Thursday, October 24, 2013

Many or Few? A Surprising Answer

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. (Matthew 7:13-14)
This is part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” It is a popular text for many preachers, one they can use in any number of sermons to bring a strong sense of urgency to whatever their message happens to be. Just tag on a few words about the narrow and broad ways, about how few find the narrow way that leads to life but many continue on the broad road to destruction. It plays well, especially to those who have assured themselves that they are among the few who are on the narrow way to life. And these are, after all, the “red letter” words, the word of Jesus.

However, this is not the end of the story. For not many verses later — in the very next chapter, in fact — Jesus says this:
Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 8:10-11)
Jesus had just healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-10). Being a centurion, this man understood very well the nature of authority but he also believed that Jesus had the authority to heal, and that made for a strong faith. The result is that his servant, though not even present, was healed at Jesus’ word.

Jesus commended the man’s faith. It was exactly the kind of faith He had been looking for in Israel, among the Jews, but had not found. And now here was an outsider who knew how to trust Him. But then Jesus talked about others just like this man, outsiders who would come from east and west and would be a part of the kingdom of God. Not just a few, but many would come. The Greek word for “many” here is the same one used earlier, about the “many” on the broad way to destruction. In the earlier passage, only a few would find the way to life. But here is this one, there are many who will enter it.

So which will it be, many or few? Will there be only a few who come into the kingdom of God and find life, or will there be many? We can find the answer to that by considering two things: Who is Jesus talking about, and when is Jesus talking about?

First, who was Jesus talking about? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing the Jews, many of whom, whether they realized it or not, were on a path to destruction. But in Matthew 8:10-11, Jesus was talking about those who come from east and west — the outsiders, like the Roman centurion whose servant He had just healed. Not just a few, but many like him will come into the kingdom.

Second, when was Jesus talking about? Pay attention to the tenses that are used in each case. In Matthew 7:13-14, we find the present tense: “There are many” who go in by the broad gate, and “there are few” who find the narrow one. Jesus was not necessarily foretelling the way things would be in the future but He was talking about the way things presently stood. Many of the Jews were at that time on the wrong path, one that led to destruction. But surely one purpose of Jesus’ sermon was to show them the right path, the one leading to life. For He said that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Now look at the tense used in Matthew 8:11: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is future tense, not about the way things were at the time but about the way things will be in the future. Many will come, and many will sit down in the kingdom of heaven (the Greek text shows that both the coming and the sitting down are future tense).

There will be many, then, who enter into the kingdom of God and see life. Even among the Jews, we should not suppose that only a few will find it, for Jesus’ warning was not about what will be or must be, but only about what then was the case when Jesus began His ministry. Indeed, we can expect to see many Jews, as well, who will take their place in God’s eternal kingdom. For that appears to be Paul’s expectation as he concludes his long discussion about Israel in Romans 9-11, “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).