And one said unto him, “Lord, are they few that are saved?”
And he said unto them, “Strive to enter in by the narrow door: for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).
It seems to be the perennial question: who will be saved? “How many will be saved?” seems to immediately follow. It shows how people’s concern is squarely with the result of life and its corresponding judgment.
As Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, Luke records a question from someone in one of the crowds who had gathered around Jesus as He taught: this person wanted to know if it were only a few that would be saved (Luke 13:22-23). We can imagine many reasons why this person would ask such a question. Perhaps he felt as if he were one of those who was going to be saved and either felt smug about it or was concerned about the welfare of others. Perhaps he was worried that he would not make it if only a few were to make it. Regardless, we must understand this person’s question in light of the history of Israel: after all, God chose small Israel out of all the nations on earth (Deuteronomy 7:6-11), and even then, it was only a remnant of Israel that had endured to the time of Jesus (Ezekiel 6:8, 14:22, Micah 2:12, 4:7). In the grand scheme of things, comparably few had been saved; in light of what Jesus warned about the future of Israel, it made sense to wonder just how few would make it (Luke 13:31-35, 19:41-44).
Yet Jesus has none of it. He does not answer the question so as to provide the result; instead, He focuses on the process and means to the result (Luke 13:24). Those who hear Him should strive to enter by the narrow door (Luke 13:24); many will beg for entrance once the door is shut, but the Master of the house will not know them because of their iniquity (Luke 13:25-27). The conclusion of the matter would astonish the audience: they would see themselves, Jews who professed faithfulness to the God of Israel, excluded, while people from all the nations would recline at the table with the patriarchs and the prophets (Luke 13:28-29). Such was a grand reversal indeed (Luke 13:30)!
We do well to consider how Jesus addresses this question. He does not just come out with a yes or no answer; what good would that have done? People would either believe they were in the few by virtue of their belief in their standing before God and thus would persist in smugness or they were in the many because of their lack of confidence in any standing leading to despair. Such an answer would simply reinforce the status quo, and the status quo could not be tolerated!
Instead, He talks about seeking the narrow door, akin to seeking the narrow gate to the difficult path in Matthew 7:13-14. Yes, as He says, “many” will seek to enter in and will not be able. One might be tempted to take this, along with Matthew 7:13-14, as simply a “yes” answer to the question that was asked. Yet Jesus approaches the situation very carefully and for good reason: the way you get to the result is what matters.
In the grand scheme of things, the few will be saved, and not the many, as seen here and in Matthew 7:13-14. Yet it is not because God has some particular favor for the few over the many, or that God has chosen few over many. Far too often these passages are used by smaller groups to justify their smallness: “see, Jesus said that few would find the right path. There are only a few of us compared to everyone else. Therefore, we are clearly on the right path!”. The challenge is, of course, that every group with every conceivable doctrine, whether numbering in the tens or in the billions, falls prey to the same argument. Ask anyone; they all went through the narrow gate, or they all search for the narrow door!
Nevertheless, as Jesus teaches, the result comes on the basis of the process and the means by which one comes to the result. Those who are saved will not be saved because they aligned themselves with the right group; they will be saved because they put their trust in God in Christ and sought to serve Him, or will be condemned because they failed to do so (Romans 6:15-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). This is the warning Jesus seeks to provide to the Israelites: you will not be saved merely because you are an Israelite. You will not be saved just because you happened to live at the same time as Jesus did, and happened to listen to Him teach and preach. You will only be saved if you did something about it and followed His teaching and preaching!
To use the imagery of Matthew 7:13-14, we do well to focus on navigating the difficult path rather than analyzing the narrowness of the gate; in terms of Luke 13:24 here, we do well to focus more on entering the door as soon as possible rather than the specifications of just how narrow it might be. It will not be left open forever, and no one gains access because they “know a guy” or “know a guy who knows a guy.” We can only enter because we are known to Jesus the Master, and we are only known by Him when we have proven willing to follow after Him and serve Him no matter what.
Sadly, those who will be saved will be few; this is not because it is the Lord’s will, but because precious few prove willing to enter the narrow door while there is time or to take the difficult path. Let us not be conceited, automatically assuming we have entered the narrow door, but let us put ourselves to the test and prove willing to follow Jesus wherever He leads us. Meanwhile, let us exhort all people to follow the Lord Jesus while there is yet time and thus join the number of the saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry