Which way are you going?
St. Augustines Archive
8 April 2017
Matthew 7:13-29 and Psalm 119:9-16
We are often forced to choose between two options. It’s a part of our daily life. Some of these choices are pretty inconsequential; this morning I had the decision between cereal and crumpets for breakfast. But some of the choices we are faced with are far more significant. Like the decision of whether or not to accept a job offer, or the decision of whether or not to move house.
When it comes to movies, one of the most famous decisions between two options is the decision that Neo faces in the movie The Matrix. He has just learned of massive corruption, and he is faced with a choice. If he took the blue pill, he would forget everything he had seen, and go back to comfort and security, but it would all be an illusion. But if he took the red pill, he would have freedom and knowledge of the truth, but would face the sometimes painful truth of reality.
Today as we come to the final passage in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out some choices for his hearers. In this passage, he is challenging his hearers on how they are going to respond, which way they are going to go. Which option they are going to choose. Four times in this final section of the Sermon on the Mount he lays out distinctions between two ways of living, and in each, there is a right and a wrong way. And what we are going to see over and over again is that the only way to be living the right way is to be following and obeying God’s words.
We are going to look at each of these four distinctions in turn: two paths, in verses 13 and 14; two trees, in verses 15 to 20; two destinations, in verses 21 to 23; and two foundations, in verses 24 to 27. Let’s start as Jesus does by looking at the two paths.
Jesus starts here in verse 13 with a command – enter through the narrow gate. But the first thing he explains in more depth is actually the wider gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Now we see the importance of which of the two paths we choose. The narrow path leads to life. This isn’t just referring to life like we have now – Jesus is painting a picture of where we are heading into eternity. We see that starkly when we look at the wider path… it is a path that leads to destruction. On the day when Jesus returns, all of us will face one of these two things. Life, or destruction. And which one we face will be determined by which of these two paths we are on. Are you on the narrow path, or on the wider path?
When I moved to Sydney for university, I moved into a residential college. It was a great way to settle into a new city. And as it came close to the end of my first year here, I was really keen to see the fireworks on the harbour on New Years Eve. But I’d heard all about how crowded it was, and how all of the good spots got snapped up by midday, with people camping out all day to make sure they had a prime spot to see them from. For our church, being this close to the harbour, I’m sure many of you have had the same kind of feeling about the crowds on New Years Eve.
But some of my friends at college knew of a spot that they said was always empty, and had amazing views of the harbour and the bridge. Now I was a bit skeptical, but they were insistent. “We only have to leave at about 8pm,” they told me. So they took me up on the north side of the harbour around 8pm, and we drove around for a while to find a park, and given how long that was taking, I was definitely losing hope about this amazing empty spot they were talking about. But we got a park, walked along a road into a reserve, and then one of the guys veered off into the bush. There was a tiny path there, and we went through it for a few minutes and came out on this big rock platform looking straight out onto the bridge. And at 8pm, it was totally empty, and we had an awesome view of the bridge. If I went back there now, I don’t even know if I’d be able to find that path again. But they knew it was there – and we found that narrow path only because we were seeking it.
Friends, if you’re not sure which path you are on… then you are most likely on the wider path. Because a narrow path is only found by actively seeking it. The default position of all of us is to be on the wider path. It is like the decision between the red and the blue pill. The wider path is the blue pill; going the way the world wants us to go, choosing conformity and comfort now, while the narrow path is the red pill, where we see the world as it really is, and have real freedom. Jesus says that many enter through the wider gate; but the road to life is narrow, and only a few find it. And those who find it are those who seek it; and the place to seek it is in the Bible, in God’s word to us. This is where we learn how to walk this narrow path, how to be true followers of Jesus, following him rather than walking the way the world wants us to walk.
So which way are you going? You need to make a decision. And the best decision is to heed Jesus’ command – enter through the narrow gate. Because this path leads to eternal life, and as we heard last week in the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 7 verse 8 – Jesus promises that everyone who seeks will find.
After talking about the two paths, Jesus then goes on to make a distinction between two types of trees. And again he starts this section with a command – it’s there in verse 15 – watch out for false prophets. It’s a warning for us! Jesus tells us that these false prophets come to us in sheep’s clothing – that is, they look innocent, harmless – but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. Jesus is invoking here the language of shepherds – very familiar in the day when he was speaking, but not quite as familiar to us in 21st century inner Sydney. Wolves were one of the biggest threats to flocks of sheep. Jesus is saying that we, God’s people, are his sheep – and false teachers are like ferocious wolves in sheeps clothing who walk among the sheep, seeking to devour them. The key point here is that they are dangerous, and the danger is very real that these false teachers will devour us, that is, take us from the narrow path that we saw earlier, to walking the wider path and missing out on God’s gift of eternal life.
There’s a lot at stake here – and we must be careful not to be led astray by false teachers. But the question then stands – how are we to know if someone is a false teacher? We get the answer in verse 16. It is by their fruit that you will recognise them. That sentence alone might leave us a bit confused, but Jesus has more detail to give us. In verses 16 to 18 Jesus explains that the fruit produced by the tree always reflects what kind of tree it is. You won’t get a grape from a thornbush. And you won’t get good fruit from bad trees, or bad fruit from good trees. The healthier the tree, the better the fruit you will get from it. And Jesus is saying it is the same with people. It is not possible for people to bear fruit that is contrary to their nature.
So how do we discern between good and bad fruit when it comes to teaching? Friends, it’s simpler than you would think. You need to be reading your Bible. If what someone is teaching doesn’t line up with what God teaches us in Scripture, then they are bearing bad fruit. This can sometimes be hard for us to see, when we look at big churches which have a lot of energy and seem to be growing quickly… but if the person up the front is not teaching faithfully what the Bible teaches, then that person and that church are producing bad fruit. It may not appear that way on the surface, but the bad fruit will show itself in due course.
But the fruit that God wants from us is that which lines up with his word. God wants people to be growing in faithfulness and trust in him – and we cannot and will not do that by watering down the gospel, by teaching a message that is closer to what the world wants to hear, by moving towards the wider path and away from the narrow path. We can only bear good fruit by hearing God speak to us, and following after his word.
This isn’t an optional extra to the Christian life. The people who teach contrary to God’s word will face consequences for that. Look at verse 19. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Those who teach contrary to God’s word will face his judgement, and will not receive his gift of eternal life. And if we fall into the trap of chasing after people who teach what the world wants to hear, rather than what the Bible says… well, we will be cut down with them. We need to know our Bibles well, and be discerning. Verse 20: Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.
The third distinction that Jesus makes is one that scares me every time I read it. When I feel anxious and am left to my worries, verses 21 to 23 feel to me like some of the most unsettling verses in the Bible. Read along with me. 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. 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?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Does that strike fear into you as well? It seems here that Jesus is talking about people who think that they are on the narrow path, heading for eternal life, but then get to the final day and Jesus announces that they were never on that path in the first place. I find myself asking the questions… what if that is me? What if my Christian life isn’t actually authentic? What if Jesus doesn’t actually know me?
But in reading through this passage during the last couple of weeks, I came to realise that this passage doesn’t need to scare us every time we read it. It is certainly a warning for us to heed, but it shouldn’t make us spend every moment wondering if we will be accepted or rejected by Jesus on the final day.
Why? The key is in what those speaking to Jesus in this passage say; or rather, what they don’t say. There are three things they focus on. Lord, in your name we… One) prophesied. Two) Drove out demons. Three) Performed miracles. What’s the common factor between these three things they are focusing on? They are all actions, these people are appealing to their own works to justify themselves. But what didn’t they say? They didn’t come to Jesus on the last day and say, “Lord, Lord, I trust in you for my salvation.” Or, “Lord, Lord, you died for our sins on the cross.” No, they tried to justify their own place in heaven based on what they had done, rather than in relying on what Jesus had done for them.
If you think that being a Christian is about doing all of the right things to please God, then these verses should scare you. But if you have a right understanding of what Jesus has done for you, in dying on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, and reconcile you to God – then these verses don’t need to shake you at all. You can have confidence that these words of condemnation that Jesus says here will not be directed at you. The Bible verse in our foyer just outside reinforces that confidence for us; Romans 10:9: If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Don’t rely on your works to get right with God. Instead, rely on God’s words, and trust in Jesus for your salvation.
And so we come to the last of the four distinctions that Jesus makes in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. And here Jesus makes the distinction between two foundations. He talks about two men who build houses; one on a rock, and one on sand. But Jesus wants to make clear that this little parable applies to everyone. He uses the word ‘everyone’ in both verse 24 and in verse 26 – and these groups are distinguished by whether they put Jesus’ words into practice after they hear them. If you hear Jesus’ words and put them into practice? Then you will be like the man who builds his house on a rock. When the bad weather of difficult life circumstances rolls in… even the harshest storms, like the cyclone that happened in Queensland last week… then your house, built on the foundation of Jesus’ words, will stand firm. No matter what testing times you face, if your life is built on obedience to Jesus’ words, you will stand. But to anyone who hears Jesus’ words and does not obey them, does not put them into practice… well, their house, their life, will have no secure foundation. When the stormy weather of life comes in, their house will fall.
Jesus has laid out four distinctions for us in this passage. And all of them are relevant for us today; and all of them have one common theme. We need to be people who listen to and trust in God’s word. It is in God’s word that we learn how to seek and find the narrow path which leads to eternal life. It is in God’s word that we learn how to discern between those teachers who bear good fruit and those who bear bad fruit – those who teach his word faithfully, compared to those who lead people astray. It is in God’s word that we learn that we cannot appeal to our own works to be right with God, and that we must trust in Jesus for our salvation. And it is God’s word that we must use as our foundation to build our lives upon; that is what will help us to stand firm in Jesus when the difficult circumstances of life inevitably roll in on us.
What does this look like for us, to build our lives on the foundation of God’s word? Firstly it means that we need to work out which way we are going. Are we going to take the wider path, following the way the world wants us to go, and destined for destruction… or are we going to take the narrow path, listening to Jesus words and destined for life with him? We can’t have a foot in both – if you’re not fully on the narrow path, then you are fully on the wider one. You might have been struck today and realised for the first time that you aren’t following Jesus with your whole life, that your house is built on a foundation of sand. You might have realised that if Jesus returned now, he would look at you and say, “I never knew you.” If that’s the case, please do something about it. Build your house on the rock. Choose the narrow path. All this means is putting your trust in Jesus, and Jesus alone, for your salvation, and not holding parts of your life away from him, or relying on your own efforts to be saved. And if you have decided that you want to follow Jesus today, please tell someone about it after the service, and ask for their help in working out what the next step is.
But for all of us, the next step, in theory, is pretty simple. Jesus’ words here say that we need to be people who put his words into practice. And to put his words into practice we need to know what it is that he says. We need to be people who read his word, and seek to live it out. We need to be people who love God’s word, who look to it for guidance, who read it joyfully, as it holds the words that lead us to eternal life!
Psalm 119, which we heard earlier, shows a beautiful example of someone who knows this and does this. This whole Psalm, the longest Psalm in the Bible, is devoted to declaring a longing for and trust in God’s word. I’m going to read verses 9 to 16 in a moment, and in these verses we see someone who seeks to walk the narrow path, and someone who is seeking to build their entire lives on the foundation of God’s word. I encourage all of you to go and read Psalm 119 over the Easter long weekend, and pray to God that he would help us to be people who long to hear him speak to us in his word.
Verses 9 to 16:
9 How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
11 I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
13 With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
14 In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
15 I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
16 I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.