The Gate is Narrow

The system of chapters and verses in the bible is very useful - in that it helps us to find particular passages of scripture easily. It does though, introduce two problems - first is the tendency to examine the text ‘verse by verse’ instead of reading it like an ordinary book and concentrating on the ‘big picture’ stuff; second is the problem that the chapters are often quite arbitrary, and so they can fracture particular lines of thinking, and cause us to miss important relationships between ideas. That’s bad enough, but then the publishers of most modern bibles have taken to adding in ‘subject headings’ - which, again, can be helpful, but also fracture the text still more, and prevent us seeing even more ‘links’, as well as, in effect, telling us what to think about particular sections. We’ll return to this theme further down.

A passage which is a favourite with evangelists is this one:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:13-14

It is commonly used in evangelistic messages to describe the ‘narrow way’ way in which salvation leads to eternal life contrasted with the ‘broad way’ of sinfulness which leads to hell. If you take that meaning then it seems obvious that: only Christians ‘go to heaven’; few people become Christians; therefore only a very few people ‘go to heaven’. The vast majority of people choose to wander down the ‘broad road’ that leads to eternal damnation. If you take it like that, Jesus is prophesying that most people will go to hell and only a few go to heaven.

Unfortunately, treating the passage that way rips it right out of its context in the Sermon on the Mount. But it’s not surprising that this happens. The passage is usually separated from what went before by a heading, such as:

The Narrow and Wide Gates

If we take out that heading, and ignore all the verses and suchlike, it reads very differently - in fact, it follows straight on from what went immediately before it, which was…

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule! (Treat others as you would like others to treat you - which instruction, incidentally, is found in virtually all the world’s major religions in some form!)

If we put our narrow and wide gates back into their context - that of the ‘Golden Rule’ - it becomes apparent, immediately, that this passage has little, if anything, to do with who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Instead, it has everything to do with finding the narrow ‘Jesus way’ - the way of kenotic (self-emptying) love, versus sticking with the easy, selfish, ‘me first’ way that most of us operate under, most of the time - usually making excuses for why we aren't treating our neighbours as well as we like to be treated. And the Jesus way doesn’t lead to ‘heaven’ - instead it leads to LIFE (and don’t go all eschatological and apocalyptic on me here - this is abundant life in the here and now). The broad way can most easily be summed up as ‘looking out for Number One’.

But what does he mean by ‘destruction’ - surely then he means that selfish people go to hell?

No, I don’t think that is what he means. I think he means that self-centredness leads to self-destruction - the way selfish people’s actions, sooner or later, backfire on them. He’s referring to the inevitable, destructive, consequences of our selfish actions.

So the business of the wide and narrow roads isn’t about congratulating his followers on finding their way to heaven - really, it’s a warning to his followers (us included) about behaviour - treading the narrow path, the Jesus Way, is the principle we must live by to follow him. It’s a hard road, of self-emptying, cross-carrying, self-sacrificial, love. It’s forgiving those who hurt us. It’s refusing to retaliate when someone strikes us. It’s giving someone your shirt after they’ve taken your coat.

Those who publish most of our bibles have a lot to answer for.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022