The Straight and Narrow (Matthew 7:14)

My church recently went through a series on the Sermon on the Mount. I know there were a lot of good things said, but the back of my mind apparently has a larger capacity than the front of my mind—because I’m really only remembering details from the more recent sermons. Of those, one in particular keeps coming back to me. (You can access it here, if you’re interested.)

The text for the day was Matthew 7:13-14.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
14 “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (NASB)

The first thing about this sermon that piqued my interest was a quirky, little linguistic issue.

I’ve heard the idiom “the straight and narrow” my whole life. It means doing the right thing, keeping out of trouble. It is the picture of a fixed path—narrow and unbending—that leads us in theway we should go. (You can find this very image in several reliable children’s Bibles.) I really never gave the phrase itself much thought, except maybe a casual acknowledgement that it had biblical roots.

Indeed it does, but not quite how I thought.

Matthew 7:14 (KJV) 
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Notice in verse 14, the NASB uses small where the KJV employs strait.

Is this a matter of disagreement in translation?

No—it’s a matter of spelling.

The KJV strait is completely unrelated in meaning to its homonym straight.

Strait is not the opposite of crooked at all. Actually, it is a bit of vocabulary that Middle English borrowed from the Old French word estreit meaning tight, close, or narrow. In modern English, we use the noun form to refer to a narrow body of water. And that’s precisely what the original Greek, stenos, means—small or narrow.

And the rendering of the Greek thlibo as narrow in both translations is close enough, but it doesn’t really do the word picture justice. This word actually means to be pressed upon, crowded in on, or afflicted.

So “strait and narrow” actually means small and constrained by obstacles.

The moral?

My children’s Bible was wrong.

We’ve got no reason in the world to imagine that this road that leads to life is a straight, smooth, path with views of lush, green meadows on either side and blue skies above.

On the other hand, we do know where it is going—and we know who’s with us all along the way.

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