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Luke 13:22-30 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 13:18-21. MUSTARD SEED AND YEAST
Our Gospel lesson is preceded by the Parable of the Mustard Seed (vv. 18-19) and the Parable of the Yeast (vv. 20-21). Both of those parables compare the kingdom of God to a seemingly insignificant substance (a tiny seed and a bit of yeast) that turns out to have great power. The tiny seed grows into a tree, “and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches” (v. 19), and a pinch of yeast leavens three measures of flour (v. 21). These parables provide the lead-in to the question, “Lord, are they few who are saved?”
LUKE 13:22-30. COLLECTED TEACHINGS
There are a number of parallels to this section in Matthew, but they are found scattered throughout that Gospel, suggesting that this section in Luke is a collection of Jesus’ teachings that Luke pulls together to make a point. Parallels in Matthew include:
• “Enter in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter in by it. How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life! Few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
• “Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity” (Matthew 7:22-23).
• “I tell you that many will come from the east and the west, and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, but the children of the Kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).
• “But many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (Matthew 19:30).
• “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
• “While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you'” (Matthew 25:10-12).
LUKE 13:22-23a. LORD, ARE THEY FEW WHO ARE SAVED?
22He went on his way through cities and villages, teaching, and traveling on to Jerusalem. 23One said to him, “Lord, are they few who are saved?”
Luke reminds us again that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will die. He has been on this journey since 9:51 and will continue on it until his Triumphal Entry (19:28).
It is not clear whether the person asks the question in response to the image of the kingdom as small or great. Perhaps he has heard only that the kingdom seems small, and asks his question anxiously. Perhaps he heard Jesus’ words about the power of the kingdom and asks his question hopefully. There is a tension at work in the parables, and that tension is reflected in the question about who will be saved.
LUKE 13:23b-27. STRIVE TO ENTER IN BY THE NARROW DOOR
He said to them, 24“Strive (Greek: agonizesthe) to enter in by the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will seek to enter in, and will not be able. 25When once the master of the house has risen up, and has shut the door, and you begin to stand outside, and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ then he will answer and tell you, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ 26Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27He will say, ‘I tell you, I don’t know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity.’“
Jesus begins his answer with two door metaphors. In the first one (v. 24), the door (to the kingdom or to salvation) is narrow, but allows admittance—at least to the spiritually fit. In the second one (v. 25), the door is shut. These are not mutually exclusive metaphors, because a narrow door can be open for a period of time and then be shut. However, the two different images—narrow and shut—require us to be careful lest our exposition be confusing.
“Strive (agonizesthe) to enter in by the narrow door” (v. 24). Elsewhere in the NT, Paul uses this word, agonizesthe, to speak of athletic competition (1 Cor. 9:25), training intensively in Godliness (1 Tim. 4:10), and fighting the good fight (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). While salvation is a gift of God, it is clear that God expects us to cherish it as an athlete cherishes the victor’s crown—suggesting that we need an athlete’s discipline and determination in pursuing entrance through the narrow door.
The door is narrow, and “many…will seek to enter in, and will not be able” (v. 24). Just as we cannot eat super-sized portions and expect to fit into last year’s clothing, we cannot expect to be spiritually undisciplined and to make it through the narrow door. “Such restrictiveness would not surprise this Jewish audience, since it was already taught that Israel was God’s elect nation…. The surprise in Jesus’ reply is not that access may be limited, but who gains entry” (Bock, 245). In Matt. 7:13-14, Jesus contrasts the narrow gate that leads to life with a wide gate and easy road that lead to destruction. Like physical conditioning, spiritual conditioning requires discipline, and many people are unwilling to pay the price.
We live in a time when many people believe that all roads lead to God—that all beliefs are equally valid—that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. The NT teaches exactly the opposite. The tempter need not convince us to commit murder or some other heinous crime as long as he can persuade us that our beliefs don’t matter—or that there is no urgency to the spiritual life. Once convinced, we will find ourselves on the gentle slope that leads inexorably downward.
“When once the master of the house has risen up, and has shut the door” (v. 25). Note the similarity between vv. 25-27 and the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13.
The point is that God gives us a period of time when we can prepare for the kingdom, followed by a time of judgment. Once the door shuts, there is no longer room for preparation or negotiation. It is like taking one’s seat in a classroom only to hear the professor say, “Take out a sheet of paper and put away your books.” Most of us get a sinking feeling when we hear those words, because we feel unprepared for a pop quiz. A few students, however, will have studied the assigned work and will do well. The point is that, when the professor says, “Take out a sheet of paper,” the die is cast. We are either ready or not ready. Suddenly, our fate rests in how we prepared yesterday. Our good intentions don’t count.
Consider the real-life parallels to the shutting of the door:
• For some people, death will come suddenly and without warning. At that point, their eternal future will hinge on their spiritual disciplines and the relationship that they forged with Christ during their lifetimes.
• There is always the possibility of the Second Coming occurring during our lifetime, with the same result.
• But there is another possibility—one that might seem less dramatic, but which can be equally conclusive. We are faced daily with temptation. How we respond depends, in large measure, on our spiritual conditioning at the time of our temptation. Often, a minor temptation starts a person down a ruinous road. Our spiritual conditioning—our relationship with Christ—can help us to avoid succumbing to such temptations.
“We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets“ (v. 26). Such words are self-indicting. The person who shared table with Jesus and heard his teaching had every opportunity to become his disciple. In the previous chapter, Jesus warned, “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked” (12:48).
“I do not know where you come from”—literally from the Greek, “I do not know you, where you come from” (v. 27).
LUKE 13:28-30. THERE WILL BE WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH
28“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets, in the Kingdom of God, and yourselves being thrown outside.29They will come from the east, west, north, and south, and will sit down in the Kingdom of God. 30Behold, there are some who are last who will be first, and there are some who are first who will be last.”
“and yourselves thrown outside” (v. 28). Jesus is speaking to sons of Abraham, but he warns that some of them will find themselves on the outside looking in at the great eschatological banquet. They will see the spiritual greats, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets, but will not be able to sit at table or converse with them. That has to be even more difficult than never seeing them at all. To be so near and yet so far has to be heartbreaking.
Jesus’ listeners would not be surprised to hear that some people of Israel will be among those excluded. As noted above, Essenes and others thought of themselves as among the elect and others are doomed. There will, however, be two surprises in the judgment:
• One is that some who consider themselves to be shoo-in’s for salvation will instead find themselves on the outside looking in. If some of the holy men of Israel—scribes, Pharisees, and priests—are among those who will be badly surprised, we should not imagine that today’s religious leaders will be immune.
• The second, as we shall learn in vv. 29-30, is that some unlikely candidates will crowd around the eschatological table—will enjoy full fellowship. For those on the outside looking in, that has to double the pain—being excluded while seeing unworthy people included.
“Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets” (v. 28). The names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (father, son, and grandson) are linked frequently in the scriptures, but the prophets are added to the Big Three only here. “This echoes earlier material in Luke, material where the emphasis had fallen on the propensity of some in Israel to oppose those who served God’s purpose and spoke on his behalf…. In those earlier Lukan co-texts, woe is pronounced on those who persecute the prophets; such persons are promised mourning and weeping (6:22-26; 11:45-52). This, indeed, is their fate in the judgment: excluded from the joy of the eschatological feast, theirs is the lot of mourning, rate, despair” (Green, 532-533).
“They will come from the east, west, north, and south, and will sit down in the Kingdom of God” (v. 29). This is obviously a reference to Gentiles. In Luke’s sequel to this Gospel—the Acts of the Apostles—he will record the slow awakening of the church to God’s intent that Gentiles be accorded full admission to the church (see particularly Acts 10).
“Behold, there are some who are last who will be first, and there are some who are first who will be last” (v. 30). Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been a friend of tax collectors and sinners and shared table fellowship with them (5:30; 7:34; 15:1)—a fact that sparked a good deal of criticism. Jesus, however, was signaling that God’s love extends to these unlikely candidates—and was also signaling that the company at the eschatological table would be far different from that which the religious leaders envisioned.
“The lack of the article before ‘last’ and ‘first’ indicates that neither all the last nor all the first would experience this reversal” (Stein, 380). In other words, not all Israelites (or even all scribes or Pharisees) will be denied entry to the eschatological feast, and not all Gentiles will be accorded entry.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Nickle, Keith F., Preaching the Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000)
Nolland, John, Word : Luke 9:21—18:34, Vol. 35B (Dallas: Word Books, 1993)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
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