The Net (Remembrance Sunday)

More people have been killed this century as the result of war and their own repressive governments than in all pervious world-history. In the aftermath of the First World War, the revolutions, the famines and the social dislocation that resulted caused more deaths than occurred during the war itself. Then there were Hitler's Holocaust, Stalin's purges and Pol Pot's killing fields. No wonder the 20th century has been called a 'century of suffering.' As the world has progressed technologically, so it has progressed in its methods of killing. But the bible says we should not be surprised when we hear of wars. Jesus predicted that this would be a feature of the period between his two advents. He told his disciples

(Mat 24:6-7) You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.

War is a terrible tragedy. But until Christ, the Prince of Peace, comes again at the end of time human sinfulness means that war is inevitable. What, then, is our duty in the face of such events and possibilities? First, we have to work for peace and justice. We are to pray, says the bible, in 1 Timothy 2.2,

that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

And if we are to pray for that, in so far as we can, we must also work for that. The law and politics cannot change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless, as Martin Luther King once said.

But secondly, we are to evangelize - for that is the secret of changing hearts. We are to tell people the Good News about Jesus Christ. Now on these Sunday mornings this Autumn at Jesmond Parish Church, we are looking at the Good News about Jesus as you have it recorded by Matthew. And this morning we have come to Matthew 13 verses 47-52, the Parable of the Net. And you'll see that my headings are first, THE GOOD NEWS; secondly, SEPARATION; and thirdly, "HAVE YOU UNDERSTOOD THESE THINGS?"


First, THE GOOD NEWS

Look at Matthew 13.47:

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.

The Good News was about the kingdom of heaven referred to here. But what is this kingdom of heaven? The fundamental message of Jesus, we are told in Matthew 4.17, was:

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [or the kingdom of God] is near."

The bible teaches that God's kingdom is being established as world history unfolds. This is the reality behind all other history.

In the Old Testament we read how God declared that he would establish his rule by setting up his kingdom under a chosen Messiah in a golden age of blessing, when war would cease and all would be well. In the New Testament we read how this promise was fulfilled in Jesus. He was the Messiah. And with, and after, Jesus the kingdom became a world-wide reality. But contrary to expectation it was not imposed by force. It was not like the allies who imposed their will on the defeated peoples of Europe after the two World Wars.

There was a choice given. God's kingdom was to take effect not by force but wherever men and women freely submit to Christ as Saviour and Lord. But whether Christ is acknowledged or not, he is still king. And God reigns. After his death, resurrection and ascension, Christ was and is enthroned in heaven as ruler over all. At the end of Matthew's gospel we read that the risen Jesus said:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Mt 28.18).

He is King of kings and Lord of lords.

At our own Coronation Service, when the Archbishop gives the monarch the orb, he does so with these words: "Receive this orb set under the cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer." That is the reality. Is that what you believe?

But Christ's kingdom often is now hidden. The blessings that began with Christ's first coming were often the spiritual blessings of sins forgiven and fellowship with God. We have to await Christ's second coming for a reconstructed universe, when war will be no more and when God,

will wipe every tear ... [and] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21.4-5).

At present, as Jesus said, the kingdom is more 'internal'. Jesus said, 'the kingdom of God is within you' (Luke 17.21). Paul said, 'The kingdom of God is ... a matter of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Rom 14.17). One day it will be visible and external. You say, 'Why does God not make it external right away? Then there would be no more war and suffering such as we have seen this century.' The answer is this. God's kingdom is not only about mercy. It is also about judgment. That is what John the Baptist had so clearly taught. Earlier in Matthew, in chapter 3, John the Baptist had said this about Jesus:

I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (3.11-12).

Christ is not only the Saviour: he is also the Judge. But the Good News is that in God's mercy, judgment is deferred. This is the day of grace. God is giving men and women time to repent before he calls time and brings in that fearful day of judgment. Verse 49 of our Parable this morning refers to 'the end of the age':

'This is how it will be at the end of the age.'

But how do we know that ultimate judgment is a reality and not just a myth? Answer: because of the resurrection of Jesus, so clearly attested by his empty tomb and his resurrection appearances to the disciples. Paul preached at Athens like this - Acts 17.30-31:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

So all that - and more - is involved in this little phrase, 'the kingdom of heaven'. And Jesus taught his parables to teach about the Good News of the kingdom. But what specifically does this parable teach us? It teaches us that the kingdom will reach and involve 'all kinds' of people. Look again at verse 47:

the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.

'All kinds' of fish can refer both to variety and to quality. It can refer to many different types of fish - cod, herring, plaice or whatever you catch in the Sea of Galilee. But 'all kinds' of fish can and does also refer to 'good' fish and 'bad' fish of any and every variety. No doubt we can understand this parable in both ways - as referring both to variety and quality. Both are probably legitimate. A parable is not a precise formula, like one of the creeds. They were evocative word pictures that Jesus painted suggesting several meanings. So let's look at these two understandings of 'all kinds'.

First, it is clear from Jesus' ministry that the net of God's kingdom was for 'all kinds' of people. Jesus' preaching and healing attracted not just the 'religious' establishment but the outcasts and the unrespectable. He ate and drank with some unlikely people, from dishonest businessmen to immoral women (from tax collectors to prostitutes). And the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, were horrified. Jesus taught that the gospel is for all. And how relevant that is for us today! It means that if you are seeking to tell people the good news of Jesus, don't only think about 'religious' people - your friends that show an interest in the church and things like that - think also of the unlikely people.

When I was a student, I was written to once by the aunt of a fellow student, asking me to invite him to a Christian Union mission. But I thought I knew better. Those meetings were not the sort of thing that would help him - I conveniently told myself. He was not ready for it yet - he was more the hard drinking type, or so I thought. A number of years later I was in the Sudan, working with the CMS. One day I found myself at a swimming pool in Khartoum with some other British people. One of them was an older man. I discovered that he was a clergyman. Not only that, but he had been the vicar of a country church near the university where I had studied. He asked about my college. When I told him he said, 'I knew so-and-so at your college' - the very man whose aunt had written to me during the mission all those years ago. He then said, 'often on Sundays this man used to cycle out to have tea. And we used to discuss Christian things.'

That shook me. Ever since, I assume everybody is capable of being interested in Christ - even the most unlikely. Of course, there are times to speak and times not to speak. Of course, there needs to be courtesy and tact. But remember, Jesus said that in the net 'all kinds of fish' were caught. Secondly, 'all kinds' also can refer to quality - to the 'good' and the 'bad'. Look at verse 48:

When it [the net] 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.

So what are the 'good' and the 'bad'? Jesus, surely, is talking about people's response to the Good News of the kingdom. The crowds followed Jesus, but some also turned against him at his crucifixion. Even amongst the disciples themselves there was one who betrayed Jesus - Judas Iscariot. And down the centuries there have been people who like some of what Jesus says, but when the rubber hits the road, they reject him.

When you look at those New Testament churches in the book of Revelation in chapters 2-3, you see there people in those churches defying God and his will. In those churches in Asia Minor, in the net (if you like), there were certainly 'all kinds of fish' - the bad as well as the good. And it is the same today. In the organized churches there are those, even in leadership, who deny fundamental biblical doctrine and morality. There is not only heresy and apostasy. There is also hypocrisy - that is when people enjoy learning about the kingdom, but they do not put what they hear into action. So that is a challenge for this morning. Being in the net doesn't make you good fish. Being in church doesn't automatically make you right with God. That is a sobering thought. Let's move on.


Secondly, SEPARATION

Look at verse 49-50:

This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Remember this is Jesus speaking. This isn't some fanatic - but Jesus Christ himself. Because of these words Gregory the Great said this parable was one 'rather to be trembled at, than expounded.' Yes, this is the doctrine of hell. No amount of arguing can get round it.

Of course it is symbolism. Here fire is spoken of to describe hell. Elsewhere darkness is spoken of - they seem to be mutually exclusive if taken literally. The symbolism of the bible in teaching about hell is meant to appall us. It is meant to strike us with horror. As the symbolism used for heaven is meant to assure us that heaven will be better than we could ever imagine, so the symbolism used for hell is to meant to warn us that hell will be worse than we could ever imagine.

What are many people's reactions, today, regarding hell? Many are so secularized. They have such an optimistic view of human nature. They have such a reduced view of God and his holiness. They have such a relativized morality. They don't think anything really matters if you are comfortable with it. There is a decay of conscience seen most in the public vaunting of sexual immorality. All this makes it hard for people to take hell seriously. But your own perspective and consciousness is no test of reality.

I can remember, as a very young child (probably only two and half to three years of age), standing on the window ledge of my bedroom in north London in 1941-42, watching the search lights catch German bombers in their intersection. This was for the anti-aircraft batteries that were in a field just by our house. Aged 2½ or 3, the thought that the bombs in those same planes overhead could have blasted me into eternity at any minute, never entered my little head. But they could have done. A house nearby was totally destroyed. In those days of the Second World War a living hell was a reality for so many. But I had not the slightest conception of what was really happening.

'At the end of the age,' says Jesus, an eternal hell will be a reality. It will be a reality whether we now have a conception of it or not. The God of the bible is a God of love and holiness - both go together. His love and holiness means that he will not say that the atrocities of war don't matter. All sin matters so much to God that in his love, and because of his holiness, he sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die on the Cross at Calvary to bear the punishment for sin that you and I and others deserve. God hates sin. So Jesus says, verses 49-50:

This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And because this is so serious, Jesus goes on to ask the question - that forms our third heading this morning:


Thirdly, "HAVE YOU UNDERSTOOD THESE THINGS?"

And that is a question for us today at the end of the 20th century.

In the thirties Churchill was warning time and again about the rise of Nazism and the dire consequences if it was not checked. So what did Chamberlain do? Answer: pretend there was no problem. Who was right?

Today, Jesus Christ, through the pages of the bible, warns time and again about the dire consequences of sin and the rejection of God and his will. In his love God warns of the consequences of flouting his holiness - he warns of hell. What more could he do?

In the last war, there were times when areas in liberated territories were to be totally destroyed. This was to defeat pockets of resistance. So early warnings were given by loud hailers for civilians to leave, with help given where needed. You would then see civilians leave. If, however, some stubbornly refused to leave, the consequences were tragic and terrible. But who was to blame? The people were warned - but they chose to ignore the warnings.

So Jesus says: 'Have you understood all these things [including these warnings]?' What is to be the response?

If you are not a believer, there should be repentance. That means you admit you have gone your own way and not God's; you thank Christ for dying for you - to bear God's anger in your place; you receive his forgiveness so that 'at the end of the age' you will be free; and you then pray for his Holy Spirit to renew you and help you live a new life.

If you are a believer the response to this teaching about hell, surely, should be evangelism. If you care for people, you need to help them hear and heed these warnings. So make as much use of the coming Jesmond mission as you can.

Of course, there is more to the kingdom of heaven than what is taught in this Parable. But on this sombre day, when we remember the tragedies of war and, yes, the folly of those in political leadership this century (on all sides) who ignored various warnings, let us take to heart this sombre teaching of Jesus and heed his warnings.

Back to top