This week we look at one of the more controversial and often misunderstood statements Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s Matthew 7:13-14 where Jesus said, “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.”
If you look carefully and examine the life and teachings of Jesus, you’ll notice what looks like a very strange paradox. On the one hand, Jesus makes statements that appear to be outrageously exclusive, and yet he pursued relational connections with people who were scandalously inclusive. It’s like the narrower Jesus gets in his devotion to God, the more broad-minded he is in his love for people. Maybe the possibility of finding deep truth and offering broad tolerance are not mutually incompatible. Maybe they’re mutually inseparable. We unpack these two verses this week.
- I will define “narrow gate” as obeying Jesus in all things, not narrow-mindedness, doctrinal correctness, or how many people will end up in Heaven.
- I will begin thinking and praying about putting obedience to Jesus above all else.
- I will be narrow in my devotion to God and broad-minded in my interactions with people who are different than me.
- I will read through the Sermon on the Mount, asking God to speak to me.
- I will consider obeying Jesus as the greatest opportunity I’ll ever know in my life.
Today we look at one of the more controversial and often misunderstood statements Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount. This is what he said: 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. Matthew 7:13-14 This picture of a small gate and narrow road touches on a deep concern a lot of thoughtful people have about Christianity. The concern is this — Christianity calls certain beliefs wrong, and certain behaviors immoral. Therefore, it impinges on human freedom by telling people what they must think and how they must live. Furthermore, Christians believe they know absolute truth; therefore, they believe people who disagree with them are wrong, and not just wrong but condemned before God. Again, a lot of people have concerns like this. The French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned. — Jean-Jacques Rousseau Therefore, this concern goes — Christians must be intolerant to atheists or agnostics, people of other religions, and even other kinds of Christians like Catholics versus Protestants or liberals versus conservatives. It’s often thought that the narrow way leads to a narrow mind — to unthinking, irrational, blindly compliant to authority, intolerant bigots. And, of course, it’s true that many of us who call ourselves Christians are often guilty of such things… and have been in the past. Here’s what’s interesting — if you look carefully and examine the life and teachings of Jesus, you notice what looks to our culture like a very strange paradox. On the one hand, Jesus makes statements that appear to be outrageously, staggeringly exclusive. He prayed one time: Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. John 17:3 Jesus says, “There is a God. Not just that, he is the true God, so other gods are false gods. And not just that, he is the only true God.” Most famously Jesus once said: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6 Jesus did not present his teachings as optional suggestions for a better life. * He claimed to know how things are. * He claimed that what he said wasn’t just wise; it was true. * He claimed this truth mattered more than anything else in the world. And yet — this man who made claims that were staggeringly and breathtakingly exclusive… pursued relational connections with people who were breathtakingly and scandalously inclusive. * He deliberately touched an untouchable leper. * He allowed a known prostitute to bathe his feet with her fair. * He commended a hated Roman centurion. * He partied with despised tax collectors. I’ll give you one very striking example of this relational inclusiveness on Jesus’ part. He was approached once by 10 lepers. Some of them were Jewish, but at least one of them was a Samaritan, so they would have been an inter-faith community. And Jesus heals them. Then, he gives them this command. “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” The reason for going to the priests was, in that day, the priest was kind of like a doctor. They didn’t really have doctors like we do, and a priest is the one who would give a leper a clean bill of health so he or she could rejoin society. We would expect Jesus, after healing a group of lepers, to say, “Go, show yourself to the nearest priest (singular),” but here he says priests. Why does he use the plural? Because Jewish lepers would go to Jewish priests, and the Samaritan leper would go to a Samaritan priest. In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “Now that I’ve healed you, you must all convert to my religion.” He enters into a healing relationship with unclean, un-Orthodox, non-Jewish lepers. And then he actually sends them to their own Jewish and Samaritan priests to be pronounced clean. It’s almost like Jesus thinks a relationship with him is now transcending human religion categories. It’s like the narrower Jesus gets in his devotion to God the more broad-minded he is in his love and reaching out to human beings. Now, his followers often missed this dynamic. The Barna Group is an organization that does a lot of research around faith in our day. And they found American culture is increasingly splintered and divided. Most Americans indicate they think it would be difficult to have a natural and normal conversation with minority groups who are different from them. That’s one of the ways to measure people’s broad-mindedness. They say they would find it difficult to have a natural, normal conversation with someone in a minority group different from them — like a Muslim or an atheist or an evangelical or a member of the LGBTQ community or a Mormon. Now, the single group that has the hardest time having natural and normal conversations with minority groups is evangelical Christians. In fact (I found this kind of strange), not only do evangelicals have the hardest time having normal, natural conversations with atheists or Muslims or people of a different sexual orientation, but 28 percent of evangelicals say they have a hard time having a normal conversation with other evangelicals. Now contrast that with the longest conversation recorded in the Bible — which was between Jesus and a pagan Samaritan woman, who was married five times and lived with a man who was not her husband — this woman who no other rabbi would have ever gone near. In other words, when you look at Jesus and his followers today, by our own admission in research — the followers of the most inclusive man in human history have become the most excluding people in American society. Often we’re quite lax in our devotion to God but relentlessly narrow-minded in our relationships and attitudes toward people. Jesus, on the other hand, was relentlessly narrow in his devotion to God but outrageously broad-minded in his relationships. Why is that? Why was he that way? * Some say he was just inconsistent. * Some say he was a nice guy but not a really good thinker. * Some have said maybe these claims of Jesus’ authority and religious convictions got made up by Paul and others and got retrofitted back into the Gospels. * Some people say he was not that clear about his own identity and the exclusivity of his message. * Or maybe… just maybe… the truth Jesus taught actually explains the life he led. * Maybe the truth he taught is not in tension with the life he led. Maybe it explains it. * Maybe the possibility of finding deep truth and offering broad tolerance are not mutually incompatible. Maybe they’re mutually inseparable. This is a very important topic for our day, for our culture, for people who follow Jesus or are thinking about it. You’ll notice when you consider the topic of tolerance and narrowness, when you go through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never commands tolerance. He never says, “Be thou tolerant.” Why is that? Well, tolerance has a kind of minimalist quality to it. It comes from a Latin word, tolerantia, which means to put up with or to endure, and that’s not actually what the soul craves. When Kathy and I got married, Kathy did not say, “I promise to tolerate you from this day forward for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, to put up with and endure you until death shall bring relief.” Parents don’t tuck their kids in at night and say, “Goodnight, honey. Sweet dreams. I tolerate you so much.” You are not made by God to be tolerated. You are made by God to be celebrated. We all know this in our souls. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t say, “Tolerate your enemies.” He doesn’t say, “Put up with those who persecute you, let alone people who just think differently.” If you’ve been here through this series you know about this because we’ve been studying this. He doesn’t say, “If you’re offering your gift at the altar and you remember your brother or sister has something against you… and you don’t like them… and you don’t like how they believe or act, well, tolerate them.” He doesn’t say, “If someone forces you to go with them one mile, put up with it.” Tolerance is a very good thing as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. It goes one mile. It doesn’t go two. Tolerance is better than intolerance, but tolerance is a pretty low bar. You can tolerate someone without loving them, but you can’t love someone intolerantly. Jesus now is inviting us to live in the kingdom of God — a spiritual reality where the primary law is love because God is love. So love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy. Love will certainly include the virtue of tolerance. But that leads to the question — why should we practice tolerance? Tolerance itself, which is talked about a lot in our day, actually requires a foundation. If it is going to be an enduring virtue it needs a rationale. It needs to stand on something. In our day, quite often, it’s claimed that people who say they could believe in absolute truth leads to hatred and war — that what we need is the practice of charity without the divisiveness of beliefs. We need the practice of charity, tolerance, and acceptance without the divisiveness of beliefs. But here’s the deal — the claim that all people are equal in dignity, that all people are deserving of our tolerance, is itself a moral and spiritual belief. So where does that belief come from that all people have dignity and deserve tolerance? Tolerance is built on the claim that every human being has dignity and has equal worth. That is an absolute claim (that all people have that), and if you undermine it by saying there is no such thing as a claim to be able to know truth, you end up eroding the very ground on which the practice of tolerance stands. In other words, the cure for arrogance and intolerance, which are horrible sins and often infect the church as much or more than any place else, is not that we should embrace uncertainty — “Well, we just don’t really know.” The cure is that we embrace humility. You can be right and humble. It’s possible. You can be uncertain and arrogant. G.K. Chesterton wrote about a hundred years ago precisely on this subject. He said: What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. A person was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth. That has been exactly reversed. — G.K. Chesterton Now, in our day, we’re all sure of ourselves. We’re all confident in ourselves, but we’re not confident that we can know anything. Chesterton said: We are on the road to producing a race of people too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. — G.K. Chesterton Jesus taught that the greatest foundation for both tolerance and love resides in God and in his kingdom. People should be prized because they are loved by God. People should be free because God gave them a will. God gave them a little kingdom where they are to exercise dominion. Now, all of this brings us to the narrow gate that Jesus is talking about in the text… which is so often misunderstood. * The narrow gate is not narrow-mindedness. * The narrow gate is not doctrinal correctness. * It’s not always being right and having everyone else be wrong. * The narrow gate is not religious intolerance. * The narrow gate is doing what Jesus said to do. * The narrow gate is obeying — and that’s another word that has gotten messed up — obeying creatively, intelligently, joyfully, falteringly with relaxed hands and un-gritted teeth, obeying the one who has thoroughly mastered life and death, the one who knows. Obeying him in all things is the narrow gate. What’s the broad gate? Well, the broad gate is just doing anything else. The broad gate is doing anything except seeking to obey Jesus in all things. Alright, we’ll talk more about this in just a moment. Announcements Alright, so obeying Jesus in all things is the narrow gate. The broad gate is doing anything except seeking to obey Jesus in all things. It’s only through the narrow gate that we find freedom. Jesus put it like this: If you obey my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:31-32 Now, those words — “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” are inscribed on more university campuses in our country than any other saying. But they don’t often include the prior phrase, “If you obey my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth.” “If you obey” — in our day, we generally think freedom is the opposite of having to obey something. We usually think of freedom as the absence of restrictions, but it’s not. I heard about a young girl whose first pet was a goldfish. She felt bad for the little fish being cooped up in a tiny fishbowl all day, so one day when her mom was in the other room she liberated the fish. She took him out of his glass prison and set him on the carpet where he could breathe the fresh air of freedom and boldly go where no fish had gone before. Do you want to guess what happened to that fish? In order to be free to live — a fish must be restricted to water. It’s the fish’s nature. Freedom is not the absence of restraint and restriction. Freedom is finding the right restriction. It’s swimming in the moral and spiritual reality of God and his kingdom for which my little nature and your little nature were made. If you obey the teachings of Jesus, he says, “You really are my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” like water makes a fish free. Now, the issue Jesus pushes relentlessly from here to the end of the Sermon on the Mount is the question — whose disciple will you be? A lot of people in churches think the church exists to make Christians. And that Christians are people who believe the things you have to believe in order for a narrow-minded God to let you into heaven. Just to be clear — Jesus never called anyone to be a Christian. Look it up. He called everyone to be his disciples — prostitutes and tax collectors and Roman centurions and religious leaders and Samaritan lepers. And disciple was not a confusing or mysterious or even particularly religious term. A disciple is someone who’s committed to being with another person to learn from them how to do something. You are someone’s disciple. By that I mean — you’ve learned how to live from someone. When a baby is born, he or she has to learn how to talk and how to walk and how to read. And then they learn how to spend their time, and how to spend their money, and how to relate to others. We all have to learn this. It’s the nature of the human condition. Human beings learn how to live by being disciples. Everyone is someone’s disciple. The first are usually our parents. Then, maybe our teachers. Then, maybe our peers or maybe mentors or, often in our day, celebrities or an online community. For better or for worse, on purpose or by drifting, you are someone’s disciple. You are. And that person you become a disciple of will teach you a way of life. To be someone’s disciple means to choose to be with them — to learn from them how to be like them in some way. So when Jesus talks about the narrow way or the broad way, he’s just talking about the way life is. It has nothing to do with narrow-mindedness or “Look at how right I can be.” Life is just this way — * If you want the freedom to make great music, you will have to arrange your life around practicing and lessons and scales and study. * If you want the freedom to compete at the highest level in athletics, you must arrange your life around exercise and drills and coaching and watching video. * If you’re an alcoholic and you want to be free from addiction, you must arrange your life around surrendering your will, and going through the 12 steps, and getting a sponsor, and helping other people. The narrow way is that way of life through which you receive the power to live the vision — to play a piano, or to play a sport, or to be sober, or to live like Jesus. The narrow way is simply the way that vision requires you to arrange your life in order to receive power to do what it is you have a vision for. The broad way is just — do anything else. Around playing the piano or sports or alcohol, the broad way is just doing anything else. Particularly, it’s just doing what you feel like doing and doing what everyone else is doing. Now, when Jesus says that many take the broad road and few take the narrow road, he’s not predicting how many people will end up in heaven. And, for sure, he’s not saying God will be happy if only a few make it there. God is not willing that any should perish. Jesus is simply noting that the broad way is the default mode of life. Generally, people tend to just drift through their life by habit and whatever they see going on around them. So this is the question — have you become a disciple of Jesus? Have you gone through the narrow gate? That’s the decision. Is living the way Jesus would live if he were in your place your top priority. Or are you a disciple of money… or security… or addiction… or your image? This is so crucial. This is why we exist as a church. For the next few weeks we’re going to just focus on exactly what it means to be a disciple. The urgency of this call of Jesus takes up the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. And you and I are going to have an opportunity to commit ourselves to being his disciple — that is, to put obedience to Jesus above all else. I just want to invite you to start thinking and praying about that this week. Then, toward the end of August we’re going to do baptisms. Jesus actually said the very first step for someone who wants to be his disciple is to get baptized as a public expression of their commitment to him. And I’ve heard people say they don’t want to get baptized because they’d be embarrassed for people to know they hadn’t gotten baptized yet, or it would make them feel uncomfortable, or they don’t want to get their hair wet in public. I want to promise you, for anyone who is bold enough to take that step, when you get baptized every one of the rest of us will cheer you on like crazy. You will have no reason to be embarrassed. Alright, what I want to leave you with today — that you can practice this week — is the promise that if you go through the narrow gate and you walk that road of obedience to him, which is the best road, you will not do it alone. Through the Holy Spirit the presence of Jesus will be available to you in every moment. Through prayer, through the words of Scripture, through the least of these in whom Jesus is always present, through a thought of whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pleasant, and whatever is honorable — you will not be alone on the narrow way. I want to close with a story about a guy named Charlie who went spelunking in a cave. His friend told him there was an inner chamber with a pool of great beauty but you could only get there by a very narrow way. So they started walking through the narrow way. After a while, the ceiling got lower and lower, and Charlie had to crouch down. It kept getting lower. He had to get on his knees. It kept getting lower. He had to crawl. It kept getting lower. He had to get on his stomach. Eventually, it got so constricted in this pitch black cave that he had to lay flat on his back and exhale so he could scoot a few inches. Then, he would take another breath and do it again. That was the only way he could move. Now, why would Charlie do this? It’s because there’s something wrong with Charlie, that’s why. He said, the only way he made it was he had a friend who knew the way and that friend just kept saying, “Keep listening to me, Charlie. Don’t think about the dark. Don’t think about the cave. Don’t think about the fear. Just listen to my voice. Just do what I tell you to do. Just keep going, and we will get there,” and they did. Listen to me — you have a friend you can listen to in the cave, in the dark, when you’re scared and you can hardly breathe. Maybe you’re there now and it scares you to death. You’re not alone. You’re maybe least alone when you feel most alone. Jesus is there — in the darkness and the fear whispering to you, “Don’t give up. It will be okay. I’m with you.” So this week, if you’re thinking about becoming his disciple, listen to his voice when you get up in the morning and when you go to bed at night, when you go to work and when you come home, when you have a problem and when you’re filled with joy. This week get a Bible out and read the words of the Sermon on the Mount and ask God, “God, would you speak to me?” Anytime you think of it, just practice doing what he said to do. Learn not just to obey him but to revel in the thought of obeying him, to think, “Maybe obeying him with his help is, in fact, the greatest opportunity I’ll ever know in my life.” Make your fundamental identity that you are a disciple of this man, Jesus. Be utterly narrow in your devotion to him… and then incredibly broad-minded in your interactions and acceptance and love and conversations and tolerance and celebration of people radically different than you. And remember when you go through that gate, no matter how narrow the path, no matter how dark the cave, you are never alone. Alright, let me pray for you. Blue Oaks Church Pleasanton, CA