Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Matthew 13:47–50

Matthew 13:47–50 (ESV): The Parable of the Net


In this passage Jesus tells the Parable of the Net, which you can read by clicking the link above.


This is a very simple parable with a very simple message: All people will be judged, and some will be found to be righteous and the rest will be found to be evil. The ones who are found to be evil will be punished.

Some thoughts on this:

  • For those folks who just love searching through the Bible to gain insight into how the end of the world is going to happen, I urge you not to read too much into this parable, or start looking for clues. “The angel sorted the good into containers first, and then threw away the bad! Jesus is talking about the Rapture!” or “Jesus seems to indicate that the sorting of good from bad happens at the same time! The ‘Rapture’ is bunk!”

    I’m positive that this parable isn’t giving any insight into how the end of the world is going to happen, or how judgement day is going to come about. Jesus is just saying that people will be judged, and some will be found to be evil and some will be found to be righteous.
  • It is noteworthy that Jesus only gives two categories of people: righteous and evil. There is no category for people who were mostly good and usually went to church on Sundays but hadn’t fully given their lives to the Lord, there is no category for “mediocre” or “mostly good” or even “good”—there is righteous, and there is evil. If you haven’t given your life to God, if you haven’t accepted His Son as a sacrifice for your sins, you’re in the evil category. Harsh language, but it comes from the Son of God Himself—there is only evil and righteous, and you need to get out of the evil category.
  • As one who is in the righteous category, I can say with confidence that this is not about any inherent righteousness inside any of us. I’m not righteous because I have lived such a good life that God looked at me, saw I was good, and decided I didn’t deserve punishment. I used to be in the evil category, just like everyone else. No, I’m in the righteous category because God chose to save me, and punished Jesus for my sins. At “the close of the age” (as verse 49 (ESV) phrases it) God will see me not as I am now, but as I would be if I had no sin—and He’ll see me that way because I’ll have no sin; Jesus will have taken it all away from me. I don’t deserve to be viewed as righteous; on my own I’m not righteous. But because of God’s graciousness to me, and Jesus’ work on the cross, that’s how I’ll be judged by God—thanks be to Him!
  • Although Jesus talks about a “fiery furnace” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 50 (ESV)), I don’t think he’s being literal here. Meaning that I don’t think Hell will actually consist of fire, and people eternally being, literally, burned. I think Jesus is trying to convey something we can’t understand about the nature of this punishment, and using language such as fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth is a way to put things in a manner that we can understand. I could be wrong; I don’t think it matters. The fact that people who are not righteous will be punished is the point; the details of how that punishment will be carried out are not the point.
Finally, some thoughts on Hell.

Throughout history there have been many, many people who had a problem with the doctrine of Hell. People don’t want to believe that there is a Hell; they don’t want to believe that people who don’t repent and follow God will be punished, and especially don’t want to believe that the punishment will be eternal. However, regardless of what we do or do not want to believe, we simply have to believe what the Bible tells us. In this passage Jesus very clearly indicates people who do not follow Him will be thrown into a “fiery furnace,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (verse 50 (ESV)). Regardless of what you want or do not want to believe—and in the Western Church there is another strong resurgence of the belief that there is no Hell—Jesus is clearly saying that there is punishment for people who are evil—that is, for people who do not believe in Him. (He does not say that it is eternal in this passage, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find examples where He does; you won’t have to go outside of the Gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), because nobody talks about Hell in the Bible more than Jesus does.)

Is this important? It is for a couple of reasons.

First of all, there is the very immediate and practical reason that there is actual danger for those who do not come to believe in the Lord. What happens if you don’t believe? You go to Hell. People talk about Christians trying to scare people into believing, and to a certain extent that is true—we know that the danger is real, and it is right to be scared of a real danger. Christianity is more than simply avoiding Hell, of course, and if our version of giving the Gospel is simply about avoiding Hell then we’re not really giving the Gospel; the Gospel is “good news,” not just “avoidance of bad news.” A proper relationship with God is the best thing you can do with your life, and that should be your focus, rather than simply avoiding Hell. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is still a good idea to avoid Hell!

But aside from evangelistic reasons, there is another danger to disbelieving the doctrine of Hell: as Christians, the Bible has to be our source of what is true and what is not. To be clear, I’m not talking about disregarding science; you won’t discover the mysteries of quantum mechanics in the Bible. But I mean that if we want to know what is true about God, or what is true in the spiritual realm, the Bible is our main source of information. (Paul indicates in Romans 1:18–23 (ESV) that God’s creation also gives some hints as to His nature, but I think it’s clear that you won’t get a real picture of who God is without going to His Word. Frankly, people are sinful; we are bound to misinterpret God’s nature if we’re only looking at His creation, and not His Word.) There is a very great danger to us if we choose to disregard God’s Word on any point. If you read something in the Bible, and choose to believe that the Bible is wrong on that point, then you are in error.

The doctrine of Hell is a perfect example, because not wanting to believe that there is a Hell is actually how the Jehovah’s Witnesses got their start. Their original leaders didn’t believe in the doctrine of Hell, and so they started to part ways from Christianity. As time went on there were a number of other things they started to believe that are different from Christianity—for example, they believe that Jesus is not actually God, but instead that He is an angel—and they’ve actually had to go as far as to create alternate versions of the Bible with language changed to suit their beliefs, but it got started with the doctrine of Hell.

Earlier I said that I think Jesus’ language of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth might be metaphorical, and that Hell might not literally consist of fire, but that it might be a metaphor for a type of punishment that we can’t properly understand. Others might argue that the entire concept of Hell itself is metaphorical, and that it isn’t a real thing. But if that is the case, what is Jesus saying in this passage? If there is no punishment for those who don’t believe, then what can this parable possibly mean? If you don’t believe that there is a Hell—whether you believe in annihilation (meaning that people who don’t believe in God simply cease to exist after they die, or after judgement day), or whether you believe that all paths go to Heaven and everyone ends up there regardless of what they believe in this life—then this passage doesn’t make any sense. Jesus is either spouting nonsense, or is just plain lying to his listeners. In order to come up with any other meaning (and I’m sure many have), you have to twist Jesus’ words so far that it becomes clear you’re trying to come up with an interpretation that matches your beliefs (of there being no Hell), rather than reading what the Bible has to say to you.

Be very careful, when reading your Bible, that you base your beliefs on what the Word says, rather than interpreting the Word according to your beliefs. This can be tricky; there is a technical term called hermeneutics, which is the science and the art of interpreting a piece of text (in our case Scripture), and it can sometimes be difficult to read a passage of Scripture and get its proper meaning. We may come across a piece of Scripture which seems, on the surface, to disagree with another text of Scripture, but a key facet of Christian hermeneutics is that “Scripture interprets Scripture”—we should be looking at any passage of Scripture in the larger context of the entire Bible, never in isolation. But what we cannot do is decide that we don’t like what the Bible says, on this or any topic, and disregard what Scripture says on that topic. When we do that, we are disregarding what God Himself says about that particular topic.

And really, what could be more foolish than that? Do we really feel that we know better than God on any topic—let alone topics that we know absolutely nothing about? We have absolutely no idea what the end of the world will be like or what the afterlife will be like other than what God tells us, and His manner of telling us is through His Word. We can make all the guesses that we want, but we have no information upon which to base those guesses. To then decide that we know better than Him—that we really know what the afterlife will be like, and that He was mistaken when that particular passage of Scripture was written—is not just foolish, it’s stupid. It’s like… well, it’s like this:

God: At the close of the age, those who are judged to be evil will be thrown in Hell.

Us: No they won’t. You’re not like that. You’re love.

God: But I just told you that they will.

Us: No. They won’t. You’re love, you would never punish people.

God: Who better to tell you what I’m like than Me? I have wrath against those who don’t believe Me.

Us: Uh uh. Nope. You’re love. None of this “wrath” business, that’s not the God I believe in.
I could go on, but you see where I’m going with this. (It’s not like I’m being subtle about it.) God tells us what He is like, or what the afterlife will be like (although not with details), and we decide to disbelieve him based on… well, simply based on the fact that we want to disbelieve Him. We have no evidence to back us up, we simply believe what we want to believe, despite what He has told us.

This obviously turned into a rant, but that’s [part of] what blogs are for…

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