The Narrow Door
22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"
He said to them, 24 "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.'
"But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.'
26 "Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'
27 "But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!'
28 "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last."
One year while I was teaching high school we noticed that the problem of students showing up late for first hour was getting worse with each passing week. It was getting to the point that many classes that had 25 to 30 students, in theory, would start at the first hour bell with as few as 4 or 5 students in the classroom. By the end of the first hour they might have 15 to 20 (which, sadly, is actually a pretty good number for attendance at an inner-city school in Milwaukee). There really wasn’t much that the teachers could do about it and it was disruptive to have kids streaming in throughout the first hour. So difficult that it could be challenging at times to have a semblance of a class at all.
At a staff meeting one week we finally decided to do something about it. We came up with a new policy but before we implemented it we warned the students for weeks ahead of time that this new policy was coming soon. We were going to begin classes sharply at the beginning of the school day as we always had but with a major twist. There would be a five-minute grace period where students could go to the office and get a note to come into class if they had a good excuse. But after that five minutes was up, no one would be allowed into class for any reason. The door would be shut and it would be too late to come in. It did not matter what the reason or even that they were a member of that class. They would find a time when they would be shut out if they weren’t on time. The kids who showed up during that grace period without a good reason or those that came in after that time would all be sent to a study hall room to sit quietly and do their work but they would not come into class. Yet, with all of the warnings that we gave, it was amazing during that first week how many kids came in 20 to 30 minutes late and still expected to be let in. They would bypass the office and try to come straight to me and appeal to our relationship. Despite all that, though, the fact was they were late. They would not be part of the class that day. The door would be shut, so to speak, and you can believe that many of them were not happy about that all.
This is one of the many passages in Luke where we can get easily off track from what is really going on here if we don’t pay close attention to the context of the larger surrounding passages and if we don’t keep in mind that this whole section has been primarily about Jesus’ mission to the people of Israel, inviting them to join kingdom of God before it is too late for them as a nation. It was an urgent mission and the time was short. Their response needed to be swift because the grace period would not last for long and then the door would be shut. If we keep that in mind we will avoid the temptation to immediately read this passage as though it is talking about individual salvation and the final judgment. It is not. Yet, as we will discuss later, there are many direct principles from a passage like this that we can apply to our own time and situation, but only after we have understood what Jesus was saying in the context of his current situation.
As Jesus was continuing on his mission, going from town to town preaching the urgency of the coming of the kingdom and the need for Israel to accept it if they were going to continue to be counted among the family of God, an obvious question was raised. If this was indeed an impending national crisis for the people of Israel, then were only a few people going to be saved? Would most of Israel reject his message and find themselves locked out of God’s kingdom? In typical Jesus fashion, rather than answering the question directly as asked, he re-directed the question to arrive at a more appropriate answer. The issue was not about how few or many would be saved but about the fact that many who thought their place in God’s people was secure will find themselves standing on the outside looking in.
That is why they needed to make every effort. If they went along with life as usual, relying on their status as children of Abraham, their national identity as God’s people, and strictly following the law to define themselves as the family of God and members of his true kingdom, then they were in for heartache. They needed to repent from that direction and die to all of that. It would take repentance on a radical scale because it meant that they would have to completely redefine who they thought God was, how he should work, and what it meant to belong to his family.
And that’s what this passage is all about, family. The door to God’s family was Christ himself and it was narrow. The majority would reject this door and stay on their own familiar path. When the door was closed and the die was cast it would be too late for Israel as a nation. They could come to the door and make an appeal but it would not be opened. They would be like the person pounding on the door, appealing to be treated as a member of the family and be let in but the response will be a stinging one. “I don’t know you.” You are not part of this family.
Even appeals to a personal relationship would fall flat. Didn’t they sit down with Jesus and share in table fellowship with him? Weren’t they present while he taught in their very own streets. Didn’t this signify that he held a special place for them as kin in his family? But that would be to misread the situation. Jesus came to them not because they were part of his family but to warn the children of Israel that they were not. God was fulfilling his promise to create the one family of many nations through whom the whole world would be blessed that he had promised to Abraham so long ago, but the physical descendants of Abraham had no special place at the table. They would need to die to their identity and trust in the life of Christ alone, just like everyone else. But the time was short. Israel did not have long now to accept or reject this truth, but one option that they did not have was to wait and see what might happen. If they did that they would soon find themselves locked out permanently.
They would, in fact, be rejected as members of the house owner’s family, and branded as evildoers, or those who had rejected God’s will. It wasn’t really that God had rejected them; it was more a case of God confirming that they had rejected themselves as members of his family by rejecting his Messiah (This did not mean, it is important to note, that no Jews could come into the kingdom of God after this time. Paul makes clear in Romans 9-11 that individual Jews were still quite welcome and would bring glory to God every time they entered into God’s family. This shutting out referred to the nation as a whole as being synonymous with the people of God. That distinction would apply only to God’s own Messiah-shaped family). Yet, the final pronouncement that they were on the outside with no hope of coming in would cause great anger and disappointment. There would be weeping from some over the fate of Israel while others would gnash their teeth in anger and fight all the more against God’s purposes and cling to their national identity all the more.
To make matters worse, when they peeked in the window, so to speak, and looked at the great banquet of the kingdom of God going on, complete with the presence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they would see something even more horrifying than the fact that they were not present at the table. They would see people from the east, west, north, and south (biblical symbolism for the nations from around the world) sitting at the feast table in the kingdom of God. Those who were last, who were aliens and foreigners to God’s people would now have their own place at the table alongside the Jews who had embraced their need for the Messiah (see Eph. 2:11-20), but the nation of Israel who was first, would now find themselves in the position of last.
Yes, the national crisis was coming and Israel needed national repentance or she would find herself locked out with but a small remnant that had joined the Gentiles at the great banquet that is the kingdom of God. But with this talk of national salvation, we can’t help but turn our thoughts to the implications that this might have when it comes to the issue of the resurrection and the ultimate and final judgment and salvation that is foreshadowed by the judgment that was pending for Israel.
The fact is, that we need to be quite careful to not simply pluck parts of this passage out and directly apply them to issues of our final salvation. Jesus was speaking in a specific time and place with specific hearers in mind, so we need to sort that all out before we start to ask how we can apply this to our time and salvation. Yet, it would be sloppy and short-sighted to simply throw this aside as though it only had relevance for those alive during that time. We may not be able to claim the same close association to Jesus to say that we sat and ate with him and that he taught in our streets, nor are we in the same position of Israel as people who rightly belonged to the class, but were about to find themselves locked out of that class because they had ignored the new thing that was being introduced. But certainly the narrow door of dying to self and entering into the life of Christ through faith at baptism is still just as narrow for us as it was then. It surely is just as easy for us to be so beholden to our own expectations and agenda that we ignore the open door, only to find out too late the gravity of our choice. Let us learn from Israel’s mistake and embrace God’s family while we still can so that when we do go to take our place at the great banquet, we will be embraced as sons rather than rejected as strangers.
Do you really believe that the door is narrow, not just for yourself, but for those around you? Sometimes it is harder to think of the ramifications of the narrow door for those we love than for ourselves? Think for a moment. Who do you know right now, that will find themselves on the outside of that narrow door when the time comes, that you need to unapologetically tell about their need to find that narrow door? Who can you call into a place at the banquet right now?