Thursday, December 22, 2016

Beware of False Prophets – Matthew 7:15-20

As we read these words of our Lord, we are immediately confronted with the stark difference of some of the basic assumptions of the Christian faith and our culture.  In these words, Jesus tells his hearers to beware of false prophets.  He has just finished exhorting them to enter into the strait gate and to tread the narrow way.  And we saw last time that the narrow way is the way of discipleship, the life that has as its model the Sermon on the Mount.  The reason he gives for the life of discipleship is that the strait gate and narrow way leads to life whereas the wide gate and broad way leads to destruction.  So here you are contemplating these two gates.  But outside these gates are people telling you it’s stupid to put yourself to the difficulty of living such a restrictive life and that you should go by the broad way.  Jesus tells us that these people are false prophets.  They claim to be giving you good advice, but they are not only leading you astray, they are leading you in a way that will lead to your ultimate destruction.

And there is the rub as far as modern man is concerned.  According to current attitudes, Jesus has committed at least two evils here: he has put himself as the standard of truth (since those who oppose his teaching are false prophets), and he has told his audience that it matters what you believe (since we are to beware of false prophets).  Both these positions are anathema to modern Western thought.  We are told that the exclusive truth claims of Christianity inherent in the text are a straightjacket, and that they undermine community and personal freedom. 

It is especially the perceived threat to personal freedom inherent in the Christian message that raises red flags for so many people.  For many, freedom means that you create your own meaning in life, your own truth, and your own morality, and that anything else is simply too restrictive.  In fact, modern man is not surprised that Jesus described that path of Christian obedience as a narrow path; what surprises them is that anyone would choose to live such a restrictive life.

The problem with such an attitude, as Tim Keller points out, is that this definition of freedom is oversimplified.[1]  To think of freedom simply in terms of living without boundaries is actually to undermine freedom.  In fact, you can’t have freedom without boundaries (that is, without restriction) of some sort.  A fish is free as long as it is restricted to water.  Put it out of its native environment and it is not only not free, it will die.  Some “freedoms” are destructive, not liberating.  Nowhere is this clearer than in relationships.  As Keller puts it, “Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.”  The question is how we determine what those boundaries are that enable us to thrive.

When Jesus therefore tells us to enter into a strait gate, he is not necessarily saying something that is antithetical to freedom.  Actually, he promises true freedom to those who follow him.  The strait gate leads to life, and that is freedom.  “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free . . . if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he tells us (Jn. 8:32, 36).

But what about the exclusivity of the truth claims of Jesus?  Many claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth.  But to make such a claim is to contradict oneself.  If there is no absolute truth, then the very statement that there is no absolute truth must be false.  The postmodern position that everything is relative or culturally conditioned is, as C. S. Lewis eloquently put it, like seeing through everything so that there is nothing to see.  There has to be ultimate truth, so there is nothing inherently wrong with Jesus claiming to speak truth, or even to say that he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6).

It really comes down to who Jesus is.  If he is the way, the truth, and the life – as he claimed and as we believe – then not only should we not be insulted by the exclusivity of his claims or the narrowness of his way, but we should gladly embrace it.  For only he is the one who can really show us what the boundaries are that will lead to true freedom.  Only someone with the omniscience and the love of the Son of God could be worthy of our confidence that he can show us where truth and freedom are to be found.

And his warnings are to be taken seriously.  Like the one in our text.  The threat of false prophets is no warning of a falling sky.  It is real and it is serious.  But what is Jesus referring to?

A prophet is someone who claims to speak for God.  A false prophet is therefore someone who claims to speak for God but who really doesn’t.  They are dangerous because they lead people astray, away from the path of obedience to God.  The danger our Lord is referring to is that false prophets will lead you away from the strait gate and the narrow way.  Thus, this is serious stuff, because these guys claim to be speaking for God and yet are leading people down a path that leads away from God.  So not only are they hurting people but they are creating a false sense of assurance as they march to their end, making it that much harder to recover them from their mistaken allegiance.  It is no wonder therefore that Jesus describes them as wolves who only want to devour the sheep. 

The problem, however, is that these false prophets are not easy to detect.  Jesus says that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They are in disguise.  They get in among the sheep without being detected as the wolves that they are.  That is partly what makes them so dangerous.  In other words, it’s not the false prophets that are obvious and who teach obvious heresy that you have to be afraid of.  It’s the false prophets who come in looking like true prophets speaking words of truth.  To heed Jesus’ words, we need a lot of discernment when it comes to those who come to us claiming to speak for God.

For example, in the Law, Moses warned Israel about false prophets who would come and give a sign or a wonder, and then the sign or the wonder would come to pass.  For many, this would be an obvious sign that the prophet was speaking the truth – after all, fulfilled prophesy was the gold standard in false-prophet detection.  But the problem was that this prophet was encouraging the people to go after false gods.  God tells Israel that even if the sign comes to pass, if he is encouraging idolatry, they should not listen to him: “for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:1-3).  The danger lay in the fulfilled prophesy, making it easier for people to think the prophet was really speaking for God when he wasn’t.  Of course, sometimes fulfilled prophesy was a good way to test a prophet (cf. Deut. 18:22).  But this text shows that this was not always the case.  There had to be discernment. 

In the New Testament, the situation has not changed.  There are still people who claim to speak for God but who are leading people astray, and it is not always obvious at first that they are false prophets.  In fact, Jesus told his disciples that “there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Mt. 24:24).  In other words, so convincing are the signs and wonders of the false prophets that only the intervention of God in behalf of his elect saves them from the deception.  Elsewhere, the apostle Paul writes that “such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great things if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:13-15).  False prophets don’t come heralding an antichristian gospel.  Rather, they come in the name of Christ, as the ministers of righteousness.  They claim to be speaking for Jesus, and they claim to be working for righteousness.  And if this were true, this would be wonderful!  But the problem is that it isn’t true.  In fact, these are the ministers of Satan, who hates Christ and righteousness.  And those who follow them will therefore only be led away from Christ and away from a life of righteousness.

In our Lord’s day, there were the Pharisees.  Today, the word “Pharisee” only conjures up images of self-righteous narcissists.  But in first century Judea, a Pharisee was precisely the kind of person everyone looked up to.  They were devoted to the Law of God, and they were the defenders of orthodoxy.  And yet, strangely, the Pharisees come in for more criticism from Jesus than did the more liberal and secular Sadducees.  Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will both fall into the ditch (Mt. 15:14).  People probably looked up to them because they seemed to be speaking truth.  But our Lord says that the problem was that for all their devotion to the Law, they had replaced the commandments of God with the traditions of men (Mt. 15:9).  People were fooled.  The Pharisees came looking like sheep, but they really were wolves in sheep’s clothing.

In our day, the same holds true.  The most dangerous people to the church are not out of the church but in it.  They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They come in the name of Jesus and claim to speak for him.  And they fool thousands of people.

What are some of the signs of a false prophet?  How do we detect them?  First of all, from what we’ve already pointed out, it is not enough to check that they claim to be a follower of Jesus.  There is a tendency in our day to want to embrace anyone as long as they claim to be Christian.  The problem is that this is just a name and there are a lot of people who want to be called a Christian but who have no real allegiance to the Jesus of the Bible.  The false apostles that Paul referred to in the Corinthian correspondence certainly came preaching Jesus; they claimed to be sent by him.  But they were false, nonetheless.  We have to be more careful than that.

Nor is it enough to check that they use orthodox language.  In other words, a person may speak in glowing terms of the cross and atonement and new birth, but it does not therefore follow that they mean what the Bible means when it uses that language.  One of the ways liberalism crept into the mainstream denominations at the close of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, was through the use of orthodox language by very unorthodox preachers.  They would speak of the atonement and the central place it should hold, but their understanding of atonement was very different from the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus in the place of sinners that the New Testament speaks of.  For them, the atonement was primarily an example to us, not a sacrifice for us.  People didn’t discern the difference, and before long these denominations began to crumble under the weight of an unbiblical theology.

Nor is it enough to check that they are good people.  Most false prophets are nice, and they are easy to like and get along with.  How else could they get a following?  False teachers are often dynamic speakers (this was certainly true of the false apostles that opposed Paul, cf. 2 Cor. 11:4-6) and inspiring leaders.  They know how to generate and maintain a following.  And to do this, they have to first get the confidence of the people.  You don’t do this generally by being a bad guy.  You don’t inspire the confidence of people by being angry and drunk and immoral.  In other words, they come looking like sheep, not like wolves.

Nor is it enough to look at how successful he or she is in recruiting disciples.  Many people seem to think that a successful church is necessarily a church with a lot of people, and that if you have a lot of people, this is a sure sign that God’s blessing is upon it.  But God isn’t interesting in numbers, as such.  There have been times when the false-prophets and their followers vastly outnumbered the faithful.  In Elijah’s day, he was one of the few faithful prophets against hundreds of the prophets of Baal; there were only 7,000 men who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal among all the tens of thousands in Israel.  As our Lord put it in the previous verses, the road to life is narrow and those who travel it are few.  A preacher with a large following is not necessarily a true prophet (although neither is he necessarily a false prophet!).

What then should we look at?  Well, we should look at the man and the message.  There is some disagreement as to what Jesus is referring to by “ye shall know them by their fruits” (16, 20).  What are the fruits that we are to look at?  Some say that Jesus is only referring to the deeds of the false prophet.  Others say that the fruit is a reference to the teaching of the false prophet.  The truth, however, is that both deeds and teaching are under consideration here.  It refers to deeds, since when John the Baptist used this very language it is indisputable that we was referring to lifestyle: “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Mt. 3:8).  But it also refers to teaching, since in the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus follows up his illustration of good and bad fruit with these words: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).  Of course, as Jesus makes clear, both the man and the message go together because what you believe will inevitably affect how you live.

What can we say about the message of a false prophet?  Well, as Lloyd-Jones pointed out, it is almost as necessary to look for what they don’t say as much as it is to look for what they do say.  Look at the breadth of their teaching.  Does it follow the contours of the Bible?  Does it maintain a Biblical balance?  Or is it fixated upon one thing?

One of the dead giveaways of a false prophet is that he does not preach the whole counsel of God.  He may preach some of it, but he does not preach all of it.  He preaches that part of God’s word that is popular and tones down on that which is not.  What they do say may be alright as far as it goes, but their teaching is lacking the main thing.  They may preach on how to have a good family life or a good marriage or how to be a successful person in this world.  But if there is nothing of the gospel in their message, if the gospel is not in fact the main thing, then they have missed it.  They are not helping their people, they are leading them astray.  They are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

A true prophet will center his ministry on Christ.  Everything else is secondary; the whole point is to point people to Jesus as Lord and Savior, to invite people to embrace him and to hold him forth in the teaching so that he is magnified.  The emphasis is not on how to have your best life now; it is on how to know Jesus Christ and to make him known.  The teaching centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and he is wary about anything that leads people away from hearts and minds that are focused on him.

Not only so, but the teaching of a false prophet is unbalanced with respect to the character of God.  In the Bible, God is revealed preeminently as holy; all other attributes (including love) find their orbit around the blazing center of the holiness of God.  Often in the history of the church this unbalance has shown up in an overemphasis on love and a corresponding under emphasis upon God’s righteous judgment.  Both need to be preached; to deny either is to wander into serious heresy.

Then there is unbalance with respect to the Scriptural view of man.  In the Bible, man is not viewed as sort of sick but as dead; not as able to pull himself up by the bootstraps and save himself but as unable to save himself and in need of a Savior.  In the Bible, sin is viewed not so much as a moral mess-up but as an act of treason against God which makes him worthy of everlasting punishment.  In contrast, a false prophet is not likely to emphasize these things.  As in most religions in the world, man is able to save himself; so with the Christian false-prophet.  The cross is correspondingly diminished and the role that man plays in his own self-redemption is magnified.

Of course, we must also look at the man.  A message which does not point to Christ will not make holy people.  So we must always look for holiness of character.  Now this is not the same thing as being nice or an inspiring leader.  A holy prophet is a prophet who walks with God, who lives to please him and to glorify him.  A false prophet, like Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9), wants to have the preeminence, but a true prophet, like John the Baptist, is okay with decreasing in importance as long as Christ increases.  Just as his message is centered on Christ, so his life is centered on Christ.  In other words, he is pointing people to Jesus with his lips and his life, by his words and works.

That doesn’t mean that the faithful prophet will be perfect.  But God does not call unholy men to be his prophets.  This is why when Paul tells Timothy the qualifications for an elder or overseer, he mentions character qualities rather than skills, except for aptness to teach (1 Tim. 3:1, ff).  Spiritual leaders in the church are called to a high standard because an unholy man who is not living a God-centered life cannot lead those who follow his teaching along the narrow way that Christ calls all his disciples to tread.  The disciple is not above his teacher.  It’s why Paul told Timothy that when an elder sinned, he was to be rebuked before all; it is that serious.  This is important to point out because in our day we have become so lax and accepting that sin is not really treated with the kind of seriousness with which it ought to be treated.  Leaders sin and we don’t hold them accountable because it makes it easier for us to justify our sin.  In many places this is the reality: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely . . . and my people love to have it so” (Jer. 5:30-31).

What our Lord’s words do not allow us to do is to judge hearts and attitudes.  You judge the fruit – the words and the deeds of the person.  But this is good enough.  For “a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt true bring forth good fruit” (18).  We don’t have to try to peer into their heart to judge the truth or falseness of their ministry; the fruit of the man and message will be clear soon enough.

But of course this also applies to every one of us, doesn’t it?  “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (20).  It is not enough simply to say you follow Christ – do your works back up your words?  Does your life demonstrate that you truly believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior?  May the Holy Spirit enable us to examine ourselves first of all, to see whether or not we are in the faith!

[1] Tim Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton: 2008), p. 45-50.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Call for Decision: Matthew 7:13-14

Throughout this sermon, our Lord has been describing to his audience what it means to follow him.  At this point in the sermon, he moves from description to application, from instruction to exhortation, and he continues in this way to the end of the sermon.  He does so because it is never enough to be merely interested in righteousness; one must become committed to it.  The truths of God were never meant to be treated as museum pieces, admired and studied, but only at a distance.  I read a lot of history, especially military history.  Recently I have started reading a short history of the Korean War.  It describes some of the horrific tasks assigned to the US infantry fighting at the front; one unit started off in a battle with over 200 men, and they ended up assaulting a position with a bayonet charge when they had only 33 men left.  My experience reading about that is infinitely separated from the actual experience of the men who lived through it; even more so from the experience of those who died in that combat.  Now our Lord is telling us that it is not enough to be historians or merely admirers of Christianity; we must go to the front lines in the Christian warfare if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ.  There is no such thing as an arm-chair Christian; if you are not in the trenches then you are not for real.

And so our Lord presents you with a choice.  Are you willing to follow him or not?  He describes this choice in terms of two gates, two ways, two crowds, and two ends.  Which gate will you enter?  Which way will you follow?  With which crowd will you identify?  Which end will you meet?  Of course, these are all the same question put to us in different ways, but the imagery of each helps us to see more clearly what our Lord is calling upon us to do.  So let’s consider each question in turn.

Before we do so, however, I think it’s necessary to point out that there are only two choices.  There is no third way.  You are either in the one or the other way.  Making no choice is to have made a choice by default for the easy and broad way.  To remain indifferent about Jesus Christ in the end is to have rejected him.  In other words, this is a choice that you cannot escape, and it is a delusion to think that you can remain undecided.  So . . .

Which gate will you enter?

There are two gates before you.  One is described as a “strait gate” and the other is described as a “wide gate.”  (“Strait” does not mean “straight” – it means “narrow.”)  The Lord is obviously wanting to convey the impression that the strait gate is difficult to navigate, whereas the wide gate is easy to pass through.  Nevertheless here, it is the strait gate that we are exhorted to enter.  In another place, Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (cf. Mt. 19:23-24).  In other words, the way into the kingdom of God is not easy.  The way into a life of discipleship is hard.  The gate is narrow and you cannot bring a lot of baggage through.  If you want to pass through this gate, you have to drop everything and pass through with nothing but yourself.  If you try to hold onto anything of this world as you pass through, you will only get stuck.

What is Jesus trying to convey here?  Well, if you go back to the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, you will see that this man was unable to part with his riches in order to follow Christ.  So he turned his back on Jesus and left.  He had chosen to pass through the wide gate; the strait gate was too distasteful for him.  We must remember that the reason Jesus confronted him with the problem of his riches was that he was guilty of covetousness – his wealth had become his god.  In the same way, if we want to enter the strait gate, we will have to be willing to drop anything that is more important to us than God – that is what he is saying here.

In our day, Christianity has become easy; it is just a matter of saying a prayer and getting baptized.  It is just a matter of “making a decision” and it is put before people as the easiest thing to do.  And as a result our churches have become full of people who are not born again, who are Christian in name only.  But this is not Biblical Christianity.  We are not called upon to make a decision; we are called upon to enter a strait gate.  What does this look like?

For one thing, we are called upon to repent of our sins.  You cannot take your sins through this gate.  If you want to be a follower of Jesus, you must repent.  We must never forget that this is the message of Biblical and apostolic Christianity.  John the Baptist came preaching repentance (3:1-2).  Jesus and his disciples came preaching repentance (4:17; Mark 6:12).  The first sermon in Acts was a message of repentance (Acts 2:38-40), and really every message from that point on in the early church was just a message of repentance.  Paul summarized it well in Acts 17:30 when he said that “God . . . now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.”

And this is not just a generic call to repentance; we are called to repent of everything that stands between us and obedience to Christ.  We are to repent in specific ways of specific sins.  And sin is not defined by the culture.  It is defined by the Bible.  It is defined by the Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout this sermon our Lord has been telling us that following him is going to be counter-cultural.  You cannot be salt and light in any other way.  It is the culture that has built the wide gate; to listen to its definition of sins is just to enter through that gate.  No, we must listen to what the Bible has to say about sin.  And nowhere is this more important that now, because – as R. C. Sproul has put it – our culture is becoming increasingly neo-barbarian.  No, we must save ourselves from this present generation (Acts 2:40), not listen to it! 

And nowhere is this more important today than in the area of sexual sin.  Even the church has increasingly given into the cultural pressure to conform in this area.  More and more you hear of teenagers raised in the church who are promiscuous, and you are called judgmental if you call it out.  The call to tolerance has replaced the call to holiness.  We need to hear again the words of our Lord in Matthew 5 – that adultery is sin, and fornication is sin, and pornography is sin, and lust in the heart is sin.  And it is so bad that to fail to disentangle yourself from these habits is to endanger your soul eternally to God’s judgment.  We need to hear the words of Hebrews 13:4 – “Marriage (and marriage in the Scriptures is only between one man and one woman) is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”

The call to Christ is not a call to come pad your life with fun and comfort in this world.  It is a call to turn away from those habits and thoughts and acts that are offensive to God.  If you cannot do this, then you cannot enter in by the strait gate.  You cannot bring your sins with you through this gate.

Furthermore, we are called upon to humble ourselves before God and to recognize that we cannot save ourselves.  You cannot be a follower of Christ if you think that you can make yourself good enough to get into heaven.  Again, referring to the rich young ruler, one of his problems was not only covetousness; his main problem was pride in his efforts to make himself worthy of God.  This is why Jesus told his disciples that when it came to entering eternal life: “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26).  In other words, it is not only unrighteousness that is the problem; it is self-righteousness. 

You cannot bring your sin through the gate; but neither can you bring your righteousness.  If you would be a follower of Jesus Christ, you must have him as Lord and Savior.  You must trust in him as the only one who can take away your sins and give you access to God the Father.  The apostles would later put it this way: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Jn. 4:12).  You must repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  You must embrace, not an atonement of your making, but the redemption accomplished by Jesus.

Of course these two things go together: you will never really embrace the grace of Jesus Christ until you have realized the seriousness of your sin before God.  You will yawn at your sin as long as you are blind to your sin.  Sin is like leprosy; it deadens the moral nerve-endings of our soul and we go on spiritually mutilating ourselves without realizing it.  But once you see how really bad you are, you will not be satisfied until you have repented of your sins.  Repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ go together like light and heat.  You cannot have one without the other.

Which way will you follow?

Beyond the two gates lie two ways.  Again, it is not that once you have chosen the gate you now must decide which way to choose.  To choose the gate is to choose the way.  If you choose the strait gate, then you have chosen the narrow way.  If you choose the wide gate, then you have chosen the broad way.  The paths that lead from the gates mimic the character of the gate.  The strait gate does not lead to a broad way – it is a narrow gate for a narrow way.

It is very important to follow our Lord’s words here, because it helps to undermine some misconceptions about the Christian life that are rampant in our day.  Some would give the impression that to choose Jesus is to begin a sort of heaven on earth.  It’s all good from here!  But this is not what our Lord says here, and it is dishonest to convey any other impression about Christian discipleship.  Our Lord does not paint a rosy picture of the Christian life now; it is a narrow way, and it is difficult to traverse.  As Matthew Henry put it, “We are not in heaven as soon as we are got through the strait gate.”

In verse 14, in our version, our Lord says, “Because strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life.”  In some versions, the word for “narrow” is translated “hard.”  The Christian life is hard!  How many people are saying that?  But this is exactly what our Lord said.  Why is the Christian way hard?

Well, look back at this Sermon.  If you are a disciple of Christ, this is what your life is supposed to look like.  Or at least the trajectory of your life is supposed to be pointed in this direction.  Look at the Beatitudes – poor in spirit, mourning over sin, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers – does that describe you?  Or does it describe what you are becoming?  Because if it is, you will have discovered that sanctification is not an easy process.  It requires self-denial, resisting temptation, and doing what you ought when it’s not what you want.  This is why the apostle Paul describes it as putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13), mortifying the flesh.  It is hard.  And it is harder because it is not the work of a day or an hour but the work of a lifetime.  It’s described as running a race; and it’s not important who starts but who finishes.

Another reason why this way is hard is because it attracts persecution.  The Greek word behind “narrow” in verse 14 not only conveys the idea of hardness, but it also conveys the idea of persecution.  As our Lord points out, there are a few in this way; everyone else is in the broad way.  And they look upon “the few” as odd, as misfits, as unworthy of acceptance and approval.  So they persecute them.  And we should not be surprised when this happens, for “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).  Our Lord put it to his disciples, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).  And this is hard.  No one likes to be hated and no one likes to be persecuted.  But this is the only way: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Act 14:22).

In our day, Christians are constantly being told that they are on the wrong side of history.  Well, this is okay.  It has really always been that way.  It is the narrow and hard way.  And it is the only way we can be salt and light.  When William Wilberforce started his campaign against the slave trade, he too was on the wrong side of history.  And he endured quite a bit of opposition and persecution for his righteous stand.  But in the end, the light of truth quenched the darkness.  We too, need to be willing to endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ so that we can be lights in a dark world.  As Charles Simeon once put it, “Brethren, we must not mind a little suffering.”

With which crowd will you identify?

On these two roads are two different crowds.  The few are on the narrow way, and the many are on the broad way.  In other words, if you want to follow Christ, you are always going to be in the minority.  You are going to feel like a stranger at times in your own land.  And the reason is that, if you are following Christ, you really are a stranger, “strangers and pilgrims” as the apostle Peter put it (1 Pet. 2:11).  Or as the apostle Paul put it, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

But if we are strangers in our culture, we are not strangers and foreigners in the kingdom of heaven (cf. Eph. 2:19).  However, the point is, that you cannot have both.  You cannot feel at home in a world in rebellion against God and simultaneously feel at home in the kingdom of God.  For that would be the same as walking both paths.  You cannot be on the broad way and the narrow way at the same time.  You cannot be molded by the world and different from the world at the same time.

Nevertheless, there is always going to be tremendous pressure to give in to the culture, to side with the majority.  And when that happens we need to keep this in perspective.  The majority is almost never going to be right because they are walking on the wrong road and going to a terrible end.

Before I leave this point, I want to briefly speak to the question that is sometimes raised: Will there be more people in heaven than in hell, or will it be the other way around?  And I think that we need to be careful here.  The point of our Lord’s words is not to satisfy idle curiosity as to the relative numbers in heaven and hell.  When someone else asked him that question, our Lord responded by basically saying, “You’ve asked the wrong question.  Your question ought to be, ‘Will I be among the saved?’  And to answer that question, you need to make sure that you are striving to enter in at the strait gate” (see Luke 13:23-30).  After all, it doesn’t matter how many will be saved, if you are not saved, does it?  Again, the question we need to be asking is: “Will I be saved?  Have I entered in at the strait gate?” 

Rather, the point of our Lord’s words is that we cannot judge the right way, the saving way, by numbers.  You cannot go to heaven with the flow.  You must be willing to strive against wind and tide, and to at times stand alone, to be hated of all men.  We follow a Master who was crucified.  We must not be surprised if we too are rejected by our fellow man.

Which end will you meet?

Why would anyone choose to squeeze through a narrow gate when there is a wide one sitting next to it?  Why would anyone choose to traverse a narrow and hard path when there is a broad and easy highway to travel?  Why would anyone choose to deliberately be in a minority when you can be in the majority?  Why?  Because of the end.  The narrow way leads to life; the broad way to destruction.
Your life is on a road.  It is either on the broad road or it is on the narrow road.  Right now, the broad road is easy and the narrow road is hard.  Each road ends, but what they end in does not end.  The life that is at the end of the narrow way is a never-ending life, and the destruction that is at the end of the broad way is “everlasting punishment” (Mt. 25:46).  Given this perspective, it does not matter how hard the narrow road is or how easy the broad road is.  The narrow road is worth every bit of the suffering along the way if there is life at the end.  And there is absolutely nothing about the broad road that is redeeming when seen from the perspective of eternal destruction.

One of the most terrifying things that has ever been said was said by Jesus.  And he said of Judas that it were better for that man if he had never been born.  That is what hell is like.  No one in hell is thinking, “Well, I’m glad that I was able to live freely, and to satisfy my lusts as I wanted.”  Rather, they are thinking that they wished they had never been born.  In other words, nothing was worth it.  No pleasure, no amount of money, no amount of human praise, no amount of power in this world is worth hell.  I cannot imagine anything worse than that.  No end.  No hope.  No redemption.  Just eternal destruction.

But thank God we are not left with that as our only option.  Not that we deserve anything else.  The fact of the matter is that every human being, from infant to aged, is a rebel against the God of the universe.  We all deserve to perish forever.  But the Son of God in his mercy comes to us and says, “Enter in at the strait gate.”  That is grace!  And it is spoken to you and me this morning.  To enter in at the strait gate is to follow Christ, to embrace him with all our hearts as Lord and Savior.

My friend, this is a command.  It is not something to turn down.  It is not something to casually consider.  Enter in at the strait gate!  Do it now!  Let nothing hinder you from coming.  Come through, follow Christ, believe in him, and you shall be saved and find eternal life.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Matthew 7:12 – The Golden Rule

My parents have a grandfather clock in their living room.  I grew up with its musical chimes and rhythmic dongs.  It chimes every quarter of an hour, and at each quarter it chimes longer until it reaches the top of the hour when it not only chimes but dongs out the number of hours.  And it can be very loud, especially if you are not used to hearing it.  However, having grown up with it in our living room, I became totally oblivious to its noises.  In fact, I could be sitting right next to it at the noon hour and never hear it.  It was different with visitors.  One time, we had some visitors stay with us overnight and they slept in the living room.  Unfortunately, we forgot to turn the clock chimes off and so as a result they didn’t get very much sleep that night!  What I never heard kept them awake because I was used to the sounds of the clock and they weren’t.

It’s the same with truth.  We can hear a truth so often that we don’t really hear it anymore.  And I wonder if our text this morning doesn’t fall into that category.  We’ve all heard the Golden Rule, and even society at large would probably agree that it is a good rule to live by.  But we’ve heard this clock chime so often that when we come to a text like this, we don’t really hear it.  Whereas the previous verses (7-11) are not heard because of misinterpretation or a lack of faith, this verse (12) is often not heard for no other reason than overfamiliarity.

And yet if we stop to really listen to it, we realize that this is not just another saying from a fortune cookie.  These words are incredibly important to learn and to live.  And we can see their importance underlined in the phrase “for this is the law and the prophets.”  In Jesus’ day, “the law and the prophets” was the usual nomenclature for the Scriptures.  In other words, the Golden Rule summarizes the teaching of the Scriptures.  So if we claim to believe that the Bible is the word of God, then we need to listen to these words. 

This is a summary statement of Biblical truth.  Being able to grasp such statements are incredibly important.  You really cannot say that you understand the Bible if you do not understand those grand themes and basic truths that unite everything else together.  As a teacher of mathematics, I see this all the time.  People will say that they understand calculus or even that they are good at it, but when you press them to summarize what calculus is, what it is about, they have no clue.  They cannot tell you.  And, by the way, such people turn out to not be very good at calculus, and one of the reasons is because they don’t understand fundamentally what it is all about.  The same hold true with the teaching of God’s word. It is said that someone asked Rabbi Hillel if he could summarize the whole law while standing on one leg (evidently a Rabbi wasn’t expected to stand on one leg very long): his response was a version of the Golden Rule.[1]  Can you summarize the teaching of the Bible?  Well, our Lord tells us that one way we can summarize the teaching of God’s Word, at least as it respects our duty to our fellow man, is by the Golden Rule.

A question that might come up at this point is, “Why then do we need all that extra stuff in the Bible?”  If we can summarize all the Old Testament teaching on our duty to our fellow man in one verse, why all those extra commandments?  Well, one reason is that we need “all that extra stuff” because we are so easily tempted to leave these summary truths unapplied to our lives.  In other words, we need specific and detailed commandments to convict us and to move us to apply truth in very specific ways to our lives.  Our Lord in some sense has already been doing this in this Sermon.  In 5:43-48, he gives us specific instruction how to do unto others as he would have them do to us.  In particular, he tells us to love our enemies, because God has been good to us even when we were unlovely.  We, who are so glad that God has been good to us, ought to do good to others, even our enemies.  And then we saw that 7:1-5 is another application of the Golden Rule.  We would not want to be judged by others harshly; we should therefore put away a harsh and judgmental attitude.

We need summary truths to give us the big picture and to keep us from legalism.  One way you can define legalism is that a legalist is someone is gets bogged down in details and forgets the big picture.  Like the Pharisees who got so bogged down in the details of how to apply Sabbath law that they forgot to show mercy.  Keeping the overarching truths of Scripture before us keeps us from becoming unbalanced like that.  On the other hand, specific commandments and instruction are necessary because they bring conviction for specific sins and keep us from libertinism.  So don’t be like the person who says that religion really is just about the Golden Rule and therefore there is no need to read the Bible or listen to sermons or exhortation from fellow brethren.  We need all that.  We need both, and we can thank God that he has given us both in his word. 

 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  It has been often said that the “Golden Rule” is not unique to the teaching of Christ.  However, among all the variants of the Golden Rule found in the various religions, the words of our Lord are unique in the sense that his version of the Golden Rule is stated positively, whereas in the teaching of others it is always stated negatively.  For example, Confucius is supposed to have said, “Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourselves.”[2]  It is not quibbling to point out the difference, for there is a difference.  If you put it only negatively, you are attacking only sins of commission.  But if you put it positively, you are attacking both sins of commission and omission.  In other words, our Lord was not only saying that we shouldn’t do bad things to other people; he was also saying that we should always do good to others.  To fail to do good to others, even if you haven’t harmed them in any way, is still a breach of the Golden Rule as our Lord puts it before us.  In other words, once again we see the breadth of our Lord’s teaching.

What is the connection of this passage with the forgoing?  The word “therefore” indicates that there is a connection.  However, there is disagreement on how it is connected.  Some say that the connection is not with any specific verse or verses, but with the entire sermon so far.  Thus, given everything that our Lord has said up to this point, it follows that we should do good to others as we would have them do to us.  Others say that this verse is connected with the first five verses of this chapter.  And certainly this verse is tied to those verses in that 7:1-5 is an application of 7:12. In that case, 7:7-11 would be read as a parenthesis.  And this may well be true.  However, it seems to me most natural to read 7:12 as a deduction from the previous verses.  In other words, our Lord’s promise to do good to those who seek him leads naturally to the Golden Rule.  God does good to us; we ought therefore to do good to others.  Another way to put this is that we ought to live out the gospel practically in our lives.  God has been gracious to us; we ought to be gracious to others.  God has been liberal with us; we ought to be generous with others. 

In other words, the “therefore” at the beginning of verse 12 points to the motivation behind the Golden Rule, and this makes this version of it uniquely Christian.  The motivation to do good to others as we would want them to do to us is not rooted in selfishness but in our view of God and his grace.  We should not practice the Golden Rule because we think we are much more likely to be liked (or at least left alone) by others if we practice it.  The ultimate motivation is not love for self but love for God and our desire for others to know him and his goodness and grace.  You see, if all that is motivating you to practice the Golden Rule is some selfish desire for others to like you or appreciate you or validate your existence upon the earth, then you will end up undermining it in your life.  This is because the Golden Rule is primarily selfless, and so if selfish considerations are what are driving you, those very motivations will end up undoing it.  Love to self is the enemy of the Golden Rule, not the driving force behind it.  On the other hand, love to God and experiencing his power and grace and goodness in your life is necessary for living out our Lord’s words.

So do you want to live out the Golden Rule in your life?  Then know God!  Not just in the sense of being a theologian (though that’s important), but in the sense of experiencing God in your life.  We need to be the kind of person who lives out verses 7-11.  Such a person who is full of God’s goodness will overflow with deeds of goodness and kindness and grace to others.  The well-springs behind this kind of life of overflowing love lie in fellowship with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ.  God is the only one who can sustain this kind of life.

This is why Peter wrote, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. . . . If any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever.  Amen” (1 Pet. 4:10-11).  It’s not just that our motivation lies in God; it’s that our very ability to live this way lies in God.  He gives the ability to do it, so that in our serving others and doing good to them, he may be glorified.  We may give to others, but our gift is from God first of all.  We give what we have first received.  Which means that God gets the glory, not us.

This serves to underline the importance of never taking a Scripture out of context.  There have been many people over the years who have taken a verse like Matthew 7:12, ripped it out of its context, and then used it as a way to make the Christian religion nothing more than doing good to others.  And they’ll claim that it doesn’t matter what you think about God – as long as you are a good person, then you are being a good Christian.  Now, the Christian religion is of course about doing good to others, but that is not all that it is.  As our previous considerations make clear, it does matter what you think about God, it does matter that you have a relationship with him through his Son Jesus Christ.  And if you do good to others all your life and yet turn your back on the Son of God, you are yet in your sins and without hope.

“Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  These words are very similar to our Lord’s answer to the question: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36-40).  His answer was this: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Love your neighbor as yourself is essentially the same thing as saying, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Now we’ve been arguing that selfish concerns are not a proper motivator to the Golden Rule.  However, they are a good rule to follow in applying the Golden Rule.  It’s not love to self that ought to motivate me to do good unto others, but love to self should guide me in doing good to others.  The reason for this is that we naturally love ourselves.  Long ago, the French philosopher and Christian Blaise Pascal noted that everyone does what they do to increase their happiness.  This is true even in extreme cases, like when a person commits suicide.  Why do they do that?  Because they think they will be better off dead than alive.  And we do what we do to be happy.  And we want to be happy because we love ourselves.

There is nothing inherently wrong with loving yourself.  What is wrong is when we love ourselves more than God.  What is wrong is when we put ourselves before others.  However, some people come to a verse like this and draw wrong conclusions from it.  They will point at it and say, “Look, there is a Biblical command to love yourself.”

Now that is not what our Lord is saying, and it’s very important to recognize that.  It is very troubling to me that people are taught that their problem is that they do not love themselves enough, and that if they would just have a better view of themselves then life would get better.  But the problem is not that we do not love ourselves enough.  The problem is almost surely that we have sinned in some way because we have loved ourselves more than God, that we are seeking our happiness in something or someone other than God.

Of course people say that they hate themselves, but what they really mean is they hate what they have done (or are doing) because of the consequences that they are reaping from it.  Again, the problem is not a lack of self-esteem but sin which stems from a self-love that has supplanted God.

What our Lord is doing in this text (and with the Golden Rule) is not commanding people to love themselves, but simply recognizing the fact that people already love themselves.  Thy command is to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.  And instead of encouraging people to work on their self-esteem, he is reorienting such self-love so that it occupies to proper orbit.  God first, above all else.  And then we must love our neighbor (which in Scripture means everyone else) in the same way (as) we love ourselves.

The problem with this advice to increase your self-esteem is that is turns people away from God.  Now for someone who doesn’t believe in God, working on your self-esteem is all that you’ve got.  The same is true with the oft-repeated advice to “forgive yourself.”  There is no Scripture that justifies telling someone that they’ve got to forgive themselves!  The only one whose forgiveness you need is God’s.  The problem with guilt is not a problem with a lack of forgiving oneself, but a problem with a failure to believe in God’s remedy for sin.  Again, if you don’t believe in God, then the only way you can deal with guilt is to try to forgive yourself.  But you will not succeed.  God is the only one who can forgive sin.  Just as God is the only one who is worthy of your love above all other things.  He is also the only one who can truly make us happy and satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.

Finally, note the universality with which the Golden Rule is stated: all things.  Here again we are faced with the fact that following Christ requires the commitment of the whole person.  All of our life is to fall under his jurisdiction and we are to put every aspect of our life under the rule of Christ.  Moreover, all of our life is to be under the obedience of Christ at all times.  It is not a part-time job.  We are not to seek to live out the Golden Rule on Sunday only to turn into a completely self-oriented person on Monday.  We are not to seek to apply the Golden Rule merely in ways that please us and with which we are comfortable, but we are to apply our Lord’s words even when we don’t want to because it is hard on the flesh.  And especially, we are not meant to live out obedience to our Lord’s command only when it will be recognized and appreciated by others.  We are to do unto others, beginning in our living rooms with our spouses and our children.  Then we are to apply it to our friends and our co-workers, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The greatest example of this is our Lord himself.  He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  He came so that others could experience the love of the Trinity forever.  What he had experienced from eternity, he wanted for his people.  And so he came to earth to be despised and rejected of men, to be crucified and to have their sins placed upon his shoulders so that they might have eternal life and enjoy the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit in increasing and never-ending joy.  The good he had so long enjoyed he gives to others.  It was not easy to get there.  For our Lord, doing good unto others meant the cross.  And now he calls on us to mimic him, to be his followers in this way.  Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP: 1978), p. 190.
[2] Ibid, p. 190.

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