Doing the Will of God
Hearing and Doing
This section, which sits as a pivotal point in the Sermon on the Mount, is an appeal to Jesus’ listeners to react correctly to the words and teachings outlined in the preceding verses (Mtw 5:3-7:12). Some of the teaching here is normally taken by commentators and evangelicals to be of particular relevance to the conversion of the unsaved (for instance, Mtw 5:13-14 which is taken to have been directed at those who were thinking about following Him) even though the entire Sermon on the Mount has already been described as having been delivered to the disciples (Mtw 5:1-2) - that is, men and women who had already chosen to follow Christ.
Mathag summarises this section well when he notes that
‘We are at a major turning point in the sermon; no more ethical teaching is given. What follows are warnings and a concluding parable, all involving...the use of strong contrasts’
even though his assertion makes it sound as if the ‘use of strong contrasts’ is something new. Jesus has actually been using contrasts in most of His teaching throughout these three chapters and He is simply continuing in the same style of teaching.
But this section is important as a conclusion for, as Matmor notes, it
‘...is taken up with impressing on the hearers the difference between real and merely nominal discipleship’
To the followers who had given themselves over to following after Christ and the new move of God in Israelite society (they may not have seen it as the way of God as we do now), they had to be urged to make sure that they continued in the lifestyle that they had committed themselves to (Mtw 7:13-14), to beware in case they were misled into other lifestyles that were a product of deception (Mtw 7:15-20) and to be careful of mistakenly thinking that outward experience was a substitution for a real and obedient relationship with Him (Mtw 7:21-23).
Finally, the commitment to build their entire lives on His teaching concludes the section (Mtw 7:24-27) - a fitting way to show that Jesus claimed Himself as the source of knowing what is both right and proper before God.
These four passages, then, serve as warnings and encouragements - on the one hand, a warning not to stray from the clear teaching which has been set out for them to live and, on the other, an encouragement that the path they’ve chosen is the only way that leads back to God and so to eternal life.
Before we take a look at what Jesus actually says here, we need to notice that He speaks of there being just two ways through life - one which leads to life with God while the other only to destruction and death.
As readers, we may shrink back from the clinical description of life as having only two paths and only two ultimate destinations and attempt to find a third way which, while keeping the best bits out of the teaching of Christ, would allow us to cut loose every once in a while, forget the teachings of Christ which are too burdensome and go out and enjoy ourselves to the detriment of following God.
But, to the majority of the listeners, the decision which is being urged upon them is nothing new and the choice they are going to need to make is no more important than what had been laid upon the nation in times passed.
Therefore, when Moses concluded his great discourse to the Israelites shortly before he was taken from them, he taught (Deut 30:15) that he had
‘...set before you this day life and good, death and evil’
and mentioned no alternative that would get them through life sufficiently well to enjoy God’s presence but without the necessary commitment to obey the revealed will of God through the giving of the Law.
This decisive decision is re-echoed elsewhere in the OT where, for example, the Psalmist notes (Ps 1:6) that
‘...the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish’
and Prov 12:28 which states that
‘In the path of righteousness is life, but the way of error leads to death’
Scriptures such as these make it obvious to the reader that each and every person is charged with the choice between two paths through life - the one which leads to death, the other life - and that they are tied in with either service towards God or rejection of those things which can be plainly perceived about Him.
Even individual decisions are spoken of in this way. When Jeremiah the prophet spoke to the children of Israel who were shut up within the walls of Jerusalem through the besieging of the Chaldean army, he gave them two options by inspiration of God. Although this wasn’t a moral code that was being expounded - he was simply telling them to make the choice of doing the Lord’s will by going out to the army and surrendering or of resisting the army and be attacked - the choice of the Israelite was explained in the choice between two ways, the Lord God being quoted as saying
‘...I set before you the way of life and the way of death’
The Apocrypha is not without testimony to the words of Jesus and speak of the narrow way for the nation of Israel through which it must pass to achieve everlasting life and blessing (II Esdras 7:3-14). By implication, there can be only one other way and that route against the will of the Lord. Wherever God is concerned and whenever He makes known His will, all other routes and pathways must necessarily be lumped together to be spoken of in terms of the single, other way.
The Dead Sea Scrolls also testify to there being just the two ways of living (IQS 3) and is so bold as to state that
‘[God] has created man to govern the world and has appointed for him two spirits in which to walk until the time of His visitation: the spirits of truth and falsehood’
the author then going on to describe these two ways of living and how satan rules over the one whereas God rules over the other. The DSS go too far for the christian to be able to accept their assertion that God Himself has ‘created’ both paths - even the way that leads away from Him - but, amongst a sect like the compilers of the scrolls, existence was only ever seen as the choice between black and white rather than there being any possibility of grey.
Indeed, whenever there is a strongly legalistic set of beliefs, the shading of grey becomes evermore rare and the abrupt end of where obedience ends and rebellion begins can be seen.
But it wasn’t just the Jews of the wilderness communities who maintained the need for a choice to be made for, throughout Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, it is plain that they saw themselves and their interpretation of the Law as the correct way to reach God which the words and actions of Jesus undermined and negated.
The problem with them was not that many of them had a desire to be obedient to God but that their exclusivism precluded the possibility that they could be wrong. The way that they were travelling, thinking that they would attain a correct relationship with God, was the very path which forbade them to leave for the right way.
It is true of sects throughout history that the commitment of the disciple to the teaching of the particular group with which they’re associated restricts them from seeing any Truth unless it is defined in the context of their own experience.
Among people who believe they have the Truth encapsulated in the things they believe, there can only ever be two ways regarded as being possible - either the right way which the believer holds to or the wrong which separates the outsider from the special community or grouping which exists.
It should not surprise us that many religions - and many other organisations which have no religious allegiance - observe the world in terms of black and white, in terms of absolutes which cannot be surrendered no matter what should befall them.
With the advent of humanism, most of Western society has become more tolerant and able to accommodate differing views than any person can who has a strong belief system. The price paid for such a tolerance is a lack of certain footing and foundation and it is no wonder that, as humanism spread through society and undermined the authority of the Gospel as being the way, it left not a society which would believe nothing but which ran after just about anything and everything to believe and build their lives upon.
The absence of absolutes in society may be held for a while by people who feel they should rise above fundamental belief structures and who should see the ‘good’ in their fellow man rather than the wrong but, all too often, when something befalls them, they shout all the louder for justice to be done even though it is only Law which demands absolutes - the very thing they abhor - by which to be able to distinguish what is both right and wrong!
The problem with the Church has been twofold in this situation. Firstly, it has tended to embrace the teaching of humanism and so see in Jesus’ words no more fundamental principle and Truth that must be taken as all-pervasive in their lives than the brand of coffee they drink must be kept the same - and so it has become wishy-washy in its affirmation of christian Truth.
Truth is even watered down to be a ‘love’ principle that pervades experience and is grounded not in Christ’s call to ‘repent’ - which is seen as too sardonic and harsh - but in a sense of well-being and camaraderie which strips Jesus’ words away from the Person and so removes the source of the power needed to be able to live them.
The other problem has been the Church’s fundamentalist approach to certain aspects of the Way which have been used to divide the Church when the principles which cause the division are not, in themselves, foundational issues.
To a people who stand out in society for what they see to be right, even a small attack on one of the lesser principles is often enough for the group to close ranks and divide itself away from the similar group of the Lord’s people who have a belief structure which may be ninety-nine per cent the same but which lacks that one point which pushes towards exclusivism in the other.
Truth that isn’t fundamental should never be the cause of division - even though it more often than not is. If fellowships believe in the inspiration of the Bible and in its relevancy today, they should be more concerned with not being in the place of Ananias and Sapphira who were struck dead by God for daring to lie to the Church (Acts 5:1-11) or of the NT Pharisee who was so spiritually minded that he actively opposed the move of God in Christ and so removed himself from doing the Lord’s will, rather than argue the toss about the use of spiritual gifts or the relevancy of miraculous healing in the modern day and age. This can only ever lead to exclusivism even though the division is pointless and breaks up the unity of the Body of Christ.
The nature of fundamentalism in its worst sense divides churches into factions because of the aggressive spirit of absolutism which finds it difficult to see grey anywhere at anytime. To the one who views everything as black and white, and who sees each choice made as a decision either for or against the will of God, there will always be a separation from believers who follow some of the adjudged ‘black’ of the other. There can never be peace with other brethren, only animosity.
Although strong churches look spiritual, they are normally legalistic in the sense that, although they proclaim themselves free in Christ, they are just as much bound into a belief structure that is superfluous to the foundational issues as was the Pharisee of the NT age. Legalism is very often mistaken for spirituality - just as it was in Jesus’ day amongst the religious leaders who had authority over Israel - but to be free in the Spirit is not to be weak when it comes to faith and commitment but to be unconcerned about incidentals.
Though Jesus teaches that there are just two ways of living before God, we shouldn’t take His words to infer that there are absolutes in each and every decision which we have to make or in the situations we encounter. Jesus taught the disciples not to judge one another (Mtw 7:1) as commented on previously and such an admonition makes for harmony.
While the christian has every right to say that the way of the Gospel is the only way to God and to proclaim it as such throughout the world, he must also realise that minor issues and inconsequential preferences make no difference to God when one person, for instance, may take wine while another abstains.
There is foundational Truth which needs to be lived and this leads the disciple to strive after the narrow way - but adherence to broad issues which divide the Lord’s people into denominations is not a commitment to follow Christ closely but to fight against Him.
We must remember that, as we come to the passage currently under discussion, Jesus is not saying that every aspect of a believer’s life represents a choice between right and wrong but that, fundamentally, the way that Jesus calls them to follow Him sets them apart from all other ways that insist that they can lead their adherents into a correct relationship with God.
Leaving these general considerations to one side, we need to come to the passage in question.
What perplexes some commentators is a consideration of where exactly the gate and the pathway stand in relation to each other. Are we to think of the narrow gate at the beginning of the pathway to imply the start of a life’s journey denoting an initial choice which is made in a person’s life? This would fit in well with the understanding from other places in the Scriptures which show that men and women who were not God-followers came to a point in their lives when they catapulted themselves into the Church by their decision to repent when moved upon by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, then continuing in the way of the disciple of Christ (see, for instance, Acts 13:48, 19:18 and the teaching of Paul in Ephesians chapter 4 where he urges his listeners to go on to maturity in Christ).
This is the choice of Mathen who reasons that
‘A gate admitting to nothing is rare indeed. On the other hand, a way or road does not necessarily lead to a gate. The order gate followed by way is therefore very natural and makes good sense, especially in view of what is probably the intended meaning: right initial choice (conversion) followed by sanctification...’
making it the logical outcome of the phraseology employed.
Or are we to think of the gate as standing at the end conclusion of a life and, therefore, the entering into of the afterlife? Again, this is not unscriptural and would imply that entrance into the coming Kingdom is on the basis of how one finishes one’s life rather than how one begins it, a call for commitment on the way and an unswerving decision of the will to follow through whatever troubles afflict the believer. Notice in Mtw 20:1-16 that those who received the wage from the owner of the vineyard were the ones who finished their work and it wasn’t dependant upon the length of time they had worked.
Reward, therefore, comes at the end of the day. Similarly, Paul speaks of not having gained the reward that he could look forward to for having remained faithful to Christ (Phil 3:8-14) but of the need for perseverance to the final day when he would be called into heaven by Jesus Himself.
Also indicative that the gate is to be thought of as being located at either the beginning or the end of the ‘way’ is the NT Church’s labelling of the christian life as ‘the Way’ (for example, Acts 9:2), the Greek word used here being the same as that employed in Mtw 7:13-14 for ‘way’. If both passages are harmonised and meant to be seen as referring to one and the same, the inference would be that either the gate has been entered and that the disciple continues on the Way or that the Way has been commenced and that the gate lies in the future to be entered.
If we needed to judge between the two solutions above (there is a third below), evangelical christians would, no doubt, opt for the first because it is true and provable from other places in Scripture and in the believer’s experience, that the life as a follower of Christ begins with a dramatic turn around in an unbeliever’s life followed by a pathway that is lived out from that initial decision.
The only problem here is that Jesus is not talking to a crowd which has not already chosen to follow Him. We saw in Mtw 5:1-2 that Jesus sat down to teach His disciples and that, for them, the decision would already have been made. If we have to make a choice between just the two possibilities, it is the latter, not the former, option that makes more sense.
After all, the following teaching about being careful not to be drawn away from discipleship and following Jesus (Mtw 7:15-20) makes no sense unless it also is directed towards those who are already trying to live the way they have been directed.
However, there is a third option. Does the solution lie in seeing the actual act of going through the gate as the hard way so that ‘way’ and ‘gate’ are synonymous? Mathag comments here that
‘The sequence of gate and way is not significant; one does not enter the gate to get upon the way or at the end of the way enter the gate...The two metaphors refer together to the same thing...namely, the rigors of the discipleship to which Jesus calls His people’
and this seems to be the best option even though some reject it on etymological grounds. But, as Matmor comments
‘It appears that in asking our questions [about which comes first - the gate or the way] we are trying to make Jesus more precise than He chose to be’
Both ‘gate’ and ‘way’, therefore, should be taken to refer to one and the same thing - a call by Jesus upon His disciples to make sure that they continue to live their lives in accordance with all that He shows them, rather than to stray into an easier and more accessible lifestyle which, in the end, reaps eternal separation from God.
Mathag summarises the passage by stating that
‘Jesus...invites His disciples to travel upon the way He has outlined in the high ethical teaching of the preceding material’
and this is about the best way to think of His words. Because He is speaking to disciples (Mtw 5:1-2), the instructions are not for them to begin following Him but to continue and this has been explained by Him in His previous exposition which started with the correct interpretation of the Law and the implications it had on His followers.
One other question needs to be asked here, seeing as it crops up in some of the commentators either as a direct question or as a statement which presupposes certain truths found elsewhere:
Is the choice of narrow versus wide a continual decision or a once-for-all option?
There is no easy answer from these two verses alone but, in answering, we should simply point out that, unless the false prophets of Mtw 7:15-20 were a very real danger to the life of the disciple and His continuance in following after Christ, there seems no point in mentioning their existence. Again, the key to understanding this subsequent passage is Mtw 5:1-2 (as mentioned twice above) which tells us that the words were spoken to followers, not would-be converts.
Therefore, the implication, when the Sermon on the Mount is taken as one unit rather than as small individual chunks, is that the disciple must make a continual choice to follow and that His salvation is not dependent solely upon one decision made in the past when he initially chose to set himself to follow Christ.
Moving on to the actual descriptions of both the way and gate, we should note that, according to Matfran, the reason that the broad way is so ‘easy’ is that there are no restrictions. One has to be wary here, though, of interpreting the ‘broad way’ in terms which summarise the lives of most of the world who go after pleasure and luxury and so fail to even think about the things of God until some relative or friend dies or when Christmas comes around (though, in my experience, any thought of what Christmas is really all about is lost in an alcoholic daze).
This is the way that the Apocryphal Sirach 21:10 defines the way of life that is set apart from the will of God when it notes that
‘The way of sinners is paved with smooth stones but at its end is the pit of Hades’
in very similar words to that which occurs here in Matthew.
Jesus has proposed just the two ways in His words to the disciples and, if they are on the narrow way, journeying towards life with God, which path could it be said that the religious leaders are on whose righteousness is insufficient to gain them acceptance to the kingdom of heaven (Mtw 5:20)?
They also must be on the broad way that leads to destruction even though the restrictions that they place upon themselves have often been interpreted when they have appeared in the lives of churches throughout history as being invariably ‘of God’.
Therefore, we cannot interpret these two paths as inferring that one is a restrictive path that almost shackles the follower of Christ into a life that limits the things he can do when there were those who Jesus singled out for criticism who were living just such a life of abstention and yet who were told that their lifestyle was unacceptable and displeasing to the Father.
Therefore, Mathag’s comments that, on the wide and easy way of life
‘There are no significant demands to be met, no discipline to acquire...’
need some clarification for there are other religions and even academic workers who have had to take upon themselves restrictive practices in order for them to achieve their objectives. Restrictive discipline is not necessarily being taught here by Jesus and it is best to see in Jesus’ words the teaching that tribulation will be the lot of the disciple and, because it reaps something which is distasteful to the world, there will be few who ever opt for that path.
Better is Matmor’s comments that
‘A narrow gate must be sought out: it is not as easily perceived as a broad one’
which includes even the Pharisaic and legalistic religions that look holy on the outside but which have no dynamic relationship with God on the inner, a way to God that relies more on the effort of man than on the mercy of God. The disciple, then, has a routeway to choose through life that is not always easy to ascertain - should he stand up and be counted when Christ is persecuted (Mtw 10:38) or should he flee to another town and preach the Gospel there (Mtw 10:23)? And there are a multitude of paradoxes and parallel truths that are equally difficult to determine without the guidance of God Himself.
But the ‘ease’ of the way of life outside Christ is also demonstrable from the passage - it just shouldn’t be restricted to this sole meaning.
The disciple has difficult choices to make, but the experience of persecution certainly seems to be hinted at in Jesus’ words, shown by the word translated ‘hard’ by the RSV (Strongs Greek number 2346) which is akin to another word which speaks of persecution and tribulation. In itself, the word rightly means ‘pressure’ and was used, for instance, to speak of the pulse. On it’s own, it can also mean ‘to afflict’ and the idea must be not of physical hardness but of trouble and affliction.
This appears to be where Matfran gets the idea of a restriction being placed upon the disciple (see above) but the word more rightly means not the pressure which constricts but the pressure which produces struggle and tribulation.
The intended thought in the passage, therefore, seems to be that the disciple should be settled into the knowledge that the way of Christ’s followers will be one of trouble (Mtw 13:21, Mark 10:30, Acts 14:22) and not one, opposed to God, that produces pleasure and is generally pain-free.
Of course, all life has thorns and thistles but the disciple’s lot is peculiarly one of suffering and pain when he lives in a world that opposes both himself and his Master. Therefore Jesus speaks of those who find the way to life as being ‘few’.
‘...is a minority religion’
and Mathen perceptively points out that
‘It is clear...that our Lord does not follow the method that is used by certain self-styled revivalists who speak as if “getting saved” is one of the easiest things in the world’
There is a very real danger for the preacher and evangelist to forget to challenge those who would follow Christ to remember that the Way is by no means easy, the convert thinking that they can ‘come to Jesus and all your troubles will be solved’. While this is often the case, a whole new set of problems are often thrust upon the disciple for, whereas before he was friends with the world, his new allegiance to Christ makes him their enemy and puts him in a minority position!
Mathen’s comments are, therefore, quite true but let’s not forget that the words were spoken to disciples who had already chosen to follow Jesus (and that’s the fourth time I’ve typed it - hope you’re getting my drift by now!). There is a sense in which people need to know the troubles they will have in front of them but, there again, this need not be a necessary part of the initial conversion experience. A person who has committed their lives to Christ will soon discover the animosity which awaits them in the world (and, in my experience, in some churches, too!) and it is at this time that they should be taught the consequences of their initial action.
It would be better if the new convert knew everything there is to know when they first come to Christ for forgiveness, healing and restoration but this is just not possible. Only as they grow in Christ will they develop into any level of maturity while persecution will draw many away from continuing to follow (Mtw 13:20-21).
Finally, two small considerations.
The ‘destruction’ of the passage should naturally be taken to refer to the afterlife though there is a sense in which ‘life’ is experienced even now. But it’s best to project the benefits of both ways as being concluded upon the person’s death and that this is what Jesus is referring to.
If that is the case, however, we will need to decide carefully whether the fall of the house in Mtw 7:24-27 is to be taken as something which also takes place after death or as an experience in the present life. It does not appear to be as simple as saying that both of them must refer to the same point in time. We will look at this under the relevant heading.
The final point concerns the false prophets of the following passage (Mtw 7:15-20). It is too easy for readers of these notes to think that this current teaching about the way and the gate has no relevance to the teaching on the false prophets when they are joined.
Jesus goes on to give His disciples a relevant warning not to stray away from the correct way by listening to and following after prophets who are not sent from God. Therefore, the following passage has to be understood in the light of this current one and vice versa.
There is a connection here with the preceding two verses which shouldn’t be overlooked. There, I noted at the conclusion of the discussion (so, just in case you’ve come straight here, I’ll repeat it!) that false prophets are those ‘believers’ who lead the disciple astray from following on the hard way and through the narrow gate which leads to eternal life. These six verses, therefore, serve as a necessary warning to the followers of Christ not to be easily led astray by people who seem to be followers and yet who, inwardly, are actually very much against the purposes of Christ.
II Peter chapter 2 is very much a passage which is an exposition and expansion of this one and the reader should take some time to sit back and absorb what Peter is actually saying here. But, of the false prophets, Peter notes (II Peter 2:15) that
‘Forsaking the right way [the false prophets] have gone astray...’
and that (II Peter 2:21)
‘...it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them’
both of which imply that the false prophets and teachers that come to the fore and lead astray the believers are those who did once know the right way, who did follow after Christ but who have forsaken the narrow gate and the hard way for an easier lifestyle that they seek to impose upon the true Church of Christ.
This would make us surmise that, leaving the Church to formulate their own ‘Gospel’ they return at a much later date in order to proclaim this ‘truth’ and so attempt to lead astray as many as possible (though they perceive of their way as being the ‘Truth’ rather than deception). But II Peter 2:1 makes us infer otherwise, for Peter notes that the false prophets (my italics)
‘...arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you...’
Far from excluding themselves from the fellowship of the believers, they seem to continue with them and so gain a name for themselves within their ranks. Certainly, a position of authority within modern day church denominations seems to be a good protection against being thrown out by the denomination in which what is against Christ is being proclaimed for, those in authority above the congregational leader, are more likely to view with sympathy the reports that are received by them.
Paul also noted that the problem that was about to befall the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17) was from within not without. He told them (Acts 20:29-30)
‘I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them’
The wolves, therefore, come from within the leaders not from outside them! Though they also come in from outside if the first clause is to be taken as distinct from the second. Leaders in churches have often been on their guard against those who ‘come from the outside’ and have found it necessary to close ranks and forbid most - if not all - the congregation from positions of leadership within the fellowship.
But, in my own experience, those who come from the outside are very easy to spot - the real problem is the leader who seems to be leading the church in the right way when, almost overnight, the church is pulled from its secure foothold and taken down an avenue that is against sound teaching.
Leaders would do better to heed the warning of I Tim 4:16 directed not just to Timothy but to all leaders that they should
‘Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers’
than to forbid the correct growth of the fellowship towards maturity by their excessive legislation which keeps the disciples of Christ as pew-sitters in the theatre of their buildings.
Because many have allowed themselves to become more important to their fellowships than the presence of God, many are led astray. A leader should, rather, be so worried about falsely leading God’s people that they are concerned to always bring what they say and do in line with Scripture and the Word of God.
I was once in a house group where a deacon in the church came out with the interesting doctrine that Jesus wasn’t perfect (in the sense of being sinless as opposed to the other true doctrine that he was ‘incomplete’ while he remained ‘untested’ through suffering) but that He became perfect as He lived on earth until, finally, He became everything that the Father wanted Him to be when He died on the cross.
Although I tried, as gently as possible (believe me, it was hard when you’re so angry you want to shout someone down) to correct him but he was having none of it. Even a private meeting with the main leader of the fellowship was pointless, for he could see nothing that he was able to do - even that he wasn’t really all that bothered to do anything about it!
In another fellowship I attended, one of the youth leaders told me that he didn’t think it was necessary that Jesus had to die on the cross which, because I was still quite young in the faith, shocked me into silence rather than got me into an argument. I didn’t bring it to the main leader’s attention either but, as you will no doubt note, a person in a position of leadership does not mean that the theology of that person is sound (but neither does it mean that their theology isn’t sound, either!).
What I’m trying to say is this - a false prophet or teacher will lead astray more people when they have a position of authority than if they are simply one of the minions who go about washing the communion glasses. They are more likely to be believed and the words they speak accepted (I was the only person who opposed the deacon in that meeting, incidentally - I guess they were either scared to be seen to be challenging his authority or just too scared) so a withdrawal from the fellowship is not always the best option for someone who errs from the true way. Far better that they stay put and wait their opportunity to (II Peter 2:1)
‘...secretly bring in destructive heresies...’
when their word will be accepted as being the voice of God to the people by individuals they can persuade to follow them. Once followers have been gleaned from the ranks of the fellowship, either a power struggle takes place where the new believers of the false way take over control or there is necessarily a church split where each go their own separate ways.
However, not all Church splits come about through false teaching!
I have looked at the influence of false prophets and teachers above from the viewpoint of how they influence bodies of believers and how they often are wiser in their scheming of how to advance their cause than the main leaders of the fellowship are in advancing the Gospel. But, as far as Jesus is concerned, the reason He warns His disciples against such false prophets is not to prevent Church splits but to safeguard the disciples from living a life which ends up on the road to destruction (Mtw 7:13).
Jesus uses absurdity to prove His point, with examples that would not have been lost on His hearers as much as they possibly are on those amongst us who are city dwellers and who think that apples come from supermarkets.
The natural world shows the disciple that a tree bears only the fruit that would be expected from that specific species (Mtw 7:16) - so, too, a false prophet can only bear the fruit that would be expected from one such as he is.
These ‘fruits’ must necessarily encapsulate both words and deeds but must also not be limited by such concepts. Especially relevant also are the end products of both a false prophet’s words and deeds - that is, the effect they have on the recipients of their ministry.
Commentators seem to be divided as to whether the fruits spoken of by Jesus should primarily be taken to refer to the false prophet’s words or his deeds but there needs to be no restricting of the label to have to exclude either. As regards words, Sirach 27:6-7 in the Apocrypha notes that
‘[The fruit of a tree] discloses the cultivation of a tree; so a person’s speech discloses the cultivation of the mind. Do not praise anyone before he speaks, for this is the way people are tested’
showing that words can be considered to be of equal importance to deeds. But similarly, deeds are the overflow of what the person is, expressed in what the person does. As Mathag notes (my italics), the false prophets
‘...only give the appearance of belonging to the truth and whose true character is revealed in their unrighteous deeds...The ultimate test of truth is in what these people do, not what they say’
Indeed, if we tie in the previous teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (all the previous two and a half chapters of it), the ‘fruit’ would be seen to be mainly the lifestyle of the prophet that is being tested by the disciple. As Matfran, who takes this view, states
‘Here Jesus sets out not a doctrinal but an ethical test...profession must be tested by practice’
‘Their teaching would be plausible, enabling them to pass as true disciples (sheep) but in fact their effect would be destructive...’
Mathen is more accurate here, though, and should be followed. He’s more careful to include both words and deeds as the definition of ‘fruit’ noting that these twin actions demonstrate that
‘What a man is in his inner being comes to expression outwardly...’
A legalism can be demonstrated (deeds) which looks as if it’s a response to the teaching of Christ when what that same person speaks (words) betrays the lifestyle that is actually against Christ. Similarly, a prophet may proclaim what can be accepted as Truth (words) even though his lifestyle is against the will of God (deeds).
Both words and deeds, therefore, can be taken to be the fruit by which the disciples of Christ can distinguish between those who are genuine and those who are false, and Jesus’ word that the false prophets are ‘inwardly’ ravenous wolves is probably meant to make us realise that it is the fundamental nature of the person that is incorrect and that this has to outflow from their life sooner or later whether in word or by deed.
As Mattask notes here
‘In the present context the implication of this axiom is that because belief and practice, creed and conduct, are vitally connected, then false philosophies and erroneous doctrines, however attractive at first sight they may appear to be, will in the long run produce a perverted morality, even if their original exponents may themselves be moral’
That is, we shouldn’t necessarily think of the false prophets mentioned by Jesus here as being always immoral, for the prophet of legalistic observance is just as much false as the one who bids the Church to go after the things of the world and to throw off godly restraint. Rather, the fruit that their lives yield and which their input into other believers’ lives produces will be seen to be that which is not acceptable to God.
The Pharisees were a self-made righteous religious group and who had come across to the multitudes as being in a right and correct relationship with God but, even to them, Jesus says (Mtw 12:33) that they should
‘Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit’
paralleling our current passage. What is within the false prophet has to come out eventually and it is this that Jesus urges His followers to pay close attention to - whether it be in word or deed.
The Didache (late first century) gives quite a bit of instruction as to how to test whether a teacher or prophet is either false or true, so it would appear that such people were a real problem to the Church by this time. However, in previous web pages, we have had recourse to refer to the Didache on certain issues and noted how legalistic Christianity seems to have become from this early date.
The testimony of this work, therefore, shouldn’t be taken as being on the same level as Scripture but, nevertheless, it’s instructions are, at some notable points, very interesting.
The writer urges his readers (all the quotes come from chapter 11) that
‘If [the apostle or prophet who comes to you] stays for three days [or more], he is a false prophet’
which would prompt us to label many of the visiting preachers in the Church as being ‘false’ (I told you that these tests haven’t the same authority as Scripture, didn’t I?). What if the Lord told the prophet to stay four days and so broke their man-made condition (you see how man-made rules that we take delight in often contradict the will of God?)?
And, an extremely poignant one in today’s Church
‘If he asks for money, he is a false prophet’
the Didache going on to say that the true prophet can’t prophesy that money should be given to him either but that, if he should prophesy that someone else should be given money, it should be obeyed because he’s genuine (you can see how some money-making scams could be worked out here, couldn’t you?)
What’s more significant for the passage in Matthew, however, is the Didache’s assertion that
‘...even supposing a prophet is sound enough in his teaching, yet if his deeds do not correspond with his words he is an impostor’
It’s difficult to see how this could be determined conclusively in the two days that the prophet was allowed to stay amongst them though, I guess if he went to the local brothel, he would be considered to have failed the test (but what if he was evangelising? Would the local church have tested it out or just condemned him?).
The Didache’s last quoted instruction, however, certainly does seem to be in line with the general teaching of Mtw 7:15-20 though, as previously mentioned, I would take the ‘fruit’ to be not just the deeds of the prophet but his words as well.
There is a close parallel here between the ferocity of the wolf who preys naturally on the sheep (Mtw 7:15) and the ruthlessness of the destruction that they reap (Mtw 7:19) so that the conclusion of the matter seems a natural consequence of the corruption contained within the false prophet.
The ruthlessness with which farmers remove trees which serve no purpose to them or which give no benefit from their presence is the equal ruthlessness with which the false prophets are to be removed (Mtw 7:19). As Matmor points out
‘...people who run orchards do not put up with rotten trees’
and neither does God the Father put up with corrupt trees in His Kingdom (Luke 13:6-9)
However, the removal of such trees is possibly meant to be related to God’s work rather than man’s - and that at the final Day on which everyone will be judged - but the disciple must still reject their teaching vehemently and with passion if necessary for, as has been previously noted (Mtw 7:13-14), to continue on the proper pathway through life has eternal consequences.
But it must be remembered that certain false prophets are easy to spot whereas others go concealed within the Church for many years, sometimes never being revealed. The Pharisees, which I have already mentioned, are a case in point. Though they had been accepted by the masses as being God’s special people because of their religiosity, they were, in fact, pulling against the things of God. Just to define the false prophet, then, in terms of immoral conduct is insufficient here seeing as the same metaphor was used to describe the Pharisees later on in Matthew (12:33).
In their case, as Matmor, discipleship meant
‘...a great deal more than religious activity’
and yet, for others, it is solely because of the lifestyle that the false prophet can be identified. The real problem with all false prophets, however, is not either what they say and do but what they are within. It is this that can be evidenced as it expresses itself through them but, fundamentally, the problem lies within.
Doing the Will of God
Some commentators take great pains to try and determine what situation the author of Matthew’s Gospel faced - whether he was, perhaps, writing for a church that was undergoing, for instance, persecution from the unsaved and so tailored the material at his disposal to suit the perceived needs of the people for whom it was being written.
There’s quite some danger in doing this for it tends to transpose the words of Christ from their early first century context into a setting that may even be alien to the land of Israel and more akin with a Gentile, rather than a Jewish, context.
I have heard a number of sermons that have, as an example of this principal of taking texts out of their chronological order, taken the Scripture of John 13:34 and taught on the need for believers to love one another just as Jesus demonstrated the love He had for His followers by laying down His life and dying for them on the cross. The text actually reads
‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another’
but there is one glaring error made by assuming that Jesus is referring to the cross - this sentence was spoken before the cross took place and Jesus doesn’t say ‘as I will love you’ but ‘as I have loved you’ implying that the disciples should love one another based upon what they had already experienced from Jesus, not what they were about to shortly perceive and then subsequently experience.
The passage that we’ve now arrived at can be interpreted with a similar mindset and we must remember that the text was spoken before Christ could have come to dwell within each person by His Spirit. Even so, the teaching given to His disciples is that ‘knowing Christ’ is possible - even when, we assume for some of them, that Jesus lived in Galilee and they were visiting from Judea and would shortly return there.
If we try and interpret them in the light of what we subsequently know took place, we may well get some Truth from them but we need to try and come to terms with them as a text which the disciples would have found it easy to understand even before the work of the cross took place. Perhaps, then, the words mean something a whole lot different than what we usually take them to mean seeing that we live this side of Pentecost and not on the side on which Jesus spoke them.
If the ‘fruit’ is taken to exemplify ‘deeds’ in the preceding passage (Mtw 7:15-20) then the miraculous cannot be taken as being included for here they’re spoken of as being insufficient evidence for proving that a person is a true follower of Christ.
In that case, deeds must refer to ethical conduct as a response to Jesus’ words, a concept that is not lacking from this passage in question and which appears to be the main point when viewed in the context of the other verses round about it - we saw that both previous passages were rightly to be taken as standing as a conclusion to Jesus’ instructions to His followers as to what kind of life they should be living in the world and the subsequent passage (Mtw 7:24-27) will also make mention of the need for not just considering themselves privileged to hear Jesus speak but of acting upon what has been heard by the application of the teaching to their own lives.
As Jesus says, a verbal declaration of His lordship (where the word may not be intended to convey Divinity but authority in much the same way as our word ‘master’ is used in the classroom of the teacher) and a powerful manifestation of Jesus’ lordship through the believer are neither proof of a relationship with Christ and of obedience to His commands (for a holy life).
It’s not the people who call Jesus ‘Lord’ who enter the Kingdom of heaven and so prove to be His disciples but only those who do the will of God the Father. The connection with the previous teaching in the Sermon on the Mount shouldn’t be lessened here for it is precisely the response that the disciple has in the application of the teaching that determines whether He is a true follower of Christ and so ‘knows’ Him.
As Mattask comments concerning the disciple who heard the words of Christ
‘He may use the believer’s vocabulary, repeat the believer’s formulas [sic], recite the believer’s creed and take part in the believer’s activities without being a real believer himself’
The churches which bear the name of Christ are full of people who profess allegiance to a credal statement or to a particular denomination thinking that they’re honouring Jesus in the things they do, but no religious ‘activity’ can take the place of a wholehearted commitment to do the will of God as it is revealed to them.
Some commentators - perhaps frightened by the implications of the miraculous being performed - conclude that it must be false miracles which are being referred to, but we shouldn’t expect the ones mentioned in 7:22 to be false - neither should we take them as being the sum total of all that the disciples do who do not know Christ.
Matfran sees these three phenomena of ‘prophecy, exorcism and miracles’ as having the capacity of being ‘counterfeited’ and this is indeed the case as modern day experience can testify. But Jesus never rejects the works on the ground that they have been falsified because, as He says, they have been done ‘in His name’ where the name in the ancient world was the sum total of what a person was, expressed in one word. These believers had used the authority and power of the name of Jesus to perform powerful deeds (in much the same way as the man of Mark 9:38-40 had been doing) but they did not know Jesus for, if they had, they would have done what He’d said and ordered their lives accordingly.
The danger in demonstrating the miraculous through one’s life is that, all too often, the signs performed are taken to be indicative of a right relationship with God but, as Mathag comments, Jesus doesn’t criticise them
‘...for their charismatic activities but for their dependence upon them as a substitute for...righteousness...’
Using Christ’s authority to do great signs and works in His name is not a qualification that wins access into the Kingdom of heaven - only obedience to the moral demands of His words. The frightening thing about Jesus’ teaching here (and we would do well to sit up and take notice of His words) is that we could just as well substitute many religious activities in the place of prophecy, demon expulsion or the working of mighty deeds and see that a lot of what appears as the outworking of the Church into society is no proof that that particular group of people know Him because qualification for entry into the Kingdom of heaven is not on the basis of activity but of obedience to the moral demands of His teaching.
We might just as well (and of particular relevance for me) consider Bengel’s words quoted in Matfran who writes an alternative appeal to good works which can be inserted here as
‘...we have written commentaries and exegetical notes on books and passages of the Old and New Testaments, we have preached fine sermons...’
Nothing - absolutely nothing - can take the place of a correct response of obedience to Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus’ words here (Mtw 7:23) that He never knew the disciples in question who had done great and mighty works in His name does not, as Matmor
‘...mean that He was ignorant of their existence, but rather that He never acknowledged them; He never recognised them as what they claimed to be...’
Living this side of Pentecost, we may take this ‘knowing’ of the disciple to imply a relationship which has come through the application of the work of Christ on the cross and the infilling and outflowing of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life but this cannot be the case here. That possibility is still a long way off in the future when it would be made possible and, besides, to experience the forgiving work of Jesus and to receive all the benefits of the cross in one’s own life is of no use whatsoever if the new convert does not set his will to do what Jesus tells Him to do both in rearranging his life and in following His commands when He speaks in real time.
John 14:15 records Jesus as saying
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’
and, in John 15:14
‘You are my friends if you do what I command you’
In both these passages, therefore, knowledge and love of Christ is tied up with the disciple’s obedience of what Jesus tells them to do. There has always been the danger amongst Charismatics that the expression of praise, joy or spiritual gifts can be taken as proof of the disciple’s relationship with God, but this needs to be refuted and pushed to one side. The only true evidence that a professing disciple is acceptable to Jesus is that he or she is following the clear commands of Jesus (in the power of the Spirit, though) and obeying what He knows to be clearly His will - that is, that they are bearing good fruit that is acceptable to God the Father (Mtw 7:17).
Finally, the phrase ‘on that day’ of Mtw 7:22 implies the end of all things though, as far as the disciple is concerned, it should be taken to be his own death for nothing can be changed afterwards (Heb 9:27). This brings the passage into harmony with the preceding two where the destruction of 7:13 and the burning of 7:19 were both taken as referring to the end of all things.
Therefore Matmor is correct to say that
‘When the Kingdom of heaven...comes in all its fulness, it will not be people’s profession that counts, but their profession as shown in the way they live...It is doing the will of the Father that matters, not the words we profess’
thus projecting the conclusion of the matter towards the final Day. A believer’s creed will only ever be acceptable to God if it is demonstrated as a living reality in their life.
If we have correctly understood the eschatological nature of the teaching in these three passages, therefore, Jesus’ teaching is plain that it is not the person who begins the christian life who is acceptable to God but the one who completes it faithfully or, perhaps better, the one who finishes His life when being in a state of commitment to obey Christ whatever He may ask of them.
And, again, if these three passages speak of a future day of judgment, the final passage (7:24-27) may necessarily be needed to be read this way where the destruction of the house built upon the sand is sudden and complete, but which has often been taken to be referring to a present crisis that finds the foundation lacking rather then to the end of all things.
Hearing and Doing
The first thing we need to decide as we approach this passage is the time framework in which we are meant to understand it. Most commentators take Jesus’ words to be referring to the day and age in which the disciple lived and breathed - that is, that Jesus was teaching that, if the follower was careful to do what was being taught him, he would find that, sooner or later, a calamity would befall all men which would bring the ruination of a great many of them but which wouldn’t signal the end for the believer.
Therefore, in this interpretation, doing what Jesus teaches is tantamount to self-preservation. However, this perspective is far from conclusive.
We noted at the beginning of this web page that these four passages sit as a conclusion to the entire Sermon on the Mount and hold together not as ethical teaching but as one unit directing the disciples’ attention towards the importance of continuing to follow Jesus’ teaching.
In the first of the four passages, we noted that the ‘destruction’ (Mtw 7:13) was naturally taken as meaning the final destruction of those who lived in opposition to the will of God for their lives while, in the second, being thrown into the fire (Mtw 7:19), had to necessarily be interpreted as a description of the final judgment.
The third of the passages used the phrase ‘on that day’ which must, again necessarily, be taken to refer to the final judgment and, indeed, the language employed seems incapable of being interpreted in any other fashion.
Why, then, when we come to the fourth and concluding passage, should Jesus have suddenly changed tack and spoken of the need to obey what He said (rather than just to listen) and speak of temporal and short term consequences in the here and now?
It seems more logical, therefore, to take Jesus’ words to be primarily referring to the end of all things when each and every person will be judged before Christ. While it is quite true that Jesus’ teaching concerning materialism (Mtw 6:19-34) would have the effect of safeguarding the disciple against, for instance, the destruction of earthly possessions through war or the loss of material assets through famine or economic disasters, generally speaking, the application of the teaching is aimed at safeguarding the disciple from failing to gain entry into the final and complete establishing of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.
One of those points that we need to convince ourselves of, however, is that the language employed of a great storm and flood are possible metaphors for the judgment of God directed towards men and women.
Firstly, the symbolism of a flood is employed in the OT to speak of disasters which befell people where the hand of God was called upon for deliverance. Therefore David cries to God to save him (Ps 69:1-2,15) because
‘...the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me...’
The idea of God delivering His people is a common theme in the Psalms and the symbolism of the flood is again used in Ps 124:1,4 where David writes that
‘If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us’
Nahum 1:7-8 also speaks of the protection of the Lord towards His people in the day of trouble but, alternatively,
‘...with an overflowing flood He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue His enemies into darkness’
This parallels Matthew’s passage where, though trouble befalls both the righteous and the wicked, the flood is only seen to overtake those who stand against the purposes of God and bring about their downfall. It must be noted that ‘trouble’ comes to both the person who obeys the words of Jesus and those who do not, but it is only the one who has decided to obey who finds that what they’ve been building remains secure and steadfast.
This judgment of God expressed in imagery of a flood is also apparent in Is 28:14-19 where the prophet speaks of both precipitation and the resulting flood which comes about as a result. He states that
‘...hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter...’
Ezek 13:10-16 is a passage which could be taken either way. The Lord speaks to His people concerning the whitewashed walls that the false prophets have declared to be able to withstand the siege of their adversaries and says that there would come
‘...a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind break out...I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath; and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger, and great hailstones in wrath to destroy [the walls]...’
speaking, it is assumed, of the violence of the oppressing army who were shortly to assault the city and overthrow its defences. Finally, the wicked is seen to lose everything in a flood which transpires overnight by the hand of God in Job 27:13,18-20. Job declares that
‘This is the portion of a wicked man with God, and the heritage which oppressors receive from the Almighty...The house which he builds is like a spider’s web, like a booth which a watchman makes. He goes to bed rich, but will do so no more; he opens his eyes, and his wealth is gone. Terrors overtake him like a flood; in the night a whirlwind carries him off’
What these sorts of passages show us is that, in the OT, the figure of natural disasters in storm and flood could be used to be indicative of the judgment of God directed towards those who were opposed to His will. Though the time of tribulation would come upon all men (as Nahum 1:7-8), God’s hand of protection and deliverance was to be seen actively working on behalf of those who stood in a right relationship with Himself.
Mathag comments that the imagery here is descriptive of
‘...typical storms in the hot, dry climate of the Near Eastern lands; blasting winds and torrential rains that produce sudden rivers where formerly there were dry wadis...’
that is, the flash floods often experienced in the desert areas east and south-east of Galilee and in the semi-arid region known as the Negev, lying south of Jerusalem. Flash floods would have been common knowledge to the inhabitants of the region though it seems to me as if the parallel is a little bit too contrived to make sense for both the wise and foolish man seem to have built their structure in a wadi (dry river) bed expecting that everything would turn out just fine - it certainly doesn’t sound too ‘wise’!! However, natural floods occur even in areas where they wouldn’t be expected to occur so that the flash flood analogy needn’t be pressed.
To understand Matthew’s passage in the light of an end of time judgment is quite consistent with what we know of OT phraseology, especially in the poetic and prophetic books. As I have previously said, it seems more likely that Jesus is referring to the judgment of God at the end of time than to a temporal disaster which would befall men and women before their appointed time to die - simply because the three passages which precede this one all project judgment forward into the distant future when the full establishing of the Kingdom of heaven was to be revealed on earth, a phenomenon that still remains to come.
Having now spent reams trying to show the reader that God’s judgment at the end of time is the most logical interpretation for this passage, the actual meaning of the teaching and warning is incredibly straightforward and needs little comment.
It is the doer of the words just spoken and not the hearers only who will be justified before God and who will be able to stand before the judgment of God on that final day. Today, we delight in running after the most contemporary speakers and hearing what it is they have to say. Many years ago, when the fellowship I was attending had heard that Reinnard Bonnke was visiting the UK to deliver a message in Westminster, London, we arranged for a large group of us to travel up to the venue to hear him speak.
And how privileged we were!
Or not, as the case may be...
The problem with this sort of attendance to hear someone speak is that, if you hear God’s voice, you must obey it, for it is not those who have sat under magnificent ministry and who have heard sound and positive exegesis of Scripture who are acceptable to God, but those who have known what it was that Jesus said to them and who obeyed it. Not even acceptable to Him are those who have been healed at such meetings - acceptance, according to the Sermon on the Mount, is based upon obedience to a command not on the experience of the power of God.
We may be able to claim that we’ve heard Smith Wigglesworth, Reinnard Bonnke, Benny Hinn and Roger Forster - but what have we done about it? Did we sit and listen to have our ears tickled and our intellects improved? Or did we take to heart those things that we knew God was saying through them and began to reorder our lives?
As James 1:22-25 says, echoing this passage
‘...be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves...’
It isn’t the hearers who are justified before God but those who hear and immediately begin to practise what they’ve heard God say, outworking it into their lives.
As a personal note, it has been a real challenge to study the Sermon on the Mount - not so much because it was hard work and difficult to find the time to do it (though, that has been a problem!), but because most of the passages I’ve been having to think about have resulted in myself saying
‘I don’t do that and I should’
‘I do that and I shouldn’t’
Though, as christians, we take delight in reading the words of Christ, we should, rather, take fright and flee from ever thinking that we can live as christians cheaply. The demands of Christ on the believer are so high that one begins to despair whether we might fulfil even a small proportion of what Jesus would have us be like.
And yet, as Mtw 5:48 tells us
‘You...must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’
To think that we can take the commands of Christ as some sort of ‘higher Law’ that we can seek to live our lives by results only in legalism - to imagine that we can do our own thing and that God will miraculously change us to be consistently obedient to His ethical will for our lives at some point in the future leads only to licentiousness and a flabby christian witness.
But to be armed with a determination to follow Christ at all costs and yet to rely on His strength and grace to achieve it - to live in the realisation that there is forgiveness available for every time we fall short of what He requires from us - this is what Jesus expects from us and this, it appears, was the new revelation of the Kingdom of heaven that Jesus came to impart to those who would listen.
Acceptance from God which demanded consequences - not obedience to a written code which won acceptance.
Jesus expects perfection in His followers - and He has provided the way and means to both make us perfect and to make amends for the times we fail to be so.
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