Sunday, May 13, 2018

On the Mount (30)

The way is hard that leads to life. Ain’t that the truth. Maybe in more ways than we are usually inclined to consider.

Matthew 7:13 is generally read as having to do with a man or woman’s ultimate fate: eternity in hell on the one hand; eternal life in fellowship with God on the other. These are the highest and most personal stakes for which human beings have ever played. In the face of everlasting separation from God and all that is good, it should be obvious that the horrors of war, the nuclear arms race and our current inability to cure cancer pale into comparative insignificance.

Understandably, we will wish to choose carefully.

The Narrow Gate

Here is how Matthew recorded those famous words from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
To many, the narrow gate is an apt metaphor for the spirit of repentance and self-mortification that brings men and women to their knees before their Creator and Savior. For most of us, it is far from an easy thing to confess our complete inability to save ourselves through any efforts or goodness of our own, and to put our trust entirely in the person of the Lord Jesus. Narrow indeed. Easy … not.

The Way to Eternal Life

Thus, applying the Lord’s words to this most critical of life’s choices is the burden of most Bible commentators. A couple of examples should suffice:
“The way to eternal life is narrow.”
— Matthew Henry

“The way to heaven is ‘pent up, narrow, close,’
  and not obviously entered.”
— Barnes’ Notes on the Bible
Let me stipulate that these are entirely legitimate applications of the Lord’s words, and for most readers they will suffice to explain them.

Adam Clarke agrees, but personally prefers a more contextual approach:
“With those who say it means repentance, and forsaking sin, I can have no controversy. That is certainly a gate, and a strait one too, through which every sinner must turn to God, in order to find salvation. But the doing to every one as we would they should do unto us, is a gate extremely strait, and very difficult, to every unregenerate mind.”
Clarke refers us back to the “Golden Rule” of the previous verse. His observation, though unusual, is not obviously incorrect.

Another Possibility

I do note that the adjective “eternal” is absent here. That in itself doesn’t mean much: the Lord indeed uses it five times in Matthew when speaking of judgment or reward (as compared to John’s seventeen), but almost as often uses zōē [“life”] on its own to denote the opposite of “everlasting fire”. What it does do is leave open the possibility that more than eternity may be in view.

For the believer, there is a sense in which “life” is not just something to which we will awake when our Lord clothes perishable with imperishable and raises the dead in glory. The fullness of life and maximum vitality is something into which the believer has already entered, though many of us are not living so as to fully enjoy what we have.

Eternal Life in the Here-and-Now

Think of the Lord’s repeated statements about the life which is in him, and which belief in his name confers:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Hidden With Christ in God

The life here in view is surely something much grander than mere prolongation of earthly existence, or else the adjective “abundant” would be meaningless and the statements “they will never perish” and “shall never die” would be flat-out lies.

But they are not. Perhaps this is why the scriptures refer so reliably and mysteriously to the physical death of the believer as “sleep”. It is not the same death, with the resounding finality of judgment that accompanies it, that the unregenerate so reasonably fear, but an intermission of comparatively little consequence. Our life is “hidden with Christ in God.”

Laying Hold

If those who find the narrow gate to eternal life are few — and, comparatively speaking, they are — then surely those who enjoy the fullness and vitality of what is already theirs in Christ in this life are even fewer. And yet the epistles confirm this sort of robust, fully-apprehended fellowship with Christ on this earth is very much a possibility:
Living Witnesses to Life Incarnate

So we may consider “life” in this more expansive sense, or we may simply direct our attention and hopes toward eternity rather than the difficulties of our present experience. The option is really ours. It is doubtful many believing Jews in the Lord’s audience really grasped at the time he spoke these words the extent to which the life of Jesus Christ would shortly transform their own lives and turn them into an unprecedented generation of witnesses to Life Incarnate.

Either way, the “gate” in the Lord’s illustration remains narrow and the way by which we enter it the same. Some commentators go so far as to suggest the gate is Christ himself. Gill’s Exposition reads:
“By the ‘strait gate’ is meant Christ himself; who elsewhere calls himself ‘the door’.”
It is difficult and probably not overly useful to argue the point.

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