Reading Time: 8 Minutes
You may have heard the story of “Stripe the Caterpillar.” Stripe awoke one day and saw a huge cluster of caterpillars climbing what looked like a tall pillar. He assumed that was what he was destined to do. So, he joined the crowd and began moving toward the pillar.
Once he began his ascent up the pillar, the going became more difficult. Other caterpillars tried to climb over him, often stepping on him in an effort to get to the top quicker. Some fell off the mass of climbing caterpillars and crashed on the pavement below.
Stripe persisted in his efforts and finally reached the top. He was shocked to discover what he found after all of his hard work. He exclaimed in a mixture of horror and grief, “There’s nothing up here at all!”
He was dejected beyond words. He had worked so hard to climb the ladder of success, only to discover that it was empty. Slowly, he crawled away from the crowd to a lone tree and curled up on a small branch to sleep. As he slept a cocoon formed around him in what appeared to be the tomb of his death.
However, the cocoon was not death for him. After some time, he awakened and emerged from the cocoon as a beautiful Monarch butterfly.
I think the story of Stripe is very appropriate to illustrate Jesus’ message in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus counseled his audience and said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7.13-14).
Dallas Willard has said, “The cost of following Jesus is high, but the cost of following the crowd is even higher.”
The wide gate that is so attractive and seemingly easy is a fraught with many obstacles. People use and oppress other people on their climb to the fulfillment of their self-will and self-pleasure. When they get to the top, they realize how empty the crowd-life really is.
A person who follows Jesus through the narrow gate, leaves the old crowd and the old way behind. They travel with a few fellow followers of Jesus to a life that may look like “death” to their old friends.
The wide-gate-travelers may jab at them with heavy doses of sarcasm, “You really think praying and reading your Bible is a good time? You don’t party any more? You go to church all the time? Some fun you’re having, loser!”
Dying to self-centered and self-pleasing living is very hard. It is truly a narrow pathway, because it goes against the grain of society. There is a powerful pull of gravity to join the rest of the crowd to climb what our culture claims to be the “good life.”
Yet, Jesus makes it very clear through both his teaching and his life that this is the genuine path to life. What may look like dying to self is actually a path of birth into the fullness of life.
Obstacles Along the Way
While we are on the path of following Jesus to live, there are persuasive voices that encourage us to get off the narrow path and go down a side road. Jesus calls them false prophets.
He had this to say about them: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7.15-20).
False prophets look like true followers of Jesus, but they are not. They are often dynamic speakers and have a large following. Jesus tells us that we can recognize them by the kind of fruit that they produce (verses 15 and 20).
Here are some things I have learned from experience and the wise counsel of others about false prophets. I hope it helps you continue to follow the narrow path that Jesus sets out for his followers.
(1) Does the speaker help his or her listeners want to follow the two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbor? If so, that is a good sign.
(2) Is conflict and controversy a frequent part of his or her message? I hesitate to identify someone as a “false prophet,” but I encourage you to beware of speakers who can only point out what is wrong in the world.
A well known technique of TV and radio preachers is to use conflict to generate financial support for their ministries. I assume this is true for YouTube and podcast communicators, too.
Here is a question to ask: Does this speaker make me want to be “right” on issues that he or she deems “right,” or does this speaker make me want to be more loving toward God and others?
(3) Is the speaker using the ministry for their own personal gain?
When I lived in New Orleans, I volunteered in the ministry of a minister who was electrifying in his presentation. He gathered large crowds, sold books and recordings of his sermons in large numbers. He was without a doubt one of the most inspiring and motivational preachers I have ever heard.
I was blind to the fact that he lived in the wealthiest section of New Orleans and was neighbors with two of the city’s best known entertainers. After I moved from New Orleans, I learned from newspaper reports how he scamming “true believers” like me and living a luxurious lifestyle.
By no means, is every wealthy minister a “false prophet.” As we look for the fruit of a ministry, we can question when a minister connects God’s blessing for you to your financial giving to him or her. Be careful of such ministries.
(4) Does the minister or ministry have a single message that they “right” and the rest of the church has “wrong”?
Ministers and church bodies may attempt to set themselves apart by having a monopoly on the “true” teaching of God. They have a handful of Bible verses that seem to support their position. They tell you that the historic church has had it wrong, and if you are going to be a “real” follower of Jesus, you must believe like they believe.
My encouragement is that you be very careful with such ministries. Please be very prayerful and wise, so that you don’t get injured by going down a side road.
(5) If you have a “gut” feeling that something is wrong with a minister or ministry, test it with the life and teaching of Jesus. Get very acquainted with Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount. See how he approached life. Strive to live a Jesus-kind-of-life.
Far beyond being able to discern true and false teachers and teaching, you will be brought into the kind of life that Jesus called “abundant.” You will die to yourself and begin living the fullness that Jesus wants you to have.
Dear Jesus, we want to walk through the narrow gate and on the narrow path with you. We know there are many pitfalls along the way. Please take our hand and lead us to the life you desire us to have.