The Christian life from its earliest beginnings was understood in terms of the two ways, the broad and the narrow. The most famous reference to it is found in Matthew 7:13 “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. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (ESV).
This was really no new idea. When Christ spoke these words a rich tradition lay behind him of the children of Israel being summoned to choose which way they will go. There was the famous climax of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 30:15 “See I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and keeping His commandments… then you shall live and multiply… But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear… I declare to you today, you shall surely perish…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live…” (ESV).
This theme is echoed by Joshua in his farewell speech in Joshua 24. And again, the first song in ancient Israel’s Psalter is all about the two ways, contrasting meditating on God’s Torah “day and night” with enjoying the company of scoffers and sinners. Psalm 1 then goes on to stipulate the endgame for both lifestyles in vivid near eastern imagery of a fruitful tree or chaff blown away by the wind. Jeremiah 17:5-8 describes the choice between the two opposing ways in terms of either trusting Yahweh wholeheartedly or trusting in the “arm of the flesh”. The outcome of the two ways are again unmistakably clear and final.
But Israel was not interested in listening. In fact in Jeremiah 6:16 the prophet says: “Thus says the Lord, stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said: ‘We will not walk in it’” (ESV).
It is against this backdrop that Jesus of Nazareth challenged his hearers towards the end of His Sermon on the Mount not to remain undecided, but to realize that his teaching calls them to decide for either the wide or the narrow gate and path and that a third option does not exist. The destiny of either path is sure. In fact in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he reminds his readers that they were called in the Gospel to no longer “walk” like the Gentiles do – in the futility of their minds, and the hardness of their hearts – but to “walk” in wisdom, in love and in the light, as God’s beloved children of light. Both in Romans 8 and Galatians 5 he contrasts life and death, the Spirit and the flesh, blessing and curse, against each other, challenging us to choose the way of life and peace in Jesus Christ.
Somewhere in the 19th century, an old plaque depicting the two ways and destinations became a familiar sight in many Christian homes. It was originally drawn by a German lady, was soon printed in Dutch and then used in open-air evangelism in Britain in 1886, with the subscript “The Broad and the Narrow Way”. And so it became commonplace in many Christian homes. Sadly though that familiar sight is fading away from our collective memory. And yet this is how our earliest Christian forebears also saw things…
The earliest Christian teaching manual known to us, The Didache, started out like this: “The teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles. There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways. Now this is the way of life….” It then carries on for a while explaining the way of life before it continues in par. 5 “But the way of death is this…” explaining the path to avoid. Another writing of the Apostolic Fathers, The Epistle of Barnabas, contrasts the way of light with the way of darkness, from par. 18 to the end.
Maybe it is time to recapture this ancient thread running right through Scripture, echoed by The Didache and The Epistle of Barnabas. It is high time to recapture the passion for living the Christian life. That would however remain impossible without mediating much on God and His Word every day.
There is another reason why we must recapture this passion for living the Christian life. The whole concept of personal responsibility has all but vanished from public life, from psychology to sociology, from politics to economics, and even in the church. We have been trained and taught to look away from ourselves to explain why we are making poor choices. We look at our surrounding culture, at our upbringing, our peculiar circumstances, or even at genetic patterns and historical events wholly outside our control, to explain who we are and where we are going.
And who wants to deny that all these things do also play a role in who we are! Yet I have a suspicion that previous generations that lacked the luxury of always blaming others, and who were taught first of all to look at themselves, were in many ways far better off and happier than we are today.
Taking charge of your own life, regardless of every possible circumstance or disadvantage you might have experienced, remains the best way to be truly fruitful, happy and blessed in a Biblical sense. But then, once we have entered through that narrow gate, and are traveling on the path to life, by faith in God’s beloved Son, who else do we have to thank and praise but Him whose loving-kindness endures forever!