Reflections on the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 7:13-14, 21-23

October 16, 2018

“Enter through the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction is wide, and the avenue that leads to destruction is easily navigated—and many people find it. The gate that leads to life is narrow, and the road that leads to life is difficult to navigate—and only a few find it.”
Matthew 5:13-15

“Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather, only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter it. On that day, many will say to me ‘Lord! Lord! Did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name? Did we not do many miracles in your name?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Get out of my sight, you bunch of outlaws!’”
Matthew 7:21-23

Dallas Willard once told the story of a woman who stopped one of her pastors after church. “Why do you keep talking about discipleship?” she demanded. “My sins have been forgiven, and I am going to heaven when I die. Why do I need to be Jesus’ disciple?”

Her question may seem rather impertinent, but it reflects the outlook of more American Christians than we might like to admit. For generations, well-meaning preachers have told people that all they have to do is believe in Jesus and they will go to heaven when they die. These preachers were not trying to mislead people. They just wanted them to understand that eternal life is available to everyone and that it can be obtained only through Christ.

Still, this way of presenting the gospel was problematic precisely because it left out key aspects of Jesus’ message. In so doing, it left unanswered some of the most important questions that people have—questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life. It also left unmet some of the most important needs that people have—needs for significance, belonging, and healing.

Passages like the two that we are looking at today are the perfect antidote for a truncated view of the gospel. In them, Jesus warns us that entering “the kingdom of heaven” will not be as easy as we might imagine (a warning reminiscent of the warning in Matthew 5:20 that no one can enter “the kingdom of heaven” unless their righteousness exceeds that of the religious experts of Jesus’ day). But when we begin to take them seriously, we are confronted by a couple of difficult and uncomfortable questions. What is Jesus talking about when he talks about the “kingdom of heaven,” and is Jesus here advocating a soteriology of works righteousness?

The Kingdom of Heaven

The “kingdom of heaven” (or, in Mark’s language, “the kingdom of God”) can be a difficult idea for us to get our heads around. It is not a place, although it has its origins in the dwelling place of God. It is not the same thing as “going to heaven when you die” (a phrase that N. T. Wright likes to use when describing our misconceptions of the kingdom), although one of its primary concerns is the eternal destiny of its citizens.

Rather, “the kingdom of heaven” is a sphere of existence—an alternate reality that transcends the limits of space and that breaks into the flow of time. This alternate reality stands over against the reality that dominates normal human experience, for Its defining characteristic is that it is where God’s will is done (Matthew 6:10).

Moreover, we do not enter “the kingdom of heaven” at the final judgement or when we die. The “kingdom of heaven” broke into the present order of things with the coming of Jesus, and although it has not yet been consummated, it can be entered in the present.

When we enter “the kingdom of heaven,” at least three things happen.

  1. We find our place among a new and better people.
  2. We receive a new and better life.
  3. We find a new and better destiny.

Doing God’s Will

So how do we enter “the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus could not be clearer on this point. We enter the kingdom by doing the will of its King. This should not surprise us, for the kingdom is defined as that realm where God’s will is done.

Nevertheless, it raises a significant question for those of us who believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone. Is salvation really a result of our obedience? This question has the power to fill us with anxiety and to cause us to question everything that we thought we knew about being a Christian. It isn’t just that the whole Protestant endeavor is based on the notion that salvation is something that we cannot do for ourselves. It is also that we know ourselves. We know that no amount of moral exertion can bring us to the place where we fully implement Jesus’ moral vision. Moreover, we know that sometimes we do not even want the vision of life that Jesus is offering us.

However, there are a couple of hints in the two passages quoted above that our anxiety is misplaced. We have already alluded to the first of these hints. Jesus is not here making a statement of ethics, at least not in the first instance. He is making a statement of ontology. Those who belong to the kingdom are, by definition, those whose lives are characterized by the kingdom’s priorities. Can we really claim that we trust Christ when we are unwilling to live according to his teachings? Can we really claim that we love God when we have no interest in obeying His commands? The obvious answer is “no,” and it is that answer that helps us understand what Jesus is saying here.

The second hint is found in how Jesus describes events on the day of judgement. Many people will present their resume of accomplishments to Jesus, only to hear him say that he does not know them and that they are characterized by their infidelity to his law. Here we note three important points for our present discussion.

  1. No one can earn their way into the kingdom—even if they have performed deeds that seem to demonstrate God’s power and God’s approval of them.
  2. The real issue is whether we are known by Christ.
  3. The defining characteristic of those who fail to gain entrance to the kingdom, in spite of their apparent accomplishments, is their lack of appreciation for and submission to the good rule of God.

Reading Jesus in Canonical Context

We do not want to read into Jesus’ words something that is not there. Nevertheless, it is important to read them both in the context of Matthew’s overall message and in the context of Christian Scripture as a whole. Jesus’ words stand in tension with what is said in other parts of Scripture (see, for example, John 3:1-21; Romans 5:1-11; Ephesians 2:1-10) Nevertheless, our passages illuminate, and are illuminated by, such texts.

Perhaps the place where Protestants in North America could benefit most from this kind of canonical reading is in how we define faith. The faith that Scripture calls for is not merely the assent to a specific set of historical propositions or doctrinal beliefs, although that kind of assent is an important step in the faith process (cf. Romans 10:9-10). Saving faith re-orients our affections, desires, and priorities. Saving faith binds us to Jesus in love and obedience. Saving faith instills in us a deep appreciation for the sacrifice that God made by sending us His Son and that God continues to make by sending us His Spirit. In short, saving faith ushers us into God’s kingdom and makes us appropriate citizens of that realm.

Join the Conversation

The verses that we have discussed today are hard to understand and even harder to live out. We can take courage, however, in the fact that the King who rules this kingdom is the epitome of love, goodness, and grace. He is helping us, even when we do not see Him at work, and He will continue to do so until we become all that He has created us to be.

Share your story of wrestling with the hard words of Jesus with us. Tell us how Jesus’ words challenge you and how you have seen God at work in your life. Share your insights in the “Comments” section below.

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