Sunday, April 21, 2013

Striving to Enter the Kingdom of God

How many times have you heard someone teach that we should stop striving?  It's a very common message in the Church today.  If you don't think so, just do a google search on "faith stop striving," and you will see many sites with this message.

I understand the basic intent of these messages is to get people to trust God, rest in Him, and stop trying to earn God's love.  All of those are important aspects of our lives in Christ.  You can never earn God's love; you can only receive it.  And when you come to Jesus, you will find rest for your souls.  His burden is light and His yoke is easy.  Knowing His love for you and experiencing His rest comes by trusting Him, just as everything we receive from Him or do for Him is by faith.

Paul said to the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."  (Eph 2:8-9)

The writer of Hebrews concurred by saying, "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a Rewarder of those who seek Him."  (Heb 11:6)

So it might seem as though there is no place at all for striving in the life of the believer.  But I beg to differ, and I'd like to show you in Scripture why I disagree.  Let's begin with the words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Himself.

Strive to Enter the Kingdom
When someone asked Jesus whether only a few people would be saved, He answered by saying, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." (Luk 13:24)

So if you don't think a believer should ever strive, you need to take that up with Jesus.  He said it first, and I'm just teaching what He said. The original Greek word recorded in Scripture for "strive" is "agonizomai," a root word for our English word "agonize."  The word "agonizomai" means "to struggle, literally (to compete for a prize), figuratively (to contend with an adversary), or generally (to endeavor to accomplish something): - fight, labor fervently, strive." (Strongs).  It means "to contend, struggle, with difficulties and dangers antagonistic to the gospel." (Thayers Greek Lexicon). Thayers states that in the Luke 13 passage cited above, Jesus meant "to endeavor with strenuous zeal, strife, to obtain something."

Now let's insert that definition into the sentence that Jesus spoke. When He was asked if only a few people would be saved, He commanded us, "Endeavor with strenuous zeal and strife to enter through the narrow door."  That's intense, and it's the only way to be saved! He said that many people would "seek" to enter and will not be able to.  He meant they would be unable to be saved.

What makes these people different from the ones who are saved?  Why do so many "seek" to enter unsuccessfully?  The word for "seek" in that phrase that Jesus spoke means simply "to endeavor" or "seek".  There's nothing extraordinary about it.  Many people make this ordinary attempt, but they are unable to enter.

The one thing that sets apart those who do manage to enter is the intensity with which they struggle to enter.  They put up a great fight, and labor fervently.  It's as if they are on fire.  It's the kind of behavior you might expect from a person whose clothing is literally on fire, who is trying to escape a burning building.  A person in that situation, seeking to exit through the door of a burning room, will not make an ordinary or casual attempt to do so.  He will make an extraordinary effort, displaying tremendous zeal.  That's the way Jesus said we must enter through the narrow door.

What was this narrow door He was speaking of?  If you read the whole passage, He said, "Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, 'Lord, open up to us!' then He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know where you are from.' "Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets'; and He will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.' "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 yourselves being thrown out. "And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God." (Luk 13:25-29).

In this passage, the ones who fail to enter through the narrow door felt like they were well acquainted with the Lord. They said, "We ate and drank in your presence."  But they are left outside the narrow door that has been shut.  The Lord tells them He never knew them, and orders them to depart from Him, calling them evildoers.  They are thrown out to the place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, which is hell.

The ones who do enter through the narrow door are "in the kingdom of God," reclining at the table and eating.  These include Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets.  So He was referring to the kingdom of heaven, where the righteous enjoy their eternal reward.

Elsewhere Jesus said, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture." (Joh 10:9).  He Himself is the door through which we must enter the kingdom of God.  But if we believe in Him, why isn't that enough?  Do we need to earn God's love?  Is God unwilling to recognize the power of Jesus' blood to wash away all your sins?  Is God trying to stop you from entering the kingdom? No!  Certainly not.

The reason we need to strive to enter is because there are forces antagonistic to the gospel, which do not want you to enter.  Satan and his demons hate the holy ones and fiercely oppose us, trying with all their might to stop us from entering through the narrow door. It's called a narrow door, because it requires holiness and obedience to Jesus' commands.  Those who seek to enter without holiness and obedience will not make it.  That's why these evil creatures constantly seek to thwart the righteous, attempting to lure them into traps to get them from living holy lives of obedience to Jesus.

Imagine if there was a door shaped like Jesus.  And just like those children's games where you have to put the round piece through the round hole and the square piece through the square hole, only those who are shaped like Jesus can enter through the Door.  Unless you are conformed to the image of Christ, you cannot enter.  If there is anything in your life that's not of Christ, such as an idol, and you won't let go of it, then you won't be able to get through the Door.

"For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;" (Rom 8:29; cf. Rom 12:2)

Peter wrote in his first epistle: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.'" (1Pe 1:14-16)

And in Peter's second epistle, he wrote: "Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless." (2Pe 3:14)

The Greek word that Peter used for "be diligent" was spoudazo, meaning "to use speed, that is, to make effort, be prompt or earnest: - do (give) diligence, be diligent (forward), endeavour, labour, study." (Strongs).

That's why Paul taught you need to train yourself to be godly, saying, "godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." (1 Tim 4:8).  And in that context, he went on to say, "For it is for this we labor and strive (agonizomai), because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. (1Ti 4:10).  It was for godliness that Paul labored and strove, which is that same word "agonizomai" that was used in Luke 13:24, in which Jesus spoke about striving to enter through the narrow door.  Paul taught that this kind of training is far more important than any physical discipline like weight lifting or exercising in preparation for sports games or fighting.

Fighting to Enter Through the Narrow Door
Just to prove that this really is a fight to enter, let me show you how this word "agonizomai" is used elsewhere in Scripture.  Remember, we said "agonizomai" is the Greek word translated in English as "strive" when Jesus said we must strive to enter through the narrow door.

When Pilate questioned Jesus, demanding to know what He had done that caused His enemies to turn Him over to the authorities, "Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm." (Joh 18:36)  The original word for "fighting" here is "agonizomai."

If Jesus' kingdom were of this world, His servants would have been fighting intensely on His behalf.  You can be sure the disciples and multitudes of others would be fighting with swords, spears, and daggers to stop the enemies of Christ.  As it was, only Peter swung his sword one time, chopping off a man's ear, and the Lord ordered Him to stop, lovingly putting the ear back on his enemy's head.

The apostle Paul used this word, "agonizomai" in his epistle to Timothy, saying, "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses." (1Ti 6:12).  You must fight the good fight of faith in order to take hold of eternal life.  Nobody said you'd be able to "stroll through the tulips" to enter heaven. You will encounter intense opposition.  And at the end of his earthly life, Paul could gladly say, "I have fought (agonizomai) the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;" (2Ti 4:7)

Competing to Win the Race
Another passage where this word agonizomai is used is in Paul's epistle to the Corinthians.  He said, "Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable." (1Co 9:25).  That word "compete" is the same word that Jesus used when He taught how we must enter the narrow door to God's kingdom.

It's as if you were in a wrestling match, a football game, a race, or any other competitive sport.  You've got to live your life in Christ as if you are in a competition. You don't want to end up being disqualified at the end.  You must run in such a way as to win.  That requires an intensity and fervency similar to the kind you see in winning athletes.  Have you ever seen a champion runner with a casual attitude about running? Have you ever seen a champion boxer with an indifferent approach to the game?  Never.  And neither will you find anyone who enters through the narrow door with such an attitude toward the Lord and His commands.

Paul went on to describe the way in which he ran the race, saying, "Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.  (1Co 9:26-27)

This passage is saying the same thing that Jesus said in Luke 13, using the same word "agonizomai".  Let's compare these two passages:

Jesus Paul
"Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able." (Luk 13:24)  "Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." (1Co 9:25-27)
"Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, 'Lord, open up to us!' then He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know where you are from.' "Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets'; and He will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you are from; Depart from Me you evildoers.' "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 yourselves being thrown out." (Luk 13:25-28) For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play." Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. (1Co 10:1-12)

In both passages, Jesus and Paul taught the need to strive as one who competes in the games, in order to enter the kingdom of God. Both of them taught that it is possible to try unsuccessfully.  Jesus called it seeking to enter and not being able to.  Paul called it being disqualified, which means unapproved, rejected, depraved, or cast away.

Jesus said that those who try unsuccessfully to enter the narrow door will be thrown out of the Lord's presence, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  He said many would do so.  And Paul also said that we must take heed of the example of the Israelites.  Although they were all baptized in the sea and drank from the rock which was Christ, nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of themMost of them were destroyed in the wilderness, because of their sin. The reason we must beware of their bad example, is because they are a type of the Church, upon whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.  O Christian, the same thing can happen to you, if you follow their example.

Striving to Present Men to God
This is why Paul didn't take his role lightly.  When he led people to Christ, he knew his work was not finished.  He would labor and strive for them.  He said, "We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me." (Col 1:28-29).  In this verse, the word "agonizomai" is used again to mean striving.

Notice that the purpose for which Paul labored and strove was so that he could present every man complete in Christ.   That takes more than work, it's an intense struggle.  And Paul was striving according to the power of Jesus Christ, which worked mightily in him.  He didn't strive in his own power or strength.  Neither should we.  Our striving to enter the narrow door, and our striving to present others complete in Christ must be according to Christ's power that works mightily in us.

Epaphras was one of Paul's coworkers in the ministry, who came from Colossae.  Paul told the Colossians about him, saying,  "Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. (Col 4:12).  This again is the word "agonizomai," which is translated "laboring earnestly." Other versions translate it by saying,

"He always prays intensely..." (GW)
"He always prays fervently..." (GNB)
"Always striving for you in his prayers..." (ASV)
"He is always wrestling in prayer for you..." (NIV)

That's the kind of prayer for others that God commends.  And it's necessary, because of the evil forces at work in the lives of our loved ones to keep them from entering through the narrow door.

Putting it All Together
Although we are saved by grace through faith alone, we still need to strive to enter through the narrow door, which is Jesus Christ.  Many people simply try to enter, but are unable to.  Only those who strive to enter are able to do so.  It's the only way to be saved.

The reason it's called a narrow door is because it requires faith, love, holiness and obedience to Jesus' commands.  We need to run like an athlete in competitive games.  It requires you make your body your slave, so that you will not be rejected in the end.  Nobody wants to be thrown out by the Lord to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Believe me, you don't want to go there.

Because there are evil forces which hate the holy ones, and which ceaselessly oppose us, we need to fight the good fight of faith.  It's an intense struggle that continues throughout our earthly pilgrimage, until we step through the gates of the Holy City into the kingdom of heaven.  Then we can say, "I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.  Now there's laid up for me a crown of righteousness."  Those who do so will recline at the table in the kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets.

Another reason the kingdom of God has a narrow door is because you cannot enter in groups.  You can't rely on your affiliation with family, friends, or your church.  Each person must individually enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ, being conformed to the image of Christ.  Don't let anyone or any evil creature from hell stop you from doing so, and from keeping the faith until the end.

Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. "I Am the Way" painting © 2012 Danny Hahlbohm, all rights reserved by the artist. "Running to Jesus" illustration is by my daughter, C.V. Lacroix. You can find more of her artwork at A Brush with Life.

Author's note: You may also want to read my other posts called, Pressing on Toward the Goal, Avoid Becoming a Corrupted Christian, Taking Heaven by Force, Seeking Glory from God, Holy Living in a Perverted World, Called to be Blameless, Salvation with Fear and Trembling, The Obedience of Faith, Doing What is Right, Faith Works!, The Apostasy Parables, and Is Practical Righteousness a Lost Truth?  I also recommend Zipporah Mushala’s Second Testimony of Hell, in which she saw a man of God in hell for relying on His obedience to the Law to save him. You may visit the Seeking the Lord Directory, and also find a collection of my most popular blogs at Writing for the Master.

Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus.  Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15).  He preached that we must repent and believe.

Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"
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Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International.  He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.

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