"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." (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)
Why does Jesus say that the gate to life is narrow? Which leads to some related questions: why is Christianity so exclusive? Will only a few ultimately be saved? Doesn't God want all, or at least lots of people, to be saved? Is he making the way more difficult than it needs to be?
First of all, we should underscore the truth that God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). It is not that God intends to make the way of life difficult for difficulty's sake. He's not being cruel, or miserly, or hard to please. The way and the welcome is open to all. However, then as now, many people find the exclusive claims of Christ, and of Christianity, to be deeply offensive. I believe the narrowness of Christianity comes from the extreme condition in which we exist as fallen, sinful creatures, and from the only solution that can truly help us.
Jesus' ministry was rejected by many in Israel (John 1:11). Much of his popularity stemmed from the miraculous blessings he gave, whether healing, deliverance or food. His teaching was enjoyed by many until it became difficult to understand (John 6:60-66). The leadership of the nation, by a great majority, would finally condemn him to death for blasphemy.
So, why is the gate narrow? Here are a few reasons, I think…
First, the gate is narrow because truth is narrow -- or at least, truth is narrow when placed against the backdrop of widespread deceit. Jesus described Satan as the father of lies (John 8:44). All roads do not in fact lead to the top of the mountain (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), but "lead to destruction", according to Jesus. He comes as the true Light into a very dark world.
The gate is narrow because a person must come to understand his desperate condition before God. We come to Christ as a terminally ill person comes to a physician (Luke 5:31-32). There's a humbling that takes place in salvation. This is very difficult for people who believe the widespread lie that they are basically good (or that they're "not all that bad.")
The gate is narrow because one must understand that it is not by works, or by self-generated effort or sincerity or good intentions that we enter God's kingdom. Again, most religions and worldviews hold that we can be good enough to attain life. We are given a list (which may be short or long) as to how we might achieve this. We are like the rich young ruler who asks "what good thing" he might do to merit eternal life (Luke 18:18ff).
The gate is narrow because only Jesus can do what needs to be done to give us eternal life. His life is the only one that pleases God with its perfection. Multitudes find this hard to swallow. And his death is the only work that can restore us to friendship with God. Many people, then and now, find this offensive. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).
The gate is narrow because it does not appeal to our ethnic pride, that each of us should have a way of salvation that is amenable to our culture. But God has given one Mediator for all cultures, because humanity is one. (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Romans 5:12ff)
The gate is narrow because the Christian life -- though involving great freedom and joy -- does bring restrictions in the way we live in this current world. Given the prevailing flow of sinful humanity, the Christian life is hard. It involves being shaped into the image of Jesus and being prepared for a new creation while living in the old (Luke 14:27-28). It means bearing with persecution and hostility. It means making choices that many would find strange. Most people do not want to sign up for that.
So, does this mean that ultimately only a few will be saved? Jesus does not quite say that. He says those who are finding it are few. "The ones finding it" is a present participle, which may refer to a timeless principle or it may refer to the current situation as Jesus is speaking. One thing we know… multitudes will be saved (see Rev 7:9; 19:6). The size of the New Jerusalem is mind-boggling (Rev 21:15ff).
It may be that what Jesus is saying is similar to what he said here:
Jesus is speaking these words before his death, resurrection and ascension; before the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the church. I think the sense is this: given the utter estrangement of humanity from God, we would never find the door to life due to our blindness and hardened hearts. But through God's grace and through the ministry of the Spirit out-poured, a few can become a multitude, a trickle can become a flood, and a tiny remnant can become a great nation:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV)
The engraving above is of the wicket gate from The Pilgrim's Progress, London, 1778.