The last parable in Matthew 13 introduces a new life situation, fishing and fishermen, but it makes almost the same points as the parable of the wheat and tares growing up together until the harvest, when there is a gathering of both followed by a separation. In the last of these parables, a gathering of fish is followed by a separation of the good from the bad. In both parables we have the work of the angels who do the gathering and separating. We even have a repetition of key phrases: “the end of the age,” and “throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What, then, does the last parable teach that has not already been taught? Or to put it another way, why is this parable included? Is there anything new in this last parable? We might think that the new element is our role in drawing men and women into the Gospel net, but that is not the way Jesus interprets His story. He compares the fishermen to angels, not to His earthly messengers, and the setting is not the age of Gospel proclamation but the judgment.
As we make the comparisons, there is a point at which the repetition itself becomes the “new” thing, and the unique emphasis is not so much in what is repeated but in what is left out. There is no explanation of how the fish got into the water in the first place. Nothing is said about their growth or lack of it. There are no human workers, not even a devil. The only thing we have is the separation of the good fish from the bad, the wicked from the righteous, and the suffering of those who are cast into hell. The only really new element is the warning to the wicked. It is as though Jesus is saying with all possible emphasis: “There is a coming judgment, and the fate of the ungodly will be terrible in that day.”
Jesus’ picture of the final judgment as a separation of good from bad fish (or a separation of wheat from tares) hits on the essential nature of judgment – the word judgment means “to separate.” In Hebrew, judgment refers to the work of a judge or lawgiver. But one meaning of the Hebrew word is “to discriminate” or make distinctions, and in Greek, krisis literally means “to divide.” Jesus described the judgment that way. It is always a thorough and eternal separation.
God’s judgment is thorough, the time for mixture in any form will be over. We do some good things, but our good is always mixed with evil. There are redeemed people in the Church, but there are also those who are the devil’s children. However, when the Lord sends His angels to execute judgment, those days will be over, and human beings will find themselves in one camp or the other. Either they will be with the blessed in heaven, having been cleansed from all sin by the redeeming work of Christ, or they will be in hell without Christ and without hope. No one will be partially in one camp and partially in the other.
The second fact about God’s judgment is that it has been previously determined in the sense that the grounds for separation between those who are saved and those who are lost will already have been established on earth. It will be determined by whether we have received the good seed of the Gospel, whether we have believed in Christ, whether we have laid everything else aside to gain the hidden treasure or purchase the pearl. You know whether you have done that. So, I ask, in which camp are you? If you are not with Christ now, you will be without Christ then.
Nothing could be more permanent than the collecting of the good fish and the discarding of the bad, or throwing the tares into the fire to be burned. In that day the opportunity for repentance will be over. The day for trusting in Jesus Christ will be past.
The final point of Jesus’ parable is the terrible fate of those who have not trusted and followed after Jesus Christ. I am glad Jesus taught that rather than leaving it for his ministers to imagine. How could we say that the end will be so bad that it can only be adequately compared to an eternal burning? How could we say that it will produce an eternal “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? No mere human being would dare predict that fate for another human being. Yet that is what Jesus does. He has more to say about hell than does any other person in the Bible.
What is it that makes hell so terrible, according to Jesus Christ? The first thing is suffering. Jesus teaches this in the parable of the dragnet, for having described how the wicked are thrown into the fiery furnace, He then describes them as “weeping and gnashing” their teeth.
The second thing that makes hell terrible is remembering the blessings of one’s previous life and lost chances. The rich man in hell is told to remember, and what he has to remember is how he enjoyed a lifetime of good things without any reference to God. Now those good things are gone forever. He had his heaven on earth, but he will never enter it again, while Lazarus had his taste of hell here and is now enjoying God’s heaven.
If you are without Christ, you should realize that however disappointing you think your life is now, there will come a day when it will seem good compared to your suffering. And the memory of your good things will haunt you and increase your suffering, unless you repent now and come to Jesus.