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. 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 the one 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, lawless ones!’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.
This has got to be one of the harshest-sounding passages in the Gospels. Is this talking about Heaven and Hell? Is this really narrow? Can I never have bad fruit, and can non-Christians never have good fruit? Will Jesus really turn away people who call Him Lord, even if they do the right things? What if I have a little sand in my foundation? These are all worthy questions when we try to understand what Jesus is saying here. And frankly, looking at the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt ch. 5-7) seems like Jesus is asking more out of His audience than the Law (Old Testament) does. We will dive into this a bit and try to figure out what in the world Jesus is talking about!
“The Bible Says it; that Settles it!”…
Have you heard that phrase before? Have you said it? I know I probably have! It sounds noble. It sounds like something one would say if he loved God, prayed for guidance, sought instruction, read Scripture, and thought about spiritual things. I have no doubt that this is the case. However, I would suggest that there is something even more important than what the Bible says. Now, I can already sense that some of you are getting red-faced and sweaty as I dare say that something is more important than what the Bible says. I mean, isn’t the Bible God’s words? Who am I to suggest such a thing? But hear me out. Anyone can make any words mean anything. We do it all the time, even without trying to. And Christians have done this with the Bible for 2,000 years. We tried to justify slavery and crusades by just simply saying, “the Bible says…”. The Jewish leaders thought Jesus was a false prophet because of their literal reading of particular passages. It is human. It doesn’t mean someone is dumb or that they don’t love their Creator. But what matters more than what something says (including the Bible) is what it means.
“But wait a minute, Jesse! You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The Bible means what it says and says what it means.” Again, I’ve said it, you’ve potentially said it. Most of us have at least heard it. However, again, as noble and pure and lovingly as someone says this, it is just an overly simplistic and lazy way of dealing with the complexities in the conversation God is having with us through inspired human writers. “God isn’t the author of confusion.” Sure, but we are! Do we REALLY believe the Bible “means what it says and says what it means?” Is the go-to automatic philosophy of interpretation a literal one? Do we really believe that? “Yes, we do,” you might suggest. I want to challenge that.
Mine and Sara’s anniversary is coming up. We haven’t been married too long, but it’s been long enough to learn some things about one another. Have you ever tried talking to a male in your life (husband, boyfriend, father, brother, friend) for an extended period of time just to get the impression that he is zoned out? Maybe he is thinking about something or is watching the game in the background or whatever. You get upset about this and say, “have you heard a word I’ve said?” He responds, “yeah yeah yeah, I heard you!” Did he say what he meant and mean what he said? Or, on the other hand (and I might get in trouble for this one, lol), let me tell you about a word so complex that Webster’s Dictionary doesn’t dare try to define it. “F.I.N.E.” Have you heard that word? Maybe you are talking to your wife, meaning no harm, then things start to seem a bit off. You ask, “are you okay.” And she responds, “I’m fine!” Did she say what she meant and mean what she said?
We use similes and metaphors and nuance, and symbolism all the time without even realizing it. Most of us understand that. My master’s degree is in psychology, but you don’t have to have a psychology degree to know the fact that most of our communication is through nonverbal communication. In other words, context clues matter even more than words when it comes to interpreting meaning. If God is trying to communicate with us, and do so through humans, why would we think that he would just ignore the fact that context determines meaning. The Bible works the same way. Did James literally mean for us to avoid doctors and to go only to shepherds to be anointed with oil when we are sick? Did Paul, in Romans 16:16, literally mean that it is mandatory that we greet one another with a holy kiss and only a holy kiss? Was Paul literally crucified with Christ, but lives, and Christ literally lives in him? When Jesus said, “let the dead bury the dead,” was he saying that only zombies can bury our dead? I think we would all say, “there’s context there.”
And as soon as we admit that, we also admit that the Bible should be taken reverently and seriously, but not automatically literally. That makes us nervous because then the question becomes, “how do we know if something should be literal or not?” That’s a great question that I have talked about and will talk about more in the future. But for now, suffice it to say that “it means what it says and says what It means” doesn’t quite make the cut if we are to take the Bible as it is. (See the link above if you want to see my thoughts on how we got the Bible and how to understand its overarching context.)
We bring our 2000-year-removed baggage to the text anytime we read anything. We often forget that the Bible was written for us but not to us. We forget that it was written at specific times, to specific people, by specific people, for specific reasons, in their specific context and culture. Can and should we learn from the principles to be transformed by the Spirit into the image of Christ? No doubt! But context determines the meaning. We forget what our education, family life, churches, pastors, parents, politics, and so on bring to our lens as we read. And, if we aren’t careful, we can forget that we need to approach biblical topics with great humility.
How Does this Apply to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13-29)?
I grew up in the Church of Christ. I preached for them for almost a decade and went to four of their schools. The CofC is a branch of the American Restoration Movement in the 19th century. The movement started as a non-denominational unity movement that had no creed but the Bible and no central denominational government. Each congregation was autonomous. The Independent Christian Churches, the Disciples of Christ (AKA: Christian Church), and the Church of Christ are all from that movement. Their names started out as nothing more than monikers and descriptions, not official denominational titles. Im full of pride regarding that movement. However, over the years, the DofC decided to just call a duck a duck and claim themselves as a denomination. The ICC are still autonomous and look like the average non-denominational church you might run into. And the CofC looks much different than the CofC in the 1800s. Not necessarily because of what they do but because of how they think about what they do.
There are tons of CofC preachers, members, and/or congregations that don’t fit into a nice, neat, and overgeneralized box. I have worked for three congregations that don’t fit into the generic “CofC” box. I know many many more good ones. That said, if I were to paint with a broad but anecdotally accurate brush, the CofC tends to at LEAST lean towards legalism, self-righteousness, and, yes, cultism. Do they intend to? Of course not! Even in congregations that I would consider to be adhering to the items mentioned above, I can confidently say that the overwhelming majority of people love God, study Scripture, are intelligent, and care for the people they condemn. But the congregations and their teaching are also overwhelmingly sectarian. They have their ways of justifying it, but they are sectarian, nevertheless.
I’m proud of the Restoration Movement heritage I grew up in. I’m proud of the emphasis on Scripture and the attitude of undying dedication I learned in the CofC. I even love the music! But when we talked about the narrow way, we were it! When we talked about the bad trees, the “denominational world” (anyone not CofC) were it. When we talked about those crying “Lord, Lord” and being told, “I never knew you” we thought about anyone who was not CofC but called themselves Christian because we were the one and only true church. “The Bible says it; that settles it!” Right? “The Bible says what it means and means what it says!” Right?
Now, before we laugh or get too judgmental towards our CofC friends, what about us? Virtually no CofC member sees what they are saying and thinking as silly. Do you have beliefs like theirs? Does your congregation? Does your denomination? Sure, not the exact same beliefs, but your own version of the narrow road that you are just as convinced is right. Why? Because of the words of your pastor, or a book you read, or the political beliefs, or what mom and dad said, or tradition, and so on. We all have our own context, we read into this passage and others, and we all draw our own lines in the sand. We all circle our wagons somewhere. But we need to ask what Jesus’ context was when He was preaching this sermon. Context determines meaning.
The Context of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12-29)
Check out 28-29 again. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” I think the last two verses really help us begin to understand the context in which this sermon was spoken. The Sermon on the Mount is Matthew 5-7 and is Jesus’ first major sermon. He was not speaking to Christians or to gentiles (non-Jews). He was a Jew talking to other Jews about their law (the OT, but specifically what we call the Pentateuch or Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture).
First and foremost, Jesus was establishing Himself as the true rabbi. The true prophet. And He was establishing that the Pharisees (religious leaders) were teaching as false prophets. Second, He was explaining the intentions behind the law. As we already discussed, it is one thing to say what the Bible says, and its another to explain and interpret the meaning. He would say, “You have heard it said that…But I say…” This was common practice for Jewish teachers. They would quote a text or an interpretation of a text from another teacher and then give their thoughts on it.
The difference here is that Jesus is the true “Word of God” (John 1). He really knows the intentions behind the words. He would quote a text from the Torah saying, “you have heard that you should not murder, but I say that if you hate your brother, you murder him in your heart.” And other times, He would quote an interpretation of the law that the OT does not explicitly say. “You have heard it said that you shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy, but I say to you….” Hating neighbors was an interpretation of other rabbis, not an explicit command or an intention of the law. He corrects that teaching as the perfect rabbi. He does this for most all of the sermon.
Third, He was establishing that perfection is the same as righteousness is the same as holiness is the same as agape (selfless love) is the same as the image of God. “Law-keeping” is not possible for us, even if it looks like it on the outside. Their righteousness must “exceed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law,” or they will not inherit the Kingdom. The audience is thinking, “how on earth is that possible?” That’s the point! Later in Matthew (Ch. 23), Jesus said that the religious leaders were sons of hell and whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones. In Christ, we are justified from our lawlessness by being made perfect in His righteousness. In the Spirit we are being sanctified and transformed into the image of Jesus and called perfect even in our imperfections. In the Father, we will be glorified fully in His image when we see Jesus face-to-face. We are made perfect in Jesus, we are being made perfect, and we will be perfect. However, it is only possible because when we put on Jesus, we also put on His righteousness. In other words, Jesus shows us that, no matter how “good” we look on the outside, no matter how many rules we keep, we fall short of the glory of Jesus, who is selfless love. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the context.
Love More, Not Less
The following is a demonstration of my points (partially adapted from a seminary professor of mine, Jody Apple). Let’s look at Matthew 5, the beginning of the sermon, from a bird’s eye view for a moment. Consider the context. Remember that Jesus is explaining/interpreting the OT law, describing its intentions, establishing holiness, establishing our unholiness, and establishing Himself as the Word of God (the perfect rabbi). The beginning of the chapter speaks to blessings for those who are poor in spirit. Wait, that’s not what the law says! In Deuteronomy, we are told that if one does the right things, then blessings will come. If one does not do the right things, curses will come. This idea is echoed in the Proverbs. Jesus turns this on its head. The poor are not cursed. They are blessed! Do you see what He is doing here? This sermon is one big paradox! So much for judging by appearance. So much for self-righteousness. It’s all about loving more, not less…
- When you lost your positive spiritual influence, seek restoration and love more, not less. (5.13)
- When you think you no longer want to be seen by the world as a child of God, refuse to hide your light, let the world see God in you, and love more, not less. (5.14-16)
- When you disobey God’s will, or on the other hand, feel self-righteous, walk in humility and love more not less. (5.19-20)
- When you want to say something hurtful to others, you need to love more, not less. (5.21-22)
- When you know someone has offended you, love more, not less. (5.23-24)
- When you owe others — either physically or spiritually — make it right quickly and love more, not less (5.25-26)
- When you are tempted to think about someone in an ungodly, selfish, objectifying way, love more, not less. (Mt. 5.27-28)
- When you want to preserve everything about who or what you have, learn to lose it all for the immeasurable treasure of Christ. Love more, not less (5.29-30)
- When you are married, and thus committed, to your spouse, be faithful in everything, every day, in every way, and honor and respect them until the day you die. Love more, not less. (5.31-32)
- Never lie to save yourself or to hurt others. Loving more, not less means that you will never do so. (5.33)
- Do what you say you are going to do and love more, not less. (5.33-37)
- Do not retaliate, even when others seek your hurt. Love more, not less. (5.38-39)
- When someone takes something from you, love more, not less. (5.40).
- When others make demands of you, do more and love more, not less. (5.41)
- When others have needs that you can meet, give what you can and love more, not less. (5.42)
- Love everyone. Your neighbor. Your enemy. Love everyone more, not less. (5.43-44)
- Pray for everyone. Your neighbor. Your enemy. Love more, not less. (5.44-46)
- Treat people with the same respect God does. Love more, not less. (5.47-48)
What would our world look like if we always loved more, not less? It would look like Heaven coming to Earth. It would look like God’s Kingdom. It would look like God’s will being done on Earth as it is in Heaven. It would look like selflessness. It would look like holiness. It would look like Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount shows us that salvation isn’t about perfection while simultaneously showing us that we are not to use that grace to abuse others. So, in another sense, salvation costs us everything. Salvation is about finding life in Jesus, the source of all life. We find life when we lose our own for those in need. In need of forgiveness, food, shelter, Jesus, kindness, prayer, a hug…..love. We see the same principles in chapters 6-7.
So, Are We EVER Going to Talk about that Text (Matt. 7:13-29)?
Remember that context thing? Even if we miss the context of the end of the chapter, the context of the culture, and/or the context of Matthew 5-6, we can get all the context we need simply by looking at the verse right before the dreaded “narrow way” passage. Verse 12 says to treat others the way they treat you… Wait, that’s not it…. It says, “in everything, treat everyone the same way you want them to treat you, because this is the point of the whole law.” WOW! Talk about a hard and narrow way! The easy thing to do is act like we have the answers because we look right on the outside, and we do everything that we think makes us perfect. That’s easy. It’s hard to treat people the way we want to be treated.
The narrow way is broad love. The broad way is narrow acceptance and narrow-mindedness. “But Jesse, only a few find it!” Exactly! Who among us loves with the Jesus kind of love? Jesus IS the narrow way. He is the way, the truth, and the life. It is in Him that we are made godly. That is, it is in Him that we are transformed into selfless love. Any other way but agape leads to destruction.
Jesus is the perfect vine that produces the perfect fruit (John 15). In the beginning, there’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and then there’s the tree of life. Check out Revelation. Only one kind of tree still stands. The tree of life. It isn’t that God doesn’t want us to have knowledge, but we often make ourselves our own selfish gods with the knowledge we think we have. We often choose self-righteous knowledge over our relationship with our Creator. We separate ourselves from life, from love, from God. One tree looks good, but only the other has good fruit. Jesus is the only person to ever live who only bears good fruit. When we are grafted into Him, He makes all things work together for good. He is the true prophet. All else is false.
“Depart from me. I never knew you.” But wait, these people not only call Jesus Lord, but they also do the things He wants them to do the way He wants them to do them (in His name and by His authority). Why does He say He never knew them? Does He know of them? Yes, He made them. Does He know facts about them? Of course! He knows “the hairs on their head.” The word there is “ginosko.” That word means having a relationship. The self-righteous deeds are nothing to God if we don’t have love and a personal relationship (1 Cor. 13). This passage is not about rigid legalism.
Peter talks about Christ as the cornerstone and us as living stones. Jesus told Peter that his confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is the rock upon which the Church is built. Jesus is the foundation. We all have a little sand in our own foundations. He must be our rock. The cornerstone was the first stone of a foundation. It was the perfect stone by which all other stones are measured and shaped. We are being “chiseled” (transformed by the Spirit’s sanctification) into the perfect image of Jesus day by day (Rom. 8:28-29). His Kingdom shall not be shaken when the storms come.
Jesus is Truth. He is the perfect rabbi. He is love. All of the law and the prophets (even the questionable parts) are summed up in love because love is summed up in Christ, the true Word of God. He tells us what the words mean. He is what God has to say about Himself.
A false prophet is not someone who unintentionally teaches some wrong things. We all do that because we are all human. A false prophet is not a morally imperfect person. That’s all of us. A false prophet is someone whose heart is against the Gospel message and person of Jesus. There’s a tension between Jesus saying that we “will be judged by the same measure we judge others” and saying “watch out for false prophets” in the same chapter. But Jesus and the apostles explicitly tell us what makes one a follower of Jesus.
One might say, “that’s your interpretation, Jesse.” Perhaps!
However, my argument about context is not that we can’t know anything but rather that we are inductively reasoning based on contextual clues.. The clues, in my opinion (though not my opinion alone), are abundantly clear as to what Jesus and the apostles tell us are necessary for understanding the person and message of Jesus.
The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are written a few hundred years following the New Testament. They are not important because they are inspired in the same way as the apostolic letters. I don’t think they are inspired in that way. But they are important because they are essentially taken directly from what Jesus and the apostles explicitly said was necessary. There is a direct line between Jesus and 2,000 years of the Apostles and Nicene creeds. There might even be slightly nuanced interpretations that one could have regardingthe creeds, but ultimately, Jesus isn’t a tyrant. He made us, and He knows us. He wants all to be saved.
Regardless, the Nicene Creed, in my opinion, is the best extra-biblical summary of the message of Christianity. That is usually the basis for what makes one a Christian and what makes one a “false prophet.”
The Nicene Creed
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from Heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his Kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy universal and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
WITH ALL OF THAT SAID…. While I use the Nicene Creed as a standard for unity and faith, it is about facts. It’s a tool. And facts alone don’t come close to a relationship with Jesus and a heart for His message of loving more, not less. If we want to know Jesus, this passage tells us exactly who is. He is the true prophet. He is the Word. He is our standard for unity. He is love. That’s what this text is all about. – Jesse
ALSO READ: White Fire: How Can a Spiritual Family Survive When We See the Same Bible in Different Ways?