Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
In 1678, an English Puritan named John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, better known simply as Pilgrim’s Progress. In 1985 Eerdman’s released an illustrated version called Dangerous Journey, and this book with its wonderful and terrifying illustrations informed my view of the narrow road.
Here’s what I mean:
As you can see, that is one heck of a narrow road. One wrong step in either direction and you are toast.
It wasn’t until one afternoon at Disney World, of all places, that I realized I’d gotten it wrong. Alan Parry’s illustrations do a wonderful job of illustrating John Bunyan, but that’s not at all what Jesus’ “narrow” way looks like.
Going through the Narrow Gate
Disney’s Epcot theme park is divided into two sections, one of which (the World Showcase) features pavilions from eleven different nations. Of these, the Morocco pavilion is unique in that the government of Morocco actually helped design it: King Hassan II sent artisans to create the pavilion’s many tile mosaics.
And, like any self-respecting ancient city, Morocco has a gate. Or rather, gates.
Since this is already a highly visual post, let me show you what I saw:
Notice the big gate in the middle. It’s designed for a wide flow of traffic. Everybody goes through that door, because it’s prominent and inviting. If this was actually Morocco, or someplace else in the biblical world, the gate would be even bigger, and whole caravans would be able to go through it. Horses, donkeys, camels, wagons, carts, processions, armies.
In fact, if you were part of a caravan or a procession, or just one of the crowd on market day, you could go through that door without even really being intentional about it. You just have to let the flow of traffic sweep you along.
It’s a wide gate.
But notice something else: on either side of that wide gate are two narrower ones. And off to the left, not at all fancy and really barely noticeable, there’s a door … just big enough for one person to get through.
That, my friends, is a narrow gate.
It’s not designed for big huge caravans. It’s not built for go-with-the-flow traffic. It’s built for one person at a time. It’s there for security and to let approved personnel in and out. Most people wouldn’t even notice it.
In ancient castles and fortresses, this sort of narrow passage is a tight squeeze. Again, this isn’t supposed to be a wide entry point.
And actually, that’s what Jesus’ words mean.
Tight Passages: The Greek Behind the Narrow Way
If you’ll indulge me a little Greek for a moment:
Jesus said narrow (stenos, narrow or straight; tight) is the gate and difficult (thlibo, literally pressing, constricting, or confining) is the way, and few there be that FIND it.
In the pictures I grew up with, I always saw the narrow path as a road winding through wide open spaces, where a step off would lead to great peril. The trick was keeping your feet on this difficult path when you might lose your balance and go careening off at any moment.
And this is often how we talk about it. We picture the Christian life as a narrow path that is incredibly difficult to stay on, because at any time temptation or confusion might cause us to misstep.
We read “Narrow is the gate and difficult the way that leads to life, and few there are who can stay on it without losing their balance their whole life.”
But the reality is quite different. The picture Jesus gave was that of a small, almost hidden door, and when you go through it, the passageway is tight—too tight to bring anything extra with you, too tight to admit more than one person at a time. You have to squeeze through it. For a moment it feels like the walls are closing in.
Lest you think I’m putting too much stress on a theme park, here’s the Bab Bou Jeloud, the actual gate in Morocco that inspired the Disney version:
(Picture by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader, http://bjornfree.com/galleries.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17134200)
See it? The tiny door off to the right.
If you look at old fortresses, you’ll always see these narrow gates. They make lots of sense: there had to be a way to let watchmen or guards or emissaries in and out without opening the broad gate for the whole world to come through.
The danger Jesus points out isn’t that few people will have the balance and fortitude to stay on the path, it’s that few people will ever find it in the first place. It’s a narrow gate with a tight passage through. In crowded streets it may be almost impossible to see.
Not many ever find it.
The Hidden Way of Jesus
In Jesus’ day, the people of Israel were waiting for the Messiah to come, overthrow the powers of Rome, and set up a throne in Jerusalem. They expected his coming to be obvious and political. No one could possibly miss it.
They expected a wide gate and a broad way.
Instead, Jesus came in a hidden way, a mysterious way. He DID overthrow the powers of Rome. In fact, he overthrew all the dark powers of all evil empires, from that time forward. He did set up a throne. In fact, he sat down at the right hand of God.
The kingdom came.
But the door to life, the door to the kingdom, wasn’t wide and broad after all. It was narrow, and tight, and not many people even noticed it was there.
That was in Jesus’ time. In our time, it’s not really much different. Anybody can (and most people do) go with the flow. We just get caught up in the crowd and sweep through whatever doors everybody else is going through.
To get into the kingdom, we have to unload our baggage, step out of the crowd, go in alone. It’s tight and dark and hard to see, and we have to press our way inside, on faith, believing this is the right way to go and that we will be treated as authorized personnel, allowed to be here.
Surprise surprise, we find something unexpected on the other side of this tight, compressing fit: we find life.
Going through the Door
I’m convinced that as tight as the passage to life may feel, when you get through, the world on the other side is unimaginably expansive. It’s a little (or a lot) like going through the wardrobe to Narnia.
He brought me out to a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me. (Psalm 18:19)
In spiritual terms, this makes good sense. On the one hand faith in Jesus is narrow and constricting; on the other hand, it places us into the body of the Lord of the universe.
Obedience to Jesus’ commands is much like this too. The need to forgive may make you feel like the walls are closing in, but on the other side of forgiveness is freedom. Loving one’s enemies is incredibly hard, so difficult it may make you feel like you can’t breathe, until you’ve broken through—once you’re through the passage, the other side is open and beautiful.
The door is open. The way is passable, though not easy. Each one of us is invited to go through—but we have to look closely, divest ourselves of anything that would prevent us from entering in, and push through.
(This is Part 91 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!