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The disciples of Jesus are going to face temptations. In fact, in Matthew 18:7 he says that it is necessary for temptations to come. The word translated “temptation” in the ESV (σκάνδαλον) is the same as “cause to sin” in 18:6. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “the things that cause people to stumble” and the NRSV has “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks.”

In Matthew 18:1-9 the noun σκάνδαλον refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble. Leviticus 19:14 is a command not to place a stumbling block (מִכְשׁוֹל, LXX σκάνδαλον) in front of the blind causing them to trip. By way of illustration, a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip. Causing someone to sin may not be as intentional as this, but the result is the same, a person is led into some sin by some circumstance in this world.

In Matthew13 the same word is used in the Parable of the Sower. The seed falling on the rocky ground has no roots so it withers up when persecution comes. This is the person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. Their faith is “tripped up” by trouble in this world Does this imply the person who “trips up” another is in danger of damnation? The true disciple of Jesus is careful how they live their lives so that they do not cause another to sin. As Craig Blomberg said, “a life-style characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship” (Matthew, 274).  

Jesus says the origin of this kind of temptation is “the world” not the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus will encounter all sorts of things in the world which may cause them to stumble. The neuter plural σκάνδαλα can be translated “things that cause stumbling.” What are “these things” Jesus has in mind? Certainly these could include the typical sins on offer in any culture, but the phrase as Jesus uses it may allude to a particular passage in the Old Testament.

In Ezekiel 14 the elders of Jerusalem have put “stumbling blocks in front of the people” by worshiping idols. The possible intertext is mentioned by Keener (Matthew, 449). I have developed it beyond what Keener does in his commentary, even if the LXX does not use σκάνδαλον. The Hebrew word translated as “stumbling block” (מִכְשׁוֹל) is a noun built from the verb כשׁל, to reel, stagger or stumble, but it is often used to describe the result of bad leaders. In Malachi 2:8, for example, the prophet rebukes bad priests who have “have caused many to stumble by your instruction.”

Similarly, in the context of Ezekiel 14 it is the religious aristocracy in charge of the Temple who are accused of consulting idols rather than God. As a result the Lord will “set his face against them” and no longer guide them at all. He will cut off the one who is leading the people astray “from the midst of my people.” If Jesus has a text like Ezekiel 14 in mind, then he may have in mind leaders who cause people under their leadership to sin. Just as the priests in Ezekiel 14 were leading God’s people into the extreme offense of idolatry, so too it is possible some leaders in Matthew’s community were leading their congregations into behaviors or beliefs which prevent them from actually hearing the Gospel.

Like a Hebrew prophet, Jesus pronounces “woe” on those who cause the stumbling of a little one. “Woe” expresses anguish or distress, like the old English use of the word “Alas!” It appears in Hebrew as הוֹי or  אוֹי and is used in the prophets frequently in the context of judgment. The one who causes others to sin face serious judgment (looking ahead to the hand or foot which causes one to sin).

It is easy enough to draw the analogy to later theological aberrations which understood Jesus in a way which could prevent someone from a full understanding of the Gospel, or a later behavioral aberration which is offensive to God. In a modern context, it is very easy point out examples of pastors and teachers who have been so utterly hypocritical that their congregations may never hear the simple Gospel of Jesus.

Jesus warns his disciples they are responsible for the flocks assigned to them and they will be held responsible for their well-being.

“Whoever receives a child, receives Jesus” refers to showing basic hospitality towards those who are in need.  Jesus says something similar in Matthew 10:40-2 where the “little ones” are the disciples and 25:35-40 where the “least of these” are given hospitality by the “sheep.” In this saying in Matthew 18:5-6 Jesus is warning his disciples that causing one of these “little ones” to sin is a very grave offense.

Millstone, Ancient, Israel, CapernaumTo “cause someone to sin” is a single word (σκανδαλίζω) often associated with being offended, or causing someone to stumble (the weaker and stronger brothers in Romans 14-15). The verb refers to putting something in the way of another person to cause them to stumble (think of a football player to throws himself at the feet of another player to cause him to trip). In Matthew 11:6 Jesus used the word to describe those who doubt who he really is, they are “offended” on account of Jesus.

The verb is also used in the parable of the sower for some of the seed that falls on the rocky ground. Because the plant had no roots, it withers up when persecution comes. I suggest this is the kind of person who hears the gospel and seems to accept it, but something happens which causes them to fall away before they have produced fruit. If the Parable of the Sower is a valid guide, then this is more than causing a child to sin. Someone is preventing a child from hearing the gospel and coming to a saving faith.

Jesus says it is better for the one who prevents a child coming to saving faith to never have existed. In the context, this refers to the disciples who were preventing children from coming to Jesus! “There are hardly suitable translations for the verse’s keywords, the verb σκανδαλίζειν and the substantive σκάνδαλον” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 432).

This person would be better off to have a heavy millstone hung around their neck and tossed into the sea! Even small millstones used by women to bring wheat were very heavy, but this is the kind of millstone turned by a donkey. An “ass’s millstone” (μύλος ὀνικὸς) refers to the upper stone of a stone mill, heavy enough that it must be turned by a donkey, horse, or slave. It would result in a quick and inescapable death. “Drowning was apparently used by the Romans as a form of capital punishment and was presumably known as such in Palestine” (Hooker, Mark, 232). Keener cites Livy 1.51.9, a person was stuffed in a crate of stones and tossed into the sea (Keener, Matthew, 449).

This warning is aimed at the one who prevents the little one from coming to saving faith, a common theme in Matthew (11:6; 13:57; 15:12; 26:31, 33) and apostasy (13:21; 24:10). That he is thinking here also of leading people into apostasy is obvious.

Who are these little ones, and who are leading them astray? In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus may have the child from 18:2 in mind (assuming he is still standing there). However, as I said above, Jesus calls his disciples “little ones” several times in Matthew (10:42, for example). This is a warning to those who are leading the disciples after the resurrection to be very careful about how they present Jesus’s teaching to the growing church.

Does this have an application to Matthew’s original audience? Although it is far from certain, a common suggestion is that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the context of the church a Syrian Antioch. If this is the case, the “stumbling blocks” may be individuals in those churches who are teaching something other than what Jesus taught his disciples. This may be variation in theology or practice, and at that point in history it may not be a major heresy. But anything which leads the true disciples of Jesus into sin is extremely dangerous.

This ought to be convicting to anyone involved in ministry. It is obvious that what you teach and preach can drive people away from the Gospel, but how you interact with people and how you behave is equally offensive. I am not talking here about dropping key doctrines of the faith because they are strange to the modern listener. Something like, “since people do not understand the Trinity anymore I am going to drop Trinity from the church doctrinal statement.” Pick any given study of why people are leaving the church, the reason given is hypocrisy of leaders of the church. Although this might sometimes be a perception rather than a reality, there are plenty of examples of pastors failing morally while demanding their congregations avoid those very sins. There are several recent examples of big name pastors who support politicians who are objectively immoral to please their constituency.

If this is the case, we are going to need a lot more millstones.

In America, asking a child to do some basic chore around the house is likely to generate a serious protest: “am I a slave?” Kids tend to think being told to some something around the house is equivalent to Cinderella scrubbing the floors for the wicked step-mother. But this is the opposite of the world of Jesus (or most of the world), children did a great deal of hard work and obeyed their parents without question. Is this what Jesus is talking about? What can we know about children in the Second Temple period?

Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world. As Ulrich Luz observes, that “the words παῖς and παιδίον can also mean ‘slave’ says a great deal about the legal standing of children, who were subject to the unlimited authority of their fathers” (Matthew 8-20, 428). In the Roman pursuit of honor, serving a child did not bring any honor and likely would be seen as a shameful thing. But to a Greek, humility was not a virtue. After a list of “various kinds of shameful behavior” Aristotle said these were “signs of littleness of soul and baseness” (μικροψυχίας καὶ ταπεινότητος σημεῖα, NIDNTEE, 4:449). The word was used to describe a weak state after a military defeat (Isocr. Paneg. 118, NIDNTEE, 4:449).

In Jewish culture children were certainly loved, but they did have a low status socially. One did not stop and talk to a child, or consider the opinions of a child particularly valuable. This is perhaps why Jesus talking with the rabbis when he was twelve is an important story, he was worthy of respect even as a child (Luke 2:4150). However, as Oepke observes, the idea of an “innocent child” is not found in the Old Testament (TDNT 6:646). The focus of the metaphor may not be “become innocent like a child” or have “child-like wonder.”

It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus is able to call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tac-collectors and other sinners, Jesus was crossing over a social boundary which a typical rabbi might avoid (or simply never consider as important).

Jesus says the true disciple will become humble (ταπεινόω) like a child (v. 4). This view of children is found elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus takes the time to bless children in (Matt 19:14) and in John 3:3 he says one cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” which may be a similar idea to this “become like a child.”

Although this seems clear to the modern reader, to “be humble” can mean “little” or “low.” Luz, “In a general sense, to become low voluntarily is to reverse completely one’s previous standards of thought and action and to orient one’s life to a different order and to new standards” (Matthew 8-20, 429).

It is critically important to understand humility in the context of the Greco-Roman world. The word does not mean “low self-esteem” or self-abasement. Jesus himself is the model of humility (Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:5-11), yet he can claim to be the Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, the one who will return to the Father, etc.

Jesus reverses common understanding of humility in both the Jewish and Roman world. Moses was considered a model of humble service who did not seek his own glory. But often humble service was offered to someone who is your social superior (Keener, Matthew, 447). In the LXX, David is “a humble man and not of high repute” (1 Sam 18:23). The Qumran community called themselves “the poor” and considered humble submission to God’s law to be one of the greatest virtues.

How does one “become like a child?” Jesus highlights a child’s status as the lowest in society. The disciple of Jesus must think of themselves as the lowest of low and serve others like the lowest imaginable person in a society, like a child.

Matthew 18 is the fourth sermon in the Gospel of Matthew. Luz calls this section “The Community Discourse” and points out it is not “church handbook” (Luz, Matthew 18-20, 421). Nolland begins the unit with 17:22 and says Matthew is concerned with the “status and behavior in the ‘royal family’” (Nolland, Matthew, 730). If the Sermon on the Mount began with a general statement of what an ideal disciple looks like (the beatitudes), this Discourse begins with the ideal model of humanity.

At the beginning of this discourse, the disciples ask Jesus a question about rank or honor in the kingdom of God. In Mark, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest, Matthew they simply ask Jesus about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. But in Matthew 19:28 Jesus promises the disciples they will sit on twelve thrones and judge the nations with the Kingdom finally comes. The twelve disciples have higher rank than those who are disciples and are not sitting on a throne.

Can someone be “the greatest” in the Kingdom of Heaven? In another context James and John request to sit next to Jesus in the kingdom, indicating their desire to be the greatest. In Matthew 8:11 “many will come from the east and west” and will sit at places of honor “at the feast,” implying there may be places of honor in the Kingdom. Jesus himself said John the Baptist was “least in the kingdom,” which could imply for the disciples a form of honor and prestige similar to a literal kingdom.

In the context of the ancient world, honor and shame were extremely important social values. A poor Galilean fisherman would be extremely low on the social ladder in the Roman Empire, so low that they may as well not exist. It is only natural for the disciples to ask about who the greatest in the Kingdom might be.

Jesus does not answer the question directly, but invites a child so stand in the middle of the group. He says the true disciple will become like a child. He tells the disciples the must change and be like a child.

The verb Matthew uses (στρέφω) has the sense of changing direction or turning around. This is not a repentance word, the disciples do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as savior. They are already insiders and followers of Jesus. But at this particular moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter into the kingdom.

The disciples are to change their direction and become “like the child.” There is something about a child which is a model of proper discipleship.

Jesus has something about a child in mind, but not everything about children (ie. this does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” in order to enter the Kingdom). Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind.

This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue. A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically use the model of a great political leader or famous philosopher as a model of virtue (Keener, Matthew, 447). Jesus instead turns to a child as the ideal disciple who enters into the Kingdom of Heaven. A quick survey of books published by evangelicals will show we too point to ideal adults who have somehow modeled spiritual discipline. No one is going to publish How to be Like Jesus if it is written by a 6 year old kid.

Yet this is exactly how Jesus described the ideal disciple: be like a child. Unfortunately, pastors and teachers (and writers of worship music) often focus on innocence or wild-eyed wonder as the focus of this metaphor. The fact that children are open to new ideas or accept the gospel easily is often preached as Jesus’s point here. But children believe many foolish things which are not real at all (Santa Claus or the tooth fairy).

But Jesus is not saying, “Be a naïve child who can be manipulated into believing anything.” What part of “be like a child” is Jesus highlighting in this metaphor?  I would suggest Jesus is using a child as a metaphor for the true disciple because the child was the lowest possible member of an ancient society. Jesus does not demand his disciples accept what their teachers tell them without question like a little child, but rather they must be as humble as a child and become the servant of all.

I will have more to say about being a child in the ancient world in the next post.

People of a certain age who grew up in going to Sunday School likely sang “the wise man built his house upon the rock,” using the hand motions and visual aids. I had a Sunday School teacher who had a paper house, and when the “rains came a tumbling down” we would blow on the house and knock it over. She also had a brick decorated to look like a house, so when the “rains came a tumbling down” we tried to blow down the brick house, probably hyperventilating in the process.

Because of this popular children’s song, we all know this very simple parable. In fact, the details of the parable are not difficult to understand at all. Jesus is quite clear, if you hear his words you much make the choice to either do them or not. The one who does them will stand, the one who does not will suffer a terrible disaster. Taken as a conclusion to the whole Sermon on the Mount (and the whole book of Matthew), the wise person will enter into the Kingdom of God at the final judgment, the foolish person will be left outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In fact, for those who have heard the teaching of Jesus, there are only two ways: to do the words or to refuse to do them. This “two ways theology” is based on the covenant in Deuteronomy or the wisdom literature (Psalm 1, for example).

Perhaps the children’s song has taken the edge of this parable. Jesus says you are either wise, doing his words, or foolish, not doing his words. As Scot McKnight has observed, this parable is “one of the severest in the entire Bible” (Sermon, 275).

The wise builder builds on the rock. Modern readers tend to think of a wise person (φρόνιμος) as possessing wisdom, sometimes mixing up wisdom and intelligence. But Jewish wisdom literature focuses on the ways in which a wise person acts in a particular situation.

For Matthew, the wise person is the one who responds properly to Jesus and his teaching. Matthew 10:6, the wise person is able to recognize a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Matthew 24:45 the wise servant hears what his master has said and is prepared. In Matthew 25:2, wise bridesmaids are prepared for a long wait.

Building one’s house on a solid foundation is simply the wise way to build a house. Often pastors will discuss the technical aspects of building a house on a solid foundation which goes down to the bedrock. To a large extent, this is all superfluous, since the point is the wise person builds a proper house in the proper place so that the house lasts for a very long time.

The wise person builds a house on a proper foundation, and as a result the house will be able to withstand the winds and storms.

In contrast to the wise person, the foolish builder builds their house on the sand. Why would anyone build on sand? They are foolish! Foolishness is not stupidity, but rather a conscious decision to reject the good and choose the wrong. In the Proverbs, foolishness is always a choice to not do the wise thing. The person knows what the right way to do things, but they choose to do otherwise. Think of every lazy thing you have done, but it worked. You need a screwdriver, but that is out in the garage so you use a butter knife instead.

When the storm comes, the wise builder’s house endures, the foolish builder’s house is a spectacular failure. The house of the foolish man is not damaged, but utterly destroyed. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount and almost all of the parables in Matthew, this anticipates the final judgment. The foolish person just does not suffer a slight setback, he is completely wiped out when the storm comes.

Although we tend to think of the Middle East as dry and arid, there are often torrential rains which cause flash floods. On November 5, 2015, torrential rains in Amman, Jordan caused flash floods in the city, sweeping away cards in the street. (Here is a video of a flash flood at Wadi Qumran).

Since Jesus is making a contrast between the wise and foolish, the disaster is what would be expected based on Jewish wisdom literature. In Proverbs, foolishness is always self-destructive (10:25; 12:7; 14:11). When Jesus told this parable, he may have had any one of these lines from Proverbs in mind. Any Jewish listener who were given a basic education in the synagogue would have known these sorts of verses, these are the sorts of verses a Jewish parent might quote when dealing with their rebellious teenager!

The challenge of Jesus is clear in this parable: the wise person build son the foundation of Jesus’s teaching beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. The foolish person will not build on that foundation. Jesus never promises his followers will not endure troubles in this world, the storms fall on both the wise and the foolish. But the wise are equipped to endure the storms of this life. These storms are not dystopian persecutions or attacks by satanic forces, but just the normal kinds of personal disasters we all face because the world is fallen: personal betrayals, financial setbacks, disease, death,

This is a challenge to the stereotypical contemporary American Christian who has a shallow faith and is quick to blame God when life is difficult.

Jesus warned his followers to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-20). In 7:21-23 Jesus takes this warning a step further: not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord, Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven. For example, In Matthew 25:11 the five foolish women who were not prepared to wait a long time for the bridegroom call out to the groom “Lord, Lord” when they want to enter the wedding feast.

Hypocrite SelfieThe warning is clear. People are not “right with God” and true disciples of Jesus by acknowledging that God exists or that Jesus was a good teacher or even by trying to live the words of the Sermon on the Mount (those “Red Letters”). Some people will claim to follow Jesus and do miracles in his name, ye ton the great day of God’s wrath, they will be outside the Kingdom because they were never really followers of Jesus.

“On that day” refers to a judgment prior to entering the kingdom of heaven. John Nolland suggested the phrase “on that day’ (ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ) can be a fixed eschatological expression.” The Body of Christ is judged at the judgment seat of Christ prior to this general judgment, we do not need to worry about being sent away when the kingdom comes. However, the warning is still important, at the rapture many who were thought to be Christians will not be raised to new life.

These false disciples claim to have prophesied, done miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus. If they were not true followers of Jesus, how did they do miracles in the name of Jesus? Lying signs and wonders are common in descriptions of the last days prior to the return of Jesus.

Jesus reverses the expectations of these reputed followers of Jesus: “I never knew you” (v. 23). Although they thought they were doing the very things that merited their inclusion in the kingdom, their deeds were actually fruitless.

This conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount is similar to the conclusion of the Olivet Discourse, the other “sermon on a mount” in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 25:31-46 many will stand before the throne of the Son of Man and find out they will not enter the kingdom of heaven, but will go to “eternal punishment” (25:46), where there is darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30). The Son of Man also says to the goats “depart from me” in Matthew 25:41. In this case the dismissal is to eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  A similar phrase appears in Psalm 6:8 (LXX 6:9): “Depart from me, all you workers of evil” (ἀπόστητε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ, πάντες οἱ ἐργαζόμενοι τὴν ἀνομίαν, LXX Ps 6:9).

The shocking moment for these false disciples is Jesus calling them “evil doers.” This is another phrase which turns up in the conclusion of a speech in Matthew. At the end of the Parables of the Kingdom the day of the Lord begins with God sending his angels to gather up all the causes of sin and law-breakers (τοὺς ποιοῦντας τὴν ἀνομίαν, 13:41), a similar phrase as Matthew 7:23 (οἱ ἐργαζόμενοι τὴν ἀνομίαν).

It is unlikely these false disciples were sinning as pagans, like a modern televangelist who preaches against the very sins he is committing. But their failure to uphold the whole law is shown in their treatment of the poor and needy.

The follower of Jesus must make a faith commitment, believing Jesus’s death on the cross pays for their sin and his resurrection gives them new life (2 Cor 5:17). This new life ought to natural grow and develop over time, there ought to be a maturing process similar to a child growing and developing normally. Jesus’s call to his disciples at the end of the Sermon is to “be what they are,” growing and developing fruit in their personal lives and living out their faith through concrete actions directed at people who are in genuine need.

Jesus describes false prophets as “ravenous wolves” (7:15). The metaphor of wolves attacking sheep is drawn from the Old Testament. Ezekiel 22:7 describes wolves attacking on the poor and needy. The verb in Ezekiel 22:27 (טרף) is the same word used Jacob used to describe the fate of his son Joseph, he has been “torn apart by wild animals” (Gen 37:33). But these dangerous wolves are disguised as sheep. A wolf disguised as a sheep is trying to look and act like his prey, to lull them into a sense of safety before attacking them.

Paul uses this same metaphor in Acts 20:29-31 when he warns the Ephesian elders of false teachers who will appear within the church seeking to distort the truth and draw disciples away. In this case, the sheep are the members of the church under the care of these elders.

Who are these ravenous wolves? Commentators have suggested virtually every Second Temple period group as the false prophets in Matthew 7:15-23: the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, Bar Kokhba, Simon Magus, Gnostics, representatives of Pauline Christianity, a degenerate form of Pauline Christianity, antinomians, and Jewish legalists (Nolland, Matthew, 335). Urlich Luz says “In my judgment the intensive Matthean redaction is understandable only if the struggle with false prophets is an actual problem in his community.” “The community obviously knows of whom the text is speaking.” (Matthew, 376).

These false teachers appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not true disciples at all. Although Matthew will describe the Pharisees with similar language in 16:6 and 23:23, “one should not immediately think of Pharisees or Sadducees at 7:15” (Nolland, Matthew, 337). Since the previous unit described people on a wide-path trying to enter the kingdom through the wide gate, these false disciples are the disciples on the easy path (and therefore not really going to the kingdom of heaven at all!)

In the context of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, these ravenous wolves are the false teachers who appear to be real disciples of Jesus, work false miracles in order to claim to be empowered by God, but are in fact trying to devour the true disciples and draw them away from the truth.

Since these false disciples appear to be genuine followers of Jesus, the only way to recognize them is by their fruit (Matthew 7:16-20).  A tree bearing fruit is another common metaphor in the New Testament. It is probably based on Psalm 1, the righteous person is like a tree bearing good fruit. In the context of Matthew, the one who claims to be a disciple of Jesus but does not care for the poor is not a true disciple. Again, the parallel in Matthew 25 makes this point, the goats do not enter the kingdom because they did not care for the “least of these.”

What is remarkable here is the false prophet is also like a tree, but they bear bad fruit. This is a common metaphor in the Old Testament (Isa 3:10; Jer 17:10; Prov 1:31). In Matthew, there are a number of parables which describe the judgment prior to the Kingdom as a harvest, wheat goes into the barn and the weeds are burned on the fire (Matt 13:24-30). In that parable, the owner of the field specifically says the wheat and the weeds cannot be separated until the harvest.

The ravenous wolves think they are disciples of Jesus, but they have fooled themselves and others by disguising their true nature. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said some people try to enter the kingdom of heaven via the broad path and through a wide gate. But this way does not lead to the kingdom, but rather to destruction.

To me, this is a chilling warning from Jesus. Not all those who claim to be flowers of Jesus are actually true disciples of Jesus. We know that not all of the disciples will remain until the end. Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him, the rest of the disciples scatter when Jesus is arrested. Some in the crowds who hailed him as a king at the Triumphal Entry also shouted for him to be crucified only a few days later.

It seems to me this is instructive for those who look at the whole of the modern American Christianity and assume everyone who claims to be a Christian is a real disciple of Jesus. I am quite confident many who claim to be Christians are not bearing fruit expected from the true disciple, and there are many ravenous wolves disguised as sheep in the flock today.

In this brief and well-known saying Jesus contrasts two ways people live their lives, the easy way and the difficult way. Most people are on the easier path. It is broad and leads to a wide gate. Others follow the narrower path which is dangerous and difficult. This difficult path leads to a narrow gate. The Narrow Gate saying is difficult since it claims there are two ways to live, one leads to the kingdom of Heaven, and the more popular leads to destruction.

Narrow GateWe are nearing the end of the Sermon on the Mount and as many scholars observe, the material in chapter 7 is more difficult to outline. Nolland calls Matthew 7:13-27 “Challenges to Implement the Sermon.” Luke 13:24 has a similar saying. In response to the question whether those who will be saved are only a few, Jesus said “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Instead of a gate (στενὴ ἡ πύλη), Luke has a door (διὰ τῆς στενῆς θύρας) and Luke does not mention the wide gate. The focus of this saying is on one’s own relationship with God, not trying to figure out who is in or out.  Pennington makes 7:13-8:1 a major section, “three warnings regarding the prospect of eschatological judgment” (Sermon, 272). R. T. France calls 7:13-27 as a “coda” which calls for a decision on the part of those who have heard Jesus’s teaching (Matthew, 282). There are three clear sections with similar themes which are increasingly eschatological. At the final judgment, there will be some who will be told “depart, I never knew you.”

The Sermon on the Mount is the model for living as a disciple of Jesus. Some people appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not real disciples of Jesus. Why? True discipleship is difficult and the majority are on the easier path leading to destruction.

Although it is not clearly stated, in context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has in mind “entering through the narrow gate” is entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is describing those who will enter eschatological kingdom. Pennington points out the Sermon is framed by “eschatological urgency” (Sermon, 271). In the Beatitudes Jesus says the poor will see the Kingdom (5:3), the meek will inherit the earth (5:5), and the kingdom belongs to the persecuted (5:10).

The disciples are already followers of Jesus who are on the narrow path (7:14) and are bearing good fruit (7:16). John Nolland thinks the kingdom of heaven is pictured as a city (Matthew, 332), Scot McKnight suggests the entrance to a Temple may be in mind (Sermon, 258). Perhaps the image is what one might experience Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.

This parable-like saying reflects a “two ways” theology.  The two ways are the way of life and the way of death, based on the blessings and curses of the Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Joshua 24:15 (“choose today whom you will serve”); Psalm 1, “blessed is the one who…” and “cursed is the one who…” This two ways theology appears in early Christian books such as Didache and Barnabas.

To enter a gate to a city, one must first follow the road to that gate. This implies a choice to travel a particular way for a long time in order to arrive at a particular gate. The decision might be made very early on in the trip.

For example, one might go from Galilee to Jerusalem and arrive via the Mount of Olives and enter through one of the eastern gates, or travel from Galilee to enter from the western side of the city at the Damascus Gate, or even loop around to the south and come up through the Dung Gate.

It is unlikely someone would travel all the way to an entry gate and then change their mind and walk around the city to enter through another gate. The path was chose to get to a particular gate. What motivates any of us to travel via one or another route? The most efficient route, the scenic route, the way to avoid traffic? Think about how to get to O’Hare airport, there are multiple ways to drive there (avoid traffic, avoid tolls, etc.)

Entering the gate of a city is the last thing one does before arriving, so the point of the metaphor is the “last judgment,” consistent with the rest of this final section of the Sermon.

Jesus warns about false prophets (7:15-20, according to 24:4, 24 these will come in the last days), false disciples who did miracles in Jesus name but do not enter the kingdom of God (7:21-23), and the foolish man who built his house on the sand (7:24-27). These warnings are similar to those in Matthew 22:1-14 and 24-25. Some wedding guests or servants enter the kingdom, while others remain on the outside, in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 

Jesus offers an intentionally humorous illustration: when a child asks for something to eat, a parent would not give then something bad (or dangerous).

Bread was baked in a small round loaf, more like a dinner roll than a modern loaf of bread, so potentially it could be mistaken for a stone. Both fish and snakes have scales, so it is possible to confuse the two.

Luke 11:1-13 includes two of these analogies after his version of the Lord’s Prayer and the parable of the Visitor at Midnight. He adds a third substitution: a scorpion for an egg. This may seem strange, but Middle Eastern scorpions are small and resemble a bird’s egg when it is asleep. This is an even stronger metaphor than the first two since the scorpion is very deadly. The point is not “how could the two be confused” but “why would you do such a thing?”

In the illustration, the child asks for something good and necessary for their lives and even then worst parent has the sense to give them something edible (and hopefully healthy).  If evil humans know how to give good things to their children, “how much more” will God, who is the ideal good Father, give good things to his children when they ask?

It is important to see the child is asking for some basic need, their daily bread (from Matthew 6:11). They are not asking for their wildest dreams, or to be wealthy and have a great car and gorgeous spouse, or to “have their boundaries expanded” as in the Prayer of Jabez. They are asking for their basic needs.

There is a responsibility on our part as well, we must ask if we expect to receive, we must knock if we expect the door to be opened.

Our theology shapes our prayer (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 247). What we believe about God shapes the way we pray to God. If our view of God is similar to a child’s view of Santa, then we will be very disappointed when our prayers are not answered. (“I asked for a pony and got pajamas instead.”) What happens when a child is disappointed by Santa year after year? They “grow up” and quit believing in him.

If our view of God is similar to a vending machine, we will be very disappointed when our prayers are not answered. If I do the right things (rituals, devotionals, etc), or do not commit too many sins, then God must answer my prayer with blessings, right? Think of those credit cards with some sort of a reward for spending. If I spend money and make my payments, they will give me money back at the end of the year, a “cash back bonus.” God does not really work like that.

Jesus describes God as the ultimate, good heavenly Father who wants the best for his children, even if those children do not understand what is best for them.

Along with Luke 11, this passage in Matthew 7 is usually used to teach persistence in prayer. If we consistently present our requests to God, he will answer them. This is foundational for the Prosperity Gospel and an anything-goes “name it and claim it” view of prayer. Many in the prosperity gospel movement believe it is God’s will for believers to be in good health, financially successful, and happy.

The problem is obvious, God does not always answer our prayer. We do not get the job, our sickness is not healed, etc. Sometimes pastors will say God always answers, but sometimes the answer is “no.” But that is not what this paragraph says. Jesus says “ask, and it will be given to you.” He then illustrates this and concludes that the Father will give good things to those who ask for them.

The result for some Christians is the fear their faith is not strong enough, perhaps there is unconfessed sin in their life, or they really are not persistent enough to attract God’s attention with their small problems. This is especially true if their pastor has told them God will give them whatever they want if they ask for it in the right way.

But is that what Jesus is teaching in Matthew 7:7-12? Does he say, “If you badger God long enough he will give you whatever you want”? Is the “name it and claim it” theology of the prosperity gospel right?  We need to understand what Jewish prayer was in the first century. Did they make prayer requests as evangelical Christians do today?

Jesus tells his disciples to Ask, Seek and Knock. To “ask God” is to expect him answer. But Jesus is speaking to his own Jewish disciples, the ones he has already instructed to call God “father” (Matthew 6:9).

Some kid might come up to you and ask you for some basic need and you are free to help them (or not). If the child is your own, you have a clear obligation to take care of your child’s need. [I imagine a child might come up to me and ask me to help them blow their nose, in which case I would help them find their mother. But if my own child asked, I would (probably) help them]

The unsaved can pray to God, and God might answer their prayer, but God is not in a parent-child relationship with the unsaved person. The Book of Jonah is an example in of a pagan nation with no idea what God requires prayed for mercy and received it. That God provides good gifts to all people is a clear teaching of both the Old and New Testament. Obviously God does hear the prayers of the unregenerate who ask for the forgiveness of sin and accept Jesus as their savior.

Jesus is therefore talking about requests in prayer from God’s children. This is similar to Paul in Romans 8, the Spirit who helps us pray because we do not even know how to pray! Does a believer need to be in obedience to God’s will when they bring requests to God? Does the presence of sin in our life limit our prayers? Are your children always in perfect obedience when they ask you for things?

It is certainly possible for God to answer the prayers of a believer who is in sin. Like a human relationship, sin can cloud and disrupt a relationship. Even though God does not change, the believer may not be in a place to approach God in prayer. This is the reason the Lord’s Prayer included confession of sin (Matt 6:12). Virtually everyone who teaches on prayer includes confession as an important part of prayer. This is true for the Psalms, in the majority of the Psalms the author confesses his sin and the sin of his people before asking God to rescue him from his problems.

Does this mean a believer who is in sin shouldn’t ask anything from God until they have confessed all their sins?  Not necessarily, since it is impossible to confess every sin.

Even in our requests to the good Heavenly Father, we ought to be submissive to God’s will. Why do your kids ask you for things? Sometimes they have real needs and they need help, but occasionally they have an ulterior motive (greed, get their sibling in trouble, etc.) James 4:3 says those who ask and don’t receive are asking from wrong motives.  What might a “wrong motive” be for asking something from God?  Selfishness?  Greed?  Jealousy?

Our prayers are motivated by our desires, but the effective prayers in the Old Testament are always motivated by what is best for God.

As we mature in Christ, we will bring each area of our lives under greater submissiveness to God’s will and our prayer requests will be more in line with God’s will. Just as a child matures and better understands their relationship with their parent, so too the believer matures and better understands God and our relationship with him. Prayer is part of that process.

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Christian Theology

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