Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The few and the many

Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation and tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. Revelation 7:9

Do those two New Testament quotes contradict one another? 

In Matthew 7, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be saying that the number of the saved will be a small minority of the human race - “only a few”. But John’s vision in Revelation 7 talks about “a great multitude that no-one could count” who worship God and the Lamb.

You could say, I suppose, that even if only a small number from each generation are ultimately saved, that would add up, over the centuries, to a pretty big total. But that doesn’t seem to be quite what the Revelation passage suggests: it’s all about the ultimate victory of God, and the impression is given that a vast mass of humankind is there to celebrate it.

And, indeed, Jesus himself goes on to convey the same idea a little later: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

That’s one of the great Bible themes. You can trace it right through from Genesis to Revelation: a wonderful gathering of the nations - the gentiles - into the eternal kingdom of God.
Look, for example, at the staggering promise God gave Abraham in Genesis 15:1-6 and 22:17 (and then see if you can calculate not only how many stars there are, but how many grains of sand on just a single beach!).

Ultimately, of course, we will have to wait and see. The fact is that the Bible gives us both solemn warnings (as in the Matthew 7 passage) and wonderful encouragements (as in the Revelation 7 passage). We need to hold them in balance until that day when all things are made plain.

We certainly need the warning words of Jesus. How easy it is to follow the crowd, to “go with the flow”! To enter into the eternal life that Jesus offers is a great thing - but let no-one imagine it’s the easy option.

Anything but! The little gate he speaks of admits people only one at a time (and you have to bend to get through it; think about that). It leads to the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice and hardship, the way of unpopularity, perhaps, and of the contempt of others.

The broad gate is seductive - the crowd sauntering cheerfully through are full of laughter and fun, not worrying too much about issues of right and wrong, not bothering their heads about the big questions of life - like “What kind of person should I be? Why am I here on this earth? What will happen to me when I die?” No wonder Jesus called it “the broad road that leads to destruction”.

(The great thing is that it takes only one step to cross from the broad road to the narrow road: that step is called repentance and faith in Jesus. Have you taken it yet?)

But we need too those encouraging words, whether from Jesus himself or from Genesis or Revelation or many places in between. We need them particularly at a time of great instability and turmoil in our world. They remind us that God is in control, in spite of appearances, and that he will bring all things to a glorious climax.

I suspect that many of that “great multitude” before God’s throne never set foot in a church in their lives. But who knows what goes on between an individual and God in the private place of that person’s heart? Who knows how many “death-bed conversions” there may be?

But we do know that God is a kind and gracious God - and (oh, thank God for this!) we have too the beautiful conversation between Jesus and the dying criminal next to him on the cross, the conversation that climaxes with Jesus’ words, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That man knew nothing of “doctrine” or “theology”; he simply reached out to Jesus for mercy, and Jesus did not turn him away.

The last word on this topic must surely be with Jesus in Luke 13:23...

Apparently some people asked him exactly the question we have been thinking about: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” And you know what? Jesus didn’t give them a direct answer. No, he told them to... make sure they were saved.

As if to say, “Don’t get too snarled up with difficult and hypothetical questions: make sure you are right with God!”

What more is there to say?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your little flock here on earth, and for my privilege in being part of it. And thank you too for that great multitude that will stand before you in worship at the last day. Help me day by day to be worthy to be part of that too. Amen.

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