Matthew 7:13-29

10 December 2006

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


So, today we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I include myself, because at Woodley Baptist Church we have also been working through the Sermon on the Mount, starting on the same Sunday that you did, and proceeding at the same pace. So this morning, our pastor there is also preaching on this same text. Actually, he's probably just finished — his sermons are long, but we start earlier than you — otherwise we could have set up a satellite live-link and saved me some work.

Anyway, I've been going through the Sermon on the Mount over these past few weeks with you, and experiencing once again the astonishing, uncompromising and all-encompassing teaching of Jesus.

As he concludes, then, if you are anything like me, what you'd really like Jesus to do now is to fudge it a bit. What we want him to say is, "OK, I've explained the Gold Standard. This is what the monks and nuns need to aim for — the real religious fanatics. But frankly, it's OK if you can only manage bronze."

When my elder daughter, Hannah, first started nursery school, she came home one day really happy because she'd won a prize for something, I forget what it was for. When she told me I said "That's fantastic! Isn't it terrific to know that you're the best at something." With all the patronising manner that a three-year old can gather she replied, "Don't be silly daddy, we all got prizes."

That's what we'd like from Jesus, isn't it: here's the gold standard to aim at if you're really keen, but don't worry too much about it, you'll all get prizes in the end.

What we'd like to say to Jesus is, "Jesus, you see everything in black and white, it's just not like that! Surely there are some grey areas! It's all about a spectrum of experience. You're just too literal."

But when we come to this final passage that's not what we find at all. What we find is Jesus hammering home his message with four clear blows. There is no fudge or compromise. There are no grey areas. Jesus' teaching is completely black and white.

Four times in his conclusion he contrasts the true and the false, the right and the wrong response to him and his teaching. And in doing so he draws a line that divides the world into two, that divides the church in two and that divides his hearers in two: no grey areas, no compromise.

A division through the world

First, there is a division in the world. Matthew 7:13,

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.ref

Jesus presents us with just two roads through life, Broadway and Narrowpath.

Broadway is like a plain with no boundaries and no restrictions. You can wander where you want and do whatever you like. There are no constraints at all on the inner lives of those on Broadway, and few restrictions on their outward behaviour either. As long as they don't commit violence or robbery pretty much anything goes. This is the way the vast majority take.

Narrowpath is different. Narrowpath is restricted. Those on Narrowpath are not free to go where they want or to do as they please. Instead they take care to apply the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount to both their inward and outward behaviour. Their journey has boundaries and rules unknown and incomprehensible to those on Broadway. Not many people choose to take Narrowpath.

Actually, put like this, the question isn't so much, why do so few take Narrowpath, but why does anyone take it at all?

Well, look at their destinations. One way leads to life, and one way leads to destruction. Narrowpath ends in life: eternal life, true life, life as it is meant to be lived. Broadway ends in death, futility, destruction.

Now which one will you choose?

There is no third way, notice. Not even Tony Blair could find one. If you are not on the narrow road which leads to life then you are on the broad road that leads to destruction. These two ways divide the whole of humanity in two. If you go Christmas shopping or shopping in the new year sales, just pause for a moment and have a look at the crowds of people milling around you. According to Jesus, every one of the crowd you see is either on the narrow road or the broad road. They are divided into two.

But, Jesus says, of these huge crowds, only a few of them will be on Narrowpath. The vast majority of the crowd will be wandering about on Broadway without the first clue about where it's taking them.

Why do so few find the narrow way? Because it takes a deliberate and costly decision to join it. We can't end up on the narrow way by accident. Look at the text: we need to find the narrow road; we need to enter by the narrow gate. The broad road leading to destruction is where we all start off by nature. And most people simply never think about where they are going.

You can't end up on the narrow way by accident: unless you have found the gate and consciously and deliberately decided to enter, then you are on the broad way. The one that leads to destruction.

It's clearly of vital importance that we find this narrow gate, then! What is it, and where is it?

A division through the church

Well, the next thing Jesus tells us is that the gate is not the church.

It's a trap that people often fall into, to believe that to join a church is to be a Christian. If you attend fairly regularly, you give a bit of money, and try not to be too much worse than the other members, then surely God will be pleased with that!

Well, in verses 15-21 Jesus makes it clear that there is a division that runs through the church every bit as deep as the division that runs through the world.

In verses 15 to 20 he says that there are both false and true prophets, and in verses 21 to 23 he says that there are both false and true professions of faith in him. Let's look at the prophets first.

True and False Prophets

Verse 15,

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.ref

Jesus is talking about the teachers in the church here; the leaders; the ones who are expected to speak for God. That's what a prophet is — someone who speaks for God.

The problem with false teachers, Jesus says, is that they are not obvious. They don't wear badges saying "I'm a false teacher!" . Inwardly they might be wolves, but outwardly they look just like the rest of us sheep. Many false teachers in the church today are such terribly nice people that it seems harsh to criticise them — more tea vicar? But Jesus says "watch out!" , "be on your guard" .

How then are we to recognise the false teacher? Well, it's by the normal Bible test: look at the fruit they produce. Verse 16,

By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.ref

At home we have a few elderly fruit trees in the garden. Not knowing anything about trees, when we moved in in summer I had no idea what sort they were. But I didn't need to get the experts in, or consult a book, or do genetic tests to find out. All I did was wait a few months until autumn, and it soon became clear that a couple are apple trees, one is pear, and one is plum. And a couple do nothing, so I'll probably chop them down and replace them.

Recognising fruit trees is not rocket science, and so it is with false teachers. You don't need to be a theological expert: just look at their fruit.

In the New Testament, a teacher's fruit is shown in three ways.

First is the way he lives his life. Is it in accordance with Jesus teaching? Is he living according to the narrow way, practising the radical discipleship that Jesus demands in the Sermon on the Mount? Or is he clearly on the broad way, living life just as he pleases, without reference to God?

The second area of fruitfulness is the content of his teaching. Does his teaching uphold Jesus' teaching, or does he deny it, tone it down, edit bits out? Is he preaching the narrow way of the Sermon on the Mount, or is he leading you down the broad way?

So much teaching in the church today simply denies the plain teaching of Jesus. Church leaders are constantly seeking to introduce grey areas into what Jesus presents as black and white. We see it in the constant denial of the anger of God against sin. The regular affirmation of other religions, so that Jesus becomes merely a way to God, not the way to God. The dismissal of Jesus' teaching on sexual morality. And dozens of other ways. These teachers might seem to be nice people, with the kindest of motives, but Jesus says that in reality they are wolves, for they end up destroying his flock.

And that's the third, and most important fruit of the teacher: the influence he has on others. Does his ministry result in people who follow the narrow way? Does it produce disciples of Jesus? Does it inspire people to deny themselves and take up their crosses for his sake?

By their fruit you will recognise them. Eventually the false teacher will be betrayed in one or the other of these areas. And the consequences are severe: Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.ref

True and False Professions

But the split that divides the church in two is not only between true and false prophets. There are also true and false professions. Have a look at verse 21.

Not 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. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"ref

Here Jesus contrasts "sayers" and "doers". There are people, he says, who say they know him, who believe they know him, and have evidence of great works to back up their claim, but whom Jesus will reject.

This is alarming stuff, isn't it? But it's the same point that Jesus has been making for the last three chapters. It's not our outward appearance that matters. It's not the claims we make and the appearance of religiosity: it's the state of our hearts. Are our outward religious acts backed up by faithfulness to God in our hearts?

If we call him Lord with our lips, then we must make him Lord in our lives. It is those who do the will of the Father which Jesus is teaching who will enter the kingdom of heaven. Not those who simply claim to do it.

Note that in verse 23 the important thing is not that we claim to know Jesus, but whether he knows us or not. I can claim to be the Archbishop of Canterbury's best mate as much as I like, but if you asked him, he'd say, "Edgington, no never heard of the fellow." The claim is easily checked. You claim to know Jesus: good! But are you sure that he knows you?

Perhaps a good test for us is to see really what we expect on the final day, when we face the judgement of Jesus.

If, like the fellow Jesus describes here, you are expecting it to be something like a job interview, where you will have to produce evidence of all your great works — but I gave so much to the church, I was always there, I preached some great sermons — if you feel the need to compile a spiritual CV, then you are probably on the wrong track.

If you expect that the day of judgement will be like being reunited with an old friend, then you are probably on the right track.

So, to recap. We've looked at the division that runs through the world: the broad way and the narrow way. And we've seen that the church in itself is not the gate to the narrow way, because exactly the same division splits the church in two: there are false prophets and true prophets; there are false professions of faith and true professions of faith.

So what, then, is the gate: how do we find and join this narrow way?

Well, Jesus spells it out in verses 24 to 27, where he describes a division between his hearers.

A division between hearers

Everyone knows this story! When the wise man built his house he dug down deep until he found solid rock to build on: he put in good foundations and built his house on them. The foolish man didn't bother with all of that. He just threw up his house on top of the sand. Perhaps Jesus has in mind a dry river bed that will flood in winter.

This story appears in loads of my daughters' Bible Story books. But the way it's usually presented is more like the story of the Three Little Pigs than the picture Jesus describes. In the kiddies' version of this story the wise man always builds a beautiful, solid looking dwelling out of stone and cement, whereas the foolish man just whacks up a few planks of wood.

Needless to say, this misses Jesus' point completely. The point is not about the quality of the house, it's all about the quality of its foundations.

The house represents your life, and your life might look outwardly much the same as anyone else's. This is what we tend to compare isn't it? "I'm a better person than Fred, so I'm bound to be alright, aren't I?" , "I'm not as good as Jane, but she's practically a saint" .

Jesus isn't talking about all that. He's talking about the unseen bit: the foundations. And we can't compare each other's foundations: by their nature they are hidden. When we had an extension built the building officer had to come and check the foundations while they were still deep holes in the ground. Now there's a building on top of them it's practically impossible to tell if the job is done right.

One day, we're told, the foundation of our life will be tested. And whatever the outward appearance, whether our lives look like mansions or hovels, it is only the quality of that foundation that matters.

The storm will come, much fiercer that the weather we've had lately. Much fiercer than the tornado that happened in London on Thursday. The storm might be events in our lives that batter us, or it might be the judgement on the final day. But one day it will come, and the strength of our foundations will be tested.

So, how can we make sure our foundations are solid? Once again, good foundations are not built by accident. Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house on the rock. Whatever kind of life we are building, it needs to be consciously founded on obedience to Jesus.

We are the hearers Jesus is talking about. Like Jesus' original hearers on that mountainside that day, we've heard his sermon. We've had the luxury of having it explained and expounded over a number of weeks. What are we going to do about it?

Many today will happily affirm that this is great ethical teaching. That it secures Jesus' place among the great religious leaders of history. That the so-called "golden rule" is the pinnacle of spiritual understanding.

But of that many, how few will strive to do what it says; to put it into practise. Foolish people! What about us? What are we going to do?


How do you feel as we come to the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

It may be that you feel troubled. Jesus' demands are just so hard; the standard he sets is just too high. You try to live out his teaching, to follow the narrow way, but time and again you stray. You are worried that though you call him Lord, Lord, it all might be for nothing.

Is that how you feel? It's exactly how I feel.

But what you and I need to remember is that these three chapters are not the whole work of Jesus. It is precisely because we cannot keep this teaching that Jesus went on to the cross to die for us.

Jesus freed us from the burden of having to perfectly keep all God's commands, because he kept them for us. Although he was always on the narrow path that leads to life, he chose to suffer death in our place. Although he was the tree that bore perfect fruit, he was cut down. Although he always knew his father, there came a day when his father cut him off, "I never knew you" . And it was all for you and me.

When we need to get right with God, it is to the cross we must go. The Sermon on the Mount, as we try to obey it will send us there again and again and again. When we stop striving to follow Jesus' teaching, that's when we will stop coming to the cross. And that's when we really need to worry.

Finally, as we've looked this morning at the division that splits the world and the division that splits the church, it is quite possible that, for one or two of you here, you've come to realise that you are not on that narrow way after all: you've never made that conscious decision to enter by the narrow gate: to be bound by the teaching of Jesus, to make him your Lord rather than going your own way. You've never made a conscious decision to found your life on the teaching of Jesus.

Well, Jesus is clear: there is no third way. You're either on the narrow way or the broad way; your foundation is either solid or non-existent; you're either heading for life or death. It's as stark as that. And if you want life, then you need to choose life.

This might all be new to you or you might have been a church-goer for years: you might even be a teacher or leader. The message of Jesus is: that's not what matters. What matters is, does he know you? It's not yet too late to make sure of it.