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Sermon on the Mount

The Straits

Matthew  7:13-20

Lesson audio

The Way

Matthew 7:13-14 NASB  "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  (14)  "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

 

(It’s an interesting fact[1] that an early name for Christianity was “The Way.”)

The Small Gate

Surely Jesus must’ve understood that the way to getting a very popular religion would not include telling your followers that only a few would make it. The idea that your religion requires a tough course of life is rather unpopular today. In this author’s home church it’s hard to detect a sense of suffering and sacrifice the earlier followers of Christ found as normal. So please approach this as a lesson in what Jesus originally said — and I see no reason to think it’s false today.

The Greek word used for “small” is somewhat unusual. It carries with it the implication that there are obstacles nearby. That’s a common metaphor in Christ’s teaching; you might remember the parable of the sower and the soils.[2] In that parable Christ tells us about three kinds of individuals for whom the gospel message has no permanent effect.

·         One is the person who hears the word — and is immediately distracted away from it. Christ’s analogy is that the birds eat the seed; we need to remember that there is such a person as Satan. He doesn’t want you to hear the gospel, and will do what is necessary to prevent you from listening.

·         The next kind of person is somebody with a shallow life. They’re always searching for the newest and latest thing, and the gospel is just one more “latest thing.” When it looks like the gospel is going to require lifelong commitment, they move on to something else with a little less work to it.

·         Perhaps most deadly is the person who hears the word, begins to grow and then is choked out by the cares of this world. It’s not that I don’t want to be a Christian, it’s just that I have to worry about the mortgage, the car payments, which schools the kids are going to get into and so on.

Surprisingly, when you tell people something like this they react in a rather unusual way. They have the idea that God is not particularly fussy; he’ll forgive just about anybody and that it doesn’t really matter what you believe. Let’s examine that notion. Nature is the creation of that very same God. You can tell what God is like by looking at nature, and one of the most consistent things is that God allows nature to act in exactly one way. We don’t have competing laws of gravity working on survival of the fittest, for example. We have the fixed laws of nature. If you want stuff to work, you have to follow the natural laws. In short, you have to do it God’s way. Tell me: why do you think it would be any different in matters spiritual?

Therefore Christ tells you that you are to “make every effort”[3] to get through this small gate. That implies that there is effort required, but it is difficult, and that you need to get to work.

The Narrow Way

If the gate is small, the road leading up to it is narrow. The Greek word used for narrow has an interesting couple of possibilities. It can often be translated as “crowded.” You can kind of picture a bunch of people coming in from abroad area and trying all final in through this narrow little path. Strangely enough, the word for narrow is closely related to the word for “tribulation” as well. By this careful selection of words Christ is trying to tell you that not only will you find the balancing act of staying on the road quite difficult, but you can have a lot of trouble along the way too. There is some confusion about this word because of the translation in the King James. The word used for “narrow” in the King James is “strait.” That’s the same word we use in “Straits of Gibraltar”, meaning a narrow sea lane that goes by Gibraltar. Is unrelated to the word “straight”, but they are homonyms and this has caused some confusion.

It introduces us to the concept of holiness. Holiness sounds like something that’s very ceremonial, but it actually means something which is set apart. Something which is holy, in the original sense of the word, is something which is set apart for a particular purpose. Perhaps an example might make this a little clearer. But suppose you want to a concert arena to listen to a concert. You, and all the other ticketholders, are going to go through the front door in a large crowd. The rock group which you would door, on the other hand, is going to go through a small door in the back, guarded by a mean, large and ugly security guard. They are going through “the narrow way”; they are in the original sense of the word “holy.” They are set apart. The concept is much the same for us. Most of the world is going to try to get through the front door with the rest of the crowd. Their motto in life is to get along and go along, do what the crowd does, and be like other people. The Christian is told that he cannot do this; he has to try the other path. The result is that you are going to be “different.” Teenagers in America have an absolute horror of this idea; youth ministers worked very hard to teach their charges to be different, while telling them all along that they’re not different, they are really cool, and in fact are not going the other way, but they are leading. One wonders whether this sleight-of-hand is actually effective when the high school student reaches college. The truth is that the Christian is genuinely different; he is walking a different road and living a different way.

Note that a strait is bounded on two sides. A parallel for us would be to look at it that legalism is on the right and “free thought” is on the left. Satan’s intent is to push you to one side or the other, it doesn’t matter which. For once he can push you off the path, you’re off the path. That’s his objective. It doesn’t matter which wrong way you go, you’re going the wrong way.

The Few

Of course one might ask the question: just why does God do it this way? Well, does God really need more than a few? While it is quite the case of Scripture says that “whosoever will” can be saved, it’s also true that God has a taste for using the few, rather than the many. If you recall your Old Testament, you recall Gideon reducing his forces down to 300 men.[4] This just might be a matter of self-selection; after all, Marines are volunteers.

Okay, you are wondering where I got that crack about Marines.

The Greek word for “few” can also be used as an adjective, meaning “puny.” There is an interesting parallel in the Old Testament. Paul references this in Romans 9:27-29, in which he refers to the “remnant.” It is a fact that over and over again in the Old Testament God winnows out Israel by trial and tribulation, Exodus and exile, and returns to himself just a very small portion of those who started out. That portion is called the remnant. God told Elijah that he had 7000 who had not bowed the knee.[5] The same concept is at work here.

That may seem uncomfortable to you. After all, we are raised to believe that the majority is always right — especially in disputed things. If you want to know which way to go, you hold an election, or at least take a public opinion poll. What Jesus is telling you here is that the public opinion poll is likely enough to give me the wrong answer. You have to look for the truth and act accordingly.

A Military Analogy

Matthew 7:15-20 NASB  "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  (16)  "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?  (17)  "So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  (18)  "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.  (19)  "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (20)  "So then, you will know them by their fruits.

 

Pardon this old soldier’s analogy, but I think it a very apt one. The world is booby-trapped. Things look good, but they’ll blow up in your face if you let them. We shall now see how this works.

Camouflage

Have you ever noticed that the traffic department tends to have signs in day glow colors, with flashing lights, simple but gruesome graphics along with very substantial concrete barriers? There’s a reason for this. There are things out there on the road that are not good for you or your car; it’s the traffic department’s job to make sure you don’t run into them. They understand that you’re not particularly good at noticing the fact that the bridges out. They have enough experience to know that if you don’t put up a barricade and a large number of warning signs people will go around whatever you put there and drive out under the middle of the bridge and off the bridge and into the river without hesitation. If you give them a chance, they’ll do it twice. We use bright, visible warning signs because nothing else will work. Even then, people will ignore them.

Things would be a little easier for you to get Satan to do the same thing. But in point of fact Satan camouflages his booby-traps so that you think that everything is just fine; in fact, his booby-traps make you think that everything is wonderful. Let’s look at the major categories.

·         Things usually start with the temptations of the flesh. A young man’s fancy very quickly turns to… A young woman. We are very good at making excuses and rationalization for our behavior, and it is no secret that most Christians today believe there is nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage. As a personal observation, the ministry seems to have given up speaking against this. The facts haven’t changed however; a promiscuous start in life makes maintaining a long-term marriage relationship much more difficult. Camouflage? How about the statement, “how can anything his beautiful a sex possibly be wrong?” Isn’t that just simply moral camouflage?

·         The temptations the flesh may eventually fade — though I’ve known some elderly men who have vintage testosterone — but there quickly replaced by the temptations of the world. We’ve got to have the right car, live in the right neighborhood, have a cabin in the mountains, with a boat on the lake, and our kids in the right schools. All of these things promise us the reward of success. But have you ever noticed that when you get these things, something else always pops up to take their place? If you get the boat, well, then you have to get the right car. Once you have the right car you need to get that cabin. It never ends — until you die and go to hell.

·         The best camouflaged of all temptations is pride. Let’s look at it this way: “I’m too good a Christian to have sex outside of marriage; I’m not tempted by the newest car and having a boat; I’m above all that. I am a great Christian.” You might as well brag about how proud you are to be so humble. Pride is an excellent cure to the temptations of the flesh and the world; C. S. Lewis remarked that it’s like curing your cold by giving you cancer. How so? Pride is the devil’s own sin; he wants to be like God.

Decoys and Deceptions

Of course, once you’ve gotten past the booby-traps of temptation there are still the decoys and deceptions. It’s not sufficient to avoid the wrong things; you also have to do the right things. Decoys and deception tries to fool you into doing something other than the right thing, thinking that it is the right thing. Let me give you some examples.

·         One of the most common is legalism. We’ve been saying all along that you have to find the narrow way, and that implies that there is one specific set of behavior that you have to adopt. The deception is that you can adopt a set of rules and regulations to make this happen. How people can do this and also talk about grace the same time is always a puzzle — but legalists seem to be particularly good at solving it.

·         Another deception, quite common these days, is the message of cheap grace. Jesus is presented as Savior, but not as Lord. If you’re having problems with your life, Jesus is the answer. Raise your hand and join the church and all will be well. Repentance? Well, we don’t really think that’s all that necessary. After all, you have problems, not sins. This is often presented as the antidote to legalism. You will not die cyanide poisoning if the strychnine get you first.

·         Perhaps the most common throughout Christian history is the idea that you can be a Christian with a limited commitment. One writer put it that you “do a corner in Jesus Christ.” Jesus is confined to the holy section of the house, prominently displayed so that all will know that you are a real Christian. As long as you do what’s on the minimum to do list, you’re just fine.

By Their Fruits

We have identified several of the decoys and deceptions, and the camouflage temptations. The problem, of course, is that we can’t give you every explicit minor detail of how these things are going to work. How do you know when you’re being misled?

First, you’re going to be misled by people. You notice that all of those mistakes up there are created by, administered by and enthusiastically supported by people. So the real question boils down to this: how do you know which people are misleading you? Remember, some of those people misleading you don’t know that that’s what they’re doing; they are sincerely wrong. They may be goodhearted about it, but wrong. To put it in my mother’s language, “all the other lemmings are going over the cliff…” So you see that you can’t just look for an evil personality. If I might be pardoned a personal example: I wear an eye patch just like a pirate. Most of the time the little children think it’s cool, but every now and then I find a four-year-old who is convinced that they have found the source of all evil. They judge me by my looks. We have the same problem as adults, though we are usually not fooled by an eye patch. But we might be fooled by smooth speech, dignified position or worldly success. So what are we supposed to do?

We are supposed to judge them by the fruits they produce. The first thing we have to notice about this is that this will take time and patience. It’s not something you can tell right away. So be patient about it, think kindly of people — but be on your guard.

One of the key problems you have here is that these people will be inside the church. Do you remember the parable of the wheat and the weeds?[6] Christ makes it explicitly clear that there will be people who are deceivers who are in the church; he will not remove them until he comes again to judge the living and the dead. The reason is very simple; if you were those people out of their seats at the first sign of trouble, the church will be in constant turmoil. It is just possible that Christ is being merciful to people like this in the hopes that they will not continue to be misled, and therefore mislead others. So then have to face the fact that the deceivers are within us. So what are we looking for?

·         The most obvious sign is that they cause dissension and disharmony. This is necessarily an absolute indicator, but it is something to watch. The reason it’s not an absolute indicator is that if someone comes into the church with a brand-new doctrine that smells a little funny, the people who think it smells funny can also be accused of causing dissension and disharmony. Spotting dissension and disharmony is fairly easy; knowing who’s at fault is a little more difficult.

·         One way to tell which person is causing the problem is to look for signs of obviously false and unsound doctrine. If your minister is telling you to light a candle, cross your legs on your yoga mat and recite “Om” then perhaps you should be on your guard.

·         Another good sign that you have a problem is in the leader who is obviously in it for personal gain. The most obvious kind of personal gain is monetary; this fact causes me to question those who preach the “prosperity gospel.” As Ray Stevens sings it, would Jesus wear a Rolex? But there is also the personal gain of status and ego. Please make a distinction here: there are some of us who are plain pigs for praise and compliments. We do what we do because of the love of the Lord, but when you tell us that were good at it we like it. There are others who do it because it enhances their position in life and strokes their ego. The difference will become plain in time; those who do it for ego gratification will be reluctant to offend you with the truth. Those who do it for the love of the Lord will be reluctant to conceal the truth from you because the damage that would do.

Who Is He?

All this leads up to the question: just how do I know what this narrow gate and way really are? If you want the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. It’s not “what?” It’s “who?”

Who Is Jesus?

The great paradox of Christianity is that it is not a set of rules and regulations; it is not so much a lifestyle as a Lordship. The small gate in the narrow way is Jesus. In that most personal of Gospels, John, we see Jesus describes this way:

·         He calls himself the door of the sheep[7]. He is explicitly telling you that the path is following him wherever it might lead. He is the entrance portal.

·         He calls himself “the good Shepherd.”[8] This is a commonly used phrase; consider its implications. The Shepherd guides his sheep; Jesus guides his followers. The Shepherd protects his sheep; if you let him, he will protect you. The question is whether or not you will act like sheep — and follow.

·         He calls himself “the true vine.”[9] We’ve been talking about recognizing people by their fruits; it applies to those of good fruits as well. If you see someone whose life is full of the fruit of the Spirit then you know that this is someone who is in living contact with Jesus. Conversely, however, if they are not in living contact with Jesus you will not see those fruits. It is therefore important that you examine yourself to see if you find those fruits of the Spirit.[10]

·         You are what you eat — or at least they told us that back in college when were eating the food at the dorm. It was not an encouraging thought. But the principle applies spiritually; Christ tells us that he is the “bread of life.”[11] If you spend your time watching salacious sitcoms, filling your mind with the world’s philosophy, when you should be in contact with your Lord (learning what he wants you to learn), the results will quickly become clear. Is your spiritual leader Jesus Christ, or Homer Simpson?

·         He tells you that he is “the light of the world.” [12] let’s take that a little more literally than usual. Most of the people in this world have no idea why the world is so screwed up. That’s why politicians can sell them any number of crazy ideas; if you don’t know what the problem is, it’s really hard to pick the right solution. If something goes bump in the night, you turn on the light to see what it is. We do that physically, but were really reluctant to do that spiritually. The spiritual equivalent is listening to Jesus, particularly in reading the Scriptures. Do this long enough, the light goes on, and you see what’s really wrong with this world. You may not be able to fix it, but you can at least duck.

·         In this world he is “the way, the truth and the Life.” That sums it up about nicely. As one of the great Saints observed, without the way there is no going. Without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living.[13]

·         It is not just in this world that he is our Shepherd, but also in the world to come. As he told Martha, he is the “resurrection and the life.”[14] if we have guidance and light in this world only, we still face the same fate of all mankind: death. But our Lord has promised to return, bringing with him those who have died in the faith. We are to be raised to a new body, given the new life in the new heaven and the new earth. I do not know what this means; but I know who said it — and I trust him completely. He will make it happen.

The very son of God descended from heaven and became a man like us. He was sacrificed on the cross, died and then rose again. He ascended into heaven and will return — soon. The small gate and the narrow way are not a “what”; they are “who.”

Take up the Cross

There is a curious consistency among those who Jesus best. They will consistently tell you that the Christian life consists of taking up the Cross. The three most consistent themes that arise when someone mentions this are these:

·         Sacrifice. In this world you going to have trouble, and if you want to do what is right and follow your Lord and Master, you are going to have to sacrifice. You’re going to have to give up what the world calls good things. You may have to sacrifice your possessions; your ego; your desires; sometimes even those you love. You sacrifice a lower priority for the highest priority.

·         You are going to endure suffering. Trust me on this one, the world is going to make it happen. Christ said he is the light of the world; he also said that you and I are the light of the world. The truth is the cockroaches don’t like it when the light goes on. Unfortunately, the cockroaches are in charge.

·         You must approach all of this with a childlike faith. Christianity is not the religion of the cynic or the doubter, but the one who trusts. It is no accident that one of the great descriptions of the church is as the bride of Christ. Those who been married any length of time will tell you that trust is absolutely essential to a successful marriage relationship. That’s true with a man and woman; that’s true with Christ and his church. Keep the faith.

This is sort of like the final exam in your algebra class. You’d like it to be easy; it’s hard. But it’s not optional; if you want to pass, there’s only one way to solve the problems. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.



[1] See Acts 24:22

[2] Matthew 13:3-9

[3] Luke 13:24, which is the parallel passage.

[4] Judges 7:1-8

[5] First Kings 19:18

[6] Matthew 13:24-30

[7] John 10:7

[8] John 10:11

[9] John 15:1

[10] Galatians 5:22-23

[11] John 6:8

[12] John 8:12

[13] Thomas a Kempis

[14] John 11:25

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