Why do more people not follow Jesus?
That’s been the question we’ve been tracing through this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 13.
Today, Jesus has two final parables for us – one to put the final piece in the puzzle. One to give us the chance to step back and look at the chapter as a whole. We’re going to ask what all this means for our response to Jesus.
We aren’t asking why more people don’t follow Jesus, just because we’re curious. We want to make sure that our own response to him is the right one. And we want to understand how others respond so that we can relate to them in the right way as well.
So here’s the first parable for today: the parable of the net. It speaks of a final separation.
It’s a simple story about a fisherman who put down a net. A dragnet, that brings up everything in its path. It’s dragged through the sea until it’s full, and then it’s brought up onto the beach. And the sorting begins. The bad fish get thrown away. The good fish are put in the fisherman’s basket.
Jesus doesn’t leave us to guess what he’s talking about. 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 blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He’s talking about what will happen at the end of time, when the judgement day comes.
They’re very similar words to when he explained the parable of the weeds and the wheat. Remember those? Verses 41 and 43: “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
Two eternal destinies. Some get to live in God’s house, his kingdom, enjoying living with God, shining like the sun, a life in glory – forever. Others are thrown into God’s furnace, which blazes forever, for an eternity of pain and regret.
There will be a final separation. A great sorting out. Those who follow Jesus, who are part of his family, will face one future. Others will face a very different future.
As I say, this is the final piece in the puzzle. Let’s see the finished picture, look at the whole chapter. We’re asking why more people don’t follow Jesus.
The first answer came in verses 1 to 23, with the parable of the sower and its explanation. The problem is not with Jesus. The same seed is sown in every case, and that seed is the word, the message about Jesus. The seed is not faulty. But it lands in different soils. Some people hear a good word about a good Jesus, and that word makes no impact. Others begin well, but give up when life gets tough, or when other priorities take over. But that word goes deep into the lives of others, and they become fruitful for God in all kinds of ways.
That’s the first answer: Look at any moment in time, at the range of people who hear the word of Jesus. They respond in different ways.
The second answer came in verses 24 to 35. We had the parable of the field that appeared to contain many weeds. The farmer left them. He didn’t uproot them. He waited. And sure enough, by harvest, the field was much more full of wheat. The yeast takes time to spread through the dough. The tiny mustard seed takes time to grow into a tree that the birds can nest in.
We’re looking now not at a single moment in time, but all through time. The kingdom grows and grows and grows. And if it doesn’t look very big, it’s because you’re only looking at your slice of history. Take the long view, and it will be massive.
When we looked at those passages, we said how kind God is to delay the end. To give people more time to turn to him. We said how many of us would not have been followers of Jesus had he returned at an earlier point in our lives.
I used illustrations to help us get the point. The football game that’s not going well, but then we’re given extra time. The exam where you hear the call to stop writing, but then you’re relieved to discover that’s not for you – you’re doing the longer paper, and you still have another hour to go. The Bake Off, where the judges tell you to step away from the worktops, but then they give you a bit more time to get the cake out of the tin.
Those are the answers we’ve had so far. Look at any moment in time, different people respond differently to the same good word. Look at the sweep of history, and Jesus’ kingdom is growing and getting bigger every year. There’s still time for you to join, still time for others to join.
But then in verses 36 to 52 we get a third answer.
First, the parable of the weeds returns, as Jesus explains it. But the emphasis has changed. In the parable, he was focussing on the delay: There’s still time. When he explains it, the emphasis is on the final destinies. Wheat into the barn. Weeds onto the bonfire.
Today we get the parable of the fish in the net. Again, there is a delay until the net is full. But the emphasis is the same: Good fish into the basket. Bad fish to be burnt.
The second answer was that there is still time for the kingdom to grow. Time to become a Christian. Time for you, your friends, your family to follow Jesus. The third thing to say is that there will not always be more time. There will come an end, a final day of judgement, a day of separation, when eternal destinies are set forever.
We may be playing in extra time. But the final whistle will one day go. You may have an extra half hour to write some more answers. But you will one day hear the voice that tells you to stop writing and put your pen down. You may be able to tinker with that cake. But you will eventually be told to step away from the worktop.
And then our destinies are sealed. We either go to live with Jesus in the kingdom of his Father – a future of perfect enjoyment, productive work, total health and well-being, living with Jesus and God his Father forever. Or we take our place in the fire by which God punishes everything that is not good.
The final curtain will fall.
That explains the parables we looked at last time. In between having the weeds explained, and hearing about the net full of fish, we had two more short parables: The treasure buried in the field, and the pearl of great value.
In both stories, the man who found them wanted that treasure, that pearl, more than he wanted anything else in the whole world. The pearl and the treasure were their most prized possessions. They didn’t mind what else they had to give up. Nothing would be too high a price to pay for that one thing.
Now we see why.
The treasure, the pearl, is a relationship with the person of Jesus. The day will come when the whistle blows and the curtain falls. There will only be one question that matters on that day: Do you personally know, trust and follow the Lord Jesus. On that question alone settles how you’ll spend eternity. Not just how you’ll spend the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of the year. It’s about how you’ll spend the rest of forever.
It will be utterly irrelevant how many bedrooms your house had. Which iPhone you owned. Whether you were picked for the hockey team, got that degree, or had three smiling children.
Now you see why the man who found the treasure went and sold everything he had. Now you see why the pearl merchant sold everything he had to buy that one pearl. Knowing Jesus is the only thing that matters. Because although there is more time, there will one day be no more time.
A final separation.
There’s the final piece of the puzzle. Why are there not more Christians? Because different people respond differently. Because there’s still more time for more people to respond rightly. But there is not unlimited time.
Jesus has one last parable for us. It invites us to look back over this chapter, and to look at our lives, and to consider our response to all this.
Let me re-read verses 51 to 52:
“‘Have you understood all these things?’ Jesus asked. ‘Yes,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’”
If we’ve properly taken on board the things that Jesus has been teaching in this chapter, we’ll do three things.
Firstly, we’ll follow.
Jesus is talking about every teacher of the law who has become a disciple.
There were lots of people in Jesus’s day who were teachers of the law. Some held an official job to do this. Others didn’t. But in Jesus’ mind, there is one key qualification. That is to become a disciple.
This is nothing new for us. When we looked at the end of chapter 12, we heard Jesus talking about who his real family is. His inner circle. First and foremost, they were his disciples. His apprentices. Those who go through life taking their cue from Jesus. Who come to him to find rest for their souls, to stop making their own path through life, to do things his way.
The parables have taught us this again and again. We need to be soil in which God’s word takes deep and lasting root. We need to be wheat in God’s field. We need to be the hidden treasure God has found, the pearl he has bought, the good fish in his net.
Whatever else we do with this chapter, we must each make sure that we are followers of Jesus. Each parable we’ve met has shown us that this is the one thing that really matters.
We must follow.
Second, we must understand.
Jesus has finished all these parables. He’s taught them to the crowd. He’s explained them to his disciples. And then he checks this with them – verse 51: “Have you understood all these things?”
It’s not an unnecessary question. Remember that’s the whole thing about parables – their truth lies below the surface. Many hear them, but do not really understand what they are saying to us.
Jesus doesn’t call us to following the dark. He wants us to understand what’s going on. To understand how fruitful his word is when it is taught. To understand the different responses Jesus will meet. To understand the pressures and the pleasures that lead men and women to stop following Jesus, or to be distracted. To understand where history is going, that Jesus’ kingdom will grow and grow over the long term. To understand that knowing Jesus is the most precious thing that any man, woman or child could ever possess. To understand that there will be a day in the future when judgement will fall, when there will be a separation. To understand that death is not the end for any of us, that we live for eternity, but that our destiny is set by our response to Jesus in this life.
These parables are here to help us understand these things, to impress them vividly on our hearts.
“Have you understood all these things?”, says Jesus.
We must follow. We must understand. Third, we must pass on.
If we know and follow Jesus, if we understand his plan for history and for our lives, we are rich indeed. We have the greatest treasure in the world. And it’s too good to keep to ourselves.
“Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
New treasures and old treasures.
God’s plan to save the world is very old indeed. It’s written on every page of the Old Testament. Now that Jesus has come, he’s fulfilled God’s ancient plan. He’s added new colour and richness to what God has always been promising. God did not do something brand new in Jesus; it was the climax of what God had been doing for centuries.
But the point is that we have these things in our storeroom. We have this treasure in our treasure chests. And the thing to do with it is to bring it out. To serve it up. To give it away.
The only way to be a curator of this kind of treasure is to be generous. To get it out of the cabinet, and to show it off, and to let people take it away with them.
There’s a phrase that is used to describe what you do when someone does you a good deed: You can pay it forward. Someone does you a kindness. They fix your car. They paint your living room. They buy you a meal. They put you up for the night in an emergency. “How could I ever repay you?”, you ask? The answer is that you can’t. They did it out of kindness and did not wish to be repaid. You cannot pay it back. But you can pay it forward. You can express the same kindness to someone else.
God does not ask us to pay him back for his goodness. We could never afford to anyway. But we must pay it forward.
Now we know how the good news of Jesus spreads, how his word is received, how his kingdom grows – we have our part to do to spread his good news, to spread his word, to spread his kingdom.
Follow. Understand. Pass it on.
Where are things with you?
Which of those 3 responses do you need to make to Jesus?
Do you follow him for yourself?
Do you understand his purposes?
Then it’s time to pass it on!