Agonizing through the narrow door
Luke 13:22-30 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ 26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
We have done a lot of work on our home this past year. We are now at the point of purchasing doors for the closets, laundry room, bedroom, and bathroom. I never knew that were so many decisions when it came to doors!
There are left-swinging doors, right-swinging doors, and sliding barn doors. There are pine doors, oak doors, and knotty alder doors. There are arch-raised two panel doors, six-panel doors, and flat mission three-panel doors.
And once you’ve decided that you need a knotty alder mission panel barn door, you think you are finished. … But you aren’t! Then you have to know the size of door to fit the doorway. Is it a narrow door or a wide door? 18 inches for a linen closet or 36 inches for the bedroom – which is handicap accessible – which is what my contractor said I’ll need for my wheelchair someday.
I never knew there was so much agonizing over doors!
And yet that’s exactly what Jesus said on His way to Jerusalem. Someone asked Him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Jesus, being a carpenter’s son, starts talking about doors: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door.”
“Are only a few people going to be saved?” You wonder sometimes, don’t you, when you look at the world as it is right now. When you see the diminishing impact that Christianity seems to have on our culture. When you see the damaging impact that our culture seems to be having upon Christians. When churches have become houses of entertainment or personal therapy or anything other than places where repentance and forgiveness are proclaimed in the name of Jesus. Will only a few be saved?
Whatever the motives of the man who asked the question, he assumes that salvation is for the few and not the many; that the kingdom of God is an exclusive country club; a refuge for the religious; a sanctuary for the salvageable; a health spa for the spiritually fit – that salvation is for the winners.
Jesus describes salvation in terms of doors. Specifically, narrow and wide doors. He says, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door.” “Make every effort” is really one word in the Greek. It is the word “agonizomai.” You can hear our English word, “agonize” in there. “Agonizomai” means to strive, to struggle, to exert enormous effort like in an Olympic wrestling match. Wrestlers will “agonizomai” to win the contest and prevail in the end. That’s how the word is used here when Jesus says, “Agonize to enter through the narrow door.”
This agonizing doesn’t come from worrying about our salvation – if we are really on the guest list or not. This agonizing doesn’t come from working hard for our salvation by limiting our sins and doing plenty of good works. This agonizing doesn’t come from being part of the right faith heritage – Abraham’s, Luther’s, or otherwise.
Rather, salvation is already yours. You are already on the guest list. The narrow door to heaven is already open to you. So where does the agonizing come in?
Right here. Right now. In this lifetime.
You know this agony. You feel this agony. There are three behemoth wrestlers on the other side of the mat ready to tag-team against little old you.
You strive to come to church, but your sinful flesh wants you to work hard during the week, party harder during the weekend, and rest on Sunday morning. It feels like agony to get out of bed and sit in the pew for an hour.
You struggle to be hopeful and upbeat as a Christian. But the current political process doesn’t leave you with a lot of hope for the future, while your medical prognosis doesn’t leave you with a lot of hope for the present. You hear about one public school that won’t call their students “boys” and “girls”, but rather “scholars”, and another public university that won’t allow Christians to ask their fellow students if they can pray for them. You try to speak out in a culture that stifles consciences. It feels like agony as the world is conspiring against you.
You make every effort to live the Christian life at work and at home, but you are so tired, your kids are so aggravating, and your boss is so irritating. You know what temptations are alluring; which lust is addicting; which sin is habit-forming. It is hard to bite your tongue, to overcome temptation, to live the Christian life. It feels like agony as the devil turns his onslaught against you.
Flesh, then the world, then the devil – each tagging in, one right after the other. Each taking a turn to see if they can defeat you and pin you to the mat. All these forces are trying to keep you from entering through the narrow door.
So you see what we’re up against. It is indeed an effort – an agonizing struggle – to live as a Christian and to keep the faith. It’s like St. Paul explains: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Being a Christian is not easy. It calls for a continuous effort. That’s why Jesus says here, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door.”
And then there’s this “narrow door” business. What does Jesus mean by that? Is He putting an addition on His home, too, so He’s thinking about doors? When Jesus says that the door is “narrow,” it means that there is just one way in. There are not many doors that open to heaven. Just one. It is through Jesus only; through faith in Him alone; through use of His Word and Sacraments solely; and nothing else. Jesus says: “I am the [door]way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He also explains: “I am the door; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). There is a narrow door for you! It’s Jesus!
The way of Christ is a narrow, exclusive way. “No one comes to the Father, except through me,” Jesus said (John 14:6). His death and resurrection are the only way that leads to life. There is no other way. All other paths, no matter how pious, how religious, how rigorous, run into the impenetrable brick wall of the Law and only lead to weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The doorway is open only for a little while – one lifetime. The door slams shut at your death or on the day of Jesus’ return – whichever comes first, and you do not know the day or the hour. Don’t delay. Make use of God’s Word, His Sacraments, repentance, forgiveness, prayers and hymns now before you run out of time. There will be those who considered themselves good enough to enter heaven – after all, they were baptized and confirmed at one time. But because they never practiced their faith, strengthened their faith, fed their faith – they can find themselves on the wrong side of that narrow door, banging and pleading that they are entitled to be let in. They allowed the unholy trinity to beat them. They never really agonized about their faith. They’ll plead their case, “We ate and drank with you and listened to you teach.” But Jesus doesn’t judge based on what we have done or are doing. Rather, He judges based on what we believe and if we put that faith into practice. He will reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, you evildoers!”
The door is narrow. That doesn’t mean that you have to squeeze to fit in. It means that there is only one way to enter. But the door is wide open for you. Jesus has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Trust in Him – only Him – and you will be saved.
That’s why Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. There on a scarred hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus’s arms were extended far and wide upon the cross. Those divinely human arms bore the full weight of the world’s sins upon them. Those perfectly scourged arms opened wide the doorway to heaven so that all who believe in Him might be saved. Those crucified and resurrected arms are waiting in heaven to embrace you into His heavenly kingdom. The door is open. Enter in.
Yes, it is definitely agonizing to struggle and strive and wrestle against the unholy trinity. It is hard work keeping the faith, sharing the faith, spreading the faith. But Jesus already did the ultimate agonizing work for your salvation. He agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, telling His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” Then He agonized as He prayed to heaven, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup [of agony] be taken from me” (Matthew 26:38-39). The next morning, Jesus struggled under the weight of the cross and needed Simon of Cyrene to carry it to Golgotha’s hill (Luke 23:26). The next afternoon, Jesus cried out from the cross in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 26:46)?
Jesus struggled, and strove, and agonized to open the door of salvation to all who believe in Him as their crucified and resurrected Savior.
The narrow door to the kingdom of heaven is also a wide door, open to the nations. Jesus commanded His church to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). The prophet Isaiah said the word of salvation would go out from Israel to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians, to Tubal and Greece (to those who were ancient enemies of Israel), and to the distant islands that had not yet heard of the saving name of the Lord (Isaiah 66:19). They would all proclaim God’s glory among the nations.
Will only a few be saved? That depends entirely on how you look at it. If you look at it “from below,” from our perspective, the answer is “not even a few, not even one.” No one can be saved on his or her own merits and works. So if you look at it “from below,” from what we can see and know on our own, you can never be sure that you are among the chosen few.
But if you look at it “from above,” from God’s viewpoint, lensed through the narrow door of Jesus’ cross, then the answer is “not a few, but many.” It is a great multitude that no one can count from every nation, tribe, people, and language. Not the exclusive few from a chosen nation, but the inclusive many from all nations. Peoples of all ages, cultures, and races, gathered from the ends of the earth to eat and take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Because “in Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth” (CW: 536 v1).
Shelley and I have had to agonize over putting new doors in our home. Jesus wants you to agonize through the narrow door of salvation. The unholy trinity of the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh are a formidable tag team trying to keep you from that door. But Jesus is your tag-team partner in this agonizing wrestling match you’re engaged in. In fact, He is your champion. He has won the victory for you. He has opened the door for you. That narrow door is wide open, waiting for you to enter. Jesus agonized to open that door for you. Agonize, struggle, and make every effort to enter the door. Amen.
1. What does Jesus mean when He says, “Make every effort (agonize) to enter through the narrow door”?
2. How did Jesus agonize to open the door to His kingdom for you?
3. How would you answer the question, “Are only a few going to be saved?”