Luke 13: The Narrow Gate

1.  There are a number of other references to doors and gates in the New Testament:

Matthew 7:13-14:“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Revelation 3:20: 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

John 10:7-10: Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

There doesn’t seem to be any room for doubt about what Jesus was saying in all three places. “I am the gate. I am the door. Whoever comes to the Father comes through me.”

2.  This passage is also in a particular context. It comes at the time when Jesus has not only started moving toward Jerusalem and the final confrontation with the Jewish and Roman leaders but you can see the change in his relationship with the disciples and the crowds. Up until now, he has been the popular teacher and miracle worker who has been accumulating a following as he moves from town to town. But now he has a particular destination and a mission to fulfill. The announcements about the Kingdom are giving way to harder words. The challenges are greater. He is intent on turning followers into disciples and the whole tone of his ministry now has a sharper edge to it. We don’t have time to read them now but if you read the six woes, the cost of following Jesus, the rich fool, the warnings, not peace but a division, interpreting the times and repent or perish you can feel his growing sense of not only urgency but a step up in his intensity confronting the leaders. He is turning up the pressure on the Pharisees by challenging their exclusivity and pride. He is forcing them into a corner and won’t let up. He is also burning his ships and cutting off his own retreat. There will only be one inevitable resolution to the growing conflict. Jesus is not a victim. He is forcing their hand.  The passage this morning is all a part of this new challenge to them.

The Kingdom is not what they have been telling the people it is. It is not power or size. It is not political victory. It is not defeating their enemies. It is the size of a mustard seed. It is yeast that works invisibly. It is sacrificial and humble. It is not of this world.

What do we learn about entering the Kingdom in the teaching of the Narrow Gate?

3.  First, look at the nature of the one who asks the question.

Are only a few people going to be saved? The one asking the question seems to be assuming that is the case. It’s not just a few. It is a few of a minority of people. He’s probably not asking how many people in all the world will be saved but how many of US will be saved? How many of the already chosen will really be saved? Will it be a remnant like Noah and the Flood? Will it be a few like Sodom and Gomorrah? Will it be those of us who have obeyed all of the law? Perhaps it was what I was taught in church? There would only be 144,000 saved and how could I know I would be one of them?

John Calvin thought the man asking the question was probably one of the Pharisees because that is just where their mind would go. The importance of an exclusive few would be at the top of their minds. It was not so much a question of being worried about those who were not as it was wanting to keep things exclusive and hard to do. “Can we make this hard enough to keep out the “polloi” – the word here for the many which included anyone in the crowd following Jesus? Can we make sure it is the “oligoi” – the word here for “few” from which we get the word oligarchy? There are times when Jesus seems to open up the Kingdom to many instead of just the few. “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I came to seek and save the lost – not the righteous. All that would concern a Pharisee. They would want to make sure the number is limited to a few – a few of them.

It says that large crowds were traveling with Jesus and a Pharisee would be concerned that all of them were going to be included. “How many of these people are really as deserving of eternal life as me?” It was the same response as the disciples when asking if they should call down fire from heaven on those preaching in Jesus’ name but not one of them. It was the same when Jesus told the story of the wheat and the tares. How can we separate them from us? How can we know for certain who is in and who is out?

4.  Second, look at the nature of the question itself.

What can I know for sure? Oswald Chambers wrote this on certainty:

“Certainty is the mark of the commonsense life—gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow may bring. This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation. We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God. As soon as we abandon ourselves to God and do the task He has placed closest to us, He begins to fill our lives with surprises. When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God—it is only believing our belief about Him..We are not uncertain of God, just uncertain of what He is going to do next. If our certainty is only in our beliefs, we develop a sense of self-righteousness, become overly critical, and are limited by the view that our beliefs are complete and settled. But when we have the right relationship with God, life is full of spontaneous, joyful uncertainty and expectancy.

Or, if it is almost impossible for those most blessed like the rich young ruler who else has a chance?

5.  But whatever was in the mind of the one who asked the question, he was probably not prepared for the answer.

The Message puts it this way: He said, “Whether few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires your total attention.”

Jesus tells the Pharisee to stop worrying about how many. But the first part of his response brings out the Pharisee in all of us. The way is narrow and hard to do. That is exactly what I want to hear. It makes me want to try harder to get in. I know how to do that. I know how to prove myself to God. I know how to keep out the others trying to push their way in. I know how this game works. 

6.  But I think Jesus is telling this believer in the narrow way that narrow means something else entirely.

John 10:7-18: Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father —and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life —only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

The narrow gate is not something we do. The narrow gate is not our holiness or good life. I would much prefer the narrow way to be right beliefs or doctrine or behaviour because I can control and define that. I can set the requirements and decide which sins are worse than others. Unfortunately, that is not the nature of the narrow gate. It is something that has been done for us…and for the Pharisee that would be the hardest thing of all. It is the impossible life. It is not the teachings of Jesus or the example of Jesus. It is the sacrificial and resurrected life of Jesus in us.

If we come to the gate with anything else in mind we will never get through. The narrow gate is the sacrifice of the shepherd’s life – not the quality or self-sacrifice of the sheep. The only way into the Kingdom is through Christ. That is why Paul calls it a stumbling block. That is why he says we are crushed by it. We want to find our own way through the gate and we cannot. It is grace alone. It is not the narrowness of personal holiness we prefer. I love what Dallas Willard says. “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning.” 

Or, there are many who resent the narrowness of the door. If God is love then surely He would open the door to everyone. True religion would be inclusive- not narrow. Ross Douthat in “Bad Religion” wrote, “There is not a shortage of religion in America. We have more than ever before. We are always looking for more religion – especially those that make us feel good about ourselves. The worst thing we can say about people is they are narrow.”

The way IS narrow but inside the Kingdom is large. The way is narrow but the people inside the gate are larger once they have passed,through. They are growing – not shrinking. They are expanding – not collapsing. The way is narrow but the people are not.

May I say something about this word “strait”? It is easily confused with the word “straight” and it is not the same. Strait means narrow but not necessarily in a straight line. In fact, some of the most interesting roads in the world are not in a straight line like a freeway but are crooked and meandering – even dangerously close to the edge. The backroads, the roads with a view, the roads less travelled are often the narrow roads. The road to Hana in Maui is famously narrow and sometimes frightening but beautiful. The interstates and freeways are designed to get you there as quickly as possible and, in that sense, are straight but sometimes we interpret this verse to mean we are to live in a straight line with no side roads, variety or even a little danger. The Christian life is not always the quickest way to a destination. We are pulled aside by people, by interruptions in our plans, and by the unpredictability of circumstances. There is nothing really “straight” about the Christian life.

7.  But the worst news for the Pharisees was this: People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Not just Jews but all kinds of people will come. Imagine your family had owned a ranch for generations and over time the extended family had created more than a gated community but a separated enclave like a compound that was shut off from the rest of the world. They are special and have enjoyed unique status and standing from those around them. One day you are informed by the governor that there are outsiders – not even citizens – wanting to come in and live with you. In fact, there might not be enough room for all of you and they would be given preference. What might you think? The Pharisees thought the same. This is our inherited home and no one else has any right to it – especially if they are not circumcised citizens.

We would resist. We would fight back. We would hire lawyers and guards.  We would show the sheriff our ironclad deeds but the compound would be opened up to strangers anyway. Jesus was hinting at that and they were going to have none of it.  

But that’s not the only unpleasant surprise. Read the final verse. The things that were small to you before will be enormous. The insignificant things will be large. The first will be last. The least will be the greatest. Those at the back of the line will be at the front. Up will be down and down up. Not a good place for a Pharisee or one who wants certainty or greatness or exclusivity. How many will be saved? All who accept the gift of the narrow way. How many will be accepted as if they were family? All who accept the gift of the narrow way. 

And those who will not accept the narrow way? Bad news indeed. 

Lewis said, “All that are in Hell, choose it. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find..I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end;  For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”

We all choose the narrow way at some point. Chosen early on the narrow way to life opens up to the broadness of true freedom. The choice of the broad way leads eventually to a life that is narrowed down to almost nothing in the end.” 

Each of us at different times chose voluntarily to narrow our lives, didn’t we? We took the narrow path when we married or when we had children or settled in a particular church or place to live. We constrained our lives. But, would we say that our lives have been narrow and pinched as a result? No. They have been far richer and rewarding than we could have imagined. The way to an abundant life is narrow. The way to life everlasting is the narrow gate. 

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