READ : Matthew 7:13-29
Jesus’ teaching is most fully expressed in his Sermon on the Mount, an appealing message that ends on an ominous note.
Matthew offers us a snapshot of Jesus’ public ministry in a passage from the fourth chapter of his Gospel.
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching . . . and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread . . . And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
You get a sense from this little vignette of Jesus’ enormous popularity, at least in the early years of his ministry. As he emerges from an anonymous youth and early adulthood and begins to preach and heal people in his home region of Galilee, Jesus quickly becomes a regional celebrity. People flock to him from all over, Gentiles along with Jews, the sick and the well, the healthy and the handicapped, the committed and the curious and the tormented. They all want to see and hear and be healed by Jesus.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus “went public,” his activity focused on three things: preaching, teaching, and healing. This public ministry, which lasted about three years, provides the bulk of the subject matter of the Gospel of Matthew. But Jesus’ ministry is unique in that whatever he is saying or doing, the real subject is always himself. There has never been any teacher or healer like Jesus of Nazareth. Philosophers and preachers talk about God; Jesus always talked about himself, even when he was talking about God.
Doctors and nurses use science and art to bring a temporary remission of illness; Jesus healed instantly and completely with a word or touch. And though he cared greatly about relieving human suffering, Jesus’ primary purpose in healing was to reveal more about himself. All Jesus’ miracles have the same message: that health and wholeness and life itself are to be found only in him.
This program begins a series on Jesus’ public ministry, as described by his disciple Matthew. We will look at the central chapters of this gospel, with their accounts of miracles and parables, sayings and sermons and conversations, all of which build up piece by piece the case for Jesus Christ. What Matthew wants us, when we’ve finished reading his book, is for us to be able to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” And he wants us to be able to answer it this way: Jesus is the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah, the Savior of the world.
I mentioned a moment ago that Matthew describes Jesus’ ministry as one of healing, preaching, and teaching. He does this in a focused and systematic way. Matthew’s is the Gospel, for example, that records Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), which even many non-Christians believe to be the most sublime expression of ethical and moral teaching in human history. But even here Jesus is really drawing attention to himself. His most stringent demand in the Sermon on the Mount is for people to commit themselves totally and absolutely to Jesus himself. This becomes clear when you look at the way Jesus concluded that great sermon.
As the Sermon on the Mount draws to a close in Matthew 7, Jesus issues a series of warnings which are expressed in terms of contrasting pairs: two gates, two trees, and two houses. First he talks about two gates that open onto two ways, one narrow and hard, the other wide and easy. Jesus’ warning is to choose carefully which gate you enter.
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Jesus himself is the gate in this picture language. He would later say on another occasion: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). And the hard way that leads to life is the way of discipleship, of following Jesus. But the wide gate – so wide, in fact, that most travelers don’t even recognize that they’ve passed through it – opens on to an easy way, and that way leads only to destruction. It’s a road that’s crowded. It’s like a superhighway jammed with cars roaring along at 70 mph, all of them filled with people who are congratulating themselves on what good time they’re making as they rush unknowingly toward the abyss.
The narrow gate, by contrast, opens onto a hard way, a tough road to travel, and there are comparatively few who are willing to take it. The gate is faith in Christ; the way is obedience to Christ, and both are essential to salvation. Some people so emphasize faith that they make it seem as though salvation has nothing to do with the way you live while others stress good works to the point that you might think you qualify for salvation by your own moral efforts.
The biblical gospel is more balanced. Our salvation is by faith in Christ, and only by faith, but faith always turns us into followers of Christ. You can’t be on the way unless you have entered through the gate, but if you enter the gate you must follow the way. So choose carefully, Jesus urges. Which way are you presently on?
His second warning involves two different kinds of people, represented by two different kinds of trees.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. . . . every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit (vv. 15-17).
Here Jesus is warning us about the danger of religious hypocrisy. How do you tell the sheep from the wolves when they all look and sound, at least superficially alike? How do you know genuine spiritual leaders apart from the false ones? How do you recognize authentic pastors and teachers and distinguish them from religious charlatans and predators and self-promoters? Look for fruit, Jesus counsels. Just like a healthy tree, a faithful follower of Christ bears good fruit. Once again Jesus is talking about obedience.
If you want to know what the fruit is, just look back at the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart … turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give to those who ask … love your enemies … do to others as you would have them do to you. It’s all there, the fruit of obedience to Christ. This is what is crucial to genuine Christianity. Jesus’ warning here is stark and frightening.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (vv. 21-23)
So if you want to recognize who the real Christians are, don’t just listen to what they profess; don’t even look at the mighty deeds they claim to do, but look for obedience in action. Watch for the fruit, Jesus is saying – and for that matter watch for it in yourself most of all.
Here’s the third warning with which Jesus closes his sermon. It’s to build carefully. This comes in the parable of the two men, one wise and one foolish, who built two houses on two different foundations.
The houses stand for two different lives, not so much different in their general shape or appearance, or different in their circumstances or in what happens to them. The only real difference in these lives is the place where they are built. One is set upon a foundation of solid rock; the other has no foundation at all, in fact, it’s built on a flood plain. But this difference makes all the difference, because one life is able to withstand the storms that come while the other collapses in them.
And whom do these houses represent? Jesus tells us straight out. It’s all about obedience again: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (v. 24). It’s not enough to just hear, it’s not enough to just say, “Lord, Lord.” What’s needed is hearing, talking and doing. That’s how you build your life on Christ, the Solid Rock.
Heed the Warning
Does it surprise you that Jesus ends his teaching in such an apparently negative way, with all these warnings about the necessity of following him? We tend not to take such things seriously anymore. Today few people still think that the spiritual choices they make – in other words, their beliefs – could have eternal consequences. The idea that God would punish someone for what they do or fail to do no longer has much currency. But Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount – yes, that Sermon, the one with all the “Blessed are’s,” and the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule – by speaking frankly about the possibility of a life ending in catastrophic failure, everlasting rejection, eternal ruin. Maybe we think he doesn’t really mean it.
I can remember when warning labels were first required on cigarette packs. They began rather mildly: “Smoking may be harmful to your health.” As the terrible effects of smoking became more and more evident, the warnings escalated drastically until they said things like, “Smoking will kill you!” And still people ignore them. They hear or see the warnings, and they think, “Not me, it won’t happen to me, or at least not yet.” But we ignore Jesus’ solemn warnings at our very great peril, for what he says, stripped down to essentials, is this: Follow me and you will live. Reject me and you die.