The Narrow Door
Passage: Luke 13:22–13:30
The Narrow Door
Our passage today is about salvation. We know this is the theme because of the question that frames the text in v23 – “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” That question establishes the theme. We know that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, but still – what kind of salvation does he bring?
In a sense, this question has been building throughout Jesus’ ministry. Why do so many Israelites misunderstand Jesus’ message? Why do the Jewish religious leaders so consistently oppose him? In part, because they misunderstand the nature of salvation. They were expecting a political Messiah who would arrive with power and overthrow the Romans. They were not expecting a suffering Messiah who would associate with sinners and preach the necessity of the cross. In fact, think of how often, just in the last few chapters, the people and the religious leaders have missed the point.
Luke ch12, v56 – the people did not understand the nature of the times. Ch12, v58 – they did not grasp the urgency of responding to God’s word. Ch13, v14 – the religious leaders were eager to argue with Jesus about the Law, instead of recognizing Jesus’ role in fulfilling the Law. And so, ch13, v6 – the religious leaders, indeed the entire nation of Israel, is like the barren fig tree. Do you see the pattern? From the religious establishment down to the crowd, people misunderstand the nature of God’s salvation, and as a result, they are like the blind leading the blind. The Messiah is here, but Israel seems unable to see him.
And so, we come to this question in v23 of our passage. “Will those who are saved be few?” We don’t know who asks the question, but that doesn’t change the focus of the text. Here Luke is giving us a crash course, you might say, in the nature of salvation. All of those controversies between Jesus and the religious establishment – they all find an explanation here in this text. Here we see the reason why so many are so hardhearted. It’s because they misunderstand the nature of the salvation Jesus will accomplish.
This passage, then, is a warning and, therefore, a call to respond. Like so many of the scenes in the last few chapters, Jesus is urging his audience to respond to what God is doing in and through the gospel. And that will be true for us this morning. Will we see the nature of God’s salvation in Jesus? And will we submit our lives to that salvation – not demanding that God met our expectations, but submitting ourselves to what God says is true?
Salvation is an Urgent, Personal Concern
In terms of an outline, then, I’d like us to note three features of salvation in vv22-30. First, in vv22-24, we see that Salvation is an Urgent, Personal Concern. The passage begins with another reference to Jerusalem, v22. Jesus continues on his way, teaching and journeying to Jerusalem. This continues the emphasis that began back in chapter 9, and the point is that everything is running toward the cross. All the miracles, all the teaching, every display of kingdom authority – all of that, brothers and sisters, is leading Jesus to Jerusalem and, therefore, to the cross. I know I keep making this point, but that’s because it is essential to understanding Jesus Christ. You can marvel at the miracles and be stunned by the wisdom, but if you don’t see the cross as central, then you’ve missed Jesus.
As Jesus goes, he gets that central question, v23 – “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’” Again, we don’t know who asked this question, but we can understand why he asked it. Think about some of the recent themes in Jesus’ teaching. He came to cast fire on the earth, to divide fathers from sons and daughters from mothers. He’s used images like a tiny mustard, and he’s described the kingdom like a small measure of leaven. Put those things together and you can understand the question. If Jesus came to cast fire and bring division, if the kingdom is like a mustard seed, then will the number of saved be few? What exactly is the kingdom like, and what kind of salvation are you bringing, Jesus? We can understand the question.
Jesus, however, doesn’t answer as you might expect. Instead, Jesus flips the question on its head. Notice Jesus’ response, beginning in v23 – “And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’” Now, you might say that Jesus does answer the question here, at least by implication. You might try to extrapolate from Jesus’ words and come up with a theory on the population of heaven. But that would miss the point. The Lord’s concern is not to join in speculation about the hidden will of God.
Rather, Jesus’ concern is for people to recognize their own urgent need to respond to the gospel. This is key. Notice how Jesus shifts the subject with his answer. The questioner is thinking in abstract, theoretical terms. He wants Jesus to speculate with him on the population of heaven – a truth that is surely known only to God. But Jesus doesn’t go down that road. Instead, Jesus shifts form the abstract to the personal. Jesus moves from the musings of theory to the urgency of response. In that sense, Jesus tells this man, “You’re asking the wrong question. The question is not about the number of saved. The question is whether or not you are among them.”
And you can see this shift, pretty plainly, in v24. Notice that Jesus answers with a command. “Strive to enter by the narrow door,” Jesus says. That is a personal command, an imperative that calls the hearer to action. Don’t just speculate about heaven, Jesus responds. Strive to enter yourself.
Now, what does that mean – strive to enter by the narrow door? The word strive means to labor, to fight. It’s the same word Paul uses in 1 Timothy when he talks about fighting the good fight of faith. And Jesus has a similar emphasis here. Strive – fight to enter the kingdom of God where salvation reigns. But still, what does that mean? We affirm that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We deny that our effort or our works play any part in salvation. And yet, here is Jesus himself saying, “Strive to enter it.” What does that mean?
The image of the narrow door is illuminating at this point. By talking about salvation as a narrow door, Jesus is reminding his audience that salvation is found only on God’s terms. You don’t get to decide what salvation looks like, and you don’t get to define how you enter. If we set the terms, then salvation would be a broad door – as broad as each person’s preference. But that is precisely what Jesus denies. Salvation is not based on our terms or our preferences. Salvation is found on God’s terms. The door is narrow because the door is defined by God.
So, we ask, “What are God’s terms?” How does God define the way to salvation? Jesus has already told us, hasn’t he? Repent and believe the gospel. Jesus has already preached this narrow way many times. He did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. He does not receive those are who are proud and confident in themselves. He receives those who are lowly, who recognize their utter inability, and who cast themselves on Christ’s work to save them. That’s the narrow door – it is salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It’s narrow because repentance and faith in Christ are the only means of entering in.
So, back to Jesus’ command – “Strive to enter.” What does that mean? It certainly does not mean you have to work your way into the kingdom of God. That would go against everything in Jesus’ ministry. But it does mean that when you hear the gospel, you fight against the natural response of saying, “Yeah, I’ll deal with that another day. Eternity is a long way off. I’m just going to live today and deal with that salvation stuff later.” That’s what it means to strive. It means to fight against the natural human tendency to disregard what God says is true – not only about himself and the world, but also about ourselves in relationship to him. You strive to enter by striving to hear God’s Word and respond.
The urgency of this command is seen there at the end of v24 – “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” So, is Jesus saying that some people will want to be saved, but for whatever reason, God won’t allow them to enter in? No, absolutely not. That is not Jesus’ point at all. Rather, Jesus’ point is that many people will mistakenly think they are pursuing salvation, but they will miss out in the end because they are not pursuing it on God’s terms. There are many who will think that their good works will save them, but on the last day, they will find the narrow door is shut to people who relied on their own efforts.
So, I hope you see how Jesus’ answer shifts the conversation. The questioner wants to deal in the abstract and theoretical – how many people will be saved? But Jesus will have no part of that. He flips the conversation, in order to show us that salvation is an urgent, personal concern.
Salvation Comes Through Faith, Not Familiarity
Now, this raises another question in the flow of the passage. If the way is narrow and open only to those who strive on God’s terms, what is the right way to enter? Or, to ask it another way, what does saving faith look like? Our second point answers that question, from vv25-27. Salvation comes through Faith [in Christ], Not Familiarity [with Him]. Jesus shifts the image slightly in v25. Now, the picture is not just of a narrow door, but of a Master who has shut the door to his house. Clearly, the Master represents Jesus, and the house represents salvation in God’s kingdom. So, the image has shifted slightly, but the focus remains the same. Jesus is teaching his audience about the nature of salvation and, more specifically, how one enters.
The picture starts off in v25 with a startling turn of events – some are left outside. Notice v25 – “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 [the Master] will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” You can understand Jesus’ point. He’s reminding the crowd of something he has repeatedly taught over the last few chapters – the time for response is now. The need is urgent, for a day is coming when the door will be closed. Like we said a couple of weeks ago, don’t put off till tomorrow what the gospel demands of you today. That’s the point in v25.
But Jesus is not finished. There is a new element, as those who are outside object to the Master’s terms. Look at v26, and notice the objection – “Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in your streets.’” Now, that sounds like Jesus’ ministry, doesn’t it? Many people in Israel have been present at Jesus’ teaching. Many have shared a meal with him. Many people, in other words, are familiar with Jesus. They’ve been around him, they’ve listened to him, and now, on the basis of that familiarity, they plead for the Master to let them in.
But then comes the stunning response from the Master, v27 – “But [the Master] will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil.’” That is sobering. Jesus says, “Yes, you were familiar with me, but familiarity is not the same as faith. Familiarity is not the same as trusting in who I am and what I do.” In fact, notice in v27 that the Master speaks in personal terms – “I do not know where you came from,” the Master says. The issue is not how many events the people have witnessed. The issue is not how many sermons or lessons they heard. The issue is personal – do they know the Master? Or, perhaps more accurately, does the Master know them? Are they united to the Master by faith? Have they forsaken all their efforts to enter by their own strength, and have they trusted only in what Christ can do to bring them into the kingdom of God?
And so, I want you to notice, brothers and sister, how Jesus clarifies what it means to have saving faith. Faith is not the same as familiarity. You can be acquainted with Jesus, but that is not the same as trusting him. You can know all the Bible stories and be able to recite what Jesus did and even what he said, but that is not the same as banking your life on his work to save you. Saving faith must go beyond familiarity, and it must express trust in who Jesus is and what he has done. That is the key takeaway from Jesus’ illustration. Saving faith is best defined as trust in Jesus’ work to save you. Saving faith is placing all your confidence in and on Jesus.
Now, put this together with our first point from earlier. How does one strive to enter by the narrow door? How do we respond when salvation is an urgent, personal concern? The answer is not to settle for familiarity but to press on in faith to know and trust Jesus Christ. Salvation is defined on God’s terms, not ours, so to enter God’s salvation, we must not settle for knowing about Jesus. We must press on to trust Jesus, to bank our life on him.
That is the call of God’s Word this morning. If you are not trusting in Jesus Christ, then I pray you recognize that the door is narrow and it will soon be shut. Don’t assume that because you know a little about Jesus you will be fine in the end. You won’t. The Bible – indeed, Jesus himself – is unmistakably clear at this point. The only way to enter the narrow door of salvation is entrust your life and your eternity to Jesus Christ.
And here’s some encouragement for you, when it comes to faith. As you consider what it means to have saving faith, remember that the effectiveness of faith does not depend on you. It rests on Christ. Saving faith is not defined by how you feel on the inside. Saving faith is defined by something real and true and unchanging that exists outside of how you feel. Saving faith rests on what Christ has done.
And what Christ has done is clear. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God. Have you obeyed God perfectly? No, but Christ has, and faith means trusting that his obedience counts for you. Though Christ was perfect, he died to pay for the sins of his people. Can you pay for sin? No, but Christ has, and saving faith means trusting that his payment – his blood – covers you. Though Christ died, he did not stay dead, but rose again on the third day, defeating the power of death. Can you escape the power of death and secure eternal life for yourself? No, but Christ has, and saving faith means trusting his resurrection is the promise of your resurrection.
Do you see how none of those things is based on how you feel? Those things are true even when you don’t feel like they are true. The power of saving faith is not that I completed the process correctly and therefore have earned salvation. That’s not faith at all. The power of saving faith is that even when I am at my worst, my lowest, my weakest – even when I cannot escape my doubts and my fears – even then, my confidence rests on Jesus, not on anything in me.
So, I just want to be very clear. If you’re not a Christian this morning – maybe you came to visit church, or maybe you came with Mom and Dad – if you’re not a Christian, I want you to listen to me very carefully. Having faith in Christ does not mean that you prayed a prayer the right way. It does not mean that you made all the right decisions and now God will listen to you. That’s not what it means to have faith. Faith is not based on what you can do. Saving faith is entrusting your life to what Christ has done. It means banking everything you’ve got on the truth that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to save sinners.
That is saving faith. It is more than how we feel – praise God! – and it is more than simply being familiar with Christ. It is the expression of trust in Jesus’ work, which unites us to him for eternity.
Salvation is a Glorious, Global Reality
That brings us to the final point from this text, a point that serves a warning to Jesus’ audience but one that also encourages us about God’s work in the gospel. From vv28-30, Salvation is a Glorious, Global Reality. At the end of v27, Jesus pictures the judgment that is coming for those who reject the gospel, and in v28, he continues with the description. Notice what he says – “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.” So, the context is clearly judgment. Jesus is talking about those who will not be saved. How do we know that, you ask? Because of the reference to the patriarchs and the prophets. Those groups represent the believing remnant of God’s people. Abraham is the man of faith, remember – the one who believed God’s promise and saw his faith counted as righteousness. So, to be excluded from where Abraham resides is to be excluded from the people of God. Jesus is talking, then, about divine judgment.
But then notice what Jesus says in v29. He goes on to define God’s people as a global body. V29 – “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Remember that Jesus is talking to Jews at this point, the physical descendants of Abraham. But here in v29, it is the physical descendants of Abraham who are cast out, while the nations are brought in to enjoy God’s kingdom. In other words, Jesus’ audience needs to recognize that their physical lineage can’t save them. Only faith in the gospel will save.
Now in terms of NT Christianity, we ought to recognize the profound truth that Jesus anticipates here. V29 is a preview of the rest of the NT, and the book of Acts in particular. The day is coming, Jesus says, when the gospel of the kingdom will spread throughout the entire globe, and on that day, it will be those who trust Christ that are brought in. Don’t assume you’ll enter because you share Abraham’s genealogy, Jesus warns. Recognize that it is those who share Abraham’s faith who enter.
In that sense, you could say that the Jews of Jesus’ day conceived of God’s salvation in terms that were far too small. They were thinking in earthly terms. They were looking for visible power that would change things in the present. But the gospel of Christ says that God’s salvation is something much larger than a political kingdom. God’s salvation is the good news that Christ redeems people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. To put it another way, the gospel of Christ is so powerful, it transcends culture and language and ethnicity and even time, and it gathers together in one people those who trust in Christ by grace.
Brothers and Sisters, we ought to be encouraged by that reality. It is true that Jesus intends these words as a warning to his listeners, and we should heed that warning. No one is saved by familiarity or by physical lineage. Your father’s faith can’t bring you into the kingdom. So, there’s a warning to be heeded, for sure.
But at the same time, there is praise to be offered as well. This morning, we are gathered together in fulfillment of v29. Do you wonder if God’s Word is true? Do you question if the gospel is powerful? Then just look around the room! Here we are, some 2,000 years later, gathered together in Jesus’ name. His salvation is a global reality that has reached all the way to us. We are the people from the north and south, from the east and west that Christ has brought together in God’s kingdom. And we’ve been brought together, brothers and sisters, entirely by grace. So, there’s a warning here – yes – but there is also praise.
In fact, that combination of warning and praise is a good way to approach the final verse, v30. Notice what Jesus says – “And behold, some are last who are first, and some are first who will be last.” That’s the kingdom of God. It is upside down from the world’s expectations, which forms both a warning and an encouragement.
The warning is not to trust in yourself – whether that be your own good works or your family lineage. Don’t trust in yourself and ignore the narrow door of responding to God’s Word. As we’ve said throughout this sermon, salvation comes only to those who repent and trust in Christ. So, don’t assume you’re first – don’t assume you’re ok on your own – because you’ll end up last. That’s the warning.
But the encouragement is also true. Those who are last – that is, those who recognize they cannot save themselves, those who confess their need for a Savior and trust only in Christ – they will be first in God’s kingdom. They are the ones who, by grace, come to see that salvation is not something to earn, but something to receive. And they are ones who come to share in what Christ is doing – building a new covenant people for God, a people defined by his gospel and united together through faith in him.
Salvation is not a theoretical, abstract point of discussion. It is an urgent, personal concern. Salvation is not based on your familiarity with Jesus. It comes only through faith, through trusting yourself entirely to him. And salvation is not something we receive through our family lineage or physical descent. It’s a global reality that unites believers together to treasure the glory of God.
May God gives us grace to hold fast to this gospel, and may he use us in whatever way he sees fit to spread the good news of his salvation to the very ends of the earth. Amen.