Matthew 7:1-14: The Narrow Gate
January 17, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Having orientated us towards seeking first God’s kingdom, Jesus now turns his attention to what this means in practice—interspersed with a call to ask God as our heavenly Father for what we need.
The sentence “Judge not, that you be not judged” (7:1) is probably the most well known verse in the Bible, and the most misunderstood. Jesus cannot mean “Do not exercise any critical discernment about anything whatsoever, or any person whatsoever.” In a moment (7:6), he will tell us not to cast our pearls before swine, which at the very least means making a discerning (in that sense “judging”) assessment of whether someone is by this standard a “swine” or not. In fact, the whole of the Sermon on the Mount is filled with judgments about what is right, what is not, what kind of people are on the right path, and what kind of people are not.
But if it is often misunderstood, it is even less frequently accurately applied or put into practice. Jesus has in mind the all too common tendency to focus on someone else’s problems (their speck) while ignoring our own problems (the log in our eye) (7:3-4). In fact, it is a common observation that a psychological tactic for avoiding conviction is thinking about whether someone else needs to be convicted of the particular truth that we need to hear. If we tend to gossip, we will quite likely feel incensed about someone else’s (relatively minor) gossip problems. If we have temptations in the area of sexual fidelity, we may feel particularly strident about the R-rated movies that Hollywood produces. We may even cover up our own gnawing sense of conviction by doing things that deal with the problems in related areas in other people’s lives. The “dentist with crooked teeth” syndrome is what I call it. But it applies not to just dentists but to preachers (who preach vehemently against particular sins while themselves feeling the drag downwards in those very areas and assuage their guilt by at least preaching against it), by moral campaigners against all sorts of social ills who find in their own personal lives, their private state, a great “log” that their fascination with the “speck” of other people helps them, for the moment, to forget.
The answer, of course, as Jesus so brilliantly points out, is not to forget about moral preaching or moral campaigns of any kind, but to make sure that on whatever point we are feeling called to address, we have dealt with that issue in our own lives before tackling the problem with someone else. That will make us gentler, more understanding, more empathetic, and more likely to gain a hearing. The picture that Jesus uses is almost hilarious: can you imagine a surgeon performing cataract surgery on a patient while himself more than half blind! But that, I am afraid, is what many of us are like when we denounce the sexual, gossip, materialistic problems of our day and those of other people. The rule is inescapable: first deal with yourself before God.
Verse 6 is shocking when you first read it, but Jesus is ever the realist. On the one hand, it is dangerous to attempt to correct someone else when you have not corrected yourself first. But it is equally, if not more, dangerous in another kind of way to give good advice or help (or “pearls”) to the kind of people who cannot tell the difference between a 40-carat diamond and a stone picked off the beach. Don’t even bother, says Jesus. Don’t cast your pearls before swine. The reality is that people who have no spiritual appetite at all—the work of God in them that we cannot produce—may not just ignore your gospel teaching or discipleship, but could become so incensed by your attempt to show them diamonds when all they want is pig swill that they will actually attack you for your efforts to enrich them with spiritual gold. Don’t bother.
Verses 7 to 11 are clear and obvious in their meaning, and nonetheless beautiful and compelling. God, as our heavenly Father, loves to hear us pray. If we ask for bread, he will not give us a stone. Go ahead, then; ask him for what is on our mind. Prayer is a great mystery, but much of it is untangled by the focus that Jesus brings upon the Sovereign, Almighty God as also our heavenly Father. Fathers love to hear from their children and will give them what is best for according to their human wisdom. If that is true, and in normal circumstances it is, how much will it be true of God, of infinite wisdom, the God who is our heavenly Father! Oftentimes people are afraid to ask God for things in case they they are asking for the wrong—“Be careful what you pray for!” people sometimes say. But do we need to be careful, in that sense, what we ask our dad for? If we ask for a Porsche when we are 6 years old, which father would give it to us? Our heavenly Father knows best, so speak freely with him about what is on your mind.
Verse 12 has the so-called Golden Rule. There have been other variations of this in human history, but most of them reverse the proposition. They mostly say, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” This is at the back of “karma” and the common contemporary phrase “what goes around comes around.” But Jesus goes further. The Golden Rule is beyond the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative; it is not just, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” It is instead actively, “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” Once again, we find ourselves at a moral law, representative of the holy God, that undoes us. Who can really, honestly, live up to this standard? The answer of course is no one.
And so Jesus concludes this section by urging us to “Enter through the narrow gate” (7:13-14). It is much easier to avoid this kind of teaching. It is much easier to avoid the challenges of life and death—to pretend that you will just live forever and you don’t need an answer to what will happen when you die. Most people live like that. They just go through life half asleep, not asking any of the big questions. Why? Because it is easier not to do so. It is easier just to dull the pain of all the hassle of such questions with entertainment or sensuality and just go through life like a zombie. But of course, it is ultimately and eternally foolish to act like that. Instead, we are to “enter through the narrow gate.” That is, as Jesus will teach over and over again, to enter in through him. He alone has attained these perfect standards. He alone can be our righteousness. He is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6).
So today, then, put into practice what Jesus has taught, dependent on his power and by his grace. Turn to him again in faith that you may enter through the narrow gate. (*A good reflection on this kind of theme comes in the famous opening sections of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian is urged to go through “yonder wicket gate.”)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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