“Strive to Enter through the Narrow Door” (Luke 13:22-30)
Do you ever wonder about who all will be saved? When people die, and when this world comes to an end, how many will make it into heaven? How many will end up in hell? And on what basis? “Pastor, what about people who did the best they could? What about people who never heard the gospel, like in Borneo or Papua New Guinea? Will they get in? If they don’t, how is that fair? What kind of a God would send anybody to hell? If that’s the God of the Bible, then I don’t want to believe in him.” You see where these questions lead.
Pastors get asked these questions all the time. People want to decide in their minds if God is being fair. They want to put God on trial. And if they don’t like the answers to their questions, then they feel they can reject the message, reject the Bible, reject the church. This is their way of keeping the message of repentance and faith at arm’s length, so as to not let it get too close to home.
Jesus was faced with this sort of a question in our text today. Jesus is traveling from town to town, “teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem,” our text says. And on one occasion, somebody asks him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Nice abstract question, isn’t it? Let’s ask this religious teacher a question about religion. But in a hypothetical way, not too personal. Let’s talk about those people out there. Keep the discussion at arm’s length.
But Jesus is never content to do just that. Notice his response. He turns the question around: “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Jesus won’t let us leave our religious questions at arm’s length. He always brings the matter home. “You ask about other people. ‘Will they be saved?’ But what about you? Will you be saved? Take heed, repent and believe, lest you be lost, shut out at the end.”
Jesus has a habit of doing this sort of thing, of turning the question around. He does this many times in the gospels. Think of the lawyer who wanted to justify himself, and so limit the “Love your neighbor” commandment, and asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” But Jesus turns the question around with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and he basically ends up asking the lawyer, “Are you being a neighbor to the person in your path, to the one in need?”
Or think of the woman at the well. When Jesus starts to get too close with his knowledge of her sinful life, she tries to deflect the conversation into an abstract discussion about which mountain to worship at. But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation stay in the abstract. He wants this woman to repent and to realize her thirst and so to receive the living water. Jesus doesn’t leave things in some abstract discussion about religion.
Or think of the people who ask Jesus, “What about those Galileans who were massacred at the temple?” His response? “Do you think that those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus turns the question around, and he directs the questioners to their own spiritual need.
So also in our text for today. Someone asks Jesus, “Will those who are saved be few?” He answers, “What about you? Will you be saved? Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
And so today, here and now, Jesus would say the same thing to us: “Will you be saved? Don’t try to keep religion at arm’s length, out there at a safe distance. It won’t work.” Yes, God’s Word always is meant to be applied personally, to reach our hearts and lives, calling each one of us to repentance and to faith.
Jesus is speaking to you today when he says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” “But, Pastor,” you ask, “what’s this business about ‘striving’? I thought salvation was a matter of grace, not works. And what’s this thing about ‘the narrow door’? I thought salvation was open to everyone, open wide, not narrow.”
Well, glad you asked those questions. Let’s deal with them one by one. First, “strive.” “Strive to enter,” Jesus says. How can he say that? Here’s how. Yes, salvation is a matter of grace, God’s free gift in Christ. Our works do not enter into the equation, and we do not enter into the kingdom of God by means of our works, in any measure. Absolutely. All who are saved are saved purely and exclusively out of the free grace of God in Christ, and not by our own merit whatsoever.
So what does Jesus mean here with “Strive to enter”? I think it’s helpful to look at this word “strive.” The Greek word here in our text is “agonizomai,” from which we get our English word “agonize.” “Agonizomai” means to strive, to struggle, to exert enormous effort. It’s the word the Greeks used to describe athletic contests, like in a wrestling match. The wrestlers would “agonizomai” to win the contest and prevail in the end. And this is the word that’s used here when Jesus says, “Strive,” agonize, “to enter through the narrow door.”
Here’s the sense. It’s not that we contribute anything to our salvation by our striving. No, it’s a free gift. But as we come to Christ and enter through that narrow door, it will involve a struggle. There will be much agonizing along the way.
You know that, you feel that, that agonizing aspect of the Christian life. It’s not easy. There are all these forces pulling against us, trying to keep us from entering through the narrow door. You’ve got the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh working against you. It’s like a tag-team wrestling match, and those three are on the other side, tagging in and out, each taking a turn to see if they can defeat you and pin you to the mat. So it is a struggle.
The devil, the world, and the sinful flesh–that’s who we’re agonizing against. The devil will assault you and assail you. He will lure you with temptations. He’ll whisper in your ear in the midst of your adversities, saying, “God doesn’t love you. Look at what’s happening to you! Give up.”
Then there’s the world tagging in. Listen to the lies of our culture: “There is no such thing as sin anymore. Everything is OK. You don’t need to repent. Who knows if there’s even a God out there anyway? As long as you’re a good person, that’s what counts.”
And if the devil and the world aren’t enough, you’ve got your own sinful flesh to contend with: “I know what I want, and I’m going to get it. I won’t listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice telling me otherwise. No, I want to make my own decisions. And if I’m going into sin, and I know it–well, I’ll just repent later on, I suppose. This way I can keep doing what I want, and I can rationalize it all away.”
So you see what we’re up against. It is indeed a struggle, an agonizing, to live as a Christian and to keep the faith. It’s like St. Paul says in Acts 14, “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Being a Christian is not easy. It does call for a constant striving, and so Jesus says here, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
And then there’s this “narrow door” business. What does Jesus mean by that? To say that the door is “narrow” is to say that there’s just one way in. There are not many doors. There are not many roads that lead to heaven. Just one. It’s through Jesus, through faith in him alone, and in nothing else. Jesus says in John 14, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Or again, in John 10, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” There is the narrow door for you! It’s Jesus!
This door is narrow, meaning it’s the only one, but this door is indeed wide open! Jesus has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Trust in him, and you will be saved. This is all because of that “journey to Jerusalem” Jesus was on. There, in Jerusalem, Jesus’ “arms’ length” extended far and wide when he stretched out his arms on the wood of the cross. Those arms, those arms of Jesus, took in all the sins of the world, including yours. Whatever you have done wrong, your sins against God and man, the ways you have disobeyed God and hurt the people around you–all these are paid for, paid in full, by Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, dying sacrificially for you, so that you now are forgiven.
And having done this, Jesus rose from the dead, showing you what is in store for you through faith in him. Life. Resurrection life. Eternal life. Jesus’ arms are now extended to embrace you and to welcome you as a brother or sister in God’s kingdom. The door is open. Enter in.
There is a great feast waiting for you there. And you will be joining many, reclining at table at the wedding feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end–with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a whole multitude coming from the east and the west, the north and the south. Will you be there, seated with them at the feast of salvation? If we had to answer on the basis of our works or merit, we’d have to say no. But Jesus turns the question around in a good way and answers with a great big yes! He is your tag-team partner in the agonizing wrestling match you’re engaged in. In fact, he is your champion. He wins the victory for you.
“Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Today one door is open, and it is open wide. Enter through Jesus, and you will be saved.