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Choosing the Hard or Easy Path - a challenge from Matthew 7:13-27

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 7:13-27

Every decision we make is a choice to do what Jesus would have us do or not; there are no neutral decisions. Trusting in Jesus for salvation means choosing to walk to narrow (and sometimes very hard) road. But the alternative is disaster!

How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. Matthew 7:14

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

“What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”

If you want to start out on a lighter note, you might try this. This idea is so ingrained in our culture now that there’s even a tv show by that title which tests stupid mistakes to find out what the people did wrong. Here are some funny (read: terrifying) images from the internet, and I’m sure you can think of a few things in which you or someone you love said “What could possibly go wrong?”.

There would be a good point to this, I promise! Simply say, “Few people go into a decision saying they want to do something dumb or dangerous. But somewhere along the way, they lost sight of the potential consequences of their actions. Jesus says that every decision we make is built on Him or it’s not . . .”

“Small Choices, Big Consequences.”

Whether you call it the “butterfly effect,” the “tyranny of the small,” or “the tragedy of the commons,” most experts acknowledge that big happenings are really just a vast collection of much smaller choices, that we are more a product of our mundane decisions than our “big” ones. Here are a few zinger illustrations that you can use if you can’t think of your own:

  • Gavrilo Princip was a part of a group that had repeatedly failed to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In sorrow, he went to buy a sandwich, only for the Archduke to show up right outside the shop he was in (with gun holstered).

  • Buddy Holly’s record company had chartered a terrible bus for their 1959 tour that was always breaking down. One night, because they wanted to get to their destination in time to wash their clothes, they chartered a small plane . . .

  • Joseph Stalin told Leon Trotsky the wrong date for Lenin’s funeral. Because Trotsky never doublechecked the date, he missed it, leading to his exile.

We all know how this works. A few routine credit card purchases can lead to an unmanageable debt. Having too many options can lead to decision paralysis. Making the same decision over and over again (like name brand vs. generic) can turn a small cost savings into a huge financial difference. How are those choices made? Quickly. We put a lot of time and prayer into “big” decisions and not so much into the “little” ones. We also don’t often think about the long-term consequences of “little” decisions. Then, if we make the same “little” decisions repeatedly, they can become a habit, amplifying the consequences.

There are plenty of interesting quotes about decisions out there on the internet, nearly all of which are unbiblical. One such quote that stuck with me is from Stephen Covey (7 Habits), a Mormon. “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” He’s pushing the “power of positive thinking” a bit too far, but he unintentionally makes a good point. Every choice in our lives is a chance to follow Jesus or not, and those choices add up. Do you see that? If you are not choosing to do what Jesus would do, you are choosing against Him! If we think a decision is too minor to put real prayer into, that’s when we get into trouble. If we think a decision isn’t a big deal, that’s when we make our mistakes.

This Week's Big Idea: False Prophets and How to Recognize Them

Below, I give you more about the “fruit” we’re talking about. Here, I just want to make sure you understand why Jesus was so concerned about false prophets. In Gal 1:8 and 2 Cor 11:4, Paul makes it clear: a false gospel doesn’t get you to heaven. The early church was filled with people who taught a false gospel. The Bible talks about Judaizers and Nicolaitans. Church history taught us about Arius and Marcion and Pelagius and Origen. In those cases, we have the benefit of hindsight—we can see where their teachings led.

What about current teachers? Here are three rules for you:

  1. Be shrewd, but do go on witch hunts. If we’re not careful, we’ll find a heretic behind everything. “Why did Lifeway choose to skip verses 7:22-23? They must be heretics!” We need to notice those things, but we don’t want to read heresy into anything and everything. Some-times we simply disagree with somebody. That doesn’t make them a heretic.

  2. Pay attention to the way someone teaches the gospel. This is why we part ways with Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses (no matter how hard they claim to be a Christian like us). It also gives me pause about other popular teachers: Rob Bell now teaches a universalist gospel; Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland teach that salvation gives us power to satisfy our worldly desires; John Hagee has taught that Jews are just as saved as Christians (?); T.D. Jakes teaches that Jesus is the Father. Those raise red flags to me; that makes me read the other things they teach a lot more closely and cautiously.

  3. Notice the relationship between a “prophet” and the world. Jesus is very clear that His message is against the world, and the Bible is equally clear that we are to pursue riches in heaven, not on earth. That’s another strike against Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland! It also warns me against Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and everyone else who preaches a prosperity gospel and who has a really good relationship with “the world.” Jesus did not promise us comfort and riches in this life; He basically said the opposite. So—what is our goal in this life?


More about Spiritual Fruit

Jesus makes it clear that we are not to “judge” people—only God can do that. However, we are to examine the fruit of their lives, especially when it comes to the people we are following as our spiritual leaders. Your leader guide mentions Jer 23 (the false prophets committed sin, encouraged people to do the same, and spoke by Baal) and Deut 18 (the prophet’s message does not come true). What else does the Bible say about false prophets?

At the bare minimum, a true prophet must live a life in keeping with Christian expectation. Everything expected of us (as Christians) must also be expected of a prophet. Gal 5:22-23 comes to mind: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, good-ness, faith, gentleness, self-control. If a prophet doesn’t act like a Christian, that’s a red flag. This also includes righteousness (Phil 1:11), repentance (Matt 3:8), and good-ness (Eph 5:9).

More pointedly, a true prophet’s message will include a clear and accurate gospel message (Gal 1:8; 2 Cor 11:4), that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on a cross to atone for our sins and then rose bodily on the third day and that He alone is the gate to salvation. Broaden that out, and this also means that a true prophet’s message will never contradict what is clear in the Scriptures (2 Pet 1:20).

Further, a false prophet will boast according to worldly standards (2 Cor 10:13-16), ingratiating himself to worldly people. Jesus said that a prophet who is popular and well thought of by the world is probably a false prophet (Luke 6:26). Finally, people will benefit spiritually from a true prophet’s message (Jer 23:13, 1 Pet 4:11).


Part 1: Narrow vs Wide (Matthew 7:13-14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.

You might remember that I said this entire Sermon is a giant choice. That’s what I think the image means here. Jesus is not saying “in order to be saved, you must walk down a hard road, and then one day you’ll find the narrow gate.” Remember, He has not atoned for our sins yet nor sent the Holy Spirit! He is telling His hearers that following Him will be hard. [In other words, Jesus’ use of “gate” here is a metaphor for discipleship; when He uses the same metaphor in Luke He seems to be talking about what happens to us after we die; in every case Jesus is the gate, and we can only enter through Him by making a faith commitment to Him for our salvation.] Do you want to know if you’re on the right path? Well, is your life easy or hard? This does not mean that a follower cannot be successful, but have you made the easy choices or the hard ones? Walk your class back through the Sermon to show what Jesus is talking about:

Do you always make the choice that leads to laughter, or are you willing to mourn? Do you make the choice that shows mercy or not? Do you make the choice that leads to persecution or comfort? Do you make that choice that brings salt and light to the world, or do you hide your light under a bowl? Do you allow anger and lust in your heart? Do you look for ways out of your promises? Do you want justice on earth or do you allow God to handle it? Do you worry more about what people or God thinks of your spirituality? Do you make the choice that leads to treasures on earth or in heaven? Do you worry more about the sin in someone else’s life or in your own?

These are the choices Jesus is talking about. Entering by the narrow gate means that you’re committing to walking the hard road. It doesn’t mean that we always get it right! It doesn’t mean that every day is a drudge! It means that we understand that salvation is an every-moment-of-our-life thing. No shortcuts, no easy way out, no back door in. Jesus meant for His audience to understand that a hard life did not mean that God had rejected them. To us today, it means that we should not settle for the easy life. Same message, different starting point.

There’s another very important point that your leader guide brings out: the consequence for a wrong decision is destruction. We’re not playing games here. The eternal destiny of your soul is at stake. Point 1: Have you trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation? Point 2: Are you staying on the narrow road? Point 3: Are you using your journey to encourage your friends and family to join you?


Part 2: Good vs Bad? (Matthew 7:15-23)

“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!

I have already mentioned false prophets and the tests of false prophets (plus fruit trees!), and also sheep’s clothing. To this point, Jesus has been talking about our moral and spiritual choices in following Him. Now, He gives us another very important choice: who else are we going to follow? Jesus is going to return to heaven after He atones for our sins, and that leaves us with each other. So, which “representative of God” are we going to align our-selves with? As I say in the earlier pages, sometimes we can’t see the fruit of the “prophets” until long after they have gone. And sometimes we see fruit that isn’t there. But one thing is certain. This is a warning. When we are trying to follow the narrow path in the footsteps of Jesus, there are many who will try to take us from it. And if they cannot distract us, they will try to destroy us.

In Jer 13:23, we have the famous question, “Can a leopard change his spots?” (This gives you plenty of opportunity for illustration and fun: example “What did you think would happen when you let your cat into your aviary??” But I beg this of you if you do that: don’t stereotype!) Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” Who know who really said it, but the point is that a false prophet will eventually show his “true colors.”

The truth is that it’s not enough to say nice things about Jesus. Lots of people have been doing that in our country for a long time. That doesn’t get anyone into heaven. What does is trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation, and the outcome of that transaction is a transformed life that always results in a person then doing what God said. A false prophet will not have such a life. Unfortunately, they may even be fooling themselves, and no one might know the truth until that person stands before God in judgment only to be turned away. I can think of nothing more horrible (for him or the people who followed him).

Here’s where I would push the application: from whom do you get spiritual guidance? This will include tv preachers, talk show hosts, authors, singer/songwriters, movies, magazine articles, you name it. The next question: how much do you know about that person? How do you know that person is trustworthy for such advice? The truth is there’s a lot of money to be made in the “spiritual counsel” industry, and people always gravitate to money-making opportunities. We even hope that you keep an eye on your pastors! The Bible speaks well of the Bereans who carefully considered the words of Paul before believing them . . .


Aside: Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

Despite what skeptics say, Jesus is the first person to use this phrase. It’s an over-the-top allegory in that wolves and sheep don’t look or sound or move a thing alike. All Jesus is saying with this image is that a false prophet may look innocent and safe, but in reality he is very dangerous. [Note: I’ve been saying “he” throughout this handout just out of convention; a "she" can be a false prophet.]

Bonus Aside: Trees of Israel

Believe it or not, Israel was heavily forested during Bible times. That’s why Jesus gave so many parables about trees. Israel’s nut and fruit trees included almond trees (a type of peach tree), fig trees (a staple diet), sycamore trees (a type of fig), olive trees (a versatile tree that could be harvested for hundreds of years), date palms (which produced massive amounts of fruits), and pomegranate trees (a sumptuous fruit).

The forests consisted of cedar trees (massive evergreens of great strength), oak trees (broad and good for ships), poplars (a fast-growing, straight and tall tree good for beams), willows (dense with usable branches), and terebinths (another large and long-lived tree).

Finally, in the desert grew acacia trees (a hardwood that resists insects), tamarisks (often used for place markers).

Thorns and thistles, on the other hand, are not trees but flowering plants. However, just as today, they can grow very thick around trees and make it very different to harvest the tree. Thorns and thistles are associated with the fall (Gen 3:18), which is likely why Jesus mentioned them here. He is making a metaphor with discipleship; a life that is corrupted by the fall cannot produce fruit that God would find acceptable. That is how we can identify a true prophet from a false.


Part 3: Rock vs Sand? (Matthew 7:24-27)

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!”

A house might be in a location for a long time before the homeowners discover it was built on a shoddy foundation. Why? Because it might not face a real test of its strength until the so-called “100 year storm.” But is a homeowner going to make a long-term investment on the hope that a major storm won’t come for years and years? In parable fashion, Jesus asks this much broader question that even His greatest detractors would acknowledge: Is it wiser to make a decision based on what you hope won’t happen or to make a decision based on being prepared for what could happen? Everybody would agree that a wise decision takes the most likely consequences into account. Well, Jesus is saying that there are great consequences for failing to listen to Him. In fact, there are eternal consequences. If you don’t believe that, you won’t be compelled to listen to Jesus, but you can’t say that Jesus didn’t warn you. And if Jesus is indeed the keeper of truth and eternity, shouldn’t we listen to Him?

And that’s really the big question for us. How prepared are we for a major challenge/tragedy? We’re never really “ready” for something like that, but if we have a good foundation, we can weather those challenges. Ask your class for some testimonies about this. Making sure that no one feels put on the spot, ask your class how they handled some hard circumstances in their life, and if they did it with or without the Bible. If you have a group that doesn’t want to share, or a group who perhaps hasn’t gone “through the wringer” in life, offer some “for instance” scenarios. {Background on where I’m going with this: I believe that Satan only has power on this earth that God allows him, but God allows him to test Christians. In the case of Job, what did Satan do? Go after Job’s family, possessions, and health.} Think about potential tragedies we could face (or have already). The unexpected loss of a job. A family member gets very sick. A tornado or other natural disaster strikes. A falling out with a friend over a circumstance that Satan seems to have influenced. If you haven’t built your house on the “rock” (Jesus’ rules for life), what could be the result? To follow the parable, how could your house collapse? Conversely, how could following Jesus help you survive such an ordeal?

[Aside on Ancient Foundations. Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t have the excavating tools to dig down through a sandy substrate to rock many feet below on which to rest a pier or piling. Consequently, it was very important for houses to be built in stable areas with reach-able bedrock. It was not a problem to dig a little ways down, but too deep, and water runoff would collect in your house. There are lots of valleys in Judea (wadis) that were vulnerable to flash flooding, but sometimes only very intermittently (years). Those valleys would be easy targets for houses due to their location near water, fertile ground, and building supplies. But such a house would eventually be carried off by a flood. As with his other parables, this is a “shock value.” Every Jew knew that only a great fool would build a house on sand! But that’s exactly what someone was doing who failed to listen to everything Jesus said!]

Application and Conclusion.

There are two main applications here. First, make sure that everyone in your room has heard the gospel clearly enough to make a choice about it. That is the primary choice Jesus is talking about. But second, challenge your class members to think about the choices they’ve made this past month. Have all of our decisions shown value for every human life? Have we shown a greater interest in treasures on earth or in heaven? Have we consistently behaved according to Jesus’ value system or the world’s? That’s where all of this is going. It’s not enough say Jesus is Lord; we have to live it. Anyone can say it, but only those who have truly surrendered their lives to Jesus (and are now empowered by the Holy Spirit) can actually do it. If there is no evidence in your life of the second application, perhaps you should double-check the first.


Closing Idea: Parables

As with poetry, there are many types of parables, and Jesus used all of them with expert precision. The word comes from the Greek parabole, which means to set something beside something else. The Hebrew word translated by parabole, mashal, has more of an idea of “riddle” or “saying.” They are designed to be catchy, clever, and with an unforgettable lesson. They work by inviting the hearer to put himself in the story to make a decision. I’m sure we would all say they work well!

Jesus uses three main kinds of parables.

  1. A self-contained story which basically acts as an allegory (the rich young ruler, the unjust steward, the good Samaritan) that only has one main application or comparison.

  2. A simple simile, introduced with “ . . . is like . . .” (the lost sheep, the hidden treasure, the wise builder).

  3. A brief and pithy saying (salt and light, old wineskins). They’re pretty unique to this time of history; some folks have tried to compare them with Confucius sayings and whatnot, but unconvincingly.

Jesus used parables to two ends.

  1. He taught ordinary people eternal truth in unforgettable ways, and He presented scenarios in such a way that even His detractors had to acknowledge the truth He declared. Indeed, everyone who heard them could draw accurate conclusions about His point. In an uneducated and mostly illiterate society, this was a very strong way to connect with the commoners of Judea.

  2. But He was also able to weave in a deeper spiritual truth that would only be evident to those to who He revealed it. In other words, His enemies would not be able to use His stories against them, as He was able so easily to use their teachings against them.

We are going to have to assume that Jesus used gestures, inflection, and tone to enhance the teachers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear Him say them to us?


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