Adapted from a sermon preached at the PCC Sabbath Evening Worship on 23 April 1999

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of
every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good
into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world:
the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just.
And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”
(Matthew 13:47–50).

The Lord Jesus began His ministry in Judea. He then moved up to Galilee. There He preached and did many miracles. He went back to Jerusalem for the Passover, and after that returned to Galilee. When He arrived in Galilee the second time, things were quite different. Opposition had begun. The scribes and Pharisees first charged Him and His disciples for breaking the Sabbath, and then for doing miracles by the power of Satan. Even His own family thought that He was beside Himself or out of His mind, and they came to question Him or perhaps to stop Him. We read this in Matthew 12. When the Lord came out to speak to them, a big crowd began to follow Him.

He decided to walk to the edge of the Sea of Galilee (a lake). But the crowd was too big. The Lord decided to borrow a boat, got into it, pushed it out a little and preached from the boat. That way, He could see everyone and everyone could hear Him. He then preached a series of seven parables beginning with the parable of the Sower (Mt 13:3–23), and ending with the parable of the Net and Fishes (Mt 13:47–50). The first four parables were preached to the multitude on the boat, whereas, the last three were preached to the disciples in a house (Mt 13:36). But the theme of the seven parables is the same: they all concern the Kingdom of Heaven.

The parable of the Net and Fishes has always a special appeal to me, not only because of the way the Lord packs so many important verities concerning the Gospel and the Gospel ministry in so few words, but also because I have from young enjoyed fishing, and that not fishing with lines, but fishing with nets as the Apostles did.

Let us study this parable under three heads: First, we shall examine the parable in its original setting; Second, we will interpret the parable; and Thirdly, we must ask ourselves what all these mean to us today?

The Parable in Original Context

Most of the Lord’s preaching ministry was conducted around the Lake of Galilee. Even this series of parables we are looking at was begun by the Lord on a boat at the lake itself and later He moved to a house near the lake. The Lake of Galilee was teeming with fishes, many of which are edible. As such, many of the families living around the shore of Galilee were fishermen. A number of the Apostles were fishermen. Peter and Andrew were casting a net into the sea when the Lord Jesus called them (Mt 4:18). James and John were mending their fishing nets in a boat near the shore when the Lord called them (Mt 4:21).

Many different kinds of nets are used by fishermen. I used to do a lot of fishing myself. When we went fishing in the streams or canals in Singapore, then we would use a scooping net,—a circular net with a long stick. This net is useful for catching fishes alive for the aquarium, but not quite suitable for making a living. Another net that we used to use is the gill-net. This net is designed to trap the fishes by their gills. We would set the net out near the seashore in the evening, and then in the morning when the tide had gone down, we would find all kinds of fishes and crabs trapped in it, and we would spend the whole morning removing them for lunch.

Now, in Galilee, at the time when the Lord walked the shores, different kind of nets were used too. Two of the most popular kinds of nets were the casting-net and the dragnet. Three Greek words are used to describe fishing nets; one is generic, and the other two very specific. When the Lord called Peter and Andrew (Mt 4:18), they were using a casting net (Grk. amphiblêstron). They were casting the net from the shore. This net is a kind of circular net with a diameter of about three or four metres. The circumference of the net is lined with weights. A lot of skill is needed to use this net. But when the fisherman cast the net out, it spreads out and whatever fish is under the net gets caught when the net is dragged in. As you can imagine, the yield for this net is not very great.

Another kind of net that was commonly used is the dragnet. This is a long net with weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top edge. Two modes were employed with this net. The first is when there is only one boat available; in which case, the net is let down into medium-depth water in a circular pattern and then dragged into the boat. This was probably the method employed by Peter when the Lord told him to “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught” (Lk 5:4). The second method is when two boats are available; in which case, each end of the net is tied to the boat, and the net is made to form a semi-circle and the net is dragged to shore. As both boats come in towards the shore, dragging the net, most fishes in its sweep would be trapped in it. Some would out-swim the boats and escape by the side, but most of the fishes would be dragged in. This method is particularly suitable where the water near the shore is not lined with sharp boulders, which might cause the nets to be stuck or to tear. This second method yields the greatest catch. As we know that James and John were Peter’s fishing partners (Lk 5:10), it was likely that they often use this method to catch their fishes.

The net that our Lord refers to in this parable is the dragnet (Grk. sagênê), and the method alluded to us is the second method of using two boats. This method, if used properly, would catch most of the fishes that are in the sweep of the net.

Now the Sea of Galilee has all kinds of fishes of all sizes. Some of the fishes are edible,—the most famous of which is known as St. Peter’s fish. This fish is so commonly found in this lake that its scientific name is Tilapia Galilea. (We have Tilapias in most of the lakes in Singapore, but it is Tilapia Mossambica as they come from Mozambia, or the Tilapia Placida, the black tilapia from Java). Now, in the Sea of Galilee, there are also fishes that are not edible. Some of them are too small to be eaten, some of them may be edible to us, but are forbidden by the Jewish dietary laws, such as the scale-less catfish.

When the boat comes in to land, the fishermen would get off the boats, and start dragging the net to land. Once the net is on land with all the fishes jumping about, they must immediately get to work. They begin to sort the fishes. The edible and saleable fishes, such as the Tilapia Galilea and carps, they would be put into their containers or vessels; the rest,—which are known as bad fishes,—are thrown back to the sea if they are alive or thrown to the ground for the birds.

The container of good fishes is then brought to the market to sell.

Interpretation of the Parable

First of all, we must note that this parable describes the kingdom of heaven (v. 47). The kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is the kingdom in which Christ is the King, and the loyal subjects are genuine Christians. As with other kingdoms, there are those who are traitors and those who are not truly loyal, and therefore not true citizens of the kingdom. These belong to the kingdom of Satan, the prince of the power of the air. According to the Word of God, every person in this world is either a subject of the kingdom of God or a subject of the kingdom of Satan. If you are outside Christ, if you are not truly a Christian, you are in the kingdom of Satan. Now, a kingdom parable deals with different aspects of the kingdom. Some deal with the growth and development of the subjects in the kingdom, such as the parable of the Leaven. Some deal with the extension of the kingdom in the world, such as the parable of the Mustard Seed. Some deal with the fact that there are true and false subjects in the kingdom in its present manifestation, such as the parable of the Weed and Tares. Some deal with the way in which a person obtains citizenship in the kingdom, such as the parable of the Sower. Some deal with the King Himself, such as the parables of the Hidden Treasure and Pearl of Great Price. What does the parable of the Net and Fishes deal with? What is the meaning of the parable?

Our Lord gives a one-line interpretation of it: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just” (Mt 13:49). The question we must ask is: Is the Lord interpreting the entire parable, that is, is He giving us all that He intends to teach with the parable, or is He explaining only a part of it? I believe He is only explaining a part of it, namely, the point when the fishes are sorted out. This is the primary focus of the parable, but I believe there is more to it.

It appears to me that there is some significance to the fact that the Lord uses the analogy of fishing. This being the last parable in the series of seven parables that He was teaching His disciples, it had special significance to them. It is instructive to note that when the Lord called Peter and Andrew, He told them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). It is also instructive to note that on two occasions when the Lord wanted to confirm Peter’s faith, that He used miracles pertaining to fishing. On the first occasion, He instructed Peter to launch out into the deep, and to let down his nets for a draught (Lk 5:4). Peter, who was toiling all night and caught nothing, was astounded when he saw the multitude of fishes inclosed in the net when he followed the instruction of Jesus, who was a carpenter by trade. There and then he saw the glory of Christ and fell down on his knees and said: “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). The second occasion was after the resurrection. Peter and the other Apostles were discouraged and went fishing (Jn 21). They caught nothing. Then the Lord appeared to them and instructed them to cast down their nets on the right side of the boat. They drew in 153 fishes. They were astounded, and were reminded of their call to be fishers of men.

Now then, why is the analogy of fishing so important in the call of the Lord’s disciples? I suggest it is not just because a number of them were fishermen. Rather, it is because fishing pictures the work of the Gospel very well. Habakkuk spoke of men as fishes in the sea: “[Thou] makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them” (Hab 1:14). The sea is a very apt picture of the world. It is restless, and it has all kinds of creatures and fishes. And they have no ruler over them.

Now, it is interesting that in the Lord’s parable, the dragnet is cast into the sea. How would Peter and Andrew become fishers of men, but that they become preachers of the Gospel? We have good reason to say that the net points to the preaching of the Gospel. Matthew Henry says it well:

The preaching of the gospel is the casting of a net into this sea, to catch something out of it, for his glory who has the sovereignty of the sea. Ministers are fishers of men, employed in casting and drawing this net; andthen they speed [i.e., have success], when at Christ’s word they let down the net; otherwise, they toil and catch nothing (Comm. in loc.).

Isn’t it true? The preaching of the Gospel is the primary means by which men and women are brought into the kingdom of God. It is important for every child of God to read the Word of God, but reading is not the primary means of conversion, it is preaching. The Apostle Paul says: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:13–14). Preaching is therefore like the casting of the dragnet, it brings in the good fishes, the elect into the kingdom of God.

It should be noted that this parable is not concerned about the fishes that are not caught in the dragnet. Why? Because outside the church and outside the reach of sound Gospel preaching, there is no ordinary means of salvation. If you know you are out of Christ, your only hope for salvation is to come under a constant ministry of the Word. If you hear the Word once or twice and you return to the world and you are not interested to return again, you would be like a fish that slips out of the dragnet by the side, and you would be lost in the lake. One day that lake will become a lake of fire. Take heed lest you perish with the world.

But like the dragnet which draws in good and bad fishes, preaching also brings in true and false believers into the church. The church is comprised of wheat and tares, so in the same way, the dragnet brings in good and bad fishes. The fishermen do not attempt to distinguish between good and bad fishes when the net is in the water. So it is not the duty of ministers of God to distinguish between true and false believers. Ministers do have a duty to warn the flock to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith, and they have the duty to assure true believers of the salvation, and also to destroy the foundation of false believers. They are to do so by preaching. But except in grievous cases of sin, unrepentance or denial of core doctrines, in which the minister has to exercise church discipline, he is not to declare if a person is a true or false believer. That prerogative is reserved for the Master Fisherman and His angels.

So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just” (Mt 13:49). “At the end of the world,” the Greek is: “the consummation of the age.” We are in the Last Days, the consummation of the age is on the Last Day. In that day, there will be a general resurrection followed by a general judgement. In that day, just as the fishermen sort out the good fishes from the bad fishes, the angels will separate the true believers from the false. Though the destiny of the just is not mentioned, we know from clear teachings of Scripture that they will go to heaven to be with the Lord forever. The wicked, on the other hand, “shall [be] cast… into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (v. 50). This is referring to hell fire. There will be eternal punishment, there will be great pain and regret and sorrow and wailing. Those who go there will hate one another and blame one another. It will be a most terrible time of darkness and torment.

I once heard a ditty that goes something like this:

Why worry? I’m either sick or I’m well. If I’m well all is well. If I’m sick, why worry? I would either get well or I die. If I get well all is well. If I die, why worry? I’ll either get to heaven or I’ll get to hell. If I get to heaven all is well. If I get to hell why worry? I’ll be busy shaking hands with all my friends I know so well.

I am afraid, if you land up in hell, you are not going to shake hands with your friends. There will be too much pain, too much sorry for you to think of your friends. Indeed, they would not be your friends anymore, for you will be confirmed in sin. You will not know love, you will only know hatred. This is why there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Now, it is instructive to note the words that the Lord uses to describe the true and false professors of faith: they are the just and the wicked. Why are true believers called “just” or “righteous”? Isn’t it true that there is no perfect Christian? Isn’t it true that every Christian continues to sin even after his conversion? Yes, it is true. Then why are true believers called the righteous or just? Because every genuine child is clothed with the righteousness of Christ. This was the reason Christ was born of a virgin, lived for 33 years in this world and then died on the cross of Calvary. Christ never did sin. And as He was born of a virgin, He was not represented by Adam in his sin. Yet Christ died on the Cross, like a criminal. He died on the Cross to pay for the sin of His children, for the Bible says that the wages of sin is death. And when Christ lived in this world, He was living on behalf of every true Christian. He kept the Laws of God perfectly on their behalf, so that His righteousness can be counted theirs. Every child of God is clothed with the righteousness of Christ and is righteous, just, in the sight of God. This is why everyone who truly embraces Christ and is therefore represented by Christ is considered just and righteous. Without Christ, not one can be regarded by the thrice-holy God as just or righteous.

When we understand this, we know why false believers are called wicked. You see, anyone who is not represented by Christ is represented by Adam, and is a sinner in the sight of God and, indeed, does sin continuously against God. You may ask: Isn’t this parable not concerned with those who are outside the church? How can members of the church who do not live in wickedness like the unbelieving world be considered as wicked? Well, friends, anyone who is outside Christ is wicked in the sight of God. And indeed, a false believer is likely to be one who professes to know Christ and yet, lives as if Christ does not exist, and as if God has no Law. Such a person is a hypocrite. He may fool his pastor, he may fool his friends, he may fool his family members, he may fool himself, but he cannot fool God. In the day of judgement, his folly and hypocrisy will be found out, and he will be cast into everlasting fire.

Conclusion and Application for Today

First, for those of us who profess to be believers: Let us remember to examine our lives by the Word of God. Do I find myself more concerned with the material comfort of this present life than with the life to come? Am I ignoring the Law of God? Do I find that I do not love the brethren? Do I find that I know not Christ and am not willing to spend time to read His Word and to hear the preaching of His Word? If so, I am afraid we will have to re-examine our foundation and repent wholeheartedly before our hypocrisy is discovered in the day of judgement.

But if you can say: I love Christ, and I want to know Him more and more through the reading of His Word and hearing of the Gospel; I love the Word of God, I seek to obey it even if it means inconvenience. I often fail, but how it saddens me when I fail and I do repent with my whole heart. I hate sin, especially my own. I desire much to pray. Sometimes my heart is cold and I am prayerless and it grieves me greatly. And I love the brethren, I even pray for those who persecute me. And I am more concerned about my eternal estate as compared to my present comfort. Then, beloved, I say you do have the marks of grace, and as far as your testimony is true, you must be a child of God. Then rejoice with trembling, knowing that you serve a living and loving God in Christ. One day this life of trial will be over, and that day, you can expect to meet your Lord and Saviour and be with Him in everlasting joy.

But now a word to anyone who has yet to profess Christ: I must lovingly warn you that you are in a very precarious situation. Unless you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you shall perish in your sin. We know not when the net will be drawn in. But I must warn you about a limitation in the parable. The parable does not say everything, and one thing that the parable does not say is that if you die in unbelief before the net is drawn in, then there would be no more hope for you. Indeed, you will be plunged into eternal damnation immediately. Oh friend, bear this point clearly in mind. This is the emphasis of this parable. Do you not realise that the Lord makes no mention of the destiny of the righteous, but the destiny of the wicked. This parable is specially for you who are yet in unbelief. Will you not repent of your sin, and believe in Christ and submit yourself to Him?

You say, I am not convinced. If so, will you not come back and hear the gospel again? Because if you do not come back, you put yourself outside the net, and there would be no more hope for you. Come, hear and believe. Preaching is the primary means of salvation ordained by God. Come and seek the Lord Jesus Christ with us.

JJ Lim