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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 12

The Parable of the Fishing Net

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 13:47-52

Jesus uses a common experience of his listeners, to warn that within the community of believers there will always be those who will be judged at the Second Coming of Jesus. Teachers of both the Old Testament and New Testament have a great treasure.

Jesus uses a common experience of his listeners, to warn that within the community of believers there will always be those who will be judged at the Second Coming of Jesus. Teachers of both the Old Testament and New Testament have a great treasure.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 12. This is the 'Parable of the Fishing Net'. We're going to study Matthew chapter 13: 47 - 52.

Introduction and Recap

If you've been with us in recent episodes, you'll be aware that we are now at the end of Matthew 13 - a chapter which focuses entirely on parables. Jesus uses the opportunity at this point in his ministry to bring some teaching about the growth of the Kingdom. The context is his second journey, or tour, around Galilee where he's travelling from place to place and this is the focus of Series 5. Before that we had the Sermon on the Mount, which was very important in the formation of the discipleship community, with the twelve Apostles having just been appointed. That was Series 4 and Series 3 was his first tour of Galilee. Now he's explaining more and more about how the Kingdom of God operates and functions, and the parables in this chapter tell us many different things about how we can expect the Kingdom of God to grow. This was very important for the first generation of hearers, obviously, and is equally important for us two thousand years later because the perspectives we have on these issues will shape the sort of churches we form and are part of, the mission that we have and our expectations of how to function as Christians in our world. We're in all sorts of different contexts in the world - because I know I'm addressing a worldwide audience here with this teaching. We have many different cultural contexts in which we have to work out the principles of God's Kingdom. I've mentioned the various different contexts quite frequently in these recent teachings because it's good to integrate them to our context.

The earlier parables told us lots of important truths about the Kingdom. The Parable of the Sower told us about the power of the seed, or the message, and that we shouldn't be too worried if the message is not well received or fruitful in every single person because it will be in some people. The Parable of the Weeds told us how the Kingdom of God grows alongside the kingdom of darkness all the way through history - that's really important. We spoke about the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast where the tiny little element, a very small seed or a very small amount of yeast, can have a huge impact. In our last episode, we discussed the two very dramatic, but short parables that Jesus told, first of all, the treasure in the field and, secondly, the astonishingly valuable pearl. A merchant discovered this amazing pearl and sold everything he had in order to buy it; a man discovered treasure in a field, a field that didn't belong to him. He sold everything he had in order to buy the field. This really showed us about the incredible value of the message of the Kingdom. The Gospel is so valuable because it brings such huge blessings to us - both in this life and in the life to come. But in order to access the Gospel, very often, we have to sacrifice substantial things - make some really big sacrifices to enter into the Kingdom. We discussed that theme, very thoroughly, last time - a very important theme that affects many of us very deeply.

Now, in our final parable, the Parable of the Fishing Net, we're focusing on the ultimate destiny of the Kingdom of God, the final triumph of the Kingdom of God. There's some parallels between this parable and the Parable of the Weeds and you can look back at that episode if you want to make the comparisons more fully. We're going to read the story and see what this parable is used for by Jesus, in terms of teaching his disciples. He then concludes this section by asking his disciples a searching question about whether they've understood all the teaching he's brought and we'll comment on that a little later in the episode. First of all, let's look at this story closely and read together, Matthew 13: 47 - 50,

47Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48When 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. 49This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”’

Matthew 13:47-50, NIV

The context is really interesting because where is Jesus at this particular point? We know exactly where he is, Matthew 13: 1 - 2, says the following:

‘That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore.’

Matthew 13:1-2, NIV
Geographical Context

This is the Sea (or lake) of Galilee, which we've mentioned numerous times because it features in the story of Jesus in all sorts of interesting ways. i remind you that in Israel the Sea of Galilee is very significant because it is fed from the north, from the mountains of Lebanon and Syria. The water comes down, principally, through the River Jordan into this lake - a very large freshwater lake - and then the River Jordan exits at the southern end and heads towards what we know as the Dead Sea and out to the main sea at the Gulf of Aqaba. This lake is very large for a small country - many kilometres across and long - and is naturally productive in terms of fishing. It's in a very good environment and fishing was a major trade and a major source of food for the people. Here is Jesus sitting by the lake, in fact he's got such a big crowd that he's got into a boat and sat in it just a little bit away from the shore in order to teach them, and we've seen other instances in the Gospels where Jesus does something similar, simply because of the crowd of people and it's a convenient way to teach. He's actually sitting in a boat, probably a fishing boat, and he's telling a story about fishing that relates directly to the fishing activity that would take place right there in that lake, in that community and in his hometown, Capernaum - which was a seaside, lake-side, fishing village.

A Common Experience

He's telling a story that's really meaningful to everyone who's listening not least, by the way, some of his own disciples. If we go back a little bit earlier in the story, we'll notice that Peter and Andrew, and James and John, two sets of brothers who are leading Apostles, were fishermen and in some business partnership together. They both had boats that fished regularly on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus encountered them one day when they were just finishing a day's work, having come back from an overnight fishing trip on the lake. This is recorded in the first part of Luke 5 and, if you remember the story, when Jesus encounters them, they're actually cleaning their nets, having just gone through their fishing catch in exactly the same way as described in this parable. They'd had a bad session fishing; they hadn't caught very much and Jesus used that as a basis for teaching them and telling them that they were going to become fishers of men: they were going to give up their fishing and they were going to evangelise and lead the mission of the Church. For Peter and Andrew, and James and John, at least, amongst the twelve Apostles, we have people who understand fishing very well indeed - it's their life experience; it's their job. They've just given up that job; they've left their nets (so to speak) in order to travel with Jesus on his missionary tours and he's now on his second missionary tour. The reason I'm saying these things is to illustrate again how vivid many of the parables, images, symbols and metaphors Jesus uses in his stories were. They're not so vivid, necessarily, to us because we have different human experiences but they were vivid to the listeners in this particular case - not just the listeners generally, but the listeners in that part of the country - because the Sea of Galilee was part of the local economy and fishing was integrated with everything else. Everyone had to travel across the lake by boat to get from one place to another because it was a main form of transport and much quicker than walking around the side of the lake.

All this was very meaningful to them and the standard practice for them was, at the end of a fishing trip - usually in the early morning because fishing at night was favoured for catching more fish - in the early morning, the fishermen would come and would bring their nets ashore and sort the fish out on the lakeside. It could be done on the boats, but easier to be done on the shore. As they go through, day by day, they do what all fishermen have to do which is to sort out the catch. There's always a problem: there are always things in the catch that are dead or deformed or diseased; there are the sort of fish that aren't of any value or they're too small. Nowadays, of course, in the modern world, there's all sorts of other elements related to pollution, like plastics and other things that get into the fishing cycle. Every fisherman in those days would have to sort out the fish and there was a decision that needed to be made: do we keep this one to sell, or do we throw it away, or throw it back into the lake? Those decisions had to be made and so, it's in this context that this parable is vivid for the listeners.

The point about this particular net was that humans are likened to the fish. Good fish and bad fish come in the net and we have to work out what Jesus is actually referring to. He might be referring here to the fact that Christians and non-Christians live in the world together, which is more the point that was made in the Parable of the Weeds a little earlier on in this chapter. It's possible (and, I think, probably more likely) that Jesus might even be referring here to the Church community that was going to be formed shortly afterwards and was in embryo at the moment as the discipleship community was developing with the twelve Apostles and the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. It might be that we can draw from this parable the inference, or the expectation, that in the Church we're going to have true believers and nominal believers - believers who are only there in name - or even false believers, who are there under false pretenses. There's a tension there and this is a tension that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples about: it isn't going to be cut and dried and simple and straightforward in the Church community and in its mission because there are good fish and there are bad fish. Jesus' point is, they will continue. There's nothing you can actually do to change that situation; you can't take the law into your own hands. What he's pointing out here is the significance of what we call the Day of Judgement and this has already been referred to in other parables. He describes it (in verse 49) as

‘“the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”’

Matthew 13:49-50, NIV
The End of the Age

The end of the age is a very important theme. We saw the same thing happening with the Parable of the Weeds and the notion of the harvest: that the harvesters sort out the wheat from the weeds and they divide the two; one is productive and is used, the other is unproductive, is an intrusion, and is burnt up. We have a very similar point being made here. The end of the age is a major theme of Jesus, in this particular case, and this brings us back to an underlying significance of these teachings in Matthew 13 - and I've mentioned this in previous episodes but let's remind ourselves of this point because it is very relevant here - the Jews' expectation is the coming of the Kingdom will bring the Messiah, will bring a decisive change in human life - God's reign on earth, peace, justice, salvation for the Jews and for Gentile people who choose to believe as well.

When Jesus brought the Kingdom, he only brought the Kingdom in its first phase in his ministry. He's coming twice to the earth. He's come once to bring salvation; he'll come again to bring redemption and judgement, to finalise everything and to vindicate his people. I've mentioned this on a number of occasions but we keep having to come back to this point because the Jewish mindset wouldn't have understood the two comings of the Messiah. It was problematic for them because they hadn't discriminated between the different themes of the prophetic scriptures and realised that they referred to different events. For example, in Isaiah 53, there's very clear teaching about the suffering servant, who is a Messianic figure who will come and suffer and die and be raised again from the dead. You can see that teaching, very explicitly, in Isaiah 53. How do you fit that into a triumphal coming in glory and power? It's a different event. If we gather all the prophetic scriptures together and look at their significance, the Church is able, through the ministry of Jesus, to understand that there are two comings of Jesus: the first coming for salvation; the Second Coming for judgement and final redemption. This is what Jesus means by the end of the age. The angels are mentioned here as the authorised instruments of God to carry out his will; they're his messengers and they're his instruments. They have power to carry out his judgement.

I want to pause here for a moment and integrate this particular parable with the wider teaching of the New Testament about the final judgement and I thought I would do that by referring to the ultimate expression of it in the book of Revelation. I'm going to read from the reference to the final judgement in the Revelation 20: 11 - 15. Let's read that together. This is John prophetically seeing what's going to happen at the very end of the age, after Jesus has returned:

11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12And 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. 13The 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 they had done. 14Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15Anyone whose name (is) not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.’

Revelation 20:11-15, NIV

This is a powerful concluding scripture that summarises the themes that you see in the Gospels and also in the letters (or Epistles) where the Second Coming is mentioned. There's a moment of decisive judgement, at which Christ is the judge and those who have believed are written in his book of life and that frees them from the judgement that is to come. These are sobering realities that we're talking about and Jesus makes reference to this unambiguously when he describes the end of the age, the angels and the separation of the good fish and the bad fish (a bit like the separation of the wheat and the weeds described in the Parable of the Weeds shortly before this in Matthew 13). It's important to interpret parables with a full understanding of the eschatological significance - the end of time significance, the end of the age significance. The Kingdom of God is not just about the here and now, not just about your life and mine and how God may lead us and bless us. No, it's about the whole of history. What we do now influences what's going to happen in the future and what's going to happen to us in the future; we need to integrate our understanding of the present and the future, and we need to have confidence in God's future. The Day of Judgement will divide humanity, will take away the bad fish from the good fish.

The Treasure of OT and NT Together

Coming back to Matthew 13, to read the final two verses of our passage (Matthew 13: 51 - 52) Jesus said:

51“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. “Yes,” they replied. 52He said to them, “Therefore (each) teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house (that) brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”’

Matthew 13:51-52, NIV

He's talking here really about the disciples themselves and their successors (Christian teachers that follow) and he's basically saying if you understand the Kingdom that he's talking about and the truths that you're talking about, you're like a teacher of the Jewish law who is also a disciple - you will have treasures old and new. The likely reference to this treasure house is spiritual truths from the Old Testament and spiritual truths from Christ - the Gospel and, ultimately, the New Testament that is to follow shortly afterwards, after Jesus spoke these words. Disciples, particularly the twelve disciples (who are the twelve Apostles who are the primary target of this teaching), are the ones who will be able to interpret the Old Testament effectively and accurately and also interpret the truths of the New Testament and the Kingdom of God, such as the truths that are being described here which are absolutely foundational. Church teaching always needs to combine an accurate and effective understanding of the Old Testament with an accurate and effective understanding of the New Testament. This, in my opinion, is rarely achieved in Church teaching and so it's a goal for all of us - especially those called to teaching. The disciples now were in a position where, having understood much of the Old Testament which they'd grown up with, were now beginning to understand the New Covenant (the Gospel, the Kingdom message that was coming through Jesus) and they were going to be able to bring old treasures and new treasures together to teach others.

That teaching task continues to this day - that's why we're here studying and that's why, as we're looking into the life of Jesus, wherever there's an Old Testament reference or an Old Testament prophecy or a connection to an Old Testament event, or character, or fulfilment of the Covenant promise, I try and bring those truths very firmly into the narrative and into the explanation to us. We can easily try and grasp the New Testament without understanding the Old and then we can misunderstand things. We get a richer understanding if we put everything together and that's really what Jesus is saying here.


Now some concluding reflections. We've come to the end of this block of teaching, this discourse, of seven parables that Jesus spoke on the same occasion by the Lakeside in Galilee, as we've just described. Under the theme of the growth of the Kingdom of God, he is trying here to explain to his disciples, and to others, exactly what their expectations should be concerning the growth of the Kingdom. We've gained many insights. To summarise some of the key ones in conclusion now: We've understood from the Parable of the Sower the need not to be worried about unproductive seed but to focus on the power of the seed, of the message, in the heart and mind of the receptive person. In the Parable of the Weeds, we've seen that the two Kingdoms are going to grow together until judgement: the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of darkness. We've seen in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast the power of the very small ingredient of the Gospel to bring about enormous growth over time. We've seen, with the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price and the Hidden Treasure the value of the Kingdom and the Kingdom message and the need to give up everything in order to attain it. Here in the Parable of the Fishing Net, we've seen that the Church will always have within itself, and around itself, a mixed congregation, a mixed group of people (those who truly believe, those who are more nominal, or even false believers) and that this will be sorted out at the Day of Judgement.

This leads us to conclude that a good perspective on the Second Coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgement is essential for a healthy Christian life. I'm going to conclude by reading Paul's teaching on this same theme. Later on, when Paul is in his ministry (his apostolic ministry) planting churches, he writes to the Thessalonians some interesting instructions - because they were confused about the Second Coming. They were confused about what to believe and how to approach life knowing that the Second Coming was on its way but not knowing when. The Second Coming is the exact same event that is in mind in this parable when it speaks of the end of the age. Let's listen to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5: 1 - 11:

‘Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, NIV

What a wonderful conclusion! The Second Coming is the perspective we need in order to understand the growth of the Kingdom as described by Jesus in the parables of Matthew 13. Thank you for reading.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Have you ever been fishing?
  • Discipleship
    1. How are good ideas on the Second Coming and Judgement important to you in living a healthy Christian life?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Is it hard to accept that in the community of the church there will be bad fish as well as good fish?
    2. What do you understand about the Second coming of Jesus?
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