Sobering and Soothing - Matthew 13:47-50
Many years ago, I was speaking with an uncle of mine. We were talking about the state of the world, with all its injustice and evil. And he made a statement, not necessarily profound, but it stuck with me, perhaps because of the admiration I have for him, but also, because of the seriousness with which he said it. He looked me in the eye, and he said with, “There will be a reckoning.” We don’t use the word “reckoning” much nowadays, but his word choice was ironic, ironic because my uncle was a CPA. He was an accountant. A “reckoning” is the final calculating of something. Historically, it referred to the settling of an account – the payment of debts owed. So, when someone said, “I reckon we better be going,” they meant “By my calculations, it’s time to go.” What my uncle meant was that there will be a day when a final payment will come due for what everyone has done. We look around and we see these evil things being said and done, and we long for justice. But also, when we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we have our own debts.
Each of us has said, done, and desired wicked things for which payment must be made. And God, being just, will have a day of reckoning, a last day on which he will hold final judgment when he settles every account. We should be mindful of that day because it affects how we view our present lives. But how does the knowledge of that coming day affect our lives here and now?
Jesus’ words are shocking, and they should stir up at least two feelings within us as we contemplate them. You’ll see them stated on page 6 in the Worship Guide. The words of Jesus are both sobering and soothing. Sobering because a holy God will leave many people in their natural state. And soothing because a holy God will redeem many people from their natural state.
Now, this is the last of a long string of parables. It restates the same truth as the previous parable about the weeds and the wheat: that believers and unbelievers will live mixed together until the end when Jesus returns. They are mixed together in the kingdom, in other words, under Jesus’ rule and reign. The kingdom includes the church but is not restricted to it. Only by his church is the rule of Jesus recognized, but Jesus rules all things. Paul says as much about Jesus in Colossians 1,  by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
With the earthly ministry of Jesus, his rule and reign “broke in” and continues to advance in the hearts of people. Jesus reigns in a special way in the hearts of those who are born again, he reigns in that special way in the homes and churches of the faithful, but in general, he reigns everywhere. Thus, the image in verse 47 of the fishing net. Fisherman at that time would drag a huge net between two boats. They were trying to catch certain kinds of fish, but to do so, they had to deal with whatever was caught in the net. Verse 47 says there will be “fish of every kind” in the net that is Jesus’ reign over all creation. When the net fills up, the fishermen pull it to the shore, and then they begin sorting. Some fish are good, and some are not.
When I was growing up, we would fish the freshwater rivers of SC, and I learned that we should keep different kinds of bream, crappie, and bass. Those were good to eat. But others, like mudfish, gar, or pike were not good for eating. They were fun to reel in, but they weren’t keepers. We fished with poles, catching one at a time, and with each fish we would decide: keep or throw back.
But in Jesus’ parable, all these different kinds of fish are collected at the same time. The fishermen examine each one and make a judgment: good or bad, keep or throw away. In principle, this is how it will be, verse 49 says, “at the end of the age,” at the end of time as we know it, at the completion of what God began in the beginning. There will be this sorting. Look again at verse 49, “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous.” The angels are like the fishermen on the shore, separating good from bad, differentiating between evil and righteous. Obviously, the angels do this on God’s behalf and use the criteria given to them by the holy God.
Incidentally, I have never, to this day, eaten a mudfish, a gar, or a pike. Some folks do eat them from what I understand. My criteria for good fish came from my dad. In a similar way, the angels determine who is evil and righteous based on what God says. The fishermen judged which fish to keep based on which ones would sell at the market. The buyer is the recipient. God is the one receiving people on the last day. He holds the note, so to speak, on their debts. All payments are owed to him.
Now, it’s important also to understand here that as Jesus said these things to the Jewish people, their knowledge of the OT influenced their response. Why? Well, because there is no greater theme in the OT than the holiness of the one true God. In Leviticus 11, God said to the people of Israel,  For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore…I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” When we hear the word “holy,” we normally think “sinlessness.” But that is not the primary meaning of holiness. The word means “apartness,” “set apart,” “entirely other.” There is a drastic distinction between God and all that he has created. God is transcendent, superior in every way, high above us, and so much so that our appropriate response is not just to salute him or tip the hat, but to worship him and honor him with the utmost reverence and awe.
Yes, God has come near to us and gotten down on our level in a sense through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is immanent; he draws close to us. But he no less holy, or majestic, or worthy of awe and reverence. Part of why we worship him is that “apartness,” but part of it also is his purity. God is righteousness; he is without sin. In fact, so pure and righteous is the one true God that to look directly on his holy being would kill you and me. In Exodus 33, God tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” God is pure, blameless being – entirely good in both his nature and his actions, and as such he can have no part of sin whatsoever. Not that sin would harm him or pollute him somehow. Sin could not get close enough to him to do so. To come into his holy presence with sin would destroy the sinner. What we see after the exodus from Egypt in the OT is all that God does to bridge the divide between himself and sinful people. God initiates a relationship and sustains it. He obviously desires it. And yet, throughout the OT, we see that there are consequences for disregarding his holiness and interacting with the things consecrated or set apart by God in a flippant or careless manner.
People meet real judgment when they ignore the boundaries of God’s holiness. One example was Uzzah. God had commanded the people of Israel not to touch the ark of the covenant, that consecrated box which was a symbol of God’s holiness. 2 Samuel 6 tells us that when transporting it to Jerusalem, one man, named Uzzah, touched it and died. To the modern reader, God may seem unreasonable. Couldn’t God relax his standards a bit? But see, that’s the point. No, he cannot. He will not.
God is what he is. His pure being and humankind’s sinful being do not mix. And so, looking back now at verse 50 in Matthew 13, Jesus’ words make sense. Once those who are evil are separated from those who are righteous on the last day, the angels, verse 50 says, will “throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” There will be pain, anguish, regret and full acknowledgment of the situation by those who are evil. On the day, God will leave the unrighteous in their natural state, to endure His full wrath against sin in hell. That is a sobering reality, one that every single person should meditate on deeply.
If perhaps you feel as though your love for God has waned, or your amazement of God’s grace has dwindled, or your thankfulness for his mercy has all but ceased, then consider this: hell is a place where we naturally belong. Hell is where I belong and where you belong, and apart from the mercy of God in Christ it will be our final destination on the day of reckoning. The sobering knowledge of the last day is important because it stirs us to consider our ways and it helps us see exactly what Jesus saves us from.
Hell is real, therefore we repent and we trust in Jesus alone for salvation. No works or rituals could redeem us from hell. Only Jesus could make that purchase. Only Jesus could settle up for us. And so, trusting in him, we pray for the lost, and we carry the good news of Jesus Christ, sharing that good news with others, serving them and ministering in Jesus’ name. We show kindness to all people and patience with them, because who would we be apart from the love and grace of Jesus Christ? What a sobering thought, that not all will be saved. Will you be saved? If so, then what a soothing thought, that in his mercy God will save many.
Later in this NT book, in Matthew chapter 20, Jesus says he came to earth “to give his life as a ransom for many.” On the day when our accounts are reckoned by the holy God whom we owe, those who are born again will be comforted knowing that Jesus will settled the debt because at that cross he paid the ransom. Jesus came to cover all our sinful words, deeds, even our thoughts and desires. All our mistakes, our failures, our addictions and habits, our lies and deceit, our abuses and our treachery – everything for which the fiery furnace is a just punishment. All of us naturally deserve the fiery furnace. In Jesus’ parable, the good fish are kept, the bad are tossed away,
and leading up to the teaching of this parable, throughout his preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus has confirmed that no one is good. Without faith alone, in Jesus and in the work he came to complete, there are no righteous ones for the angels to gather for God.
Picture the fishermen, hoisting their sagging net on the shore, spreading it out and all these fish flopping around, but the men stand there in disbelief because there is not one single fish in that net that is fit to eat! None worth putting in containers to keep and sell at the market! All bad!
Jesus made this point clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. He reiterated what was explicit in the OT – and all the NT writers confirm it. In Romans 3, a devout Jew, the apostle Paul, calls out the sin of the godless nations, and then writes, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,  as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Not even one. And so, it is soothing, to know that on the last day, there will be some who are righteous, some who are gathered to God by his holy angels. There is no doubt that many today folks, especially in churches, are self-righteous and will be surprised at who is gathered to God and who is banished to hell.
Among the churches planted by the apostle Paul was the church in the port city of Corinth in south-central Greece. It was a city filled with immorality. The church had a tough-go early on as people left their old ways to follow Jesus. In fact, much of what we understand about church discipline we learn from Paul’s directions for dealing with situations in that young church. And in Paul directions in the NT book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 6, Paul writes this to those relatively new followers of Jesus:  Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. The transcendent, holy God of Israel, the only true God, the creator of all things, had drawn near, reached out and redeemed people previously steeped in all manner of sin.
Dad reeling in a bream, and a mudfish came and took it! Picture holding the mudfish,
and it becomes a large mouth bass in your hands. Paul says that in Corinth, by God’s grace, these “bad” fish became “good” fish. They were saved from the trash, and made fit for the market and the table.
Does this knowledge of the day of reckoning sober you? Does it cause you to fear? It should. You have no peace or comfort unless you know that Jesus has redeemed you and begun his transforming work in you. If you are assured of that redemption, does this stir joy in your heart one more, or perhaps, for the first time? Does this knowledge sooth you? Are you confident that you have truly repented and trusted in Jesus? Do you have that certainty that on the last day the righteousness of Jesus Christ will cover your debt of sin?
As I prepared this week, I was reminded of one of the last songs ever written by the late Johnny Cash. It is called “The Man Comes Around.”
There's a man goin' 'round takin' names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reachin' down
When the man comes around
The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter's ground?
When the man comes around
Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
Listen to the words long written down
When the man comes around
As we go to the table today, we remember the price paid for those who will be found righteous on the last day, those who will be gathered to God. And at this table, we remember a reality that is both sobering and soothing. Let’s bow together in prayer.