The parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43) is probably not first and foremost about the presence of people who profess the Christian faith falsely in the institutional church. However, this does not mean that Jesus has nothing to say on the subject. The parable of the net apparently deals with the fact that those who do not really know Christ will “worship” beside true believers in the visible covenant community.
Several hints in Matthew 13:47–50 indicate that the parable of the net is about the church. First among these is Jesus’ use of a fishing metaphor (v. 47). He calls His disciples to be “fishers of men” and four of the Twelve — Peter, Andrew, James, and John — were professional fishermen before our Lord made them apostles (4:18–22). Fishermen casting a net brings to mind the call of the Twelve (and all believers) to preach the Gospel and catch people for the kingdom.
Second, the indiscriminate casting of the net reminds us of the external call of the Gospel (13:47). In Jesus’ day, Jewish fishermen used a net with weights and floaters that, when pulled by rope out of the water, ensnared a multitude of various kinds of fish. Similarly, Christ calls His church to evangelize all mankind without regard to the distinctions between human beings (28:18–20).
Our Lord’s contemporaries are again familiar with the imagery in this parable. Those who had worked on the seas knew well the task of sorting out the edible fish from those not fit for consumption (13:48), which is likened to the angelic separation of the righteous from the unrighteous when the kingdom is consummated (vv. 49–50). Like a net catching fish, the church will bring in many kinds of people. Yet just as not all fish are fit for eating, so too are not all members of the visible church fit for heaven. The church we can see is a mixed body until the Savior returns. All those whom we see professing Christ (the visible church) do not necessarily have faith; some join the church for motives other than serving Jesus. These false professors are mixed with true believers in the visible church, but not forever. For on Judgment Day those who never possessed saving trust in Christ will find eternal punishment (vv. 49–50).
Coram deo: Living before the face of God
When people abandon Christ, they prove that they never had faith at all, since those with true faith are preserved by God, never to fall away permanently (1 John 2:19). Still, when we see people leave Jesus, it does not necessarily mean there is no hope for them. Only God knows the state of a person’s heart, and He may be pleased to bring one who has backslidden back into His fold. That is why we must never cease praying for those who have left the church.