At the church where I work and worship, at the end of every sermon an invitation is offered, where people are encouraged to respond to the lesson that has been presented. People may come desiring to be baptized, or confessing sin, or requesting the prayers of the church, but the idea is that the sermon that has been presented prompts personal reflection, and the hearers are invited to respond in some way.
That is basically what Jesus does here: He has touched on a lot of topics in the SOTM, and now He is ready to sum up what He has said so far, and conclude with a challenge for His listeners.
Jesus begins this final section with the Golden Rule in Matthew 7.12, which is so famous that it is known to virtually everyone: do unto to others as you would have them to do you. Many ancient teachers taught ideas which are comparable with the Golden Rule, but before Jesus, these ideas were always stated negatively: “do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself.” But really, there is a big difference between not doing harmful things to others and actively seeking to do good for others. Just imagine how much better off the world would be if men and women lived by this one simple rule! How many of the problems that plague our world would immediately disappear?
Jesus then goes on to emphasize the choice that all hearers of the SOTM must make. This has actually been a prominent theme throughout the sermon, as Jesus has talked about two kinds of righteousness, two treasures, and two masters. Now, He confronts us with the choice that we each have to make: will we be a part of His kingdom, or not? Will we follow the world around us, or will we be a part of the alternative community that Jesus has set up? Jesus compares two roads: a hard road with a narrow gate that is lightly traveled but leads to life, and an easy road with a wide gate that a lot of people travel but leads to destruction.
It is obvious why so many people take the road that leads to destruction: it’s easy! The gate is wide, and there is apparently room for us to take all of our baggage through with us: our sins, our pride, and our self-righteousness. The other road is much more demanding, however, with a gate so narrow that it requires us to leave all of those things behind.
After talking about the two ways, He now talks about two different kinds of teachers. Jesus warns His disciples to watch out for false prophets who seem harmless like sheep, but are actually as dangerous as wolves. How are we to recognize such teachers? In both 7.16 and 7.20, Jesus says we will recognize them by their fruits: just as it is impossible for a thornbush to produce grapes, a diseased tree to bear good fruit, or for a wolf to act like a sheep for very long, it is impossible for a false teacher to bear good fruit.
We can see the fruit of false teachers in their conduct, and also in their actual teaching: if they are inconsistent between what they teach and how they act, if they contradict the teachings of Jesus or of Scripture, or if their teaching sows discord and division, then their fruit is rotten. While Jesus is clear that we should watch out for false teachers who would lead us astray as we seek to stay on the narrow road, that doesn’t mean that we should always be engaging in witch hunts to discover and expel false teachers; remember from the beginning of Matthew 7 that we are not supposed to be judgmental people who rejoice in finding fault in others.
Jesus then speaks of the coming Day of Judgment, and indicates that there are many people who expect to spend eternity with God based on the fact that they call Him “Lord” or do great things in His name who will instead be greatly disappointed. This passage is important first of all because it shows that Jesus claimed the right to judge the eternal destinies of men and women. Jesus’ self-understanding as the Judge of the universe stands in opposition to those who want to enjoy Him as a great ethical teacher, but as nothing more than that.
Second, this passage is important because it teaches the necessity of obedience. At the end of the day, while it is good to confess Jesus as Lord and admirable to do great things in His name, what is most important is that we actually do what He says. We can wear Christian t-shirts, share all of the Jesus memes on Facebook that come our way, and have perfect attendance at church, but if we ignore the teachings of the SOTM, in light of these verses, should we be confident on the Day of Judgment?
Continuing the theme of two different roads and two different choices, Jesus talks about two different builders: a wise man who builds his house upon the solid foundation of rock, and a foolish man who builds his house upon the sand. When the rain fell and the floods came and wind blew against the house, the wise man’s house was fine, but the foolish man’s house fell with a great crash. The foolish man represents people who hear the words of Jesus, but fail to act on them. Jesus expects us to do more than listen to Him; He expects us to actually do what He says.
With this, Jesus brings those who hear (and read) His sermon to a point where they must make a decision. We must choose: will we be citizens of the kingdom, allowing God to rule in our lives, or will we try to build a shaky existence on the futility of this world? The choice is clear, but it is not easy: if we want to be a part of Jesus’ alternative community, we will be distinctly different from the world.
And thus, our journey through the SOTM comes to an end. If we take the words of Jesus seriously, what He says here is very challenging, but also life-changing. He doesn’t ask us to tweak one or two minor aspects of our lives; He demands that we totally transform the way we view life and our relationship to the world and people around us. Also, Jesus does not leave us with the option of considering Him to be just another in a long line of wise ethical teachers: His claims for Himself and His claims on us are much greater than that.
John R.W. Stott sums it up nicely:
“[Jesus] teaches with the authority of God and lays down the law of God. He expects people to build the house of their lives on His words, and adds that only those who do so are wise and will be safe. He says He has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He is both the Lord to be obeyed and the Savior to bestow blessing. He casts Himself in the central role of the judgment-day drama. He speaks of God as his Father in a unique sense, and finally implies that what He does God does and that what people do to Him they are doing to God.…Only when the Christian community lives by Christ’s manifest will the world be attracted and God be glorified. So when Jesus calls us to Himself, it is to this that he calls us. For He is the Lord of the counter-culture.” (1)
What path will we choose? How will we respond to Jesus’ invitation? Will we remain mired in the hollow values of the world, or will we take up residence in the kingdom of God, that alternative community, that counter culture, that Jesus calls all of His followers to be a part of?