It has been a while since Luke told us that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51) So, just in case we have forgotten, The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to remind us that Jesus was teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. (Luke 13:22) Jesus had an appointment with a cross in Jerusalem. AND, as He made his way toward that cross, He spent time proclaiming the Kingdom of God in the towns and villages along the way.
As often happened while Jesus was teaching, there is a question. Someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:23) Luke did not record any kind of trap or trick in this question, so we should give the benefit of the doubt to the question and treat it as legitimate. Someone really wanted to hear Jesus’ teaching on this question.
Very often, a question like this contains an unasked question within it. The person who asked this question may really have wanted to know: Am I one of the many … or one of the few? Am I one of the saved … or one of the lost? If Jesus answered, “Oh, all kinds of people will be pouring into the kingdom,” then a person might think to himself, “Well then, there is a good chance that I am saved.” If, on the other hand Jesus answered, “Only the most elite of the elite will enter,” then a person might think to himself, “Well then, my chances are pretty slim.” This question is really about the confidence that anyone can have in salvation.
There are a few other things we can notice about this question. One of the things is that the question is about … somebody else. Just in case Jesus gave a discouraging answer, the questioner could always say, “Well. That answer is for those other people, but not for me.”
The teachings of Jesus do not leave us in that position where we can say that. His teachings are for the benefit of all people in all places and in all times. As often happened, Jesus used this question as a teaching opportunity. His response guided the questioner to change his approach to the question. Don’t focus on how many will be saved. Instead, focus on the confidence of your salvation. It is better to ask, “How can I be confident of my own salvation?”
[Jesus] 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.” (Luke 13:23–24) The Greek word for strive is the root for the English word agony. This word can also mean fight as the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy: Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:12) It can also mean struggle. This struggle is continuous. It is not something that happens once and then it is over. Rather, it is something that lasts a lifetime.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone told me to fight, or struggle, or strive. The next thing I would expect to come from his mouth would be how we should fight, or struggle, or strive. Instead, Jesus talked about the kind of struggling that does not work. 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.’ 26Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ (Luke 13:25–27)
Here is the horror of eternity. It is only after it is too late … after the door is shut … that these poor souls realize their mistake. They are on the wrong side of the door. Instead of being inside at the eternal feast of the master, they are outside. The master does not even recognize them.
When they learn of their terrible mistake, they try to make a case for the master to open the door. They begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets,’ (Luke 13:26) Apparently, they believe that just being in the master’s presence gave them the right to enter into the banquet.
However, instead of making their case for them, these words condemn them. With these words they admit that the master gave them every opportunity to hear Him. They heard Him teach at the table while they ate and drank. They heard Him teach in the streets. They had every opportunity to be inside the door, but they rejected the master’s teaching. They were with Him and they heard Him, but they did not listen. Only after it is too late do they recognize their mistake.
But what is the basic nature of their mistake? Their mistake is that they were looking to themselves. They thought that the master should open heaven because they had gone through all the motions. They thought they had earned heaven with their own actions.
Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” (Luke 13:24) What can Jesus possibly mean when tells us to fight or struggle or strive to get in through that narrow door? The first thing that we should understand about this instruction is that we cannot do it. When Jesus speaks to you and says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” (Luke 13:24) He is, in fact, asking you to do something that you cannot do. He is giving you a commandment that you cannot keep.
Consider the explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed that Martin Luther included in the Small Catechism. Hopefully, you memorized it during your confirmation instruction. Think about what these words mean as I read them.
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
When it comes to salvation, God does all, A-L-L, all the work. These words of Martin Luther tell us that God the Holy Spirit even creates and maintains the faith that receives God’s salvation. When Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” (Luke 13:24) He is giving you an impossible task. You cannot by your own reason or strength strive to enter through the narrow door. But because it is the Word of God and because the Holy Spirit has promised to work through the word of God, the Holy Spirit will produce this striving in you.
The striving that Jesus speaks of is the work that the Holy Spirit does in you when He calls you by the Gospel and performs the miracle of faith in you. He works in you to produce repentance as you confess your sin and trust in Christ for forgiveness. With that forgiveness comes salvation and eternal life.
The struggle comes because your old sinful nature hates the work of the Holy Spirit in you. When the Holy Spirit works faith in you, you become a battle ground in the war that the evil one wages against God. You join the Apostle Paul as he mourns over his sin saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) You live the life of repentance that Martin Luther described in the first of his 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is the struggle that comes when the Holy Spirit moves you through the narrow door into eternal life.
Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Luke 13:24) His words teach us that the door to eternal life is open. He Himself opened it when He kept His appointment with the cross. As He hung on that cross in agony for you, He opened the narrow door. The blood He shed forgives you all your sin. It gives you eternal life. It earns you a place to recline at table in the Kingdom of God.
Christ’s resurrection is the promise that you too shall rise. He has preceded you in order to prepare your place as He promised when He said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3) You shall be among the people who will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29)
“Strive to enter through the narrow door.” It is open now, but the day is coming when, just as Christ rose to open the door, he will rise to close it. On this very day, the door will close for some as death takes them from this world to the next. Someday it will close for you. Someday it will close for me. Which side of the door will we be on?
Fortunately, the answer to that question does not depend on us. How blessed we are that Jesus Christ saved humanity in all times and in all places. How blessed we are that the Holy Spirit delivers that salvation through faith in Jesus Christ to humanity in all times and in all places. For as Christ’s saving work extends back in time to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets, (Luke 13:28) it also extends forward to include all of us. For as God’s word and His sacraments spread from Jerusalem to East and West, and North and South, so also people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29) That includes people who come from Illinois.
Thanks be to the Father who gives us the kingdom. Thanks be to Christ who strove for us on the cross and opened the door through which we enter the kingdom. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit who enlightens and sanctifies us so we can “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Amen
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