READ : Matthew 7:13-23
If you want to get into heaven you should know that what you do is just as important as what you believe or say – perhaps more so!
I remember when the government first required tobacco companies to publish warnings to smokers. After many years of scientific research into the health hazards of cigarette smoking, after much legal wrangling and political debate, a law was finally passed requiring cigarette packages to carry the words:
Warning: Cigarette smoking may be harmful to your health.
As time went on, the warnings increased in both visibility and intensity:
Warning: Cigarette smoking causes serious health problems.
Warning: Stopping smoking now greatly reduces your risk of cancer.
Warnings are meant to deter us from following a deadly course of action. But even when they are not heeded, they still serve a purpose. Warnings leave people without excuse. No one, having been warned, can claim ignorance or say, “I didn’t know this would happen if I did that!” You may choose to disregard a warning. You may think that it’s for other people, not for you. But you’d be a fool to do so!
Jesus also issued a series of warnings, very serious ones, as he brought his Sermon on the Mount to a close. His language is remarkably strong. The closing paragraphs of this sermon contain some of the hardest things Jesus ever said – hard, not in the sense of being difficult to understand, but in the sense of being hard to accept. Jesus does not seem to share our easygoing tolerance. In an age like ours, when most people seem to think that it doesn’t really matter what you believe or how you behave, Jesus’ words of warning strike a jarring note.
His first warning concerns choosing the narrow gate and the difficult road. “Enter through the narrow gate,” he said. “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” (vv. 13-14).
What Jesus is talking about here is the fundamental choice we must make, a choice that will determine our destiny not only here on earth but for all eternity. It’s a choice between life or death, between heaven or hell, and it turns upon whether we will enter through the narrow gate and then continue to walk along the equally narrow path that leads on from there. What Jesus is talking about here in picture language is the decision first to believe in him and then to follow him.
Jesus himself is the narrow gate. On another occasion he said, “I tell you the truth . . . I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:7,9). Entering through the narrow gate of salvation is a metaphor for putting your faith in Jesus Christ, the only Savior.
But that’s just the beginning. The decision to trust in Christ, to repent of your sins and to ask him to save you through his death on the cross, is only the starting point. Once you enter the narrow gate, you have accepted the challenge of following along on the narrow road, which means devoting your life to obeying his will. The narrow road is the way of discipleship. It’s a road because it lasts all our lives long. We don’t reach the end until we get to heaven. It’s narrow because it’s difficult. It demands that we commit ourselves to following Jesus in everything, to seek to live out all of the hard commands of the Sermon on the Mount. To walk the narrow road means to deny ourselves, take up our cross (the symbol of suffering, sacrifice and death) and follow Jesus each and every day of our lives.
We must choose to do this, with an intentional decision. There are many alternative choices. Jesus says that there is another gate, which is wide, and the road it leads to is broad. Most people enter that gate. In any culture, in any generation, those who choose to become genuine followers of Jesus Christ will be in a minority. Most people will follow other easier ways that don’t require as much sacrifice. But all those other ways lead to destruction. Only the way of Jesus leads to life.
Isn’t this statement terribly intolerant? Isn’t it much kinder, much more humane, much more respectful, to say that people can choose whatever way they want, that they should have the right to follow their own faith, their own religion, their own pathway? Shouldn’t we think of life as containing many paths to God, many roads which end up in heaven? Isn’t it arrogant of Christians to insist that ours is the only true way? But remember, we aren’t saying this. Jesus is! According to him, all roads don’t lead to the same place in the end. Going to heaven is not like going from one city to another by any of several routes. That’s a false analogy. The true analogy is that of birth. Just as there is only one way into this world (by being born of a father and mother), so there is only one way to have eternal life in the world to come (by being “born again” by the power of God’s Spirit through faith in Christ).
Only one way leads to God. The others all start out very promising and inviting, and all are thronged with travelers. But they turn out to be dead-ends!
Jesus is the only way to know God and inherit eternal life. That would be a very arrogant statement, if it were not true. It would be a monstrous claim to make. And, of course, if it isn’t true, then Jesus can neither be a good man nor a great teacher. He must be an evil man, a liar who cannot be trusted. But if his claim is true (as all real Christians believe), then it is a warning everyone on earth must hear. “Choose your way carefully,” Jesus says, “if you want to live. If you want to reach heaven, you must come to me and through me.”
Jesus’ second warning is about false teachers.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, 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 recognize them.
People often have a problem knowing whom to listen to. Not only are there all sorts of religious leaders and teachers in the world, but even within the Christian church there are many who make conflicting assertions of authority. Lots of people want to tell you what to think and what to do. They sometimes even claim to be speaking for Jesus himself. But Jesus says that some are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s easy enough to spot a wolf when he looks like a wolf. It’s when he comes in disguise that he can fool people and do the most damage. So Jesus gives us a practical test to apply to all would-be leaders or those who claim to have the authority to teach the truth.
Here is the test: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (v. 20). Jesus says that teachers are like trees. You can’t get good fruit from a bad tree or bad fruit from a good tree, so if you want to judge whether an individual is a true or a false teacher, evaluate the fruit of his or her life. If the fruit is good, it means the teacher is good. He is an authentic representative of the Lord, sent by him to tend and care for his flock. But if a teacher’s fruit is bad, then watch out. Have nothing to do with him. “Good fruit” means sound doctrine (teaching the truth about Jesus as it is proclaimed in Scripture) coupled with a holy life (words and actions which are pure and which demonstrates genuine love).
So Jesus’ second warning to us is to watch closely, to examine both the words and the lives of those who speak to us and want to lead us. To all would-be spiritual guides, we must apply the test Jesus gives. We must look for good fruit, for humility and mercy, for truthfulness and kindness, above all, for love, before we accept anyone as a teacher who represents Jesus.
DOING THE WILL OF THE FATHER
The third warning Jesus offers is perhaps the most alarming of all. Jesus warns us about the greatest danger for all his would-be followers, the danger of profession without practice. It’s a special danger for those who have studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for if we have done that, we have more than enough knowledge about what we ought to be doing. Anyone who has mastered these three chapters from the Gospel of Matthew has had an advanced course in personal ethics. But the real test comes afterward. According to our great Teacher, you and I will be graded not on what we know but on what we do.
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!”
Notice the first assumption behind these words. Jesus assumes that he has the right to determine who goes to heaven and who does not. Those who enter the kingdom of heaven are the people of whom he personally approves. Conversely, to be ordered away from him is the equivalent of being sent to hell. Jesus is speaking here as the judge to whom the final issue of each person’s eternal destiny has been committed.
Second, look at the grounds upon which we all will be judged. Judgment will be based on whether or not we have obeyed God’s will. The only people who will enter heaven, says Jesus, are those who do the will of his heavenly Father. Later in the sermon he refers to “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (v. 24). In other words, doing the will of God the Father is the same thing as hearing and doing the words of Jesus. If you want to obey the will of God, you must follow the teaching of Jesus. This whole passage represents a staggering claim on the part of Jesus Christ. Here he puts himself forward as the one with the wisdom, power and authority of the living God himself. On his lips, the words do not sound out of place.
The final thing here is to observe the list of things that won’t get you into heaven. Verbal profession isn’t enough. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not enough just to recite the proper words and phrases, even if they are doctrinally correct. “Lord” is the appropriate title for Jesus, but it’s not enough just to know that or to repeat it, even if you’re repeating it with fervent emotion. Nor are spectacular works enough. “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.’” Public ministry, you see, is no substitute for personal obedience. Jesus is more interested in whether I live a good life than whether I preach a great sermon. He would rather have me glorify him by casting anger, hatred and pride out of my life than by casting out demons or doing miracles in his name.
Please understand. We do have to call upon Jesus as Lord. And Jesus is certainly not suggesting here that we should not do ministry in his name. But talk alone is not enough, not if it isn’t backed up by the kind of behavior which befits those who do call Christ Jesus “Lord.”
You can be saved only by faith, faith in Jesus. And everyone who calls on the name of Jesus will be saved. But saving faith is never a matter merely of reciting a magic formula. Faith that does not produce obedience in this life will never lead to salvation in the life to come.
Jesus’ warnings show us how to get into heaven.
He warns us to choose carefully:
“Enter through the narrow gate.”
He warns us to watch closely:
“By their fruit you will know them.”
He warns us to live obediently:
“Not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven
but only those who do the will of my Father.”
You’ve just heard the warnings. Will you heed them?