Caught and taught - Matthew 13:47-52

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 13th October 2002.

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A few weeks ago I came across the remarkable story of a man who went for a short Sunday afternoon trip in his boat, only to be rescued more than three months later, thousands of miles from home. Richard Van Pham set off in his 26 foot boat, the 'Sea Breeze', in early June to make the short 3 hour trip from the coast of California, in Western America to Catalina Island. Unfortunately he met with disaster as a storm came up which broke his mast and his outboard motor. Shortly after his radio also failed. There was nothing he could do except wait for help and he was at the mercy of storms and the winds and tides. Mr Van Pham's food ran out after a week, so he had to catch birds and grill them for food, whilst collecting rain water for a drink. When he ran out of fuel for the grill, he began to chop up bits of the boat. His plight was furthered complicated by the fact that he has no living relatives, so no-one reported him missing. He just had to sit tight. But he had never given up hope and he was eventually rescued by a passing American frigate off the coast of Guatemala, 2500 miles from his original destination. However, even when the crew of the frigate came alongside, Mr Van Pham tried to get them to fix his boat so he could sail home. But he was finally persuaded that his boat was dangerously near to sinking and so he gratefully accepted the rescue. Mr Van Pham was reported to have said: 'I am very, very happy!' It's an incredible story of a man whose destiny was changed when he accepted the hand of rescue.

If you've been here in the past few weeks, you'll remember that we have been working our way through Matthew 13 seeing the amazing teaching of Jesus. And his main point has been to tell us about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. And we've found that a number of our questions about the kingdom of God have been answered. We saw in the parable of the sower that the reason many don't accept Jesus as King is because of their own hard hearts. When we asked the question why doesn't God do something about all the evil in the world, Jesus told us in the parable of the weeds to be patient because God will act one day in judgement. When we asked why the kingdom of God looks so weak and pathetic, Jesus answered in the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast that God's kingdom may seem unimpressive but it's very significant, and it may be hidden but its effective. And then last week we asked Jesus if it really is worth being a Christian when its often so hard, and he told us that God's kingdom is like a wonderful treasure and a beautiful pearl. It most certainly is worth the cost. And when we come to our passage for this morning, the parable of the net, we find that Jesus is teaching us about our destinies. He's warning us about the possibility of being permanently separated from God for ever when we die. This is his last parable in this block of teaching and he is pointing us to the future and he's giving us a warning. For he says there will be a great separation of humanity and we will be divided and receive our destiny based on how we have responded to Jesus. So after all his teaching, we find that Jesus asks us a question. What will you do with Jesus? Are you ready to face the future? You see, like the sailor we began with, we face a terrible future if we reject the rescue, but if we accept it, then our future is secure. Our destiny can be changed. So let's look at this parable of the net under three headings, three commands we can take away from this passage:

1) Remember the Separation

2) Recognise your Destiny

3) Respond to the Challenge

1) Remember the Separation

So our first lesson to learn from this parable in verses 47-50 is to remember the separation. Remember that there will be a division of humanity at the end of time. Let's just remind ourselves of the details of the story. Verse 47: '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. They sat down and collected the good fish in baskets but threw away the bad.' So it's a simple story about fishing. Some fishermen go fishing and in the traditional fashion they pull a net between two boats and trawl the lake for fish, and they catch all sorts of fish, some good and some bad. These guys, unlike me and my brief brush with fishing, caught lots. And the OT gave instructions on what sort of fish the people of God could and could not eat, so those they couldn't eat were chucked away. That's the story. So what's the point of the story? Jesus tells us in verse 49: '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.' This story is about the end of the age, the time when Jesus will return to wrap up history. So this parable is different from the story about the weeds. There Jesus told us to be patient in the present since there are weeds and wheat in the world and one day God will sift the crop. This parable focuses simply on the end when there will be a great separation of mankind. So what does Jesus tell us about this separation, this division in mankind?

Well he tells us the way the separation will take place. Verse 49: 'This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.' The way we will all be separated is between the wicked and the righteous. Now it is tempting here to think that what Jesus is saying is that God will judge between good and bad people. And so which of us would put ourselves in the bad category? None I guess. We are all good people, we'd no doubt say. We're not evil people. We love our children, we help our neighbours, we recycle our papers, we don't kick the cat. We're good people. The problem is that Jesus is not using our criteria to judge by. He's using God's and by God's criteria, we're all in the wicked camp. That is, each one of us has failed to keep God's law 100%. For in the Bible, to be wicked is simply to be someone who does not keep God's law perfectly, for that is his standard.

A few weeks ago I came across this advertisement on the internet. It read: 'You're in serious trouble- It's a proven fact. Deleting 'Internet Cache and History' will not protect you, because any of the web pages, pictures, movies, videos, sounds, emails and chat logs and everything else you do [on your computer] can easily be recovered and come back to haunt you. How would you feel if a snoop made this information public to your spouse, mother and father, neighbours, children, boss or the media? It could easily ruin your life.' So we are then encouraged to buy this company's product which will presumably prevent such information being found on our computers. But the people who wrote that advertisement certainly know how human beings work. We all have things we are ashamed for others to see, and in this modern age, some of them on our computers. Or if the world of computers are alien to you, imagine if it were possible, that someone recorded every thought, every action and every word you said for a whole week and then played the video in church next Sunday. Would you ever be seen in this church again? If it were me, I'd be on the first plane to Mexico. The sad fact is that we don't even keep to our own standards let alone God's. And God's verdict on us is that we are by nature wicked, as Jesus says here. And so when we stand before God as the judge, we will all be found guilty.

So, the Bible tells us we are all wicked. God will judge. All the wrongs of the world will be given their due justice. The problem with our world is that often justice cannot be done. Think about the people who have got away with huge crimes in the last century. Hitler was never punished for his crimes committing suicide before he could be caught. Timothy MacVae was killed for the Oklahoma bombings and yet he took over 200 lives. The September 11th bombers were never brought to justice because they died. Has justice been done? Have they paid properly for their crimes? Well the Bible tells us that one day they will. They will have to stand before God's court and receive their due. And God will be perfectly fair. But of course the only problem with a perfectly fair justice system like God's is that we are all guilty. We must all stand before him.

But if we are all wicked, then who are the righteous? Surely there must be some or the angels won't have any separating to do! Well of course the great news is that there is a way to go from being wicked in God's eyes, to being righteous in Gods' eyes. There is a way for our guilt to be taken away, for our sins to be taken by another, and the way is Jesus himself. He died on the cross to ensure that we need not stand before God's judgement seat guilty, but forgiven, cleaned up, right with God, which is what righteous means. And that is amazing news. It's not an offer we deserve, but it is something God offers to us out of his mercy and love through Jesus. So when the angels come to separate the people at the end of time, they are not separating good people from bad people as we might understand it. They are separating people who have ignored or rejected Jesus from those who have accepted him and his offer of rescue. That's the only difference between the wicked and the righteous. Either we trust Jesus to take our sins or we don't!

Now this truth should come as a wonderful relief to everyone in this building. Because according to Jesus, no longer do we have to impress God with our good deeds, or try and con him into thinking we are good enough for God. We're not, and the sooner we realise it the better. The only way we can be right with God is to trust what Jesus has done for us on the cross. And whether we have been a Christian years or days, that is a wonderfully comforting truth to be reminded of. We are sinners saved by grace, not by works. And that's what divides mankind. Those who have accepted Jesus, and those who have not, who continue to trust in themselves to get to heaven. I'm told that in America, there is a large rock in the Rocky Mountains called the Dividing Rock. And as water crashes down on this rock, the water is divided into two different rivers. And they end up in completely different destinations. One river goes to the Pacific Ocean, the other to the Atlantic. On the rock of Jesus humanity is divided and separated. And our decisions for or against him have massive implications. For not only must we remember the separation, but we must also recognise our destiny which is our second lesson from this passage.

2) Recognise your Destiny

Because Jesus doesn't just tell us there will be a separation at the end of time, but he also tells us what that separation will lead to. Verse 50: ' The wicked will be thrown into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' So Jesus here reminds us about the destiny of the wicked, those who reject the rescue of Jesus Christ on the cross. And in one word, their destiny is hell. Now the concept of hell is sometimes a difficult one for people to grasp. Hell is often parodied as a place where the devil with his horns and pitch fork tortures people. It's a place, where a friend of mine once said, you meet up with all your old friends and have a wicked time. But hell is no joke. In fact the one person that speaks most about it in the NT is Jesus himself, gentle Jesus, meek and mild. He's the one who tells us about hell. In fact, this phrase 'the weeping and gnashing of teeth' comes up seven times in the NT and is only ever used by Jesus. And whilst the language may be in some sense pictorial, yet the pictures Jesus paints are meant to convey to us an awful truth of a place of unimaginable horror.

And the reason hell is such an awful place is because it is where God's wrath against sin is seen in all its fullness. You see all too often we think of God as a gentle old grandfather who would never say boo to a goose. He's the sort of guy who says to us with a wink: 'Have you been doing naughty things again?' and then slips us a sweetie and gives us a cuddle. But that is not the God of the Bible. God shows himself in the Bible to be a God of perfect holiness, a God who cannot stand sin, whose wrath burns at human pride and arrogance, the pride which puts us at the centre of our lives. And so in his justice he is rightly angry at anything which smacks of sin. That's is why there is a hell. Because anything which is sinful cannot stand in God's presence. So to be in hell is to be separated from God forever, not enjoying even the good things he gives us on the earth like friendship and beauty. So hell is not a fun place to be. It is a place of almost unbelievable horror, which even the biblical pictures can barely explain to us. It's a place for those who say no to God's loving offer of rescue give to us a great cost. It's for those who willingly reject him and continue to do so. And so God confirms them in their folly. He gives them what they want. Life without God. That's hell.

So why does Jesus tell us about hell? Well he tells us because he wants to warn us. And he warns us because he loves us so much he cannot bear the thought of any us ending up in hell. When Debbie and I were on holiday this summer we were in a part of the world where black bears freely roam the countryside. And on all the paths and roads there are huge sign warning of the dangers of the bears. Whenever you go into a national park you are given a leaflet explaining about the dangers of bears. And quite frankly they make pretty scary reading. It encourages you to watch out for the bears, and what to do if you encounter a bear. And all around you are intimidating pictures of big black bears with large sharp claws and very nasty looking teeth. Now I guess there are two reactions to such warnings. Either I could say: 'Oh, they are trying to scare me. Bears are cuddly and cute. Why are they using these scare tactics. They just worry the children more. I'll just happily go through the forest and ignore the advice.' Or I could say: 'The authorities don't want me to come to harm. That is a loving and caring thing to do. I'll heed the advice and take care.'

Now to a far, far greater extent, Jesus has given us a loving warning showing us where we are heading if we continue to reject the rescue he offers. If we ignore Jesus and say: 'Oh it can't be that bad. It's all scare tactics,' then we are in serious danger of finding ourselves before a holy and just God with no saviour and no hope. And I beg you not to put yourself in that position. Consider where you are heading if you reject the rescue. Come back to Jesus and let him forgive you and free you from your destiny. Hell is no joke. It's not scare tactics. The most kind and gentle and wisest man who walked the earth says it's true. And he gives us a way out. I urge you, accept it today.

And the destiny of the righteous, those who do accept the rescue? Jesus has already told us in another parable in verse 43: 'Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.' We will be with God, forgiven and made prefect forever and ever. There's no comparison is there? Recognise your destiny. You can change. Just put your hand in the rescuer's hand, and he'll change your destiny.

3) Respond to the Challenge

But then lastly Jesus tells us to respond to the challenge in verses 51-52. Jesus asks his disciples a question in verse 51: 'Have you understood all these things?' He's probably referring to everything he's said since verse 36, since from that point on Jesus is alone in a house with his disciples. Have they understood all Jesus has explained about the parables of the kingdom of God? Yes, they reply. They may not have got it all, as the gospels show us, but at least they have understood the main points. And so, as a result of their understanding, Jesus issues them with a challenge in verse 52: 'Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.' So what is the thrust of Jesus' challenge to his disciples? His point is this: If you've got it, share it. If you have understood, then the onus is on you to give it out. You see literally Jesus says to his disciples: 'Every teacher who has been discipled, or taught, in the kingdom of GodThese disciples have been taught the things of the kingdom. And so they have treasure to give out. They have the treasure of the OT which has been fulfilled in the NT by Jesus. They have both old and new treasures to share. And if you look at the end of the gospel in Matthew 28 verse 19, Jesus gives his disciples a command which they are to keep obeying until the end, until Jesus comes again. And what is it? To make disciples of all nations. And verse 20 they are teach everything Jesus has taught them. So the teaching the disciples have received from Jesus is to be passed onto others. They are to be messengers of the kingdom.

Now if you think about it, these verses 51 and 52 of chapter 13 make perfect sense in the context. Because if as we have just heard from Jesus' story about the net there is a division in mankind and if everyone faces either eternity in heaven or eternity in hell, then what is the disciples' natural response going to be? Well of course it will be to tell others. What news could possibly be more important than that Jesus is the one who can change our destinies? What news could possibly be more important than the news that we are facing hell unless we turn to Jesus to save us? There is nothing as important as that. And just as it is the most loving action of Jesus to warn us of the danger we are in, so it is the most loving thing we can to do to warn our friends and families of the peril they are in, to show them the Saviour and to urge gently and graciously to come to Christ. That is the pressing challenge that Jesus gives you and me. To be men and women who do all we can to show people the treasure of the gospel. Our love for Jesus and others compels us to share this treasure with others.

Telling others is not an option. It's a need. And having said to Jesus: 'I understand' then he sends us out to do his work. Yes it will be hard. Some won't want to hear. Yes we will be afraid, because it's daunting showing where people stand with God. Yes it's painful, because our nearest and dearest face a future without God. But what did Jesus say to his disciples in Matthew 28: 'And surely I am with you to the very end of the age.'

One man who took this challenge seriously was a man called John Harper. John Harper was on the Titanic went the ship when down in April 1912 with the loss of 1522 lives. He was a young pastor from Glasgow who was on his way to Chicago to lead a mission in a church. The Titanic was the most luxurious ship ever built to that day, and yet John Harper was not phased at all by the extravagance of the wealth he saw all around him. Instead he gave himself fully as ever to the service of his Saviour. The night before the ship went down, he was seen to be pleading with a young man on the deck to trust in Jesus as his Saviour. And yet his true zeal for God and his ways were seen in the final hours of his life. As everyone else was desperately trying to save themselves, John Harper was handing out life jackets and helping others onto life rafts. And in his final minutes as he struggled in the icy waters of the Atlantic, what was he doing? Pitying his life as it ebbed away? Cursing God for allowing him to get into this state? No, he was urging all around him to put their trust in Jesus. Four years after the Titanic went down, a young Scotsman got up at a meeting of Titanic survivors in Hamilton, Canada, and said, 'I am a survivor of the Titanic. When I was drifting alone on some wreckage that awful night, the tide brought John Harper near me. 'Man,' he said, 'are you saved?' 'No,' I said. 'I am not.' He replied, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.'' 'The waves bore him away; but, strange to say brought him back a little later, and he said, 'Are you saved now?' 'No,' I said, 'I cannot honestly say that I am.' He said again, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,' and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed. I am John Harper's last convert.'

John Harper spent his life and even his final minutes urging people to trust in Jesus. He knew the issues at stake. People's destinies and eternal futures were at stake. He had taken up Jesus' challenge to share his treasure with others. And he did passionately to his dying day.

And Jesus makes it very clear in Matthew 13 that one day Jesus will return and he will judge the world. There will be a division in mankind. Each one of us faces either heaven or hell depending on our response to the Saviour. So have you decided? And if you have are you seeking to save others? For nothing can be sweeter than John Harper's final words. 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.'

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