Striving After the Narrow Gate – by JD Hettema

Lately, I have been thinking about Jesus’ command in Luke 13 to enter through the narrow door.

Luke 13:22-27 “22He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’”

The underlined verse (v. 24) contains Jesus’ main command.  We are to “strive” (Ἀγωνίζεσθε) to enter the narrow door.  But what Jesus says next seems strange.  He says that there will be others who will “seek” (ζητήσουσιν) to enter that same gate but they will not be able to.  It is clear from the context that the stakes are nothing less than eternal life.  Those who enter through the gate find life.  Those who do not find themselves in a place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v. 28).  So, there is a “striving” which results in eternal life and a “seeking” that results in damnation.  In English, these words are often used as synonyms, so we are left wondering how striving is different from seeking.

Let us begin with the word “striving” (ἀγωνίζομαι). Unfortunately, this is the only time Luke uses ἀγωνίζομαι, but Paul uses the word six of its eight occurrences in the New Testament.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 9:25 he says, “Every athlete (ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος; lit. “striving one”) exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” Paul’s picture here is of great importance.  He portrays an athlete who has the goal of a prize in his mind.  The prize is of such surpassing value to the athlete that he is willing to exert all energy and forsake all other endeavors to win it.[1] It is this type of striving that Jesus commands in Luke 13:24.  We are to strive to enter the narrow door like an athlete who forsakes all other prizes in order to gain the prize of winning the race.

On the other hand, the word for “to seek” (ζητέω) appears to have a more generic and less emphatic meaning.  The word is used 114 times in the New Testament in contrast to eight times for ἀγωνίζομαι.  It appears that the word has a broad range of meaning with a general translation “to seek.”  For instance, Jesus tells his disciples to “Seek (ζητεῖτε) first the kingdom of God.” (Mt 6:33) Notice the fact that Jesus includes the helping word “first” to clarify His meaning.  There are many different levels of seeking, but Jesus clarifies that the seeking He is referring to is “first” seeking.

So, how is striving different from seeking in Luke 13:24?  In this passage, striving is greater than seeking in at least two ways.  First, as shown through the comparison of the terms above, striving involves wholehearted commitment and a forsaking of all competing joys or endeavors.  It is greater than seeking in that the prize of the one striving is before all other prizes.  Second, the context of the passage in Luke suggests that those “seeking” were not only less vigorous than those “striving” but that they were also late.  Their seeking was less forceful and less timely.  In Luke 13:25, the master of the house gets up and shuts the door, forever barring those on the outside from coming into the kingdom.  These two problems are certainly related.  In their lack of vigor, the “seekers” dallied with other trifles until the doors were shut soundly in their faces.  The message from Jesus is clear:  The way of salvation is open now to those who see Jesus as such a prize that they are willing to give up anything to gain Him.  Do not wait another moment.  Strive after the kingdom of heaven and the King of heaven as if it was the greatest prize, forsaking all other competing prizes.  This is the path to the narrow gate.

Sadly, Jesus tells us that only a few will find the narrow gate.  Let us be in this blessed minority.  May we seek Him with the fierceness of which He alone is worthy.  May we find Him to be our prize.  And, may “the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

[1] For a more detailed study of the word “ἀγωνίζομαι”, see E. Stauffer, The Dictionary of the New Testament, vol 1. p 134-140, especially 137.