The Sermon on the Mount—“Go In Through the Narrow Gate”
AFTER encouraging his hearers to pray earnestly for help in doing God’s will, Jesus declared: “Go in through the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.”—Matt. 7:13, 14.
In ancient times, roadways through gates were the means of entry into cities. Frequently, the Scriptures liken the course of life that individuals follow to a road or pathway. (Prov. 4:18, 19) According to the Son of God, the road to “destruction,” or death out of divine favor, is “broad and spacious.” It permits people to live just as they please, without making changes to conform to Biblical standards of conduct. “Many” have chosen that spacious roadway of ‘easy living.’
On the other hand, the Bible likens the Messianic kingdom of God to a city, to which access is gained through a “narrow” gate and a “cramped” road. (See Hebrews 11:10; 13:14.) Persons on this “road leading off into [eternal] life” must discipline their hearts to develop proper motivations. They must exercise self-control in all areas of human conduct; and, at times, ‘the way’ of true worship calls for the endurance of violent persecution. (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4) Since most people prefer living without self-sacrificing exertion and self-restraint, they do not seek out the way of life pleasing to God. Consequently, “few are the ones finding” the narrow gate and the cramped road that leads to life.—Compare Matthew 7:8; Luke 13:24.
Next, Jesus gave a warning to persons who would wish to stay on the road to life: “Be on the watch for the false prophets that come to you in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves.”—Matt. 7:15.
By “false prophets,” Jesus meant religious teachers who falsely claim to represent God. These deceivers would present themselves “in sheep’s covering.” By putting on a hypocritical display of gentleness, meekness and other sheeplike qualities, they would try to give the impression of being part of the “flock” of God’s worshipers. (See Psalms 78:52; 80:1; 100:3.) Inwardly, though, the false prophets would be “ravenous wolves,” that is, extremely covetous, grasping and eager to prey on others for personal gratification.
The Son of God stated that the false prophets would “come to you,” that is, from outside the flock that he, as “the fine shepherd,” would gather. (John 10:11) Rather than being a threat for the distant future, the deceivers were in existence right then. Evidently Jesus had in mind especially the Pharisees, who falsely claimed to be God’s spokesmen. They had “seated themselves in the seat of Moses,” claiming to be official interpreters of divine law. (Matt. 23:2) But the Pharisees were hypocrites who actually hindered people from finding the narrow gate and the cramped road that leads to life. (Matt. 23:13-15; Luke 6:39) As to the deceptive “sheep’s covering,” Jesus’ words on a later occasion are instructive:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In that way you also, outwardly indeed, appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”*—Matt. 23:27, 28.
How might a person recognize ‘wolves in sheep’s covering’? Jesus gave a basic guideline along with an illustration: “By their fruits you will recognize them. Never do people gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles, do they? Likewise every good tree produces fine fruit, but every rotten tree produces worthless fruit; a good tree cannot bear worthless fruit, neither can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. Every tree not producing fine fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire.”—Matt. 7:16-19.
Each fruit-bearing tree or plant brings forth its own particular type of fruit. Not all plants bear fruit that can be eaten by humans. It would be a waste of time to seek from thorns and thistles edible fruits like grapes and figs. Fruits fit for human consumption must come from a tree that is both healthy and of the right kind. If a tree consistently bore “worthless fruit,” it would be a sure indication that the tree itself had become “rotten.” Such a rotten tree would be “cut down” and used along with brambles, thorns and weeds as fuel for fires.—Compare Psalm 58:9; Ecclesiastes 7:6; Isaiah 44:14-16; Matthew 6:30; 13:30.
While his hearers had fresh in mind this illustration from agricultural life, Jesus repeated the basic principle: “Really, then, by their fruits you will recognize those men.” (Matt. 7:20) In a figurative sense those “fruits” would include what the false prophets would say in the way of teaching. In this regard, Jesus added: “A good man brings forth good out of the good treasure of his heart, but a wicked man brings forth what is wicked out of his wicked treasure; for out of the heart’s abundance his mouth speaks.”—Luke 6:45.
Fruits revealing the true nature of false prophets would involve also their general course of conduct. (Compare Mark 7:21-23.) A person cannot hide his true heart condition indefinitely. Eventually his words and deeds will reveal him for what he is.
Concerning the Pharisees as false prophets, David Hill writes in the magazine Biblica (1976, Vol. 57): “Josephus knows of Pharisees who possessed foreknowledge of events and used their gift for political ends (Ant. XVII 41-45), and elsewhere he speaks of a certain Pollion and his disciple Samaias who prophesied (Ant. XIV 172-176; XV 3, 370). But more important than Josephus’ meagre and perhaps muddled information is the fact that the Pharisees as a group saw themselves as heirs of the great prophetic tradition: they took over the tradition from the men of the Great Assembly who received it from the last in line of the prophets. And as expert interpreters of Scripture the Pharisees were engaged in a process which was the closest approximation possible in their time to the revelation mediated through the prophets of an earlier time. . . . Of them, as of their successors, it could be said that ‘If they are not prophets, yet are they sons of the prophets’ (attributed to Hillel [a rabbi who lived about the time of Jesus]). Entirely consonant with this is Jesus’ word about the Pharisees building the tombs of the prophets and adorning the monuments of the righteous (Mt 23, :29). It is therefore not impossible that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day laid claim to the role and authority (if not the name) of prophet.”