The question was put to Jesus, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” His answer, like many a teacher’s regarding more mundane matters, like quizzes and tests, is a variation on “study hard.” Jesus instructs the questioner and the crowd, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” It is one of those non-answers that teachers and parents will often give, as the answer is indeed dependent upon the response of the student or child. 1 Tm 2:4 encapsulates the hope of the whole church when the author writes that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” but Jesus’ exhortation to “strive” is not necessarily an argument that few will be saved, but an argument against presumption on the part of those who believe they have already checked every multiple choice item correctly.
According to the prophet Isaiah, the presumptions of the people of Israel, if narrowly conceived, needed to be broadened. The word of God came to the prophet: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory.” All the nations would hear of God’s glory and see God’s glory. Through the missions of the first apostles and their successors, clergy and lay, the word of God went to all the nations. It is a shocking reality when put in historical perspective, if considered apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. A few Jewish men and women, transformed by the person of Jesus Christ, enveloped by the Holy Spirit, set about to shape Isaiah’s prophetic and symbolic language into real events. And they did.
As Jesus continued to teach, he sketched scenarios in which those who presumably knew him—“We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets”—were chastened with his blunt reply, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” Why such a response? It is directed at the presumption that “knowing” is sufficient for entrance to the kingdom. It is not a sign that Jesus is longing to keep people out of the kingdom. The assumption that proximity and nearness are substitutes for a desperate hunger for the word of God is rejected. There is no corner of the world in which a person cannot yearn, work for and be joined to the reign of God.
We hope that all answer the call of the church, that it will be a house stretched beyond walls built with human hands. This is not a hope for a few, but a hope for the whole world redeemed. Still, Jesus warns: “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” The Messianic banquet is prepared for all those who choose to respond to God’s call, and this will include delegates of the whole of humanity; in the beautiful shorthand of Jesus’ teaching, people will come from every direction under the sun. And all the nations include the prophets; and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and the people of Israel, who themselves carried the revelation to the world and who foresaw its universal fulfillment.
The whole human family has been called to be saved, for we are all children of the same Father. In the context of Heb 12:5–17, we might even render the word saved by the phrase “child of God,” for the passage describes how God “disciplines” the children of God in order to conform to God’s will. The Greek word that is translated here as “discipline” is paideia. It is essential to understand that the word paideia, which appears seven times in this passage, means “education,” not simply physical discipline. God is educating us for the kingdom. If it is not precisely tests that we must take, the author of Hebrews speaks of us “enduring” paideia, or God’s education, so that when asked, “Will only a few be saved?” we can confidently answer, “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” for God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”