Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

Matt. 7:13–14, “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.”

David was living the good life. At twenty-four, he had completed two years at Yale Law School. His summer job as a legal associate paid him more than he could spend. His career promised the same, but much more.

David was a handsome man with light brown hair, intense eyes, and a fast social life. Four or five nights a week, he would hit the city’s hottest restaurants and bars, splurging on lavish dinners and running up big bar tabs in a continuous quest for entertainment. Life was very good—and very empty. The parties seemed meaningless, and David wondered if he had any real friends.

He had gone to church occasionally as a child and still had an intellectual interest in the faith, though he often went months without attending church. One day he was sitting at his computer, writing a paper about Abraham Lincoln, when he realized that he knew more about Lincoln than about Jesus, even though he professed to be a Christian. He knew that Jesus was more important to him than Lincoln, yet he had never approached his faith with anything like the rigor he put into his studies.

He decided to get serious. He read landmark authors; he studied church history. He made time for church. It took a couple of years for David to overcome his secular impulses and change his freewheeling lifestyle, but change he did. David’s relationship with Christ now consumes him far more than his partying ever did.

There is a stereotype that says that people seek God when life gets rocky, when they hit a low point in life. But successful people also seek Christ when they drink from the golden cup and find that the nectar tastes the same as it does from an ordinary mug. They wonder about the meaning of life: “Am I on the right road? Have I missed a turn? Is this all there is?”

Some people are troubled by the countercultural element of Christianity. Others are attracted by it. They want a philosophy that can resist contemporary ideological trends. They seek an ethic that offers an alternative to living for career, for parties, and for weekends.

The Narrow Gate in Context

Matt. 7:13–14, “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.”

Christianity is more than a philosophy, and this passage is more than a summons to choose a road less traveled. Like the previous passage (Matthew 7:1–12), this text asks Jesus’ audience to hear Him correctly. As that passage showed, it is quite possible to misuse Jesus’ teaching. We can use it to condemn others’ failures, instead of applying it to ourselves (Matthew 7:1–5). We can fall into despair at our inability to obey Him. Jesus gives us three points of counsel to help us hear Him aright.

First, however many rules there are, the essentials are simple. We must serve God and seek His righteousness. We must love our neighbor and “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 6:24, 33; Matthew 7:12). Second, when the commands seem daunting, we must ask God for help. When we seek His grace, He will grant it (7:7–11). Third, the path of discipleship is harder, but better, than drifting along with the world. We should choose the harder but better road (Matthew 7:13–14).

Jesus regularly offers choices to His hearers. He delights in presenting antithetical choices between one path and another. He asks: Will you follow the letter of the law or its spirit? Will you practice righteousness to be seen by men or to be seen by God? Will you serve God or money? In Matthew 7, Jesus uses four images to describe these choices.

There are two roads (Matthew 7:13–14), a wide road that is easy now, but leads to destruction, and a narrow road that is hard now, but leads to life. Many take the easy road, perhaps largely by accident. But a few find the hard road, which implies that they are looking. Which road will you take?

There are two trees (Matthew 7:15–20). Good trees bear good fruit, and bad trees bear bad fruit. What fruit do you bear? What do your words and deeds reveal about your nature?

There are two ways to call upon Jesus (Matthew 7:21–23). Some call upon His name and even prophesy and perform wonders in that name. But they do not know Him and are not saved. Others call upon Him as their true Lord and are saved. On the last day, when all stand before Jesus, the Judge, there will be one question. Do you know Jesus as Savior or not?

Two builders construct houses on two foundations (7:24–27). In dry weather, both look sound. But when the rain comes, the rivers rise, and the wind blows, all is revealed. A house built on sand will collapse, but a house built on rock will stand. Upon what foundation do you build?

The Choice in Biblical Thought

Jesus says there are two gates (one narrow and one broad), two kinds of prophet (true and false), and two foundations (rock and sand). With this language, He enters a deep stream of biblical thought. Early in the history of Israel, the Lord began to tell his people that there were two ways of life. One could live in covenant with him and be blessed, or one could follow the world and be cursed.

Moses presented the choice to Israel this way: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse … life and prosperity, [or] death and destruction” (Deut. 11:26; 30:15). At the end of a long and faithful life serving God, Joshua challenged Israel: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Some Israelites were interested in the pagan gods of Canaan. “But,” he concluded, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15; 23:7, 16).

David opens the Psalms by telling the worshipers of Israel that they must choose a path of life and an authority for life:

Blessed is the man

who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked

or stand in the way of sinners

or sit in the seat of mockers.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord,

and on his law he meditates day and night.…

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked will perish. (Ps. 1:1–2, 6)

There are several choices here. Will you follow the counsel of the wicked or the counsel of God? And if you choose the counsel of God, will you be serious enough to meditate on it? Will you turn it over and over in your mind to see how it applies to the issues of life? Or will you claim it as your standard one day and ignore it the next? Which path will you take: the way of the righteous or the way of sinners and scoffers? The way of life or the way of death? God’s way is the better way, since it leads to eternal life. Yet the better road is also the harder road.

The Narrow Gate, the Hard Road

Jesus was speaking to a large crowd when He said, “Enter through the narrow gate” (Matt. 7:13). Most of the people in that crowd were disciples, but only in a loose sense. They were not full-fledged Christians—indeed, there were none until the resurrection and Pentecost. Most of them were not even dedicated disciples. Jesus wanted to win them, but not by deception, so He told them the plain truth.

Jesus says His road leads to life, but before it ends, it is narrow and hard. To this day, many who are lightly committed to Christ need to hear the same word. On the broad, easy road, people do as they please. The way of Christian discipleship is hard. The gate is also narrow, restricting us in certain ways.

First, the gate is narrow because Jesus’ commands are restrictive. Eight of the Ten Commandments begin with “You shall not.” When the law forbids certain actions, it narrows our options. But the law is not the restricting principle. The character of God is the pattern for our character, and that restricts us too. God is faithful, therefore we must be faithful and keep our promises. God is generous, therefore we should be generous. God is kind, therefore we should be kind. The indulgence of bad moods that leads to meanness or cruelty simply is not an option. Disciples resist the temptation to break the law and to ignore God’s character.

Second, the gate is narrow because the Bible teaches truths—doctrines—that we must believe. The Bible says that God created the world out of nothing, that Jesus is truly God and truly man, that this age will end when Jesus returns and calls mankind before him for judgment. The Bible directs us to think in these ways, not in others, and that restricts us. We cannot plausibly claim to be Christians and reject the cardinal truths of the faith.

Third, the gate is narrow because we can miss it. We miss it if we do not believe in Christ. We miss it if we deny that we are sinners, in need of a Savior. Jesus’ way is hard. The word translated “hard” comes from a family of words that refers to suffering and persecution. This reminds us that Jesus’ way is also narrow in the sense that it can lead to opposition. We enter the Kingdom after passing through many hardships (Acts 14:22).

The other road is easy. As Jesus said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Matt. 7:13). Most people prefer to do whatever they please, at least in the short run. The easy road lets them do just that. They like to live the easy way:

  • Getting up when they are tired of sleeping.
  • Eating whatever appeals to the eye and the tongue.
  • Fulfilling whatever promises seem convenient.
  • Keeping rules only if they do not interfere with their desires.

The way of sin and rebellion is easier in other ways. Sin often looks attractive. The man who forgets God can ignore His rules and standards. He need not practice self-denial or exercise self-discipline unless he so chooses. Sin often seems natural, but repentance often feels unnatural. We hate to admit our errors and change our ways. So sin seems easy, and the life of faith can seem hard.

The Bible describes Israel, at one particularly low ebb, this way: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25 ESV), or “Everyone did as he saw fit” (NIV). Subjective feelings and goals, unrestricted by any absolutes, ruled the day.

We are much the same today, but some new things seem right in our own eyes. We have new ways to make the path easy for ourselves. For example, we reserve the right to remain uncommitted, to be detached from everything, and to be critical of everything. By now, every American fancies himself a movie critic. We expect our friends to be critics too. We constantly ask each other for an opinion on the latest important movie. Everyone is supposed to have a comment on the cinematography, the acting, the characterization, the special effects, and perhaps the film’s fidelity to the original book.

We should critically evaluate our entertainments, but many now claim the right to criticize everything. Indeed, it is much easier to criticize someone else’s performance than it is to stand up and perform. Which is easier, to sing and dance, or to criticize those who sing or dance in public? Moreover, everyone seems to think that his or her opinion is just as valid as that of anyone else. Indeed, no truth claim is necessarily superior to any other, people think, because our culture now doubts that truth, in any absolute sense, exists.

The influential postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty says that truth is what our peers let us get away with. That is, there is no truth; there are simply ideas that a particular community agrees to be true. On other occasions, Rorty, like the pragmatist John Dewey, says that the truth is simply an idea that works. However Rorty defines truth, if there is no objective truth, life becomes far less demanding. One simply finds ideas that work in one’s chosen community. Like-minded friends can get together and live by their chosen ideas and rules. Rorty recommends the stance of irony—not taking things too seriously. Ironists do not hope to have their doubts “settled by something larger than themselves. Their criterion for resolving doubts … is autonomy rather than affiliation to a power other than themselves.” The need to test ideas against the facts of history, science, mathematics, or Scripture disappears. Sometimes it seems that the easy road gets easier all the time. But that prompts a question: if the broad road is indeed so easy, why take the narrow road?

Why Take the Narrow Road?

There are several reasons to take the narrow road. First, the easy road later becomes hard. If we get up whenever we please for a long enough period, we will probably become poor. If we eat whatever appeals to us long enough, our health will suffer. If we keep only convenient promises, eventually no one will trust us.

Second, there is great joy in facing a good challenge. Most people want the easy road. Jesus says that many take the easy road through the wide gate, while few find the hard road through the narrow gate. But the hard road appeals to people who like the right kind of challenge. They know they are destined to do more than drift along. They are willing to work hard in order to achieve worthy goals.

Third, the hard path is better because it is the true path. We are attracted to the hard road because we want to know how things are. We hate the thought of living for a false faith or philosophy, even if it “works.” Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” The simple fact that we prefer to keep our eyes open, rather than closed, proves this, he said. On the other hand, T. S. Eliot said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Both men are probably right. We often want to deny uncomfortable truths, but we are pleased when we know the way things really are.

Why, again, should we struggle for the hard truths of Christianity? Because, finally, the hard road leads to life. Both the easy road and the hard road lead somewhere. One day life ends. One day history will end. The hard road restricts, then it opens—to eternal life. The easy road leads to destruction. The easy road makes no demands, but it offers no rewards. The hard road makes great demands, but offers great rewards.

To do anything great, we must pay a price. Every quest eventually becomes hard. The movie A League of Their Own describes life in the women’s baseball league of the 1940s. In that film, the team’s star catcher decides to quit the team just before the league championship. “It just got too hard,” she explains. The manager ignites, “Hard? It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.” The manager got it right for baseball and, more importantly, for life.

True and False Prophets

Jesus says that there are two ways, one easy, one hard; two gates, one broad, one narrow; taken by two crowds, one large, one small; ending in two destinations, death and life. He also says there are two prophets, the false and the true.

The false prophet’s message. Jesus mentions false prophets here because it is a hallmark of false prophets to deny that the way is hard. False prophets say, “All is well,” when disaster looms (e.g., 1 Kings 22:5–23). They say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jer. 8:11; 23:17). False prophets let people sleep when they should arise and face dangers. True prophets wake people up (Isa. 56:10; Joel 1:5; Rev. 3:2).

A false prophet does not simply make a mistake in his teaching; everyone makes mistakes. False prophets make mistakes in the fundamentals. They misrepresent God Himself. They misrepresent the Gospel. They deny that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ alone. They oppose God’s message and His messengers, and they resist correction.

The false prophet’s disguise. False prophets are wolves “in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). That is, they claim to be sheep, part of the flock of God. In their disguises, they troubled Israel long ago (Jer. 6; 8; Ezek. 13). They troubled the apostles (2 Cor. 11; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 4), and they have troubled the Church down through the centuries. To complete their disguise, they use biblical language even while they distort its meaning. They recite creeds, but reinterpret their meaning. They also have credentials—graduate degrees and ordination certificates.

But their disguises fail if sound leaders watch both the teaching and the life of the false teachers. Jesus compares false teachers to thornbushes (Matt. 7:16). Thornbushes bear small, dark berries that resemble grapes at a distance. But if you examine them closely, you see what the berries are. So too with false prophets. We distinguish true from false by examining the fruit of their ministry and the patterns of their life. As Jesus says, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17).

A tree is known by its fruit. Many can deceive for a time, but words and deeds eventually reveal where the heart lies. Jesus says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). A prophet’s fruit includes both words and deeds. True prophets teach sound doctrine and lead a holy life. False prophets may dazzle with oratorical skill and social grace, but their doctrine and their ethics are gravely flawed. We do not hunt heretics, but neither are we indifferent to doctrinal error. Some error is so grave and persistent that it can issue only from a false prophet.

Everyone is known by his fruit. Jesus assesses false prophets in Matthew 7:15–16. In verses 17–19, He begins to speak about “every tree.” In this way, Jesus takes the principle for false prophets and applies it to all people who falsely claim to belong to the Lord: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20). It takes time to grow fruit, and it takes time to examine fruit. We must not be hasty; we should let the pattern of a life reveal everything in due time. It cannot be otherwise. People can pretend only for so long.

No one evades God’s justice forever. Bad trees, trees that bear no fruit, are cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19). But it is not enough to examine others. We must watch ourselves as well.

Some who attend church know that their words and deeds prove that they have not yet given their lives to Christ. In every evangelical church, there are opportunities, week by week, to come to Christ. In a confession of sin, there is opportunity to repent. In a confession of faith, anyone can join in to declare newfound faith.

There are also occasions for believers to take their flawed fruit to Jesus, whom we trust, to set things right. Worms infest a few apples even in good trees. And even good dogs get fleas. So too, even good people, the sons and daughters of God, bear some bad fruit. In worship, we celebrate the work of Jesus, who forgives our bad fruit and strengthens us, so that we might bear better fruit. To desire to bear fruit for the Lord is one element of the good, hard road. By God’s grace, the Lord neither demands perfect fruit nor a perfectly straight walk on His road. If we have taken His road, if we belong to Him, we will bear some good fruit and He will forgive the bad.