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Matthew 7:21-23 “Conclusion, Part 3: Two Claims”

Not everyone saying to Me ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the one doing the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day: ‘Lord, Lord! Did we not in Your name prophesy, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name do many miracles?’ And then I will assure them: ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me, workers of lawlessness.’

That this third paragraph continues to develop Jesus’ conclusion is evident by His choice of words. First, He repeats the same verb “enter” (εἰσέρχομαι) used in His urgent command to enter the narrow gate (v. 13). Also, the “many” are cast in the same negative and unbelieving light as those many who find and follow the broad path leading from the wide gate (v. 13). In addition, we might notice that Jesus zeros in on what these many say, much as He did when identifying good fruit from useful trees (vv. 15-20). Not only this, but the fact that the first “evidence” that the many provide in their defense is their prophecies certainly reminds us of the false prophets only just mentioned (v. 15). Finally, we might add that Jesus’ emphasis on eschatological judgment (in that day) indicates that this conclusion is coming to a close.[1] It is now time to state that right doctrine, while necessary, is not in and of itself sufficient to save. To the contrary doctrine of the false prophets is now added the inconsistent living that betrays unbelief. With every step Jesus grows in specificity and earnestness.

Correctly identifying who Jesus is, while necessary, is insufficient to gain entry into the kingdom. One must know Him and be known by Him to enter the kingdom. This warning differs slightly from the previous two in that here the comparison is between the false claim of Jesus’ enemies and the true claim which He makes. Jesus first warns of the difference between friend and foe and then proceeds to explain the dynamic difference between the claim of the foe and His claim as divine judge.

Warning: Separating Friend from Foe (v. 21)

Jesus presents these two perfectly balanced statements as a warning to distinguish kingdom citizens from attempted kingdom infiltrators. Following the Greek word order, this balance can be illustrated like so:

By illustrating the arrangement of the verse in this way, several things become clear. First, two groups are in view: those who say (ὁ λέγων) and those who do (ὁ ποιῶν). It is not correct to think that those who say “Lord, Lord!” do something wrong, but simply that this statement is not sufficient to allow one into the kingdom. Likewise, doing the Father’s will is not a works-based salvation but a proof that one belongs to Him. Kingdom citizens do more than offer lip service. They do the will of the king. Second, these are not separate groups entirely, but the second is a subset of the first.[2] Jesus does not say that those who say are barred entry to the kingdom but that not all those who say will enter. The implication is that some of those who say “Lord, Lord!” will be allowed into the kingdom. Out of those saying “Lord, Lord!” it is those who do the Father’s will that are allowed in. Finally, by His arrangement Jesus deftly places Himself in line with the Father. Just as Jesus is the one addressed by those who say, the Father is the one obeyed by those who do. All these observations and more will aid our examination of the text below. In the simplest of terms, Jesus warns His audience that saving faith is revealed by obedience rather than knowledge.

Accurate Knowledge is Insufficient (v. 21a)

Not everyone saying to Me ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven.

This statement has a certain shock factor to it. If false prophets are identified by their errant doctrine, then certainly everyone who has accurate doctrine is to be considered a true prophet, right? Wrong! Everyone addressing Jesus as “Lord, Lord!” expresses a high and accurate Christology. And yet, this expression is lacking in and of itself.

There is much discussion regarding what is meant by the double address Lord, Lord (κύριε κύριε), usually resulting in a two-fold general consensus: (1) Κυρίος (lord) indicates authority and even divinity and (2) the doubling indicates a sense of urgency and emphasis. If this were true, we might expect there to be many examples of this construction in the New Testament. Alas, outside of this paragraph, there are only two such occurrences of this double “lord” (Matt. 25:11; Lk. 6:46). Of the three passages in view, none record actual persons addressing Jesus as such because all three examples are found in larger bodies of Jesus’ own teaching. Put simply, if the double construction “lord, lord” is an emphatic and urgent declaration of Jesus’ authority and divinity, no one in the New Testament is recorded as using it.

While relatively rare in the New Testament, this construction is found with regularity in the LXX of the Old Testament. There are 15 occurrences of the double “lord, lord” in the vocative case (κύριε κύριε) found in the LXX[3] perfectly matching what we see here.[4] But if we expand our search parameters to include any case (nominative: κυριός κυριός – 56x[5], dative: κυρίῳ κυρίῳ – 0x, genitive: κυρίου κυρίου – 1x[6], and accusative: κύριον κύριον – 0x) we find that a total of 72 similar constructions in the Old Testament. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the LXX consistently translates the Hebrew אֲדֹנָי יְהוָה (Lord Yhwh) with the doubling of κυριός. It would seem that the address “lord, lord” is postexilic shorthand for the supreme title “Lord Yhwh”. This is a very precise statement on the part of those who make it, for they recognize that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the Lord Yhwh incarnate and address Him as such. Yet, this precise and accurate form of address is not sufficient by itself to allow one to enter the kingdom. To put it more simply, accurately identifying Jesus as Yhwh and calling Him “Lord” is not proof of kingdom citizenship. Everyone allowed into the kingdom will certainly recognize Jesus as Yhwh and acknowledge Him as Lord. But there will be those who offer this same claim and title who are rejected. In other words, there is something else that proves one’s citizenship.

Obedience in Faith is Necessary (v. 21b)

But the one doing the will of My Father who is in heaven.

Of all those allowed entry into the kingdom, it is the one who does the Father’s will that is ushered in. This makes so much sense given both the near and the larger context. By examining the near context of Jesus’ conclusion, we understand that it is the Father’s will that one enters through the narrow gate and travels the pressed path (v. 14). It is the Father’s will that one bears good fruit and thus avoid being cut down and burned (v. 19). The broader context of the sermon reveals that this will of the Father has been defined (5:21-48), prescribed (6:1-18), and described (6:19-7:12) in great detail. In fact, it is at this point that we should note that Jesus, for the first time in this gospel, refers to the Father as My Father. Jesus has referred to God as “Father” no less than 17x (5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26, 32; 7:11, 21) but always in relation to His audience (“your Father” or “our Father”). Here, He expressly identifies God as His Father. Not only does this imply that Jesus’ sermon is identified as the Father’s will[7] (thus making obedience to Jesus synonymous to doing the Father’s will) but this also demands that Jesus presents Himself as the authoritative revealer of the Father’s will.[8] As the one who fulfills (5:17) and explains (7:12) the Law and the Prophets, Jesus unambiguously presents this sermon as the standard of kingdom entry. It is not enough to recognize the messenger if one ignores the message.

Explanation: Discerning and Judging Foes (vv. 22-23)

The shocking statement just made is now explained by our Lord as He returns to the language of the “many” who are barred from entering the kingdom. These are the same “many” who entered the wide gate and traveled the broad road (v. 13) and include the false prophets as well as all who followed them, ignoring the Savior’s warning (v. 15). If Jesus’ audience were not already shocked by the news that not all who recognize Him as Lord Yhwh will enter, then this explanation will certainly cause a jolt. This explanation first presents the appeal of those rejected (v. 22) followed immediately by the judge’s reply (v. 23).

The Foes’ Appeal (v. 22)

The scene is clearly that of the final judgment. The phrase “in that day” (ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ) is frequently employed by the prophets to speak of Messiah’s day in general and, more specifically, of the day of judgment (Hos. 2:16, 18, 21; Amos 2:16; 8:3, 9; Mic. 5:10; Obad. 8; Zeph. 1:9, 10, 12; Zech. 12:8; 14:6; Jer. 4:9; Ezek. 24:27; 45:22).[9] This appeal comes from those who have been prevented from entering into the kingdom.[10] Their appeal to the gatekeeper is two-fold whereby they first attempt to impress Him with their knowledge and then present what appears to be an impressive résumé of deeds performed.

Impressive Knowledge (v. 22a)

Many will say to Me in that day: ‘Lord, Lord!

We have already made the connection back to the “many” of v. 13, noted the significance of the final day of judgment, and articulated the significance of the double address “Lord, Lord”. In addition to these, there are at least two more observations to be made. First, Jesus plainly states that He will be the one these many will address. The scene of judgment combined with the kingdom draws our minds back to Dan. 7:9-14 where the Ancient of Days sets up His court, judges the beasts, and hands the One like a Son of Man dominion, glory, and a kingdom. This kingdom is inhabited by and also belongs to all the saints (v. 18). Jesus, as the Son of Man, knows who His saints are and thus bars all imposters from His kingdom.

Second, by addressing Jesus in the Septuagintal fashion “Lord, Lord”, these applicants are making a precise and accurate statement regarding who the Son of Man is. They know exactly whom they address. It is not simply because this is the final judgment that they now recognize Jesus as Lord Yhwh, but they seem to have known this during their lifetime on earth as well. To put it in terms of our era, these many claimed to be and presented themselves as Christians during their lives. These “many” do not include those who lived in ignorance of Jesus nor those who blatantly rejected Jesus but are those who have fooled themselves and others around them by falsely claiming Christ. In an attempt to validate this claim, they proceed to offer their performance as evidence.

Impressive Works (v. 22b)

Did we not in Your name prophesy, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name do many miracles?

The rhetorical question is asked in a way that prompts Jesus to answer in the affirmative.[11] It is as if they are coaching Jesus into the correct answer by jogging His memory and hopefully causing Him to reverse His decision. They refer to their work of prophecy, demon exorcism, and miraculous works. To each of these they claim that the works were conducted in Your name (τῷ σῷ ὀνόματι). This is an important distinction and a key component in their legal case. The dative adjective σῷ (from σός) is more emphatic than the pronoun σοί (from σύ)[12] stressing the connection between their actions and Jesus. They claim that they did all these wonderful deeds as Jesus’ representatives. When they uttered prophecies, they claimed they uttered Jesus’ words. When they cast out demons, they claimed Jesus’ authority. When they performed marvelous demonstrations of might, they claimed Jesus’ power.

The logic of their defense is a very simple three-point syllogism. (1) They claim to have performed works that are beyond the scope or ability of any mortal. In and of themselves, men cannot prophecy. It matters very little whether we regard this prophecy as foretelling (predicting the future) or forthtelling (speaking forth an announcement from God) or as a combination thereof. Prophecy, by definition, requires divine inspiration and thus cannot be credited as a human achievement. Likewise, demons do not obey men, nor are men able to alter the laws of physics. These deeds are beyond the ability of any mortal man. (2) They claim that these deeds were done in association with Jesus. They claim that as Jesus’ representatives, clearly it was Jesus who enabled and empowered them to prophesy, cast out demons, and work miracles. Therefore (3) they clearly belong to Him and should be allowed admittance into the kingdom as His saints.

On the face of it, this seems like an iron-clad defense. After all, these “many” clearly know whom they address, and they have lived performing marvelous and seemingly inexplicable wonders while bearing the name of Jesus. After such a closing argument, it is difficult to see how any judge could convict them. And yet, this is exactly what the Judge does.

The Judge’s Response (v. 23)

That Jesus rejects their appeal is obvious. The real question is why He rejects them. There must be some part of their syllogism that breaks down. Some have argued that they were incorrect from the very start, that is, that these acts never occurred. Their prophecies were a shame, their demon exorcisms fabricated, and their miracles counterfeited. After all, we certainly have many modern-day examples of such charlatans. Yet, this is not the part of their syllogism that Jesus latches on to.

Appeal Rejected (v. 23a)

And then I will assure them: ‘I never knew you.’

Jesus’ choice of words requires a bit of explanation. He does not merely say “then I will say to them…” but “I will assure/promise/confess to them…” The verb ὁμολογέω is not widely used in the New Testament, but with 26 occurrences it is common enough for us to be familiar with. The most common translation of ὁμολογέω is confess (to admit truth, to agree with, to share a common view). Thus, when Paul says that one must confess (ὁμολογήςῃς) Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9), he means that one must admit and agree that Jesus is in fact Lord (i.e., that He is Yhwh, the supreme sovereign of the universe and all within it). Jesus is not simply telling these “many” something, He is assuring them of the truth. He confesses and admits freely before them “I never knew you.” This is not a confession of a lack of omniscience but an affirmation of a lack of election. These “many” are unregenerate pretenders who have never been given a heart to believe and thus have never been able to do (much less actually perform) the Father’s will.

We should note that Jesus never argues the point of their works as reality. It is not inconceivable that they did all of these things, for even Judas presumably went through the land healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers and casting out demons (Matt. 10:1-8). We know that the antichrist’s prophet will come with horns like a lamb and perform many wonders (Rev. 13:11-13). Jesus will later warn that false prophets will come and perform great signs and wonders that, if possible, would convince even the elect (Matt. 24:24). Nothing in this text leads us to doubt the reality of their deeds. It is not the first step of their syllogism that Jesus rejects, but the second.

It is the claim that these works are in some way connected with Jesus that is false. The Greek of Jesus’ statement contains only three words, all of which are emphatic and weighty. “Never” (οὐδέποτε) translates a temporal adverb that cannot be rendered in any other way. “Never” means “never”. The aorist ἐγνων (from γινώσκω) is timeless and thus emphasizes the action rather than a starting or stopping point of the action. The plural ὑμᾶς points directly to the “many” as they make their appeal. Jesus confesses: Never, at any time, did I ever know you. You may have prophesied, but you did not speak for Me. You may have cast out demons, but you did not carry My authority. You may have performed mighty deeds, but it was not My power that enabled you. I never knew you. This reality leads one to wonder, if Jesus did not enable them to work such wonders, who did? These are not kingdom citizens. These are enemy agents. As such, Jesus expels them from His presence.

Enemies Expelled (v. 23b)

Depart from Me, workers of lawlessness.

With such a résumé it is likely that these “many” never considered themselves as workers of lawlessness (ἀνομίαν). These are not professional criminals, gangsters, or hoodlums but apparently upright and religious men who have awed all around them with their piety and power. We should consider how Jesus has used the term law (νόμος) in this sermon to understand what He now means by lawless (ἀνομία). Jesus claimed to be the personification of the Law (ὁ νόμος) and the Prophets (5:17). His teaching is not only consistent with, but is a perfect summary and application of the Law (ὁ νόμος) and the Prophets (7:12). Therefore, to obey Jesus’ teaching (i.e., all that is found within this sermon) is to obey the law, that is, the Law of God. To disregard this law is to be a worker of lawlessness, a law breaker and thus a practical rejector of Jesus as Lord and one who refuses to do the will of Jesus’ Father who is in heaven. They know exactly who Jesus is but chose the wide gate. Their miraculous deeds are evil fruit. They may know who Jesus is, but they are not known by Him because they do not belong to Him.

Jesus has uncovered these false disciples and thus drives them away with a word. Yet, it is interesting that the word He chose comes from Ps. 6:8. In Psalm 6 David, Yhwh’s anointed, prays as a righteous sufferer at the hands of the wicked but is vindicated by Yhwh who both saves David and routs his enemies. By using David’s words, Jesus specifically identifies both Himself and those to whom He addresses. By placing His voice in David’s words, Jesus unambiguously presents Himself as the righteous suffering Messianic king. Regarding those whom He expels, Jesus identifies them as those who attack and antagonize Him. These “many” are not friends but are the king’s foes! They are on the side of those who seek to kill Him. Useless trees destined for the fire indeed!

For all their speech and performances, these “many” are the king’s enemies. They’ve accurately identified the messenger and yet rejected His message. They may know and proclaim Jesus as God’s Christ and amaze people with their words and works, yet they fail to submit to Jesus and obey Him. It matters very little what one knows about Jesus or what one does for Jesus if one does not trust in and follow Jesus alone.

[1] Hendriksen, p. 374.

[2] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 332.

[3] Deut. 3:24; 9:26; Judg. 6:22; 16:28; 1 Kings 8:53; 1 Chr. 17:24; Ps. 69:6; 109:21; 130:3; 140:7; 141:8; Amos 7:2, 5; Jer. 51:62; Ezek. 20:49

[4] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 330-2.

[5] Amos 5:3; 9:5; Jer. 44:26; Ezek. 12:10; 13:20; 14:6; 20:39, 40, 47; 21:7; 21:13; 22:3, 31; 23:28, 46; 26:15, 19, 21; 28:12, 25; 29:19, 20 ; 30:10, 13, 22; 31:15, 18; 32:8, 16, 31, 32; 33:25; 34:2, 8, 10, 15, 17, 20, 31; 35:3, 6; 36:2, 3, 5, 13, 14, 15, 32; 37:21; 38:3, 10, 17, 18; 39:8, 25, 29

[6] Ps. 68:20

[7] Lenski, p. 340.

[8] D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 229.

[9] Broadus, p. 168.

[10] Nolland, p. 340.

[11] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 336.

[12] Lenski, p. 306.


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