In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7), the Lord presents a word picture of two gates, one wide and one narrow. Jesus explains to His listeners that to see and participate in His coming kingdom a person must have true, inner righteousness and not simply an external adherence to a code of laws. The scribes and Pharisees were teaching a kind of works-based salvation, asserting that obedience to the law was how people could be right in the sight of God. Jesus counters that directly, saying poignantly that, unless a person’s righteousness surpassed that of the scribes and Pharisees, that person would not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
In Matthew 7:13–14 Jesus describes two gates: the wide gate—taken by many—that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13); and the narrow gate—taken by few—that leads to life (Matthew 7:14). One gate is wide to accommodate the many who enter the way leading to destruction, while the other is narrow to represent the relatively few who seek life and find it. Jesus exhorts His listeners to enter through the narrow gate rather than attempting to enter through the broad gate.
The broad gate was the way advocated by those who were teaching falsehood (including the scribes and Pharisees). The broad gate was the appearance of righteousness but not actual righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees (and other false teachers and prophets) were teaching that a person could enter the kingdom of heaven simply based on either a relation to Abraham and Moses or by following the Law of Moses. Instead, Jesus advocated the narrow gate—this was the way to enter the kingdom. This narrow gate was the path of true righteousness. This kind of righteousness would cause people to see and glorify God rather than glorify the person doing the work (Matthew 5:16).
While the scribes and Pharisees taught it was enough to follow the Law—avoiding the act of murder, for example—Jesus taught that one’s inner attitude toward one’s brother was representative of true character, not just the external actions (Matthew 5:21–26). The standard was to “be perfect, for your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The wide gate that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13) was the path of being good enough by one’s own works. But Jesus explains that the standard is perfection—and no one could achieve that on their own. They needed to be humble in spirit (Matthew 5:3) and recognize that they needed someone to help them to be righteous—they needed a Savior.
The broad gate, the wide gate that leads to destruction, presented that it was enough to love those who love us. But the narrow gate was expressed in loving those who persecute and hate us (Matthew 5:44–47). The broad, wide gate that leads to destruction is self-dependence and represented by common ethics. The narrow gate that leads to life is represented by extraordinary acts of goodness that are not rooted in normal human nature. The standard for righteousness (perfection) is beyond us, and we simply do not have that righteousness and cannot manufacture that kind of righteousness by our own works. Instead, we must rely on Jesus to be that righteousness on our behalf.
Paul helps us understand when he recounts how Jesus took on our sin and gave us His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that we could be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). Paul adds that it is not by works that we are saved, but rather by God’s grace through the vehicle of belief in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). If the broad gate that leads to destruction instead led to life, then we would be able to boast that our works got us into heaven. We would get the glory rather than God. But by making the gate that leads to life narrow, God demonstrates His love and His grace, and He is worthy of our trust and our praise.