Luke 13:22–30 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ 26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
It wasn’t all that long ago when I sat down to breakfast with a friend. We hit up that Aiken favorite called Autens. I took a few sips of their unusually strong coffee and prayed that it would flick on my brain like a light switch. I was thankful the coffee was strong coffee. It was just the ticket. I’m not a great morning person, but my friend was. There we sat. Me waiting for the coffee to take effect. Him already rip roaring on his day. How rip roaring was he? He asked me the same question that’s here. Literally the same question word for word. The only difference? He didn’t call me, “Lord.” But he did ask, “Are only a few going to be saved?” I’m not sure he really wanted my answer though. I think he asked the question so he could answer it himself. Because that’s what he did. His complaints piled up fast. “Nobody acts saved. Nobody behaves like Jesus tells them to,” he said. “Nobody this,” he went on. “Nobody that,” he continued. I don’t know if it was that the coffee hadn’t dug in quite yet, but he was someplace I wasn’t. I was trying to get what he was saying, but I was struggling.
It wasn’t that I totally disagreed with him. I actually think he was right with all his complaints. I mean he totally talking about me. If you had to decide if I was saved by my actions. And if you only knew my heart. It’s just like Jesus says. Even the outside of tombs can get whitewashed. But if you knew what was underneath? If you knew what was under that incredibly thin layer of nice looking paint? Then you’d know. It’s not all ok in here. And I think that’s what was really getting me as my friend talked on. For me none of it was hypothetical. He was painting that picture of the few who are saved. The good ones. The spiritual elites. The always praying ones. The never straying ones. That picture. He painted it and when he did I didn’t think I was in the portrait. But he didn’t seem concerned. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I’m not sure why that was. Was it because he enjoyed theological sparring? Was it because he was so secure in his own pure heart that he could ask the question without any introspection, without any fear and without any trembling? Or was it because he had long ago convinced himself by his elite behavior that he was one of the few, the proud, and the saved?
But Jesus didn’t have to wait for the caffeine to kick to answer. He immediately replied to the question, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” (v. 24) For Jesus there are no hypothetical questions. No idle theological musings. No endless finger pointing. There is only you. There is your salvation. Your eternity. And your soul. That’s what Jesus is immediately pointing out in the strongest of terms. Not for a second does Jesus say, “Yeah. Look at the masses. Consider them. Who of them do you think will make it?” There is only you. And the imperative that you with your eternity on the line understand how you’re trying to enter eternity. It is, after all, only a narrow door. You know what that means? Amongst other things it means that people don’t go through it in a crowd or as a group. They go in individual by individual and person by person. And that’s Jesus point. When it comes to salvation you can make pointer finger judgments about the people around you but there are always more fingers pointing back at yourself. And we need to deal with that. There are no hypotheticals when it comes to eternity. There is only you.
So says Jesus. Over and over and over again. You know how many times Jesus uses the pronoun, “you,” in this section? Twelve. Twelves times. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. Point taken? 12 you’s. This is personal, personal, personal. No hypotheticals. This is your story. My story. Jesus wants you to picture yourself knocking on Jesus’ door. There’s just one door into heaven and he’s in charge of it. You knock. You ask to come in. He says, “No. I don’t know you.” So you keep trying and you mount your defense. You desperately try to change his mind. “‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’” (v. 26) You basically say, “But Jesus we hung out with you. We should be able to again. Jesus, you remember. We were well acquainted with you and we did your stuff. We prayed Jesusy prayers. We did Jesusy things like feeding the poor and working hard at our jobs, and Jesus, that should count for something. We’re confused. You taught in our streets. We hung out with people who seemed to like you. We even hung out most Sundays at one of your churches. Jesus, what’s the deal? You need to let us in. You know us.”
And the voice calls back tragically and unmistakably. “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” (v. 27) And you find yourself stunned. Confused. And in the ultimate despair because you – you! – are on the outside looking in. The door’s shut. Locked tight. And it’s never getting opened again. And you – nobody else – you are on the outside looking in. And it’s just like Jesus always threatened. There is, “weeping there, and gnashing of teeth.” (v. 29) Your tears keep coming. Your despair never leaves. Your hope cannot be found. The only relief – if you want to call it that – from your inner turmoil and pain is a kind of bodily distraction. You gnash your teeth. You grind them hard to be distracted from the deep despair you feel at your unchanging outsider status. “When you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (v. 29) All because you thought you were better than you are. That you were spiritual enough. Elite enough. Good enough. And you weren’t. Jesus evaluated you and gave even your best characteristics and most blessed virtues a failing grade and an eternal label, “worker of unrighteousness.” (v. 27) That’s what happens when you mistakenly believe that you need only an acquaintance with Jesus, but not a salvation.
If that story gets under your skin, it’s supposed to. It’s supposed to light a fire in your soul, rouse you out of your security, and send you searching for the truth that will stop that quickly coming future. To stop it in its tracks before it can ever happen. And there’s no waiting. No lolly gagging. Not a second to lose. There is only seeking and finding and knowing what truth will allow us to avoid that fate, walk through that narrow door, and be on the inside looking out. This story is to convince you that’s necessary and important and worthwhile no matter what it takes. Because it won’t always be easy. Sometimes it’ll be agonizing. Receiving Jesus’ grace can be like that. I know that sounds strange. Receiving grace sounds like something that’s light and easy. Something that we’ll enjoy. I mean isn’t Amazing Grace one of our favorite hymns? And isn’t grace still one of Christianity’s concepts that everybody loves to love? I mean who doesn’t like God’s undeserved favor? God’s un-won faithfulness. God’s unmerited kindness. Who doesn’t like that? Maybe you’ve never thought about this before, but the truth is that deep down we’re all fundamentally opposed to grace.
I sat with an older gentleman a while back explaining that exact thing. Even though he had had a pretty good life he was angry and sad and he wondered outloud to me, “Why hasn’t God been better to me?” And I tried to help him. “We don’t deserve anything,” I said. “We need grace.” He didn’t like that and he let me know it. “I paid my debts. People ripped me off in my business. I always tried to do what’s right.” And on he went. I wanted him to get Jesus so I didn’t back down. I asked him, “Are you perfect? Is that what you’re saying?” He got real quiet and I could tell he wanted me to leave. Grace is offensive. It’s offensive to say we’re undeserving. It’s offensive to believe we’re not ok. It’s offensive to think that we don’t just need a teacher or a motivational speaker or a massive hit of Christian bootcamp so we can get our act together. We need total, complete grace. And having to receive grace means admitting we messed up the whole game. That there’s no redeeming or salvaging ourselves. That we need Jesus to forgive what ought never be forgiven. And that’s agonizing.
So says Jesus. He said that from the very outset today. He said, “Make every effort to enter the narrow door.” (v. 24) Make every effort in Greek is actually just one word. It’s “agonizomai.” I’m hoping that sounds a little bit like an English word to you. Agonizomai. Agony. To struggle. To be pained. To make every effort no matter what the cost to believe in grace. That is the Christian’s greatest battle. The most titanic. The most epic. Because grace is offensive, but it’s so worth it. Grace may mean that I have to admit my personal ship is sunk, but it also means I get to believe Jesus pulled me onto his luxury yacht. Grace may mean that I believe that my failure was so complete that I had to get pulled from the game, but it also mean that I believe that Jesus subbed into as the perfect player for me. Grace may mean that I have to stop believing in my own goodness and start believing that even my best self isn’t enough, but it also means that I get to trust that Jesus’ was good for me and that his best self saved me. Life’s greatest struggle is to believe in Jesus and not in ourselves.
That is what Jesus is teaching. How do I know this? It’s what is at the heart of Jesus’ final point. “Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (v. 30) Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying, “Take everything you think you know about how to enter heaven and reverse it.” The elites who trust their eliteness get shut out. The performers. The good ones. The high achievers who trust themselves will be eternally last. That’s why Jesus said, “The first will be last.” But those who believe his. Those who see past their whitewash to their inner tomb. Those who consider themselves to be low performers. Those who consider themselves bad ones who just trust Jesus. To them Jesus says, “You’re first.” That is the great reversal of grace. The dregs. The worst of the worst. The tax collectors. The prostitutes who get it and see themselves the way they really are, but who trust Jesus for his grace and for his salvation receive it. They don’t just know him. They don’t just hang with him. They trust him. They are the last who will be first. Jesus promises.
And so the last will shout. And the so last will sing. And the so last will waltz right through that narrow door simply because they trust. You know what that means? It’s time for you to be last so you can be first. You. You don’t just need a motivational speaker, a divine teacher or a Christian boot camp. You don’t. What I’m saying is that you need to know Jesus as more than just a personal acquaintance, as more than just someone you’re around or listen to on occasion. What I’m saying is that it’s time to know Jesus as your life, your forgiveness, and your salvation. That’s what Luke is teaching you when he sets up this whole account life this: “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (v. 22) Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem. For you. Not for the guy in the seat next to you. Not for the lady sitting two rows back. For you. To redeem the life you could not. To salvage the life you never could. To pay for what’s under your whitewash with his righteous work. To make right what you’ve done wrong with his cross. To straighten out what you never could with his salvation. For you.
Trust that. And when you do, you’ll find heaven’s door wide, wide open. You will. You’ll find it the door is exactly as wide as the wood where they nailed his hands and as open as the wounds he received in his body. You’ll find heaven’s door will open to you. You know why? Because Jesus is doorkeeper. And he will never lock it against what he did for us. Never. He will lock it against our best self. He will lock it against our best efforts, but never against his own forgiveness. He cannot and he will not. He will honor it and, therefore, and when you hold it up to his eyes by faith. And when you say, “Jesus, let me in. Jesus, I didn’t just have an acquaintance with you. I didn’t just eat and drink with you and hang out with you. Jesus I trusted you. I trusted your righteousness was mine. I trusted your cross was mine.” That’s when he’ll say, “Enter.” And the party will be on. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be there. The prophets too. All those who enter the door by faith in Jesus will recline forever at his feast.
That’s our future promised by Jesus’ work. We’ll be those who trust it. We’ll be those who war, who struggle, who agonize, who make every effort to stay right there in the faith. To rob ourselves of ourselves. To fight with every fiber of our being pride that says, “I’m one of the good ones.” And instead to lift our eyes to Jesus and to his cross and say, “I did that to him. And he did that for me.” For me. That’s faith. And then it will be just as Jesus promised. The ultimate reversal will have happened. The last will be first. The one who didn’t achieve here will have achieved a place there. The one who wasn’t all that here, will receive all that there. All because the only truly first and elite one, Jesus Christ, became the last in Jerusalem for me. So this sinner became a saint. And this unlovely one became lovely. And this formerly whitewashed tomb is no longer just whitewashed, but made white all the way through. And this one will walk right through that door as narrow as it may be, directly into arms of his Savior, right behind you. Amen.