Listening for God's Voice
Beginning the Journey (for new Christians).
1, 2, and 3 John
1 & 2 Thessalonians
1 & 2 Timothy
2 Peter, Jude
7 Last Words of Christ
Christ Powered Life (Rom 5-8)
David, Life of
Glorious Kingdom, The
Jesus and the Kingdom
Lamb of God
Names of God
Names of Jesus
Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
Sermon on the Mount
13. Enter the Narrow Gate (Matthew 7:13-29)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Carl Heinrich Bloch (Danish painter, 1834-1890), detail from "Sermon on the Mount," Full image.
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. 14 'But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
15 "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
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. 22 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?" 23 Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"
24 'Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.'
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law." (7:13-29)
Too often we Christians live in the land of gray, a land devoid of moral absolutes, a land that has so dulled the cutting edge of our faith that we have accepted lethargy and disobedience as our daily fare, and almost believe our own rationalizations. At the conclusion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the Jesus Manifesto, we find a wake-up call, a call to listen and obey, a call to follow.
Jesus, the consummate teacher, conveys the urgency of his call in a series of word pairs that draw the issues sharply:
|Narrow gate||Wide gate (13)|
|Narrow path||Broad way (14)|
|(True prophets)||False prophets (15)|
|Good fruit||Bad fruit (16-20)|
|Good tree||Bad tree (16-20)|
|Doers of his will||Mere professors (21-23)|
|Wise man||Foolish man (24-27)|
|Did not fall||Fell with a great crash (24-27)|
This passage examines deceit and discernment, first at the level of the masses ("broad is the way"), then at the level of the congregation ("false prophets" who are "wolves in sheep's clothing"), and finally at the personal level where we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we can hear without obeying.
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. 14 'But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (7:13-14)
Sometimes Christian salvation is portrayed in such generous terms that all people will be saved -- even the devil. This kind of teaching is called universalism. In the New Age Movement and some of its Eastern Religion roots we hear the view that there are many roads to God, and that the World's Great Teachers -- Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed -- all brought great truths, many of which are similar. There are many roads that lead to God, this teaching suggests. And eventually everyone finds God. Except, perhaps, for the evil few such as Hitler and the like.
But what Jesus teaches is much different -- radically different. In verses 13-14 we see:
- A Command : Enter through the narrow gate.
- An Explanation :
(a) For the gate is wide and the way broad that leads to destruction
(b) And many enter through it.
(c) But the gate is small and the path narrow that leads to life
(d) And only a few find it.
The last sentence has two key phrases:
"Only a few..."We are impressed with numbers. Largest, greatest, most. Jesus isn't. We feel that majority opinion rules. Jesus walked his own lonely path. He called Twelve and named them apostles, and from those Twelve the Christian movement was born. At times in history the Christian movement has appeared to hang by a thread. One person, one small band of people. St. Patrick in Ireland or Adoniram Judson in Burma. If we are to learn to follow Jesus, we must be committed to following him where others will not go. Where we are scorned, alone, solitary.
"... find it."The second phrase is "find it." Finding something presupposes searching earnestly for it. Jesus has just taught, "Seek and you shall find." The way is clear only to those who search for it, for at times it doesn't not seem well-trodden, though many saints have walked that way.
The destination also is startling. One path leads to destruction, the other to life. What does "destruction" mean? The Greek word is apōleia denotes "the 'destruction' that one experiences, 'annihilation' both complete and in process, 'ruin.'"1 Whenever we see the word in the New Testament it seems to promise a terrible end:
"May your money perish with you..." (Acts 8:20)
"... Objects of his wrath, prepared for destruction." (Romans 9:22)
"This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved." (Philippians 1:28)
"Their destiny is destruction...." (Philippians 3:19)
"... The man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction." (2 Thessalonians 2:3)
"... Many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction." (1 Timothy 6:9)
"... Bringing swift destruction on themselves." (2 Peter 2:1)
"By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." (2 Peter 3:7)
"... Which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 Peter 3:16)
"The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction." (Revelation 17:8, also 11)
We know from Revelation 20:10 that the destruction facing the "beast" is called "the lake of burning sulfur" where "they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." This "lake of fire," also called "the second death," is the destination for all those whose names are not found in the Lamb's Book of Life (Revelation 20:14-15). The destruction Jesus speaks of is a terrible prospect, a terrible reality.
We are commanded to enter the narrow gate or face destruction. What about our friends? Our relatives? Our associates at work or school? What is their end without Christ? Part of the essential message of Jesus is a clear view to our responsibility to:
"Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:15-16; see also Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8)
This is a hard message, isn't it? Not too popular in our pluralistic culture. But it is Jesus' message.
Q1. (Matthew 7:13-14) If Jesus' teaching about the narrow gate and the narrow road to life is to be believed, what change would this make in how you conduct your life? What difference would it make to how you witness to your neighbors? How might it affect your acceptance of Universalism?
15 "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (7:15-20)
The second command in this passage is to "watch out for" false prophets. The Greek word is prosechō, "be in a state of alert, be concerned about, care for, take care," here "beware of" something.2
What do they look like? How can you tell if someone is a false prophet? First, Jesus says that they look like everyone else. They come in "sheep's clothing," that is, they look like other members of the flock. But they're also "prophets," that is, they're active in the church, they're opinion leaders, and vocal. I've met a few of these false prophets in my day. To outward appearances they aren't particularly bad people. But Jesus says that their inward character is as ravenous wolves. They destroy the unity of the flock and pull away the sheep who are at the edges to fulfill their own personal agendas.
So how do you tell them from the other sheep? By their fruit, that is, by their words and deeds. There is no one formula for false prophets, but you'll find bad fruit if you look for it.
Now Jesus shifts analogies from sheep/wolf to good tree/bad tree, good fruit/bad fruit. It is impossible, he says, for a bad tree to bear good fruit.
What is a bad tree? It is one whose fruit isn't good for eating. If you have many native fruit trees -- not the cultured ones you buy at the nursery -- you find that some bear excellent fruit. Delicious, succulent, well-shaped. Others bear fruit that is isn't fit for eating in some way or another. It may be too sour or with flesh that is too dry. Or it may be shriveled or deformed in shape. It is in the character of the tree itself, Jesus says: A good tree can be counted on to bear good fruit. Period. A bad tree, no matter how hard it tries to work itself up to good fruit, will still bear fruit after its own character. It may be a beautifully formed tree with wonderful branches and cool shade. But when fruit-tasting time comes, its true nature is revealed. "By their fruit you shall know them," Jesus says.
The Apostle Paul warned the elders of the Church at Ephesus:
"I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears." (Acts 20:29-31)
What kind of fruit do you look for? We're not talking about perfection in our leaders. None of us is perfect. We must be gracious towards one another, and bear with each others' weaknesses. But by bad fruit, Jesus is suggesting:
- Strange or somewhat perverted teachings.
- Dominant character flaws.
- Actions and attitudes that don't conform to what you expect of a Christian leader.
False prophets ravage the flock and destroy sheep. Sometimes those false sheep are the pastors themselves. They teach one thing and then live another way. But when their lifestyle is exposed, it devastates the congregation who had been taken in by their hypocrisy. I've seen treasurers with the sin of greed who can control and turn a congregation away from God's will. I've seen power-hungry trustees take godly pastors, chew them up and spit them out, because the godly pastors tried to actually lead the congregation in God's ways and past the point where the controlling church trustees could take them.
You probably have your own horror stories. I can remember a man whom I'll refer to as Billy. Billy and his wife were dear people who attracted hurting people and helped them. Billy saw himself as a teacher, though he didn't have a teaching gift. But more and more Billy set himself up as someone spiritual in order to draw people to himself. One day he got arrested for being drunk and disorderly and blamed everyone else but himself. I should have seen it then, but I was so intent upon redeeming Billy and overlooking his flaws, that I couldn't see how dangerous he was. Finally, Billy began actively and maliciously undermining my leadership and trying to usurp my authority, endeavoring to set up himself and a couple of other immature leaders as elders in the body. Billy and his wife finally left, but they left behind a wounded and ravaged flock that was never the same again.
I've tried very hard to learn from this experience and not be bitter. There are some wrong lessons, such as: Never trust people again. Or: Hold all the power yourself. But the better lessons are those Jesus wants us to learn, which are: Watch out for false prophets and observe their fruits. I think that means to be aware that there will be false prophets, that our congregations will not be immune from them. And it means to hold people responsible for their actions.
Congregations can be extremely picky; instead we need to be gracious and loving and forgiving. But we must hold to a higher standard those who aspire to leadership and influence (1 Timothy 3:1ff). Leaders who bear bad fruit, who sin, who fail, must be disciplined. Paul wrote:
"Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism." (1 Timothy 5:19-21)
Exercising church discipline when it is needed is one of the most important checks and balances we can have to prevent wolves from gaining ascendancy. Laxity about church discipline creates a breeding ground for false prophets.
Another lesson I have learned is that a person who at one point in time may be of strong character, can at a later time become compromised by sin. Yes, Christians, even strong Christians, can be deceived and seduced by the evil one. The writer of Hebrews warns us,
"See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." (Hebrews 12:15).
We are also to take heed to ourselves (Galatians 6:1; Luke 21:34). Many church splits and heresies are caused by people who initially had a close and true walk with the Lord, but later allowed the tempter to turn them aside from the narrow way.
If you were to look for false prophets in the context of Jesus' ministry, who would they be? The Pharisees, no doubt, who forcefully and publicly led their followers astray (see, for example, Matthew 23). Were the Pharisees entirely wrong? No. The truth was mixed with error. One time Jesus said,
"So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach" (Matthew 23:3).
In other words, their doctrine wasn't nearly as bad as their practice of it.
Learning to "watch out for false prophets" has been one of the hardest lessons I've had to learn in my life and ministry. But I'm learning. I hope you are, too.
Q2. (Matthew 7:15-20) Jesus says that one's inner self will eventually become apparent (Matthew 12:34). What kinds of "fruit" might be clues to a false prophet?
Here's another hard saying:
"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!' " (7:21-23)
William Blake, "Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins" (1822), watercolor, Tate Collections. Larger image.
Why is it so hard? To have the Lord say to someone, "I never knew you," seems overly harsh. How could he not know someone? We see a similar phrase in Jesus' Parable of the Ten Virgins:
"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
"Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'
"But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'"(Matthew 25:10-12)
The Greek word for "know," ginōskō, has a number of nuances of meaning. It can mean "to know" at a basic level. It can also mean, "to understand, comprehend," and even be a euphemism for sexual relations. A rarer but important meaning is "to indicate that one does know, 'acknowledge, recognize' as that which one is or claims to be."3 Thus in our passage it can mean, "I never recognized you (as being my disciple)." See similar uses in John 1:10; 1 Corinthians 8:3; and Galatians 4:9.
In both our passage and the Parable of the Ten Virgins, there were people who considered themselves as part of the in-crowd. They used God's name ("Lord, Lord"), they had gotten a supply of oil so they could be in the wedding procession, they had done miracles by God's power, they had driven out demons. But the final answer was, "I never knew you."
In both cases you see those who are self-deceived. They perceive themselves as true followers, but they are not really. James gave a similar parable of self-deception:
"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it -- he will be blessed in what he does." (James 1:22-25)
This is a chief danger for those, like myself, who have grown up in the church. I've heard (and delivered) thousands of sermons. I have seen and been involved in miracles and exorcisms. Judas had, too. I've even prophesied in Jesus' name. I've read the Bible through dozens of times. I am extremely familiar with the Word. But do it practice it? Do I do what it says? That is the chief question.
Being around spiritual things can be deceptive. We can feel that we are spiritual because we are around the spiritual. We can feel like we are being obedient because we know what is the right thing to do.
In the Sermon on the Mount, it wasn't a question of confessing Christ as Lord or of doing good works. The question was one of obedience.
"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." (7:21)
Do I do what Christ shows me to do, or do I just think about it?
All this emphasis on doing and action can confuse Christians who were raised on Martin Luther's sola fide, "only faith" teaching. This "doing" smacks of "works righteousness," or "salvation by works."
I don't think Jesus' teaching is "works righteousness" at all. Remember his teaching about the tree and its fruit? He is saying that the fruit is the natural expression of the inner character. In the same way our obedience to Jesus is the natural result of an inner trust in him and faith in him -- just as rebelliousness is the result of an inner distrust of Jesus and inherent trust in our own direction-finding techniques.
When James says, "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17), he isn't contradicting Paul's emphasis on salvation as a gift through faith. He is agreeing with it. He is affirming that faith, if it is truly present, will bear fruit in actions. That's the same thing Jesus is saying, "By their fruits you shall know them."
This is the point when some try to give us a false assurance: "If you've prayed the sinner's prayer and invited Jesus into your heart," they say, "you're okay." On the contrary, this is a case where,
"They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14)
This passage is not about offering assurance -- he does that elsewhere -- but about piercing our own self-deception. And we can only do that by looking squarely at ourselves with the help of the gracious Holy Spirit.
I know from personal experience that it is possible to have a Sunday-Go-to-Meeting acquaintance with God. It is possible to have a professional clergy relationship with God. But none of these is adequate. The question is not what church work we do. The question is whether we are personally obedient to Christ himself. Do we follow our faith, our church, our religion? Or do we follow Christ himself?
Christian leader David DuPlessis once wrote a pamphlet entitled, "God Has No Grandsons." We cannot rely on our parent's faith, or someone else's experience or faith. We must come to Jesus and humble ourselves before him as his personal disciples, his personal followers. Our heart must be his, and his alone.
My dear friends! It is so very easy to deceive ourselves. The question is not whether you do Christian things and say Christian words. It is not whether you have had some Christian "experience," as wonderful as that is. It is whether we will do the will of Jesus' Father who is in heaven. It is whether we will be his disciples or our own headstrong, self-willed controllers of our own destiny. Must we do it our way? Or are we willing to do it his way, even if we don't understand all the dimensions of that?
In the last analysis, Jesus will say to those who do not follow him and him only,
"I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers." (7:23)
Q3. (Matthew 7:21-23) How is it possible to deceive yourself, so that you presume that you are "doing" when you are only "hearing"? (see James 1:22-25). How might it be possible to prophesy, drive out demons, and perform miracles in Jesus' name and not enter the Kingdom of heaven?
24 "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash." (7:24-27)
The Sermon on the Mount concludes with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders. It doesn't stand by itself, but is an illustration of Jesus' hard saying about self-deception. The point of the parable is that the wise person not only hears Jesus' words, but also puts them into practice.
In Jesus' day, most buildings were built of stones or mud bricks. In his day and ours, contractors can be sloppy and try to take shortcuts. It's much faster to slap up a house than to build it the right way. But only the right way lasts through the storms.
In the parable, the wise man built his house upon the rock, while the foolish man built his house upon the sand. "The rain came down," Jesus, said, "the streams rose, and the winds blew, and beat against that house...." The well-founded house stood, while the house without foundations fell with a great crash.
I'm sure that Jesus' hearers wondered in their hearts: Which kind of house am I building? Do I have an adequate foundation? And I ask you: Which kind of house are you building? Have you sunk your foundations into Jesus, the true Rock? Are you both hearing his words and putting them into practice in your life? If so, when the storms of life come -- and they will -- you will continue to stand. If not, you'll fall apart.
Q4. (Matthew 7:24-27) Does Jesus require obedience of his disciples? (John 15:14). Is there a kind of true Christian who believes, but does not obey? How do you justify Jesus' requirement of obedience with Paul's teaching that salvation is a gift, not because of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-10)?
28 "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law." (7:28-29)
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto is available in paperback and ebook formats
And so Jesus finished his teaching. The crowds were amazed. They had heard various teachers quoting other great men to bolster their cases. But Jesus spoke with authority, his own authority and that of his Father. And they were amazed.
Many followed Jesus as a result of hearing his awesome teaching. Others just thought about it and agreed with it inwardly and were satisfied with that.
As for me, I want to follow. Will you join me in this journey?
Friends, would you pray with me:
Dear Jesus. When all is stripped away, it's just you and me. How much distance is there between us? Am I following you closely or tagging along behind? Please forgive me for my waywardness. Forgive me for thinking I knew better. Forgive me for ignoring your gentle voice. Forgive me for not trusting you.
Jesus, you died for my sins. You gave yourself on the cross to forgive me. You rose from the dead to assure me of your strong life and presence forever.
Lord, this day I declare my trust in you afresh. Today I'm running to catch up, to take ahold of you, to kneel at your feet. And from this day, Lord, help me to stay close so I can hear your quiet words and encouragements and directions. Help me not to lag behind ever again. Help me to be your true follower, your true disciple. Now and forever. Amen.
- Apōleia, BDAG 127.
- Prosechō, BDAG 879-880, 1.
- Ginōskō, BDAG 199-201, 7.
In-depth Bible study books
You can purchase one of Dr. Wilson's complete Bible studies in PDF, Kindle, or paperback format.
- Listening for God's Voice
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ