In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus states:
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.’
Superficial discipleship is not a recent invention. In today’s terms, we might call these posers or pretenders, and Jesus deals with pretenders for much of his ministry. In John 2:23-25, Jesus is slow to entrust Himself to many of His early followers, for He knows the frailty of man’s loyalty. John 6 records the feeding of the multitudes, and, later in the chapter, many of those fed seek him again, seeking to fill their hunger. By chapter 7:60, many of Jesus’ disciples begin to turn aside.
The Problem of Empty Discipleship
As soon as Jesus’ popularity begins to wane, we see those who know what it means to be a true disciple and those who are pretenders. Throughout His ministry, Jesus tries to impress on His followers what it truly means to be His disciple. In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus calls on His disciples to crucify self, to abandon friends and family, and to count the true cost of following Him, renouncing all in their lives for His sake.
Calling on the Lord with an empty heart and mind can be found even in the Old Testament times. Isaiah 1:11-15 records the prophet speaking out against empty and superficial sacrifices. Amos 5:21-24 reads similarly to Isaiah 1. God has always had to deal with the problem of empty worship, so Jesus emphatically states that empty worship has no place before God’s throne in Matthew 7:21.
There is nothing wrong with open professions of faith. Matthew 10:32 encourages us to profess Jesus’ name before others. Romans 10:9-10 speaks of confessing our belief in Jesus. In Matthew 7, Jesus is not telling us to avoid calling upon Him as Lord or to avoid professing Him before others. The problem He is addressing is when we stop at that point – a verbal appeal to Him without true submission to His rule.
In the context of Matthew 7:21, these individuals do not necessarily know they are pretending. In verses 22-23, they seem surprised by God’s rejection on their worship. Neither do they seem lazy, for their activity is zealous – prophesying, casting out demons, performing wonders. Jesus does not challenge their claims, but we cannot confuse a portion of spiritual activity with true spirituality. Remember the church at Corinth. Many there could perform spiritual gifts, but Paul still condemns their hearts.
Who are these individuals in Matthew 7? For all of their proclamation, for all of the wonders they cite, they fail at a fundamental level. Jesus says they are not obedient. Matthew 15:8-9 warns against lip-service in the place of true submission. We cannot substitute tradition for God’s law, nor can we pick and choose what precepts we vigorously obey. Matthew 23:23 criticizes the Pharisees for adhering to some laws while ignoring others. Nothing can substitute for true obedience.
This is not ritualism. This is not justification by works. In Matthew 7:21, Jesus is illustrating an absolute trust and an undivided faith in God. I John 1:7-9 reminds us God will always be merciful and forgiving to those whose hearts are set on Him, those who continually seek Him, those who try to ever grow closer to Him. We cannot feel justified, however, if we are picking and choosing our way through His word. Disobedience means we do not know Him, and, if we do not know Him, He will not know us.
lesson by Tim Smelser