As strange as it sounds, it’s possible to relate to Jesus in completely the wrong way. And the scary thing is, we might not even be aware of it. Someone can be a professing Christian, hold to orthodox views, be enthusiastic, do great works in the name of Jesus and yet, despite all this, fail to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is the sobering lesson from three of the most unsettling verses in the New Testament:
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.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
These stark words come as Jesus starts to wrap up the Sermon on the Mount. He drives his message home using a series of metaphors and scenarios and if you look at verses 13-27, you’ll see there are always two options. So there are two gates leading to two roads, two trees with two kinds of fruit, two ways to relate to Jesus, two builders, two houses, two foundations.
Two ways to relate to Jesus
Now at first glance, you might think there’s only one group of people mentioned in verses 21-23, not two. But look again. There are definitely two distinct categories of people, albeit one of them only has a walk-on part, with no lines to say.
The first group is the “not everyone” of verse 21. And Jesus tell us there will be “many” of them, people who “on that day [judgement day] …will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord…’” (verse 22). This group won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. The second group is silent in these verses. They do “the will of my Father who is in heaven” (verse 21) and they are the ones who enter the kingdom of heaven.
This fits with what Jesus and his Apostles teach elsewhere. I’m saved, of course, not by what I do, but by grace and through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the evidence that I really am saved is that, increasingly, I obey Jesus and seek – however feebly at times – to do the will of his Father who is in heaven. As Jesus puts it elsewhere, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Not the genuine article
What is so shocking about this first group is that – rather like the false prophets Jesus warns us about in the preceding verses – these people look like the real thing. They appear to be the genuine article. If you met one of them in church or at a Christian conference, they would speak and act like a true believer.
- Orthodox in belief
Note that they call Jesus ‘Lord.’ The Greek term is a variant of the word Kyrios. This is a very loaded word – by calling Jesus Lord, they’re acknowledging his deity. In that culture, people would say ‘Kaiser Kyrios’, which translates as ‘Caesar is Lord.’ But Christians would refuse to say that, because they submitted to Jesus as Lord. So these are professing Christians, showing clear signs of being orthodox in doctrine, recognizing the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
- Passionate and enthusiastic
Interestingly, they call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’. In ancient languages, doubling up on a word helps to express enthusiastic commitment and intense emotion. So these are not just professing Christians holding to orthodox doctrine in a mechanical way. No, they’re passionate, excited about Jesus, enthusiastic in their profession.
- Dedicated in ministry
Look at all they’ve done in ministry terms too: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ (verse 22). So these people appear to have accomplished great things in Jesus’ name. It’s telling that he doesn’t come back at them and deny that they’ve prophesied, or cast out demons or done mighty works in his name. No, that’s not the basis of their exclusion from the kingdom of heaven. So it’s entirely possible – quite likely even – that people’s lives have been changed through their ministry.
What does Jesus say to these professing Christians, who recognise his lordship and are enthusiastic, passionate, doing great works in his name, bearing fruit in ministry, impacting people’s lives? “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” Four devastating words that you never want to hear Jesus say to you: “I never knew you.”
We can imagine, perhaps, stunned silence in the crowd. You could have heard a pin drop. This is a shocking, heart-stopping moment in the sermon. Jesus doesn’t even say, ‘well you used to be part of my Church, but then you went astray.’ He says I never knew you. What does that mean? Well, “this is eternal life, that they know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). So to know and be known by Jesus is to be saved.
The disturbing implication is that it’s possible to be a professing Christian, to get much of the doctrine right, to be excited about Jesus and enthusiastically call him ‘Lord, Lord’. It’s possible to be active in Christian ministry, even to bear fruit in ministry and see people’s lives changed. It’s possible to do all that, and yet not to have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
If these three verses from the Sermon on the Mount make you feel somewhat unsettled, they’ve probably achieved their purpose. In one sense, I believe Jesus wants them to unsettle us. As he concludes his teaching, it seems he wants to create a critical, jaw-dropping, decisive moment. A moment where we examine our hearts and ask ‘do I really know Jesus Christ?’ Or more importantly, does he know me – am I in a saving relationship with him?
Well if you’re asking the question, that’s probably a good sign. And if it leads to you recognising afresh your spiritual bankruptcy and your utter dependence on Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins, to mourning over your weaknesses and failings – perhaps even over these last few days. If deep down you long to be more righteous, to live a life which pleases God, well Jesus would send you right back to the introduction to his sermon. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (v 4). Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (v 6).
The root of the problem with those to whom Jesus says ‘I never knew you’ is that actually they’re trusting in themselves and in their own righteousness. This is obscured in most English translations. But in the original language they say three times ‘didn’t we’ do this or that. So didn’t we prophesy in your name, didn’t we cast out demons in your name, and didn’t we do many mighty works in your name?
Do you see how it’s me, me, me? Lord we’ve done all this for you, so now we want you to reward us with an entry ticket to heaven. But Jesus responds to their claims by calling them ‘workers of lawlessness.’ Despite their orthodoxy, their enthusiasm and their relentless service, they’re actually a law unto themselves and are not living under the rule and reign of Jesus. They call him Lord with their lips, but in practice he is not the Lord of their lives.
Nothing in my hand I bring
By nature, every one of us is a worker of lawlessness and reject the rule and reign of Christ over our lives. And the heart of the gospel is that I can do nothing to save myself. “There’s no-one righteous”, writes Paul, “not even one (Romans 3:10). Even my very best deeds are like filthy rags before a Holy God.
These verses throw out a challenge as to what I’m placing my hope in, what I’m relying on. Jesus wants us to examine the very foundations of our faith, as he goes on to show in the verses that follow with the two men, the two houses and the two foundations. The only way into the kingdom of heaven is to come in spiritual poverty, and to trust with childlike faith in the one who fulfils God’s law. The one who has paid the penalty for my abject failure to keep the law.
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Saviour, or I die.
 Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me – Augustus M. Toplady, 1740-1778