Avoiding the Heat
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
With the cold February winds blowing, Pastor Rob Bell
of the Mars Hill Bible Church decided to heat up the theological
climate by publishing a very controversial book--Love Wins.
Bell is the pastor of a 7,000 member church in Grand Rapids, MI. The
church sponsored an art exhibit about the search for peace in a world
filled with conflict. One of the exhibits had a quote from Mohandas
Gandhi. A visitor posted a note, “Reality check: He's in hell.”
The note had an unsettling effect upon Bell. He
wondered how the note's anonymous author could be so sure that Ghandi
was assigned to a place of eternal suffering and torment. Bell asked
himself, how could that person be so certain? Bell wrote his book
with these thoughts tumbling in his mind. In the material, Bell
suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal. Simply
put this means that every person may have a place in heaven.
Pastors and theologians reacted to the book, Love
Wins, very quickly. One popular pastor attempted to evict Bell
from the evangelical community by tweetIng, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary warns that
Bell's book is “theologically disastrous.” A NC pastor was
removed from his pulpit for simply endorsing the book.
I can appreciate the motivation behind Bell's book.
In his ministry, Bell has talked to a large number of people who
struggle over the traditional doctrine of salvation. He could not
reconcile the notion that a loving God would select a few Christians
who would spend eternity in a place called heaven and than banish the
rest of humanity to torment and punishment in hell without any chance
of anything better. Bell believes that this is a misguided and toxic
view of God. He argues that it subverts the contagious spread of
Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy....
Jesus appears to offer some guidance on the matter in
his parable of the net. He concludes this parable with a reference to
a fiery furnace that is customarily understood to be the place of
eternal torment and punishment. However, before we use this brief
reference to paint a detailed landscape of hell, lets review the
context of the passage. The parable in Matthew is part of a set of
stories that have been carefully organized. He has grouped seven
parables together. The parable of the sower, the weeds, the mustard
seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and
the net. A parable is designed to teach one basic truth. This would
appear to make the parables easy to understand. However, scholars
will often disagree over that one basic truth.
Is the parable of the sower about the sower, the seed
or the soil? If it is the sower than it is a parable of failure and
success. We may fail three out of four times but that one time will
bring a huge harvest. But if the parable is about the soil, then it
calls us to examine our lives to see how receptive we are to the
message of the kingdom.
Is the field in which the weed seed is sown the
church or the world? If it is the church than we must be cautious
about church discipline. If the field is the world, then that tells
us that we must learn to live with evil. The parable implies that we
will never effectively legislate morality.
Are the birds that flock to the tree produced by the
tiny mustard seed representative of the Gentiles who will receive the
message? Or do they represent everyone in the whole world will
eventually enjoy the fruit of the tree?
The parable of the yeast appears simple enough,
except if you consider the substance of yeast. We assume that it is
an inoculation ingredient added to the dough to make it rise but if
we recall the ancient story of the exodus it changes the meaning of
the story. During the three Jewish festivals that
required all the men to appear before the Lord, yeast was not
permitted in any of the sacrifices (;).
is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you
shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.
15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without
yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for
whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through
the seventh must be cut off from Israel
Do not offer the
blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.
Do not offer the
blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and
do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until
For the seven days of Passover, all
yeast was to be removed from the house: the only bread to be eaten
must be unleavened. Against this background it is easy to see why
leaven came to symbolize that which was unclean or evil.
“A little yeast works through the
whole batch of dough.”
Your boasting is not good. Don’t
you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?
rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as
you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of
malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of
sincerity and truth.
If yeast is considered an impurity than the parable
implies that God is going to build his kingdom with the impurities of
the world. He is going to build his kingdom with reformed tax
collectors, harlots, pimps, drug dealers, used car dealers and maybe
even with a politician or two. If he can find any that are reformed.
The parables of the hidden treasure, the pearl and
the net are linked together to complete the section. The parable the
treasure and the pearl are often considered lessons on discipleship.
The kingdom is viewed two priceless objects. We are to sell
everything we have to purchase them. The kingdom is more valuable
than all our worldly possessions.
But what if you and I are the valuable treasure? God
sells everything to purchase us? That drastically changes the meaning
of the stories. The two then are consistent with the stories of the
lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son in Luke. God is willing to
do whatever it takes to restore his relationship with us.
This brief survey of the six parables of Matthew
should leave you with the impression that discovering the one single
meaning of a parable is not always easy.
This story of the net brings a change in direction
from the previous two. The other two parables are about acquiring one
single object. This one is about acquiring a host of things, some
good some bad. The single focus is broadened. There is no
discrimination. Everything is caught up in the net and hauled onto
the beach. Then the fishermen sit down and sort through their catch.
In the story the bad are throw away. In the Greek
text it does not use the word for fish, nor does it tells us where or
how they are disposed. It simply states that the bad are discarded.
Jesus likens this to the end of the world as described in the parable
of the weeds. The bad or worthless will be thrown away. Jesus then
likens this to the end of the age when the angels will come and
separate the good and the bad with the bad being thrown into a fiery
I believe that there are several lessons that we
should learn from this parable. First, we should be careful how we
interpret the imagery. Parables are metaphors. They are symbols in
story form. They are not literal records of historical events or
scientific descriptions of objects. They are not proportional
statements of truth. Parables employ images to convey a message.
Truth comes from our understanding of the message not the images in
The final parable has many different images. There is
the image of a net or to use the English equivalent of the Greek
term, a dragnet. Fisherman used these to literally pull in anything
and everything, alive or dead. God is not literally going to throw a
net over all of us and haul us into heaven. The use of the image
conveys the thoroughness, the inclusive work of the kingdom. At the
end of time no one will be excluded.
Another image from the story is the fish or at least
we suppose the fish. In the Greek text the actual word is never used
but rather suggested by the context. The fish represent all of
humanity and the lake the world. We are not told what qualifies
something as bad. We are not told where the bad fish are thrown. They
may or may not have been thrown into a fire that is not the point.
The central idea is separation-that which is good is separated from
that which is bad or worthless.
Jesus then wraps up the parable with his concluding
description of the end times at which the angels will come and
separate the good from the bad and throw the bad into the fiery
Now for those who want to use this parable as proof
that hell exists let me ask you a few questions. In this particular
story Jesus uses four of five objects—the net, lake, fish,
fisherman, baskets—as symbols that collectively convey a truth. As
I just said...
God is not going to throw a net over the world at the
time of final judgment.
God is concerned about humanity not fish.
God will not throw good people into a basket to bring
them into heaven.
If we are willing to understand that these objects
have symbolic value why do insist on the existence of a eternal fire?
Could this not also be symbolic?
This does not lessen necessarily the suffering of
those who are estranged from God. The parable has one very clear
message—a judgment is coming. There will be a separation between
the good and the bad. This cannot be avoided. It does not resolve Rob
Bell's feelings of internal dissonance but it does move the
discussion away from the barbaric. We no longer have to defend a God
who laughs with glee while most of his creation is char broiled.
The idea of hell in conservative circles has elevated
the doctrine to a sadistic level. It has been turned into an
instrument of intimidation and moral terrorism. Lately this has had a
minimal impact upon modern society. Sermons that seek to frighten
people into repentance fall on deaf ears. The subject is reduced to a
meaningless abstraction. A respected Dutch theologian, G. C.
Berkower, argues that this kind of foreboding threat of pending doom
does not characterize the message of Jesus. The gospel is preached to
call humanity from darkness into light. It contains a warning but
more importantly it always contains a promise. The mention of
judgment must always be enveloped with a reminder of mercy, patience
This is why I believe that God is the One who finds
the hidden treasure and the merchant who discovers the pearl. Those
two stories are stories of grace.
I am going to have to read Rob Bell's book and
understand his arguments before I can agree or disagree with him.
Whereas I do not ever want to pretend to know the mind of God, I
wonder how he can completely eliminate the option of judgment. Then
again I would never want to offer a detailed description of the
nature of that judgment.
One sermon cannot resolve the many complicated
questions about afterlife, salvation and judgment. I have only
addressed one passage of Scripture. However, I would hope that this
sermon has caused you to consider another side of the issue. For
those of you who think that the love and goodness of God will somehow
bring everyone into heaven, the parable tells us that there will be a
judgment. For those of you who insist in an eternal pit of fiery
torment, remember you do not know the complete mind of God. Also,
remember that when God's judgment does come it will begin with the
it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it
begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey
the gospel of God?
Peter 4:17 (NIV84)
The Scriptures state that at the end of time many who
think that they were friends of Jesus will discover that they are
banished from his presence.
everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of
heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.