Matthew 13:47-50: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This parable, like the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Mt. 13:24-30 and 36-43), points to the “end of the age” as the time when the evil will be separated from the righteous. Unlike in that earlier parable, in which he utilized the images of farming, in this parable Jesus turned to the work of fishermen to reveal truth about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Immediately the image of the fisherman should bring to our minds Jesus’ initial call to his first disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19). In that context Jesus was calling Simon and Andrew to join him in the work of bringing people into God’s Kingdom. Here in Matthew 13 the emphasis lies on the work of separating fish – “men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad” – as an analogy for the role of angels at the end of the age – “angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous.”
NFL football teams go through an annual process of separating and selecting. Each year in late July NFL teams begin their respective training camps with more than 80 players on their rosters. But when the season officially begins the teams are required to have trimmed their rosters down to 53 players. During the weeks of training camp and preseason all the players are “on the team” for a while. They are all participating in practices and games. They are all competing with one another for roster spots. But then the cut days come, and in one wave after another potential teammates are eliminated until only 53 men remain. It is not until the final cuts are made that the true members of the football team are finally revealed.
Likewise, only the Day of Judgment will reveal who truly belongs to the Kingdom of God and who does not. On that day we will be judged according to what we have done. This is the consistent teaching of the New Testament:
Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
2 Corinthians 5:9-10: So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
(See also Matthew 25:31-46 and John 5:25-29)
How can this teaching about the Final Judgment be reconciled with the truth that “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)? The answer lies in understanding (1) the nature of grace, and (2) the relationship of grace to discipleship.
Grace means that God loves us and saves us even though we do not love him and therefore deserve to receive his wrath (Rom. 5:1-11). Paul’s reference to grace as the source of our salvation in Ephesians 2:8 is a shorthand way of referring to all that God has done for us in Christ. Christ’s incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension are the actions of God in human history to conquer sin and bring humanity back to himself. Through what Christ has done for us we are saved: that is, our sins are forgiven (Col. 1:14), we are justified (made right with God; Romans 3:21-26), we are reconciled (given a peaceful relationship with God; 2 Cor. 5:11-21), and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who unites us to God and makes us God’s children (Acts 2:38, Romans 8:12-17, Gal. 4:1-7). None of this is what we did for ourselves. It is what God did for us because he loves us. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our works! Through faith, repentance, confession, and baptism we receive this gracious salvation which God freely offers to us.
We badly misunderstand grace, however, if we think that it requires nothing from us. The purpose of God’s grace is our transformation. Forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, and adoption are not the end of the story. They are rather the beginning of our journey to be so transformed that we share in God’s holiness and become like Jesus our Savior. In this journey of Christian discipleship, we are called to obediently cooperate with the gracious work of the Holy Spirit who is transforming us (John 14:15-17, Philippians 2:12-13, Galatians 5:16-26, Titus 2:11-14, 1 Peter 1:13-25).
The Day of Judgment will evaluate our response to the grace we have received. Have we truly surrendered to Jesus and sought to live for him? If so, the evidence of this surrender will manifest in our lives as the “good fruits” and “good works” of love for God and others. We cannot claim to follow Jesus but refuse to obey God’s commands (Mt. 7:21). We cannot claim to follow Jesus but go on intentionally living sinful lives (1 John 3:4-10, Hebrews 10:26-31, Romans 6). We cannot claim to love God and yet hate our brother (1 John 4:20-21). The evidence of our salvation is not in our initial confession or baptism, but rather in our ongoing transformation. When the end of the age comes, Christ will judge the entirety of our lives – ‘what we have done in the body’ (2 Cor. 5:10) – and not a single moment of ‘conversion.’ Thus, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net which pulls in a wide range of fish. Some prove to be good and others bad. In the same way many people “enter” the Kingdom of God in this life. But only God’s all-knowing and all-righteous judgment at the end of the age will separate those who were truly transformed by his grace (‘the righteous’) from those who were not (‘the evil’).
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started: “Thank you Heavenly Father for your grace which has reached even to me. Help me never to take your grace for granted, or to think that I can continue in sin because I am now under grace. Instead, help me to wholeheartedly follow Jesus, knowing that in Jesus is all my hope and confidence for the Day of Judgment. May I truly be clothed in “His Righteousness Alone” each day of my life and on that Great and Final Day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”