Life Hope & Truth

Narrow Is the Gate: What Did Jesus Mean?

Several times Christ gave advice that seemingly discourages rather than encourages people to become Christians. Why did He do this?

Surprisingly, all but a relatively small number of disciples turned away from Jesus by the end of His ministry! The thousands that once chased our Savior like a celebrity apparently dwindled away to few hundred after His death (Acts 1:15; 1 Corinthians 15:6). How strikingly different the true picture is from the supposedly easy path to becoming a Christian by just giving your heart to the Lord.

In Matthew 7:13-14 we read of Jesus saying, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (emphasis added throughout).

Narrow gate, difficult path

The phrase “narrow is the gate” is fairly easy to understand. A narrow gate is harder to pass through than one that is wide, and only a few people can go through a narrow gate at once. In saying “difficult is the way which leads to life,” Jesus was explaining how hard being a Christian really is.

“Difficult” is from the Greek word thlibo, which means: “To press (as grapes), press hard upon; a compressed way; narrow straitened, contracted” (New Testament Greek Lexicon, www.bibletstudytools.com).

The lexicon adds that the word can be used metaphorically to mean “trouble, afflict, distress.” If Jesus wanted to draw people to follow Him, why did He tell prospective disciples that doing so would bring them grief?

To understand what He meant, let’s examine a few of the passages where He seemingly discouraged people from following Him.

Advice to would-be followers

Luke writes of three encounters Jesus had with would-be Christians as He and His disciples were traveling. One of them made a dramatic statement of commitment, saying to Christ: “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go” (Luke 9:57).

Jesus didn’t reply, “Wonderful! Please join us!” Instead, He said something that, at the least, would have caused the man to have second thoughts and, at the most, would have turned him away completely: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (verse 58). Jesus was conveying the uncertainty that could accompany the life of a true Christian.

Luke’s narrative continues with Jesus turning to another person and telling him, “Follow Me” (verse 59). The man begged off, asking to be allowed to first bury his father. Since Jewish custom was to bury the dead as soon as possible, it is unlikely the man was out with the crowd around Christ with a dead father at home. More likely, the man was asking to spend whatever remaining time he might have with an aging or perhaps ill father—an open-ended request actually.

The blunt record of Luke has Jesus responding to this man’s excuse, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God” (verse 60). Obviously, dead people do not bury anyone. Here, Jesus was referring to those who were spiritually dead—people who had not responded to His teaching. Jesus was telling the potential Christian that his calling was infinitely more important.

Then a third man, who was committed to becoming a disciple, made a seemingly reasonable request to first return home to say goodbye to whoever was at his house, whether family or guests we do not know (verse 61). To this person, Jesus responded: “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (verse 62).

We cannot know with certainty, but this person may not have been as committed as his words make it sound. The Bible records only the essence of the exchange—what we need to know to understand the main point. All three of these responses add clarity to Christ’s teaching that “narrow is the gate.”

In this third example, the added lesson was that Christians must continue to keep their eyes on the goal—God’s Kingdom. An experienced plowman immediately recognizes the point of this analogy. When plowing, the farmer fixes his eyes on a rock, a hill or some other marker, so that he will plow straight furrows. Although modern farmers with vast fields often use GPS equipment to accomplish this, the principle remains the same!

More little-known advice

A few chapters later, we find another insightful account about what we must do to become followers of Jesus Christ. With a huge number of people crowding around to hear Jesus’ every word, He gave more examples not of how easy it is to give your heart to the Lord, but how heavy the obligation of becoming a Christian is.

  • “Hate” those closest to you?

In Luke 14:26 Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” This instruction seems strange until we understand the meaning of the original language.

The NKJV Study Bible explains: “To ‘hate’ one’s family and even one’s life is rhetorical. It refers to desiring something less than something else” (2007, notes on Luke 14:26). In other words, a Christian’s love for living God’s way of life has to be greater than the love he or she has for any human relationship, as well as for himself or herself.

Even clarified, the statement is rather unexpected.

  • Endure trials

The next example was extremely graphic. Jesus said, “And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (verse 27). Just as condemned criminals were made to carry the crosses upon which they would be executed, we must be willing to endure whatever trials we may face for being Christians.

  • “Count the cost”

Next, Jesus spoke of a construction project. He pointed out that any responsible builder would consider the cost of the entire project from start to finish and then make sure he had the necessary funding to complete the project before he would even start. Beginning a construction project without considering funding could result in an abandoned, partially complete building—a visual symbol of the builder’s lack of judgment (verses 28-30).

This principle can also be applied to becoming a Christian. We need to understand the cost—the challenges and hardships—that are sure to come when we begin living God’s way of life.

  • Consider your resources

Jesus then gave an illustration about going to war. Quite simply, Jesus said that a king or general counts his troops before engaging an enemy. He wants to know in advance that victory is possible. If he doesn’t have sufficient resources to win, he makes peace instead of going to war (verses 31-32).

As for Christians, our battles are spiritual in nature. In reality, it is impossible for us to win this war by ourselves. Upon becoming a Christian, we will need the help of God’s great power—His Holy Spirit—to achieve victory against overwhelming odds.

  • “Forsake all”

Concluding His teaching on this occasion, Jesus said, “So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (verse 33). The lesson here is that in order to truly follow Christ, this must become the most important thing in our lives.

Why would Jesus tell people that unless they met these undeniably stringent standards, they could not become His disciples, Christians? He was simply further expounding upon the principle that “narrow is the gate.”

John’s account

Another insightful passage of Jesus’ teaching on becoming a Christian is found in John 6:25-66. This section of Scripture is a composite of interactions with a variety of people. Some wanted Jesus to repeat the miracle of producing food. Some were in audiences of synagogues at which Christ spoke. And some were Jewish leaders critical of Jesus.

Christ began talking about physical manna and then explained that He was the true manna and that the way to salvation was by “eat[ing] My flesh and drink[ing] My blood” (verses 53-56). Not understanding that He was talking about the Passover symbols of bread and wine, which represented His flesh and blood, many people abruptly stopped following Him (verse 66).

On the surface, it again appears that Christ’s approach seemed illogical, because His words did not entice people to join Him. Clearly, Christ did not want just numbers. However, He wanted all who became His disciples—students or learners and members of the spiritual body called in Scripture “the Church of God” (Acts 20:28)—to make it through to the end. They needed to know that they would encounter the most difficult challenges of their lives. He would have been irresponsible had He failed to prepare the disciples.

By analogy, failing to counsel them on the challenges they would face if they became Christians would be like taking a group of average citizens and sending them on a military mission meant for an expert team such as the U.S. Navy SEALS or the British SAS. Without proper training, the people would not likely survive such a mission. And it would be disastrous for the mission itself. God wants all to achieve their potential, and He wants Christians to understand the serious nature of their commitment to follow Him.

Christ never leaves those who commit

Of course, warnings about the challenge of becoming a Christian is not the only counsel Christ gave. He also promised those who did commit to this way of life, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). The NKJV Study Bible comments, “This quotation is one of the most emphatic statements in the NT. In Greek it contains two double negatives, similar to saying in English, ‘I will never, ever, ever forsake you.’ Jesus uses the same technique to express the certainty of eternal life for believers (see John 10:28).”

You may have heard the military saying “Never leave a man behind!” Similarly, the Father and the Son are fully committed to those who respond to God’s calling. Jesus made a similar promise at the end of Matthew 28:18-20 saying He would never stop being with Church members at any time throughout the ages.

What path are you choosing?

So why would anyone choose the narrow gate, symbolizing the way Christians must live, when it is such a difficult path compared to the smooth, easy way of the world? Because there are often adventures, thrills and vistas available only to those who take the difficult path. The difficult way brings rewards that those who remain on the smooth and easy way will never know!

Similarly, the experience of being in the Church is incomparably rewarding to those who are called of God. They become part of the family of God now. They serve in His work. They are energized by interacting with people of like mind. They anticipate reigning with Christ in the coming Kingdom of God. They deeply appreciate being led by the Holy Spirit and understand that godliness has benefits for “the life that now is” and “that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Which way are you choosing? Look at your level of commitment, which you can judge by how much you put into practice what you know God would have you do. Would “narrow is the gate” describe the way you are choosing to live? Or, are you choosing the smooth way, the way that meets the least resistance?

To learn more about becoming a Christian, be sure to read the articles in the “Change” section of this website.