It is a scary reality that many people who think they are in the faith will find out that they were not truly in the faith. It would seem that Jesus would have spoken this Scripture today to people who sit in church pews and attend church regularly. It is easy for those living on the streets to see they are not a part of God’s kingdom. It is also easy for criminals to see that they are on the outside looking in. However, Jesus spoke of a group of people that adamantly declared that they were His followers. As a result, we must look at three points of examination.
- The gate and the way (Matt. 7:13-14)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the way that His followers will travel a road that few walk on. He calls this way or this path a narrow one. For any of you who have ever hiked before, you will know that when a path is frequently traveled, it is a well-worn path. However, there are times when you will be hiking and you will come to paths that are not worn much at all. They are narrower than the rest. This narrow path is the one Jesus spoke of.
Jesus said to “enter by the narrow gate” if we’re seeking life. Why did He seemingly discourage people from becoming Christians? What makes the gate so narrow?
At the beginning of His ministry, thousands of disciples chased after Jesus Christ as they would a celebrity—but after His death, that number had dwindled to only a few hundred (Acts 1:15; 1 Corinthians 15:6).
These disciples quickly learned that being a Christian was no walk in the park. Following in the footsteps of our Savior means more than just giving your heart to the Lord—it often means making difficult choices and doing difficult things.
(See “How Do You Know You Have the Holy Spirit?” for more insight into the conversion process.)
Jesus warned His disciples about that while He was still alive. He told them, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14, emphasis added throughout).
The narrow gate and the difficult way
“The narrow gate” is a fairly straightforward concept. A narrow gate is harder to pass through than one that is wide, and only a few people can go through a narrow gate at once.
Jesus was describing the pathway to life—true, eternal life—as something requiring effort and focus to enter. Only a relatively small number of people ever even set foot on that path.
But getting onto the path is only the first step. When He said, “Difficult is the way which leads to life,” Jesus was explaining how hard being a Christian really is.
“Difficult” is from the Greek word thlibo, which means: “To press (as grapes), press hard upon; a compressed way; narrow straitened, contracted.” Metaphorically, the word can also mean “to trouble, afflict, distress.” If Jesus wanted to draw people to follow Him, why did He tell prospective disciples that doing so would bring them grief?
To understand what He meant, let’s examine a few of the passages where He seemingly discouraged people from following Him. Luke writes of three encounters Jesus had with would-be Christians as He and His disciples were traveling, and each of these encounters offers insight into what makes the gate so narrow and the way so difficult.
The narrow gate of uncertainty
One would-be follower made a dramatic statement of commitment, saying to Christ: “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go” (Luke 9:57).
Jesus didn’t reply, “Wonderful! Please join us!” Instead, He said something that, at the least, would have caused the man to have second thoughts and, at the most, would have turned him away completely: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (verse 58).
Jesus was conveying the uncertainty that could accompany the life of a true Christian. To follow Christ, we must be willing to accept a certain amount of volatility in our lives—knowing that we will remain living in the world without remaining part of the world (John 17:9-19).
The narrow gate of priority
Luke’s narrative continues with Jesus turning to another person and telling him, “Follow Me” (verse 59). The man begged off, asking that he be allowed to first bury his father.
Since Jewish custom was to bury the dead as soon as possible, it is unlikely the man was out with the crowd around Jesus with a dead father at home. More likely, the man was asking to spend whatever remaining time he might have with an aging or perhaps ill father—an open-ended request actually.
The blunt record of Luke has Jesus responding to this man’s excuse, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God” (verse 60). Obviously, dead people do not bury anyone. Here, Jesus was referring to those who were spiritually dead—people who had not responded to His teaching.
Jesus was telling the potential Christian that his calling was infinitely more important. The same is true for us—we can’t dedicate ourselves to follow Christ if we keep putting vague, open-ended priorities in front of our calling.
The narrow gate of commitment
Then a third man, who was committed to becoming a disciple, made a seemingly reasonable request to first return home to say goodbye to whoever was at his house (verse 61). (It’s unclear if these people were family or guests.)
To this person, Jesus responded: “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (verse 62).
We cannot know with certainty, but this person may not have been as committed as his words make it sound. Jesus knew his heart and saw it necessary to remind the man that looking back was not an option.
The Bible records only the essence of the exchange—what we need to know to understand the main point. All three of these responses add clarity to Christ’s teaching that “narrow is the gate.”
In this third example, the added lesson was that Christians must continue to keep their eyes on the goal—God’s Kingdom.
An experienced plowman immediately recognizes the point of this analogy. When plowing, the farmer fixes his eyes on a rock, a hill or some other marker, so that he will plow straight furrows. Although modern farmers with vast fields often use GPS equipment to accomplish this, the principle remains the same!
Other narrow gates to consider
A few chapters later, we find another insightful account about what we must do to become followers of Jesus Christ.
With a huge number of people crowding around to hear Jesus’ every word, He gave more examples not of how easy it is to give your heart to the Lord, but how heavy the obligation of becoming a Christian is.
A Narrow Gate; a Hard Way
“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (v. 14). – Matthew 7:13–14
Good preachers typically offer an application of the content they have delivered in their sermons. Often, an exhortation is given and the congregation is called to make a decision based on what they have heard. People need to be encouraged to act after God’s Word has been delivered. Once we have heard what the Lord demands of us, we will be held responsible if we do not obey.
Pastors follow the model of Jesus at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount when they call upon their flocks to make a decision. In today’s passage, our Savior makes final application of all that He has said in Matthew 5:1–7:12. Now that we know what He demands of us, we must choose to follow Him. Ultimately, 7:13–27 shows us we have only two options. We will either follow Christ wholeheartedly or we will go down the path of destruction. There can be no half-hearted commitment to Jesus; if we are not on the narrow road of discipleship, then we are on the wide road to eternal damnation (vv. 13–14).
This call to decide does not mean we are able to choose the right path before we become Christians. Salvation is by grace through faith, a gift to God’s people chosen from the foundation of the world (Eph. 2:8–9). However, those whom the Father transforms by grace inevitably choose to serve Christ. Good works, including our confession of Jesus and our obedience to His commands, follow necessarily from a changed heart (v. 10). Moreover, we still need this grace even after it first sets us on the true way of Christ in our conversion. We must daily turn to the cross and seek Christ in order that we might finish the race. Our Creator gives more grace to all who humble themselves, admit their weaknesses, and ask for strength (James 4:6–10). As Matthew Henry writes: “We can neither go in, or go on, without the assistance of divine grace; but it is as true that grace is freely offered, and shall not be lacking to those who seek it and submit to it.”
Our Lord echoes the great prophets and leaders of Israel when He calls us to choose the narrow path of godliness (for example, Josh. 24:14–15). Lest we apostatize as the nation of Israel did, let us commit ourselves each day, by His grace and Spirit, to live out the kingdom ethic as Jesus has commanded.
Matthew Henry summarizes Jesus’ teaching in today’s passage: “We must endure hardship, must wrestle and be in agony, must watch in all things, and walk with care and circumspection. We must go through much tribulation.” Christ’s way is narrow and we dare not pretend otherwise. As we share the Gospel, let us tell people that following Jesus means we abandon our agenda for His. Following Him means a reorientation of life, one that might make others hate us.