No Middle Ground

This passage shows us that it is impossible to be neutral about Jesus. It is impossible to pick and choose which parts of Jesus we like and which ones we don’t. We will either come to Jesus on His terms or we will suffer the (eternal) consequences.

Chris Hutchison on March 28, 2021
No Middle Ground
March 28, 2021

No Middle Ground

Passage: Matthew 7:13-27
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Last Saturday we were setting up in this room and I realized that we needed a longer video cable for hooking up the computer to the screens in here. And so I did what any good millennial knows how to do: I went on my phone and I bought one. It took me about two minutes to find a good cable from a good brand with good reviews, and I bought it, and we’re using it this morning.

I am a consumer. I’ve grown up in this country surrounded by things I can buy, and I’ve been trained to know how to find what I want when I want.

Long before the Internet, Canada has been a place where consumer choices have abounded. Walk into any store and just look at all of the options. Breakfast cereal, salad dressing, cell phones. Are you going to buy the name brand or the store brand? Are you going to get it now or wait for a sale? Are you going to get this year’s model or wait for the cool new features rumoured to be coming out in just a few months?

We are surrounded by consumer choice. And all of this choice has shaped us. It’s shaped us to hunt for deals, to find the absolute best product for us on our terms. And I know, especially for people my age, it’s made us distrustful of traditional salesmen. We don’t like to feel pressured into anything. We want someone to give us the information so that we can make the decision on our terms, thank you very much.

Consumerism has some perks, but lots of dangers. One of the biggest problems is how all of this consumer choice affects how we think in other areas of life. When I worked with university students in Regina I saw it all the time. Young people were terrified of committing to anything. They treated other people like products to be tested and reviewed, but commitment was dangerous. What if a newer and better model was just around the corner?

I see it all the time in the way people approach the church. People treat a church like a service provider, and if we don’t like something about our church, we’ll switch just as easily switching cell phone carriers. Consumerism makes the thought of committing to one church so difficult. What if it doesn’t end up being perfect for us?

Perhaps one of the most dangerous places that consumerism affects us is in the way we approach Jesus. In my years of being a pastor, and the years before that of travelling and performing and preaching in dozens of other churches, I’ve met many people who really appreciate Jesus for the benefits He brings to their life. They really like how Jesus makes them feel and how He helps them deal with their problems.

But at the end of the day, they are the consumer and Jesus is the product. They are in the driver’s seat, and they “use” Jesus on their terms, only as far as they feel the need for Him.

So for example, I’ve met people who proclaim loudly their love for Jesus, and yet certain parts of their life are totally out of sync with the way Jesus taught us to live. And when you point that out to them, it doesn’t really bother them much. Because to them, the Bible is kind of like that big user agreement you have to scroll through before signing up for a new service. Ya, it’s important, but only lawyers care about  that stuff. Nobody expects normal people to read or care about all that. As long as the product is making you happy, why bother with the fine print?

Jesus, the Un-Product

These things are on my mind because here we are today, in our final week in the Sermon on the Mount. And if one thing is clear from these months together, I hope you can see that approaching Jesus like a consumer just doesn’t work. It’s not an option. Jesus is not a product for us to dabble with. Jesus does not advertise Himself to us to see if we might maybe be interested in some of the goods and services He has to offer us.

Instead, from the beginning, Jesus has communicated to us like a King who makes it very clear that we must come to Him on His terms. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), He said. That is not a sales pitch. That is a declaration of invasion. Ready or not, here comes the kingdom. And the king is commanding you to repent, to turn from your old way of life and your old way of thinking and your old way of acting and surrender to Him on His terms.

See, as consumers, we are in charge. We look for the product that suits us. We define the terms. We shop around and find what’s best for us. But in the kingdom of heaven, King Jesus is in charge. He defines the terms. He decides what is best for us.

And that’s why here today at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not give us a sales pitch. He doesn’t even give us an invitation. Instead, He delivers an ultimatum. He tells us that we must respond to Him on His terms, or we will be destroyed. We will repent, as He defines repentance, or we will perish.

And Jesus communicates this to us in a series of three word pictures. First, in verses 13-14, there is two gates with two ways or roads behind them. In verses 15-23 there is the picture of two kinds of trees. And then in verses 24-27 there is the picture of the two builders building on two different foundations.

Each of this word pictures show us that it is impossible to be neutral about Jesus. It is furthermore impossible to pick and choose which parts of Jesus we like and which ones we don’t. We will either come to Jesus on His terms or we won’t. And finally, these three pictures show us that our eternal destiny depends on how were respond to Jesus. The stakes, in other words, are very high.

Two Gates and Ways

So let’s look at this first picture Jesus gives us is that of two gates that lead to two different ways in verses 13-14. “Enter by the narrow gate,” He says. Why? “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”

Notice here that Jesus is not saying, “I invite you to consider entering by the narrow gate. Why don’t you think about this.” Instead, it is phrased as a direct command: “Enter by the narrow gate.”

And in order to really feel the weight of this we need to put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ early disciples. These people who were there listening to the Sermon on the Mount were not “fully committed Christians” as we might imagine them to be. They were a loose group of people who had only recently heard about this new teacher, and they had travelled a long distance in order to find out more about Him.

And over the course of several hours—or days—Jesus taught them this material that we call the Sermon on the Mount, explaining to them His message and His mission and His kingdom, and what He expects from His followers.

For some of them, this was likely their very first introduction to any of these ideas. It was all new. Their heads may have been spinning. And still Jesus concludes by saying, in essence, “Now, come follow me.” And He does that by painting this word picture of the two gates with two ways or paths behind them.

There is a narrow gate and the path behind it is hard. This is the gate of commitment to Jesus with the path of discipleship behind it. That path is the path of persecution, like Jesus explained in the Beatitudes. It is the path of being reviled and having people “utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Jesus’] account” (Matthew 5:11). It is the path of the New Covenant heart transplant, the path of taking your sin deathly seriously, the path of refusing to live for earthly wealth and comforts.

But this path is the path that leads to life. In Matthew’s gospel, this word “life” always refers to eternal life. In other words, this narrow path is the path to your best life later.

If you ignore the words of Jesus and don’t enter by the narrow gate of His teaching, you’ll end up with the only other option that exists: the wide, broad gate with the easy road behind it. There’s lots of room for everybody on that path. You'll have lots of fun on this path, you’ll have lots of company, and you might even make some great memories together. But you won’t like the destination. “The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13).

So what’s it going to be for you? Are you going to be among the many who go through the wide gate and walk down the easy road to your own destruction?

Or will you heed the words of Jesus and enter by the narrow gate of faith and commitment to Him, and walk up the hard path of discipleship, knowing that your destination is your eternal life?

These are the only two ways available to us in life. There is no third option; there is no middle ground.

Two Trees

The next section of our passage comes in verse 15 and goes all the way down to verse 23. And in this section Jesus begins by speaking about wolves in sheep’s clothing, and ends with a discussion about judgement day itself, but the main word picture in these verses has to do with two kinds of trees.

The big idea in this whole section is that there will be many people who look like they are following Jesus, many people who seem like they are on the narrow path, and who might even think themselves that they are on the narrow path, but in reality they are actually going with everybody else down the broad and easy way to their own destruction.

Listen to what verse 15 says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

You’ve heard the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and here’s where it comes from. Watch out for people who come to you and look like they are speaking for Jesus, but inside they are actually on the prowl to satisfy their own appetites. They look like a sheep but are actually there to eat the sheep.

And how can you tell the difference? Verse 16: “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.” (Matthew 7:16–20).

What does Jesus mean by “fruit”? Here in North American church circles, we often use the word “fruit” to speak about ministry results. Like, “10,000 people came to faith in Jesus through that person’s ministry; what a lot of fruit.”

And we do see similar usage in Scripture, but just as often—if not more often—fruit simply refers to what a person says and does. “Fruit” is someone’s words and behaviour; the total output of their life.

That’s how Jesus uses the word in Matthew 12 when He tells the Pharisees that “the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). And immediately he goes on to speak about their words and their behaviour that flow from their hearts (Matthew 12:34-37).

So think about a well-known Christian minister: someone who, in your mind, speaks for Jesus. Maybe it’s a preacher or an evangelist or a singer. Jesus says that you will be able to tell whether they are a sheep or a wolf based on their fruits. And that “fruit” is not how many people came to know Jesus through their ministry. That “fruit” is not how many people came to their awesome concert. That “fruit” is the way they spoke to their waiter at the restaurant after the concert. That “fruit” is what they watched on their hotel TV screen when they were alone that evening.

And it is by someone’s fruit that we recognize them as a wolf and not a sheep. Just think of what this means. This is telling us that you don’t necessarily spot a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, from their message.

Again, this is really challenging to some of us. We are used to thinking about “false prophets” as those guys preaching heresy or demanding that you send them $1000 for their next private jet. And guys like that probably are false prophets.

But here Jesus seems to assume that a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, might have a public message that is spot-on. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need to look for fruit. Just like verse 21 and 22 says, this person might be saying all the right stuff. “Lord, Lord.” They might be doing many mighty works in Jesus’ name.

But at the end of the day, what makes them a wolf is that they are saying and doing these things for their own selfish purposes. They are not there to serve the sheep but they are there to prey on the sheep. Like Judas, for example.

Every indication in the gospels is that Judas preached the exact same message as everybody else. He went out preaching repentance like the other apostles, casting out demons and healing like the other apostles (Mark 6:7, 12-13).

But inwardly he was a ravenous wolf. He was out to serve himself, helping himself to the moneybag, and ended up selling Jesus to make a few more bucks himself.

I remember a pastor years ago who preached each week because he didn’t know what else he was good at. He had no other career options, so he worked in churches and collected a paycheque. And, before too long, had an affair with his secretary. That man was a wolf, no matter how orthodox his message was.

No doubt some of you are thinking about Ravi Zacharias right now. I never thought I’d mention his name in this kind of a context. He was a man who had earned the respect of so many. His public message was so solid and he helped thousands of people have confidence in the message of Christianity.

But alone, with vulnerable young women, he acted like a wolf, deliberately and systematically preying upon them to satisfy his own appetites. And by those fruits he is now known. It’s exactly the kind of situation Jesus described here.

And it shouldn’t make us question our faith, or reject the things that Ravi taught. Because here, at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus warned us about this exact situation. And He told us to beware.

Now it’s easy for us to point at Judas and Ravi, but what about you? Is it possible that you look like a sheep, but your heart is the heart of a wolf? What motivates you is not love for the Lord Jesus but your own ravenous appetites? What do your fruits say about you?

Verses 21-23 are some of the scariest verses in the whole Bible. We’ve pointed to them already, but hear them again in this context: “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.’”

Did you catch that word “many”? On that day, on judgement say, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord…” There will be many people who think that they knew Jesus. Who sang worship songs in church with their eyes closed and had wonderful religious experiences. Who went out and did some amazing things for Jesus. Who spoke the words of Jesus with power into other’s lives, who saw demons cast out at their command, who did all kinds of spectacular things for Jesus.

But none of that is the fruit that Jesus is really looking for. And at the end of the day, what matters is not whether we think we know Jesus but whether Jesus knows us.

I can’t imagine anything more awful than getting to Judgement Day and standing before Jesus and thinking that you are good with Him, and having Him look you in the eyes and say, “I never knew you. You are a stranger to me. Get out of my presence. Depart from me.”

And what’s the difference here between someone who thinks they are good with Jesus, and someone who is good with Jesus? How do we know that He actually knows us?

It’s our fruit. Not our public ministry fruit, but the fruit of who we are when nobody was looking. “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…And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

And this standard—this standard of doing God’s will, of not being lawless—is what Jesus has been unpacking for us in the Sermon on the Mount. So just think back to what we’ve seen in the Sermon.

Jesus doesn’t care how many good sermons you’ve preached if you have a heart full of anger and hatred and vengeance. Jesus doesn’t care how much money you’ve given away to charity if you have eyes and a heart full of lust and adultery. Jesus doesn’t care how many Sundays you’ve been in church if you have lips which don’t speak the truth. Jesus doesn’t care how many Sunday school classes you’ve taught if you hate your enemies.

Do you see now why the Sermon on the Mount matters so much? Because this is the stuff that matters. Our response to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is the evidence of our eternal destiny.

And once again, these verses remind us that there are only two possible outcomes in response to Jesus’ message. We will either go through the narrow gate or the broad gate. We will either go down the hard path to life or the broad path to destruction. We will either be a healthy tree bearing good fruit or we will be a diseased tree bearing bad fruit. We will either do the will of our Father in heaven or we will be a worker of lawlessness. No middle ground.

Two Builders

Finally, in verses 24-27, Jesus gives a third and final word-picture about two builders and two foundations.

This is a familiar picture and we might know the cute little song from Sunday school that goes along with this. But this word picture is anything but cute and funny. If there was a song to go along with this, it would be in a minor key and would sound huge and epic and maybe even frightening. Because this is so serious.

Once again, this is a word picture of two options. We see there are two builders. One builds his house on a rock, a good solid foundation. And his house survives the storm. The second person builds his house on the sand, with no foundation. And his house does not survive the storm. It is destroyed.

Maybe you’ve heard this story before and thought that it was speaking about how we will do in this life. Maybe you’ve heard people teach, “If you build your life on Jesus, you’ll be able to survive the storms of life.” And there is surely some truth in that, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. All throughout the Sermon on the Mount, and in both of the previous word pictures we’ve looked at today, Jesus is talking about eternal life or eternal destruction.

And in this last section, Jesus has not changed the topic. He’s talking about our eternal destiny. Whether we’ll experience eternal life or eternal suffering. And what is the difference between those who have one or the other? It comes down to what they did with the words of Jesus.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:24-26).

We should soak in how incredible it is for a 33 year old Galilean rabbi to make claims like this. He’s already claimed in verse 23 that He will be the one dispensing judgement on judgement day. And here he is telling us that our eternal destiny hangs on what we do with His words.

Jesus is making a very subtle but very clear claim that He is the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

But let’s make this personal now: your eternity hinges not on what you hear or even what you say but on what you do with Jesus’ words.

You can listen to the whole Sermon on the Mount, you can listen to every sermon Josh and Tim and myself have preached in these past three months, and you can agree with it all, but still be on the path to eternal destruction.

Those who have eternal life are those who not only hear but do the words of Jesus.

What About Salvation by Faith?

Now I really want us to feel the weight of this, and I don’t want us to move on from this too quickly, but I know that some of you right now are probably struggling with a question. You are wondering how this all fits with justification by faith alone.

Right? Aren’t we saved by faith and not by works? Aren’t we justified not by what we did for Jesus but by what Jesus did for us in His life and death? Doesn’t Ephesians 2:8-9 say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”?

And how is it, then, that in this passage, our eternal destiny does seem to hinge on what we do?

And in answer to that question, I would point you to the very next verse in Ephesians. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). That’s the result of being saved by grace: good works. If there is no good works, then salvation has not occurred.

Just think about body. Your body is alive right now. Being born was a total act of grace. There was nothing you did to give yourself a body. But now that you are alive, there are certain things your body does, like your heart beating and your lungs breathing. These things are the visible indicators of that life that you were given.

If you got in a car accident and a paramedic wanted to know if you were alive or not, they wouldn’t shout in your ear, “Excuse me, were you born?” They wouldn’t go hunting in your wallet for a birth certificate. Instead, they’d check your pulse. They’d watch your lungs to see if you were breathing.

And that’s what Jesus is doing here in this passage. You get saved by grace. God Himself is the one who takes out our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh, a reality Jesus has pointed to repeatedly in the Sermon. But being so saved, the evidence is obedience to Jesus. The evidence that the tree is good is the good fruit. And that’s simply what Jesus is pointing to in this passage.

If you have no evidence in your life of good works or obedience to Christ, the solution is not to run out and start trying to to stuff. The solution is to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. But if you have done that, there will be fruit in your life. And that fruit will be the evidence on judgement day of whether you were saved by Jesus or not.

Applying This Passage to Ourselves

Now as we conclude here, this is one of those passages that is relatively straightforward in terms of applying. You have heard the words of Jesus today and over these past number of months. The question is, will you do them?

But I want to press that application a little bit more specifically and ask some questions.

Is there a chance that some of you are in the spot of Jesus’ original hearers? You’re interested in Him, you like what you hear, you’ve even travelled some distance, metaphorically, to get close to him, but you’re still not committed all the way?

Do you hear the wake-up call in this passage? Your eternal destiny rests upon Jesus. And you don’t know how long you have. How many car accidents will it take to convince us that, no matter our age, we have no idea which day will be our last?

So will you try to play games with Jesus? Will you keep acting like a consumer, reading reviews, testing it out on your own terms? Or will you respond to the king this morning on His terms? Will you enter by the narrow gate of repentance, will you turn from all else, and will you become a disciple of Jesus? Will you do that today? Will you do that even now? And then will you seal your faith and commitment with baptism? The tank is getting filled up on Thursday, and it’s not too late for you to stand up here next week and say “I’m all in.”

Let me ask a slightly different set of questions for a slightly different type of person. Maybe you’re listening and you do consider yourself a committed Christian. You’re prayed the prayer or walked the aisle and you are on your way to heaven.

But this morning has made you ask some uncomfortable questions. Maybe you’ve realized you’re still acting like a consumer of Jesus, enjoying some of his products and services on our own terms. But the idea of a sovereign king who holds a blank cheque to every corner of your life is foreign to you. You are offended at the thought of Jesus telling you what to do, or the suggestion that He’s in charge of your life.

Or maybe it was the discussion of the fruit and the sheep and the wolves that shook you. What do others see when they look at your life? What might others see if they could watch you when you were alone? Who are you, really? Is your life bearing the fruit of holiness and good works, or are you on course to have Jesus look at you some day and say “You are a stranger to me. I never knew you”? Does your house look good, but beneath the surface you are building on the sand as someone who hears but does not do the words of Jesus?

If there’s a chance that this is you, then I summon you today to repent and believe the gospel. Don’t rest on your years of going to church or doing all kinds of things for Jesus. Turn from your religious sin this morning and come to Jesus, maybe for the first time. Look to Christ, and receive from Him the new heart that only He can give you. Come to Jesus.

Third and finally, maybe you are someone who does know Jesus. You’ve been saved by Him and your life has the evidence of good fruit. Your life is not full of secrets. You have evidence of a new heart.  You’re not perfect, and you’re not who you want to be, but you—and everybody else—knows that you are not who you once were.

If that’s you, then rejoice. Praise God. None of that comes from you. You didn’t save yourself. You didn’t give yourself a new heart. You didn’t teach yourself these words of Jesus. Look to Christ this morning and thank Him for saving you.

And don’t be tempted by the broad and easy path. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to look over at those who aren’t even trying to live for Jesus, and their life just seems so easy? So comfortable. We all have those Psalm 73 moments, where we look at the wicked and we’re so tempted to be jealous.

Don’t feed that. Remember the stakes here. Remember how short this life is and remember how long eternity is. Keep building your house on the rock of Christ, no matter what comes.

And I’ll mention baptism again. Maybe you’re in this third category, and you know Christ, but you haven’t obeyed Him in baptism. Now is the time. You can’t pick and choose which words of Jesus you want to listen to.

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Send me a note or give me a call, and let’s make it happen next week.

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