“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father 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 deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
Matthew 7:21-23 (NRSV)
At this point in the Sermon on the Mount, these themes should be old hat to the listeners and certainly to readers of Matthew.
The kingdom of God is something that was established in Israel and dispersed in exile due to infidelity. Jesus is here to reclaim the lost of Israel and rescue them from what their sins have brought about. This kingdom is what God will bring safely through opposition and into an age of peace (shabbat – rest) by not only renewing the people but by displacing their oppressors. This event is imminent.
When this event comes, the people of the region will be in one of two groups. One group is a very large group consisting of people who just went about life as normal. They did not listen to Jesus or obey his instructions. The other group is a very small group who believed Jesus who repented, returned to faithfulness, and trusted God for deliverance. They did what Jesus asked. The first group is destined to fall in the judgement against Israel’s oppressors; the second group will be brought through that traumatic time safely. Obviously, you want to be in the second group.
As has come up many times in the Sermon, Jesus points out that many in the first group outwardly appear to belong to the second group. They say the right things. They exercise authority in the name of the Lord. The one thing they don’t do, however, is pursue faithful obedience.
There are two sides to this coin. On the one side is a point that has been made many times during the Sermon – that the pursuit of the faithfulness Israel was always supposed to have is a hallmark of belonging to Israel’s restoration in Jesus. At this point in history, God’s people are plagued with authorities who do not practice justice, mercy, and peace, but at the same time claim an outward form of holiness due to their keeping of traditions and the Law in its religious specifications. They strain out gnats but swallow camels. They won’t eat pork, but they will charge a fee for making the sacrifices at the Temple the Law requires. They will not associate with an Israelite struggling in their sin to assist them, but they will buddy buddy with any Roman in power.
The other side of the coin is that there is a very direct relationship between believing Jesus, following his instructions, and surviving the upcoming days of trouble. Jesus does not just lay out a moral program for his followers; he tells them what needs to happen to make it through the dark days ahead, sometimes in general principle, other times in weirdly specific terms.
“So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.”
Matthew 24:15-18 (NRSV)
If you believe Jesus and do what he says, you’ll survive. If you don’t believe Jesus and hang out in Judea no matter what is happening with Jerusalem or the Temple, then you’ll be destroyed.
This is an important interpretive piece of Jesus’ teaching that is easy to overlook in our modern day. For Jesus followers to believe and obey him is not merely following a moral way of life that God will reward, although that is certainly an important part of it. It is also quite literally the difference between life and death. Jesus is telling his listeners how to make it through the coming days. Those who have faith will obey him and live; those who scoff or ignore will not obey him and be destroyed.
And when that day comes, what will that first group of people possibly say that will save them? What works could they possibly dredge up that will save them on that day? Nothing, because ultimately they did not obey Jesus’ commands, which means they did not believe.
The dangerous, self-deceiving piece of all this is that Jesus’ hypothetical people in the Sermon profess that he, Jesus, is Lord. They point to rather outstanding spiritual events such as casting out demons and prophesying in his name.
But Jesus knows Israel’s history is littered with people like this – false prophets and miracle workers who declare allegiance to the Lord with their mouths and lead His people to destruction. He has literally just talked about this. The iron core of kingdom membership is not what you claim or what amazing spiritual works you can perform, but something much humbler – believing Jesus, believing what God is doing in Jesus, trusting God, and obeying faithfully out of that trust.
The person who believes Jesus and what God is doing in Jesus will do as Jesus says, knowing that Jesus proclaims nothing of his own, but only the will of his Father. This is the spiritual engine that drives the faithful. This trust in God and His deliverance that leads to listening to and obeying God’s will has been the core of faithful Israel since the beginning. While the particular applications of this core may look different from age to age depending on what’s going on with the people of God at the time and what God is doing, the core has always been that, from Genesis 1. If you would be the kingdom of God, believe Him, trust Him, and do His will.
Given the radical universality of this factor, it behooves us to think about this, not just in our individual lives, but collectively as the people of God. We are not free from people who profess Jesus as Lord and perform ostensibly impressive spiritual deeds or religious acts. But do they trust God and do His will? Do they believe what God has done in Jesus? Does this translate into humble, faithful obedience?
If they do not, then we have every reason to believe such people will not lead us through our own times of crisis as the people of God, but rather will shipwreck us on the rocks of history. They, too, will prophesy peace and safety when there is none, and they will prophesy calamity and disaster when there is none. They will direct our attention to papercuts when a sword hangs over our head. They, too, will claim followers for themselves that will build up their image, ego, and rewards. Those people have always been numbered with the unfaithful – regardless of what they claim.
God does raise up people to carry the faithful safely through times of calamity. Make sure you’re looking for the right things.
- What are the crises that face the people of God in the world, today? How have different voices responded to those crises? What have the sources of those voices been like in terms of humble obedience to the Lord?
- How do you define faithfulness to God? Where did you get that definition? How would you apply it to yourself and others?