25. The Fatal Failures of Religion: #6 Mistaken Identity (Matthew 7:13-27)
There is a true story (which I trust will be taken in the right spirit) of an evangelist who was holding a series of revival meetings in a small town. In preparation for this evangelistic effort attempts were made to call on many of the townspeople to invite them to attend. In the course of these personal invitations one individual was urged to attend, but he was reluctant because of the possibility of having an epileptic seizure.
Sympathetic with this man’s apprehensions and yet earnestly desiring him to attend, the evangelist assured the man that every effort would be made to avoid possible injury or embarrassment. The ushers would be forewarned of his condition and instructed in how to deal with the situation should he suffer from a seizure during the meeting. To be absolutely certain they would reserve the chair closest to the door for him to sit in. Then all of the ushers would know to be especially alert to any possible problem. With these assurances the man promised he would try to attend that night.
When the meeting began the ushers were all prepared as had been promised. One chair at the back was conspicuously empty, and the ushers waited for the special guest to arrive. The singing had already begun when a man timidly entered the meeting place and as inconspicuously as possible sat in the designated chair. The ushers each nodded to one another and mentally refreshed their minds of their responsibility should the unusual occur. As the song service continued, the audience was asked to stand for a particular hymn. When the congregation stood, this one man’s chair was accidentally pushed aside. At the conclusion of the hymn everyone was told to be seated. The man at the back sat down, but without a chair beneath him, and with a great clatter and commotion, he fell to the floor.
To the ushers, this was the signal they had hoped they would not be given, but with all due haste they went into action. Four stocky ushers pinned the fellow to the floor and a fifth man began attempting to force something into the mouth of their victim. A great struggle ensued, but the ushers prevailed, with as much dignity as such a commotion would allow. Suddenly the man overcame his captors, leapt to his feet, and leaving his coat behind, ran from the building.
When an effort was made to return the coat to the house of the man, they discovered to their horror that he had not been able to attend the meeting after all. It was a simple case of mistaken identity.43
As I said, to the best of my information this story is true. The outcome of it all was somewhat humorous, except, perhaps for the man who lost his coat. He would probably never again darken the door of a church. He had heard of strange goings on, of course, but never did he dream they would actually try to cram their religion down his throat.
We could probably go on and on with humorous stories involving mistaken identification. There is a tragic kind of mistaken identity described in the Bible, which is also one of the most common. It is the mistaken assumption that all religious roads lead to heaven. I have made the statement before, and I believe it to be true, that hell will be populated by religious people, and not just by athiests or agnostics. It was the smug self-confidence of the scribes and Pharisees which inclined them to believe that when it came to God’s Kingdom, they had a corner on the market. And yet, it was for these men that our Lord had the harshest words of condemnation (cf. Matthew 23).
It is indeed a sad thing when someone takes a stand against any religion and refuses to believe in any god whatsoever. But to me it is even more tragic when a man or woman is lulled into a kind of spiritual slumber, resting in some kind of religion that will never solve the problem of sin or gain entrance into God’s heaven.
The Lord Jesus Christ, in this great Sermon on the Mount, has distinguished His Kingdom from that of contemporary Judaism, while identifying it with that spoken of in the Old Testament. As He concludes this sermon, we come to the bottom line, the destiny deciding hour of decision. It is not just enough to hear His words; they must be acted upon. In this concluding section, Jesus put before His audience the choice which every man must make, the choice between mere religion and Christianity. In verses 13 and 14 we have the two gates, in verses 15-23 we are encouraged to distinguish between the two kinds of guides, and in verses 24-27 we see the two foundations upon which men build their lives.
The Two Gates
Many people today suppose that God’s Kingdom is governed on the same basis as our nation—democracy. If this were the case (which it is not), then the right way to heaven would be that of the majority. Although the nation Israel knew nothing of democracy as we have it, they, too, were inclined to follow the majority in spiritual matters.
When the Savior concluded His message, He began by ‘cautioning His listeners that if they were to enter into His Kingdom, they must turn aside from the mainstream of Judaism. “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
I recall talking with a couple about the church they were attending. I will never forget their words, because they were so honest and yet so wrong. They said, “We love to attend this church because the preacher teaches the way we like to hear it.” To me that is like saying of a certain doctor, “I love to go to him because I know he will always tell me what I want to hear.”
From the very outset of this sermon the Lord made it clear that those who were citizens of His Kingdom were cut from a different piece of cloth than those who were without. John R. W. Stott has rightly conveyed the tone of the Sermon on the Mount in the title of his book, Christian Counter-Culture.
There are only two gates, only two paths, only two destinies before every man, and each of us must choose one or the other. This may seem surprising to some. Many would suppose that men are confronted with an almost infinite number of alternatives to them. It is not a choice between only two options, but of many. Among so many alternatives how can a man choose the right one? Because of this dilemma, many have concluded that ‘all roads lead to Rome’ and that it matters little which one we would choose.
But the Lord Jesus narrows our choices to only two: religion and Christianity. Religion, in brief, can be defined as man’s efforts to reach God, while Christianity is God reaching down to man. Religion rests upon man’s work for God; Christianity on God’s work on behalf of men.
The small gate is the entrance to the narrow way, the way which leads to eternal life. That gate is our Lord Jesus Himself. In the words of the Savior: “… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture… I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:7,9,11).
In another place, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). God’s only provision for man’s salvation and entrance to the Kingdom is through faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah and our Savior.
But why is the gate small and the way narrow? Simply because it is restrictive. It is not that the gate is poorly marked, for Jesus publicly pointed out that He was God’s provision for the forgiveness of sins and entrance into eternal life. The gate is narrow only because it is exclusive and restrictive. Men can approach God only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:11ff.). Furthermore, men enter into the Kingdom one at a time, as through a turn-style. This is because men must be saved by a personal act of faith. We are never saved in clusters, but individually. To be saved men cannot add to or take away from God’s one way of salvation. As a friend of mine says, “You can go to heaven God’s way, or you can go to Hell any way you want.”
There is a chain of hamburger stands which advertise on television, “Have it your way.” This may be a good thing when buying a hamburger, but it is heresy in terms of entering God’s heaven. God is totally inflexible on this point. As I have often said, God is only concerned with what you and I do concerning His Son, Jesus Christ. If you were God and you had sent your Son to die the kind of death He died, how would you feel about someone trying to gain entrance into heaven by rejecting your Son and offering in His place filthy rags of self-righteous deeds (cf. Isaiah 64:6)?
While God’s way of salvation is exclusive and restrictive, the gate to hell is broad and inviting. You can go to Hell as an atheist or an agnostic. You can go there as a Baptist, Presbyterian, or under any denominational label. You can go as a preacher, priest, rabbi or layman. The contemporary song sums it up about as well as anything I have heard, and I believe it will be the theme song of hell: “I did it my way.”
If you would enter God’s heaven, do not follow the crowds, but trust in the Son of God Who died for your sins and Who offers to give you His righteousness. Do not attempt to innovate upon or modify His means of salvation, for in this God is rigid and unbending. God has not left men without a means of salvation. God will not tolerate or accept any other means of salvation, for He must receive all the glory and the praise. “Salvation is of the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us (Psalm 3:8; Jonah 2:9).
Now this is precisely what really irritates unbelievers: “Why do you Christians think you have the only way?” My answer to those who protest against the Christian insistence that there is only one way of salvation is this. I must confess that we Christians often convey the impression that we are right while everyone else is wrong. In this attitude we err. But God has declared in His word that there is no other way of salvation than through faith in His Son. While Christians may wrongly convey an exclusive and superior attitude, God has declared that there is only one way to heaven. Men would gladly choose any other way than God’s because all other ‘ways’ allow men to keep their pride, their possessions, and their preferences. God will have none of that. Men are not perturbed at the fact that there is really only one answer, but over the realization that this way is not one that appeals to them in their sinful state.
My wife and I have at times found ourselves at social functions where there are two bowls of punch, one ‘with’ the other ‘without’ (alcohol). Since we do not prefer alcohol we find ourselves at the ‘without’ bowl. It is never difficult to tell the one from the other. One has a large crowd about it, while the other has no line at all. Such is the case with the choice confronting every individual. There are two gates. The one is wide and popular. The other is narrow and seldom entered. The way of our Lord is not that of the majority.44
Your eternal destiny hangs upon your choice between two alternatives. You may go the tolerant and accommodating way which is well-traveled and on which you will have a great deal of company. But in the final analysis you will find this is the way of destruction. Or you may take the narrow and restrictive way of faith in Jesus Christ. This is the way which leads to life. You will never walk alone, but neither will you be with the majority. Your path may be narrow, but your destiny is sure. This is the choice with which Jesus Christ confronts every man.
The Two Guides
The decision which every man must make is not an easy one, for there are many godless guides who would lead us to the wide gate and the way which leads to destruction. These false prophets are not only blind themselves, but they lead others to destruction with them.
“And He also spoke a parable to them: ‘A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39).
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).
Those who submitted to the religious leaders of their day would follow them on the path which led to destruction. Above all else it was the Jewish leadership which rejected Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and put Him to death. No wonder we find our Lord warning His listeners about false prophets: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
False prophets are particularly dangerous because they appear to be genuine. They seemingly have the credentials of authority. What are these credentials? Jesus calls them ‘sheep’s clothing’ (verse 15).45 The outward forms would incline one to believe these false prophets to be reliable guides. They may wear a distinctive garb which sets them apart as leaders. They may have the title ‘reverend.’ They may be men who hold positions of religious leadership. They may well have graduated from a divinity school. Indeed, they might even be seminary professors. Judging on the basis of external indications we might wrongly assume them to be reliable guides, but we cannot evaluate on such external evidence.
These false prophets can be detected by their fruits. Judging by external forms is risky; judging (if you prefer, discerning) on the basis of fruits is absolutely accurate. ‘The proof of the root is in the fruit.’ Good trees produce good fruit, and rotten trees, bad fruit. A dependable assessment of those who would be guides is that of their fruits (verse 20).
What are these fruits? One must be very careful here, for false prophets are not without religious activities. A false prophet is often accompanied by deceptive signs and by seeming wonders. Some of these are suggested in verse 22: “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’” We should expect false prophets to engage in acts of kindness and charity. We should expect them to perform deeds which suggest miraculous power. And we should expect that these deeds be performed under the pretext of being done by God’s power and to His glory.
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
We should expect false prophets to be accompanied by religious works, often unusual and spectacular, done ostensibly in the name of God. Satan willingly gives the glory to God in such cases, so long as men give their allegiance and obedience him.
If these religious activities are not the fruits of which the Master spoke, what are they? The Scriptures frequently describe the fruits of the false prophets, so that we are left with little doubt as to what we should look for.46 I believe we can see the fruits of the false prophets falling into three categories.
(1) The first category of the fruits of the false prophet is their doctrine. False prophets speak from their own delusion, not by divine command (Jeremiah 23:16,21,25; Ezekiel 13:2). They do not proclaim or defend God’s word, but deny it (Jeremiah 23:17). In particular they deny unpleasant subjects such as impending judgment (Jeremiah 6:14; 28:17; Ezekiel 13:10). They offer temporary and partial relief to pressing problems (Jeremiah 8:11). Mainly, they tell people precisely what they want to hear (1 Kings 22:8,13; 2 Timothy 4:3-4). Concerning the way of salvation they deny the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ and they reject the work of Christ on the cross (2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:2-3).
(2) The second category of the fruits of the false prophets is the effect of their teaching in the lives of men. Invariably it leads to a rejection of God’s word, a rejection of biblical authority, a division among the saints (Jeremiah 23:2,14) and a life of sensuality (2 Peter 2:2). They attempt to lead men away from the truth of the gospel (Acts 13:8), and to deceive genuine Christians (Mark 13:22).
(3) Finally, there is the fruit of the false teachers as evidenced in their own moral character. They are easily distinguished by their pride (2 Peter 2:10), their greed (Jeremiah 8:10; Titus 1:11; 2 Peter 2:3,14) and immorality (Jeremiah 23:11,14; 2 Peter 2:14). They are men dominated by the flesh (2 Peter 2:10,12; 3:3). They prey upon the weak and the guilt-ridden (2 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Peter 2:14,13). While they profess to know God, by their deeds they deny Him (Matthew 7:22-23; 2 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:16). While they delight in authority, they refuse to submit to it (2 Peter 2:10).
It is not hard to determine that Jesus was speaking of many of the Jewish leaders as false prophets. Jesus distinguished the teachings of Judaism from His interpretation of the Old Testament Law (Matthew 5:17-48). He taught that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was insufficient to enter into His Kingdom (Matthew 5:20). He singled out the Jewish leaders as blind hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-14; Luke 6:39-40). He accused the Pharisees of externalism (Matthew 23:26; Luke 11:37-41). He pointed out their pride and arrogance (Luke 11:43, etc.). He exposed their greed and abuse of the afflicted (Matthew 23:14). They were men controlled by their appetites (Matthew 23:25).
I want you to get the full impact of our Lord’s words in verses 21-23. The implications here were absolutely amazing to our Lord’s audience. We hardly perceive it as we look back from our present comprehension of the person and work of Christ. Jesus clearly identified Himself as God, the Judge before Whom men must stand in the final judgment.
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in Your name and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’” (verse 22).
It is He Who will pronounce the final verdict and Who will sentence the false prophets to everlasting torment. There could be no clearer statement of the deity of Christ than is found in these verses.
The Two Foundations
Verses 24-27 constitute the conclusion of this section as well as the entire Sermon on the Mount. For a long time I felt that the primary and exclusive interpretation of these verses was an exhortation to put into practice, to apply the teaching of Jesus Christ in a personal way. As James put it, “to be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
Surely this is one aspect of what the Savior is teaching us here. The wise man is he who hears the teaching of Jesus and makes it his own by personal application. First and foremost, one must apply His teaching to the matter of his personal salvation. We must take the step of entrusting our eternal destiny to Jesus Christ on the basis of His word and His work. Beyond this, we must continue to endeavor to apply His teaching in our everyday lives.
But as I look again at these words, I sense that underlying them is the contrast between the two foundations. The reason why one house fell and the other stood is that one had a sure foundation, while the other did not. The solid foundation, as I see it, is the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. “… therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man …” (verse 24).
You see, both men built a house. These houses are not said to differ in any respect except one, its foundation. One was built upon rock, and the other on sand. The one house was built upon our Lord’s teaching, while the other was built apart from it.
The sad fact of life is that men and women are building their entire lives, they are staking their eternal destiny, not upon the Word of God, but on their own pre-conceived notions and preferences. “Well, I like to think of God as …” Here is the bottom line. Here is what distinguishes true Christianity from every other religion—its foundation, its ultimate source of authority.
I was talking with someone this past week concerning someone who is contemplating the claims of a certain cult. We talked for a while and concluded that there is, in the final analysis, one basic issue, and that is the matter of authority. Some have chosen to believe other supposedly inspired books. We can show them how their revelation differs from Scripture, but they have made a choice as to what they will believe and upon what they will stake their eternal well-being.
Although I am grieved when someone chooses to join a cult on the basis of some revelation other than the Bible, I am most distressed by those who foolishly rely upon their own reason and evaluation of things which are spiritual. That is a mighty shaky foundation.
And you see men have to live (or should I say, die?) with these choices. When one enters either the narrow gate or the wide one the end of each pathway is still well out of sight. In the case of the false prophets, their ultimate identity is not certain until they are judged by our Lord in the day of judgment. So also the foundation upon which one builds his life is not tested until the great storm comes. We will not learn the folly of choosing the wrong gate, the wrong guide, or the wrong foundation until it is too late to reverse our destiny.
May I ask you, my friend, what gate you have chosen? You must choose one, you know. And your choices are limited to the narrow gate of salvation through faith in Christ or the wide gate which leads to destruction by trusting in whatever you choose.
Just as there are two gates, there are two guides. On the basis of surface appearances, one cannot tell the difference. But when their fruits are scrutinized the false can always be identified. Their doctrine does not conform to the Word of God. Their moral lives are condemned by the Scriptures. The impact of their ministry to others is devastating and destructive.
Our Lord did not leave us this sermon to satisfy our curiosities. What He taught demands decision. His Word points out the narrow gate as the way of salvation. It also exposes false guides who would lead us astray. Finally, it provides us with a sure foundation on which to build our lives.
Have you passed through that narrow gate? Have you trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as the door of salvation? Do you believe in Him as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6)? Is the Word of God your foundation and your guide?
Someday we must all stand before the One Who uttered these words and give account to Him as the God and Judge of the universe. May it be that He shall say, “Well done, good and faithful slave;…enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21).
44 It is for this reason that I resist certain techniques employed by some evangelists. At mass rallies, counselors are encouraged to get up and en masse move forward toward the altar. The impression given is, in my estimation, deceptive. People are inclined to conclude that these are people coming forward to accept Christ. The resulting impression is that everyone is going forward. The one who is wavering about his decision for Christ is thereby gently encouraged to join the crowd in taking a stand for Christ. This, to me, is deceptive in the first place. Second, it encourages the new Christian to take his first steps in the wrong direction. Rather than taking a distinctive stand for Christ, he is urged to do what everyone else is doing. Now this is never stated, but it is a very subtle and subconscious psychological suggestion, I fear.
45 “He said that the false prophets were like wolves in sheep’s clothing. When the shepherd watched his flocks upon the hillside, his garment was a sheepskin, worn with the skin outside and the fleece inside. But a man might wear a shepherd’s dress and still not be a shepherd. The prophets had acquired a conventional dress. Elijah had a mantle (1 Kings 19:13,19), and that mantle had been a hairy cloak (2 Kings 1:8). That sheepskin mantle had become the uniform of the prophets, just as the Greek philosophers had worn the philosopher’s robe. It was by that mantle that the prophet could be distinguished from other men. But sometimes that garb was worn by those who had no right to wear it, for Zechariah in his picture of the great days to come says, “Neither shall they wear a rough garment to deceive” (Zechariah 13:4). There were those who wore a prophet’s cloak, but who lived anything but a prophet’s life.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), I, p. 286.
46 Let me suggest a few passages which describe false prophets: Deuteronomy 13:1ff; 1 Kings 22; Jeremiah 6:14; 23; Ezekiel 13:6ff. Matthew 24:11,24; Mark 13:22; Luke 6:26; Acts 13:8; 2 Timothy 3-4; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 4:lff.