“[Jesus] went on His way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to Him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’” (Luke 13:22-23).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This week’s Gospel reading begins with a question. Luke does not tell us who asked it. But it’s a good question. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”
The questioner in the text was probably asking about the people of Israel. There seems to have been debate about which behaviors among God’s people would result in loss of salvation, and it is possible the questioner had this debate in mind. This would also make sense within the context in Luke’s Gospel. He has been highlighting the increasing opposition between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, which will reach its climax when Jesus finally finishes His journey to Jerusalem.
“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”
Some of the rabbis of the day taught that all Israelites would have a share in the kingdom to come. After all, they are the chosen people of God. Descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Others taught that, yes, Israel is God’s chosen people, and He saves all of those who observe the civil, ceremonial, and moral aspects of the Law. The Pharisees emphasized their traditions, some 600 plus rules that “helped” you keep the Torah, the Law given through Moses. Jesus answers the question in quite a different way. As He often does, Jesus replies with a parable.
Several of the parables of Jesus compare salvation to a great feast, or banquet, given by a king. That is also the picture He uses here. Entrance into the banquet hall is by a door. The first thing Jesus says about that door is that it is narrow. A narrow door prevents great crowds of people from entering all at once. Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time.
That narrow door is a symbol for Jesus Himself. One enters the banquet hall by way of Jesus. Jesus urges His hearers to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” A Greek word is used in the original text which suggests a contest or struggle to enter. The struggle is not against other people but rather against our own sinful flesh and the temptations of the devil.
Jesus has something else to say about that door. The time will come when the Master of the house is going to close that door. There will be some who come knocking on the locked door demanding entry. But just knowing the Master of the house will not cause Him to open. Jesus is obviously picturing Himself as the Master since the people speak of His teaching in their streets. Just as the time will come when the unfruitful tree will be cut down (Luke 13:9), so also the time will come in each individual’s life and in the history of the world when the entrance to salvation will be closed. The message is plain: don’t delay but strive to enter now.
Finally, we have a description of the people sitting at the banquet tables. As is to be expected, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are there. But then comes a surprise: many of Jesus’ contemporaries will find themselves on the outside looking in. Weeping and gnashing of teeth will express their disappointment and shock. They will see that other people from all over the world will be sitting in their places at the banquet of salvation. Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who hear the Gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet.
But theoretical questions framed in the third person “put off repentance and do not lead to faith.”[i] Jesus will not let a questioner examine others without first examining himself. So Jesus makes it personal. He responds with direct warnings in the second person: “[You] strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). “When … you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’” (Luke 13:25). “Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’” (Luke 13:26). “When you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28-29). These warnings seem to say, “O questioner, don’t worry about the others at this point. The more pressing question is will you be saved?”
“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” Jesus urges. “For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). The command to “strive” does not mean “that moral effort is necessary in order to enter the kingdom,”[ii] nor does it mean entrance is gained by exercising “human responsibility.”[iii] Rather, the struggle through which one enters is repentance, which is a work of God in the human heart. The struggle is produced when the Word of God—such as the teaching of Jesus here—calls one to repent and trust in Christ, but sinful human nature wars against God’s Word. The struggle is resolved as the old Adam is put to death by the Law and the person of faith is raised to new life with Christ by the power of the Gospel.
Entrance through the narrow door is gained not en masse by nationality or religious affiliation, but rather, individually, one sinner-at-a-time, by those who repent and see in Jesus the Lord of the eternal heavenly banquet.
But the question still stands. How many will be saved?
Jesus doesn’t answer it directly. Instead, He focuses attention on the Master. The people who are excluded, who are “evil,” literally “unrighteous” (not declared righteous by faith), are not known by the Master (Luke 13:27). Twice the Master says He does not know where they come from, even though they ate together and listened to Him teach (Luke 13:26).
The baptism of John and the preaching of the kingdom by Jesus had provided them with a narrow but opened door. Because they refused to repent and recognize Jesus as the Master of the banquet, they now stand on the outside. He denies that He knows them, even as they have failed to confess Him. He will not open to them, for the time of patient forbearance, of preaching and catechesis, when they were invited to know (believe in) Jesus, is finally over.
Jesus does not really answer the question that He is asked. Rather, He is saying to all who will listen, “Just be sure that you are going to be saved.”
The closest Jesus comes to answering the question is verse 29. He does not say how many will be saved, but that those who are saved will come from every direction—east and west, north and south. This reminds us that no single group has a monopoly on access to the Master. Through (and sometimes despite) us, God is reaching out to all nations. There can be no circling the wagons with the Gospel.
The Lord makes this clear in our Old Testament lesson: “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see My glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard My fame or seen My glory. And they shall declare My glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord … to My holy mountain Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:18-20). Those nations mentioned to symbolize the worldwide gathering of the redeemed were on the outer perimeter of ancient Israel: Tarshish (modern Spain) to the west; Pul and Lud to the south (Egypt and Ethiopia); and Tubal and Javan to the north (Greece and Turkey).
Through Isaiah, God directs us to see what He would do with the believers that survive the coming judgment of Jerusalem. God will send some of the remnant of believers to be His missionaries. They will go out into the four corners of the world and bring scattered Jews to faith in the Messiah. They will convert Gentiles from all nations and gather them into the Church as well. Through their work, the Holy Spirit will gather believers into the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church will not be confined only to Jews, but all believers will be related by their faith in Jesus. Regardless of their nationalities and origins, they will be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
“Lord, will those who are saved be few?”
It is an important question to be sure. All Christians ask it at one time or another. You ask it as you wonder about neighbors who are barely connected to a church. You ask it as you pray yourself to sleep worrying about your child or grandchild who has drifted from the faith. You ask it as you notice members of the congregation who seem to have fallen off the face of the earth. A majority of Americans continue to identify as “Christian” in surveys. But when you consider how many have a meaningful connection to a Christian congregation, “few” seems a more accurate answer than “many.”
But still, Jesus doesn’t give an answer. Instead, He turns attention to the Master. To be saved, to be welcomed to the feast, is to be known by the Master. Jesus does not explicitly identify the Master in this text, but His behavior immediately prior to and following this text makes it clear that He is the Master (see His healing on the Sabbath in 13:10-17 and 14:1-6). In His resurrection from the dead, He definitely shows Himself to be the Master over all things.
The question we should be asking, therefore, is not how many will be saved. But rather, does the Master know me? In business they say it’s all about whom you know. With respect to salvation, it’s all about Who knows you.
Your Master knows you. This is a gracious knowing, to be sure. The Master created you. He sees you. Despite your unrighteousness apart from Him, He still loves you. He forgives you. He lives a perfect obedient righteous life in your place. He dies on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. He rises from the dead to give you eternal life. He sits at God’s right-hand interceding for you and reigning over all things for your salvation. He sends you His Holy Spirit to give you new birth.
God has made you His own child through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. He declares you righteous, opens the door to you, and welcomes you to His table—both here and now in the Sacrament, where He gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. And on the Last Day, He will return to raise all the dead and bring you and all His children to live with Him for eternity and join Him in the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb. To be known and loved by the Master is a wonderful thing.
I bet for most of you one of the first Sunday School songs you learned began with the words, “Jesus loves me, this I know…” It’s a good reminder of Jesus’ love for each of His little ones, including you and me. But today I’m going to suggest a little twist on this old favorite: “Jesus knows me, this I love.”
And what about those who are not present? The neighbors and children and delinquent members who are far off? The promise in verses 29-30 offers hope: Many people will come from the four corners of the earth and recline at table in the kingdom. The last shall be first. Many who think they will be saved will not; but many whom we might not think will be there, will be there, saved by God’s rich and amazing grace.
This also offers motivation for you and me to continue praying and continue reaching out to others with the Master’s promise. “Jesus knows you,” we can assure them. “Come on in while the narrow door to salvation is still open!” And then, together, we graciously welcome them in the Master’s name.
For only in that name, do we find forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.
So go in the peace of the Lord and serve His people with joy. The narrow door is open to you. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] M. Franzmann, Concordia Self-Study Commentary (St. Louis: Concordia, 1979) NT, 72.
[ii] I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 565.
[iii] J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, World Biblical Commentary. (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 734.