Great Texts of the Bible
The Narrow Door
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 13:24.
This solemn warning was provoked by a very simple inquiry. One disciple ventured to put into words the question which often rises up, unbidden, in the hearts of us all: “Lord, are there few that be saved?” What could be more natural and innocent to ask? Yet in Christ’s ears the question sounded almost frivolous, and He rebuked it by grave, stern sentences which drove home on the questioner’s conscience the urgency of his own salvation. Our Lord could never tolerate the theological speculations in which men dissipate their religious earnestness and fritter away their spiritual energies. When we go to Him with our eager questionings about the future, He always brings us back to the unspeakable seriousness of our own present. When we ask Him about the end of the world and the date of the judgment day, we hear Him answer:
“Let your loins be girded about, and your lamps burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord.” “What I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch.” And so also when we speculate over the destiny of those heathen multitudes who have lived and died without the true Light, the New Testament straightway recalls us to our personal accountability: “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.” “Walk as children of light.” And again, when we strive to peer into God’s final secrets and to forecast the latter end of all souls, we are arrested by these piercing, heart-searching words, and bidden to strive to enter by the door.
Let us ask—
I. What Door is This?
II. How are we to Enter?
What Door is This
The door to which Christ refers is the entrance into His Kingdom. By this figure He places before His hearers the great alternatives of life, and summons them to decision. There are two gates, two ways, two goals, two sides of the throne, two kinds of foundation for the house we build: and we have to make our choice between them. We can go in at the strait gate, or at the wide gate, but not at both. We can travel in the broad way, or the narrow way, but not in both. We can build on the rock, or on the sand, but not on both. We shrink from making this decisively plain to ourselves, that the decisiveness of our action or inaction may also remain veiled; but it is implied even in this foolish question; it is emphasized in our Lord’s answer; and it is the one conviction without which thought on this subject is fruitless. The ideas we have formed of salvation and perdition, of life saved and life lost, of the bright banqueting-hall and the outer darkness, of heaven and hell, may be erroneous enough; but there can be no reason for thinking of such things at all, and as little profit in it, unless we feel that in the very nature of the case these are alternatives which for ever exclude each other. Christ’s answer bears directly on this, and is wholly plain and practical. “Strive to enter in by the narrow door.”
1. This is a narrow door. In the Authorized Version it is called a “strait gate,” and the term “strait” is, of course, quite a different word from “straight.” Straight means that which is not crooked; strait is an old-fashioned word meaning narrow. We find the same word used by our Lord in Matthew 7:13-14; and there He explains fully what the strait gate means. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.” The strait gate and the narrow way mean the way of eternal life, the way of salvation, the gate or entrance to the Kingdom.
The gate is strait to our weak, unwilling nature, however gloriously open and free in itself. It is too low for pride, which will not come down from its high horse to enter on foot like a beggar, or like a little child. It is too narrow for philosophy, for the wisdom of this world; it is too definite, exclusive, and dogmatic. It is too strait for earthliness and greed. The rich man cannot bring his gear and his gains in with him, and so from the very threshold he turns away sorrowful, for he has great possessions.
There was a man—a lean, cold, spectral man—never sunny, genial, poetical, for a day in his life; skin and bone—skin and bone. And they called him a Pharisee. He stood in all his erect leanness, and said how often he fasted, what tithes he paid, and what an excellent man he was. Jesus Christ said, “Well, you cannot go in at this gate. You will have to lay down and trample under foot all that fasting and tithe-paying, all that excellent virtue, for ‘strait is the gate’!” A man has to lay down a great deal before he can get through this gate. He has to take a great many idols out of his pockets and throw them away; then to go through the chambers of his mind and take out theory after theory, by the hundred, and blow them away. Except ye be converted and become as little children—simple-minded, gentle, pure, loving, trustful children—ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Great, tall men, who believe in themselves—who are afraid they will knock their heads against the stars if they stand right up—cannot, cannot get in. The gate truly is strait and the way narrow!1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]
(1) The way is called narrow in opposition to the wide gate, and the wide gate is not so hard to understand. A wide gate is one through which you can pass easily, carrying what you please, and no questions are asked. That, Jesus tells us, is the kind of gate which opens on the way that leads to destruction. You can go in with your money, your pride, your sloth, your appetites, your vices, whatever you please. Nothing is excluded, and there is no toll. The consequence is that many do go in. The wide gate is always busy; the broad way thronged with travellers. You can drift in with the stream, you can have the pleasant sense of being well supported; you can maintain a certain self-respect by pointing to the large numbers of people, of all possible capacities, tastes, and characters, who have taken that way. Nevertheless, it leads to destruction.
Moshesh, the Basuto chief, played fast and loose with the missionaries, giving himself up to the devices of the magicians, and in particular to those of a prophetess called Mantsupha. This witch declared she worshipped the same God as the missionaries, but that, as she had herself been up to Heaven, her information was first-hand, whereas theirs was only second-hand from a book. This information was, first, that polygamy was lawful; secondly, that the way to heaven was not a narrow way, as the missionaries maintained, but a very broad way, for as God was the Supreme Chief, many people must always be coming and going from this place, and consequently the road had to be very wide indeed.
It was about four months before his death, five years later, that Moshesh gave tokens of a real spiritual change. The missionaries had almost ceased to hope for this. One day towards the close of 1869, M. Jousse came to see him, and he begged him to read the Bible. The passage chosen was the 14th of John. It had always been a favourite with the old chief, who when he came to the sixth verse repeated it after him: “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” “Son of Mokachane,” said M. Jousse, “a throne is prepared for you in heaven; believe in Jesus the Saviour of the world, and you will be there.”
It was just as if he heard the message of salvation for the first time. A heaven opened to the sinner, and a Saviour who presents it to us—these were the two ideas he grasped. After the missionary left he had this passage read to him again, and reproached the Christians round him with having concealed the Way of Salvation from him, though he had heard it hundreds of times. In the middle of the same night he sent some of them to M. Jousse to say, “Moshesh declares himself a Christian.” M. Jousse at once came, and the next day sent to four other missionaries, who all visited Moshesh and were astounded at the reality of the change they witnessed. He summoned each of his sons to his bedside to hear his testimony. He also sent for the prophetess Mantsupha, the same who had declared the road to heaven was a broad road and who since then had herself become a Christian. Taking both her hands he said, “My sister, my sister, we both come from very far off, but now we must both walk in the narrow way.”1 [Note: C. W. Mackintosh, Coillard of the Zambesi, 191.]
(2) The narrow door is the door of renunciation, and it is left for every man to say what in his case must be renounced before he can enter. No sin can go through: the narrow door calls for repentance, and renunciation of evil. No sham can go through: it demands renunciation of acted insincerity, and a humble resolve to walk in the truth. No compromising relations with evil can go through, no tenderness for old associations which ignore God, no disposition to fret or pity ourselves; and hence for some there is no entrance unless they pluck out a right eye, cut off a right hand or a right foot, and enter halt or maimed or blind rather than stay outside. To come to the narrow door is to feel that what lies beyond is the one thing needful, and that it is a good bargain, for the sake of it, to renounce all that has ever been dear to us.
Christ here reminds us that the commonest of all temptations is that of making our religion easy. But the path of serious moral effort can never be other than narrow and arduous. And here, as in other things, it is the first step that costs so much. Someone has said that “though it is hard to become a Christian, it is easy to be a Christian.” This means, I suppose, that it is the initial stage of a Christian life that is supremely tasking. The struggle is to enter in through the narrow door of renunciation. Christ’s purpose here is to make us feel that in the case of every child of man some such struggle is imperative. The old apologue of the choice of Hercules was more profoundly true than was suspected by pagan fathers who taught it to their children. All moral life involves a choice between two distinct alternatives. And Christian life is arduous, because renunciation stands at its threshold; and no one, however he may seek to do so, can enter the Kingdom of God without the serious effort and struggle implied in preferring to the easy way of self-pleasing the rough and difficult pathway of duty.
The whole career of Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress carries out the ideas of the wicket gate and the narrow way leading to life, on which few enter, and in which fewer still persevere to the end. Bunyan realized the gravity and the perils of the spiritual quest in a fashion which is hardly popular to-day. He would have endorsed every syllable of Browning’s sentence: “How very hard it is to be a Christian!” The consecrated life of self-surrender and self-denial taxes to their utmost all the highest powers of the soul.
Let no man think that sudden in a minute
All is accomplished and the work is done;—
Though with thine earliest dawn thou shouldst begin it
Scarce were it ended in thy setting sun.
We pervert the Gospel, when we preach it as a broad gate and a smooth way, when we practise it by shunning the thorns and choosing the flowers.1 [Note: T. H. Darlow, The Upward Calling, 47.]
If ignorance and passion are the foes of popular morality, it must be confessed that moral indifference is the malady of the cultivated classes. The modern separation of enlightenment and virtue, of thought and conscience, of the intellectual aristocracy from the honest and vulgar crowd, is the greatest danger that can threaten liberty. When any society produces an increasing number of literary exquisites, of satirists, sceptics and beaux esprits, some chemical disorganization of fabric may be inferred. What was it that Mephistopheles lacked? Not intelligence certainly but goodness.2 [Note: Amiel’s Journal Intime.]
2. Look at life and ask what high and noble achievement there is, the doing of which does not make the same severe demands that Christ makes on His followers. Art and science and literature require of their votaries the homage of an undivided heart. Before supreme excellence can be attained in any pursuit or calling the price has to be paid to the uttermost farthing. Professional life is a winnowing, selecting process that works with automatic energy; and it is a patent fact of observation that in all things requiring strain and effort the few succeed, the many fail. Everywhere in every department of human activity the same spectacle meets the eye; the broad, smooth road of ease and popularity is thronged by the multitudes who are contented to take life as they find it, while the narrow path of strenuous endeavour is trodden by the self-renouncing few.
The artist must bring to his work the ardour of the young lover or the missionary. No matter what his artistic organization, if he is satisfied with a few hours’ hard work—no matter how hard—and can throw thought of it aside and say he has done enough for the day and will throw aside “shop”; not for him will be a place on the highest level for all time.3 [Note: George Frederic Watts, i. 84.]
3. The door, though narrow, is now open. The entrance is without money and without price. There are no conditions imposed by Him who set it open, and one great difficulty is to convince the entrants that there must be no conditions self-imposed by them. This gate is perfectly open to all who come just as they are. For there are no limits in the invitation, no conditions in the coming, and no objections to the comers. Hear the King’s own word: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden.” Could words be plainer, sweeter, than these? If there were not another word, were not this enough? But, as if to anticipate every possible objection, He adds: “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” The door is not narrow in the sense of keeping out any who come as they are invited. The thirsty comer never found the fountain sealed. The purseless comer never was denied the wine and milk because he brought no price—he was expressly told to come purseless. The beggar from the highway has never wanted room at this banquet because he came in rags to the door; the weary and the heavy-laden never came and were refused rest; the greatest sinner that ever lived will not come in vain—when he comes as the chief of sinners, to be saved.
Dr. John Paton, the great missionary to the New Hebrides, tells us in his autobiography a very tender incident. He tells us that his brother Walter was a sailor, that he went to sea when quite a young lad, and that after a voyage or two no more was heard of him. The sea has great secrets to tell some day. But that mother’s heart could never conclude that she would never see her boy’s face again. At least she resolved that, should he ever come by day or by night, there would be a welcome for him at the old fireside. And so the last thing she did every night before she retired to rest was to take the door off the latch and leave it open to admit the lost boy. Should he ever come, even in the midnight, there was to be no bar against his entrance. And that mother’s heart was only a faint picture of what the great Father’s heart is in Jesus Christ.
4. But the door, now open, will be shut one day, and the effort to enter will be unavailing. Many do not seek entrance till it is too late. What a time to begin to think of entering—when the Master of the house has risen and shut-to the door! Is a man to keep God and the universe in everlasting suspense? Is the world to wait for ever to see whether I will make up my mind? If not, there is the possibility of beginning too late; of refusing to be serious till the door is shut, and seriousness no longer avails. “To-day, if ye shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Delay becomes fatal, because it begets irresolution, and nothing more easily than irresolution becomes chronic, incurable, irreparable. Decent people probably lose more by it than by all the sins they confess put together. They lose eternal life by it when it makes them, as it eventually does, incapable of the grand decisive renunciation by which alone we can pass the strait gate.
J. M. Barrie has given us in A Window in Thrums a very pathetic picture of Jamie’s homecoming. When some of the neighbours saw Jamie prowling about in the gloaming near the old home, his face seemed to them like that of a man who had come “straucht frae hell.” He had gone back to the old home. He meant to go back in penitence to find safety and rest, at the old fireside, and in the shelter of a mother’s wounded but forgiving and tender love; but he was too late. The door of the old cottage was shut upon all that, and father and mother and sister were gathered to God, and he was alone.
“There is a nest of thrushes in the glen;
When we come back we’ll see the glad young things,”
He said. We came not by that way again,
And Time and thrushes fare on eager wings!
“Yon rose”—she smiled—“but no, when we return,
I’ll pluck it then.” ’Twas on a summer day.
The ashes of the rose in Autumn’s urn
Lie hidden well. We came not back that way.
We do not pass the selfsame way again,
Or, passing by that way, nothing we find
As it before had been; but death, or stain,
Hath come upon it, or the wasteful wind.
The very earth is envious, and her arms
Reach for the beauty that detained our eyes;
Yea, it is lost, beyond the aid of charms,
If, once within our grasp, we leave the prize.
Thou traveller to the unknown Ocean’s brink,
Through Life’s fair fields, say not, “Another day
This joy I’ll prove”: for never, as I think,
Never shall we come back this selfsame way!
How are we to Enter
1. “Strive to enter in.” Our Lord turns from the speculative question to the practical one, and declares that effectual salvation must begin in strenuous personal action. Whether many or few attain final blessedness is not an issue fixed by a Divine decree into which we may venture to probe, but rests with each separate seeker after life. In so many words, the Great Teacher says, “Before you concern yourselves with your neighbours’ destiny, and that of the race, look well to your own soul.” Does not the Master, for the moment, here seem to put Himself on the side of spiritual selfishness? Such counsels run counter to some things we hear at the present time, and half justify the taunt directed against the evangelical faith of our fathers that its one watchword was, “Give heed to yourself first and make sure of heaven.” But no broad survey of the words of Jesus can justify the criticism that, in caring for the spiritual state of the individual, He overlooks the multitude. To give heed to ourselves may be the noblest way of serving our neighbours. By zealously working out individual salvation, we shall further, with supreme success, the spiritual well-being of the community.
2. Our Lord places momentous emphasis upon struggle. The word “agonize” which He employs suggests the fierce desperate onset of the wrestler. In modern usage the word has come to stand for keen, bitter suffering, but it implied, at first, the tension of effort in the man himself, rather than the burden of pain laid upon him. He who would enter the Kingdom and find himself secure from all that threatens his well-being, must be a Samson Agonistes. Like Jacob, by the brook Jabbok, he must contend. The strong-willed, dauntless wrestler, whose heart dilates, whose muscles are stretched, whose veins expand, and who puts the entire weight of his body into the work, is the type of the spirit which cannot fail of salvation. A one-sided presentation of the gospel may sometimes depict this supreme task as free from hardship and difficulty. To do some things is child’s play, because no barriers lie across the pathway by which we move. Formidable forces, however, bar our progress towards the door which is set before us—the terrible and diversified autocracies of unseen evil, principalities, powers, and the rulers of the darkness of this world; worst of all, in the heart of a man himself they too often find an ally. Sin is no trifling purposeless accident in the history of an irresponsible race, but a camp of unholy legions wedged in between man and his highest destinies, and it must needs be overthrown. He who does not put his whole strength into the task, and that right early, will irretrievably fail.
To send a consumptive nurse to minister to consumptives would be a hollow and extravagant affectation of altruism. Her highest duty is to care for herself and recover the health which fits for service. When the fire-alarm rings a dozen streets away, no one expects the patients in a fever-ward, or in an infectious hospital, to answer the call. It is humanity for all such to stay within bounds till they are convalescent. They may give a hand in putting out the next fire. It is no mark of barbarism to quarantine a plague-stricken ship, even though Red Cross doctors, on the way to the battlefield, may be amongst the passengers. We must save ourselves, before curiously dropping our plummet into the mysteries of the last things, and working out in a curious sum the ratio of the redeemed to the reprobate.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, 191.]
We have all been thrilled with the story of Lucknow in the war of the Indian Mutiny. An English army was mustering on the banks of the Jumna, eager to reach the Oudh capital; but the mutineers in force guarded every approach. At last Havelock thought he was strong enough to try. He made a gallant effort to break the iron circle,—striking boldly, doing his utmost; but in vain. He had to wait for reinforcements. When these came he tried again. Every inch of ground, as it were, he had to battle for. Slowly, painfully, in agonies of conflict, he made his way. And though, when he at last succeeded and reached the beleaguered city, there was boundless welcome for him, it might well be said that he had to agonize through “a strait gate” to his waiting and longing countrymen. So must we agonize to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.2 [Note: James Walker of Carnwath, 325.]
3. This call to a more vehement strife after salvation derives much of its intenseness and solemnity from that significant hour in the Master’s own history and in the redemptive destinies of mankind which was so near at hand. The Son of Man had passed that last turn in His pathway which brought the cross into view, and His sensibilities already felt the strain and oppression of the great tragedy. It seemed to Him scarcely conceivable that men could be saved unless they entered into the inwardness of His redemptive passion. He had set Himself to work out the deliverance of the race, through conflict and infinite distress, and the experience of reconciliation with God in each individual member of the race must needs come through a conscious oneness with Himself. Salvation cannot be made so easy by the vicarious act of another that the recipient of it is released from all obligation to strive.
Just as the tremors of the earth are registered by fine instruments placed in a modern observatory, so the cross was a sensitive seismograph in which the forces battling to frustrate and overthrow the Divine in man, displayed all their rage and convulsion. As the Son of Man hung there He felt within Himself the fierce tumultuous upheavings of the nethermost hell, and he endured the cross by a strong transcendent counterpassion. It was inconceivable that the forces which asserted themselves in the crisis of the agony, and were even now rending His sacred soul, would leave the individual to work out his salvation without stress or friction.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, 195.]
The true cross of the Redeemer was the sin and sorrow of this world; that was what lay heavy on His heart, and that is the cross we shall share with Him, that is the cup we must drink of with Him if we would have any part in that Divine love which is one with His sorrow.2 [Note: George Eliot.]
Our chemists liquefy atmospheric air by applying portentously cold temperatures, two or three hundred degrees below freezing-point, and it has been found that under these ultra-Arctic conditions chemical reactions are no longer possible. The sun’s rays lose their actinic power. A lecturer at the Royal Institution several years ago exposed to the light sensitized paper, parts of which had been sponged with liquid air. The parts untouched were changed in tint, as in the ordinary processes of photography, but the sponged parts were proof against the action of the sunbeams. In these phenomenally low temperatures substances, which have the most violent chemical affinity for each other, refuse to combine. And is there not a corresponding fact in the sphere of religion? Whilst our natures are abnormally cold the intensest emanations from the Light of the World cannot transform us; the likeness of His death and resurrection fails to imprint itself on our natures.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The Strenuous Gospel, 196.]
The Narrow Door
Bourdillon (F.), The Parables Explained and Applied, 169.
Burton (J.), Christian Life and Truth, 22.
Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 46.
Farrar (F. W.), Eternal Hope, 90.
Hamilton (J.), Faith in God, 177.
Howatt (J. R.), The Children’s Pulpit, 84.
Kirk (J.), Sermons, 153.
Laidlaw (J.), Studies in the Parables, 193.
Laing (F. A.), Simple Bible Lessons, 213.
McCombie (W.), Sermons and Lectures, 207.
Murray (W. H.), The Fruits of the Spirit, 463.
Selby (T. G.), The Strenuous Gospel, 184.
Shepard (J. W.), Light and Life, 153.
Walker (J.), Essays, Papers, and Sermons, 323.
Wilson (J. H.), The Gospel and its Fruits, 51.
Christian World Pulpit, x. 161 (T. de W. Talmage); xiv. 397 (A. Scott); xvi. 309 (H. W. Beecher); xxxv. 29 (A. S. Brooke); lxi. 241 (G. C. Morgan).
Complete Preacher, ii. 267 (F. W. Farrar).