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So far Luke 12 and 13 has warned the people about coming disaster and how to avoid it by bringing forth the fruit of the Kingdom that God required. National salvation would require the acceptance of Jesus Christ as King, but the religious and political leaders refused, for Jesus was not in submission to them, nor did He follow their traditions.
Unfortunately, most of the people themselves respected and trusted their religious leaders more than God Himself. They trusted their leaders to hear God’s voice and to do His will, and so they were swayed by the official rejection of Jesus as Messiah. It appears that they did not understand how their forefathers had rejected the voice of God in Exodus 20:18-21 and how they were doing the same again.
Those who did accept Jesus, however, were those who had the courage to hear God’s voice for themselves. Though they had not gone to Mount Sinai, they had come to a new mountain called Sion, or Mount Hermon (Deut. 4:48). Of this mountain, Heb. 12:18-25 says,
18 For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, 19 and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them…. 22 But you have come to Mount Zion [Sion, where Jesus was transfigured] and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. 25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking…
These who had come to a new mountain were part of the “church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven,” not of the national church of Judah, whose names were enrolled on earth. These believers, who were willing to hear the voice of God above the voices of men, had embarked upon a more lonely path and were united to the minority, the remnant, who were united by their ability to hear God’s word above the voice of religious traditions.
The long history of the people rejecting the revelation of God had finally reached its climax. When Jesus appeared, the final test was administered, where it really mattered insofar as the fate of the nation was concerned. The time of Visitation was nearly completed, as Jesus began His final journey to Jerusalem.
Paul says that Jerusalem is Mount Sinai (Gal. 4:25). Hence, when the people were to gather at Jerusalem for Passover on this date with destiny, they were to be presented once again with the opportunity to hear God’s voice—or to reject Him as before. Luke 13:22 says,
22 And He was passing from one city and village to another, teaching, and proceeding on His way to Jerusalem.
The warnings that Jesus had given earlier now began to intensify, as He began to clarify the prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction. At the same time, these warnings showed individual people the path to salvation, so that they could avoid disaster and loss in the time of divine judgment.
There are two levels of meaning in the parable in Luke 13:23-25. The first is about national salvation (or the salvation of Jerusalem), and the second is personal. The two are blended together.
23 And someone said to Him, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from’.”
Jesus’ teachings had led someone to wonder if only a few might be saved in the coming judgment. We now have the benefit of knowing how Jerusalem was destroyed and how few survived the destruction. We even know that the Jerusalem Church escaped to Pella during an early lull in the war in 68 A.D. after the death of Nero.
The Church remembered Jesus’ warning and knew that the time had come for them to leave the city. These “heard” and obeyed by faith, while the vast majority of the people merely fortified the city in preparation for war.
Of course, these instructions had a broader application than just a way to escape divine judgment upon Jerusalem. The same warning applies today, not only with the current inhabitants of Jerusalem, but also with divine judgment in general. In every case the door to repentance closes, and all men are judged according to their works. In the case of judgment against Jerusalem, once the city was surrounded and the gates shut, the people were trapped in the city with little hope of escape.
In the case of the Great White Throne judgment, where most men will have to be raised from the dead for judgment, the deadline is their time of death at the end of their life time. Now is the time of salvation. Of course, we know that even at the Great White Throne, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess their allegiance to Christ (Isaiah 45:23, 24, 25; Phil. 2:9-11). These will not escape divine judgment, in spite of their confession of faith, but will remain under judgment until the great Jubilee brings all of creation “into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
In Luke 13:23-25 Jesus did not answer the man’s question directly. Will only a few be saved? Jesus merely spoke about a “narrow door,” and the fact that a certain point in time would be reached where many would be shut out. Many have applied this statement only to unbelievers. However, Jesus applied it to rebellious, lawless believers as well. So Jesus continues in Luke 13:26-28,
26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; 27 and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth there when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being cast out.”
Matthew places this statement in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13-23). Jesus may have repeated it later on His way to Jerusalem, or perhaps Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount included a collection of Jesus’ teachings throughout His ministry. In either case, Matthew’s account is longer and contains more details. He records Jesus’ statement, “Enter by the narrow gate,” in Matt. 7:13. He then records Jesus’ teaching on the fruit that God requires (Matt. 7:16-20) before saying in Matt. 7:21-23,
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’.”
This makes it clear that Jesus was not making a distinction between believers and unbelievers, but rather about the obedient and the lawless. In other words, the problem was that many still refused to hear God’s voice. The Hebrew word shema means both to hear and to obey. Paul says in Rom. 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”
Many men have claimed to have faith on the grounds that they were able to prophesy, cast out demons, and perform many miracles. While these are all good things, God does not consider these things to be the “fruit” that He requires of us. The implication is that lawless miracle workers have not truly heard God’s voice, because they do not obey Him. For this reason, Jesus says, “depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” The Greek word for “lawlessness” is anomia, which is from the root word nomos, “law.”
The Israelites under Moses refused to hear and obey the law as well. Their refusal to hear in Exodus 20:18-21 resulted in lawless behavior throughout their entire forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. This was the church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), the prophetic type of the later church. Both churches have had the same problem.
Jesus continues in Luke 13:29,
29 And they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God.
Who are these coming from all directions? These are people like “Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets” (vs. 28). These were not lawless, for when they sinned, God spoke, they repented, and they received correction. This is actually a reference to Isaiah 43:5-7,
5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, “Give them up!” And to the south, “Do not hold them back.” Bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth. 7 Everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed, even whom I have made.
Isaiah’s prophecy was addressed to Jacob, whom He had created, and to Israel, whom He had formed (Isaiah 43:1). Most take this to be applicable exclusively to Israel as an ethnic group, but it is actually a national promise, where Israel has been joined by many ethnic groups (Isaiah 56:3-8). All are to be His sons and daughters, and all will be gathered to Christ from the four corners of the earth.
Verse 30 continues,
30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
There are many ways to interpret this statement. The primary meaning, if we apply it to Jesus’ immediate audience, is that many leaders will be last in the Kingdom, while many of the ordinary people will be first. They will receive rewards according to their faith (hearing and obedience), not according to their position among men.
On a broader application, if we link it to Isaiah 56, it implies that non-Israelites would receive the gospel last, but yet would come into the Kingdom first. This would be consistent with Luke 3:8, where John the Baptist says to the Jews,
8 Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Likewise, in Matt. 8:10-12, after healing the servant of the Roman centurion, we read,
10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled, and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Who, then, are those coming from east and west? The context shows that these are non-Israelites, such as the Roman centurion. Having great faith, though they were the last to hear the gospel, are the first to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
On another level the first being last and the last being first may also refer to the fact that there is more than one resurrection, as seen in Revelation 20. Resurrection comes at the sound of the trumpet (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16). Yet Moses was instructed to make two trumpets (Num. 10:2). Blowing a single trumpet (10:4) called the leaders, while blowing both trumpets (10:3) called the whole church (kahal, assembly, or congregation).
The construction of these two trumpets is what is celebrated at the feast of Trumpets on the first day of the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar (Lev. 23:24).
The point is that Paul prophesied of the first resurrection, for he spoke only of one trumpet being blown. The word is singular. Hence, as a student of the law, he recognized that the first resurrection was for the leaders (overcomers) only, whereas the rest of the church (assembly) were to be raised at the general resurrection at the end of the thousand years (Rev. 20:11-13). To study this distinction further, see my book, The Purpose of Resurrection.
Therefore, when Jesus said that some of the first would be last, He prophesied that many of the religious leaders would be raised “last,” rather than in the first resurrection. Likewise, many who were not ranked among the recognized leaders during their life time would be among the “first” in the resurrection and in the Kingdom.
Hence, when we seek an answer to the question, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?” we see that Jesus answered the deeper questions: (1) Many will be shut out on account of their unbelief and lawlessness; (2) Many of the recognized leaders will be “last,” both in terms of position in Kingdom leadership and in their time of resurrection.
This was part of Jesus’ warning not to follow the religious leadership that rejected Him as Messiah. Such leaders had refused to hear God’s voice and were entrenched in the traditions of men (Matt. 15:3, 7-10). Their faith was in their understanding of the word, not in the word itself. That misunderstanding caused the nation to be fruitless and would soon bring the whole nation into divine judgment.