Of scary gates…

In Matthew 16, when Peter confessed that he believed that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, Jesus spoke about a rock upon which he would build his church, and he said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.

Whenever I heard that verse as a young person, I had in my head the thought that somehow the church was in danger from those scary hell-gates, but, nevertheless, Jesus was saying that the church will manage to survive the onslaught.

I don’t think that way anymore, but it took me a long while to see things differently.

In the ancient world, city gates were designed as a protective mechanism. They were used to let people who were friendly to the city in and out of the city. They were also designed to keep the city’s enemies on the outside and prisoners inside. The gates did this by not opening for the enemy, and as long as they withstood the enemies attacks (by not falling apart), they did their job.

Never in the history of the world – as far as I know – have city gates attacked anyone. Never have city gates gone on a rampage through the countryside terrorising the inhabitants. (OK, one set of gates did go off through the bush, but that was only because Samson was carrying them).

Gates are for defence, not attack. So when Jesus says that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church (or the rock upon which it is built), then he is saying that the gospel message will be effective in its attack upon the kingdom of Satan. It is Satan’s kingdom that in under threat.

The gospel of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection – is a message of liberty. But it does not bring freedom to people who are good. The gospel is for rebels who had rejected the word of God. They were in darkness; they were imprisoned by sin, death and Satan (Psalm 107:10-11), but God humbles such people and brings them to faith in Jesus Christ. In this way are the gates of bronze burst, and the city taken. Psalm 107:16 says the Lord “has broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in two.” He does this to release prisoners and to set captives free.

The church militant is to go forward with the good news of Jesus.


Keeping on the strait and narrow…

This used to be a popular saying, if not a popular practice. The implication used to be that ‘keeping on the strait and narrow’ was to stick to a strict and moral way of life in order to get eternal life. The idea might have had its origin in a misunderstanding of the words of Jesus.

For example, in Matthew chapter 7, Jesus tells his hearers to

“enter through the narrow (strait) gate, because wide is the gate and easy is the way that leads to destruction, and many are they who enter by it. The gate is narrow and the way strait that leads to life, and few are they that find it.”

The confusion might arise because this passage follows on from the golden rule “Everything that you wish men to do to you, you do for them; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Some might conclude from this close proximity that the narrow gate/way is following the golden rule of “doing unto others”, but that is not the case. We have a major problem that can not be fixed by our efforts. Just before the golden rule, Jesus said something very important. Speaking of how God answers prayer, he said “Therefore, if you, who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more your heavenly father…”

Do you see that? Jesus is talking to evil people. People (we) are law breakers – we lie, steal, commit adultery, follow of all sorts of selfish desires and dishonour our parents. Not only are we incapable of doing the golden rule as it ought to be done, but we are evil (despite the fact we give good things to our children).

That is why entering by the narrow gate and following the strait way is not the golden rule which is all the law and prophets. The narrow gate, the narrow way is Jesus Christ himself. If we are to have life, if we are to be one of God’s people, if we are to be saved (Luke 13:23-24), we must rely completely on Jesus Christ: his keeping of the golden rule for us, his dying on the cross to deal with our failure to keep the golden rule, and his resurrection by which he raises people dead-in-sin to life. Entering by the narrow gate is to trust Jesus Christ.

This narrow gate/way is not popular with people. It does nothing for our sinfully constructed self-image. But Jesus is the only way to life eternal. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except by me.” He is the narrow way because he is the only way.

Why did they dig through the roof? Mark 2:1-12

Do you know the story about the paralysed man whom Jesus healed? The man was carried on his mat to a house where Jesus was speaking the word to a large crowd. The people who were carrying the man couldn’t get past the crowd, so they took their friend and his mat onto the roof and unroofed a section. Once the hole was big enough, they lowered the man to the floor in front of Jesus. The Lord then told the man that his sins were forgiven, and, to confirm the reality of this forgiveness, Jesus healed him. The man happily walked home carrying his mat.

This story is a favourite of Sunday School classes, or at least it was when I was a child. In my experience, the pitch for the story usually is that the paralysed man and his friends came to get the man’s paralysis healed, and the man got something better. It might be so. People who come to Jesus for one reason sometimes end up with something other than what they expected. For example, Lord Lyttleton and George West were young men (in the eighteenth century) who did not believe Jesus rose from the dead. They made a pact to investigate the claims in the New Testament about this and the conversion of Paul. They meant to expose the fraud that they imagined was being perpetrated by the Bible. They both ended up publishing books, one of them confessing himself convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the other stating that Paul really was converted in the way the Bible tells it.

But back to the paralysed man. Why should we assume that the man and his friends were coming to Jesus so he might have his paralysis healed? Admittedly, Jesus had been healing all sorts of medical and mental problems before these people come to him. News had got around. Yet, there is something in the urgency of these people that suggests to me that conviction of sin was behind it. What I’m suggesting is that the paralysed man was acutely aware of his sin. The Pharisees and teachers of the day were good at telling people that they were sinners. In this they were correct, although they wrongly excluded themselves from that just condemnation. So the man would have had a clear idea that he was not right with God, that, if he were judged for his sins, he would have no excuse or escape. Having this conviction of sin would make a person keen for relief.

I suspect that the paralysed man, or one of his friends, had heard what Jesus had been saying about good news for the poor and release for prisoners. He might even had heard of John the Baptist’s remark that Jesus was the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Nevertheless, make no mistake; Jesus was not going around Judea and Galilee speaking about ways to achieve physical well-being. His main aim was to seek and to save lost sinners. This aim, and what he would do to save people from sin, was the focus of his talks.

So I suggest that the urgency to see Jesus, to hear him speak the word (the good news to sinners) was what got these people digging through the roof of the house where Jesus was. They were trusting that Jesus was the only one who could help this man with his sin problem. Then, when Jesus saw their faith, he said the words the man was longing to hear: ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’ The physical healing, though I’m sure it was welcome, was incidental. I don’t think it was the main game for the paralysed man. The healing was so we can know that Jesus has authority to forgive sins on earth – then and there, and here and now, by speaking the word. This authority comes from who Jesus is, and from what he did in dying on a the cross for his people and rising again from the dead.