As I said at the beginning of this series, the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, the first two sections, describe for us the faithful disciple of Jesus. To commit to be a disciple of Christ is to commit to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; Jesus begins the Sermon by telling us what that looks like. It’s the life of the kingdom of God breaking in to the kingdoms of this world, and it’s characterized by the blessings laid out in the Beatitudes. It’s the life of God lighting up the darkness of this world, purifying it and attacking its corruption. If Christ is our Lord, this is who we are, and who we are being made to be; this is our life, however imperfectly we experience it as yet.
Now, why does Jesus begin there? In part, it’s to provide the proper context for the central part of the Sermon, which is generally focused on what a faithful disciple of Jesus does and doesn’t do. If we read those sections in the light of the Beatitudes, as we should, it reminds us that what we do and what we choose not to do flow out of who we are in Christ. Doing follows being.
I believe, however, that there’s more to the story than that. You see, the concluding theme of the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t return exactly to the place where it started; where the opening describes one way, the conclusion talks about two. The way of the disciple is the way that leads to life, but it’s a narrow way, winding and difficult, entered through the narrow gate. There’s also a broad, easy road, which begins at a wide gate which is easy to pass through and easy to find; that road leads ultimately to destruction, but to many people it looks a lot more like the good life along the way.
Why does Jesus talk about this? That might seem like an odd question, at least if you’ve grown up in the church. If you have, you’ve probably heard sermons on this, and you probably also had Sunday school lessons on this as a kid, if you went. I know I did. If you grew up in the church, this is probably familiar to you, so you just accept it. There are those who follow Jesus, and there are those who don’t, and those who follow Jesus go to Heaven, and those who don’t, don’t.
Now, I don’t disagree with that conclusion, but is that actually what Jesus is saying here? The problem is, everyone who hears this sermon is there because they’re following Jesus. He’s up in the high country, well outside of town—nobody’s there by accident. But many there need to hear the summons to enter through the narrow gate, because they haven’t. They’re following Jesus, yes, but not for the right reason.
To see what I mean, flip back a couple pages in your Bible—or if you want the pew Bible, they’re under the seat in front of you, right there where you’re supposed to store your carry-on for takeoff—and look at Matthew 4. This is the immediate context for the Sermon on the Mount. In verse 17, we see the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, as John the Baptizer has been put in prison. The rest of chapter 4 shows us two groups of people who are following Jesus.
In verses 18-22, Matthew gives us his first account of Jesus calling his disciples. From the other gospels, we know this wasn’t his first contact with these four men, and it may well be that he’s already called other disciples as well, but that doesn’t matter; this was the decisive step for Peter, Andrew, James and John, as this was the point when they broke with their families, left their lives behind, and followed Jesus. They did so because this was the point when he commanded them to do so. It wasn’t because they wanted to get anything from Jesus, but simply because he called them to come.
In verses 23-25, we have a brief account of Jesus’ ministry: he’s teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news—a message which begins with the word “Repent,” as verse 17 tells us—and healing every kind of sickness. Do people respond to his call to repent? Some probably do, but by and large, that’s not what gets the response. Instead, it’s the healings that draw people; they flock to him, bringing epileptics, quadriplegics, the demon-possessed, and generally every sick friend and relative they can carry. The crowds are getting bigger every day, people are excited to follow Jesus, and why? Because they’ve been captured by his call to repent of their sin and leave their whole lives behind? No—because they want something.
And in response to the crowds, 5:1 tells us, Jesus went up into the hills, sat down on a mountainside, and began to teach. His disciples came to him, Matthew says; they were the focus of his preaching, and we see this in the fact that the opening of the Sermon is addressed particularly to them. They were not, however, the only ones there: the crowds came along as well. We know that from the end of chapter 7. So Jesus is preaching to two groups of followers, who are following him for two very different reasons. The disciples, as confused as they often may be, are seeking Jesus. The crowds are seeking miracles, whether for themselves or just for the excitement. They have expectations, and they’re with him as long as he meets those expectations. The disciples are with him even when he doesn’t, whatever comes.
Put another way, for the crowds, Jesus is just a means to an end; for the disciples, he’s the end in himself. The goal for them in following Jesus is just to be with Jesus—and that right there is the narrow way. That’s what it means to be a disciple. Remember what Jesus said in John 14: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He’s the way because he’s the life; he’s the way who is life. The narrow way is narrow because it leads nowhere and to nothing and no one but Jesus—and that’s why it leads to life, because life is to be found nowhere and in nothing and no one but Jesus. He alone is life; everything else is a counterfeit, a mirage, and a deception.
The crowds aren’t following Jesus for Jesus; they’re following him for something else. That’s why they stop following him when things get rough. That was true back then, and it’s true now. There have been a lot of crowds in the American church over the years; there have been a lot of leaders who have attracted the crowds by putting a Christian face on their desires. “Follow Jesus and you’ll get what you want,” goes the refrain. That’s not the way of the disciple; that’s not the way of the kingdom. That’s the world’s way dressed up in religious clothing and Christian accessories. The gate is wide, and the road is broad and familiar to anyone used to walking the ways of the world; it’s comfortable and affirming, most of the time, and it makes most people feel good. But it doesn’t lead to life.
If we would be disciples, we’re called to go a different way. We’re called to set aside our expectations, take our eyes off our desires, and fix them on Jesus. We’re called to have a single focus on him, that he may fill our lives with his light; we’re called to set our hearts wholly on him, with no division and no reservation. We can’t do that on our own, of course. It’s only the work of the Holy Spirit in us that enables us even to desire this, let alone to grow in this way, in purity of heart and eye. But as he enables us, step by step, this is the way of the disciple. This is the way the world cannot understand. This is the road less traveled; and believe me, it does make all the difference.