Israel had a rich historical relationship with the Almighty. The nation wore the title ‘Chosen Ones’. Everyone in the nation knew that there was an expectation with the religion. They had a track record for obedience/disobedience and success/failure.
Many would live with the tension of knowing the Law and falling short of its ideals. Still, they had national pride knowing that God was on their side. It would not be dissimilar from people who think of Canada as a country founded on Christian principles, or Americans believing themselves to be a Judeo-Christian nation. There is a sense of destiny and protectionism that comes from this kind of pride.
As Jews in Jesus’ time listened to their teachers, they would hear a message of repentance. God was issuing a recall to His people to come back and be restored. The teachings of the rabbi Jesus were especially tough calling for a level of performance that not even the Pharisees had achieved.
As Jesus taught the heart values of the Law, many listeners became convinced of their shortcomings. Some would try and double up their devotion. Still others would walk away crying that Jesus’ teaching was too demanding. They would stay with religion as usual, preferring the drudgery they knew to the risk of great change.
Consider the call to compete in this account of Jesus’ teaching:
The question asked is ‘Will God only save a few?’ Jesus answers with ‘What about you?’
Make every effort to get into God’s Kingdom through a small, narrow door. The Greek word used for making an effort is ‘agonizomai’. It conveys a meaning of great struggle. The same word is used by Paul[i] to illustrate the efforts of an athlete in training. Great sweat and discipline would be required to work for the prize.
Such restrictiveness would not surprise this Jewish audience, since it was already taught that Israel was God's elect nation. Second Esdras 8:3 reads, "Many are created, but few are saved." The surprise in Jesus' reply is not that access may be limited, but who gains entry.
The basis of the refusal is the Master's declaration that he does not know those who knock. Earlier, when there had been opportunity to get to know the Lord, those outside had not been interested. So the Lord now says, "I don't know you or where you come from." The Lord's denial perplexes those who appeal for entry, since they once had meals in Jesus' presence and listened to his teaching in the streets. But Jesus' reply makes it clear that exposure is not knowledge. Something more than presence is required in coming to know Jesus. So he tells them, "I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!" Outward contact with Jesus means nothing; inward reception is everything. There is no bargaining with the Lord here. The issue is simply did you know him? [ii]