the narrow door
Anyone who knows me knows that my two favorite things pastimes are movies and books. Give me a good movie to watch, and a good book to read after that movie, and it’s a good day. I also love cinema and literary pop culture: all the life that gravitates around them, and isn’t just limited to what happens in them. I love fan conventions—Comic Con, and the like—and cinema blogs and literary magazines.
My third favorite pastime would be music, but I do not enjoy the pop culture surrounding music. And that is mostly due to the fans: music fans, at least young music fans these days, are insane. These people will do insane things to emulate or get the attention of their idols (one girl even went so far as to break her own leg so she could look like Jessie J, who had recently broken her foot).
But I think the creepiest thing about these superfans—the “Beliebers” and the “Swifties”—is how they will research and track down the minutest details of these pop stars’ lives and learn everything there is to know about them—their personal history, their likes, their dislikes, their food preferences, everything—and then assume that they actually know them. They’ll entertain full-on relationships with these stars in their minds, and focus their lives around these made-up relationships. When you look at it clinically, it rides the line between fandom and mental illness.
Here’s why I mention this: today’s text places us in front of a similar situation.
It all begins with a question. Jesus is traveling around and teaching, making his way slowly to Jerusalem. Someone on the road asks him a question.
The Narrow Door (v. 22-24)
22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”
Just to get it out of the way now: Jesus doesn’t answer that question in this text. He suggests an answer, but he doesn’t explicitly give it. And he doesn’t give it, I think, because he wants us to assume, at least at first, that this is going to be harder than we think it’s going to be.
So instead of speculating on the final number of people in heaven, Jesus rather addresses what we must do to get there.
And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.
What is he talking about? What is the “narrow door”?
“The narrow door” is a picture of the whole of the Christian life.
People often talk about “the pearly gates,” those big double gates that block the entrance to heaven. I don’t know about you, but I’d always imagined those gates as enormous.
That’s not the way Jesus describes it.
He says the door is “narrow.” It’s not narrow in the sense that it’s hard to find—Jesus has clearly revealed to anyone who wants to listen what his Father’s will is, and how to be reconciled to him. The door is narrow in the sense that not every approach will work.
You can’t stride in, larger than life. You can’t go in with your shoulders broad, proud of the wonderful accomplishment you’ve made in getting there. As R. K. Hughes says, “The passage to Heaven is not through the great portal of a palace, but a narrow, low door through which one must humbly squeeze.”
Jesus says we must “STRIVE to enter through the narrow door.” That word “strive,” in Greek, is the word agonizomai—the root of our English word “agony.” It’s going to be tough. Great effort is required. There will be blood, and sweat, and tears. We have to work.
Now, people get nervous when you start saying things like this, because we have so heartily embraced the five Solas, including sola gratia—salvation is “by grace alone!” That’s true. It takes zero effort on our part to be saved. Jesus lived our life and died our death and was raised to declare us righteous before God; that work is done.
However, if we want our lives to show that that work has been done in us, we will need to work. It takes no effort to receive Christ, but much effort to persevere until the end.
Paul said it this way in Philippians 2.12-13 (a passage we know well):
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling...
That’s not the kind of thing you say if the work is going to be easy. You don’t do the dishes “with fear and trembling;” with fear and trembling, that’s how you work to get out of a burning building.
It’s going to take work to take the salvation we have inside and to bring it out, to show that what’s happened in us is actually true. But Paul tells us how we can do it.
WORK OUT your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 FOR it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We work, and we work hard, because God gives us the desire to work and the ability to work. We don’t work alone—he is right there, giving us what we need to work—but we MUST WORK. We must strive to enter through the narrow door.
Do We Know Him? (v. 25-27)
25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door—
Hold for a second. We have to take this very seriously: there is a time coming when the narrow door will shut. The time we have is limited. We saw this two weeks ago, when Arnaud started chapter 13: there is a limit to God’s patience.
You might ask if his patience has run out for you. If you’ve asked that question, the answer is no, because you’re still alive—dead men can’t ask questions.
But that won’t always be the case. One day you will die, or Christ will return. And on that day, the time of patience will be over.
And on that day, some people will stand outside banging on the door, asking God to let them in, and he won’t just say no—his answer is absolutely chilling.
25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’
They knock on the door and ask the master to let them in; and the master doesn’t just say “No.”
He says, “Where did you come from?”
In other words, “You are not of my people. You’re not from my family. You’re not from my country. You are an outsider.”
This sounds harsh, but Jesus tells them why God will say such a thing. Two things keep these people from the kingdom.
Firstly, their so-called faith did not drive them to put their sin to death: Jesus calls them “workers of evil”.
Part of the beauty of marriage is that you rub off on each other. My wife and I could not be more different if we tried. But even so, over the more than fifteen years we’ve been married, we’ve rubbed off on each other. Loanne taught me to like cats—I used to be a dog person, but I’m sorry: cats are better. And I was convinced of that when I saw how much she loved cats, and why. (If you’re curious: dogs are toddlers, and cats are grown-ups. I still like dogs; toddlers can be fun. But any parent can tell you they don’t want their kids to stay two years old forever. At some point it’s nice when they can take care of themselves and show their crazy in other ways.)
That’s one example of many (and not the best) of the fact that when you spend time with someone you love, you find yourself enjoying things you didn’t enjoy before. You start making priorities of things that didn’t seem important before, because you can see the logic in why they think it’s important.
Here’s the point: If you have a relationship with Christ, there will be a change. You will begin to love what he loves, and to hate what he hates—you will. You will see holiness as beautiful and desirable, and you will see sin as dangerous and ugly. You will want to put your sin to death, because you’ll see how it’s hurting you and offensive to him. You will run away from what God calls evil and pursue what he calls good. You’ll still fall, sure; you’ll still sin. But the trajectory of your life will no longer be that of living life on your own terms, to satisfy your own sinful desires, but on his terms, to glorify him.
These people aren’t doing that: they are still “workers of evil”. And the lack of change in them proves the second thing, and the simplest thing, which keeps them out of the kingdom: that they have no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They call him “Lord,” asking him to open to them, and he says, “Who are you?”
The Jews thought that because they were Jewish, they had to be right before God. Why? Because they were God’s chosen people, right? God had given them the Law. He had given them the prophets. He had chosen to make them a people set apart for his will. So they must be accepted by him. Right?
Jesus says, “I do not know where you came from.”
“We come from Israel! We are your people!”
“…No, I don’t think so. I know my people, but I don’t know you.”
Being born Jewish—or, to put it more appropriately for our context, being born a Christian—means nothing.
I want you all to hear me very clearly. There are some of you here who attend church every Sunday, who are involved in your community group, who are front and center at every event, who by all appearances seem to display visible evidence of real faith…but who do not know him. You know ABOUT him, but you don’t know him.
Because you think that knowing Christ is a matter of what you know, and not whom you love.
You can cite genealogies; you can name all the kings of Israel and Judah; you can adequately explain Christian doctrine.
But you don’t know how to enjoy him.
You don’t know how to meditate on his goodness.
You don’t know how to sing his praises with more than just your voice.
The grace proclaimed in the gospel does nothing to stir you to worship him, does nothing to drive you to humble gratitude.
You obey Christ’s commands in your behavior, maybe; but you don’t know how to obey him from the heart, in your loves, your affections.
You call yourself a Christian, and sometimes will go to great lengths to show that you’re a Christian…but in reality, you’re the religious equivalent of those pop-star fans I mentioned at the beginning, imagining that because you know all there is to know about Jesus’s life and teaching and doctrine, you actually have a relationship with him.
But a relationship can never be solely based on what you know.
To come back to Loanne for a minute: I can tell you a lot of things about my wife. She was born in Bagnolet in 1980; she loves chocolate and bread; she enjoys architecture and art and those TV shows where they go in and redecorate a house; she is good at math; she hates science fiction; she’s allergic to many insects…
But she would tell you that my knowing those things about her has nothing to do with our relationship with one another. I know my wife, not because I know those things about her, but because I’ve shared my life with her for the last decade and a half. Because hers is the last face I see before I go to sleep, and the first face I see when I wake up. Because I celebrated with her when she got her Master’s degree, and when she told me she was pregnant with our kids. Because I cried with her when our marriage was difficult, and when we worked hard at persevering. Because we’ve shared the load of nighttime feedings and diaper changes. Because we’ve shared in the simple pleasure of reading books next to each other in the evening. Because we’ve shared in the pride of watching Jack learning how to be kind, in laughing at 3 o’clock in the morning when Zadie starts spitting into the air and talking to herself.
Our relationship has nothing to do with what I know about her, and everything to do with the common experience of our lives together, with the little, ordinary things that, most of the time, go unnoticed. And anyone can tell you that a relationship always begins to break down when this common experience of life together is neglected.
So here’s the question: what in your common experience of life with Christ proves to you that you know him?
And what in you has changed because of this common experience?
We will not find an answer to those questions if we think we know him simply because we grew up in a Christian home, or because we can debate rings around people in an online theological forum.
And that’s why, in case he wasn’t clear enough before, in v. 28 Jesus brings the point home.
A Surprising Guest List (v. 28-30)
28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.
This would have been a terrifying idea for the Jewish people he was speaking to. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were the “patriarchs.” They were considered the greatest of the Jewish people. And Jesus said that if this is you—if you don’t know me, and have nothing in your life to show that you know me—you’re going to be outside looking in, watching Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets enjoying the kingdom of God without you.
But he doesn’t stop there. Not only will they be there in the kingdom without you, but alongside them will be a whole host of people you would reject if they approached you. V. 29:
29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.
In other words, some people will be in the kingdom of God who are not Jewish. They weren’t born into God’s people. They have no claim on the patriarchs or on the law. They shouldn’t be there, at least not under the terms of the Old Mosaic Covenant.
But they will be. They’ll be reclining at table right next to the best of the best, the Who’s-Who of Jewish ancestry.
Why? Well, they’ll be there for the same reason you’re not—they’ll be there because they know me, and I know them. Their lives prove that they know me. They have faith, not in their roots or their natural heritage, but in me. And that faith saves them, because the promise given to Abraham—that God would make his offspring as numerous as the stars—was not about his natural descendants, but his spiritual ones, those who shared the same faith he had.
This is what Paul explains in Galatians 3.27-29:
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
That is how Jesus can look at them and say, “I know where you come from.” You share the faith as Abraham. So you are mine.
And not only that—not only will these people be in the kingdom with the patriarchs—they’ll be on the same level. V. 30:
30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
It’s the ultimate surprise: the Gentiles are included in the promise, welcomed into the kingdom of God, and they receive the same reward as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When Jesus says that some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last, he’s talking about a leveling of the playing field, to a ridiculous extent. All claims to titles or placement will be changed around. Abraham will be sitting at the table next to a plumber from Neuilly, or next to an optometrist from London, or next to a ten-year-old girl from South Africa.
Those who have faith in Christ are as loved by God as Paul, the prophets, and Moses. They all share the same honor, and they are all seated at the same table.
Now before we get to what all of this means to us, there is a question some of you may be asking. It’s not the main point of the text, but it’s worth mentioning because it has a bearing on what this text is calling us to do.
Someone asked Jesus a question at the beginning of our text: “Will those who enter the kingdom be few?”
When Jesus says that the door is narrow, when he says in Matthew 7.13-14 that small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it, I don’t think he’s trying to give accurate figures of how many people will be in heaven compared to the number of people in hell. I think he’s trying to drive us to do what he explicitly calls us to do in this text: he’s pushing us to strive to enter through the narrow door.
I’m going to read a lengthy quote from Charles Spurgeon:
Some narrow-minded bigots think that heaven will be a very small place, where there will be a very few people, who went to their chapel or their church. I confess, I have no wish for a very small heaven, and love to read in the Scriptures that there are many mansions in my Father’s house. How often do I hear people say, “Ah! strait is the gate and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it. There will be very few in heaven; there will be most lost.”
My friend I differ from you. Do you think that Christ will let the devil beat him? that he will let the devil have more in hell than there will be in heaven? No: it is impossible. For then Satan would laugh at Christ. There will be more in heaven than there are among the lost. God says, that “there will be a number that no man can number who will be saved;” but he never says that there will be a number that no man can number that will be lost. There will be a host beyond all count who will get into heaven.
What glad tidings for you and for me! For if there are so many to be saved why should not I be saved? Why should not you? Why should not yon man, over there in the crowd, say, “Cannot I be one among the multitude?” And may not that poor woman there take heart, and say, “Well, if there were but half-a-dozen saved, I might fear that I should not be one; but since many are to come, why should not I also be saved?” Cheer up, disconsolate! Cheer up, son of mourning, child of sorrow, there is hope for thee still! I can never know that any man is past God’s grace.
There be a few that have sinned that sin that is unto death and God gives them up, but the vast host of mankind are yet within the reach of sovereign mercy—”And many of them shall come from the east, and from the west, and shall sit down in the kingdom of heaven.”
Here’s why this is important. Jesus doesn’t beat us up here for the sake of beating us up. He’s reminding us of the seriousness of what’s at stake, in order that more and more of us might get up and strive to enter through the narrow gate. He isn’t saying these things to limit the number of people who will enter the kingdom, but to increase it.
So if that’s the case—if Jesus is telling us this because he wants us to be with him in heaven—what is he calling us to do here, in order to be there with him?
Firstly, he’s calling us to examine ourselves. Jesus puts forward some very difficult hypotheticals here. Some will try to enter the door and find it closed; they’ll knock and ask to be let in, and he’ll say, “I don’t know where you came from.”
So with all the seriousness you can muster, take the time to ask yourselves: do you know Christ, or do you know about him? Do you have a relationship with him? Do you walk with him, day after day? Do you speak to him? Do you give him to time to speak back to you through his Word? Do you know about Christ, or do you know him?
And if you think you know him, put it to the test. Is your “faith” making you progressively more like Christ? Are you more like him today than the day you met him? Or do you find yourself still pursuing the same useless endeavors, the same wasteful pleasures?
Examine yourselves in the light of what he says.
And secondly, strive to enter through the narrow door.
Obey his commandments.
Let yourself be conformed to his image. Love what he loves. Hate what he hates.
This is going to take work, and it’s going to take sacrifice. God is giving you what you need to do it, but you still need to do it. You still need to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
It may mean refusing to give yourself over to pleasures that are suffocating your affections for Christ. It may mean refusing to let yourself run with the same crowds, with people who consistently draw you away from Christ rather than towards him. It may mean refusing to indulge certain dangerous thoughts, refusing to participate in conversations that used to be amusing but which have unintended consequences on the faith of your brothers and sisters.
Or it may be as simple as growing up. Often we hyperspiritualize this process, but (as we saw in our community group a couple weeks ago) one of the most common hindrances to our spiritual growth is simple immaturity—not spiritual immaturity, but actual, real-world immaturity.
At some point, we have to grow up and make our lives fit our priorities. We have to learn to not impulsively buy whatever we want at any given moment. We have to learn how to pay our bills, and go to bed on time, and carve out time in our schedules for what is important to us.
If this is true for our ordinary, day-to-day lives, how much more true must this be about our relationship with God?
How will we grow in God if we never encounter him? If we never speak to him? If we don’t expose ourselves regularly and fully to what he tells us in his Word?
At some point, we have to grow up. We have to learn to say no to some things and yes to others. We have to adjust our personalities to fit within the new life we’ve been given. We have to make time in our schedules to read God’s Word, to meditate on what he tells us there, to respond to what we see. We have to learn to take the opportunities he gives us to obey, and to reject the opportunities we have to give in to temptation.
Do the work he calls you to do. Strive to enter through the narrow door.
Because that narrow door leads to life. It is the only way in to eternal and lasting joy.
Know your Savior. Love your Savior. Be changed by your Savior. Work hard to be like him. Enter through the narrow door.