Parable of the Dragnet
The thirteenth chapter of Matthew is a collection of six parables, and of these there are two, that of the Wheat and Tares and that of the Dragnet, which are so similar in their main principles although set against different backgrounds that they are frequently assumed to bear the same meaning or to have much the same application. This is not necessarily so. In both parables there is a gathering together of two classes, the worthy and the worthless, a process of differentiation and separation, the acceptance of the worthy for preservation and the rejection and destruction of the worthless. At a time when Christian theology insisted upon the final separation of all created beings at death into two classes, destined for heaven and hell respectively, there was not much room for discerning any difference between the two parables. It is now being increasingly realised that God is working in successive ages of earth’s history to effect, first, the selection from amongst all mankind of a dedicated community, the Church, to be associated with the Lord Christ in his future work of world conversion, and second, the reconciliation to God of all of mankind who can thus be reached in the Age which has been ordained for that purpose. On this account there is latitude for the discernment of shades of difference and application in these two parables. Whilst they obviously both have reference to aspects of the Divine purpose in separating between that which is good and that which is evil, and ensuring the permanence of the one and the elimination of the other, it may well be that each parable is intended to have its impact upon one particular aspect of this twofold Divine Plan.
The Kingdom of Heaven, said Jesus, is like a dragnet that, being cast into the sea, gathered a full haul of varied fish, and was drawn to shore. The fishers proceeded to sort out their catch, gathering the useful and good fish into their baskets and throwing the worthless away. Just so, said Jesus, will it be in the end of the Age; there will have been a great gathering of worthy and worthless; the time for the cessation of gathering will come; the angels will proceed forth and effect the separation, and the worthless will be cast into a furnace of fire where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The words are few and simple; the parable as it is recorded is very brief; but there is deep dispensational truth hidden in its half‑dozen sentences. This is obvious from the use of the expression "the end of the world" (aion, age, meaning an age in human history or in the development of the Divine Plan, not necessarily the end of all things terrestrial). There are four significant elements in the explanation which Jesus gave for his disciples’ enlightenment and to understand the parable aright we have to consider, first, what these elements stood for in the minds of the immediate hearers, versed as they were in the theology and expectations of Judaism, and second, what the same elements imply when set against the background of our own Christian understanding of the Divine Plan as it has been revealed in later times by the Holy Spirit. These elements are:—
(a) The end of the age (b) The angels (c) The separation of righteous and wicked (d) The casting of the wicked into the fire
The physical picture which forms the substance of the parable must have been commonplace enough to the disciples. Fishers themselves, several of them, or closely associated with the fishing activities carried on around the Sea of Galilee as the remainder of them must have been, they would all readily have entered into the Master’s thoughts. So often had they themselves assisted in just such an operation, going out in their boats to extend their long net, usually between two boats, over a wide stretch of water and coming steadily towards land, sweeping into its confines all living creatures in its path. Then the strenuous task of hauling the heavy net, with its living load, out of the water and up the beach to a place where they could sit down and begin to sort their catch. With what satisfaction and delight would they watch the growing pile of good fish in the baskets; with what contempt toss the worthless ones down the beach towards the water, not caring whether they went back into the lake or not, so quickly were they forgotten and the attention turned to the better specimens which were the objects of their quest. Not every variety of fish was suitable for their purpose, but everything in the water that could possibly be taken must be gathered in, so that no creature which could by any means be found of use should be missed. The purpose of the operation was to gather in all the worthy, that only the truly and demonstrably worthless should be rejected.
But Jesus introduced a new set of ideas even while the disciples’ minds were still busy with the picture He had drawn for them. Not the close of a day’s work, but the end of an Age! Not fishermen, but angels! Not the casting back into the sea, but into a furnace of fire! These symbols belong to an altogether different range of thought; the simple story was, after all, only a means to an end; now they must perforce turn their attention to another background with which they were at any rate equally familiar, the knowledge and instruction that had been drilled into them from childhood concerning the coming Day when God would rise up to make an end of evil and evildoers, and usher the righteous into everlasting bliss. The usual tacit assumption of zealous Jews was that the separation at the Last Day would be in the main between Jews and Gentiles, the Jews, as the chosen people, to be ushered into eternal felicity and the Gentiles consigned to everlasting destruction. One of the purposes of this parable was to teach them that the distinction and the separation, when it did come, was not to be on the basis of racial origin but upon that of worthiness or unworthiness.
The disciples at the time knew nothing of that threefold "end of the Age" which is so familiar to New Testament students today—the respective endings of the Jewish Age, the Gospel Age and the Millennial Age. They knew of one Age only, the Age in which they lived, and which they believed was to be brought to an end by the appearance of the Messiah and his holy ones, his angels, the destruction of all God’s enemies in a furnace of fire, and the exaltation of his friends, his followers, to reign over the submissive nations of earth forever. That had been the expectation of Jewry for centuries past and when Jesus explained the parable in these terms this is how they must have understood those terms. They apprehended the matter correctly enough in principle but had only a very rudimentary conception of the reality towards which our Lord was pointing.
We should expect to see this parable in more detailed and possibly more accurate form than did the disciples for we have the advantage of a much more detailed knowledge of the ages and dispensations marked out in the Divine Plan. That period of time which to the disciples was one Age, terminated by the "Last Day" and the destruction of all evil, has to us become three Ages, known generally as the Jewish Age, terminated by the ending of Jewish national existence forty years after the Crucifixion; the Gospel Age, terminated by the Second Advent, and the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom upon earth; and the Millennial Age, terminated by the end of the incorrigibly sinful and the entry into everlasting life of all redeemed and perfected humanity. The expression "end of the world" (aion, age) refers sometimes to one and sometimes to another of these Ages. Thus Heb.9:26 "Once in the end of the world hath he (Christ) appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" refers obviously to the end of the Jewish Age, the time of the First Advent. So also must 1 Cor.10:11 "They are written for our admonition (the early Church), upon whom the ends of the world (ages) are (have) come."
At the other extreme we have 1 Cor.15:24. "Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the Kingdom to God, even the Father" referring undoubtedly to Jesus’ surrender of his Millennial Kingship at the close of his Mediatorial work, at the end of the Millennial Age. Then there are such words as Matt.24:3 "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" and Matt.24:14 "This gospel of the kingdom shall (must) be preached in all the world for a witness…and then shall the end come" clearly, whether the disciples realised the fact or not, applying to the end of the Gospel Age and the time of the Second Advent. To which of these three Age‑endings shall the judgment of the Dragnet parable be applied?
The nature of the story affords an indication. It is a picture of the taking of fish, and fish in large quantities at that. The "fishers" are the angels, the "holy ones" who appear with the Messiah in returning glory. The general setting therefore would seem to be after the Second Advent has taken place, when the "angels" are equipped and qualified for their work. But who are these "angels" who appear so often in association with the returning Messiah at his Second Advent? The word, of course, merely means messengers. To the disciples, who knew of no Divine messengers save the glorious beings who constantly wait on the presence of God, the words of Jesus could only conjure up visions of celestial visitants coming with him to do his work. It could only have been after Pentecost that they realised the great truth that they themselves, if faithful, would be among that triumphant company that is commissioned to do the work of God upon earth during the next Age. This is an important matter. It is sometimes suggested that the angels of the heavenly courts are referred to in passages such as this, but that is mainly the consequence of traditional ideas regarding the angels of heaven, always engaged in what might be described as the extra‑terrestrial works of God. When it is realised that the resurrected Church, "changed" to celestial conditions and fully equipped to engage, in association with the Lord, in the evangelistic work amongst men which is to characterise the Millennial Age, fully and completely meet the requirements of the parable, the term "angel" takes on a much wider significance. The Apostle Paul declared that "the saints shall judge the world." (1 Cor.6:2) The Revelator speaks of the Church as living and reigning with Christ over the nations for the thousand years, which is a synonym for the Millennial Age. It is clear then that the "holy ones" who at our Lord’s Second Advent and throughout the entire thousand years of his Mediatorial reign are executing all his work for and amongst men, will be the "called, and chosen, and faithful" of this Age, raised to the glory of spiritual being, resplendent in their celestial bodies. To men on earth, of course, they will be as angels; angels of the highest possible order, the constant companions of the Lord himself.
The universal gathering‑in of the dragnet, therefore, well symbolises the world‑wide evangelical work of the Messianic Age in which "the Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come…And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." (Rev.22:17) None will then be able to escape the drawing power of Christ. He himself did say "I, if I be lifted up…will draw all men unto me." (John 12:32) "They shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD." (Jer.31:34) And the use of fish as a symbol of humanity in the mass is appropriate and Scriptural. "Man also knoweth not his time" says the Preacher in Eccl.9:12 "as the fishes that are taken in an evil net." God is said to "makest men as the fishes of the sea" in Hab.1:14, and Amos 4:2 has a somewhat similar allusion. And more impressive, because nearer home, is the well‑known expression of Jesus in Matt.4:19 "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." It may well be concluded, therefore, that the towing of the dragnet through the sea pictures such a work in the future day, and its being brought to shore, with the consequent separation of good and bad fish, the final judgment upon each individual man and woman as to their worthiness of everlasting life in God’s then sinless creation, or unworthiness through conscious and deliberate refusal to come into union with God and accept life from him, which refusal can only eventuate in the loss of life.
This latter alternative is pictured by the furnace of fire. What is this? Is it a refining and purifying fire, from which that which is thrown into it will be taken, cleansed and perfected? Or is it a consuming fire, burning until all that has been cast into it is consumed into ashes and is as though it had never been? Clearly the latter. There is no suggestion that the worthless fish are subjected to some remedial treatment that renders them acceptable and fit for use after all. They are already beyond hope of being put to any useful purpose, and they are cast out to be destroyed, utterly and without hope. Here again is another pointer to the interpretation of the parable. It is only at the end of the Millennial Age that what might be termed the "wastage" of God’s creation suffers the penalty of its failure to come into harmony with the Divine ideals, and in consequence is utterly consumed. This is the fire of Divine condemnation on sin and sinners, and just as, in the picture, the fishermen cast the worthless fish away only when it was clear it could serve no useful purpose, so in the Age which God has appointed for the reconciliation of "whosoever will" among all men, none will be lost eternally until it has been abundantly demonstrated beyond all shadow of doubt that the continued conscious existence of such could bring nothing but misery to themselves and to others. None will be cast out until God has exhausted every power at his command to bring them into harmony with those laws which are both the rules which God has ordained for life and the principles by which alone life can be sustained.
"There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (v.50) As in other New Testament instances where this figure of speech is used, it pictures the impotent rage and resentment of those thus rejected. It does not imply remorse or repentance; the same allusion in the Old Testament indicates the fixed enmity and hatred of the wicked for the righteous. It is only a figure of speech; that which is cast into the fire is in no position either to wail or gnash teeth. It does serve to stress the fact that those thus barred from the light and life of the eternal state maintain their enmity and their rebellion to the last. Had there been any possibility of repentance and conversion in their hearts God would have waited, for an aeon (age) if need be, to receive them to himself. But in these cases there is no such possibility, there is no hope, and the life that will not have God comes to its inevitable end. Some there are who maintain that there will be none such, that the drawing power of God will eventually succeed in reconciling all men, without exception, to himself, so that eventually all men will be saved. Should that indeed be the happy outcome all who love the Lord will rejoice, for that is the desire of the Father himself and no one of his followers can desire less. But if so, it can only be because all such have in the exercise of their own free will and of their own volition come to him in full loyalty and dedication of life. The Scripture reveals the principles upon which God is working and the relative destinies of those who become righteous on the one hand and those who deliberately refuse to become righteous on the other; perhaps it will be found at the end that the number of those who steadfastly refuse to accept the appeal of the Lord Jesus is going to be very small, very small indeed. We can at any rate be sure that if God allows any of his created sons to go into darkness it will be because even He is powerless to keep him in the light—powerless in the face of the man’s own will. For that is a fortress which God will never take by force; allegiance and loyalty must be of voluntary yielding or not at all.