew 13:37-43 He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. 39 The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age [συντέλεια αἰῶνός], and the reapers are the angels. 40 Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. 41 The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Notice a couple key differences between this earlier parable and the parable under consideration today:
1) Whereas the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares focuses upon the intervening time between Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom and the end of the age, during which both He and the devil are at work in the world, leading up to a final judgment, the focus of the Parable of the Dragnet is on the future judgment itself.
2) Whereas the Parable of the Wheat and the tares includes the destruction of the wicked, but lays stress in the end upon the way in which “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” thus emphasizing the promise of a glorious future for believers, the Parable of the Dragnet places the emphasis upon the destruction of the wicked.
So, the primary focus of this parable is the future and final judgment of the wicked.
Now, having considered the differences between this parable and the earlier one, let’s get back to the similarities. There are four concepts or events that Jesus repeats in this parable, and this means that He wants to place particular emphasis upon them. So let’s consider them one at a time.
First, there is the reference to the end of the age [συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος]. As we saw before, in our examination of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, this is a reference to the time of Christ’s future return. It is important to remember that Jesus basically breaks down redemptive history from His time into two ages, which He refers to as this age and the age to come, and He sees the age to come as that in which we will experience the fullness of eternal life. For example:
NKJ Matthew 12:32 “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”
NKJ Mark 10:29-30 “So Jesus answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30 who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time– houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions– and in the age to come, eternal life.’”
It was this same eternal life that Jesus spoke of earlier in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, when he referred to the time that the “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (vs. 43), which He said would be at the end of “this age” (vs. 40). At any rate, that Jesus has the final judgment in mind will become even more evident when we think about the other things He stresses here.
Second, there is the separation of the wicked from the just by the angels. This must refer to the final judgment, not only since Jesus says it will happen at the end of the age, but also because He has previously described the angels’ job of separating as involving the gathering out of His kingdom “all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness” (vs. 41).
Also, when Jesus later teaches about His future coming, He again describes this judgment in terms of finality:
He will come with His angels and gather the nations: NKJ Matthew 25:31-32 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.”
To the righteous He will say: NKJ Matthew 25:34b “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world ….”
To the wicked he will say: NKJ Matthew 25:41b “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels ….”
And He finishes the teaching by saying: NKJ Matthew 25:46 “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Here Jesus describes the fate of the wicked as being thrown into “everlasting fire prepared for the devils and his angels,” which He goes on to describe as “everlasting punishment.” This takes us to the next point stressed by Jesus in the Parable of the Dragnet.
Third, there is the casting of the wicked into the furnace of fire. As we have seen, this language is used by Jesus to refer to the final judgment. It refers, then, ultimately to hell. This place is later called “the lake of fire” in the book of revelation:
NKJ Revelation 19:19-20 And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse [Jesus at His return] and against His army. 20 Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone.
After revealing an intervening millennial reign of Christ: NKJ Revelation 20:10-15 “The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. [This describes the everlasting punishment Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25] 11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”
Now, some Evangelical commentators and theologians see the language of fire as symbolic of the most terrible pain that one can imagine, but I see no reason not to accept this as a literal reference to fire, especially since there are clear instances in Scripture of fire being used by God to judge men. Examples of this would include God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-19:29, especially 19:24) and His judgment on Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Fourth, there is the reference to wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is a way of describing both mental and emotional anguish (wailing or weeping) and intense physical pain (gnashing of teeth). Thus it is a way of summarizing all the pain one can imagine.
In his commentary on Matthew, John Gill discusses the menaing of this phrase and, I think, captures the sense of it pretty well:
[On Matt. 8:12 he says these are] phrases expressive of the miserable state and condition of persons out of the kingdom of heaven; who are weeping for what they have lost, and gnashing their teeth with the pain of what they endure.
[On Matthew 13:42 again he says these are terms] declaring the remorse of conscience, the tortures of mind, the sense of inexpressible pain, and punishment, the wicked shall feel; also their furious rage and black despair …. (Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword)
Conclusion: The conclusion to this message, and its obvious application, is to see this parable for what it is, a clear warning about the certainty, finality, and horror of the coming judgment of God. It is no joking matter, and, however unpopular we may find the subject or how uncomfortable it may be for us to think about it, Jesus demands that we do so! After all, the eternal destiny of each one of us is on the line!