“Make every effort…” (Luke 13)

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“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?’

This language of being “saved” is not the preserve of fundamentalist preachers and slightly crazed and unintelligent Christians. It is woven into the cloth of the very first sharing of the gospel. Good news for those who accept what Jesus says means bad news for the those that don’t. You’re either saved or lost.

So what makes the difference?

“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!”

The verb in v24 is agonizesthe, from which we get the word “agonise.” “Make every effort to enter” is described in this dramatic term. As in the picture above, elsewhere in the NT, Paul uses this word  to speak of athletic competition (1 Cor. 9:25), training intensively in Godliness (1 Tim. 4:10), and fighting the good fight (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). While salvation is a gift of God, it is clear that God expects us to cherish it as an athlete cherishes the victor’s crown—suggesting that we need an athlete’s discipline and determination in pursuing entrance through the narrow door.

You have to go for it with all your might.

Why? Because the opportunity is limited. Right now it is limited by being “narrow,” but one day it will be shut altogether.

The door is narrow, and “many…will seek to enter in, and will not be able” (v 24). Just as we cannot scoff whole plates of fudge and expect to fit into last year’s jeans, we cannot expect to be spiritually undisciplined and to make it through the narrow door.

Now this would not worry the Jewish listeners at all, since they all knew that Israel was God’s elect People of God (and no one else need apply). The surprise in Jesus’ reply is not that access may be limited, but who the People of God really were, who gain entry. Like physical conditioning, spiritual conditioning requires discipline, and many people are unwilling to pay the price.

We live in a time when many people believe that all roads lead to God—that all beliefs are equally valid—that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. The NT teaches exactly the opposite.

The point is that God gives us a period of time when we can prepare for the kingdom, followed by a time of judgment. Once the door shuts, there is no longer room for preparation or negotiation.

It’s like a spot test. All that matters now is how well you prepared yesterday.

But but…“We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets” (v 26). Such words are self-indicting. The person who was so close to Jesus and heard his teaching had every opportunity to become his disciple. In the previous chapter, Jesus warned, “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked” (12:48).

“I do not know where you come from.” The literal Greek order is “I do not know you, where you come from” (v 27). It’s a repudiation of the claimed friendship and the obligations of friendship that go with it.

And then the big surprise is pulled: 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.’” 

Jesus is speaking to sons of Abraham, but he warns that some of them will find themselves on the outside looking in at the “feast in the kingdom of God.“. They will see the celebrities, but will not be able to join them. Excluded.

As I said, Jesus’ listeners would not be surprised to hear that some people of Israel will be among those excluded. Some of the Jewish religious folk thought of themselves as among the elect and others are doomed. But not only are those who think of themselves as “sure things”  excluded but some unlikely candidates from the north, south, east and west gain access.

In Luke’s sequel to this Gospel—the Acts of the Apostles—he will record the slow awakening of the church to God’s intent that Gentiles be accorded full admission to the church. And even within the Gospel, Jesus has been a friend of tax collectors and sinners and shared table fellowship with them (Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1)—a fact that sparked a good deal of criticism. Jesus, however, was signaling that God’s love extends to these unlikely candidates—and was also signaling that the company at the “feast” would be far different from that which the religious leaders envisioned.

How do we apply this passage now? Surely it strips away complacency and forces a radical rethink of who we are. If we claim intimacy, then that only increases our culpability! We cannot simply claim to be  the People of God, the covenanted insiders, for that is no different to the claims of the religious people of Jesus’s day.

We are pushed back to two things, I think. The first is to a fresh understanding of the cross of Christ and the possibility of grace given us there, at the very death of our own prideful prospects.

And the second is to that word tranlsated “Make every effort.” This isn’t salvation by works. It’s simply asking the question: “How much of your energy and life will this take?”

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