Jesus (Yeshua) famously said: “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matt 7:13). The common reading of Yeshua’s narrow road saying is that he was speaking of eternal destinies, giving us truths about the afterlife and the extent of salvation. According to this view, few are ultimately going to be redeemed and the majority of human beings will go to destruction.
Before commenting more on this common view, I have to note we already see a disconnect between Yeshua’s words and the idea of a continuing torment in hell. Yeshua does not say, “the way is easy that leads to a place of burning and torment.” He speaks, rather, of destruction. Those who believe that the unredeemed will be annihilated rather than tormented count this verse as one of their evidences.
Immediate Problems with the Common Reading
There are a few problems with taking Matthew 7:13 as a statement by Yeshua that few will be ultimately redeemed and many will go to an eternal destiny of destruction. Elsewhere we read that Yeshua’s life is a ransom for the many (Matt 20:28), not the few. We also read that many will come for salvation (Matt 8:11).
And this is the same Yeshua who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). “I am gentle and lowly in heart,” he added, “and you will find rest for your souls” (11:29). If that wasn’t enough: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:30).
Do we really think that this Yeshua, who promised ransom for the many and came to encourage the lowly of heart, who offered the kingdom to Zacchaeus and other tax collectors, that he would say, “God’s love will be effective for only a few?”
Alternative Reading #1
There is a second reading that seeks to avoid the “many will be destroyed in the afterlife” interpretation. In this alternative reading, Yeshua means few find the road of total discipleship. He does not mean that few will find the way to redemption. Even poor disciples, this alternative view says, will be transformed (perhaps after death) into perfect disciples. The warning from Yeshua is a deliberate exaggeration to persuade his audience to start following him immediately.
In other words, Yeshua notes that few will completely heed his call and that the danger of not heeding him is destruction in the afterlife. But the “few” are not the only ones who are saved in reality. Many lesser disciples who did not heed Yeshua very well will also be saved. But Yeshua warns in strict and exaggerated terms against following this approach. It is flirting with destruction. Assurance comes only with wholehearted abandon.
A Third Alternative
But what if neither view is correct? What if Yeshua is talking about something completely other than final destinies and afterlife?
I am convinced that many readings of Yeshua fail to consider that he is often being a prophet to his own generation. In many cases he is speaking about something immediately relevant to the people around him and not theology about ultimate things.
I read the Sermon on the Mount as being about a change Yeshua is suggesting for his nation, his people, in that day. It is also a message for any generation and I am not denying that. Yeshua wanted to persuade his audience to change course and follow a radical way of life. Matthew 7:13-14 is about the people in Yeshua’s time, their current circumstances and the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and slaughter of many Jews by Rome. It is the King, telling his unbelieving subjects how they might bring the kingdom of God and avoid the fate of the first Jewish war.
A Rereading of Matthew 7:13-14
“Enter by the narrow gate.” That is, be the nation I, Messiah, am calling you to be. Give up this power-mongering among your governing leaders who play games with Rome. Become instead people who follow the Torah and prophets in a radical way. I am showing you how.
“For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” This nation, my people, you who are standing before me on these hills and beside this lake, you are all running toward destruction by following your false shepherds. Rome will destroy you. But I offer you another way.
“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.” It is my way and it is a radical change from what you are used to. It is a way that eschews greed and power and replaces them with giving and servitude of others. It is not about displaying your righteousness or being highly acclaimed. It is about quiet love, selfless giving, and humble enjoyment of God’s greater blessings.
“Those who find it are few.” Although it seems obvious to me what righteousness looks like, few seem able to live by it. The way of greed, ego, power is so set into our culture, it is the automatic path. The likelihood of this nation avoiding destruction is small. But I lay it before you anyway and plead with you to hear me.