(This week, we share in a message from Alan Smith, as Eric Elder, of The Ranch Ministry, is away.)
by Alan Smith
When I went to school at Freed-Hardeman, we were required in our English literature class to read part of John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress. It is perhaps the most well-known religious allegory ever written. For those of you who never had an English teacher force you to read it, let me explain that it is the story of a man named Pilgrim who is searching for and traveling toward the Celestial City. Pilgrim represents the Christian and the Celestial City is, of course, heaven. The book describes the twists and turns and detours and disasters that wait for those who walk the heavenly road.
Early in the book, Pilgrim is led up to the doors of a grand palace. Outside the palace sits a recorder who is ready to write down the names of those who enter the palace. Many people are standing around waiting to go in, but they are afraid of the armed men who block the entrance. Then Pilgrim saw a man with a “very brave countenance” come near. He said to the recorder, “Set down my name, sir!” And then armed with a sword and a helmet, the brave man fought his way into the palace of glory.
Let me raise a question to you this morning: Do you think this is an accurate portrayal of the Christian life, or was John Bunyan just being overly dramatic? Is it the case that we must fight our way into the Celestial City tooth and toenail, or is it possible that we can stroll into heaven with our hands in our pockets?
There are many people who evidently believe that the pathway to heaven is an easy one. Most folks in the world believe that it really doesn’t take much to get into heaven. If you are a fairly good, honest and decent person, then that’s really all that matters. In fact, a Gallup poll taken several years ago indicated that the majority of people in America believe that they will go to heaven when they die. And, I can’t recall a single person who ever told about a near-death experience who came back with the smell of brimstone in his nostrils!
But even those of us who are Christians rarely see Christianity as much of a struggle. Christianity is an easy way of living for most of us. In one congregation where I was teaching class, a member spoke up and remarked how easy the Christian life-style had been for him. I think he meant by that statement that his life had become fuller since coming to Christ. He had come to be more at ease with himself; his life was free of the inner turmoil he had experienced before. And that may be true for the Christian; in fact, it should be true. But is it accurate to say that Christianity is to be an easy lifestyle?
I think there’s enough in scripture to label Christianity as a struggle for our faith. In Luke 13:24, Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” We don’t just walk through the narrow gate; we have to strive to get through. That word suggests there is to be a great deal of effort on our part.
In Ephesians 6:12, Paul describes the Christian life in this way: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The picture Paul paints for us is a picture of struggling, a picture of constant battle.
The Hebrew writer constantly alludes to the fact that we need to put a great deal of effort into our Christian lives. The word diligent is frequently used. “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall after the same example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:11).
And in Acts 14:22, we read about Paul and Barnabas “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.'” The New Century Version translates the last part of that verse, “We must suffer many things to enter the kingdom of God.”
We don’t hear a lot of talk in the church today about the “necessity” of suffering. We don’t think much about Christianity being a struggle. We don’t seem to do a whole lot of wrestling with the spiritual forces of evil. But we should.
This morning I want to look in some detail at a passage that relates to this subject in Matthew 11:12. But first of all, let’s go back a few verses and begin reading in verse 7.
I. Background of the Passage
“As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What did you go into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.” Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11).
This whole chapter deals with the Messiahship of Jesus. John the Baptist had been in prison for about a year, and he was approaching the end of his life. Earlier in this chapter, he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah or should we look for another?” It seems strange that John would ask that question. He had been filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he was in his mother’s womb to do one thing — prepare the way for the Messiah.
John had personally heard God declare from heaven that Jesus was his Son and he had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon him like a dove. He had spent his entire ministry pointing the Jews to Jesus. In fact, some of Jesus’ own apostles had been directed to him by John. You have to believe that John knew who Jesus was. More than any other human, John knew the Christ.
But perhaps a year in prison had caused John to doubt a bit. “Jesus, if you are who I think you are, it’s time to do something.” Or perhaps John sent his disciples to Jesus with this question for their benefit, not his own. Maybe he wanted them to see for themselves that Jesus was the Messiah. So Jesus answered their question by pointing them to the evidence. He said to them, “Tell John what you see; tell him about the lame walking and the sick being healed. Tell him about the lepers being cleansed and the dead being raised. And tell him that the gospel is being preached to the poor.”
And then, after Jesus sent John’s disciples back to John, he began to speak about John himself . He said, “Among them born of woman (and that includes just about everybody I know), none is greater than John.” Think about what a tremendous statement that is. How would you like to hear Jesus say, “Among those born of woman, nobody is greater than Park Terrell! Nobody is greater than Dave Spiceland!” That would really get our attention! But that’s exactly what he said about John the Baptist.
But that’s not all he said. He also said, “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John.” And that’s also a pretty amazing statement. Even though John was greater than anyone born of a woman, any Christian is even greater. The reason is that a Christian is not just born of a woman; he is also born again by the power of God. While John preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, those of us who are Christians have the privilege of being a part of that kingdom.
II. The Effort of Forceful Men (Matthew 11:12)
It’s immediately after this comment concerning “the kingdom” that Jesus makes the statement that I really want us to focus on.
“And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!'” (Matthew 11:12-15).
Verse 12 is a very difficult verse to understand. What does it mean that the violent take the kingdom by force?
Charles Spurgeon had this to say about this text: “When John the Baptist preached in the wilderness of Judea, the throng of people who pressed around him became extremely violent to get near enough to hear his voice. Often when our Saviour preached did the like scene occur. We find that the multitudes were immense beyond all precedent. He seemed to drain every city, every town, and every village, as he went along preaching the word of the gospel…..So intense was their desire to hear the Saviour that they pressed upon him, insomuch that they trod one upon another. The crowd became so violent to approach his person, that some of the weaker ones were cast down and trodden upon. Now, our Saviour, when he witnessed all this struggling round about to get near him, said, ‘This is just a picture of what is done spiritually by those who will be saved. As you press and throng about me,’ said Christ, ‘and thrust one another, with arm and elbow, to get within reach of my voice, even so must it be if ye would be saved, “For the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.”’”
In the last part of Matthew 11, Jesus is going to talk about those who have rejected both John and himself. He says that they’ve not been honest with the facts. Because of this, he says that it will be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom than for those who rejected him.
There seem to be two groups of men who are being discussed here by Jesus. First, there are forceful men who seize hold of the kingdom of God. Second, there are others who reject it even though they have seen the evidence. Jesus commends the one group and condemns the other.
That really sums up the main two reactions that Jesus received while he was here on this earth. On the one hand, you had men like the Pharisees and their followers. They rejected Jesus because he didn’t fit their mold. He associated with sinners and didn’t follow their traditions. He was a threat to their positions of power. Therefore, they wouldn’t draw near to the kingdom even though John had been telling them that it was near. They rejected the gospel message even though they saw the overwhelming evidence that the kingdom was right there in front of them.
But, on the other hand, we read about a group of outcasts known as “sinners” who were pressing hard to enter the kingdom. They were desperate men and women whose desperateness came from the fact that they knew their own sin, and they understand their inability to change that fact. So, when they heard the good news of the kingdom, they were ready to act. These forceful men were as it were storming the walls of heaven in an effort to get in. And Jesus says that they were the ones that were going to get in!
I think what Jesus is doing here for us is drawing a comparison between the self-satisfied Pharisee on the one hand and the desperate sinner on the other hand. The Pharisee was willing to stroll toward heaven satisfied that his self-righteousness was all that was required to gain entrance. But Jesus made it clear that those men would never reach heaven. They were, in fact, rejecting the God of heaven even as Jesus spoke.
But there were others who because of their sin and helplessness were charging ahead toward salvation. These were desperate and forceful men that were forcefully laying hold of the kingdom. They were willing to do whatever it took, make whatever sacrifices were necessary to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Like the man of brave countenance that John Bunyan wrote about, these were shouting “Set down my name, sir!” and they were fighting their way into the kingdom of heaven.
III. So What Does All of This Mean For Us?
It has been said that our favorite hypocrisy is to make a choice and then to refuse to pay for it. We have a word for that — it’s called credit! Thanks to credit, I can go to the store and pick out something I want, and then not have to pay for it now. In fact, some stores go so far as to say, “Come in and buy our furniture and make no payments until April 2001!” But how many people do you suppose have gotten themselves into severe financial difficulty because they made a choice that they were not really willing to pay for?
But this truth applies to far more than just financial matters; it applies to all of life. It is indeed hypocritical for us to choose something and then be unwilling to pay the price for it. We may choose to have a slim physique, but are we willing to pay the price for that? We’ve accomplished nothing if we say, “I make the choice to lose weight,” and then not be willing to pay the price of diet and exercise. If that’s the case, you really haven’t made the choice at all.
Rudyard Kipling once said that if anyone did not get from life what they really wanted, it was because either he didn’t really want it or because he began to quibble about the price. Now, that may be an overstatement, but I think there’s a great deal of truth there. We must be willing to pay the price for what we want.
The price for the Christian life is high, and Jesus wants us to count that cost as part of our decision to follow him. In Matthew 10, Jesus warned his apostles not to think that their job as evangelists was going to be easy. He wanted them to see the cost of being his disciples:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39).
While Jesus did indeed come to give us peace, that peace that passes all understanding has a high price; it’s the price of the sword. To be his disciple, one must pick up the sword and fight his way into heaven. Yes, the gift of grace is free — there is no grace but free grace. But the cost of accepting that grace is high. We must be willing to face broken earthly relationships in order to have our relationship with God restored. We must be willing to pay the price whatever that price may be in our lives. No one will stroll into the Celestial City with his hands in his pockets. That palace is reserved for forceful men who in their desperation will do whatever it takes.
In his book Applause of Heaven, Max Lucado tells about taking his two daughters to an amusement park. They went into a plastic ball pit to play. Now, if you’ve never seen a plastic ball pit, you’re missing one of the wonders of modern civilization. It’s a huge three-foot-deep pit the size of a backyard pool. But instead of being filled with water, it’s loaded with balls — thousands and thousands of plastic, lightweight balls.
Like I said, Max watched as his two daughters went into this plastic ball pit to play. The older one did just fine. But the younger one, who was only three years old, had a few difficulties. As soon as she stepped into the pit, she filled her arms with balls.
Now, it’s hard enough to walk through a waist-deep pile of balls with your arms spread to keep your balance, but it’s impossible to do so with your arms full. So this little girl, Andrea, took a step and fell. She tried to get up without letting go of the balls. She couldn’t do it and began to cry. Max walked over to the edge of the pit and said, “Andrea, let go of the balls and you can walk.”
“No,” she screamed getting deeper and deeper. Trying to be both wise and patient, Max said, “Andrea, if you let the balls go, you’ll be able to walk.” She said, “No!”, took two steps and fell again.
Parents aren’t allowed in the pit, so Max asked his older daughter, Jenna, to come over and help her sister get back on her feet. But Jenna wasn’t strong enough, and Andrea wasn’t helping any because she was still clutching the same balls she had grabbed when she first stepped into the pit.
Jenna said, “Daddy, I can’t get her up.” So Max said, with a great deal more irritation in his voice, “Andrea, let go of the balls so you can get up!” The cry from beneath the balls was muffled but clear. “Nooo!”
Max thought to himself, “She’s got what she wants and she’s going to hold on to it if it kills her.” The next step was to tell Jenna to take the balls away from her sister. So they engaged in hand-to-hand combat for a while until finally the attendant told Max he could go on in to get them out.
Later he reflected, “What is it that makes children immobilize themselves by clutching toys so tightly?” Then he thought, “Whatever it is, they learned it from their parents.”
You see, that child’s determination to hold onto those balls is nothing compared to the grips we put on the things this world has to offer. And if you think Jenna’s job of trying to take those balls away from Andrea was tough, try prying our fingers away from our earthly treasures. The way we clutch our possessions and our pleasures, you’d think we couldn’t live without them.
Our resistance to the Father is just as childish as Andrea’s. God, for our own good, tries to loosen our grip from something that would cause us to fall. But we refuse to let go.
Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6). We usually get what we hunger and thirst for. It’s something we want so badly that we’ve just got to have it. Let me ask you: What do you hunger and thirst for? What is it that that you want so much that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it?
I think the message of Matthew 11 has direct application both to those who are Christians and to those who are not yet so. First, to the Christian, Jesus’ words demand that we think about our concept of discipleship. Do we believe that our own righteousness has secured us a place in the kingdom of heaven? Has your satisfaction with your spiritual level of development caused you to stop seeking to learn and grow and mature in the faith? Have you adapted religion in your life to the point where it really makes no demands upon you other than simply getting up early enough on Sunday morning to make it to services?
If that’s the case, then the words of Jesus cry out to you. He wants you to know that simply having your name on the church roll isn’t going to secure your place in heaven. We can’t just sit back, relax and take it easy. Rather, we as Christians must continue to struggle toward heaven. We must be diligent to enter that place of rest. We must strive to enter the narrow gate. We must constantly struggle with whatever forces within or without us that try to keep us out of heaven. We must shout to the recorder, “Set my name down, sir,” and then we must fight our way into the Celestial city of God.
To those here this morning who are not Christians, these words of Jesus challenge you as well. They challenge you to give yourself to the Christ who died for you. That doesn’t mean simply accepting a new way of believing; it means accepting a new way of living. As we extend the invitation of Jesus Christ to you this morning, please understand what he’s inviting you to. He’s inviting you become a child of God. He’s inviting you to possess inner peace and joy. He is inviting you to have your sins forgiven and your guilt removed. He’s inviting you to heaven. But the pathway there is narrow and at times is difficult to walk. It’s the way of self-sacrifice and the way of self-denial. But it’s the only way of salvation.
No one will stroll into heaven with their hands in their pockets. Those that get there will fight their way there. The way of salvation is for forceful and desperate men and women who are willing to fight through the temptations of this world in order to possess the glory of heaven.