Strive to Enter through the Narrow Door
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 13:22-30.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It’s a common question, one often discussed by Jewish teachers during the day of Jesus’ ministry and the focus of speculation in our own day: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Some of the rabbis taught that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come; others, that only the spiritually elite (like them) would make the cut. Jesus’ answer is quite different, a sobering warning that should cause everyone to think—especially us who consider ourselves Christians.
You see, once again people are asking the wrong question. And they are concerned about the wrong person. “Instead of being so concerned about an abstract ‘How many?’ Jesus says, “You strive to get in.” Instead of wondering about others, check yourself. Will you be saved? Will you enter the kingdom of God? Will you recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets? Or will you will be cast out and left on the outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? Will you hear those dreadful words: “I tell you I do not know where you come from. Depart from Me, all you workers of evil”?
Theoretical questions, framed in the third person, put off repentance and do not lead to saving faith. So Jesus will not let us examine others without first examining ourselves. It’s a sobering truth: Some people are going to be rejected from the kingdom just as they have rejected the King. “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
Several of Jesus’ kingdom parables compare salvation to a great feast, or a banquet, given by a king. That is also the picture He uses here. Entrance into the banquet hall is by a single door. Notice, it’s a narrow door. That prevents great crowds of people from entering all at once.
I picture the corral and narrow chute that we would use for counting sheep or vaccinating cattle. You might think of a queue line at a fair with the turnstile that only allows you to enter one at a time. That is the point that Jesus is trying to make. Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time. There is no group admission. It doesn’t matter if you were born of the Israelites, or if you’ve come from a long line of church-going Christians. Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time. And that door is Jesus Himself. One enters the banquet hall by way of Jesus, the Lord of the Banquet.
Jesus urges His hearers: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Now Jesus isn’t saying that you earn your way into heaven. Indeed, He was on His way to complete that task for you. What He is saying is that once saving faith is created in your heart, you are engaged in a terrible struggle to keep it. You must guard against everything that threatens to destroy it. And to show how difficult it is, the Greek word translated “struggle” or “strive” is the word from which we get the word “agony.” And indeed, such a struggle is agony. It’s hard and it’s constant. And what do you agonize over? Well, certainly your sinful condition and the fact that you fall short of God’s glory. Old Adam constantly wages war on your new nature, enticing you to follow the desires of your sinful heart.
So, do you agonize over that? Do you know the agony of fighting against your sin? Or have you become comfortable with your sin, doing whatever you want without fearing God’s wrath? Do you give in to sin too easily thinking it is okay because God will forgive you anyway?
Dear friends, this should not be! As God’s beloved children you must strive against your sin with every ounce of strength. And to show the extent to which that struggle goes, consider today’s Epistle: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). No, you haven’t blood. Not one pint. Not one drop. Yet such struggle must be your aim.
And if that weren’t bad enough, Satan will do whatever he can to destroy your faith. And that makes the struggle doubly tough. You can’t “see” the devil; but you still have to fight against him. And that struggle doesn’t end until you rest in peace—in Christ. You agonize over sin and temptation, the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, until you are laid to rest in the grave where you will lie until the resurrection of all flesh.
Now, of course, you do not strive or struggle alone. For you have One who has resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood. Our Lord Jesus went to the cross and suffered the ultimate agony over sin—for you. For you, He shed His holy, precious blood. For you and your sin, Christ suffered God’s fiery wrath. For you, Jesus not only endured pain, humiliation, and thirst, but suffered the torments of hell. For you, Jesus gave up His spirit, that He might give you His Holy Spirit. He did all of this that you might believe His Word and receive His forgiveness, so that you might live as His dear child now and dwell with Him forever.
The struggle through which one enters the kingdom of God is repentance, which is actually a work of God in the human heart. The struggle is produced when the Word of God—such as the teaching of Jesus here—calls you to repent and trust in Christ, but your sinful nature rebels against God’s Word. The struggle is only resolved if you give up or your old Adam is put to death by the Law and you are raised to new life with Christ by the power of the Gospel.
St. Paul offers a window into this inner struggle in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” This ongoing, lifelong struggle characterizes the lives of all who are baptized into Christ. In the Small Catechism, Luther describes the baptismal life: “The Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
So, how do you enter the narrow door? Only through Jesus, of course. By God’s grace and power, repent of your sins, confess them, receive Christ’s forgiveness, and believe His promises of eternal life. Just like you did at the beginning of the service. Remember?
You confessed to almighty God, merciful Father: “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious to me, a poor, sinful being.”
And Jesus spoke to you through His called and ordained servant: “I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That is the essence of the struggle. That is how you strive to get through the narrow door. It’s actually quite simple; but it’s never easy!
You can’t enter on the strength of your own efforts; rather, you enter only in the arms of Jesus as He carries you in. Thus, your striving to enter the kingdom is to receive Jesus and all that He has done for you even as you strive against the sins which would entice you away from Him. Entrance through the narrow door is gained by those who repent and see in Jesus the Lord of the Banquet, for this door opens up into the house in which the end-time feast is to be celebrated.
Notice the sense of urgency. Time is of the essence. The time will come when the Lord is going to close that door. There will be some who will come knocking on the locked door demanding entry, but He will not open. Just as the time will come when the individual tree will be cut down, so also the time will come in each individual’s life and in the history of the world when the entrance to salvation will be closed. The message is plain: Don’t delay, but strive to enter now before it is too late. “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
So heed this warning: Not everyone will make it into the kingdom of God! It is a narrow, difficult way. But you need not despair, nor should you exhaust yourself futilely struggling to get through the door by your own efforts. Those who enter the kingdom of God pass through the door by grace, and the examples from the New Testament encourage as well as instruct.
One of the clearest examples of this is found in Acts. After Peter’s sermon on Pentecost the crowd asks a similar question to the one posed in our text, but there is an important difference. Convicted of their sins, they ask it in the first person: “What should we do?” The answer given is that Baptism in the name of Jesus—a Baptism of repentance to the forgiveness of sins with the gift of the promised Spirit—provides all that is necessary for entrance (Acts 2:37-39).
St. Luke goes on to tell us those that were baptized were added to the number of those being saved. They also remained steadfast “in the apostles’ doctrine, in the fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In other words, they remained in Christ’s Word—His Word and Sacrament. They joined with their fellow believers in worship and the Lord’s Supper, thus anticipating and rehearsing each Lord’s Day for the unending, end-time feast.
And so Jesus ends His discourse on the kingdom of God with a description of the people sitting at the banquet tables. As is to be expected, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are there. But then comes a surprise: many of Jesus’ contemporaries will find themselves on the outside looking in. Those who considered themselves to be among God’s people, the religious elite, will not gain entrance. They will see that other people from all over the world will be sitting in their places at the banquet of salvation. Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who heard the Gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet
Now, in the upside-down, inside-out, topsy-turvy way of the Gospel, both those in heaven and those left out will be surprised. Many of those on the outside will say, “I don’t deserve this.” But of course they do, because they refused the gift of life when it was offered to them or they gave up in their struggle against sin and entering the narrow door. Perhaps they even looked for another way in, relying on their religious heritage, good works, or a passing knowledge of Jesus.
Those on the inside will also say, “I don’t deserve this.” And they are absolutely correct. They don’t deserve it. By God’s grace in Jesus’ death on the cross, all the sins of the world were atoned for. By God’s grace and as a free gift, He created saving faith in you. And it’s that faith that will get you through the narrow door, for it clings only to Jesus and His forgiveness.
That’s why it’s so important to guard your gift of faith. That’s why it’s important to be diligent and faithful in attending the services of God’s House. For in the Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, you receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in the kingdom of God. In these means of grace your faith is strengthened and you are empowered to continue in your struggle against sin.
“Lord, are only a few going to be saved?” asks the man in our text. But Jesus doesn’t answer his question—at least not with a yes, a no, or a number. As He often does He directs His students to what is really important, what really matters, what has eternal consequences. Jesus warns that the door is narrow, so that you strive to remain faithful to His Word. But, He also has Good News for you: His grace is sufficient and the door is wide enough to gather people from all nations, from the four corners of the earth, into His kingdom.
And you, dear Christians, are among those gathered. Of this you can be sure, for you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.