The Dragnet

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

(Matthew 13:47-50 ESV)

One piece of advice touted by experts in productivity (and dubiously attributed to Mark Twain) is that you should eat a live frog first thing in the morning since nothing worse could happen to you the rest of the day. In other words, tackle the most difficult thing first.

I want to follow that procedure here and begin by talking about hell. Few doctrines are more angrily and vehemently opposed than hell. It’s regarded as a medieval and superstitious idea out of sync with real Christianity. But I disagree. Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible, and I don’t have any reason to think that our modern liberal mindset has a better or more moral perspective than him. If I had to make a case in defence of hell, it would go like this:

  1. Justice demands that God punish evil; everything in us cries out for evil to be dealt with when we see wickedness in the world.
  2. The idea of a ‘God of love’ comes from Christianity; it isn’t something that came to us *outside* of the Bible, but rather in the same Bible that teaches hell. So why assume we can now ‘see past’ the Bible?
  3. Love is compatible with anger; a parent who doesn’t feel anger towards their child when they misbehave is an indifferent parent – they don’t love their child. So there is nothing incoherent about saying that God is loving *and* angry.
  4. Love is compatible with exclusion; real love makes a choice, and covenant love singles out the beloved, preferring them above all others. So there is nothing incoherent about saying God is loving *and* willing to exclude.
  5. We’re all sinners who deserve this anger and exclusion.
  6. The punishment fits the offense; as Jonathan Edwards taught us, a sin against an infinitely great being (God) is deserving of infinite punishment.
  7. The cross sheds new light on all of this; there we see God’s wrath poured out upon his son on the cross, and any who deny that God should feel such anger against sin must deny the necessity of the cross. But we also see God’s love proven once and for all in putting Jesus there as our substitute. So we can’t say God can’t feel anger against sin (or the cross is futile), and nor can we say God isn’t loving for being angry against sin (since his love is clearly visible at the cross).

Now from here we can step back and look at the earlier parts of the parable that lead us to this warning about hell.

Jesus begins with great positivity and optimism. The kingdom, like a net, is designed to make a great catch until it’s full. Jesus knew his followers would experience persecution, but he also knew that the kingdom and the church would grow with relentless force and purpose. This double-effect of being both repulsive and attractive, of drawing persecution yet growing, was something Paul knew about when he said that the apostles were the aroma of Christ (2 Cor. 2.15–16) – a smell of life to some, and death to others. Like durian (the king of fruits, or rotting meat?) and marmite (you love it or you hate it), the church has a polarising effect, and so does Jesus.

But the positive side of this is that the church and the message we carry is deeply attractive, and growth is the natural result. In fact, growth was Christ’s intention and purpose. He chose his disciples and made them fishers of men (Matthew 4.19). They were called to help grow the kingdom.

While I’m the first the criticise a narrow and superficial assessment of church health by counting heads, what I’m affirming here is that the church is supposed to grow, and we should care that it does.

How does the church grow? First, by having a big front door. The church is called to be a loving community that exercises the New Testament gift of hospitality. And this gift is not being able to host your mates and feed them melted camembert and stuffed vine leaves. It’s the ability to welcome the stranger, since we were all once estranged from God and his people. Second, the church grows by speaking the gospel. Jesus will repel some, but he will attract many. It’s all about him, and when he’s lifted up he’ll draw all men to himself. So it’s quite simple: love and truth.

The problem comes when the church does grow. 

As the parable develops it becomes clear that when the fishermen are successful they end up catching more than they intend. So also the church gets messy the more it grows. We need to explore some implications from three angles.

1. The world looking in

Two of the biggest criticisms of the church are to do with the shady elements in its past, and the present hypocrisy (frequently paraded before us in the news). But despite the fact that the New Testament never even attempts to hide the imperfections of the church – i.e. you’re not telling us anything we don’t already know – perhaps we can also infer from the parable another explanation. As JI Packer has put it, “A horse brought into a house is not thereby made human.” Just because people go to church and call themselves Christian, that doesn’t mean they are. And a lot of the mess of the church (present and historic) is easily explainable when you know this.

2. The church looking around

When seeking to grow a healthy church there are two opposite dangers we can veer towards. 

First, we can be too open, with no real attempt to be a pure community. There are many churches around today that make this their boast (“we’re a liberal, open-minded church”) as though they’re somehow representing Christ when in fact he’s long since left the building. 

Second, we can be too closed, with an overly zealous effort at perfection that ends up being exclusive and unwelcoming. The sad thing in such cases is that typically non-believers never enter to hear the gospel, and if they ever do they’re quickly made to feel unwelcome. 

So somehow we have to walk a careful balance in which we aim for purity whilst accepting the messiness of growth. We need to be a church which (like the net) catches all sorts, and leave it up to Jesus to sort the whole thing out at the end when he returns to judge.

3. The churchgoer looking down

I think the primary purpose of the parable is to provoke churchgoers to look at their own lives. Sure, you’ve been caught in the net and you’re part of the church, but are you saved? You’re in but are you in?

There has never been a more important time to ask this question of ourselves. Far too many think they’re saved because they were brought up in a Christian home (go read John 1.13), a Christian country (go read Matthew 3.9), or live a ‘good’ life (go read Ephesians 2.8–9). 

Again and again the Bible pulls away our flimsy foundations and exposes the lies we’ve believed. It says instead: you must be born again (John 3.3). This is the change that happens when you believe and confess Jesus is the Lord who died for your sin and rose again from the dead (Romans 10.8–9). And if you’re born again your life will always show it, no matter how weak a believer you may feel you are (James 2.14, 17).

And so, the parable forces you to ask: Am I in? Do I belong to Jesus?