Sunday, 16 April 2017
The Response of Real Disciples (Matthew 7:13-25)
Jesus, in this section of his sermon on the mount, challenges his listeners (and readers) about where they stand with regard to his teachings. His challenge asks them to avoid assessing things by the here and now and instead assess them by the day of judgement.
With regard to the here and now, he mentions three things that may distort our view of the overall situation. They are (1) the numbers on the broad road, (2) the success of religious activities, and (3) the appearance of the house built on the wrong foundation. Obviously he is instructing us to avoid judging by sight alone.
Of course, we are to see the illustrations as located in the times in which Jesus lived. So we need to ask who were walking on the broad road, and who were listening to the false prophets, and who were building their house on the sand? The answer to that question initially is Israelites. Within Israel, there were various ideas being spread about how one could please God and one could assume that they were all connected. But Jesus makes very clear that those teachings are not the same, and that most of them would lead to disaster.
This does not mean that we cannot extend his descriptions to others beyond Israel. But it is striking that those he condemns claim to be serving the true God. It would seem that when we initially apply this section of the sermon, we must begin by connecting it to those who are similar to the Israelites, to those who have a close connection to the truth, but who in reality are far from it.
The broad and narrow roads
The key to this illustration is the gate into each road. It looks as if Jesus is using a crossroads to illustrate his point. The gate to the broad road is wide, the road itself is downhill (is that what he means by easy?), and its terminus is destruction. There is a signpost indicating where the road will take those who travel on it. The gate is so wide you can take everything with you as you journey along. Because it is downhill, the journey is not hard, even for those who have problems.
In contrast, the gate to the other path is narrow. We are familiar with styles, and it is very hard to go through them with a lot of baggage. Moreover, the choice to enter through this gate is unpopular, with not many going through it. Also the road is at times difficult to find, maybe because of overgrowth, but for those who travel all the way it leads to life.
Why is the narrow gate unpopular? Various answers can be given to this question. First, since it is narrow, it is not easily seen. And we know how difficult today it can be for the gospel to have a space in the lives of people. Second, others when they see it, don’t like what they see because in their eyes it looks very unattractive because of its seeming limitations as a road to anywhere meaningful.
It looks to me that Jesus is saying that what is needed are two things. First, at the entrance to the narrow way, one must get rid of baggage, which is a reference to our sins, which requires repentance. Second, when one is on the narrow way, one needs information about how to deal with issues that come along. This information comes from the teaching of Jesus, which is also a reminder that he is present to help on the narrow way.
The false teachers and their followers
The next section of the Saviour’s application concerns false teachers. Jesus indicates that they will look good because they wear sheep’s clothing. The danger is in their hearts. Yet how can we know false prophets since we cannot read their hearts. Jesus points out that we can know them by their fruits, which is another way of describing their followers. Their followers will be spiritually unhealthy.
How can we discover the unhealthy fruit? Jesus says that we should not focus on what they say about Jesus, but on how they react to his teaching about discipleship. He mentions that they will call him Lord quite earnestly (they say the title twice), but that in itself is not evidence that they are healthy. In addition, there will be submission to the revealed will of Jesus, which he calls here the will of his Father in heaven.
In the next set of verses, Jesus may be describing the false prophets themselves or he may be referring to both them and their followers. We are not meant to read those comments about prophesying and casting out demons, and then try and work out which groups today engage in those practices, and then condemn them. After all, Jesus and his disciples also did those activities. What we are seeing here is the solemn fact that those not connected to Jesus can do things that give the impression initially that they are serving Jesus.
Those persons are described by Jesus in two ways. One is that they are workers of lawlessness, which is another way of saying that they do not do his revealed will for his disciples. We have seen in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus prioritised the state of the heart. If the heart is not right, outward actions are meaningless.
The Saviour also mentioned that he will say to such persons that he never knew them. He did not say that he did not know about them. From that point of view he knew everything about them. What he meant was that he and they did not have an intimate relationship. At as basic level, they had not spent time together. True disciples experience his presence as they read his Word, pray and obey his will. They have his company at such times and it can be said of them that he knows them very well from regular contact with him.
The obvious feature that stands out in this section of the passage is the emptiness of a merely external religion, even when right words are said and right actions are performed. Instead the question is, How well do I know Jesus by experience and how well does he know us by intimate contact?
The two houses and their foundations
The imagery of a building and its foundation is often used in the Bible to illustrate different points. For example, Jesus told Peter about how the church would be built on the foundation mentioned by Peter. Paul described the church as a building erected on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. He also referred to the possibility of believers erecting good or bad buildings on the foundation of Jesus. And here Jesus mentions two foundations, each of which had a good-looking building erected on it.
In this illustration, unlike the others just mentioned, the problem with one of the houses is the foundation. The other house had a good foundation, the teachings of Jesus. What would the bad foundation of sand be? Anything apart from the teachings of Jesus. There are lots of alternative foundations – religions, traditions, novelties, philosophies, but the point of a foundation is that it will remain solid no matter the weather.
One day, a storm will come and overthrow the building on the wrong foundation. Probably, the storm here is the Day of Judgement. We can imagine someone expressing confidence that his religion or his other ideas will do him very well when the judgement comes. Picture his surprise and shock when he discovers that it is otherwise. And then picture his sorrow that it is too late.
One detail that stands out from the applications that Jesus makes is that the majority are not always right. This is obvious in the reference to the two roads – the majority are not on the way to glory. It is also present in the reference to the false prophets – they have many followers. Jesus was informing his true disciples that often they will not belong to the majority.
The reference to few finding the narrow way does not indicate whether or not the majority will be in heaven or in hell. What is being stressed is that at any given time it will look as if the majority are not following Jesus. Imagine a group of twenty people. One gets saved in 2017, which means that nineteen rejected it. But what if over the next thirty years the nineteen come to Jesus, one every three years. At the end of the day, all will be in heaven, even if for the first few years the majority were unbelievers. I suppose we could extend the twenty to one hundred, and extend the time period from thirty to sixty or more years.
Jesus mentions three different ways by which a would-be disciple would miss out on getting to heaven. The first is not starting correctly by choosing the wrong path, the second is by listening to false teachers who paid no attention to the kind of lifestyle that Jesus taught, and the third is personal failure to follow the teachings of Jesus.
The proof of a true servant of Jesus is not revealed in the spectacular nature of his actions but in the sanctification of those he is used by Jesus to bring into his kingdom and/or to instruct about his requirements. Holy living is the authentic evidence that the correct message is being declared.
We can also say that the individuals who are lost have no excuse because they have heard the teachings of Jesus. In other words, they had refused to acknowledge that he is Lord of their lives. We all know that there is a difference between a person who has never heard the gospel and a person who rejects it.
The focus too is also on the fact that the persons themselves know whether or not they are genuine. They know if they entered the narrow path, they know if they are spending time with Jesus and getting to know him, and they know whether or not they are building their lives on the sand.