In our 4th and concluding article on the Kingdom parables, we’ll look at the 7th one and discover another mistaken attempt to use these parables to reveal the chronology of end-time events. Remember, a parable is a heavenly story put into an earthly context. The meaning of the Greek word for parable is “to place alongside” as in a comparison. This means that everything in the parable symbolizes something else. Correctly interpreting the symbols is the key that unlocks understanding. Let’s begin.
7) The Parable Of The Net
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 and threw the bad fish 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 fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:47-50)
Throughout the Old Testament, when the sea is used symbolically, it refers to the gentile world. For example, when the Lord described the reign of Gentile Kingdoms that began with Babylon and would continue to the end of the age, He pictured them as voracious beasts that came out of the sea (Daniel 7). During the Lord’s time on earth, the region surrounding the Sea of Galilee was called “Galilee of the Nations” or “Galilee of the Gentiles” (same Hebrew word) because of the size of the gentile population in the area. The phrase comes from Isaiah 9:1, a passage that introduces the coming of the Messiah. Some commentators see this parable then, as being particularly Gentile in its focus. They also make a big deal out of the fact that He used fish to symbolize people and fishermen to symbolize angels. They jump to the conclusion that He must be describing the Church since the Church later took the fish as a symbol and the several disciples were fishermen.
As we read the story it’s tempting to agree and see the Church being symbolized in the fish, and pre-trib believers note with glee that the order is correct. The good fish are collected before the bad are thrown into the fiery furnace (Great Tribulation, they say). But I think He was sitting there overlooking the sea surrounded by folks who made their living from it and using common everyday activities well known to them to make His point. But these activities don’t match other descriptions of the Rapture, where the Lord Himself comes to gather up His church (1 Thes 4:16-17). And then there’s the issue of other believers, not part of the church, who belong in the kingdom as well.
But the biggest problem in equating the fish and the church is the fact that in the parable some are good and some are bad, which the Lord described as symbolizing the righteous and the unrighteous. If you’re in the church you’re as righteous as God Himself (2 Cor 5:17-21) His righteousness having been imputed to you when you accepted the pardon His death purchased for you. In God’s eyes, there are no unrighteous believers. True, the case has been made that many who go to church have never really been born again, but that’s a point based on our definition of the church, not the Lord’s. Membership in His Church is gained by accepting His death as payment for our sins, not by external actions like attendance or donation records, or even evidence of “good works.” He’s not fooled by such behavior since He knows the motives of our hearts. From His point of view, we’re either His or we’re not, there’s no middle ground. So the fish have to represent humanity at large, Jew and Gentile, present on earth at the end of the age, the time to which the Lord refers in the parable.
The Story That Explains The Story
In Matthew 25:31-46 the Lord gave a teaching that describes a judgment He’ll conduct directly after the Great Tribulation and His subsequent return to Earth in glory with all the angels. All of surviving humanity, He said, will be divided into two groups, one called “sheep” and the other “goats.” The sheep are positioned on His right and the goats on His left. The sheep are rewarded for their faith, as evidenced by their attitude toward “His brothers” during their recent time of trouble, by being ushered into His Kingdom. The goats are then condemned to the eternal fires for ignoring His brothers.
I believe His brothers are Jewish believers who will be hunted like dogs during the Great Tribulation in Satan’s last great effort to annihilate them and prevent the Lord’s return, and the sheep are Gentiles who come to faith after the Rapture and at great personal risk provide for and comfort them. The goats are those who refuse to love the truth and be saved (2 Thes. 2:9-12) and therefore see no reason to help believers of any stripe, especially Jews. Note that sheep are always used symbolically to describe believers, while the goat’s head is a traditional symbol of Satan. Clearly in the Sheep and Goat Judgment humanity will be assigned to one group or the other based upon righteousness. The implication in the passage is that the angels are involved in gathering all of surviving humanity together for this judgment, the sheep are first commended and rewarded, and then the goats are consigned to the eternal fire. Sounds just like the parable of the net.
Therefore every teacher of the Law who has been instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of the house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matt. 13:52).
Here is the clearest indication of all that His Kingdom will contain believers from every segment of the Age of Man, not just the Church. This concluding statement ties the New Testament with the Old and indicates that those who have been led by the Holy Spirit to teach the Scriptures would hereafter include the whole counsel of God, from Genesis to Revelation.
Here then is a summary of God’s redemptive work during the Age of Man, with man’s response to it as illustrated by the seven parables:
The Lord has planted the seed of His Word throughout the world in both Old Testament and New, proclaiming His Kingdom (1).
Satan has worked to prevent and pervert His Word (2-3),
often getting able assistance from the very leaders sworn on holy oath to protect and preserve it (4).
His Kingdom was always intended for both Jew and Gentile and He gave all He had, including His life, so we could escape the bondage of sin and join Him there (5-6).
But loving us enough to give us the freedom to accept or reject the only remedy available for the sin that bars our admission meant that many would refuse His offer of pardon to their own destruction (7).
In Matt. 25:41 we’re told that the eternal fires were prepared specifically for Satan and his angels. Men must choose to join them there. By refusing the Lord’s offer of pardon and thereby rejecting His kingdom, they choose the only other destiny available, joining Satan in his. This is the one and only unpardonable sin. Selah.