Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

“Narrow gate” (Matt 7:13-14)

The NIV translates Matt 7:13-14 as follows. “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.” The switching from the “narrow” gate in v 13 to the “small” gate in v 14 is also reflected in the NASB, TNIV, and KJV.

The problem is that Jesus uses the same word for the gate in both verses. It is a stenos gate, a “narrow” gate. So why introduce the confusion of switching English words within the context of two verses?

This is the issue of “concordance,” using the same English word for the same Greek word. The ESV and NLT keep the concordance.

Anyone who knows about translation knows that concordance is not always possible or even desirable. A Greek word rarely, if ever, has an exact equivalent in English or any other language. polis can refer to a city, but it also can refer to a hamlet, to a wide spot in the road. To keep concordance with polis when used of Nazareth is misleading, since there were only about 600 people in Nazareth in Jesus’ day. Hardly a city.

English style also works against concordance. It is considered poor English style to repeat the same word in the immediate context. Our language prefers variations, synonyms used for variety but without significant change in meaning.

But concordance used properly can be a great help to the English reader. It aids the English reader in seeing the connection of ideas. In this passage, is it not confusing to call a gate “narrow” and in the next verse call it “small”? One might wonder if there is any significance in the change?

The reason is that Jesus is going to talk about the “narrow ... road,” and to translate “narrow gate ... narrow road” feels awkward and stylistically redundant. So they change the second reference of the “narrow gate” to a “small gate.”

The answer to this particular conundrum is to recognize that the Greek word translated “narrow” road is the participial form of thlibo. BDAG lists its three glosses as, “to press or crowd close against, to cause someth. to be constricted or narrow, to cause to be troubled.” thlibo is also related to the word thlipsis,meaning, “affliction.” The point of Jesus’ saying is more that the road is narrow in that it is difficult, perhaps even the road of persecution and suffering.

Much better, it seems to me, to keep the concordance and translate as the ESV does. “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. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

The gate of conversion is narrow. It restricts people to entering one at a time (no family plan). It is narrow because it requires that you leave your self-sufficiency and pride behind as Christ-sufficiency and humility await on the other side. And it is narrow because only a few, the remnant, go through.

And the path of discipleship is hard. There are external pressures of persecutions because changed people live changed lives and therefore we come into conflict with the world. There are internal pressures as daily we are called to die to our sin and live as those crucified with Christ, humbly submitting our will to him.

But what is at the end of the path? Life. True life. Life as we were created to live. So we enter through the narrow gate, which is Jesus and an awareness of our sin, trod the narrow path with other followers of Jesus Christ, and at the end of the path (not the gate), is the Celestial City. It is worth the journey.