Matthew 13:47-51

“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. 51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes. [1]

For the last few weeks, we have been examining Jesus’ parables recorded here in Matthew. We learned that Jesus’ parables are not nice morality tales told to help everyone understand human ethics. Christ hides his message in parables as judgment upon those who have rejected him as Israel’s promised Messiah.

His parables are all about the Kingdom of God which Messiah is ushering into the world during his earthly ministry. They can be divided into three broad classes of topics: the nature of the kingdom (Kingdom Parables); the nature of God’s one-way love (Grace Parables); and the judgment of God upon those who oppose his kingdom (Judgment Parables).

All Jesus’ parables relate, in some way, to the kind of people who enter into God’s kingdom: the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead (or, to continue the alliteration, the “lifeless”). This makes Jesus’ parables highly offensive to religious people who believe –by virtue of their superior knowledge, or intellect, or talents, or family lineage, or wealth, or job descriptions – they are worthy of God’s Kingdom and wise enough to exercise their own direct, head-on power to accomplish what seems right in their own eyes.

Up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has mostly been speaking in general terms about the kingdom as a seed sown in a field, as yeast hidden in dough, as plants among weeds, and as valuable treasure (whether stumbled upon or searched for). Some parables have contained hints at grace and references to judgment so far, but this parable of the net is Jesus’ strongest warning yet about the direct, right-handed, head-on power of God that is the final judgment. As such, this parable closes out the general kingdom statements of Matthew’s recorded parables. It fits into both categories of kingdom parables and judgment parables.


The parable of the net is a fitting conclusion to the general kingdom parables since it deals with the conclusion of all history. There are 15 references to a “net” in the New Testament using three different Greek words. One is a cast net (or throw net). One is the generic word for any kind of net. Then, there is the word used only here in Matthew 13:47. It is a particular kind of net – a dragnet towed through the water to indiscriminately catch everything in its path. It catches not only fish, but all other marine life – plus weeds, discarded trash, messages in bottles, and anything else in its path. Christ’s kingdom, by extension, manifests the same kind of indiscriminate taking of everything.

The kingdom deals not only with people, but with everything in the world – not just souls, but bodies as well; not just people but all things animal, vegetable, and mineral. There is a note of catholicity (universality) in this dragnet parable. Not only does the kingdom gather up the entire human race, but it also gathers up the entire physical order of the world. The kingdom catches up, sorts out, and remakes everything. Just as the net catches up everything in the sea, so the kingdom fetches home to God everything in the world. Nothing escapes the blessing and judgment of the consummated kingdom.

Jesus says the dragnet has “brought together every kind” [παντος γενους συναγαγουση]. The word “fish” is supplied by certain English translations and certainly could be assumed. But since the word “fish” is not present and we’re dealing with a dragnet, we can just as honestly take this as a reference to the catholicity of the kingdom. It gathers everything of “every kind.” In the seed and yeast parables, Jesus emphasized the presence of his mysterious, spiritual kingdom in the entire world. But now, his emphasis is narrower. The emphasis is on all the variety in the world present in the net of Christ’s Kingdom. Everything – good, bad, or indifferent – is in the dragnet. And the parable does not rush immediately into the business of sorting out the good from the bad.

In the sea, all kinds of fish and all kinds of plants and all kinds of junk simply coexist. Before the net is gathered in, there’s not even a hint of judging between good and bad, worthy, and unworthy, useful, and useless. In the context of the previous parables, the dragnet with its contents represents the present kingdom in the world in much the same way as a field full of wheat and identical-looking weeds grow up together.

That suggests to us that the church, the embassy of the kingdom in the present age, should be extremely cautious about what it judges to be worthless flotsam and jetsam, particularly since it is Christ who does the sorting at the end of the age – not the church. It is God who, in his paradoxical power and his own implausible suitable time, consummates his kingdom. “If he is willing to wait for it, why should the church be in such a rush? After all, it is his fish business we are supposed to be in.”[2]


Jesus tells us that eventually, the fishermen do get around to hauling the net up to shore, sitting down, and gathering the catch. “48 When it was full, [men] drew it ashore and sat down and sorted…[3] The verb “gathered” [NKJV; NASB] or “sorted” [ESV] is found seven times in the NT, four of them in the parable of the wheat and tares (the weeds are gathered up). The other two uses are in Jesus statement, “For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush(Matt. 7:16; Lk. 6:44).[4]

The catch is sorted into two classes: the good and the bad. The word “good” has overtones of “acceptable,” “agreeable,” “fine,” or, “fair.” Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd,” meaning more than simply that he is an ethical shepherd, but that he is also admirable and highly beneficent. However, “the bad” [σαπρός] has a particular quality of badness. There are many words for “bad” in Greek. Kakos is perhaps the most common word for “bad.” But there are plenty of others: there is poneros, “evil”; anomos, “lawless”; ithesmos, “unsettled”; phaulos, “worthless.” Then, there is the word Matthew uses to describe the unacceptable catch, sapros: “rotten, putrid, corrupt, worthless, useless.” Sapros appears in five passages, four of which show its suitability for use as the ugly opposite of “the good.” [5] One such passage is Matt. 12:33: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad [σαπρός] and its fruit bad [σαπρός], for the tree is known by its fruit.” [6]

If the dragnet contained only fish, the sorting would likely be based on separation of desirable fish species from “trash fish.” Or it could involve separating marketable big fish from unsellable tiny fish. It might be a separation of dead, rotten fish from live fish. In any case, the criterion for the sorting is NOT the innate goodness of the fish, but their acceptability to the sorter. It is their being found to be “good” in the eye of the discriminating sorter that lands them in the live well rather than the fertilizer bucket. Conversely, it is the sorter’s judgment of σαπρός – “rotten,” “crummy,” “nasty,” “yucky” – that lands a catch in the chum pile.

The same thing is true if we see the net as containing everything from the sea (fish, trash, weeds, etc.). “Whatever serves the [sorter’s] purposes is kept; whatever does not is tossed out. But notice an important element here: there is always the possibility that some of the [apparently worthless] things might be saved: old rusty anchors, bald tires, and broken lobster pots might just make the cut if somebody took a shine to them. In short, the net contains many things, but there is nothing, however decrepit in and of itself, that absolutely has to be gotten rid of. Whatever sorting is done depends entirely on the disposition of the sorters. If they don’t say ‘yech!’ to something, then it’s not sapron.”[7]

When Jesus explains the parable in verse 49, he calls the by-catch not “rotten,” but “evil” (poneros) – willfully morally evil. But we’re not to verse 49 yet. We’re still standing on the beach watching the sorters combing through their catch. It is the sorter, not the fish, who sets the standard of acceptability. So, it is the King of the kingdom who sets the standards for judgment on the last day of history.

We know from Revelation that this great sorting happens after the resurrection of all the dead. Every last person who stands before the judge does so only because of the power of Christ’s resurrection. All the catch of the great dragnet – good and bad – are hauled up on the beach in the power of Christ’s reconciliation. The great sorting is not about God’s vindictiveness as much as it about Christ’s vindication.

The sorting doesn’t occur on the basis of the earthly track record of the catch. “Nobody goes to hell because he had a rotten track record in the world – any more than anyone goes to heaven because he had a good one. …Everyone, of every kind, who lands on the millennial beach has been fished up there by the net-work of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not judged by our previous performances (on that basis, nobody would go anywhere but to hell); rather, we are judged by what Jesus did for us on the cross.”[8] Only those who want to argue with his gracious acts are pronounced first “rotten” (in verse 48), then “evil” (in verse 49). Hell is the place built for those who decide they want no part of the judge’s gracious pronouncement of “good.”


After Jesus finishes his two-sentence parable, he then applies it to the reality for which it stands. 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. [9]

The phrase “the end of the age” [συντέλεια τοῦ αἰώνος] is Matthew’s exclusive way of referring to the consummation of all things (13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20).[10] It signals not just an ending, but an arrival at something that has been in the works all along – the wrap-up, the final realization of Jesus’ work. In other words, it doesn’t represent a last-minute change of plans but is part of all of God’s gracious work in and through Messiah Jesus. It is the final meeting of the blessing and the curse, and the permanent separation of blessing from cursing.

Now, how does Jesus accomplish this final meeting of blessing and cursing? He does it by means of the angels. That’s a new twist to the parable. In Jesus’ story, it is the men (v. 48) who drag the net onto the great eschatological beach and do the sorting – at least in the ESV (it’s fishermen in the NIV). Except the text of verse 48 doesn’t explicitly mention “men” or “fishermen” at all. It can certainly be implied, but any direct reference to human sorting is absent. The NKJV has the most literal translation of the story, carefully supplying a generic “they” where no noun or pronoun exists in the original text:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, 48 which, when it was full, [they] drew to shore; and [they] sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. [11]

Either Jesus makes a last-minute switcheroo, substituting angles for men, or he himself was the one doing the net-dragging and sorting with his crew of angels all along. His angels are committed totally and unswervingly to doing what Jesus wants done. Jesus said, in John 5:22, that:

the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. [12]

Nobody else gets into the act of sorting – not the Father, not the Spirit, and certainly not the church. “The job is strictly in the hands of Jesus and his utterly subservient heavenly bailiffs – which means, when all is said and done, just in Jesus’ hands, period.”[13]

What do the angelic bailiffs do? They sort, making no decisions or implementing no policy of their own. They move resurrected bodies around as directed by Christ – the Resurrection and the Life (Jn. 11:25). On what basis does Jesus order this sorting? On the basis of his plan to remove what he alone judges to be the evil out from among what he alone judges to be the righteous. How did the righteous get to BE righteous? What makes them the good catch? The goodness, righteousness, of the catch is based upon the free gift of Jesus’ perfect law-keeping life and sacrificial death. His freely-offered righteousness alone is what allows anyone to be sorted into the live well of the righteous, rather than being chucked into the chum bucket of the evil.

What makes the evil ones fail to make the grade? They have freely, stubbornly, persistently chosen to not like this offer of alien righteousness. They cannot stand the thought of not being accepted on the basis of their own personal merit – which is the world’s greatest non-existent quantity, the most-certain zero in the mathematical and theological universe.

They not only miss that point, but they also stubbornly refuse that point even as they are tossed into the eternal chum bucket. They weep and wail – but not over their horrible choice. No. They are so curved inward upon themselves, all they can do is complain about the great unfairness of it all. “Look at all my self-awarded merit badges! I should be in the good place, not the bad place. This whole separation thing is just a set-up to jack me over!”

Since this is an honest-to-goodness judgment parable, we can read it in light of all the meatier judgment parables, like the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. The guy who showed up to the King’s son’s wedding without his wedding suit on was willfully evil. He willingly balked at the one simple requirement for admission to the party. Nobody who showed up had a right to be there. All those who seemingly deserved to be invited refused the invitation.

“The ones who finally did get into the party were those who, despite their unfitness and their undeserving, were simply dragooned into attending. The indiscriminate dragooning, in fact, was the very thing that made them acceptable even in their unacceptableness….” [14] All the catch of the dragnet, all the world’s inhabitants, are being drawn toward the final good that the Word will pronounce. Strangely, he will pronounce good over fish, plants, old license plates, worn-out tires, plastic bottles – in short over the most unimpressive kinds of people: the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. The beautiful fish, with their extra-long sash of merit badges, are thrown out in spite of (or precisely BECAUSE of) their bewildered and angry protests.

Anyone who wanted could have enjoyed it free-for-nothing. That is what makes those sorted into the evil pile so willfully evil. They are not simply un-good. They have made a life-long career out of rejecting the offer of God’s goodness. Now, they can, quite literally get the hell out. Which is exactly what the angelic bouncers at the great wedding feast help them do. “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.”[15]

The fiery furnace first appeared in Jesus explanation of the Parable of the Weeds. It also shows up in Revelation 9:2. But the wailing and teeth-gnashing shows up six more times in Matthew (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30) and once in Luke 13:28. The fiery furnace suggests external torment. But the wailing and teeth-gnashing show us internal anguish. Those who insist on showing up to the final sorting intent on being party poopers will continue to be party poopers for eternity. “…taken together, the phrases bear witness to a double truth about the redeemed order: the furnace testifies to God’s absolute insistence that nothing and nobody is going to rain on his final parade; and the wailing, to the equally absolute certainty that his parade is the only show in town that’s going to be any fun.”[16]

All that is outside the live well, all that is outside the wedding feast, is an eternal chum bucket of self-pity, festering but never completely decomposing. This is not a gathering of wistful types, regretting the deal they made. They are a giant pile of unreconstructed haters who tossed away the greatest offer in the universe and persist in blaming the God who freely offered them a place at his eternal party.

They could have gone just as easily as the righteous from the net into the banquet rather than the chum bucket. There was not one single compelling reason for them to spend an eternity gasping on the beach.

Christ freely offers you this:

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”[17]

It’s the very same question he asked his disciples at the end of this parable when he says: “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.”[18]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 13:47–51.

[2] Capon, Kindle Locations 1613-1614.


[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 13:48.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Lk 6:44.

[5] Capon, Kindle Location 1627.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 12:33.

[7] Capon, Kindle Locations 1638-1641.


[8] Id. at 1653-1654.


[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 13:49–50.

[10] Gerhard Delling, “Τέλος, Τελέω, Ἐπιτελέω, Συντελέω, Συντέλεια, Παντελής, Τέλειος, Τελειότης, Τελειόω, Τελείωσις, Τελειωτής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 66.

[11] The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Mt 13:47–48.

[12] The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), Jn 5:22–23.

[13] Capon, Kindle Locations 1687-1688.


[14] Id. At Kindle Locations 1699-1701.


[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 13:49–50.

[16] Capon, Kindle Locations 1718-1719.


[17] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 11:25–26.

[18] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 13:51.