In this brief and well-known saying Jesus contrasts two ways people live their lives, the easy way and the difficult way. Most people are on the easier path. It is broad and leads to a wide gate. Others follow the narrower path which is dangerous and difficult. This difficult path leads to a narrow gate. The Narrow Gate saying is difficult since it claims there are two ways to live, one leads to the kingdom of Heaven, and the more popular leads to destruction.
We are nearing the end of the Sermon on the Mount and as many scholars observe, the material in chapter 7 is more difficult to outline. Nolland calls Matthew 7:13-27 “Challenges to Implement the Sermon.” Luke 13:24 has a similar saying. In response to the question whether those who will be saved are only a few, Jesus said “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Instead of a gate (στενὴ ἡ πύλη), Luke has a door (διὰ τῆς στενῆς θύρας) and Luke does not mention the wide gate. The focus of this saying is on one’s own relationship with God, not trying to figure out who is in or out. Pennington makes 7:13-8:1 a major section, “three warnings regarding the prospect of eschatological judgment” (Sermon, 272). R. T. France calls 7:13-27 as a “coda” which calls for a decision on the part of those who have heard Jesus’s teaching (Matthew, 282). There are three clear sections with similar themes which are increasingly eschatological. At the final judgment, there will be some who will be told “depart, I never knew you.”
The Sermon on the Mount is the model for living as a disciple of Jesus. Some people appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not real disciples of Jesus. Why? True discipleship is difficult and the majority are on the easier path leading to destruction.
Although it is not clearly stated, in context of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has in mind “entering through the narrow gate” is entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is describing those who will enter eschatological kingdom. Pennington points out the Sermon is framed by “eschatological urgency” (Sermon, 271). In the Beatitudes Jesus says the poor will see the Kingdom (5:3), the meek will inherit the earth (5:5), and the kingdom belongs to the persecuted (5:10).
The disciples are already followers of Jesus who are on the narrow path (7:14) and are bearing good fruit (7:16). John Nolland thinks the kingdom of heaven is pictured as a city (Matthew, 332), Scot McKnight suggests the entrance to a Temple may be in mind (Sermon, 258). Perhaps the image is what one might experience Jerusalem on a pilgrimage.
This parable-like saying reflects a “two ways” theology. The two ways are the way of life and the way of death, based on the blessings and curses of the Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Joshua 24:15 (“choose today whom you will serve”); Psalm 1, “blessed is the one who…” and “cursed is the one who…” This two ways theology appears in early Christian books such as Didache and Barnabas.
To enter a gate to a city, one must first follow the road to that gate. This implies a choice to travel a particular way for a long time in order to arrive at a particular gate. The decision might be made very early on in the trip.
For example, one might go from Galilee to Jerusalem and arrive via the Mount of Olives and enter through one of the eastern gates, or travel from Galilee to enter from the western side of the city at the Damascus Gate, or even loop around to the south and come up through the Dung Gate.
It is unlikely someone would travel all the way to an entry gate and then change their mind and walk around the city to enter through another gate. The path was chose to get to a particular gate. What motivates any of us to travel via one or another route? The most efficient route, the scenic route, the way to avoid traffic? Think about how to get to O’Hare airport, there are multiple ways to drive there (avoid traffic, avoid tolls, etc.)
Entering the gate of a city is the last thing one does before arriving, so the point of the metaphor is the “last judgment,” consistent with the rest of this final section of the Sermon.
Jesus warns about false prophets (7:15-20, according to 24:4, 24 these will come in the last days), false disciples who did miracles in Jesus name but do not enter the kingdom of God (7:21-23), and the foolish man who built his house on the sand (7:24-27). These warnings are similar to those in Matthew 22:1-14 and 24-25. Some wedding guests or servants enter the kingdom, while others remain on the outside, in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.