On several occasions the gospels record Jesus teaching that only a few will be saved (Matthew 7:14, Matthew 22:14, and Luke 13:23). Careful readers of Scripture should begin to wrestle with how these passages found in the gospels fit together with other passages that teach that many will be saved. Jesus taught that many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:10-12).We also read that a great multitude that no one could number will be seen standing before the throne and the Lamb (Revelation 7:9). The common way to understand these passages is to say that the “great multitude” seems like many, but it is still few in comparison to those who are lost. However, this does not seem to explain the other passages adequately. The question remains: How do we square passages that teach that few will be saved, when others clearly teach that there will be so many that the number is uncountable?
To answer the question, I will ask another: Is Jesus introducing a new idea when he speaks of “few being saved” or is there a larger Old Testament background to his teaching? I propose that a brief overview of the Old Testament will demonstrate that Jesus is picking up on the pattern of the Old Testament that will inform us of the original context and the audience he is speaking to when he says “few will be saved”.
In Leviticus, Israel is given the blessings and curses for covenant obedience and covenant unfaithfulness. After a series of glorious blessings, Israel is warned that if they walk contrary to Yahweh and do not listen to his words he will bring judgment upon them and only a few in number will be left (Leviticus 26:21-22). Years later, after the people go through the wilderness, Moses warns the second generation of Israelites, upon entering the promised land, that if they act corruptly by worshiping carved images and do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh, they will be scattered among the nations and they will be left few in number (Deuteronomy 4:25-27).
In Isaiah the same warnings are given. Assyria, the axe in the hand of Yahweh, will come and begin chopping down Israel in judgment (Isaiah 10:5,15,18-19). John the Baptist gave a very similar warning of judgment to Israel’s leaders when he proclaimed, “Therefore even now, the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). If first century Israel does not bear fruit, Yahweh will again take up an axe and bring judgment, this time through Rome. The result of Yahweh’s judgment in Isaiah is that the remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down (Isaiah 10:19).
In the book of Jeremiah, judgment finally came. The southern kingdom of Judah was judged, as was the northern kingdom, according to Yahweh’s word (Jeremiah 39). Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar and he took a multitude of people into exile while only leaving some of the poor people who owned nothing (Jeremiah 39:10). The commanders of the forces of Judah plead with Jeremiah to consult Yahweh for mercy “because we are left with but a few, as your eyes see us” (Jeremiah 42:1-3). However, Israel was not left without hope because Yahweh will save the faithful remnant (Isaiah 10:20-22).
In the gospels, when Jesus teaches that “few will be saved” he is undoubtedly picking up on and continuing this Old Testament theme. Matthew presents Jesus as Israel. He is a greater Moses, delivering teaching on a mountain (Matthew 5-7). He is a greater David, conquering Israel’s true enemy, Satan. Jesus is a greater Joshua, preparing his disciples for a new conquest (Mathew 10). Jesus is a greater Solomon, commended for his wisdom and through his parables taught what the kingdom is like (Matthew 13). Jesus is another Jeremiah confronting Israel’s leaders, weeping over the city, and warning of its desolation (Matthew 21:13, 23:37-38).
Jesus sits on a mountain and teaches that his listeners must enter through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13). If Israel will not enter that gate and do the words of Jesus the result will be that few find life (Matthew 7:14, 26-27). Later on Jesus warns the chief priests and the Pharisees, who rejected the King’s invitation to the Son’s wedding feast, that “many are called but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). When asked if “few will be saved”, Jesus warns his Jewish listeners that merely hearing his teachings and eating and drinking in his presence will not get them into the Kingdom (Luke 13:26-27).
Over and over again, in line with Yahweh’s warnings in the Old Testament, Jesus is warning Israel, one final time, that few of them will enter the kingdom if they do not repent and strive to enter through the narrow gate. Why will only a few of them enter through the narrow gate? It is because they did not pursue righteousness by faith in Christ, but as if it were based on works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. They did not submit to God’s righteousness but instead sought to establish their own (Romans 9:30-10:4). Therefore, those who found eternal life were few. However, many others, indeed a great multitude, are coming into the kingdom to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matthew 8:10-12).
Manny Lucas pastors Redeemer Community Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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