Applying Matthew 7.13-14 today (the narrow and wide gate)

  • Question 205, from Mark, United Kingdom

    In Matthew chapter 7, verses 13-14 Jesus said…
    “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.”
    I’ve been thinking about these words quite a bit recently and just wondering if you have any thoughts about context and application for us today.

    The idea that there are two ways to choose was common in Jewish thought and stems from Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 15, where the Israelites are given a choice between “life and prosperity” and “death and destruction”. The words ascribed to Jesus in this passage in Matthew follow this pattern and are used to show how Jesus is fulfilling the Jewish Law by replicating its key teachings.

    These verses then introduce the main concerns of this passage – that there are ‘false prophets’ who could lead the disciples astray (verse 15). The disciples are told to judge people ‘by their fruit’ (verse 16). There follows a warning of destruction for ‘trees’ that bear bad fruit and the statement that not everybody who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

    These verses would have been applicable in the early Christian communities as we know from elsewhere in the New Testament that there were disagreements between leaders and controversies regarding ‘prophets’ (see, for example, 1 John). The author of Matthew’s gospel has probably included these words of Jesus as guidance to believers who are unsure of who to follow. Leaders are tested by the fruit they produce. Good leaders, like good trees, produce good fruit. The test of a true Christian lies in what they do, not what they say.

    Jesus’ words may have been originally aimed at the Pharisees, as they are similar to John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 3. Jesus’ references to ‘wolves’ and ‘false teachers’ may have originally been in the context of the Jewish faith, with Jesus telling his followers to look at the actions of the Pharisees, not be taken in by their words. Matthew’s gospel, written after the death and resurrection of Jesus, appears to regard the community of Christ-followers (the Church) as the ‘New Israel’, and these words spoken about the Pharisees are now applicable in the life of the Christian community.

    In terms of applying to Christian life today, they are obviously a useful guide to how we are to judge Christian leaders and teachers. Do their deeds match their words? Do they bear good fruit? This ties in with James chapter 3, verse 1, which says that Christian teachers will be judged more strictly.

    Of note, is the reference to ‘thorns and thistles’ in verse 16. These are the consequence of the Fall of Man in Genesis chapter 3, where the land produces thorns and thistles as a direct result of human sin. In Matthew chapter 7, the ‘thorns and thistles’ may be significant, representing unredeemed humans who are subject to sin. The parable of the wheat and the tares (grass) in Matthew chapter 13 was interpreted by John Calvin, among others, to mean that the church is composed of both the redeemed saints and unredeemed sinners. It is hard to tell wheat and grass apart until harvest time. The idea that there may be people in a church who were sinners all along is an explanation in strict Calvinism for how people who appear to be part of the Elect then ‘fall away’.

    ‘Testing the fruit’ of leaders and teachers in the church is more than just a question of doctrinal accuracy. It is about conduct, character, and integrity. Jesus says the mark of a true disciple is shown in the expression of love for other Christians (John chapter 13, verse 35), and that is therefore the benchmark by which all Christians can be measured.

    Returning to verses 13-14, this is an injunction to all Christians to seek the ‘narrow’ path – the difficult way. It is easy to hate and hard to love. The two choices that face all of us lead to life or to destruction. Jesus is urging his disciples to take the difficult path and ignore the easy options presented by ‘false prophets’.

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