6. “You Shall Be Left Few” (Luke 13:10–35)
The following section of Luke (13:10–35) flows directly from the previous teachings, and develops them 1) to strengthen the dichotomy between Jesus and the current leaders of Israel/Jerusalem, and 2) to clearly pronounce the coming judgment upon Jerusalem. The outlook, in short, was not good for the mass of the Jews.
A Fruitful Sabbath
After His warning concerning the fruitless fig tree, Jesus demonstrates how He is in fact the fruitful branch of Israel while the current leaders are barren. Luke recounts,
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him (Luke 13:10–17).
While we are covering mainly the parables of Jesus during this journey to Jerusalem, it is important also to note the judicial aspects of His several confrontations with the civil and spiritual leaders of the day. These conflicts also pertain to His lawsuit against Israel, and this episode is of that very species.
The woman here is symbolic of the elect remnant of Israel (soon to be the New Testament church). Currently, she is bound by Satan, but Jesus in turn binds the strong man and frees the house (recall our discussion of Luke 11:15–26). She could not straighten herself; she needed the hand of God’s favor and grace. Likewise, fallen Israel could not save itself, but needed Christ. The leaders rebelled, however, proving their lack of God’s favor. The scene is typified in Psalm 20:
Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.
O Lord, save the king!
May he answer us when we call (Ps. 20:6–8).
The unbelieving Jewish nation would look to the kings of the earth and all the political and economic powers of this world instead of the Lord’s anointed. Thus did Jerusalem earn her condemnation as the Great Whore (Rev. 17–18), as we have already said. The language of Luke here parallels that of the Psalm: the Greek for “she was made straight” (anorthothe) is a rare word, but it appears also in Psalm 20:7 (Septuagint) for “we rise” (anorthothemen). This raising up comes about only by God’s initiative—the saving might of his right hand. Here, Jesus literally lays his saving hand upon the woman and frees her. She is then freed to glorify God.
A confrontation then ensues with the “ruler of the synagogue.” This was a local synagogue, for Jesus had not yet reached Jerusalem. The ruler of the synagogue was probably a Pharisee, though we are not told. The likelihood arises due to the influence of Pharisees in lay leadership and the synagogue movement at the time, and the fact that this very scene will play out again in the next chapter while Jesus dines at the house of “a ruler of the Pharisees” (Luke 14:1), though probably a different one. The ruler here in 13:14 is also possibly a member of a local Sanhedrin because of his status, though this is speculative. He was certainly not a priest, but a lay-leader, and very likely a civil ruler.
Whatever his full status, he makes the confrontation with Jesus public immediately. He attempts to use Scripture against Him: it is against the fourth commandment to do any work on the Sabbath; healing is work; therefore, Jesus has broken a commandment.
The natural tendency, here, is to assume that this passage highlights mainly the issue of the Sabbath: the Pharisees leveraging their overly-strict view of the Sabbath as a means of opposing Jesus. In the standard view, this is just one more area in which the Pharisees try to trip up Jesus, but clever Jesus is able to escape—this time by emphasizing God’s mercy over against the heartless Pharisees.
This is one aspect of the larger message here. The deeper issue is that of the Pharisees’ rebellion, and their failure to see the larger calling of Israel. The law was intended as a witness to the nations (Deut. 4:5–8), that they should see God’s wisdom, glory, and righteousness. This witness is properly apparent in Jesus’ healing of the woman, for she immediately praises God, and so do the rest of the multitude (13:17), at least for now anyway. And Jesus says this act of mercy is not only allowed, but commanded, even on the Sabbath. He applies Exodus 23:4–5 (see also Deut. 22:1–4):
If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.
The law applies this passage to both your brother (Deut. 22) and your enemy (Ex. 23). Jesus applies it here to the Pharisees’ own oxen and asses. These same Pharisees, however, would not even allow a member of their own synagogue to be loosed on the Sabbath, let alone a stranger or an enemy. Conclusion: the Pharisees treated their animals better than the people of Israel. For this reason, Jesus had just recently condemned the scribes (lawyers): “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).
But there is yet another conclusion. Here this woman had been living bound in the sight of everyone there for eighteen years. The Pharisees not only would not but could not free this woman. They had no power over the strong man Satan. Satan bound them at will. Yet this woman was a true child of Abraham (13:16); she was of the remnant of the elect. Jesus therefore looses her from bondage. This proves His power, and thus is a witness that God’s kingdom has come (11:20). This makes Jesus’ presence a moment of decision. The time was short, as we saw in the last section. Decision time was now. Either choose the Messiah who has demonstrated power over the enemy, or content yourself—in all of your Pharisaical glory—to the bondage and future of the enemy. In other words, Jesus’ witness to the law is also a witness that the rest of Israel is truly in league with Satan.
So, Luke’s account here provides one more piece of evidence that Israel was the fruitless fig tree. For her barrenness—her refusal to bear fruit, and her refusal of the One who did bear fruit—she would soon be left barren, that is, desolate, as we shall soon hear again explicitly.
The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Luke 13:18–21)
The preceding confrontation over healing and the Sabbath was a kingdom-oriented object lesson. This is seen in the fact that Jesus sees fit to teach on the nature of the kingdom immediately afterward. We have already covered these parables earlier in the chapter on the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24–43). We noted how they served to illustrate the nature of the kingdom as starting small and growing imperceptibly into something large and pervasive. The same is true here, but with a slightly different setting.
It is clear to me that Luke is recording a separate incident of Jesus teaching the same parable. In the Matthew telling, the audience is a multitude gathered on the sea shore (Matt. 13:2); in Luke the audience is still a multitude gathered, but in a certain synagogue. So these are separate incidents. This should not surprise us, of course, for Jesus was a travelling preacher at this point, he very likely told the same messages and parables many times in many different settings, most of which are not even recorded (see John 21:25). Here is just one incident.
The message and meaning of these parables is the same in both cases. In Matthew 13, Jesus declares the end of the old covenant age and announces the age to come. The mustard seed and leaven parables there illustrate what to expect as the new age takes the place of the old. It was a general application for the big picture. Here in Luke’s account of a second telling, Jesus is bringing that general message home in the context of a specific confrontation. He had now given a very explicit proof of His case for why that old covenant age was drawing to a close soon. The Jews had perverted the law and their witness and had subjected themselves to the service of Satan in the name of the law. It was as if Jesus was saying, “I’ve said this before; this time I hope I’ll really get your attention.”
There is, however, an added point we should make in regard to these two parables: in both cases the beginning of the growth is not only small, but invisible. This applies directly to the situation with the unbelieving Jews. Their idea of the kingdom was of horses and chariots and political power—it was visible. But Jesus has already announced that His healings and casting out of demons were proof that the kingdom of God was upon them already, right before their faces (Luke 11:20). Yet they could not see this; having eyes they could not see (Luke 8:10; 11:34–35). So it is in the kingdom of God: the seed is buried, the leaven is “hid” (13:21). The Greek word is from engkrypto, from which we get our modern word “encrypt.” We should not read the modern meaning anachronistically, but there is the sense here in which the kingdom seed/leaven was present right there among the Jews and yet they could not decipher it. It was hidden in plain sight because they lacked the code, which was faith. However we look at it, we should consider the hidden aspect of the kingdom seed/leaven to be integral to the parable, especially here where Jesus has demonstrated His enemies’ blindness.
The Narrow Gate to the Kingdom (Luke 13:22–30)
There is yet another lesson to draw from the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, and the lesson is subtle: if the kingdom of God starts out small, that means it will have only a few people in it at the start. This is a subtle deduction, and it takes a while before the light bulb comes on for anyone in Jesus’ audience. Only after “He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem” (13:22) did someone ask, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” The recognition of this fact opened the discussion for Jesus to be explicit. What followed had to be as startling as anything He had said to date:
“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 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.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 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. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:24–30).
First we must consider the man’s question. What did he mean by “saved”? Remember, this man did not grow up in a Southern Baptist church where “getting saved” meant walking an aisle, raising a hand, and “giving your life to the Lord.” He had no idea of the modern concept (and a nearly Gnostic concept) of “saving souls”—especially not before Jesus had died, resurrected, and ascended. “Saved” could have meant nothing like that to those people. The basic, fundamental definition of the word is “rescue.” Instead, this guy had in mind political and military rescue. He had in mind what many of Jesus’ hearers had in mind, and for good reason: a great judgment and great division was coming upon that people. This man’s question shows that he (or it could have been a she) took Jesus’ overall teaching seriously. He understood exactly what Jesus meant. So he asked if there were few who would escape the wrath to come.
The Coming “Few”
This person also likely connected Jesus’ teaching with the prophetic history of Israel. Always, during judgment it was only a remnant that was saved. God had explicitly promised as much. In connection with the very command to use the law to witness to the nations (Israel’s explicit failure, as we have seen), God promises to punish rebellion by reducing them to a remnant: “you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you” (Deut. 4:27). Isaiah preached this clearly, and in connection with the concept of desolation:
Behold, the Lord will empty the earth [land] and make it desolate,
and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. . . .
The earth [land] shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered;
for the Lord has spoken this word. . . .
The earth [land] lies defiled
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed the laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth [land],
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth [land] are scorched,
and few men are left (Isa. 24:1, 3, 5–6).
The ESV notes rightly that the word “earth” could as well be translated “land” throughout the passage. This is more likely, since the passage clearly applies to a people who broke an everlasting covenant, and these could only be Israel at that time. So the Hebrew eretz here refers to the land of Israel, not the whole “earth.” And note the clearly covenantal punishment: the kingdom would be left desolate (Ex. 23:29; Lev. 26:33ff.; Luke 11:17) and the people few. Jeremiah lived through such a time, and the military leaders among the remnant of Israel recognized their status. They came to Jeremiah to entreat God’s mercy: “Let our plea for mercy come before you, and pray to the Lord your God for us, for all this remnant—because we are left with but a few, as your eyes see us” (Jer. 42:2). God later reminded Jeremiah how this was a recurring theme:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You have seen all the disaster that I brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Judah. Behold, this day they are a desolation, and no one dwells in them, because of the evil that they committed, provoking me to anger, in that they went to make offerings and serve other gods that they knew not, neither they, nor you, nor your fathers. Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, “Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!” But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods (Jer. 44:2–5).
The military leaders rebelled against God’s explicit command once again and went into Egypt to live (see 42:3–43:13). This was God’s response: “All the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, until there is an end of them” (Jer. 42:27). Yet a tiny remnant would be saved: “And those who escape the sword shall return from the land of Egypt to the land of Judah, few in number” (42:48). So it was a firmly established principal from Moses and into the prophets that in times of explicit covenantal judgment, only a few were saved.
This means that whoever asked Jesus this question thoroughly understood Jesus to have been speaking of a great coming judgment, and thoroughly accepted Him as speaking in the biblical tradition of an Old Testament prophet.
The Narrow Door
Jesus rewarded the frank question with an equally frank answer: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” We have too often fallen short in applying this verse. First, we are more accustomed to reading Matthew’s version which appears in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13–14). In that context, it is too often taken as a general lesson about living for God: a truly godly life is difficult and therefore only a few people will really live for God. Most will take the easy passage and wind up in hell. Be one of the few.
But remember, the Sermon on the Mount is itself a condemnation of the contemporary Jewish leaders and culture. “You have heard it said” (what the Pharisees and lawyers teach), “but I say unto you” (the way the law was originally intended by God—Jesus’ authoritative version). This is the refrain throughout that Sermon (Matt. 5–7). Thus chapter 7 ends with all the same themes of a coming judgment as found in Luke 9:51ff: hypocrisy (7:1–6), the true nature of the law (7:12), the remnant (7:13–14), beware of false prophets (7:15), the fruitful versus the fruitless trees (7:16–20), and the shocked outsiders to the kingdom (7:21–23) (which is an exact parallel to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 13:25–27). In other words, we have often misunderstood the narrow gate passage because we have misunderstood the larger context.
Secondly, therefore, we have often read Luke’s version as teaching the same general lesson. But this lesson makes little sense in Luke’s context of the time being short (Luke 12:54–13:9), confrontations over the law (13:11–17), the nature of the kingdom (13:18–21), and especially this person’s question in 13:23. These all tell us, rather, that Jesus’ response is a very pointed prophetic warning to Israel at that time. The issue is not how hard it is to live a Christian life, but rather how few of the Jews of that day would accept the truth before it was too late.
The important issue not often realized here is that of timing. This sounds like a stretch until you think about it (something Jesus is often quietly asking us to do with His parables). First, the King James translation is correct but misleading due to the archaic usage of “strait.” Back then “strait” more commonly could mean “narrow,” but it’s rarely used that way today. The Greek stenes does not mean “difficult,” but precisely “narrow”; so all the modern translations have it right. So how is a “narrow” passage related to timing? Jesus has already declared the time to be short, as we have seen. What happens to a mass of people trying to enter a building through a single door? Passage is restricted, the masses bottleneck; only a few get in before the door is shut. Imagine a crowded movie theater in a panic: a massive fire breaks out, and people begin to smother each other trying to get out the exit. Many would probably die due to restricted passage. While Jesus is warning of those trying to get into the kingdom instead of out of it, the principle is the same. There is limited time, and the entryway is narrow. The lesson to draw from this is clear: get in now before a great line forms and it’s too late.
It is helpful also to connect this with Jesus’ earlier condemnation of the Pharisees and lawyers. We covered this earlier: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52). Jesus is even more explicit with this after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt. 23:13). Mark records a literal episode of this occurring: four men carrying a paralytic to be healed could not get through the door because of the crowd, so they broke through the roof (Mark. 2:1–12). It is clear, then, that all of Israel had become door-blockers already.
Jesus’ response actually draws upon a biblical image: the door to Noah’s ark. The passage reads:
Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark. . . . And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the Lord shut him in (Gen 7:13–16).
Peter certainly understood the New Testament era in terms of an ark-preserved “few”: “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” (1 Pet. 3:20).
The salvation of a few, of course, means that all others were shut out, and this by God’s hand. All the rest of humanity at the time was shut out, and perished in the great judgment: “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, . . . all mankind” (Gen. 7:21). This is exactly the type of judgment Jesus predicted:
For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 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.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’
Note here that the person who shuts the door is “the master of the house.” Luke is fond of this character, who always represents God in Jesus’ parables (12:39; 13:35; 14:21). It is God Himself who shuts the wicked out. It is, therefore, the Lord’s judgment not to open to them again. Can we imagine that as Noah’s witness of coming judgment in his day began to come true that those wicked men who ignored his preaching of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5) banged at the shut door of the ark? As it rained forty days, there was likely a short space before the waters rose high enough to float the ark. You’d better believe those wicked scoffers did everything they could to break in, let alone knock. But God had shut them out. The Ark was God’s salvation for the remnant and God’s judgment upon the mass of unbelievers. So it would be with the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Only those of the kingdom hidden in the ark of safety (Jesus) would escape before the rains of judgment began to fall.
Yet the late-comers would entreat Jesus to open to them: they would appeal to their previous concourse with Jesus: “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” This is the “Jesus is my buddy; we go way back” defense. They had indeed eaten with Jesus, especially the Pharisees (11:37–38; 14:1). But the people, too, who had trampled each other just to hear Him (12:1), and yet would almost to the person end up rejecting Him. These would all be destroyed in the judgment to come.
Now it is important to realize that Jesus’ portrayal of that moment of judgment here is itself meant more as a warning for them right then, rather than as a description of how it would actually happen. He has already implied fairly clearly that the coming judgment would be just like Pilate’s slaughtering of the Galileans at Passover and the toppling of buildings in Jerusalem (13:1–5). In other words, there would be no actual scenario in the future where the Jews would get to argue why they should be let in. There would be no discussion. The divine reply would come in the form of rocks falling and blood spilling; and upon such a moment, the locked-out Jews will immediately have their wailing and gnashing of teeth. For the meantime, Jesus is clearly telling them why their current complacent and self-absorbed attitude toward religion was the very reason they would be condemned. If they did not embrace Jesus now, no appeal to their casual relationships to him in the past would ever suffice to save them from the great division to come.
Then would come the great kingdom shock: “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” This is the great division spoken of earlier in Luke 12:51–53. Fathers will be divided against their sons: father Abraham against the whole wicked generation of his sons living in Jesus’ time. These faithless, rebellious children claimed to be heirs of Abraham, yet they did not do the works of Abraham (John 8:39ff). They were, in fact, children of the devil (John 8:44). Very early in Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist had disabused the notion of these Jews’ exclusive claim as children of Abraham:
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood [generation] of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7–9).
(Note also the repetition of the fruitless tree image.) Yes, these self-assured Jews boasted of their relationship with Abraham, and yet could not detect the true children of Abraham suffering among them: the woman whom Jesus had just loosed from infirmity was specifically named by Him a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:16). We will likewise see Zaccheaus transformed, repentant, and only then would Jesus assure him of salvation (rescue) and call him “a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). But this phrase is not allowed for the mass of the unbelieving Jews. Abraham himself will disavow these rich fools, Jerusalem (Luke 16:19–31). These would find themselves “cast out” only when it was too late.
Yet the kingdom would be populated by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when the rebellious would be cast out. The kingdom population would also include “all the prophets” (13:28). This inclusion is very important to the court case, and is a current theme through Jesus’ coming-judgment literature. We have already quoted Jeremiah to this effect above: “I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, “Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!” But they did not listen or incline their ear.” Jesus has already made this case, and pinned the murder of all the prophets on the lawyers, as we have seen (Luke 11:47–52). He will make the case again to the Pharisees in just a moment:
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 would not! (13:34; see also Matt. 23:37).
We have also seen how this particular condemnation confirms Jerusalem as the Great Whore of Revelation 17–18, who was “drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:6), and “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24). Jesus is purposefully reminding these Jews of their nation’s history of rebellion, and starkly proclaiming to them that they shall repeat the process—they shall ignore and kill this Prophet, and find themselves locked out while the very people they killed as blasphemers will enjoy the inheritance of God’s kingdom.
As we reach the last two verses of this teaching, we find the answer to the question from the end of the last chapter. We now find Jesus saying that while none would escape the decision to receive Him or not, few would escape the judgment. The very people Jesus said would perish if they did not repent, He now informs that they will indeed not repent. The fruitless tree will be removed; and who shall fill that empty plot of garden? Jesus answers this: “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
New Testament Fulfillment
This prophecy from Jesus was fulfilled literally within weeks on the day of Pentecost. The first sermon was to Jews (many of whom would believe) from all over the world: “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The nations are then listed. Peter stands up and preaches that the last days are fulfilled (Acts 2:17–21) and Jesus has taken the throne of the Kingdom (Acts 2:34–36).
Peter’s message is summarized by this peculiarity: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). What “generation”? The faithless and perverse generation of vipers John the Baptist condemned (Luke 3:7), against which Jesus had earlier set his face (Luke 9:41, 51), that faithlessly sought a sign from Jesus (Luke 11:29ff), that killed the prophets (Luke 11:50–1), that rejected Jesus (Luke 17:25). This generation to whom Jesus (Luke 21:32) and Peter (Acts 2:40) spoke. And what does he mean by “save”? Almost definitely the same thing the inquisitor from Luke 13:23 meant: rescue from the coming destruction. Peter merely summarized everything Jesus had taught him for the past three years, including the pronouncement of the coming judgment upon first century Judaism.
Thus Jesus ends this teaching in Luke 13:22–30 by returning to a theme He began earlier: “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (v. 30). This is essentially a saying that condenses his earlier teaching in Luke 8:18: “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” Again, this is not merely a general teaching about personal humility, but is rather a pointed judicial condemnation of Israel: they appear to be first, but will be left as last. They think they are first among the nations as Abraham’s children, but they are children of the devil, and will be treated so. They think they possess the kingdom, but in the end, even what they seem to have will be taken from them. They will find themselves with nothing but wailing and gnashing of teeth as they stand outside looking in.
It is worth at least considering that the whole teaching in Luke 13:22–30 is encapsulated in an image of the city of New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:14–15:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
These are the few believers, the remnant. They have a right to the fruitful tree. They can enter the narrow gates. Yet outside the walls are the dogs and idolaters. These are the unbelievers.
The Threat of Herod
Earlier it was unclear whether the “ruler of the synagogue” (Luke 13:14) was a civil rulers as well or not, or if he was actually a Pharisee (though odds are he was). Nevertheless, we now get a clearer picture of the Pharisees and colluding with civil rulers. In this case, it’s Herod himself:
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus knows quite well that the Jews had planned to kill him for some time now (John 7:1–2). This seems to have been the feast of tabernacles just prior to the Passover of Jesus’ death—so at least six months before His final journey to Jerusalem. Herod had been looking for Christ for some time now (since Luke 9:7–9), but Jesus knew well that the Pharisees themselves were a bigger threat to His life than Herod. Synagogue leaders try to kill him already in His own home town (Luke 4:16–30). So why did Pharisees come to Him with a warning about Herod? I suspect Herod sent them because he did not want Jesus around stirring up the crowds at Passover, which was merely weeks if not days away at this point. He made a group of Pharisees carry a death threat in order to ward Him off at these socially and politically unstable times. It was, after all, during a Passover that Pilate had killed the Galileans (13:1; we know this because Passover was the only feast where the people offered their own sacrifices, and thus the phrase “their sacrifices”). Herod, the king of the Jews, did not want to be in the position of defender of the Jewish people against Roman aggression.
Despite the political tinderbox, Jesus did not take a politically-correct route, referring openly to Herod as “that fox.” Translation: “fox” means “cowardly, conniving scavenger,” which Herod was. The word is also feminine in the Greek, so this could also carry a shade of our own connotation of “female dog.” We will hear more about Herod in a later chapter on antichrist. For now, let’s review the eschatological nature of Jesus’ response:
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. 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.’ 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 would not! Behold, your house is forsaken [desolate]. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 13:31–35).
First, Jesus makes it clear He has a goal to reach and He will not stop giving divine witness of His message until He reaches that goal. He will continue healing and casting out demons—proving the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:20)—until He is finished. Until then, He will remain undaunted by threats from either the Pharisees or Herod.
Second, several themes are repeated here: 1) Jerusalem, the killer of the prophets, 2) Jerusalem rejecting her Messiah, and 3) the house left empty or desolate. Here Jesus rehearses these prophecies for these particular Pharisees, probably hoping that they would also take the message back to Herod, for Herod himself was to fall under Jesus’ condemnation of Jerusalem.
Blessed is He . . .
Finally, Jesus gives an enigmatic prophecy: “you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (v. 35). To what does this refer? Was Jesus speaking of the triumphal entry? The people recite this exact praise while waving palm branches during that event (Luke 19:28–44; Matt. 21:1–9). But this cannot be, because Jesus repeats this exact prophecy after the triumphal entry in Matthew (23:29). Thus it was not fulfilled in the triumphal entry. So, is it referring to a final return of Jesus, yet future to us? There are problems with this view, not the least of which is that Jesus refers this directly to His audience: “And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed. . . .” But is he saying this to the Pharisees who came to Him, or is he saying this abstractly to Jerusalem? It seems more natural that He’s saying it on behalf of unbelieving Jerusalem for the benefit of the Pharisees listening, and they are the ones intended (or at least included) in the you.
But this seems to complicate the matter, because this means these Jews will not “see” Jesus again until they say, “Blessed is he. . . .” But these unbelievers will never say this. Jesus just promised that the unbelieving Jews of his generation would be disinherited and left outside the kingdom (Luke 13:28), and that the kingdom should be taken away from the Jews and given to another people that bear fruit (Matt. 21:43). It is contradictory to assume they come to Jesus somehow else than through the kingdom He has just established by faith, or that this other way can only happen at His return in the distant future. If this were true, then Jews can only enter the kingdom—“see” Jesus—at His next coming, and when at that coming they announce, “blessed is He. . . .” This just seems like a far stretch.
This leaves two connected issues: first, it seems appropriate that while these unbelieving Jews are represented as saying “blessed is he,” this does not refer to their personal acceptance of Jesus in faith—certainly not all Jews everywhere—but only of their presence during of that event which would happen in their lifetime. This would correspond to John’s statement in Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” (This verse, by the way, essentially clinches that Jesus’ coming in judgment described in Revelation had to have happened in the lifespan of those who killed Him.)
This indicates the second element: that Jesus’ reference to Jerusalem includes true Jerusalem, or a new Jerusalem. After the destruction of physical Jerusalem—the removal of that colossal impertinence called the Herodian Temple—the path would be clear once again for exclusive relationship of Jerusalem and Christ. For now—Jesus’ time—a veil was over Jerusalem’s eyes that she might not see Him (2 Cor. 3:6–18). After the judgment, when the only Jerusalem remaining was new Jerusalem, then the relationship between Jesus and Jerusalem would once again be Husband and Bride instead of Husband and Great Whore. This seems to be Paul’s teaching in Galatians 4:21–31. The proceedings would then be to recline at His table (Luke 13:29) instead of covenant lawsuit and great divorce. Holding this view of a fading Old Jerusalem and an enduring New Jerusalem is the only way to make sense of the relevant texts of Scripture (Luke 13:35; Matt. 23:39) and yet still allow that Jews may accept Christ in this current age. And finally, this allows that while unbelieving Jerusalem witnesses the coming of Jesus to destroy her, nevertheless the remnant within her—true Jerusalem, new Jerusalem—simultaneously cries “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
This section of Scripture—Luke 13:10–35—can be summarized by the judgment, “You shall be left few.” The contrast between fruitless Israel and fruitful Christ is strengthened, the nature of the kingdom is rehearsed in application to this widening divide, and then the nature of the coming judgment is made explicit in answer to the question, “Will those who are saved be few.” The answer: of those out of Israel, yes. Few could get through the narrow gate in time, and worse, the Pharisees and lawyers had blocked up the door (Luke 11:52). Nevertheless, the question is also answered as to what will replace the fruitless tree (13:9): the answer is that God will raise up children of Abraham from all over the world—north, south, east, west—and these will sit down with the Patriarchs at Christ’s table in the Kingdom.
Next Chapter: Called but Not Chosen (Luke 14:1–24)