What Did Jesus Mean By “Few Are Chosen”?

My picture of Heaven and the New Earth is one where there are many people and everybody who I ever knew in life. I don’t like funerals where there is any degree of doubt about a person’s destiny. Even if there is, we tend to put the best face on it.

Reality and desire rarely match. And even if the Gospel is literally the “good message”, there is some bad news mixed with the good news. The good news is that Jesus successfully fulfilled the Law for every person. A promise of forgiveness of sins and consequently eternal life with God is on the table. God has made good on long standing promises and His mission to save mankind, even potentially all mankind, has been enacted. The bad news is that in practice “few” get saved.

Where do I get this grim news. From my least favorite passages in the Scriptures:

14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:14 (ESV)

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

Both are out of the mouth of Jesus, who I have to consider an authority on the matter. There are other passages that corroborate this, so the fact that these are both from Matthew is of little consequence.

What does this mean? And why is it true? We have the universal desire of God to save all. We have the complete and sufficient life and death of Jesus to fulfill the legal requirements.

The Matthew 22 passage comes at the end of the Parable of the Wedding Feast. In the story a general invitation has been given to the populace to come to the wedding. One dude shows up without “wedding garments”, which would be provided. The King reacts strongly and the parable dissolves to bare truth, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The implied rejection of the wedding garment does in this man’s salvation.

The other quote is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus adds this information in the midst of a series of commands on how to live. Without the context of the whole Bible, one might conclude that the “narrow way” is a strict observation of the laws Jesus had just laid down.

The Sermon on the Mount is an example of how God uses the Law in different ways, even at the same time. The rigor of the Sermon on the Mount is meant to convict and to break any attempt to save yourself by your own actions. It is unachievable and already lost for a person with a sinful nature (that’s all of us). Martin Luther referred to this as using the Law as a mirror. We see ourselves, and the image isn’t good. Jesus’ statement of the narrow way is meant to create worry and to drive a person to another answer–God’s grace.

Jesus’ statement doesn’t appear to be an exaggeration for the sake of impact, however. The narrow way and the wedding garment are the same thing–the one thing that can save us.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6 (ESV)

Being connected to Jesus is the one thing necessary. There are not other options that work, so it is “narrow”. It makes sense that this is true. If there were other options, Jesus wouldn’t have gone through what He did.

So how “few” is it? Many people lived and died and never heard the Gospel. I don’t believe that God would allow this to be a limiting factor. The function of Jesus’ “descent into Hell” seems to suggest, especially in 1 Peter 4:6, that Jesus can be evangelical even in Sheol. The limiting factors seem to be that many are hardened to the Gospel (Matthew 13:19) and Satan works to keep them that way. Others believe but find reasons to abandon the Gospel (persecution and difficulty, other worries of life). Some undermine the Gospel by changing the terms of God’s promise (the book of Galatians). Many become unrepentant sinners (John 3:19-20).

So what percentage can we expect? Is “few” relative to the whole population? Is “few” relative to the whole number that could have been saved? I hope it is the latter, but I wouldn’t be surprised that it turns out to be 10% or even less. Jesus seems to brace us for a low yield by some of His stories. But whatever the yield it will still be many people –a great multitude that no one could number (Rev. 7:9). We are blessed if we are counted among them.

The Divisiveness of Eternal Life

I love the Bible. It has taught me and changed me so much. I understand how it has been transmitted down through history. I have confidence in its divine origin. But there are a couple of passages in the Bible that I just hate. I hate that they are true. No doubt God isn’t crazy about them either. Here is the first:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s Law was on behalf of all mankind. His being forsaken on the cross could be for literally anyone. That the reality is that “few” will benefit is tragic. That means “many” will suffer eternally as forgotten by God. I would be thrilled to have this not be true, but I don’t doubt the source.

The other was our “Gospel” lesson just this past Sunday. Jesus speaking:

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke 12:49-53 (ESV)

Jesus brings peace with God, which is the most important thing; but that doesn’t equate to peace between humans. A strong Satanic resistance campaign against the Gospel’s spread and acceptance accounts for most of the divisiveness. The rest is sinful human nature. Jesus knows this. Clearly, He isn’t thrilled with the fact; but it is the only way forward.

The result has been divided families all over the world. The consequences of which vary from heartbreak to violence. When somebody becomes a Christian in the midst of a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jewish home, it doesn’t always or often result in accepting curiosity. Parents, spouses, or extended families can resort to threats, beatings, even “honor” killings. They are worried about family reputation, preservation of culture, and even the response of the gods. Jesus is seen as a Western culture invasion. But Jesus increasingly is not a part of Western culture. Jesus didn’t grow up in the United States or Europe. Jesus was a Jew. His culture is primarily the culture of God, not of some people group.

What Jesus did He did for the whole of Creation. It is a pity that the whole of Creation, especially every human being won’t benefit from it. Division on Earth will result in division in eternity. Some will have been made sinless by the death of Jesus and inherit Heaven and then at Judgment Day a New Earth in addition. Others will find themselves horrible surprised that they are consciously “alive” but excluded from the presence of God. It won’t be because they were not wanted.

When I think about my own “loved ones”, do I think they will all be with me? I hope so. There is a reasonable chance. Amongst the dead, I am not sure about the status of a couple of grandparents. God’s grace is very broad, but I didn’t see convincing evidence that God had reached them. Will my heavenly experience be diminished by their absence?

I answer this with a metaphor. In my yard there were a couple of bare spots where the grass had died. Its loss diminished my yard. Since then, grass has grown in and eliminated the bare spot. My yard looks whole again. And so will we be. We don’t want to lose anybody. Their presence would always improve our joy. We should be willing to take great risks to bring them the Gospel. The rest is on God. But maybe there will be losses. The bare spots will grow in through the beautiful relationships we will have with those who were strangers in life and with the face-to-face presence of God.

Unprepared

Typically, when we say that somebody is prepared to die, we mean they are aware that their death is imminent; they have said their goodbyes, they have put their financial affairs in order, and they are just waiting. That is a very superficial way of thinking about death. From all that I have written about in this blog, being prepared is actually having a saving connection to Jesus. When you have Jesus, you may not wish to die, but you are ready.

If we think about our own mortality at all, we expect to die in the distant future. Even some people who are very advanced in years think of death as distant. They expect to have more time. Is this smart?

Think about how death can come unplanned. There was yet another senseless mass shooting in our country this weekend. People gunned down at a parade. It happens often enough that we become numb to the news. If we didn’t see it in person, it seems surreal. This is real. You will die. I have known people in seemingly great health die suddenly–a triple A (arterial aortic aneurysm), also known as the “widow-maker”. It may or may not be when you are old and welcome the departure. It may or may not be when you are prepared. It is best to always be prepared.

Again, I am unconcerned as to whether you have a will or burial plans. I am talking about Jesus. Don’t just expect that death will go well for all. The toughest news to accept from the Bible is the revelation that for most, death will not go well.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

“Life” in this passage means eternal existence with God, the Creator of all good things. “Destruction” is actually worse than is sounds. It doesn’t mean ceasing to exist. It means existence forsaken by God. It is unthinkable. So we don’t think about it.

Perhaps Jesus has a special way to deal with people who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. Let us hope that this is true. The clear message of the Bible is that we need Jesus, because all of us are sinners. We need Him now, because neither life nor death is predictable. We don’t want to be unprepared.

I realize that this article is quite a downer. It doesn’t have to be, not entirely. I don’t fret about dying. I’m more upset about getting old. I want to do much more in this life and accomplish much more for the Kingdom of God. I am willingly to stick it out as long as God can use me and in whatever condition. But if death comes early, I am very happy about what God has promised me. I am excited to see what God has promised. I am satisfied with what God has accomplished through me to this point. If there is no more, that’s fine. It is very liberating to be prepared. Understanding life after death (what it is like, why we can have it or not) is very empowering.

Why not be prepared?

Who Will Be Saved and Who Could Have Been?

The Bible is a considerably large body of knowledge, still there are times when I think, “So little information and so many questions.” I wish the Bible gave me more on a specific topic, but I and everybody else are left with a mystery.

Today’s mystery for your consideration is a seeming contradiction within the pages of Scripture. One set of passages seem to suggest that God will only save a rather small minority of people which He foreknew. Another set of passages seem to suggest that God wants all to be saved and that there is hope that over time a significant portion of those people can be saved. Those are opposing views at least on the surface. They have given birth to different theological traditions with different approaches to ministry. I believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Apparent contradictions are just failures to understand. How do these passages come together?

Here are some of the passages that suggest a very limited salvation:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus doesn’t just give good news. This is arguably the worst news from his mouth. Another to consider:

 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

Romans 11:6-8

This passage contains the term “elect”. The elect are those God chooses for eternal life and actually foreknows before the creation of the world. Here, speaking specifically about certain generations among the Jews, it also speaks of God shutting down or at least not opening up these people to saving faith.

There are more passages like these, but for the sake of brevity, let’s show some of the opposite.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

The 2 Peter passage has always bothered me. If Matthew 7 above is true, aren’t we not sending more people to damnation the longer God let’s this world move on? Also, does God really desire everyone to be saved when he clearly declared that certain groups of people had crossed a line and would never be included?

The Apostle Paul, author of two of these passages on either side of this issue, declares at one point, “The mystery of faith is great”. Even he struggled to understand how this all goes together. So we should set our expectations of full understanding rather low.

Here are the parts that can be drawn from this mystery. God never created human beings to damn a portion of them. He takes no pleasure in doing it. God is a being who strongly abides by his own law. He doesn’t compromise it because he can. As such, the giving of a truly free will to our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, has resulted in billions of people who cannot know or believe God at all on our own. Further, the majority will not come into a necessary faith in God’s Son even with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. Why not? I know not.

Certain generations or people groups have proven so corrupt and provocative to God that God has declared that he would not even try with them. These blanket disownings are found in the Old Testament, but the main one affecting certain Jews persists until Jesus’ time at least. This suggests that the problem could be genetic at the core of it.

The toughest thing to wrap your mind around is how can God foreknow and call “elect” those who will be saved before the creation of the world and in “real time” act and ask us to act as though anybody and everybody can be saved? This where we have to admit that we cannot fathom what it is like to be God.

It is pretty clear from Scripture that people will be damned even though Jesus died for everyone’s sin. The breakdown in saving everyone comes in making the connection between people and Jesus. Forming that bond has its limits. The result is significant losses and even though it deeply grieves God and everybody who cares, God will not use his unlimited power to fix this.

It is not right to develop a form of fatalism in response to the first set of passages I quoted. Unlike God, I do not know who will believe the promise that a person can have eternal life with God and immediate forgiveness of their sinfulness simply by believing God’s promise and baptism into Jesus’ death. I will only continue to proclaim this to people because I care about them and hope that they can believe.

The way God dealt with the problem of human sin through Jesus was a surprise. Maybe God still has another surprise to deal with unbelief.

May you be one of the elect.

Why Did God Even Create the Damned?

One question has always bothered me.  It is the question I will grapple with in this blog.  As time goes on, more and more people are saved by Christ; but this number pales in comparison to the number of those lost eternally.  If God truly loves mankind, wouldn’t He bring an end to the world just to stop the bleeding?

Of course, that reasoning would have ended creation at the very beginning.  God’s people have always been a remnant (a minority).  The love of God for mankind is a love for all.  Jesus died for all.  Through Jesus’ death atonement has been made that, at least theoretically, could cover the sins of every person.  It is the persistent rejection of such a great sacrifice and love that makes the judgment of eternal death just in God’s eyes,  not just the people’s sins or their sinful nature.

It is a wrong conclusion to think that God created certain people to be damned.  Yes, certain people in history were the unlucky people to play infamous roles: Pharoah, Judas, Pontius Pilate to name a few.   But what we are is not just the product of God’s creation.  We are God’s creation plus a distortion that dates all the way back to Adam and Eve.  On top of that, we are partially the product of our environment or our reaction to our environment, and I would include Satan as a part of our environment.  All these factors create a wide array of people.  None of us can choose God all by ourselves. God must do something to open us to Him.  But it seems that many remain closed regardless.

It is my conclusion from the information in the Bible that God can know all of human history and know every human heart.  He knew or could know everyone’s potential reaction to Jesus before anyone came into being.  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 that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Jesus knew that many have and would enter into destruction.  Is God indifferent about this or is He grieved?

In a very interesting and confusing passage in Genesis 6:6, God expressed regret for creating mankind.  It would seem that God does not always use His foreknowledge if He can experience regret.  It doesn’t seem like a stretch, then, to conclude that God grieves the loss of so many even though He considers their sentence just.

It is impossible for us to know all that has gone into God’s decisions.  We can’t even relate to what it is like to be God.  It is certainly different than our frame of reference.  Consequently, I can’t say why God didn’t or doesn’t cut His losses with mankind.  What I do know is that God wants more to be saved.  That is the motivation for His patience.  All else remains a mystery.

Near Death Experiences Don’t Always Go to Heaven

If you have heard or read about Near Death Experiences (NDE), you are most likely aware of how people experience a beautiful environment of love, deceased loved ones, enchanting music and unparalleled peace.  These experiences are common, and they are commonly reported by those who experience them.

What is not so commonly reported is the experience of darkness, pain, fear and frightening beings.  The people who do report them never want to return.  They claim to experience Hell.

If you have been following this blog, I make a technical distinction between the place of the damned before Judgment Day and the place of ultimate separation from God after Judgment Day.  I prefer to call the post-Judgment Day destination Hell.  The Bible uses the words “Sheol” or “Hades” to describe what one would experience now.  These people experienced Sheol, and didn’t like it.

The very fact that some experience Sheol casts a question mark on the experience of those who come back to life and report that they experienced a place of unconditional salvation for all.  We will address this in my next blog entry.  Also to be questioned is the prevalence of a Heavenly experience in the research of NDEs.  It makes sense that people don’t want to report that they went to Sheol.  In fact, the experience is so negative that it makes sense that people may block it out of their own memory.

Jesus says in my least favorite Bible passage:

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 is the road that leads to life and, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

This passage emphasizes the necessity of Jesus to a positive eternal outcome.  He is the narrow gate (John 14:6)  It also suggests that the prevailing experience of people should be of Sheol.

How do people describe their experience of Sheol? Here are some excerpts from the book, THell and Back:

The darkness of Hell is so intense that it seems to have a pressure per square inch.  It is an extremely black, dismal, desolate, heavy, pressurized type of darkness.  It gives the individual a crushing, despondent feeling of lonliness.

The heat is a dry, dehydrating type.  Your eyeballs are so dry they feel like red hot coals in their sockets.  Your tongue and lips are parched and cracked with the intense heat.  The breath from your nostrils as well as the air you breathe feels like a blast from a furnace.  The exterior of your body feels as though it were enchased within a white hot stove..

The agony and loneliness of Hell cannot be expressed clearly enough for proper understanding to the human soul; it has to be experienced.

Actually, I’ll pass.  People do experience others being there.  They even recognize some, but there is no positive relationships.  Sheol seems to have a landscape, and according to the Bible story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, is divided into at least two sections by some sort of “chasm”.  The one side being where the Old Testament righteous lived comfortably until Christ’s victory on the cross.

It is interesting to note that those who experience Sheol describe it in physical terms, as if they had a body.  Our body is a proper part of this universe.  It doesn’t go with someone to Sheol, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have a body that is a part of Sheol.

The NDEs of Sheol that many people have is warning to us all.   Even Bible believing Christians want to dismiss the existence of eternal judgment, and some do.  The experience of those who go briefly to Sheol tells us that reading about it is as close as we want to be.  It should be taken seriously.

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