Two Ways, Two Trees,
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a teaching elder at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:13-29
And unto this people thou shalt say, Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I set before you THE WAY OF LIFE, and THE WAY OF DEATH.”
Jeremiah, the Prophet
“For the preaching of the cross is to THEM THAT PERISH foolishness; but unto US WHO ARE SAVED it is the power of God.”
Paul, the Apostle
We are drawing near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and it is not surprising that the note of exhortation becomes more prominent. In the very intensity of the ideas and the massive force of the argumentation there is found a compelling call for decision. It is not, however, the outward call for a show of hands, the signing of a decision card, or prostration at the “mourner’s bench.” It is none of these things that are so characteristic of much of modern evangelism, practices that so easily become tawdry and cheap, diminishing the dignity of the appeal of Christ. “Have we made it all too cheap?” Guy King asks. “Have we, some of us, been included to stampede our audiences into a hasty, hectic, almost hilarious, ‘decision’ —on the ground that it is such a jolly thing to be a Christian? The Master never hesitated to present the enquirer with the stark realities of the case: this is a Hard thing, but this is the Right thing, therefore Do it!”1 In all truthfulness, it is my opinion that we have often made the solemn and sober call of God in the gospel a cheapened message in our garish and gaudy embellishments.
In our expression of distaste with modern methods we must not abandon the need for a verdict itself. The Scripture, both in the Old and in the New Testaments, stresses this.
Coming to the conclusion of the great Palestinian Covenant Moses presented Israel with the crucial need for a decision. “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you,” he cried, “that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore, CHOSE LIFE, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. 30:19). That must have impressed Joshua, because years later, when laying down the reins of leadership over the nation, he, too, called for decision, “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, CHOOSE you this day whom ye will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the river, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).
The decision to be made was a decision of faith in the King as He began His ministry of confirming the promises made to the fathers regarding the Messianic Kingdom. Trust in Him qualified one for entrance into the Kingdom; unbelief disqualified one and led inevitably to the “furnace of fire” and “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (cf. 13:42). It underlies the entire concluding section in which Jesus discusses the two ways, the two trees, and the two houses. Inexorably we are forced to see that there are also TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE. To which body do we belong?
The Two Ways
The broad way (7:13) . Suddenly, almost violently, comes the appeal, after the capstone of the sermon has been laid by the Golden Rule. The Greeks ordinarily used connectives to join their sentences together, but there is none here. It is a bold and frontal appeal, “Enter!”
The figure of the way, or road, is a familiar one in the Bible. One is reminded of the Psalmist’s, “For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the ungodly shall perish” (1:6). Its most familiar use is that of our Lord who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). It is not surprising, then, to learn that Christianity came to be called by those who were exposed to it in its earliest history, “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2).
It is an apt figure, for a road has a beginning, a pathway, and an end, and each of these things pertains to the Christian life and, in fact, every life. It is the point of our Lord’s words that we must be careful to enter the right gate, in order to make our journey on the right way. Alexander Maclaren has said, “The main thing about a road is, after all, where it leads us.” Therefore, the destination of the way is the primary thing. Of the wrong road the Lord says that it leads to “destruction,” a disconcerting surprise to its travellers. Three things characterize it: (a) it is entered by a wide gate; (b) it is broad and roomy, a many-laned expressway; (c) it has upon it many travellers.
And no doubt, too, it is filled with beautiful scenery and lovely accommodations. The only trouble with it is that it leads to such a devilish place, — destruction! There comes to mind the significant warning text from Proverbs,” There is a way which seemeth right UNTO A MAN, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12). There can be no hesitation about the meaning of this statement of the Lord. It is a direct admonition that there is only one way to the Father in heaven, and it is not the easy way that lies in the imaginations of the worldlings. The only way is that which has been built upon the sufferings, cross, and resurrection of the God-man, and it is entered through Him who said, “I am the door; by me if any man, enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in-and out, and find pasture” (Jn.10:9).
In the light of this it is most remarkable that William Barclay, in a chapter entitled, “Life at the Cross-Roads,” expounds our Lord’s words here without any reference to the means by which one enters this life nor any stress on the perils that await one who chooses the wrong road.
The narrow way (7:14). The narrow way is narrow because it can only be entered by the new birth, its narrow gate. It is also narrow because its path is the new life, and its travellers are few in number.
They are the Enochs, who walk with God, the Noahs, who find grace in the eyes of the Lord, and the Davids who sing, “Salvation belongeth to the Lord” (cf. Psa. 3:8). It is, at least at the present time, a little flock, a remnant, but a minority only in appearance. “I verily believe,” Guy King said, “that the unseen ‘horses and chariots of fire’ are still round about the Lord’s ‘little flock’. And besides — how many will you count Him for? The famous Duke of Wellington once surprised a company of his soldiers, disturbed and dispirited, one cold, wet night, around their camp fire. Next morning they were to encounter the enemy — but they were so terribly outnumbered that the result was a foregone conclusion: so few of them, so many of the French. It was hopeless! At that point in the conversation, the Iron Duke revealed his presence, and intervened, with the question, ‘And how many do you count me for?’ Their great General was a host in himself; and they won the battle that next morning. So by the side of His minority, stands, unseen, their Mighty Lord: how many shall we count Him for? Someone has said, ‘One with God is a majority’.”2
The idea that the road is narrow and has few passengers has often been slandered by unbelievers who resent the divine conditions for salvation and satirically recite,
“We are God’s chosen few,
All others will be damned;
There is no room in heaven for you;
We can’t have heaven crammed.”
The words about the “few” are from our Lord and represent His evaluation of the situation, and the response of the rebellious only confirms the truthfulness of His claims. The gate and road, nevertheless, are open for all who come in repentance and faith. Come!
The Two Trees
The admonition (7:15). The connection of this section with the preceding is caught very nicely by Tasker, who writes, “What makes the narrow way hard to find is the existence of numerous false teachers who have their own formulas for man’s welfare, and who cry aloud (in the days of Jesus ‘from the housetops’ and in the streets, and in our own time from the pages of newspapers, novels and journals) “This is the true way, walk in it’.”3 Never has this been more true than today. We are surfeited with almost every conceivable deviation from the genuine theology of the Word of God. We have Process Theology, the Theology of Revolution, NeoOrthodox Theology, Death of God Theology, Theology of Hope theology, Secular Theology, Teilhard’s “Cosmic Evolution,” in addition to the ever-present theologies of Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Arminianism. In new forms error continues to assert itself and evidently will continue to do so until the Second Advent.
The Bible is full of warnings against the false prophets, and it is not astonishing at all to hear Jesus denouncing them (cf. Deut. 13:1-5; Ezek. 8:1-15). In our day they come with their false teachings of universalism, as the false prophets and priests of Jeremiah’s time did with their message of “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (6:14). To them Jehovah promised only judgment, as our Lord’s words also intimate.
He says that they are dressed “in sheep’s clothing,” and the figure is also apt, for often the false teachers appear to be courteous, kindly, considerate, affectionate, helpful, distinguished, and learned in the wisdom of the world, if not in the Scriptures. And, if one is not acquainted with the doctrine of common grace, the explanation of their apparent goodness and yet heterodoxy poses a problem. The Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 are a help here, for he shows that it is quite possible for Satan’s men to appear to be “angels of light.” He writes of the men who were causing the Corinthians and him so much trouble, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into THE APOSTLES OF CHRIST. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into AN ANGEL OF LIGHT. Therefore, it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as THE MINISTERS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, whose end shall be according to their works.”
The recognition (7:16-20). But how shall we know the “ravening wolves,” when they look so much like sheep? The answer is found in these verses, and they teach that they are to be known by their works, just as a tree is to be judged by its fruit. The point of the verses is simply this: evil doctrines, such as those proclaimed by the false prophets, always produce a perverted morality. Belief and practice, creed and conduct cannot be separated. What we do ultimately is a reflection of what we think, and never is this more true than in theology of the Christian brand. Luther said, “It is not good works which make a good man, but a good man who does good works.”
There are some general principles that may help to guide the simple in their discovery of the false prophets and teachers, for the wolves are characterized by certain distinguishable traits. In the first place, they are often seen by their self-interest, manifested in that they teach for material gain, for prestige, and for the propagation of their own personal ideas. It was said of John Brown of Haddington that he used to pause from time to time in his preaching, as if he was “LISTENING FOR A VOICE.” And it is certainly characteristic of a genuine minister of God’s Word that he preaches God’s truth, not his own thoughts. “For we are not as the many, who corrupt the word of God,” Paul claimed, “but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17; cf. 4:2).
False teaching also produces a system of religion that majors on the externals, on the negatives, and on the divorce of truth from life. Like the false prophets of the Old Testament they heal the wounds of sinners slightly (cf. Jer. 8:11), and they prophesy “smooth things” (cf. Isa. 30:10), inventing easy ways to heaven and regard the exhortations and imperatives of the Christian life lightly. As Pink has pointed out, “There is nothing in their preaching which searches the conscience and renders the empty professor uneasy, nothing which humbles and causes their hearers to mourn before God; but rather that which puffs up, makes them pleased with themselves and to rest content in a false assurance.”4
The examination (7:21-23). False teachers make it difficult to find the narrow way. That is true, but other difficulties also exist. It is possible to be self-deceived, fondly imaging that we are on the right path when we are not. It is possible for professing believers to use the believer’s vocabulary. to perform believer’s activities, while reciting the believer’s creed, and still be lost. The expression, “not every one,” is thought by some to mean it is not the people who SAY.5If so, the stress rests upon the saying without the doing. The time will come when many will say, “Lord, Lord,” in profession that they belong to Him. They will even prophesy in His name and cast out demons through Him, but that will not avail. In that day He will “profess” (the Greek word is related to the word for say, used in verse 21, and means literally, say openly) unto them, “I never knew you.”
The test of reality is the doing of the will of the Father in heaven (cf. v. 21). It is the same thing that He says later in the Upper Room Discourse, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17).
James puts it bluntly, “Therefore, to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (Jas. 4:17). In other words, then, it is possible to be members of Christian churches, attend the meetings, observe the ordinances, even write commentaries and preach splendid sermons, and still be lost. The test of relationship is the obedience that springs from saving faith. It is not obedience that saves, but obedience must follow the faith that saves, (cf. Tit. 3:8, Eph. 2:8-10).
The Two Houses
The house of the wise man (7:24-25). False guides suggest false following, and that underscores the necessity of doing things that are heard. In the mind of the Lord, no doubt, is the Messianic Kingdom, as is stated in verse twenty-one. The kingdom is to come through Him, not through the false messiahs. But one must be real. The Lord is now striking for a verdict, and the appeal of the lesson of the parable that follows is telling.
The Parable of the Two Houses is a vivid appeal for better housing! The house of the wise man, described in verses twenty-four and twenty-five, is built upon a rock. The word petra, later used in this famous passage in 16:18, in which the Lord Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of Him as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” with, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father, who is in heaven, and I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (Petros, a small rock, a pebble), and upon this rock (petra, a great mass of rock, a cliff) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” certainly suggests the Lord Jesus. He is the foundation Stone, the true rock, and upon Him alone may one’s life be built (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11; 1 Pet. 2:4).
The hymn says it beautifully,
“On christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.”
The house of the foolish man (7:26-27. The house of the foolish man is distinguished from that of the wise man only in its foundation. One is built upon rock, the other upon sand. Outwardly the two houses are the same. It is when the rains, the floods, and the winds come that the difference between them becomes manifest, but, when they do come, the difference is as wide as the foundations of Venice and New York.
The instability of the sand and the immovability of the rock are revealed by the storms, just as it is in the stresses of life that true faith in Christ is revealed, — in the tragedies of bereavement, illness, disappointment, the sneers of the wise, and other sufferings. All sunshine makes a desert,” someone has said. The apostles found it out, for in that small group hardly a one escaped great storms. Many were martyred, but the Rock did not fail them.
In the description of the fall of the house in verse twenty-seven great stress rests on the adjective “great,” for it is reserved for the end of the sentence in the original text. Thus, the sermon ends with, “and the fall of it was great.” “The whole audience is left with the crash of the unreal disciple’s house sounding in their ears,” Plummer notes.6 What a solemn picture!
The Sermon on the Mount closes with an acknowledgment by the hearers of the unique character of the doctrine of Christ. They were “astonished” at His theology. He did not teach as the scribes, whose language was, “Rabbi this said so-and-so; Rabbi that said such-and-such.” He spoke on His own authority as a legislator, not as a commentator. He commanded, prohibited, repealed, and promised on His own bare word. Specifically, He (a) claimed authority over all former revealers (5:17-20); (b) claimed His life was the embodiment of the Law of Moses (5:17); (c) claimed to be the reality of the hopes of the godly through the ages, for He fulfilled the Prophets, too (5:17); (d) claimed a unique relation to their Father, never using “our” with the word; (e) claimed authority over the destinies of men (7:21-23); (f) claimed the right of absolute obedience from men, a claim resting upon His deity and sacrifice; (g) claimed to be the final Judge (7:23). Can we then say, “Give me the Sermon on the Mount, and keep your doctrinal theology for yourselves,” as so many have done?
Finally, authoritative teaching demands action. May the Holy Spirit guide our minds and hearts into a trust in Him that transforms our lives.
1 King, p. 111
2 Ibid., p. 113.
3 Tasker, p. 82.
4 Pink, p. 339.
5 Tasker, p. 84.
6 Plummer, p. 119.