April 17, 2011

The Scariest Thing Jesus Ever Said

It's no question that Jesus said a lot of inflammatory, shocking things during his earthly ministry. He said that no one can follow him who does not hate his father, mother, brother, and his own life. He said those who follow him will suffer in agony for their devotion. He said the man who looks back is not fit for the holy kingdom. Yet there is one particular thing Jesus said that is more frightening than anything else.

When it is spoken, Christians bite their lips. They squirm in their pews. Foreheads grow cold with sweat and fear. 
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven... I will say to them, 'Depart from me, I never knew you."
Matthew 7:21-23 infamously records the scariest thing Jesus ever said. I've heard countless sermons on this passage. In the last four months alone it's been preached on eight different times. These words have always made me (and I assume everyone else) very uncomfortable. After all, if Jesus turns away such devoutly dedicated followers - people who seem to do amazing things - how can I be sure he will let me in?

And the sermons on this topic are always of a similar nature:
"BEWARE that ye do not fall into this trap! Ye cannot attain heaven by thine own effort! Ye must KNOW GOD, and be a TRUE BELIEVER! Or else thou wilt be like those whom Christ turneth away when he says "DEPART FROM ME, I KNOW YE NOT!"
Such sermons were the bane of my childhood years, and the cause of many fervent re-conversions. Simply acting like a Christian won't get you into heaven! You have to really know God! But what does that look like? How could I be sure I was sincere? I lived in constant fear over the state of my own salvation. What does Matthew 7:21-23 mean?

I noticed something recently that transformed my understanding of this passage. It was something so obvious, so critical, that I was stunned I had never noticed it before. I was equally surprised that none of those fright-filled messages had ever pointed it out. Once you recognize it, Jesus' words take on a wholly different meaning. The full passage is this:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"
So we have these men who cry "But Lord!" and Jesus says "Depart, I don't know you." It is always Jesus' reply that people tend to focus on. But in order to understand it, it is crucial we know what he is replying to. What was it these guys said? Well, they list a lot of reasons to be let in to paradise. They think they have it all together, right? This is where most explanations stop. But wait, read the words again. What is it - exactly - these men claim is proof of their devotion? They list three things:

1. We prophesied
2. We cast out demons
3. We performed miracles

The key to the whole passage lies here. Do you see it? There is something similar about each of these actions. Every proof they offer is entirely supernatural in nature. That is important. Almost immediately after picking up on this, I noticed something else. Jesus' final words after denying them entry are "You workers of lawlessness" Other versions read "You evildoers" and "The things you did were unauthorized". So we have men who are claiming to perform supernatural wonders which Christ states are unlawful. This leaves us with two possible outcomes.

   Possibility 1: These men perform feats of supernatural activity which are demonic in nature. They have miraculous and prophetic powers. These guys sound pretty impressive. If they don't make the cut, who can? Yet God clearly states that what they do is unauthorized. In my book, supernatural occurrences without the approval of God can only be empowered by Satan.

Some people point out that they cast out demons as well, which doesn't make sense. Even Christ says that the prince of darkness would not expel his own forces. However the devil also has power to deceive. I've been around long enough to witness plenty of examples of people "speaking in tongues" or "casting out demons" with less than convincing results. They may honestly believe in their efforts, but it does not mean they have God's approval. This leads us to a second option.

   Possibility 2: These men claim to perform feats of supernatural activity, but are self-deceived. Notice that the Scripture never actually confirms they did such things. It only says they claimed to.  Jesus did not say, "Many will come to me who prophesied and cast out demons, and say, 'Lord, Lord,'"  He did say, "Many will come to me who say, 'Lord, Lord, did we not...?"  It is true Scripture seems to imply that they were successful, but we cannot know for sure.  In any case, these "disciples" are not Christ's true followers at all. They are either occultists, or else liars.

This revelation has put my mind at ease regarding the implications of this text. You see, many pastors will level Jesus' words at the members of their own congregation, people who, like you and me, are simply trying to live the Christian life as best they can.  People who pray, and serve, and love, and worship the Lord.  These are not the sorts of people Christ was warning at all!  Too often this passage has been wielded as a weapon to rattle the hearts of sincere believers.  Not convinced? Let's continue exploring.

In Matthew 25 Jesus talks about the last judgment.  He divides the sheep from the goats, the saved from the unsaved.  As proof of those who are his, he says, "I was was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me."  I think this is important. Jesus is talking about love and compassion as evidence of his true disciples. This conforms with what we know of Scripture. Christ does not say, "Enter in, you who performed miracles, cast out demons, and prophesied."  Why? Because the truths for which his people live are even greater feats than those.  Miracles, when God chooses to work through them, can be impressive.  But there are no greater miracles among his people than faith, hope, and charity.  Now take the reverse. The lawless ones did not come to him and say, "Lord, Lord, did we not visit you in prison, and feed you, and give you drink?"  Had they done so, they would not have been turned away as strangers.  Rather, Christ condemns the lost for refusing to offer him help in his time of need.  This further convinces me that the men in Matthew 7 were satanic. It is just like the father of lies to lead men into twisted spiritual activity, because deceit and darkness is his realm.  Yet he cannot, or will not, ever encourage men towards acts of goodwill and charity.  That realm is solely God's.

Finally, consider the overall context of Jesus' words in Matthew 7.  They come at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he offers his disciples guidelines for how to live.  Then, just prior to his infamous condemnation, Jesus warns of false disciples. Men who come in sheep's clothing, but are inwardly ravenous wolves.  Men who will be known by their rotting fruit.  Like Matthew 25, Christ emphasizes that it is the fruit of the spirit which prove his disciples, something no amount of demonic activity could ever reproduce.


Anonymous said...

AMEN!! Preach it! You have excellent points here...Another wonderful piece that I think sheds much light to a passage that many find difficult to swallow. Love it. I'm also happy to see that you're writing like crazy now!! I've missed it and it makes my heart smile to see you writing again. :)

Robby Livaudais said...

Possibility 3: The name of Jesus is simply that powerful that it can perform miracles and cast out demons and cause the future (prophesy). And the way we are identified is not by our ministry results.

This would especially make sense considering a few things:

1, The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). That's why people like Michael Jackson can die with a gift and (probably) not go to heaven. This is why people like Benny Hinn who are most likely not true believers can do such amazing things but teach such false doctrines.

2, The context of Matthew 7 right before this passage is talking about good fruit. As you say, it's their Love that identifies them as true believers, not their supernatural feats. Good fruit is the result of a true believer, not good results in ministry.

3, The name of Jesus does cast out the demons and it is by the power of Jesus but done out the wrong heart. People preached the Gospel out of the wrong motives in order to compete with Paul...but it was still the Gospel.

I had at least one other hting but...I've forgotten it, haha.

covnitkepr1 said...

Ya know Mark...could be He was taking about Believers who weren't Christians. Think about it.

Thanks for the comment you left on my blog. You are most gracious.
I’d like to invite you to follow it.
Makes it so easy for a return visit here just by clicking on your avatar. But...whatever you decide.

Mark Zellner said...

Kate - Thanks for your inspirational support! It's good to be writing again, yes. :)

Robby - That is a possibility, and it seems that your option is an another way of explaining "unlawful" spiritual action without relying on demonic influence. Thanks for the insight! Have you considered what your other point was?

covnitkepr1 - I appreciate your interaction, friend. We may have a misunderstanding. You said he may have been talking about "Believers who weren't Christians". That's a contradiction in terms. It's the same thing as saying "Christians who weren't Christians" which doesn't make sense. Could you help me understand what you mean?
And yes, I'll add you, thought I already had...

covnitkepr1 said...

Mark...I don't know how this will sit with you but not all who call Jesus Lord and serve Him faithfully have ever obeyed His terms of pardon.
Remember...even the devil himself believes and knows who Jesus is.

I myself was a believer for a long time and was never baptized INTO Christ. That's the only way in. Can't pray your way in, can't buy your way in, can't work your way in. Galatians 3:27 & Romans 6:3 tell it like it is.

covnitkepr1 said...

Mark, the next time your on my blog...scroll down to the very bottom and you'll see that I happen to mention exactually what your post is about in my invitation.

covnitkepr1 said...

I'm not trying to take over your comment section...so this is the last comment for awile.

I've spent some time going thru some of your past posts and want you to know that I'm really enjoying them.

Shanda said...

This passage came at the end of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus had been preaching to large crowds. Some were believers but some were probably not. Some at least were Pharasees. At the end, he gives three examples of the choice they had to make after listening to His teachings: they could choose the narrow or the wide gate, choose to bear good fruit or bad, and choose to build on the solid foundation or not: speaking here of obedience.
Personally, I don't think he was judging here but giving people a choice. Just saying "Lord" and calling him Master does not mean we actually have chosen to follow him wholeheartedly.
I think Jesus is saying unless we choose to obey and follow him, our words are meaningless and works do not get us to heaven.

Mark Zellner said...

covnitkepr1 - Thanks for your continued dialogue, I see what you are saying now. It may be that there are some who think they have legitimate salvation and yet do not know God - the pharisees are a good example of this. My primary goal was to point out an important part of this passage that often gets ignored: the tri-part supernatural aspect.

As far as your position on baptism, I'm familiar with both sides of the debate, and cannot say I agree it is necessary for salvation. Baptism is certainly a sacrament of great importance however. I appreciate your thorough interaction. Blessings!

Shanda - Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I'm not sure if you are disagreeing with my interpretation or refining it? I agree your statement and don't see that it contradicts with my own observations. You are right that it is important to recognize Jesus' audience in the SotM. In the part I reference he has just spoken a warning of "wolves", which seems to be clearly distinguished from his honest followers (though both groups were likely present). He was most certainly giving his audience a choice, yes. He was also giving them instructions for faithful living and warning of deviant forces.

If you do disagree with this post Shanda, would you mind sharing what you think the significance is of the "miracles,demons,prophecy" portion I referenced? Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I look forward to hearing from you!

Heidi said...

Good thoughts!!! That scripture has always made me nervous as well. Like the thought: "what if my relationship with Him is fake"? But then I look at the section, I NEVER knew you. I think back to times where His precence was undeniable and when I talk to Him and He talks back! It's by His power we are saved!

kourtney said...

Hey Mark!

Thank you for pointing this out and making Matthew a little less intimidating/scary! =:)


Mark Zellner said...

Heidi,Thanks for pointing that word out Heidi, certainly it makes you pause in your understanding of the verses. Glad I could help you out a little!

Kourtney, You're welcome! I hope this allows you to enjoy reading Scripture a little more!

Brandon said...

Mark, from study of false teachers, doctrine and false signs and wonders over the past several years I would say you're onto something here. I would combine your two possibilities into one.

They are both performing real miracles and they are also self-deceived into thinking they are doing the will of God.

Scripture speaks of those who are imposters and evil who not only deceive others, but are also themselves deceived! (2 Timothy 3:13)

Did you notice that those to whom Jesus said He never knew them seemed a little surprised that they were not known by Him? "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" Yeah, they weren't expecting His response. They were definately self-deceived.

Also, we know that Satan can empower his agents to do things that are so powerful, so amazing that even Christians could possibly be deceived (Mathew 24:24, Mark 13:22)

So it is quite possible that these people could be doing genuine miracles. They aren't just doing 'parlor tricks'. They are really pulling off some amazing things, so amazing that even they are fooled by themselves. When they get to heaven, the last thing they will expect is to be turned away.

Thanks for an interesting read.

Mark Zellner said...

Brandon, I appreciate your invested response to this post! Certainly those who perform miracles are self deceived, and you are right, there does seem to be an essence of surprise in their reaction to Jesus words. The cross references you provide are also relevant, along with other texts that warn of wandering stars and false teachers/prophets. It's a sobering thought!

Shanda said...

Mark, I am agreeing with your thoughts. I believe there is no reason to fear if we truely know and obey God (as in choosing the right path) It all boils down to love and obedience. It is in having a true relationship with Christ that we find the love that sees each person as Jesus himself, leading us to serve them.
Maybe my original comments stemmed from the fact that I have never questioned whether I would enter heaven.
Great way to bring out some good discussion!

Mark Zellner said...

Ah, I understand now, Shanda. Thank you for clarifying. Love is so important, isn't it?

David Morris said...

Great Post. Like a few other said, I think that Jesus is commenting on the heart more than anything. If we perform works in the name of Jesus, but do not fully submit ourselves to his will and most importantly his Love for us, how will he know us? Throughout the gospel God wants us to know his heart and he wants us to surrender ours. The only way we can truly know Christs love for us is to surrender our heart to him.

Also in your example of works that Jesus mentions the first is considered a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians Chapters 12 - 14. Chapter 13 is the all familiar love verse, but the ones around it are very important. It talks about all the spiritual gifts. The point of the love verse being in the middle is that if these gifts are used without the love of Christ they are nothing, as you and many have said already.

This is a great post and blog. I invite you to follow mine as well davidmorris102.blogspot.com. Thanks again!