Are those being saved few?

22 He passed through towns and villages, teaching and making a journey towards Jerusalem. 23 Someone said to him: ‘Lord, are those being saved few?’ And he said to them, 24 ‘Struggle to enter through the narrow door, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able to.’

Jesus is asked by a man in the street whether it is true that only a few will be saved. The question highlights the centrality of the theme of judgment on Israel in Jesus’ teaching, as it is found in statements such as: ‘I came to cast fire upon the land’ and ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the land’ (Luke 12:49, 51). It further presupposes Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 1:9 and 10:22-23, which speak of the few that will survive the devastation of the country by the Assyrians or the remnant that will turn back to the mighty God. Paul quotes these passages in Romans 9:27-29 to underline his argument that Israel now faces a similar disaster from which only a few will be saved. Isaiah 10:18-19 speaks of Israel as a forest which the Lord will destroy: ‘The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.’ Less directly relevant are apocalyptic texts such as 4 Ezra 7:47; 8:1-3; 9;15.

Jesus’ response echoes the saying in Matthew 7:13-14 about the broad gate and easy path that leads to destruction and the narrow gate and difficult path that leads to life – ‘and those who find it are few’. This is Jesus’ reworking of Jeremiah’s warning that Israel faces a way of life and a way of death:

And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. (Jer. 21:8-10)

The context of the passage in Luke also points to a concrete, historical interpretation: if the Jews do not repent they will be slaughtered by the Romans as the Galileans were slaughtered, they will be crushed in the ruins of Jerusalem as the eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell were killed (13:1-5); Israel is a fig tree that sooner or later will be cut down because it does not bear fruit (13:6-9); people who have known Jesus will be excluded from restored Israel (13:25-30). The chapter concludes with Jesus’ lament over the city and its forsaken ‘house’ (13:34-35).

He urges them, therefore, to ‘struggle’ (agōnizesthe) to enter by the narrow door. The use of agōnizomai makes this a strongly apocalyptic motif. Paul uses the word on a number of occasions for the struggle to complete a path or fulfil a vocation that will end in suffering, death, and vindication with Christ (1 Cor. 9:25; Col. 1:29; 1 Tim. 4:10; 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). In the account of the martyrdom of Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother, it is said that Eleazar ‘struggled first’ (proēgōnizeto) and then the brothers ‘struggled’ (ēgōnizonto). In Ben Sirach 4:28 we have: ‘Exert yourself (agōnisai) to the death for the truth, and the Lord God will do battle for you.’

‘Struggle to enter by the narrow door’, therefore, is a call to the Jews to abandon everything, take up their cross (cf. Lk. 14:26-27, 33), and follow Jesus down the painful path of suffering and death for the sake of the survival – or salvation – of the people.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 11/17/2009 - 13:23 | Permalink

Depends what is meant by ‘few’. ‘Few’ in 13:23 contrasts with ‘full’ in 14:23. Doesn’t the whole context of 13:22-30 suggest a wider setting than AD 70?

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, I think it’s unlikely that ‘few’ is meant to contrast with ‘filled’ in Luke 14:23. On the one hand, Matthew 22:23, which significantly comes at the end of Matthew’s version of the wedding feast parable, suggests that Jesus would have agreed with the premise of the question: ‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’ On the other, in the parable of Luke 14:16-24 ‘filled’ contrasts with the house left empty by the invited guests who failed to attend. There are two contextually distinct arguments here, and I doubt that it’s appropriate to correlate them in the way you suggest.

I’m not sure what you see in Luke 13:22-30 that suggests a wider setting than AD 70. The surrounding argument, as I suggested, seems to me very clearly to indicate that Jesus foresaw a judgment on Israel that would culminate in the devastation of Jerusalem and the temple:

i) there is the allusion in Luke 12:49-53 to Micah 7:6, which forms part of an announcement of judgment against Jerusalem (cf. Mic. 6:9-14);

ii) the warning to ‘interpret the present time’ (12:56) suggests that Jesus is thinking within a foreseeable historical purview;

iii) he says that the Jews will perish in the same way that the Galileans and inhabitants of Jerusalem perished – that is, at the hands of the Romans and as a result of the collapse of the city (13:1-5);

iv) he tells a story in which the fig tree of Israel is threatened with being cut down in the near future if it does not bear fruit (13:6-9);

v) specifically while travelling to Jerusalem he speaks of those who will be cast out even though he walked in their streets (13:22-27);

vi) he laments over Jerusalem, whose house is forsaken (13:34-35), and whose ‘desolation’ by hostile armies will be seen by the current generation (cf. Lk. 21:20, 32).

It seems to me that the onus is very much on those who wish to find a wider context in Luke 13:22-30 to show how and why Jesus suddenly transcends this historical framework that he has so carefully established.

@Andrew Perriman:

How do you square 13:24-29 with your interpretation? In other words, how does trying to enter through a ‘narrow door’ fit with judgment on Jerusalem? How does standing outside knocking and pleading for the door to be opened and to be let in fit with that event? It should be the other way round - ie knocking and pleading to be let out!

How does ‘seeing’ the three patriarchs and the prophets in the kingdom of God fit with judgment on Jerusalem? I realise ‘seeing’ may not be literal (though it may be); but how would an event like that judgment possibly be linked by those suffering under it with ‘seeing’ the patriarchs and prophets in the kingdom of God, to their own exclusion? Doesn’t this suggest something beyond AD 70?

The gathering of the people from all corners of the earth (v.29) ‘to take their places at the feast of the kingdom of God’ suggests something quite unlike the AD 70 judgment; certainly something beyond it; and more naturally a final gathering beyond AD 70.

The first being last and the last first (v.30) is sometimes used in an eschatological context, and sometimes not (eg Mark 9:35, 10:31); it is not necessarily attached to the AD 70 judgment.

I don’t disagree that some of the words of Jesus prior to this section are applicable to AD 70. I don’t disagree that Jesus would have had the AD 70 horizon in mind; but prophetic scriptural meaning can have significance for further and later contexts, can’t it? Particularly where there is no direct, explicit connection in the words to a specific occurrence (which is the case here - in 12:35-48, for instance).

The parable of the wedding banquet, where we find the word “full/filled” is eschatological - and does have a connection with preceding sections, including Luke 13:22-30. I think it is very appropriate to take the metaphor and measure against it what the people ask him in 13:23 (“Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”). In 13:29, there is a picture of a worldwide gathering of people to “the feast in the kingdom of God”. So Jesus is already answering the question with the suggestion of multitudes - and not simply those who escaped the AD 70 judgment in Israel.

The wedding feast imagery continues in 14:7-12; then again in 14:12-13; and again in 14:15-23. So I think  Jesus is continually hinting at what he says in 14:24, that his house will be “full/filled”. As the imagery is of a wedding feast, the picture is of many people, not a few.

The contrast between “few” and “many” is a running theme in Luke and the gospels. On the one hand, Jesus made it difficult for “many” to follow him; on the other hand there are constant hints that the fruit of his work will be abundant - eg in the kingdom parables; parable of the sower etc. I don’t see it being always limited to the “few” who might be spared judgment in AD 70.

The complexity of this is that I’m not really disagreeing that AD 70 is there in the text; I’m also saying that the text also leads us to think of time beyond AD 70, and sometimes to a final judgment - which is also a ‘wedding banquet’ for those who are saved from it. ‘Saved’ has a concrete historical dimension; it also has a final and, if you like, eternal dimension. That’s the way the text reads (in my opinion).

@peter wilkinson:

Clearly you’re right – these teachings are not just about the war against Rome as an outworking of divine judgment against a rebellious people. There is judgment, but there is also a salvation from judgment, just as in the prophets the foreseen invasion of Israel by the Assyrians or Babylonians is invariably followed by forgiveness and restoration.

Those who enter by the narrow door escape from condemnation and the destruction that it brings. They enter into the house of the master and sit down at table with ‘Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God’ (Lk. 13:28). This is, of course, figurative language. The question is, what is it a figure for? Obviously not for judgment on Jerusalem. But is it a figure for the restoration of the people of God following historical judgment? Or is it a figure for a final, end-of-history-as-we-know-it consummation?

It seems to me that the language points firmly in the direction of the former. Apart from the matter of the wider context of the passage, which is clearly focused on the fate of Jerusalem, the motif of people coming from all corners of the earth – whether we understand these to be Jews only or to include Gentiles – derives from Old Testament passages that describe how God will restore his people after the devastation of war. This passage from Jeremiah suggests the significance of the reference to the patriarchs: the image of the feast is Jesus’ way of affirming the continuity of the restored people with God’s original covenant with the patriarchs:

Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them. (Jer. 33:25-26)

If we read Jesus’ words historically rather than dogmatically, keeping in mind also the context and the fact that a very real war was less than 40 byears away, I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that he uses the prophetic language in more or less the same way.

The ‘kingdom of God’ for Jesus is not an infinitely remote thing. The Son of man is given the kingdom, etc., when the pagan power that opposed the righteous and made war against the saints of the Most High is overthrown (cf. Dan. 7:13-27). That establishes a historical setting. The lines projecting into the future converge not on the final horizon of history but on an event, a transformation, in the foreseeable future, one that will impact Jesus’ auditors.

The parable of the wedding feast needs to be read in the same way. It is addressed to the current generation of Israel and has to do with their fate. They are being told that ‘everything is now ready’, but they are making excuses. So the invitation is being extended to those who would not have expected to be invited – the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame – just those to whom Jesus has been preaching the good news of the coming transformation that will be the kingdom of God. The historical setting is even clearer in Matthew’s version of the parable: when those first invited refused to come to this imminent wedding feast, the king ‘sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city’ (Matt. 22:7). How can it be said that the parable has reference to something other than the destruction of Jerusalem and the celebration of a new order of things with Jesus installed as king over a people of God reconstituted from among the marginalized and disenfranchised?

@Andrew Perriman:

I see continuity and discontinuity following Jeremiah 33:25-26, or at least, in how that prophecy was fulfilled. Continuity for the people of God in they are now formed; discontinuity with Israel in her historic form. The patriarchs are invoked in Luke13:28 to underline discontinuity with historic Israel.

However, it’s puzzling how Jesus uses prophetic language. I don’t doubt Jesus had AD 70 in the frame. But even allowing for apocalyptic language, there seems to me to be something more than that event, in the way Israel is described. An unveiling - which is the meaning of apocalypse - which may describe what happened immediately after death, since it didn’t happen while the conflict was still taking place (or at least, nobody recorded it). But I think we are looking at something more like an ‘unveiling’ which looks simultaneously to a final judgment. That may sound like being dogmatic, but I’m only trying to be sensitive to the language.

I agree that the kingdom of God is not an infinitely remote thing. Also that the destruction of Jerusalem was an act of the kingdom of God, because it was an act of judgment. So it was a concrete expression in history of the kingdom of God. But so were many other things expressions of the kingdom of God; and to my mind more significant to us today than the fall of Jerusalem. The ministry of Jesus, continued by the apostles, showed what this reign of God would look like, in contrast with the power political victory which Israel was expecting. However, the kingdom of God was in itself an expression of a transfer of power, so it did have consequences on power systems, then and now.

Behind the power event which resulted in the fall of Jerusalem, which Jesus describes in Luke 13 and 14, I also see hints of something beyond this, the final judgment, which is evident in the imagery he uses. Especially the imagery of the wedding feast - which is not simply an idealistic throughout-history phenomenon, but an event towards which history is moving. The bride is being prepared for the bridegroom. There will be an event and day of comlpetion when the bride is presented to the bridegroom That wasn’t in AD 70.

That’s not also to say that the wedding feast would not be anticipated in advance of the event. That is what Jesus was doing in his mnistry, and is illustrated also, to an extent, in the parable of the wedding feast. So yes, the wedding feast parable does contain warnings about imminent historical events. But I would say it also contains a description of the final day. In this sense, Jesus I think uses language in a way which points to imminent events and a also to a distant event. The way the imagery is used elsewhere in the NT reinforces this, in my view. Eg the bride being prepared in Ephesians 4; the wedding feast of Revelation 19:7-9.

@peter wilkinson:

But so were many other things expressions of the kingdom of God; and to my mind more significant to us today than the fall of Jerusalem.

Just because this is Jesus who is speaking does not mean that we have to load his words with all the meaning that comes with hindsight. I regard it simply as good hermeneutics to limit the scope of his language about the coming of the kingdom of God to the historical transformation that consisted of judgment on Israel, the deliverance of the eschatological community, and (perhaps, though I am not sure Jesus looks this far down the road) the eventual defeat of the pagan system that opposed and threatened the survival of the faithful descendants of Abraham

@Andrew Perriman:

Sorry Andrew, I think we misunderstand each other, and the kingdom of God comment was probably slightly off the point.

I was simply responding to your observation that the kingdom of God was not an infinitely remote event, by which I guess you mean that the only valid use of the expression is to describe a locally historic event; ie AD 70. (I’ve a feeling a correction may be on its way here!).

I was observing that ‘kingdom of God’ is a valid way of describing how Jesus introduced his reign, which was in expressions of the kingdom, such as healing, deliverance etc, as foretold by Isaiah, but not understood by Israel.

I was also observing that these expressions of the kingdom, along with many others, are also how Jesus’s kingly reign is expressed today, as signs of life under new management.

The kingdom today also influences, accords with, or comes into conflict with power structures of all kinds, just as it did with the Roman empire. So there can be a political dimension to it. The kingdom is not something that takes place in a spiritual realm, detached from the activities of the public world.

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