William Bacon Stevens, 1857
"Once again, the kingdom of Heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!"
While the parable of "The Weeds" illustrated the fact that there is, and will be until the end of the world, an intermixture of good and evil in the field of the Church — the parable of "The Draw-Net" is evidently designed to show the final separation that shall take place in God's appointed time.
While our Lord has so constructed some of his parables as that their unfolding should elucidate nearly all the great doctrines of religion — he has, in the lavishness of his instruction, uttered many others, designed to set forth single, elemental truths; even though several of them may seem to repeat the same ideas, or overlap each other in their covering of the same ground.
Thus, we can easily draw out from the parable of the Weeds, all the instruction contained in the parable of the Net. But Christ, wishing to fix its especial point upon the minds and hearts of his auditors; or because many of his hearers would better understand a figure drawn from the fisherman's life than the farmer's field, and acting also upon the prophetic injunction, that "precept must be upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little" — uttered yet another similitude, and made the draw-net of the Capernaum fisherman, as well as the field of the Galilean gardener — illustrate the character of his Church here, and the separations that shall take place in it at the end of the world.
The figure which is at present before us is that of a draw-net. This is a large net, one edge which is provided with sinkers, and the other with floats. It hangs vertically in the water, and when its ends are brought together or drawn ashore, encloses the fish. This operation is familiar to all who live by the sea-side, or upon lakes, and needs no further explanation.
When we remember that most of our Savior's disciples, to whom this parable was more immediately addressed, were fishermen, and that He had called several of His Apostles from "casting their net into the sea," to become "fishers of men" — we discern a force and directness in this similitude which they could not fail to appreciate.
The point of special interest in this parable is, the ultimate separation that shall take place between the common occupants of this net, when it is drawn to land.
By the draw-net is represented the Church; by the fish, the members of that Church; and in this net are enclosed all kinds of fish, both "good and bad;" showing, as in the parable of the Weeds, the mixture of sound and unsound professors in Christ's earthly kingdom.
Concerning this fact we need neither argue nor speculate. It is a revealed and an experimental truth, notorious even to human observation, much more so to Him, "who searches the thoughts and tries the hearts of men."
Into the net of the Church were "all kinds of fish," even as in the parable of the Marriage of the King's Son — the "servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all, as many as they found, both bad and good."
Just so, the Gospel is preached to all classes and conditions of men; and some from each of these, professedly obey the call, and unite themselves to the visible Church. This state of things continues as long as the net is in the sea; but, when it is full, when God's purposes, in reference to his earthly Church, shall be completed — then will it be "drawn to shore" — the shore of eternity; and there, under the eye of God, shall "the good be gathered into baskets," and "the bad shall be thrown away."
There is a time coming, when the mixture of lost and saved, which now pertains to the Church shall be done away — when the sound and faithful professors of Christ's religion shall be delivered from the presence of the evil disciples, by whom their righteous souls have been so long vexed; when, separated from all evil in themselves and around themselves, they shall be, in their finite capacity — as holy as God is holy. And when the wicked, severed from the holy, shall be consigned to their merited doom.
The character of God requires this final separation in the contents of the Gospel net!
This separation will be necessary on the part of God, in order to vindicate his justice. It is said of Him, "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne." This justice requires that the penalties, as well as the rewards of His law — should be vigorously rendered. The penalties of the law against transgressors are very stringent and severe; and not to inflict them would be to dishonor that law, both in its enactments and sanctions, and to falsify every attribute of the Divine character. Should God fail to punish the breakers of His law — He would not be just to Himself, His statutes, or His creatures. He proclaims Himself repeatedly a "God of justice!" How could He be so, unless He sustained the penalties which He has denounced against sin? He has declared again and again, that His "law is holy," and His "commandment is holy, and just, and good;" and that He will uphold it in its letter and spirit, in its length and breadth. But how can He do this, if He relaxes the sanctions by which it is enacted, and the penal clauses by which it is guarded? He has declared that He "will by no means clear the guilty." The conscience that He has put within His creatures, tells them that they have fully incurred the displeasure of their God, and deserve His reprobation: and He must fulfill His righteous threatenings.
It would not be just in a human lawgiver, to make a stringent law, and annex to its infraction severe penalties — and yet never design that they should be carried out! This would be a mockery of justice, and a deliberate insult to the majesty of law. Nor would it be just for human laws to take no cognisance of criminals, to permit crime to go unpunished — and, by withdrawing the penalties due to the guilty, virtually exempt guilt from punishment, and place it on the same legal level with obedience and goodness! Better have no law; better give up a community to the workings of the individual passions of its members — permitting each to "walk in the light of his own eyes, and after the counsel of his own heart;" than to allow a law to be made null — and then void by stripping it of its sanctions, and taking from it its punitive and coercive power.
Justice requires that human laws should be enforced; the well-being of society is indissolubly blended with their administration; and if justice speaks with an uncertain voice, or with a fickle voice, or with a partial voice, or if it is silent — then society is torn asunder limb from limb, and the body politic lies a mangled and bleeding corpse at the feet of anarchy and crime! Much more, then, is it necessary that God's law should be sustained, and that His justice should stand out in clear and full outline, in the sight of the universe.
But the truth of God, as well as His justice — requires this final separation between the good and the bad. He has said that it would take place — His veracity is at stake upon the issue. But that God should falsify His word, that He should fail to do what He has said He would do — cannot for a moment be entertained by those who believe Him to be "a God of Truth," "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."
The plain declaration of the Most High God is, "The wicked shall be turned into Hell — and all the nations that forget God!" "The soul that sins — it shall surely die." "There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked." These, with many others of similar import, are the positive assurances of God. And hence, as "God is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent," so will He do what His truth has pledged Him to do, namely, "Separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!"
The holiness of God also demands this eventual separation. So exalted and indescribable is this attribute of the Almighty, that we seem to sully it, even by speaking of it. We can scarcely talk of it without our very breath staining its glory; for all our ideas of holiness consist in the relative freedom of a person from sin, and in proportion to the sinlessness of anyone, is his holiness — a state of sin being the stand-point from which we judge, because we are only conversant with a world of sin.
Perfect, essential, self-existent holiness, such as belongs to God, surpasses our comprehension. A holiness that has no relation to sin, because it existed before sin — a holiness that can be measured by no standard, because itself overtops every standard; a holiness so holy that even the heavens "are not clean in His sight," so pure that "He covers himself with light as with a garment," so magnificent that "He charges even His angels with folly," so resplendent that it fills all Heaven with its effulgence, and so ravishing that the celestial harpers make it the theme of their chants as they fall down before Him, veiling their faces with their wings, as they cry, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!"
Such a holiness is as much above our conception — as are the ideas of eternity or infinitude. When we can depict the sun in mid-day luster with the colors of the painter's pallet; when we can measure the outer limits of space with the telescope — then perhaps may we be able, with the instrumentalities of earth-born words, to convey an adequate idea of the holiness of Jehovah.
God's holiness is a subject which we shall ever study — and in which we shall never weary. But to know it in its fullness, to comprehend it in its infinitude — cannot be done by any created mind!
God's holiness, so ineffably glorious — demands the severance of the wicked from the good. The God who possesses it "cannot look upon sin but with abhorrence," and has declared that nothing unclean shall come into His holy habitation; that into it "nothing shall enter that defiles or makes a lie;" that only "the pure in heart shall see God." Consequently there must be a dividing process when the net of the Church, now enclosing good and bad fish, shall be drawn to shore — the shore of eternity.
In like manner, we might show that each of the attributes of God requires this separation in the visible Church. But it need not be dwelt on now, because, if even one attribute required such a separation, that would be enough; for God's character is not made up of diverse and opposing elements — but is a moral unit, and each attribute so harmonizes with the others — as that a violence done to one — is done to all; and that which is requisite to the integrity or upholding of one attribute — is equally necessary to the maintenance of every other perfection of the Divine Being.
Leaving, therefore, the point which we think has been so clearly established, namely, that the character of God requires this final separation in the contents of the Gospel net; we further remark, that this separation is necessary also, to the happiness and perfection of His believing people. The condition of true Christians in the visible Church is one of mingled joy and sorrow. They have indeed great cause for rejoicing; they have sources of pleasure, Divine alike in their origin and their comfort; they have a hope "that makes not ashamed;" they have a peace "that passes understanding;" there is"no condemnation" for them, because their lives are "hidden with Christ in God." And, in view of the assaults of their last enemy, death — they are enabled to exclaim, "Thanks be unto God, who gives us the victory, through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Yet, at the same time, it must be confessed that what the Apostle said is strictly true, "if in this life only we have hope — we are of all men most miserable." The very fact that we have been renewed in the temper and disposition of our minds, that we have been born again of the Holy Spirit, that old things have passed away and that all things have become new — only makes us realize more vividly our sad condition, to be thus dwellers in an ungodly world, and to be thus of necessity so mixed up with sin and corruption and unbelief in the walks of daily life.
The true Christian finds everything around him antagonistic to his thoughts and feelings.
He loves Christ supremely — the world hates Him supremely.
He delights to do God's will — the world revels in its disobedience.
His heart is set on heavenly and Divine things — "the heart of men is fully set in them to do evil."
He longs for a release from a place where his soul, like that of righteous Lot, "is vexed with the filthy lives of the wicked!"
He is daily pained at the manifestations of sin and unbelief.
He mourns at the spiritual destitution of his fellow men, and at the rampant evils which rear themselves unbridled, and devour the vitals of society with rapacity!
Sin meets his eye wherever he turns!
In the Church, he sees hypocrisy, formality, self-righteousness, censoriousness, lukewarmness, and backsliding.
In the family, he finds peevishness, ill temper, discord, variance, strifes, evil surmisings, and positive hatred.
In the state, he perceives crimes of every sort and hue, the decalogue broken in each one of its commandments, and iniquity restrained only by the strong right arm of law.
In business, he is made to witness fraud, greed, deceptions, lying!
So that, look where he will, he is constrained to say with the Psalmist, "Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!"
We are ever made to feel that we are in an enemy's country; that here, as the Patriarchs confessed, "we have no abiding city — but we seek one to come;" that "we who are in tabernacles of flesh do groan, being burdened" —
burdened with the remaining corruption of our own hearts;
burdened with our daily short-comings and omissions of duty;
burdened with our positive transgressions;
burdened with our often infirmities; and
burdened with seeing and hearing the ungodliness which surrounds us, and which is ever crying to Heaven for vengeance.
Such being our condition, it follows that we need deliverance from this state of trial, that we may be brought out "into the glorious liberty of the children of God." As this is a world of probation, we do not expect that this separation of good and bad will take place here, for it would cease to be probation were all sin and temptation removed from our path. But must such a mixture always exist? No! A time of deliverance is at hand; the year of release draws near; and before long the trumpet of Jubilee, proclaiming that "the acceptable year of the Lord" shall come — it shall ring out its silver notes of freedom and of rest. God loves us, and will not always allow us to be overborne by the wicked and evil world. He has thoughts of mercy towards us, and hence will keep us in tribulation only for a little season. His gracious words are, "Though you have lain among the pots — yet shall you be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold."
Therefore, "look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near!" His gracious purposes in keeping us in the furnace of affliction being accomplished — we shall be removed thence, having our dross purged away, and shall come out as fine gold, fit for the master's use. Then shall His suffering people be made joyful in the Lord! They shall be separated from whatever has annoyed and troubled them here, and manifesting themselves in their true character, as "children of light and of the day." They "shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
It is necessary, then, to the felicity of His saints, to the full development of Divine grace in the soul, and to the accomplishment of God's purposes in their election and regeneration — that there should be a sending forth of angels "at the end of the world," to "separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!" Reason and revelation assent to and confirm this truth. It is the hope of the Christian, as he takes his weary pilgrim steps towards the Celestial City; and it is the joy of the dying believer, as he puts off this tabernacle of clay, and looks forward to the mansion of rest, "into which nothing shall enter that defiles, or makes a lie."
It is remarkable that in this parable our Lord does not say what will become of the righteous, after they are gathered "into baskets," though He tells us what will become of the wicked; as if the parable was uttered more for warning to the evil professors — than for encouragement to the faithful. In the parable of the Weeds, indeed, He has told us that, after the separation there spoken of, "the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father;" and as the righteous are one and the same class in each parable, so we infer that all those who, out of the Gospel net, are gathered "into vessels," will enjoy a felicity and glory surpassing human conception, and only to be represented to the human mind by comparing them to suns, shining in full-orbed glory in the firmament of Heaven.
Most fearful, however, are the words which indicate the course of justice upon the wicked. "The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!" This is the same punishment that was to be inflicted upon the children of the wicked one in the parable of the Weeds.
It cannot escape the notice of the Bible reader, how frequently the element of fire is made to act a part in the punishment of the ungodly. Whether those numerous passages in which this idea is brought out are to be taken literally, so that we are to learn thereby that the wicked, after the resurrection, shall indeed dwell with everlasting burnings; that the quenchless flames of material fire shall ever wrap themselves about their guilty yet unconsumable bodies, causing them to gnash their teeth for pain, and wail for anguish — is not for us to assert or deny. One thing is certain, that, by the use of such language, God designs that we should gather the most frightening and horrific idea of woe, of which it is possible for the human mind to conceive; that we should understand by this, the intensity and unbearableness of the doom which will be visited upon the ungodly, and that this punishment shall never end; for all who love not the Lord Jesus Christ shall be cast into Hell, "where their worm never dies, and their fire is never quenched!"
This is the idea that we should ever keep in mind — that there is reserved for the unbelieving an anguish of spirit, which in its inflicted sorrows shall be, like furnace fire, ever preying upon — yet never consuming, its undying victim! The warning is boldly, fully given. There is no deception about its nature or its duration. The Bible holds it up before men in full view, and writes it out in such frequently repeated and magnified letters, as that "he may read, that runs;" so that men are left without excuse, if, in spite of remonstrance, and invitation, and appeal, and the pleadings of mercy, and the overtures of grace — they deliberately go down, step by step, to that woe which is emphatically expressed by being "cast into the furnace of fire," where "there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth!"