New International Version (NIV)
The Narrow and Wide Gates
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
True and False Prophets
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
I hate making choices. We don’t go out to eat as much as we used to now that we have a squirmy little boy, but there would be times when we just could not decide on a place to eat when we had our little date nights. I don’t spend a lot of time choosing my clothes to wear; I often employ the sniff test. I chose my clothes based on which ones stink the least. But regardless of whether we like it or not, life is full of choices. And some of the choices that we make can have a significant effect on our entire life and the lives of others.
Our scripture for today is about making choices. And essentially the most important choices that we make come down to one important decision: Will I follow Jesus today or not.
If we look really quickly at today’s text and the rest of the chapter we find Jesus offering metaphors to help illustrate the choices that his listeners will have to make: two gates, two ways, two prophets, two fruits, two trees, and two houses. One is the right choice and one is less right, or downright the wrong choice. But the point of the verse 13 through the end of this chapter seems clear to me: as followers of Jesus Christ, we must make decisions and we must make them often.
Verses 13-14 say this, “Enter through the narrow 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.” The question I have for you is Do these verses refer to becoming a Christian or do they refer to something else? I would say that this refers to both.
In John chapter 10 Jesus refers to himself as “the gate”. And gates are used for two things: to let something in or to let something out. If you didn’t want to let something in or let something out, you wouldn’t need a gate. All you would need is a fence to keep something in or keep something out. A gate is what allows something to be permeable. So when Jesus says that we are to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life, he is inviting us to enter through him into something. That something is the kingdom of God.
But notice that what is on the other side of that gate is not heaven. The NRSV translates verse 14 as, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life.” It doesn’t sound to me like Jesus is saying walk through the narrow gate and you will immediately be swept off into the great beyond. What we find on the other side of the narrow gate is going to be challenging. And that narrow, hard road I understand to be a life of following Jesus.
Think of it like this. Jesus is just finishing up his Sermon on the Mount which he is delivering to at least the apostles and likely many other people that came from miles around to hear him speak. Jesus has just spent the last three chapters talking about how one is to live as his follower. They are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. They are to go beyond outward morality like not committing adultery and get at the root of the problem by not even looking at a person with lust. They are to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love their enemies. They are to not practice their piety in front of others to receive their praise. They are to not judge others. And they are to pray fervently, among other things. Now unless we want to pit Jesus versus Paul in a theological battle, we would all agree that doing these things don’t get a person into heaven. Paul tells us that it is by grace that we are saved, not by works. So if Jesus is telling us how to get to heaven, then we would have to say that he is laying on the salvation by works theology pretty heavy.
No, we need not pit Paul versus Jesus in a theological battle because what Jesus is teaching is not about how one is saved. Jesus is teaching how his followers should live so as to experience the best, most fruitful, and pleasing to God life possible. Jesus has already done the work to provide the grace we all need. But a life of discipleship, a life of trying to live and love like Jesus is what we must strive for to experience the fullness of life as we were intended to live. I like to say that grace is cheap, but discipleship is costly, and worth it.
You see, we are subjected to many, many choices each and every day. From the clothes that we wear to the breakfast that we eat, to whether we read our Bible or watch television, give money to a beggar on the street or not. The list could go on and on. Some of these choices may not have any bearing on our discipleship and some may.
I like to think of the narrow way of discipleship as driving a car. Maybe Jesus would have used this example as well, but then the people would have just looked at each other and said, “What’s a Hyundai?”
My family and I will be leaving for Ohio next weekend for the second of many weddings this summer. We will climb into the car and make our way to 81south, which I know is counterintuitive when you are trying to go from Virginia to Ohio, but trust me, it gets us there. We drive the first 45 minutes or so through the Shenandoah Valley, which means that aside from the one right turn that we make onto 64 west, it is a pretty straight drive. However, even when the road seems to be going relatively straight, you are constantly making small adjustments. You can’t simply let go of the steering wheel and say Wake me up when we get there. No, you adjust a little to the left, and then to the right, and then back again. The standard highway lane is 12 feet wide. If you veer off one way you will hit the wake-up bars. If you veer off to the other side, you will go into your neighbor’s lane. And the standard semi-truck trailer is 8.5 feet wide. That means that there is only 3.5 feet total of the lane next to you that isn’t being used and that is probably divided into two because the semi should be driving in the center of the lane. This means that if you drift about 1.75 feet into the next lane that there might be problems.
Not only do you need to steer, you adjust your speed as you go as well. When the person in front of you decides that they need to slow down, so do you. If you don’t make that adjustment you will get to know the person in front of you as you exchange insurance information. They slow down, you do too. Or maybe you change lanes and go around them. The point is that driving a car means that you are making constant adjustments and many decisions just to stay in that narrow, 12-foot-wide lane. Narrow is the road that leads to life, broad is the road that leads to destruction.
A couple of events from this past week or two came to my mind as I thought of people jumping off the narrow path. As many of you know, I am a big fan of The Ohio State University. Now former coach Jim Tressel is a Christian man, he even spoke at a church fundraiser at a congregation that I was a part of in the Columbus area. He had been known as a man of high integrity, which is rare in college football today. He was squeaky clean, very aware of his image, wearing his sweater vest. He was known as a coach that took boys into his program and turned out men who were mature and prepared to play at the next level or enter into the working world.
Around Christmas-time it was found out that several of Tressel’s players, including the star quarterback, had broken some NCAA rules. The players were suspended for five games at the beginning of next season. Then it was found out that Tressel was aware of the infractions and failed to report it. Even worse, he lied about knowing about the infractions. This man who had won a BCS championship and 7 Big 10 championships in 10 years, coached a Heisman Trophy winner and numerous players that are now playing in the NFL now finds himself without a job and a big asterisk beside his records. The man with the squeaky-clean reputation took the broad road and it led to destruction.
This week, New York Representative to the House Anthony Weiner admitted that lewd photos that were sent from his Twitter account. His political career may now be in jeopardy because he took the broad road which leads to destruction.
It isn’t hard to see how the choices that we make can lead to destruction. Obviously, most of them will not be as significant as those of Tressel or Weiner, but like Peter’s choice to go back fishing after the death of Jesus, we can chose to take the easy path that is not the path that will lead us places that God had not intended for us to go.
Going back to the example of driving from Staunton to Ohio, it should be clear to us that not all variations in your driving will lead to an accident like it would if you hit another vehicle. If you take 250 to 81 South, soon after you get on the road, you are offered an option to get off and head east to Charlottesville. Charlottesville is full of awesome things like the downtown walking mall and you can walk to the pavilion on Fridays for Friday’s after Five and take in a free concert. Then before heading home you can go to Arch’s to get some frozen yogurt. Yum.
Now there is nothing specifically about Charlottesville that is evil or bad, but Charlottesville was not our initial goal. By giving in to the temptation to go to Charlottesville we sacrificed our trip to Ohio like we had originally planned. We missed the rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner. We missed the wedding, and we missed seeing my family. The easy thing to do was to take that exit and head east. There is only one mountain range to cross on the way to Charlottesville. It is pretty much mountains all the way to Ohio. But the long, difficult trip, over the mountains and through West Virginia is the one that will be the most rewarding.
Toward the end of John’s Gospel we find the story of the apostle Peter after the death of Jesus. Peter is always one who tends to be a little on the brash side. He speaks first and then thinks second. After claiming that he would never betray Jesus he denies even knowing him, possibly as many as three times. After Jesus is crucified, Peter goes back to his old occupation and goes out fishing. Now I heard a really interesting perspective on this story, one that I think fits in well with our topic this morning. It comes from Donald Miller’s book, Searching for God Knows What. Miller notes that John is very interested in mentioning fish as he talks about this scene in his gospel. He notes that Peter went fishing and caught no fish. He notes that when Jesus arrives on the shore and invites him to cast his net on the other side of the boat that they caught exactly 153 fish. John really seems to be emphasizing the fish.
Peter jumps out of the boat, swims to the shore, and has breakfast with Jesus. John then tells us, “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” I have always read this scripture as Jesus asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than the other disciples. But Miller suggests that maybe Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him more than he loves the fish.
This helps explain why Peter is almost ashamed to answer, “Yes, Lord. You know I love you.” Of course I love you more than I love fish. Then Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep.” Don’t go fishing, feed my sheep.
You see, Peter had been a disciple of Jesus’ for three years now. They ate together, worked together, ministered together. And while Peter was brash and made mistakes, it seemed clear that he was a leader of the group. But when things got a little tough and began to fall apart, Peter made a decision to get off the road of discipleship, to get off the difficult road that would likely lead to his death, and go back to his lifestyle of fishing for a living.
I don’t think that all of the decisions that we make will necessarily lead to pain, suffering, or agony, but if we make decisions that lead us off the narrow path, we may be destroying the plans that God has for us. Thankfully Peter had the option to get back on the narrow path of discipleship and he became one of the leaders of the New Testament church. And we always have the opportunity to get back on that narrow path again when we stray as well.
I want to finish today by touching on verse 15 and the following verses, which seem to be an explanation of verse 15. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” Maybe I am just saying this because I am a pastor who likes to take chances and push a few boundaries when I preach, but I do not think that verse 15 is talking about people who are wrong about a certain issue or two. I think too often when we hear a person talking about something that we don’t agree with 100% we label them as a false prophet, or worse, a heretic. The truth is, anywhere 2 or 3 are gathered, there will be 4 or 5 opinions. We can’t all be correct on everything all of the time.
Maybe one day when I stand before God I will find out that I was wrong about issues like abortion, war, women in ministry, predestination, or homosexuality. I know that my theology is not perfect and I am always trying to refine my understanding of who God is and what God is calling us to. But if you disagree with me on a specific subject I would hope that you would not call me a false prophet.
Jesus says that a false prophet is inwardly a ravenous wolf seeking to devour. I believe that what sets a false prophet apart from a regular old flawed human being that is sometimes wrong is the intention. If I stand up here and say something that is wrong, I don’t in my mind rub my hands together maniacally thinking, “Ahh, I’ve got them now!” No, my intention is not to deceive you. My intention is always to try to explain the scriptures as best as I can understand them. And there will be times when I make mistakes.
The false prophet in our text for today is the person who is intentionally trying to lead someone off the narrow road to the wide and easy road. The false prophet is the one that tries to say things like, “Grace will cover you, so go ahead and beat your wife, cheat on your taxes, and keep all of your wealth for yourself.” The false prophet wants us to join him or her on that wide and easy road. Sometimes pastors make mistakes, but hopefully our intention is to always help reveal the narrow road, not lead you off it.
We have choices to make. Sometimes this means little adjustments to keep on the narrow road and sometimes it means avoiding the exits that lead us to Charlottesville. Regardless, we need to make these choices as best as we can so that we can remain on the path that God has set before us; the path of discipleship. Nobody promised that following Jesus would be easy. Actually, just the opposite is promised. But we also know that we have been given another promise: It will be worth it. The abundant life, full of love for God and love for neighbor lies before us.