#62. Strive to Enter the Narrow Door (Luke 13:22-35)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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Text

Luke 13:22-35

[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." Luke 13:22-30

 [31] At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you."

[32] He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.' [33] In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day--for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

[34] "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! [35] Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"


Exposition

When I read this passage I sense Jesus' sadness -- sadness that only a few will be saved, sadness that many will not enter the door, sadness that many of his people will be excluded from the feast, sadness that Jerusalem resists his love and desire to gather them to the Father. Sadness.

But even in sadness, his disciples are learning -- the early disciples and we latter-day disciples. I invite you to delve into Jesus' words to understand his values and his heart.

I'm going to spend some time on Jesus' command in verse 24, but then move rather rapidly through the rest of the passage.

On the Way to Jerusalem (13:22)

"Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem." (13:22)

This passage begins (13:22) and ends (13:33-35) with Jerusalem. Jerusalem is Jesus' objective as he moves through the towns and villages of the Judean hills, on his way towards the city of the Temple, the center of First Century Judaism. The early part of his ministry was spent in Galilee, but at Luke 9:51 we see an important shift of focus: "As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem."

He doesn't go there immediately, but now he leaves Galilee and begins an itinerant ministry in Judea, heading ever closer to the city of his destiny. As he says in verse 33: "In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day -- for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!"

How Many Will Be Saved? (13:23)

But on the way to this sad appointment with destiny, there is a question:

"Someone asked him, 'Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?' " (13:23)

We hear the same question debated in our own day. There's an old joke about St. Peter showing newcomers around heaven. When the tour comes near a huddled group of people, St. Peter puts his finger to his lips. "Quiet," he says. "Don't disturb them. Those are the Baptists -- and they think they're the only ones here." [No, we don't do denominational bashing, but I'm a Baptist and can poke a little fun at my own.]

Some groups are so tight that they actually think that other Christian denominations won't get to heaven. Others see God's love as so forgiving that they can't imagine how anyone can be ultimately be lost. For them, hell isn't possible.

Actually, my dear friends, none of us REALLY knows the answer to the question, "How many?" or "How few?" The best we can do on our own is theological speculation. But we'll learn the answer if we listen in on Jesus' response. Jesus gives us an authoritative answer, though it's not a direct one. Instead of answering Yes or No, characteristically he tells a story.

Strive to Enter (13:24-25a)

"He said to them, 'Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 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." ' " (13:24-25a)

 The Parable of the Narrow Door seems to involve a homeowner holding a banquet (if we can include elements in the parable from verse 28). There is a narrow door at which guests are supposed to enter, but the time comes -- perhaps when the banquet is ready to begin -- that the host gets up and closes the door. Eventually, there is knocking and pleading from outside the door from would-be attenders who arrived late. But the host simply says, "I don't know you. Get away, you rabble."

It's not quite that simple, since the parable proper only seems to extend from verses 24 to 25; then it merges into a prophetic portrayal of the heavenly banquet. Let's look at some of the elements.

Jesus tells the questioners, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door..." (13:24). The phrase "make every effort" (NIV) or "strive" (KJV) is Greek agonizomai, which originally meant "engage in an athletic contest" and then "to fight, struggle." The word is used of wrestling in prayer (Colossians 4:12), and "fighting the good fight" (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7). Danker translates the phrase in our verse, "strain every nerve to enter."[1]

This is no casual entry, whenever we're ready. My wife sometimes says to me, "We HAVE to be on time!" That's the sense here. We must run whatever stop signs necessary and break the speed laws, if need be, but we CANNOT fail to get to this appointment in time. It is urgent! It is pressing! It is critical!

The Narrow Door

The goal is the door, Greek thura, " 'door,' a passage for entering a structure, 'entrance, doorway, gate.' "[2] In this case it is probably the door to a house or courtyard that is in mind. There's no indication that the latecomers can see the host, but are probably talking through a solid door.

The next third word I want to examine is translated "narrow" (NIV) or "strait" (KJV), Greek stenos, "in reference to dimension, 'narrow.' " In Greek literature it is used of gates, doors, prison cells, and pathways.[3] A related verb, stenochoreo, means "to crowd, cramp, confine, restrict."

In my mind's eye I see the grand house where the banquet will take place, but people are only entering through a small door at the side. The grand front doors are closed, and entry is only through the side door. Jesus tells his hearers that they must strain to get through that door. It won't be easy -- perhaps from the narrowness of the doorway (you have to lose a few pounds to get through) or from the crush of people trying to get in through this single door. Whatever the cause, getting in won't be easy, but we are to make every effort, strain, struggle to get in.

Now is not the time to bring up free grace. Rather let's "strain" to understand what Jesus is getting at. (Yes, I believe in grace -- abundantly so -- but I don't want any (mis)understanding of it to keep me from getting Jesus' point in this saying.)

Two other places in Jesus' teaching I see the same kind of straining and difficulty to get into the Kingdom of God. First is Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

"Enter through the narrow gate (Greek pule). 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." (Matthew 7:13-14)

This is a different parable told in a different setting, for it is speaking of gateways to roads rather than doorways to houses, but the idea is similar. (Jesus' teaching on the camel going through the eye of a needle has nothing to do with a tiny gate in the Jerusalem wall, but is a parable of impossibility.). The other reference is in Luke's Gospel: "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it" (16:16). The verb "forcing" in the last clause of 16:16 is Greek biazo, "to gain an objective by force, 'use force,' ... 'seek fervently, try hard.' "[4] Though the meaning of this verse is disputed, I think it relates to straining to enter the narrow door before the door is closed permanently.

Trying but Not Being Able to Enter

In our passage, Jesus says, "Many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to" (13:24). Why can't they get in? Is the way barred? No, but we know from Jesus' other teaching that entry into the Kingdom of God requires repentance and change. And many, many want the goal -- the inheritance of the Kingdom, heaven -- so long as it costs them nothing, especially their allegiance and obedience. And so they try to enter, but do not succeed when they learn the cost.

In Jesus' parable, finally the host "gets up and closes the door..." (13:24). Apparently the host is seated or reclining at the banquet table, but it is time to begin and he deliberately gets up and shuts the door. No more guests can enter. The banquet will begin.

Now those who had tried the first time but failed to enter, come again, see the door closed, and begin pounding on it. They knock and plead to no avail.

I Don't Know You (13:25b-27)

"But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.'
Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'
But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!' " (13:25b-27)

Through the closed door, the homeowner denies that he knows those outside, shouting to get inside. "I don't know you or where you come from."

That seems a bit harsh. But I see these people as name-droppers trying to crash a party. They may have met the host once, or worked in the building next door, or have a cousin who was friends with the host's son, but they don't have any real relationship themselves. They try to create a bogus relationship: "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets," (13:26) but the host denies any relationship that obligates him to open the door, and shoos them away. "Away from me, all you evildoers" (13:27). We see similar ideas in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:21-23) and Jesus' Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-18). It sounds like a person who is fed up with the excuses of party-crashers and tells them to "get lost." Then the host leaves the door where the latecomers are clamoring, and returns to his guests.

The Great Eschatological Banquet (13:28-30)

Now Jesus shifts from the Parable of the Narrow Door to the familiar scene of the eschatological banquet. (Eschatological [ES-cat-a-LOG'-i-cal] means "referring to the end times.")

"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. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last." (13:28-30)

We see this banquet first prophesied in Isaiah:

"On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine --
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will ... swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;
he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth." (Isaiah 25:6-8a)

Notice that it is a banquet "for all peoples" -- that is, not just Jews, but also the Gentiles. Jesus makes this point as well: "People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God" (13:29).

Jesus alludes to this Great Banquet on several other occasions:

  • Praising the faith of the Centurion (Matthew 8:11-12)
  • The Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24; Matthew 22:2-14)
  • At the Last Supper (Mark 14:25; Matthew 26:29)

It is finally referred to in the Book of Revelation as "The Marriage Supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:20). One of the paradoxes of this banquet is that the guests are honored inside at the same time as outside sinners suffer judgment and anguish.

The Gentiles, whom the Jews considered "last," may well be given first place in this banquet, while the Jews, who considered themselves "first" in God's estimation, may find themselves last -- perhaps even outside the Kingdom, unless they repent and respond to Jesus' call.

Though 13:31-35 (Jesus' sorrow for Jerusalem) is a separate section, I want to treat it briefly here, since it directly relates to Jesus' Parable of the Narrow Door.

Herod's Murderous Intentions (13:31-33)

"At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, 'Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.'
He replied, 'Go tell that fox, "I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal." In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day -- for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!' " (13:31-33)

The mention of Jerusalem recalls the first part of our passage, about Jesus "teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem" (13:23). Jesus knows he will meet his death in Jerusalem, so he is undeterred by rumors that Herod will try to kill him. He has already "taken up his cross," so threat of death has no terrors for him. The meaning of the Hebraic idiom, "today, tomorrow, and the next day" has been disputed, but it probably means that his ministry will extend for a short, but limited period of time.[5]

I ask myself what I would do if I received death threats like Jesus did? Would I cut short my ministry out of fear? I don't know. But I hope that I would be both wise and unafraid to die, so God would be able to direct me however he desires in the situation, rather than me being directed by my fears.

Lament Over Jerusalem (13:34-35)

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (13:34-35)

The final passage is a lament, directed towards Jerusalem. It is filled with both love and pain.

The doubling of the name (a double vocative) "strengthens the form of address" (also in Luke 6:46; 7:14; 8:24; 10:41; 22:31; 23:21; Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14).[6] Here I see it emphasizing a tender entreaty to a city that Jesus loves and grieves over. She treats her prophets poorly, yet God loves her deeply.

In the next phrase, it seems that Jesus is prophetically echoing the heart of his Father: "How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" Notice the feminine analogy to God as a "hen" gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them. What a fond expression! What a powerful word picture!

Then the sad observation, "... but you were not willing!" We're now back to the Parable of the Narrow Door. The door was open, and they COULD have entered, but didn't care to enough. They weren't diligent to press in. Later in Luke's Gospel Jesus attributes Jerusalem's inevitable destruction to the fact that "you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you" (NIV), or as the KJV puts it, "thou knewest not the time of thy visitation" (19:44). How sad! To have God visit, but you not recognize it, not realize it, until it is too late to act upon it!

Jerusalem's judgment is desolation; they won't see Jesus again until they say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" (13:35). When is that?

Jesus is quoting Psalm 118, the same passage quoted in Matthew's Gospel at the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:9):

"O Lord, save us;
O Lord, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine upon us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar." (Psalm 118:25-27)

But I don't think that the Triumphal Entry is the fulfillment of Jesus' saying here, "I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' " (13:35). Some of the Gallilean pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover welcomed him, but not the city's religious leaders and rulers. They summarily executed him. No, I believe Jesus is speaking of his Second Coming.

Lessons for Disciples

What are the "take home" lessons for disciples from this passage? There are many minor themes here, but the main one is: Repent and enter the Kingdom of God while you can, because there will come a time when it is too late to respond. This is a time-critical decision. Paul says, "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Jesus says that we must try VERY HARD to enter now; there is no guarantee of another opportunity. I think of Paul witnessing to Felix, Governor of Caesarea. Felix is afraid of judgment, and dismisses Paul until a "convenient time" to talk again. And, mercifully, there are other times to talk. But one day, two years later, Felix is abruptly transferred out of Caesarea and his opportunity to be saved is gone. He never sees Paul again (Acts 24:24-27).

I'm assuming that if you're reading this that you have more than just a casual interest in Jesus. Perhaps you are a real disciple, but perhaps not -- I don't know. But I do know this: God is speaking to your heart right now. And there is a door of salvation before you -- a narrow door -- but it is still open to you. And Jesus calls you -- no, commands you -- "Strive, struggle to enter through the narrow door." Do it now, don't wait. It is a time-sensitive command. For the day will come when the door will be abruptly shut, and unless you are inside God's household, it will be forever too late.

Is that too strong, dear friends? No. It is exactly what Jesus is saying to us today. Amen.


Prayer

Father, as I study these verses I sense the urgency and the anguish in your spirit. You don't want anyone to perish but all to reach repentance. You are calling, inviting, wooing, commanding -- everything in your power to draw men and women to yourself and to your salvation. Forgive me for my complacency. Oh God, rekindle that sense of urgency and anguished love within me today. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.


Key Verses

"Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to." (Luke 13:24)

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34)


Questions

JesusWalk: Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All 120 lessons now compiled as a 808-page e-book and paperback. Get your copy for easy reference
  1. Does Jesus really answer the question in verse 23, "Are only a few people going to be saved?" If so, what is his answer?
  2. Why does the "narrowness" of the door have to do with the point Jesus is communicating in this parable?
  3. How does the host getting up and closing the door communicate Jesus' message through this parable? What does that mean?
  4. Extra Credit. Jesus' command to struggle to enter the narrow door is a very strong one -- agonizomai, "strive, struggle, fight." How do you justify this kind of command with the Bible doctrine of predestination and election? Is it man's effort or God's that is required? (Note: Please be kind to one another as you discuss this in your groups. We'll disagree on some points, and maybe never understand completely. Be loving.)
  5. This passage is very clear that the opportunity for salvation is time-limited. When will it be too late for an individual? For mankind? (Let's resist the temptation to lay out and argue for a detailed end-times chronology here. Thank you.)
  6. What do you look forward to about this Eschatological Banquet in the Kingdom of God? What do you think it will be like?
  7. Extra credit: Is the banquet an actual chronological event or a figure of something else? If so, what?
  8. In verse 30, who are the "last" who become first, and who are the "first" who become last?


References

Common Abbreviations http://jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm

  1. BDAG 17.
  2. BDAG 462.
  3. BDAG 942-943.
  4. BDAG 175-176.
  5. BDAG 921; Marshall, pp. 572-573; Green, pp. 535-536.
  6. Marshall, p. 274.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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