Help Us Understand

To communicate or explain the Gospel is very challenging.

The Gospel is this: God came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived here for thirty-three years. Jesus conducted his ministry during his last three years when he taught, he suffered and died at the cross, and he was raised from the dead. All this was to pay the price for the sins of humankind so that no matter where and when people lived, if they would repent of their sins and trust him as their Savior and Lord, they would belong to God, through faith in Jesus Christ. They would be his both now and for all eternity.

Explaining this doctrine can be quite difficult. Our Lord Jesus Christ explained it by using parables. Matthew chapter 13 contains several of these parables. One of them is today’s text. After the Lord gave the parable, he explained its meaning to the disciples.

Taking a fish off the hook is as common a picture today as when Jesus walked on this earth. Catch them now. Separate them later.

“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.

“ÔHave you understood all these things?’ Jesus asked.” That was an important question for the disciples to answer, and it is also an important question for us to consider.

When I read difficult passages such as these, I like to turn to the masters of biblical knowledge for help.

One of my resource people is Bishop J. C. Ryle. He was a bishop in England who lived from 1816-1900. He writes in his commentary:

“It is intended to instruct us on a most important subject, the true nature of the visible church. Within the visible church of Christ, there were to be Christians of various sorts, unconverted as well as converted, false as well as true. The separation of these two was to come at last, but not before the end of the world. It is important to have this lesson deeply graven on our minds. There is hardly any point in Christianity on which greater mistakes exist than the nature of the visible church. There are none, perhaps on which mistakes are so perilous to the soul.”

We learn from this parable that all congregations of professed Christians ought to be regarded as mixed bodies. They are all assemblies containing good and bad fish, converted and unconverted, children of God and children of the world, and they ought to be described and addressed as such. To tell all baptized people that they are born again, have the Spirit, are members of Christ’s body, and are holy in the face of such a parable as this is utterly unwarrantable. It is painfully calculated to promote self-righteousness, and lull sinners to sleep.”

Another great biblical scholar, who taught at the University of Glasgow, was William Barclay (1907-1978). He writes, “The Church cannot be selective and discriminative. The earthly church is bound to be a mixture. That it will contain all kinds of people, good and bad, useless and useful, is not ours to judge. It is not man’s place to say who is committed to Christ and who is not. The Church must be open to all and be a mixture. And that is exactly what the parable teaches. Therefore, it is our duty to gather in all who will come and not to judge and not to separate, but to leave the final judgment to God who alone can judge.”

My third example is George Buttrick (1892-1980). One of Dr. Buttrick’s prestigious pulpits was Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (1927-1955). In his preaching, Dr. Buttrick leaves no doubt that within the visible church are all kinds of people, and God will be the final judge.

This moves us to the congregation. Jesus likens us to a fish net. All kinds of people join us in the congregation, and we are thankful for this. We find the committed, seekers, respecters, and those who have come because of domestic or social reasons. This will continue to be the make up of any congregation, which is also referred to as the visible church.

Then comes the day of sorting who is who and what is what. This is God’s job. Only he is Judge. Hear Jesus’ words, “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.”

Is Jesus contradicting himself when a hurried reading of his words could lead one to say, “If I live a good life, I am classified as righteous, and I am saved. If I do not live a good life, I will be lost eternally.” Not at all, for there is only one way that we can be declared good, and that is when the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all our sins. Then we stand before God through Christ as spotless and clean.

Universalism (all are saved) sounds comforting, but it is not biblically correct. Study John 3:16. The first part of that verse reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . ” However, the last part of it reads, “. . .that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That is the meaning of the miracle.

We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.