Making the Right Decisions

 

Week of September 30, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Matthew 7:13-29.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about choosing to build your life on Jesus and His teachings.

 

Choose the Way of Life:  Matthew 7:13-14.

 

[13]  "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. [14]  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.  [ESV]

 

[13-14]  What is immediately striking about these verses is the absolute nature of the choice before us. We would all prefer to be given many more choices than only one. But Jesus cuts across our easy-going syncretism. He will not allow us the comfortable solutions we propose. Instead He insists that ultimately there is only one choice, because there are only two possibilities to choose from. First, there are two ways. This concept is found already in the Old Testament. Now Jesus elaborates on this concept. One way is easy. The word means ‘broad, spacious, roomy’. There is plenty of room on it for diversity of opinions and laxity of morals. It is the road of tolerance and permissiveness. It has no curbs, no boundaries of either thought or conduct. Travelers on this road follow their own inclinations, that is, the desires of the human heart in its fallenness. Superficiality, self-love, hypocrisy, mechanical religion, false ambition, censoriousness – these things do not have to be learnt or cultivated. Effort is needed to resist them. No effort is required to practice them. That is why the broad road is easy. The hard way, on the other hand, is narrow. Its boundaries are clearly marked. Its narrowness is due to God’s revelation which restricts pilgrims to the confines of what God has revealed in Scripture to be true and good. It is a fact that revealed truth imposes a limitation on what Christians may believe, and revealed goodness on how we may behave. And in a sense this is hard. Yet in another sense, Christ’s hard and narrow way is also to be welcomed as His easy yoke and light burden [Mt. 11:30]. Secondly, there are two gates. The gate leading to the easy way is wide, for it is a simple matter to get on to the easy road. There is evidently no limit to the luggage we can take with us. We need leave nothing behind, not even our sins, self-righteousness or pride. The gate leading to the hard way, on the other hand, is narrow. One has to look for it to find it. It is easy to miss. Further, in order to enter it we must leave everything behind – sin, selfish ambition, covetousness, even if necessary family and friends. For no one can follow Christ who has not first denied himself. Thirdly, there are two destinations. Jesus taught that the easy way, entered by the wide gate, leads to destruction. By contrast, the hard way, entered by the narrow gate, leads to life, even to that eternal life which Jesus explained in terms of fellowship with God, beginning here but perfected hereafter, in which we see and share His glory, and find perfect fulfillment as human beings in the selfless service of Him and or our fellows. Fourthly, there are two crowds. Entering by the wide gate and travelling along the easy road to destruction are many. The broad and easy road is a busy thoroughfare, thronged by pedestrians of every kind. The narrow and hard way which leads to life, however, seems to be comparatively deserted: those who find it are few. Jesus seems to have anticipated that His followers would be (or at least would appear to be and feel themselves to be) a despised minority movement. He saw multitudes on the broad road, laughing and carefree with apparently no thought for the dreadful end to which they are heading, while on the narrow road there is just a happy band of pilgrims, hand in hand, backs turned upon sin and faces set towards the Celestial City. We should not draw from this the conclusion that the final number of God’s redeemed will be small. If we compare Scripture with Scripture, we shall want to put alongside this teaching of Jesus the vision of John that the redeemed before God’s throne will be a great multitude which no man could number [Rev. 7:9]. The one word which is common to both crowds, the few and the many, is the verb enter. It is because the many enter by the wide gate that Jesus urges His hearers to enter by the narrow gate. This implies that neither crowd is ignorant of the issues: each has been presented with a choice and has deliberately entered one or the other way. To recapitulate, there are according to Jesus only two ways, hard and easy (there is no middle way), entered by two gates, broad and narrow (there is no other gate), trodden by two crowds, large and small (there is no neutral group), ending in two destinations, destruction and life (there is no third alternative). It is hardly necessary to comment that such talk is extremely unfashionable today. People like to be uncommitted. Everybody resents being faced with the necessity of a choice. But Jesus will not allow us to escape it.

 

Recognize Genuine Disciples:  Matthew 7:15-23.

 

[15]  "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. [16]  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? [17]  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. [18]  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. [19]  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [20]  Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. [21]  "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. [22]  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?' [23]  And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'  [ESV]

 

[15-20]  In telling us to beware of false prophets Jesus instructs us that there is such a thing as an objective standard of truth from which the falsehood of the false prophets is to be distinguished. The very notion of false prophets is meaningless otherwise. In biblical days a true prophet was one who taught the truth by divine inspiration, and a false prophet one who claimed the same divine inspiration but actually propagated untruth. Jesus held that truth and falsehood excluded one another, and that those who propagate lies in God’s name are false prophets, of whom His followers must beware. We learn from the metaphor Jesus uses in verse 15 that these false prophets are both dangerous and deceptive. Their danger is that in reality they are wolves who was the natural enemy of sheep. One of the major characteristics of false prophets in the Old Testament was their amoral optimism, their denial that God was the God of judgment as well as of steadfast love and mercy. Such talk was a grave disservice to the people of God. It gave them a false sense of security. It lulled them to sleep in their sins. It failed to warn them of the impending judgment of God or tell them how to escape it. It is surely not an accident, therefore, that Jesus’ warning about false prophets in the Sermon on the Mount immediately follows His teaching about the two gates, ways, crowds and destinations. For false prophets are adept at blurring the issue of salvation. Some so muddle or distort the gospel that they make it hard for seekers to find the narrow gate. Others try to make out that the narrow way is in reality much broader than Jesus implied, and that to walk it requires little if any restriction on one’s belief or behavior. Yet others, perhaps the most pernicious of all, dare to contradict Jesus and to assert that the broad road does not lead to destruction, but that as a matter of fact all roads lead to God, and that even the broad and the narrow roads, although they lead off in opposite directions, ultimately both end in life. No wonder Jesus likened such false teachers to ravenous wolves, not so much because they are greedy for gain, prestige or power, but because they are extremely dangerous. They are responsible for leading some people to the very destruction which they say does not exist. They are more than dangerous; they are also deceptive. They sneak into the flock in the disguise of sheep. As a result, the unwary actually mistake them for sheep and give them an unsuspecting welcome. Their true character is not discovered until too late and the damage has been done. In other words, a false teacher does not announce and advertise himself as a purveyor of lies; on the contrary he claims to be a teacher of the truth. Not only does he feign piety, but he often uses the language of historic orthodoxy, in order to win acceptance from the gullible, while meaning by it something quite different, something destructive of the very truth he pretends to hold. So Beware Jesus warns. We must be on our guard, pray for discernment, use our critical faculties and never relax our vigilance. In verse 16 Jesus changed His metaphor from sheep and wolves to trees and their fruit. In so doing He moved from the risk of non-recognition to the means of recognition. Although you may indeed sometimes mistake a wolf for a sheep, He seems to say, you cannot make the same mistake with a tree. No tree can hide its identity for long. Sooner or later it betrays itself, by its fruit. Not only is the character of the fruit determined by the tree, but its condition too. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit [18]. And the day of judgment will finalize the difference, as when non-fruit bearing trees are cut down and burnt [19]. Therefore (for this is the conclusion which Jesus emphasizes twice) you will recognize them by their fruits [16,20]. What are these fruits? The first kind of fruit by which false prophets reveal their true identity is in the realm of character and conduct. Whenever we see in a teacher the meekness and gentleness of Christ, His love, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control, we have reason to believe Him to be true, not false. On the other hand, whenever these qualities are missing, and the works of the flesh are more apparent than the fruit of the Spirit, we are justified in suspecting that the prophet is an impostor, however pretentious his claims and false his teaching. But a prophet’s fruits are not only his character and manner of life. A second fruit is the prophet’s actual teaching. We have a responsibility to test a teacher by his teaching. In examining a teacher’s credentials, then, we have to examine both his character and his message. A third test which we must apply to teachers concerned their influence. We have to ask ourselves what effect their teaching has on their followers. Of course the application of the fruit test is not altogether simple or straightforward. For fruit takes time to grow and ripen. We have to wait for it patiently. We also need an opportunity to examine it closely, for it is not always possible to recognize a tree and its fruit from a distance. What is needed is a close and critical scrutiny of a teacher’s character, conduct, message, motives and influence. This warning of Jesus gives us no encouragement, however, either to become suspicious of everybody or to take up as our hobby the disreputable sport known as ‘heresy-hunting’. Rather it is a solemn reminder that there are false teachers in the church and that we are to be on our guard. Truth matters. For it is God’s truth and it builds up God’s church, whereas error is devilish and destructive. If we care for God’s truth and for God’s church, we must take Christ’s warning seriously.

 

[21-23]  Jesus confronts us with Himself, sets before us the radical choice between obedience and disobedience, and calls us to an unconditional commitment of mind, will and life to His teaching. The way He does it is to warn us of two unacceptable alternatives, first a merely verbal profession [21-23] and secondly a merely intellectual knowledge [24-27]. Neither can be a substitute for obedience; indeed each may be a camouflage for disobedience. Jesus emphasizes with great solemnity that on a thoroughgoing obedience our eternal destiny depends. The people Jesus is describing in 7:21-23 are relying for salvation on a creedal affirmation, on what they say to or about Christ. But our final destiny will be settled, Jesus insists, neither by what we are saying to Him today, nor by what we shall say to Him on the last day, but by whether we do what we say, whether our verbal profession is accompanied by moral obedience. Now a verbal profession of Christ is indispensable. In order to be saved, wrote Paul, we have to confess with our lips and believe in our hearts [Rom. 10:9-10]. And a true profession of Jesus as Lord is impossible without the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 12:3]. The kind of Christian profession Jesus describes in these verses appears to be wholly admirable. Here are people who call Jesus Lord with courtesy, orthodoxy and enthusiasm, in private devotion and in public ministry. What can be wrong with this? In itself nothing. And yet everything is wrong because it is talk without truth, profession without reality. It will not save them on the day of judgment. The reason for their rejection by Jesus is that their profession was verbal, not moral. It concerned their lips only, and not their life. They called Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’, but never submitted to His lordship, or obeyed the will of His heavenly Father. The vital difference is between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’. The reason Christ the Judge will banish them from Him is that they are workers of lawlessness. They may claim to do mighty works in their ministry; but in their everyday behavior the works they do are not good, but evil. Of what value is it for such people to take Christ’s name on their lips? We who claim to be Christians in our day have made a profession of faith in Jesus privately in conversion and publicly in baptism. We appear to honor Jesus by referring to Him as ‘the Lord’ or ‘our Lord’. We recite the creed in church, and sing hymns expressive of devotion to Christ. We even exercise a variety of ministries in His name. but He is not impressed by our pious and orthodox words. He still asks for evidence of our sincerity in good works of obedience.

 

Build on a Solid Foundation:  Matthew 7:24-29.

 

[24]  "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. [25]  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. [26]  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. [27]  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." [28]  And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, [29]  for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.  [ESV]

 

[24-29]  Whereas the contrast in the previous paragraph was between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’, the contrast now is between ‘hearing’ and ‘doing’. Jesus illustrates the contrast between His obedience and disobedient hearers by His well-known parable of the two builders, the wise man who built his house on the rock, and the fool who could not be bothered with foundations and was content to build on sand. As both got on with their building, a casual observer would not have noticed any difference between them. For the difference was in the foundations, and foundations are not seen. Only when a storm broke, and battered both houses with great ferocity was the fundamental and fatal difference revealed. For the house on the rock withstood the gale, while the house on the sand collapsed in irreparable ruin. In the same way professing Christians (both the genuine and the spurious) often look alike. You cannot easily tell which is which. Both appear to be building Christian lives. For Jesus is not contrasting professing Christians with non-Christians who make no profession. On the contrary, what is common to both spiritual house builders is that they hear these words of mine. So both are members of the visible Christian community. Both read the Bible, go to church, listen to sermons and buy Christian literature. The reason you often cannot tell the difference between them is that the deep foundations of their lives are hidden from view. The real question is not whether they hear Christ’s teaching, but whether they do what they hear. Only a storm will reveal the truth. Sometimes a storm of crisis or calamity betrays what manner of person we are, for true piety is not fully distinguished from its counterfeit until it comes to the trial. If not, the storm of the day of judgment will certainly do so. The truth on which Jesus is insisting in these final two paragraphs of the Sermon is that neither an intellectual knowledge of him nor a verbal profession, though both are essential in themselves, can ever be a substitute for obedience. This is not, of course, to teach that the way of salvation is by good works of obedience, for the whole New Testament offers salvation only by the sheer grace of God through faith. What Jesus is stressing, however, is that those who truly hear the gospel and profess faith will always obey Him, expressing their faith in their works. The apostles of Jesus never forgot this teaching. It is prominent in their letters [see e.g., 1 John 1:6; 2:4; James 1:22-25; 2:14-20]. What struck the first hearers of the Sermon was the preacher’s extraordinary authority. Jesus assumed the right to teach absolute truth. He was interpreting Moses’ law, but in such a way as to show that it was God’s. With complete self-confidence He declared who would inherit the kingdom of heaven, who would inherit the earth, who would obtain mercy, see God and be fit to be called God’s children. He did not think of Himself as another prophet or even as the greatest of the prophets, but rather as the fulfillment of all prophecy. We cannot escape the implication of His authority. We must respond to His Sermon on the Mount with deadly seriousness. These are the standards, the values and the priorities of the kingdom of God. Only when the Christian community lives by Christ’s authoritative teaching will the world be attracted and God be glorified.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         In 7:13-14 Jesus teaches that there are only two ways, two gates, two destinations and two crowds which speaks directly to the current pluralistic worldview of our society. Discuss how Jesus’ teaching conflicts with what is taught in our classrooms, what we see on television, read in the newspaper and hear from our co-workers.

 

2.         False prophets perform their dangerous deception within the church. The implication of 7:15-20 is that a good understanding of God’s truth is the best way to discern who are false teachers. Jesus mentions twice [16,20] that we are to recognize these false prophets by their fruits. What does Jesus mean here by fruits? What three things are we to look at when analyzing a person’s teaching? In order to obey Jesus’ command to Beware we must be on our guard, pray for discernment, use our critical faculties and never relax our vigilance.

 

3.         7:21-23 are some of the most frightening verses in the Bible. Here are people who call Jesus Lord, Lord and who do mighty works in His name, yet Jesus will declare to them: I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness [23]. Why does Jesus reject this group of people? What can we do to ensure that Jesus does not say this to us?

 

4.         What point is Jesus making in the parable of the two builders? What is the relationship between “hearing” and “doing” that is the focus of Jesus’ teaching in these verses?

 

References:

The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.