“He Went on His Way Teaching and Journeying toward Jerusalem”
Kevin Rees • March 8, 2015
Only Jesus knows, governs and reveals who is and who is not in the Kingdom of God.
Three billy goats—brothers with the family name, “Gruff,” as the Norwegian folktale goes—spied some luscious grass on the far hillside of the stream and grew hungry at the sight. So, the youngest Billy Goat Gruff decided to go across the bridge first. “Trip, trap, trip trap,” went his hooves until a troll emerged on the bridge and blocked the way. “Who is that crossing over my bridge?” “Oh, it is only I, the tiniest Billy Goat Gruff. I am going to the hillside to make myself fat.” “Now I am coming to gobble you up,” said the troll. “Oh no! Do not eat me, for I am too little. Wait until my bigger brother comes along, for he is much bigger than I.” So the troll let the youngest Billy Goat Gruff pass.
A little while later the middle Billy Goat Gruff came trotting across the bridge. “Trip, trap, trip, trap,” went his hooves until the troll emerged on the bridge and blocked his way. “Who is that crossing over my bridge?” “Oh, it is only I, the second Billy Goat Gruff. I am going to the hillside to make myself fat.” “Now I am coming to gobble you up,” said the troll. “Oh no! Do not eat me, for I am nothing. Wait until my bigger brother comes along, for he is much bigger than I.” So the troll let the second Billy Goat Gruff pass.
A little while later the biggest Billy Goat Gruff brother came across the bridge. The bridge creaked and groaned under him. “Who is that crossing my bridge?” “It is I; the biggest Billy Goat Gruff,” with a voice as deep as the troll’s. “Now I am coming to gobble you up,” said the troll. “Well come along then,” said the biggest Billy Goat Gruff, “I’ll poke out your eyes and crush your bones to bits” rushing at the troll at full speed. He dispatched the troll, tossed him over the bridge, and joined his brothers making themselves fat on the hillside grass—so fat that they could not fit back across the bridge.
We know this story; this folktale that has been adopted and adapted by many people groups. This week I was reminded of the Three Billy Goats for one straightforward reason—dealing with an unauthorized/rogue gate-keeper. The troll claimed it was “his bridge,” though I’ve never met a troll who could construct a bridge! He crawled out of his hole and saw an opportunity to bully the country, filling his own belly in the process. He usurped ownership of a bridge, appointed himself as a gate-keeper, and terrorized every traveler and apparently every goat.
How does one deal with a bully? I can assure that there are many types of bullies, even spiritual bullies. Is there reasoning? Is there bargaining? Is there winning a bully over with good citizenship and a firm handshake? Or, does one lock horns with the challenger, dispatch and toss him into the river, and reopen the road to the country.
Jumping from fable to gospel is not too hard to do. The self-appointed gatekeepers—the Pharisees, in our passage today—think they hold the power and the prestige over who is in and who is out of the kingdom of God. But Jesus trumps them authoritatively, exposes them as frauds, and announces them as hindrances to those who are entering the kingdom of God. He names them trolls, so to speak, and rushes at them with both horns as they seek to block his way.
I find it interesting that last week in Luke 9 Jesus deflects a confrontation, but here in Luke 13 he fully accepts it. Perhaps the difference is because he is addressing the religious leaders directly here; those who are responsible for misguiding many from the truth to follow after man’s traditions and preferences. Attack him personally and Jesus turns the other cheek. Attack those who strive to enter the narrow door by faith and Jesus charges. “The LORD is a warrior” (Exodus 15:3). This is why his condemnation of the Pharisees is undiluted. They are responsible for hindering thousands … millions … from the freedom of the gospel of grace with their rules, fences, and regulations. They could have been very shepherding—helping people find and enjoy a relationship with God—but they pervert their position twisting what could have been extremely beneficial into something very wicked.
Most likely to be a trick question, someone in the crowd asks: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” This is the question which rabbis debate, but which Jesus answers with razor-sharp precision. All in all, Jesus’ answer is simple to this public question—yes, few are saved. It is not a new teaching. At the beginning of his earthly ministry he taught the same lesson in 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” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Here he gives three reasons why so few are saved. His first reason (vv. 22-24) hinges on the difference—taught in a straightforward style—between trying to enter the kingdom of God through human works and trusting entrance has been accomplished and granted by another. Jesus’ second reason (vv. 25-30) hinges on the difference—taught in story form—between believing entrance into the kingdom of God is based on human relationships and believing entrance is based on a relationship with God marked by repentance and faith. Jesus third reason (vv. 31-35) hinges on the differences—taught in illustration form—between the scattering ministry of the Pharisees and the gathering ministry of the Savior.
I. Trying vs. Trusting (vv. 22-24)
22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem.
23 And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them,
24 "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.
Entrance into the Kingdom of God is narrow and few are those who enter in because it is difficult to understand that trying to enter and trusting entrance as a gift are completely antithetical.
Jesus’ teaching ministry takes precedence from start to finish. He undoubtedly did wonderful miracles, but his teaching was the heartbeat of his ministry. The miracles proved that he was from God and therefore ought to be heeded. Even though these population centers were probably small, there were Pharisees contending with him all along the road to Jerusalem.
In chapters 11, 12, and 13 Jesus calls out the Pharisees specifically—but they represent the entire ruling class of religious leaders—as “hypocrites” (12:1, 56; 13:15), pretenders, actors playing a part in a drama. They feign piety on the outside but are predators at heart. Therefore, this is not an idle question shouted in the public teaching time of Jesus; it is a plant … a trap meant to ensnare Jesus and collect evidence that can be used to condemn him in Jerusalem.
“And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’” (vs. 22) The rabbis were debating it in the synagogues—are all Jews allowed entrance in to the kingdom of God, or just the best of the Jews? Attempting to rope Jesus into their very ethnocentric squabble, they put out the bait. But Jesus, fully aware of both the debate and the motive to ensnare him, answers the deeper issue that undergirds the stated question. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (vs. 23).
For years Jesus has been teaching in public of the cost of discipleship—not performance, but endurance—the life of self-denial, the inevitability of facing persecution and even death for some. It has not been a popular teaching. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To continue to stick with his teaching of the kingdom would demand some agony—agonizomai. Striving—personal, active response of faith to Jesus’ teaching—is parallel to what an athlete must do to compete in the games; he must say yes to the one and no to the thousand others. There are morning workouts, strict diets, and strength training exercises (cf 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). He is not forced to compete, but if he volunteers to compete in the games he must accept the presence of temporary agony in the training. But ask any athlete after the completion and they will never whine about the training, for the thrill of competing and winning the contest more than compensates for the temporary agony of training.
By contrast to the few who believe and follow Jesus counter-culturally are the many who try to carve their own road to heaven. “The many…will seek to enter and will not be able.” No matter how you count it up, the vast majority of humans mistakenly think that they will find a way in on their own accord. But categorically, Jesus is opposed to this belief system—it is emphatically unchristian and unbiblical. Humans are not able to enter the kingdom of heaven through works. It is not a matter of trying harder. Trying to enter and trusting that Jesus provides to us entrance as a gift of grace are diametrically opposed to one another.
Every other world religion and many so-called Christian denominations have some variation on the same heresy—do in order to be. Jesus teaches the exact, total opposite; we must first be in order to do. The only problem, and Jesus mentions it here in our passage again, is that we cannot become anything other than that which we are—“[we] will not be able” (vs. 23) to become good on our own, to enter the kingdom of God on our own. True, and this is the mystery of the gospel, we cannot change who we are. But God is able and willing to change us. God can and does change who we are—from a son of Adam into a son of God—at the point where repentance and faith in Christ meet our vast need. Trying harder and trusting Jesus are irreconcilable opposites.
II. Horizontal vs. Vertical (vv. 25-30)
25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.'
26 Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.'
27 But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!'
28 In that place 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 but you yourselves cast out.
29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.
30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
The second reason entrance into the kingdom of God is narrow and few are those who enter in is because it is not based on lineage or proximity, but on repentance and rest.
Jesus now tells a story; a parable. “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us’” (vs. 25a). But the demand is presumptuous. It is his door, after all. He governs who enters and who does not. “Then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’” (vs. 25b). In other words, “I don’t acknowledge your point of origin.” The solicitors try to tip the scales in their favor: “we ate … we drank … you taught in our streets” (vs. 26). [Can’t you hear the troll’s line in the Three Billy Goats Gruff: “Who is that crossing my bridge?” Who’s the owner here and who’s the alien?’ So again the master emphasizes, “I tell you, I do not know where you are from. Depart from me all you workers of evil” (vs. 27).
Salvation is not a human equation. It is not based on human relationships. The Jews were unwisely confident that they would enter the kingdom of God merely because they were of the (horizontal) lineage of Abraham; that they had the prophets walk their streets and had the word of God gilded in gold in their local synagogues and their national temple. But Jesus is saying through this parable, “No! The kingdom of God is not based on human relationships or lineage. The kingdom of God is based solely upon a (vertical) relationship with God through faith.
Such teaching is not new to Jesus’ repertoire. He taught the exact thing to Nicodemus back in John 3—only family members gain entrance into the house. What do you mean, “Only family members? We have been in this community for millennia.” But no! Human connections are not enough; proximity is not enough. You have to have a personal relationship with the master before you are permitted entrance into the master’s house.”
The natural next question would be, “Well, then how do we become members of the family?” But that is what Jesus has been teaching for over three years, and what the Scriptures had been teaching for three thousand years. There are only two family trees in this world: there is the family of Adam and the family of Jesus. We are all born into the family of Adam; which is a family under the curse. But Jesus came to rescue sons and daughters of Adam’s family from the curse and transfer them—legally acquit and adopt them—into his own family (Galatians 4:4-5) by grace through faith to the glory of God. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13).
Jesus does not spell all of that out again here, but he does continue to dismantle their belief system that says the kingdom of God is for the physical sons of Abraham. The kingdom of God is for spiritual sons of Abraham who believed [the promise] and he counted it to [them] as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). So it was then, so it is now. “[We] believe the LORD and the LORD counts it to [us] as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Not works. Not lineage. This is hard for Jews to admit, to understand, and to grasp because to them national identity has always been taught to equal to salvation. To non-Jews, it is also hard to accept, but for the Jews it was supremely hard because it sounded like treason.
III. Scattering vs. Gathering (vv. 31-35)
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."
32 And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.
33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'"
Entrance into the kingdom of God is narrow and few are those who enter in because it all hinges on faith in Jesus Christ exclusively and uniquely.
Finally, Jesus illustrates his point that there are few who enter the kingdom of God by taking a line from the Pharisees themselves. The Pharisees merely pretend to be helpful in hinting to Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. They use Herod as a pretext—a red herring—to disguise their own murderous desires. This is yet another attempt by evil to block Jesus’ road to Jerusalem.
But Jesus weaves the words of the Pharisees into his own tapestry. Notice one thread—the word “desire” (thelo) also translated “would,” “want,” or “willing.” It is mentioned three times. “Herod wants to kill you” (vs. 31). “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (vs. 34).
And then finally, “[but] you were not willing.” It sounds eerily similar to Isaiah’s condemnation on Jerusalem over 700 years previously: “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling” (Isaiah 30:15). The Pharisees desire to scatter the people. Jesus desires to gather the people. However, Jesus will not allow anything to deter him from finishing his “course.”
How profoundly sad! His willingness is intact, but their unwillingness is in cement. That is enough to elicit a lament from Jesus, which he will do again when he approaches Jerusalem and again when he walks through Jerusalem bearing his cross. “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stone those who are sent to it” (vs. 34).
But the lament does not last long as his next sentence pronounces judgment: “Behold, your house is forsaken” (vs. 35), or barren. Now his earlier parable (vv. 6-9) comes to light and we realize that Jesus has been illustrating the lostness and corruption of the Pharisees—and the majority of the nation of Israel—this whole time. "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down'" (Luke 13:6-9).
This conversation; this final journey to Jerusalem constiutes the extension given to the gardener to fertilize the fruitless fig tree for one more year before it is cut down. But the extra gesture produces zero fruit. A fig tree, like a grapevine, does not produce fruit until the third growing season. It is green, but fruitless. The fruit that God is looking for is, at the simplest level, repentance. It is a gift of grace, a work of God in the heart of man, consistently bound to faith, and the beginning of the signs of fruitfulness. But the Pharisees show no fruit. They are barren. For all of their effort to build a righteousness that impresses other humans, they are condemned by God to the burn pile.
Jesus makes his rejection of them as clear as their rejection of him. But amazingly, there is a sliver of hope that one day in the future they will repent. “And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (vs. 35). True, the crowd will speak this verse from Psalm 118:26 in a few days time, as little as they understood of its vast ramifications, but the religious rulers do not voice their consent. They voiced their rebuke that Jesus would not stop the songs of the crowd from making this ancient verse their anthem, but they did not speak the royal line: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But one day they will. The Scriptures (and I) hold out hope that the nation of Israel will look upon the Messiah they rejected and collectively repent just as God promises in Zechariah 12:10, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).
This whole time Jesus has been ripping into the Pharisees, lowering his head and knocking the spiritual bullies from their perch at the far side of the bridge. They deserve it. They repeatedly harden their position instead of soften their hearts to the word of God. But this whole sermon would be a waste if it were not pointed out that we need to hear Jesus’ accusation for ourselves. It is not just for them. It was not just for history. It is here. It is now. We often take the same precarious position at the far side of the bridge as self-appointed gate-keepers with an external righteousness that enslaves instead of sets free. Will we harden or soften? We are sometimes bullied, yes, but Jesus speaks directly to the proclivity that we all have to be the bully. It stings because it is true. We, like they, write the rules of how our club goes so that we come out on top. But Jesus cannot, out of his great love, allow us to remain as self-appointed gate-keepers any longer.
We are called by the Savior to repent, yes, of our overt sinfulness—that is an indispensible part of the gospel. But are we not called to repent, as well, of our attempted goodness; the goodness we try to build outside our utter dependency upon the grace of God and the work of the Spirit in our hearts? I say, “Yes!” I completely agree with Tim Keller who said in his excellent little book, Prodigal God—“I must repent of my goodness as well as my sinfulness.” I must say, “I am not able” to achieve any amount of goodness on my own. But I try. Oh, how we try. This trying is so seductive, so addictive, yet so damnable about the Pharisees and so damnable about us. But our self-righteousness is not the last word on the matter. The last word on the matter is Jesus saying, “It is finished.” The sins that bound us are, in Christ, broken. The deliverance we need is given by the Savior. We are the trolls in the story if we try to redirect Jesus, or try to reroute his followers. But we do not need to remain trolls. Jesus can and does change us by his grace.
I cannot improve upon Charles Spurgeon (or some other famous preacher whose reference I cannot find) who quipped, “Two things will amaze us when we get to heaven; who is there, and who is not.” The more I look into the Scriptures the more I am convinced that I do not have a shred of goodness on my own. I do not have any claim on who does or does not enter the kingdom of God; not the least myself. But Jesus has given me his goodness, his name, membership in his family, and entrance into his kingdom. Hallelujah, what a Savior!