The “Strait Gate and the Narrow Way” is a theme too common to require further exposition. Or so most Christians think.But the compelling truth behind it, once examined, might very well cause some “gnashing of teeth”.
Our Lord’s words are found in Matthew 7:13-14, and Luke 13:23-30. By comparing these two passages, it will be seen that our Master used the analogy on two separate occasions.
There are three words which need our attention.
STRAIT, NARROW, and STRUGGLE
STRAIT: the Greek word is STENOS, meaning cramped, confined, narrow, restricted. We speak of the “Straits of Gibraltar”, where the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean leads into the Mediterranean Sea via a narrow passage. Doctors have used the word STENOSIS to describe a common ailment of babies when the pylorus is too restricted to allow passage of food from the stomach. Figuratively, we say that someone “is in a strait” if circumstances leave him with almost no way to turn. This last example is perhaps the best for us, when examining our Lord’s words. He invites us to find a very restricted entrance, and to “struggle” to get through it. Further examination must now wait until we have looked at the other two words.
NARROW: At first sight, this word might seem to be just a repeat of the last word, but in the Greek it is quite different. The verb is THLIBO, and it speaks of affliction, compression, and distress. Whereas the word STRAIT referred to theGEOMETRY of a narrow passage, this word speaks of EXTERNAL PRESSURES being applied. The word STRAIT refers to the BEGINNING of a process, whereas NARROW refers to the CONTINUATION of that process. If one should find it difficult to squeeze through the gate, then afterwards he will find that he is persecuted for so doing. The pathway leading from the narrow gate is hemmed in by pressures, afflictions, persecutions, and TRIBULATIONS. This word “tribulation” is the usual way in which the noun is translated. The noun is THLIPSIS, and derives from the verb THLIBO.
STRUGGLE: The Greek verb is AGONIZOMAI, and it comes from a word that was always associated with the Olympic Games. These games had been played in Greece from the middle of the 8th century B.C., and the year that Jesus was crucified was the last year of the 202nd Olympiad. Language had developed and was in common use which referred to the games. AGONIZOMAI is one of those words. It refers to the training of athletes. It speaks of their struggle, their striving, theirdesire for excellence which causes them to abandon everything which might prevent them from reaching their goal of winning the laurel wreath.
Having examined these three words, we are now in a better position to see the force of our Master’ s words. Clearly He was using pictorial language. Our job must be to relate His words to actual situations of life. Furthermore, He was not speaking to the world, but rather to the Jews, in other words the people of God in those days.
It may not have occurred to you before. Do you see the point of this? Jesus said that there were two ways for the people of God. Those who took the BROAD ROAD were not the Greeks, the Romans, the Barbarians, and so on. They were His ownpeople the Jews. And if we keep this point in mind, we shall be translating the theme to our own days. Jesus would now be speaking to His church. Not to the world at large, but only to the church. He sees His church as consisting of two classes of people. A very large class who are walking down a broad road, and a very small class who have taken a narrow road.
Objections will be raised here. Someone will point out that the broad road “leads to destruction”, and this can never be the destiny of the “saved”..
But the word ‘destruction’ does not refer to the people themselves, but to their hopes. In Luke 13 we see these people banging at a door asking to be let in. They are not destroyed. We see them weeping, wailing, and gnashing their teeth, because, thinking they were eligible for entry, they were excluded. The world that knows not God could not be found in such a state. But these people say, “We have eaten and drunk in your presence, and you have taught in our streets.” It is clear that they looked upon themselves as God’s people, and were expecting a reward. But they were shut outside. Not destroyed. Shut out of something. Excluded from something. From what?
Christianity today has so muddled the clear plan of the Gospels that it sees only life and death, eternal life and eternal damnation. But Jesus brought the truth of the KINGDOM OF GOD to His people, and the kingdom is not the same as forgiveness of sins. A person may be forgiven, and enjoy peace with God, but under no circumstances could he be selected by God for a ministerial position in the coming Kingdom. And again we must say, that to have forgivess of sins requires no striving on our part. It requires a simple heart-felt “thank you” to our great Saviour for His sacrifice on our behalf at Calvary.“Not by works lest any man should boast.”
But the “strait gate and the narrow way” was spoken in the context of the coming kingdom. The “struggle” (equivalent to an Olympic training programme) to get through a very restricted entrance, and then to walk a pathway that attracts continual barrage of opposition, is quite another matter. These words bespeak training for government AFTER receiving forgiveness of sins.
The narrow way is WITHIN the broad way. This may seem contradictory, but is certainly true. The pressures applied to those on the narrow way come from those on the broad way. Quite the majority of the persecution that arose against the Christians in the first century A.D. came from the Jews, who were still regarded as God’s people. The same is true today, and finds its expression in many books. Those who tread the narrow way find most of their problems with the rest of the church. Misunderstandings may lie at the base of this, but soon it grows into dissention, opposition, and outright hostility. Why? Because the presence of the ‘few’ on the narrow way cause the consciences of those on the broad way to be stirred up. The “many” do not want to have their consciences stirred by the “few”. They are content with their easy way.
What then does the STRAIT GATE mean? In terms of the picture the Lord gave, we might say that fat men cannot squeeze through narrow openings. What does it mean to be too fat? It means that we have too much flesh. This is the crux of the matter. Our flesh prevents us from getting through the gate. The ways of our flesh are manifold. Those with great appetites for food and beer might literally become fat. And so literally their problem would be to cut down drastically until eating and drinking were for the correct purposes of healthy living.
But the flesh is more subtle than that. Anything that stands between us and the Lord may be called ‘flesh’. The Bible uses the word flesh to describe the fallen mind and passions of mankind. The unregenerate mind is at enmity with God. The renewed mind is capable of higher ways, but as Paul said in Romans 12, it needs spiritual cultivation to prove what is good and acceptable in the sight of God. Such things do not come naturally in the Christian life. They need cultivation. “Put off the old man with his ways, and put on the new.” Here is something for us to do, something to attend to, something that needs thought and contemplation, and prayer.
Reports abound today in Christian magazines of vast numbers of people from all over the world accepting Christ. Some groups speak of this as the “advance of the kingdom.” Some even hold out hopes for global conversion before our Lord returns. But what are the facts? Certainly there are many who are finding forgiveness of sins, and for this we are more than happy. But when it is called the ‘advance of the kingdom’ we would decline, and say that it has nothing to do with God’s kingdom. His kingdom has not yet appeared on earth. And as for the subject of world conversion, where is the Scriptural evidence of this? Some see it as quite the opposite when reading Daniel and the book of Revelation.
The truth of the matter is simply and profoundly stated by our Lord in these two passages under examination. Of all the millions who accept Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, only a very few enter a strait gate, and see the way ahead clearly in terms of Kingdom government. The real trouble is that all the rest have been led to believe that they will be chosen for the kingdom as well! Regardless of lack of training, lack of understanding, lack of true spiritual ability, they honestly believe that God is going to whisk them away into a heavenly dimension, there to reign with Christ. But even from a human point of view, this could not be sustained. What employer is there who does not insist on training for his employees? Even the most menial of tasks requires some expertise. But those which require executive ability are limited to the few who possess the necessary qualifications. What therefore is your spiritual ‘curriculum vitae’? Have you allowed to Lord to carve off all those pounds of (figurative) flesh? Have you ever made a pact with the Lord to seek Him in such a manner? Or do you reserve the right to continue in life with all mod cons and allowable comforts?
Jesus spoke of the parallel with Olympic athletes. Even today such men and women know that they have to deny themselves many of the ordinary comforts of life if ever they are going to reach an ‘Olympic standard’ of excellence. The parallel is not a difficult one to understand. But the practical application is difficult to grasp because of the subtleties of the human fleshly mind.
What guide lines can be given? What are the areas of subtlety that make us ‘too fat’ for entry? Is it possible to make a list, so as to help all those who might desire to train for government in God’s kingdom?
A few examples come to mind, and these we shall give, but no complete catalogue may ever be found, because we all have such individual cravings in the flesh, such deceptive vanities of thought, that lists would be cumbersome and lengthy.
Let us think first of all about business. One cannot exist without money. There is nothing wrong in earning money so as to live. But Peter warns that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’ Those who have their own businesses, and find that God prospers them (for we speak only of those who know God through Jesus Christ) may easily fall into the trap of pursuing their business BEYOND what is necessary, and so to the ‘pulling down of barns’ and building up great empires, and starving the mind of simple and spiritual things. Proverbs 15:15 reads, “The life of the poor is a constant struggle, but happy people always enjoy life. It is better to be poor and fear the Lord than to be rich and in trouble.”
But it goes beyond that. Our earthly ’empire’ may consist of a huge property or a small shack, a managerial position in a big company or a cobbler’s bench in the shed, each is as dangerous as the other depending on how we treat it. The subtlety is too great to treat with inadequate language. Test yourself out. Ask yourself what your ’empire’ means to you. Are you ready to relinquish it at a moment’s notice if the Lord should walk by and say “Follow me”? Do you hold all these earthly things on a very loose rein, so that they mean little in themselves? One may own a Rolls Royce, another an old banger. Each may worship his means of transport. Each should learn to see it for what it is, just a car, something to get from A to B. All will ultimately rust away and be scrapped. They cannot be ‘taken to heaven’ What we are trying to say is that the Bible shows no actual directive to dispose of all one’s wealth. It is how one’s possessions are viewed that matters. Abraham and Job were two of the world’s wealthiest men in their day, but the Lord knew that neither of them worshipped their possessions. Abraham’s problem lay with his family, not his cows. But the ‘rich young man’ certainly worshipped his riches, for he found that he couldn’t relinquish them. That is the acid test. Are we able to relinquish our possessions with ease, or do we find ourselves inwardly hankering after them? And so each one of us must come before the Lord and assess the true nature of our own heart about possessions. Sometimes, we shall not be able to make a true assessment, for the heart of man is deceitful above all things. But God knows it, and He will reveal to every honest enquirer the idolatry of his heart. If we want to go in for kingdom-training we must ask. The untrained and the untrainable have no place in God’s kingdom.
Now let us think about family. Abraham has already been mentioned. God saw that his family meant a great deal to him. God said leave them all and come away. He was only partly obedient. He took his father and his nephew Lot. Later he had to leave his father, and later still he had to separate from Lot. Then he misconstrued the Lord’s word about his offspring, and the outcome was the birth of Ishmael. When Isaac finally came, the Lord tested his love by asking for a sacrifice. And only at that stage did God see the thing He was looking for – a man whose love was wholly God-centred, quite unshackled by family affections, and God gave him a blessing second to none.
What is our family life like? Do we have problems similar to those of Abraham? How subtle we are sometimes, imagining that our affections are pleasing to God., whereas in reality they would act as barriers if ever He asked us to relinquish them.“Blood is thicker than water” says the old proverb. And it is true, but it should not be so for the children of God. Our love for God, if we have a single eye, should be such as to keep all human family affections on a short rein. Jesus said“Whoever does not hate his mother or his father, his wife, his children etc. “ And the context is clear. He is not advocating that we should actively ‘hate’ anybody. He is asking us whether we have ‘detached’ ourselves from the sticky glue that is commonly regarded as ‘family affection.’ Once again, we have a most difficult job before us, because often we are not able to assess just how much of our love is acceptable in God’s sight, and how much is ‘inordinate affection’, elsewhere called idolatry. God will reveal it to those who ask.
Finally in this brief study, we must ask about our faith. Now it might be considered reasonable to ask about our business, or even our family, but why our faith? Because here is a subtlety that extends beyond the scope of the previous two Those who know the Lord, and have accepted forgiveness of their sins, are mainly walking on the broad road. This is not our assessment, but of the Lord Himself. He said that ‘many‘ walk on the broad road, and only ‘few‘ find the narrow road. Therefore there must be something about the walk of a Christian that makes him self-satisfied, and unaware that he is treading a path of lesser worth. What is it? Sometimes it is simply a case of self-satisfaction, a state where the mind is not enlightened about one’s own condition before God. Sometimes it is an over-benevolent view of one’s position, whereby we unconsciously think, “I thank, God I am not like THEM!” Sometimes it is because we imagine we have all the answers, and have reached the stage of being teachers of others, having little if anything left to learn ourselves. But you say, surely these are extreme cases. Don’t we all feel the need for more? Ask yourself with greater honesty about this, and you may surprise yourself. After all, the Master did say that the majority miss the true way. None of us has any grounds for complacency. I write as one who feels very keenly the message I’m writing about, and my own short-comings.
May God use these words to alert some to their true position, and thereby find treasure hidden in a field. Though it cost them everything they possess, they will not stop until they have that surety concerning the strait gate and the narrow way. And without doubt God will train them for the Kingdom.