When is good news not good news?
Each of us is a universe of contradictions. The greatest of saints can look within and find motives that are not pure, while the worst of criminals will hold onto some virtue. As we have seen in our discussion of judgment, and of Jesus’ comments on murder and adultery, we need look no farther than our own hearts to find someone guilty of the worst offenses imaginable. And when we try to put the precepts Jesus gives us into practice, we find ourselves in danger of committing the very acts of hypocrisy and self-righteousness that Jesus speaks so strongly against. We set out to be proclaimers of good news, and become specialists in denouncing sin. Rather than let the love of God live in us in particular ways for particular people every day, we create in others a sense of guilt for not loving as they should. The church is transformed from the inclusive community of all the redeemed into an exclusive club for those who know the right buzzwords. We find our words of life becoming a message of death. And the distance between the two often seems no more than a hair’s breadth.
The love of God in Jesus Christ comes to us as both gift and task. To receive the gift alone without the task puts us in danger of turning Jesus into a comforting but distant and mostly irrelevant religious symbol; while to attempt the task without being sure of the gift is to weigh ourselves down with a burden much greater than we can bear.
There are a lot of ways to describe these two aspects of the New Testament message. Love of God and love of neighbor; faith and works; being forgiven and offering forgiveness; inward spirituality and social action; hearing and doing; receiving Christ as Savior and walking as he walked; being saved by grace through faith and working out our salvation with fear and trembling. The distance between these two is only bridged when the fundamental contradiction within us is resolved. This can only happen as we actually identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, both in his person and his teaching, in his death and in his life, in our outward understanding and the nourishment of our inner life.
The Jesus who calls us to take up our cross and die is the same Jesus who promises abundant life. When we begin to see that these are not two separate calls, but one thing, then we are beginning to see the nature of the kingdom of God. We must see that it is both necessary and possible for the life of Jesus – his character, his compassion, his access to the Father, his gentleness, his sorrow and suffering, his joy, his wisdom, his confidence – to be in us, and to be our life. The image of God in which humankind, both male and female, was made in the beginning, is not different from the image of Jesus Christ, who is the express image of God’s person (Hebrews 1:3, KJV). Although to allow Christ’s image to be born in us, to grow in us, and to be our life may seem like losing our identity to that of another, it is actually a dis-covery (literally an uncovering) of the identity we have from the beginning, which has been hidden away even from ourselves by sin. It is sin, of course, which is the fundamental contradiction referred to above. It exists in us and remains with us to the extent that we do not yet know God; for to come to the knowledge of God also brings us to understand who we are. Jesus came to resolve that contradiction by giving us life. When the life of Christ actually lives in us, that is, when we are really ourselves and alive to God, we will also be able to recognize God’s presence and image in our neighbors, brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Having dis-covered in ourselves the image of God, so that it is no longer hidden under the layers of our own guilts and fears, we will want to find ways to dis-cover that same life in others according to the word of Jesus, that there is nothing covered, which shall not be revealed, nor hid that shall not be known. The teachings of Jesus will cease to be a series of separate demands adding burden upon burden to our lives, and will be for us illustrations of the direction our own hearts wish to go.
In the closing verses of Matthew 7 Jesus gives us four warnings. They are aimed, I believe, at the tendency to separate the gift of God from the task to which he calls us; or I should say, at a variety of tendencies which might allow us to think we have followed Jesus while still remaining ignorant of the source and nature of our own life.
The Straight Gate and Narrow Way
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 best comment I have ever heard on this passage came from an evangelist who explained that the gate is small and the road is narrow because it is one person wide. When crowds were following Jesus, many were there simply because that was where the crowd was. And the institutionalization of Christianity following the ascendancy of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century produced multitudes of nominal Christians simply because it became politically correct to call oneself a Christian; a state of affairs that has prevailed to a greater or lesser degree in much of the Western world ever since. But when the crowd turns away from Jesus or his teaching, then the one whose Christianity is based on its popularity, its status as cultural heritage, or the expectation that it will agree with the dictates of public morality, has no reason not to turn away after such things and leave Jesus and the Kingdom of God behind.
Beware of False Spokesmen for God
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
A prophet, in biblical usage, is a person who speaks for God. A false prophet is, accordingly, an inauthentic voice; one whose message does not come from the source claimed for it. It is a mistake to think that a prophet’s primary function is to predict the future, or that accurate fulfillment of such predictions are enough to establish the prophet’s authenticity. That would reduce the prophet to the level of a mere fortuneteller. Real prophetic work speaks to the spiritual condition of the hearers, and makes them responsible for the future based on how they respond to God’s message.
In another place Jesus provides a way to discover the authenticity of the message:
If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him (John 7:17-18).
This passage from John agrees with our passage that the motive of the messenger has a direct bearing on the validity of the message. So the standard for discernment of who is a true or false prophet is not an objective standard based on accuracy of predictions concerning world events; it is a personal standard based on the characteristics the teaching reveals in its speaker, as well as the characteristics it produces in the hearers.
Consider a preacher or politician who sets out to raise the alarm about some threat to the comfort or values of his audience. He tells stories of horror or atrocity designed to arouse fear or revulsion. He identifies as dangerous some individual or group that is clearly foreign to the persons to whom he speaks, whether it is a racial group, or an ideology, or an opposition political party, or a religious movement, or a foreign political or military leader. He calls his hearers neither to repentance nor to reconciliation, but instead seeks to arouse anger and indignation against the identified source of threat. He proposes ways his audience can protect themselves, warn their friends, and counterattack against the threat described. Note that the content of this type of preaching could be almost anything. The individual may be denouncing religion, or atheism, or big government, or liberalism, or conservatism, or Satanism, or pornography, or fundamentalism, or communism, or capitalism, or sexism, or feminism, or homosexuality, or homophobia, or militarism, or pacifism. The fruit he produces, however, is the same in all cases: fear, mistrust, alienation and ultimately hatred.
In contrast, the fruit produced in and by someone in whom the Spirit of God is at work is described in Galatians 5:22-23: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Such fruit is formed in a person who has begun to “ participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) because of the goodness of God.
Please notice that unlike the type of warning just described, this warning of Jesus calls us to be aware, but not to be fearful, of these false prophets, nor to take upon ourselves any action against them. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. This is a description, not a prescription: it is a promise that in the long run, by God’s sovereign action, the appeals to human qualities which are not of the Spirit of God will fail. It can also be taken as a warning to those of us who claim to speak for good, righteous or Christian causes; a warning which is developed in conjunction with its corresponding promise in John 15:4-6:
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
In both passages the nature of the plant determines the nature of the fruit. Jesus wants our nature to be the same as his own, because it is the nature of God himself and thus our own true nature as bearers of God’s image. Love, goodness, and creativity are rooted in the nature of God. Greed, fear, selfishness, hatred, indifference and guilt all arise as a result of being cut off from God though we are dependent on God; thus they are inherently self-destructive.
Lip-service versus Love’s Service
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heave. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
There is a fairly obvious connection between this warning and the one immediately preceding it. It is not enough to name the name of Jesus, or even to have a dynamic ministry in his name. To do “the will of my Father” apparently requires more than a verbal confession of faith, and something other than a remarkable public ministry. Jesus said to his disciples elsewhere (John 15:8): “this is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” This fruit is also related to the personal inward character of the disciples which shows itself in their relationships, as the discourse about the Vine and the Branches reveals. That inward character and its outward manifestations is given, in John, the name of Love: “ As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. . . . My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9-10, 12).
To do all the works of a minister of Christ, without Christ’s love in one’s heart and at the source of all one’s actions, is to prepare for the day when the truth of the words, “I never knew you” will sink home. What Jesus is warning us against here, among other things, is the invocation of his name apart from the application of his teaching. We see a lot of it all around us. Christian ministers, so called, appeal to a generalized “Judeo-Christian tradition” as justification for rejecting, in specific instances, the option of forgiveness and reconciliation, and for discounting the applicability of Jesus’ command not to resist an evil person. Personal salvation is proclaimed without reference to reconciliation with one’s neighbor, much less one’s enemy. The cross of Christ becomes a bit of cosmic magic which buys us a one-way ticket to heaven while assuring us health and prosperity on earth. And the name of Jesus turns into a warm and fuzzy feeling associated with concert halls and weekend retreats, but not with the poverty, illness and oppression that he confronted so effectively in his own Galilean ministry. In times of national crisis peacemakers are not blessed, but cursed; and what he says to us is abandoned in favor of traditional morality, which often looks very much like what “was said to the people long ago.” It seems that Jesus foresaw that his name could thus become divorced from the reality of what he preached; so he gives us his final warning and promise, which has been the theme of this study.
A Question of Foundations
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Coming now to these parting words, we find that the teachings of Jesus we have been examining are not optional, but foundational. They are not add-ons to the gospel of grace, or to the message of salvation by faith; they form rather the very substance and structure on which those great biblical truths rest. They are, above all, practical teachings which directly affect our ability to survive.
These words of Jesus, like all true words of God, will gain meaning and influence in our lives as we allow them to affect our decisions and our circumstances. No commentary can exhaust the riches brought to us by the one who calls himself the Son of man; all that can be hoped is that some of the nuggets of truth exposed here will encourage further study, further seeking, and further application of the words of Jesus, spoken so long ago, to the real-life situations we find ourselves in. For Jesus does not ask us, in the end, to measure him against any established canon; rather he becomes for us the yardstick by whom we and all we see are measured. As Matthew reports, this was clear to the crowd who heard him that day: Matthew 7:28-29
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.