When you think about the finances of the state of Illinois, would you say that the state is travelling towards a narrow gate on a difficult path, or towards a wide gate on a easy path? The question is, of course a biblical allusion. Sometimes it is expressed as the straight and narrow way or the broad and easy way.
We know that the allusion assumes the narrow gate and difficult path leads to a good outcome, while the wide gate and easy path leads to destruction. In the case of Illinois, it’s not hard to answer the question. After all, because of a series of decisions dating back to at least the 1980’s, the state of Illinois’ financial situation is a mess that is headed toward catastrophe if something isn’t done. The state currently owes 15 billion dollars in unpaid bills. It has an unfunded pension liability of $251 billion dollars. It is flirting with a junk credit rating.
Now none of these things happened overnight. They were produced by a whole series of decisions that always avoided facing reality and doing the difficult thing. You can’t choose to spend far more than you take in. If you have made commitments to pay into a pension, you can’t just choose not to do so on a regular basis.
This saying is an allusion to the verses that occur immediately before our text in which Jesus says: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” These verses introduce our text which is part of the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, and they help us to understand what Jesus is talking about.
In the ancient world the gate was the goal – it was the end of the journey as you entered into a city or building. Here the narrow gate is the permanent entrance into salvation – into enjoying the benefits of the reign of God. Jesus says this way is difficult – it’s not easy for a number of reasons. The word used here probably calls to mind persecution. We’ll see in a moment that there are other challenges as well. On the other hand the gate that leads to destruction is wide and the way is easy. The way of the world is sinful and it does not know Christ, but it’s not hard. Just go with the flow and do what everyone else does.
There are other challenges that make the way to the narrow gate difficult. Jesus says in our text, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Our Lord warns about false prophets. We need to be warned because most of the time false prophets – false teachers – don’t show up wearing a shirt that says, “False prophet.” Instead, Jesus says that by all appearances they seem just fine. In fact they seem better than just fine. I guarantee you that the two Mormon missionaries who arrive at your door on bikes, wearing their white shirts and black ties will be some of the nicest guys you will ever meet.
Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Twice Christ says that you will know them by their fruits. Now since he says they look like sheep – they appear to be good – it’s unlikely that Jesus is talking about their behavior. Instead, he speaks of what prophets do. They deliver God’s Word. They teach – that’s their fruit. You recognize the false prophet not by what he does, but by what he teaches.
This runs counter to the way our culture, and even much of Christianity today, thinks. We know that our world is not into right and wrong; truth and error. It just doesn’t believe in such objective standards. But actually much of Christianity is also not all that interested in whether teaching is true or false either. Some very committed Christians have a great deal to say about how we live as Christians, but little to say about the actual content of the faith that Christians believe.
Now Jesus certainly cares greatly about how we live. This is, after all, the Sermon on the Mount in which he shares remarkable teaching describing the life of the person who has received God’s saving reign in Christ. In fact Jesus has just brought the central portion of the sermon to a close by saying, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” He told us not to look lustfully at a woman. He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He told us to put God before money and possessions, and not to worry about material things.
But when it comes to identifying the false prophets who can make our way difficult – who can prevent us from arriving and entering through the narrow gate, Jesus points us instead to what they teach. Do they teach about Jesus as we meet him this Gospel, and Scripture as a whole – the incarnate Son of God, true God and true man, who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead? Do they teach about God as we learn about him in the Scriptures – that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity? Do they teach the truth about the means by which Jesus delivers the forgiveness that he won - Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar?
Jesus says in our text that it’s even possible that the false prophets – the false teachers – will do great signs and wonders in his name. He says in our text, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'
And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
People can act in pious and impressive ways. They can do amazing miracles. But if they are not doing the will of the Father they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. They will not enter into the salvation that Jesus Christ has won by his death and resurrection.
And what is the will of the Father? In Matthew’s Gospel it is to be a true believer in Jesus Christ. It is to repent of our sin and believe in the crucified and risen Lord. It means confessing how we have sinned in thought, word and deed. It means having faith in Jesus Christ who has fulfilled all righteousness – who has brought God’s saving reign into our world and freed us from sin and death by dying on the cross and then rising on the third day.
And it also means what John the Baptist expressed when earlier in the Gospel when he told people: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Repentance and faith bring about change. Faith in Christ is the gift of the Holy Spirit who leads us to share Christ’s love with others in word and deed. It is the gift that prompts us to resist sin and turn away from it, rather than just embracing it as “the way we are.”
This is important and must be a focus in our life. Yet it can never be the only focus. It can’t even be the main focus. Remember, we learn in our text that a false prophet can come dressed in sheep’s clothing. A false prophet can act in pious and impressive ways - ways that that to us are indistinguishable from the life of faith. The life of a Christian is a fruit of faith, but it means nothing in God’s eyes if it is not produced by faith.
The defining feature of a Christian is this faith in the crucified and risen Lord. It is this faith that allows us to look at death and see it for the pretender it is. It is overrated. It’s like the college football team that has a top ten ranking, is undefeated and has blown out all of its opponents by forty points - but it’s not for real. It hasn’t played anybody. It is waiting to get exposed when it plays a real opponent.
Jesus Christ has already exposed death. He didn’t just give his life as a ransom for many in order to take away our sin. He passed through death itself so that on Easter he could rise from the dead and kill death. Death is dead! That’s what faith knows.
That’s what faith declares in the face of death. On Wednesday last week after I went to visit Pat Crow where she was doing rehab after being in the hospital during the previous week with breathing difficulties. I did not know it was the last time I would see her alive. A phone call that night brought me to the ER where the staff made me stay in the waiting room as they worked on her. When they finally let me in to see her, Pat was dead.
I walked into the ER room and there was her lifeless body. It looked like the end. But faith says that death is nothing. That’s why Paul can taunt: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” That’s why the New Testament describes death as falling asleep in Jesus. People fall asleep. But we don’t think it’s a big deal. Why? Because they wake up! That’s what happens. And that is what is going to happen to Pat’s body. That is what is going to happen to the bodies of your friends and loved ones who have died. That is what is going to happen to your body if you die before Christ’s return. It will happen because Jesus rose from the dead.
What we do cannot provide any kind of answer to death. It cannot provide any kind of answer to sin. Only the Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for your – can do this. It is only by this that you can enter through the narrow gate. And so we must always listen to those who teach the truth. We must test what they say – and that includes what I say – against the Scriptures to see if it is true. We must listen to those who proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the means by which the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins is delivered to us. For it is this teaching that will bring us through the narrow gate into resurrection, the new creation and eternal fellowship with God.