by Al Maxey

Issue #502 ------- September 14, 2011
Salvation is attained not by subscription
to metaphysical dogmas, but solely by
love of God that fulfills itself in action.

Chasdai Crescas {1340-1412}

What Is Jesus Looking For?
A Comparative Assessment of Followers
as seen in Matt. 7:21-23 & Mark 9:38-41

A preacher who lives in Indiana wrote me the following email this past week: "Dear Brother Al, I have a question about two passages of Scripture, and I thought maybe you could tackle it in a Reflections article. This past Sunday I preached on Matthew 7:21-23, a text that suggests there will be people who actually preach, cast out demons, and even perform miracles in the name of Christ, yet Jesus will say to them on that last day, 'Away from Me. I never knew you.' After my sermon, a member of this congregation came up to me asking how I would reconcile that passage with Mark 9:38-41. I would like to say that the difference between these two is to be found in the context of these two separate teachings! In Matthew, Jesus is speaking of the final judgment; in the Mark text, Jesus is speaking of a sectarian spirit among His disciples. But, I'm not really confident this explanation truly reconciles the differences found between the two messages. Do you have any insights on this one?!"

What seems to trouble many people the most about these two passages is that in both cases we find mention made of individuals who were apparently believers, and who were engaged in good works in the name of the Lord Jesus! Yet, in one passage the Lord accepts the person, while in the other He rejects them! Why such disparate assessments of disciples who were seemingly engaged in the very same activity, and seemingly for the very same purpose? Certainly, context is always a significant factor in any effort to understand a passage. In the Matthean passage, Jesus is wrapping up His Sermon on the Mount and is informing the people once again of the types of individuals who will ultimately be admitted into God's eternal kingdom (a theme that's found throughout Matthew 5-7). In the Markan passage, however, Jesus sought to counter a growing sectarian spirit among His very closest disciples as they were being prepared by Him to share the Gospel of Grace in a world infested with an insidious intolerance and a growing isolationism among religious exclusivists! So, failing to perceive the significance of these separate contexts can indeed adversely affect one's interpretation of the two passages, and could even lead one to believe the two might be, in some ways, contradictory.

In both passages we see that Jesus is trying to get His disciples to realize that the parameters of divine acceptance and/or rejection are established by the Lord, not by man! In both cases, the perceptions of men were wrong with respect to who was and who was not "in favor" with God! In one case, some felt themselves to be so "religious" that they simply couldn't imagine being excluded from the kingdom, whereas in the other case there was a disciple who wasn't within "the favored inner circle of fellowship," and therefore was deemed by those within that circle to be excluded from the kingdom of God as well. Both these perceptions were false. It is God who determines who is "in" and who is "out," and the basis upon which that fateful determination is made is really the central teaching of both passages! One deals with our perception of ourselves, while the other deals with our perception of others. Both human perceptions are fatally flawed, thus leading those who hold them to false premises. Jesus steps into both situations, reestablishing the divine parameters of acceptance and rejection. Let's examine both passages briefly in light of this perspective.

The Matthean Text

As one reads the words of these pitiful, misguided disciples who were facing judgment in Matt. 7:22 ("Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?"), one cannot help but think of the "ego trip" of the Pharisee in our Lord's following parable: "God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get" (Luke 18:11-12). We are informed by Luke that our Lord Jesus gave this particular parable for the benefit of "some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (vs. 9). Our self-evaluations are very often quite inflated. We view ourselves as the spiritual elite, the favored of the Father, the "deserving" ones. It is unthinkable that God wouldn't want me! After all, look at all the wonderful things I do for Him!! He owes me!!

Jesus does not deny that these people of whom He speaks at the end of His Sermon on the Mount were hard workers. Nor does Jesus deny that what they were doing constituted "good deeds." From all outward appearances these people were the ideal disciples! But, that was the problem -- it was all "outward appearance." Inside, where our Lord was searching, there was nothing commendable! "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matt. 23:25). "You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness" (Matt. 23:27-28). Yes, they were putting on a fabulous religious show for those about them ... in fact, it was so good a display that they even fooled themselves! What they failed to realize, however, is that God is not as interested in what we do, as He is in who we are!! "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). It's not so much what we do, as why we do it. "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I'm nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2). "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name?" Yes, you did; but where was your love for Me?! This was the indictment against the church in Ephesus in Rev. 2 -- "I know your deeds, your hard work ... you have persevered and have endured hardships for My name ... Yet, you have forsaken your first love" (verses 2-4). Jesus calls them a "fallen" church, and says that unless they repent their lampstand will be removed (vs. 5). "But, Lord, Lord, didn't we _____ in Your name?" [For a further study of the Lord's assessment of the disciples in Ephesus at the end of the first century see: Reflections #69 -- A Lordly Lampectomy]

R.C.H. Lenski, commenting upon the tragic plea of "Lord, Lord" by those mentioned in Matthew 7, wrote, "Mere prodigality in the use of such an address is not a ticket of admission" [The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 305]. Some even today seemingly think that a mere profession of being one of "the favored few of the Father" is sufficient to assure eternal acceptance. This is especially true when such a profession is supplemented with preciseness of practice of perceived precepts and patterns. "Lord, Lord, did we not sing without instruments? Did we not forbid eating in the building? Did we not drink from only one cup?" To which, sadly, our Lord may well respond, "Who are you people?! I never knew you!!" Dr. Paul Kretzmann correctly observes, "A mouth-Christianity can never be a valid substitute for heart-Christianity" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 40]. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) declared that when Christ Jesus told these people, "I never knew you," this was just another way of really saying, "You never knew Me!" Jesus knew the hearts and minds of these religionists, but, sadly, they had no clue as to the heart and mind of the Savior. They knew religion, but they had yet to learn relationship, and it is the latter the Father seeks from His children. They knew law, but not love; they possessed facts, but not faith! John Wesley (1703-1791) observed that writing good books and preaching excellent sermons "is no proof that a man has saving faith" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, via e-Sword].

Yet another truth we learn from this passage is that the Lord may well bless the efforts of those whose hearts are far from Him. In other words, souls may be won to a relationship with Jesus by those who have yet to move past the confines of a mere religion. "This verse teaches that spiritual results can be effected by unspiritual men" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 285]. Jesus does not dispute their claim to be casting out demons and working miracles. His concern was that they had no heart-connection with Him. They were going through the "religious motions," but it profited them nothing! Paul spoke of those who gave all their possessions to feed the poor, but did so without love (1 Cor. 13:3). Were the hungry benefited by these actions? Yes, they were! Good was done! But, "it profits ME nothing" if my heart is wrong. This can also be true of those who preach and teach -- the hearts of those who are lost may be touched by those preachers and teachers whose own hearts remained untouched ... or worse!! Paul spoke of those who preached Christ "out of love ... from pure motives ... from good will," but he also spoke of some who preached Christ "out of selfish ambition ... from envy and strife" (Philp. 1:15-17). Nevertheless, he said he rejoiced "that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached" (vs. 18). In other words, the lost may be reached, even though the ones reaching them are themselves lost! Paul understood this danger, as he wrote, "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27). Dr. Adam Clarke observed that in the Matthew 7 passage it is as though our Savior was saying, "You held the Truth in unrighteousness, while you preached My pure and holy doctrine; yet for the sake of My own Truth and because of My love for the souls of men, I blessed your preaching; but you yourselves I could never esteem, for you were destitute of the spirit of My Gospel, unholy in your hearts, and unrighteous in your conduct" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 98]. "The gift of prophecy (i.e., preaching) is worth nothing without the grace of love. There have been several great preachers gifted with the mighty power of spiritual eloquence who yet knew not the Lord themselves; whose own hearts were cold, while they kindled love in the hearts of others" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 292].

One final, critical point really ought to be made with regard to this Matthean judgment passage --- "It may be observed that these men laid the whole stress of their salvation upon what they had done in Christ's name, and not on Christ Himself; they said not a syllable of what Christ had done and suffered, but only of what they had done" [Dr. John Gill (1690-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible, via e-Sword]. Frankly, brethren, I fear this will be the fate of many on the day of judgment. Too many have lived their lives completely focused on seeking to merit/earn their salvation by what they have done in service to God, and how precisely they have sought to keep commandments. "But, Lord, Lord, did we not DO _____ in Your name?" How tragic that these people will learn too late that it's not about what we can do for Him that ultimately matters, but rather what HE has already done for each of us!! Salvation is a GIFT, it is not WAGES due. It is for those whose hearts are filled with faith and love, not for those who sought to keep forms and laws. The ones who cried out at the judgment and pointed to their works, should instead have done what the publican did in our Lord's parable: "Standing some distance away, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven, he was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful (i.e., propitious) to me, the sinner!'"

The Markan Text

In Mark 9:38-41 (the parallel passage is Luke 9:49-50) we find the apostle John relating an incident to the Lord Jesus. The apostles had apparently come across someone who was "casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us" (vs. 38). In other words, this disciple was not in their group, and thus, even though he was successfully casting out demons in the name of Jesus, they sought to hinder his work for the Lord because he wasn't "one of them." Is it possible this other disciple's heart wasn't devoted to the Lord? Is it possible that he was similar spiritually to the type of people our Lord spoke about in Matthew 7? Yes, that is certainly possible, although the text nowhere suggests this. That is a determination our Lord will have to make, for only HE can judge the inner recesses of a person's heart. From the perspective of the apostles, however, there was nothing whatsoever to indicate this other disciple was in any way other than what he seemed to be: i.e., a servant of the Lord Jesus. Therefore, the only reason John and the others sought to hinder him in his work is that he wasn't in their own group -- he wasn't "one of them!" I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say of another disciple of Christ, "Oh, that man/woman isn't ONE OF US." By this, of course, they simply mean, "He or she isn't Church of Christ." They are not part of "the one true church," so naturally we can't have anything to do with them. In fact, we often perceive our mission in life to consist of HINDERING him or her in their work for the Lord (even though their work might be more successful than our own ... remember: some of the Lord's closest disciples, which probably included some of the apostles, were not able to cast out demons on one occasion -- Matt. 17:14f; Mark 9:17f; Luke 9:37f -- whereas this disciple was able to do so).

Within this passage, however, Jesus does not rebuke the unknown disciple who was not "of the group" that traveled with them; rather, Jesus rebuked John!! In this passage it was not the heart of the other disciple that was at fault, it was the heart of John. The noted Greek scholar, Dr. Kenneth Wuest, declared that what John and the others (remember, John said "we" sought to hinder him) should have done was "welcome him as a brother" [Word Studies from the Greek NT, vol. 1, p. 189]. "The words, 'He does not follow with us,' are a frank confession of jealousy" [ibid]!! "In intolerance and legalistic conduct there is often a good amount of presumption and jealousy. We have no right to expect all to serve the Lord in the same way, since gifts and ability are diversified. If others cannot bring the services and sacrifices for Christ which we think proper, we have no right to question the sincerity of their Christianity" [Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 217]. "Here's a warning against that exclusive spirit, which is eager for its own ends rather than for Christ's glory, and which would limit the exercise of His gifts and graces to its own system or school" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16, pt. 2, p. 8]!! "Many, in every single period of church history, have spent their lives in copying John's mistake. They've labored to stop every person who will not work for Jesus in their way from working for Jesus at all" [C.E.W. Dorris, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, p. 221].

"It is clear, from this passage, that the influence of our Lord Jesus was far wider than was known by His own immediate friends, and that His work was, even during His lifetime, advancing in directions of which they were not aware. ... In the view of a bigot, one who does not work in his own way is censured and condemned as unfit to work for God at all. The Lord Jesus proved His superiority to human infirmity by permitting and by encouraging various types of service which His followers would have forbidden" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16, pt. 2, p. 15-16]. We far too frequently want to exclude other disciples based upon our own personal or party preferences, perceptions or practices. If you're not "one of us," then ipso facto you are not "one of His." This is nothing but godless sectarianism!! The Family of our Father is much vaster than the number of factionists found in any one schism of any one movement with Christendom. The One Body universal is made up of all disciples everywhere who are simply in relationship with the Father through faith in the Son. If the Holy Spirit has plunged you into an intimate relationship with the Lord (1 Cor. 12:13 -- see: Reflections #353), then you are saved ... and you are my brother/sister!! Wherever saints are serving others lovingly in the name of our Savior, we find "the church" in action --- whether they are part of your own particular heritage or not!! We need to "get over ourselves" and start realizing what the true basis of our unity and oneness and harmony really is --- it is not a pattern, it is a Person; it is not law, it is love. The type of love that manifests itself in a cup of water given in the spirit of Jesus to those thirsting; a loaf of bread given to those who are hungry; a warm embrace to those who are lonely (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). In both the Matthean and Markan passages, Jesus sought to shift our focus off of ourselves and our religious rigidity, and place it back where it rightfully belongs: on a relationship with HIM, and with all others who are IN HIM. May God help us to refocus, and then to forge forward in faith as One Body in Christ Jesus!!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, Remember me?! I am the "Epiphany Guy" (Reflections #490 -- Life-Transforming Epiphanies: Reflecting on a List of 52 Insights Compiled by a Former Non-Institutional CofC Disciple). I just read your latest Reflections -- "Can We OBEY the Gospel?" -- and it reminded me of a lesson I presented in March of 2010. Someone at our congregation had asked about the meaning of the verses that say, "Obey the Gospel." So, I did a study of them and presented it the following week. Attached is my brief outline for your perusal. I always enjoy your Reflections. Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Bro. Al, Thank you so much for this most excellent essay ("Can We OBEY the Gospel?"). In the past, I, like so many others of the Stone-Campbell heritage, have been guilty of abusing these three passages in the very manner you have described. By providing the proper translation of the two Greek words used in these verses (as you've done in your article), it becomes abundantly clear what the real message is that's being conveyed to us by our Creator. All I can say is -- Shame, shame on us!! Although I feel that perhaps for most of us (as was the case with me) this was the result of ignorance on our part, surely it must still grieve our Father to see His children being so reckless with His Word. I believe that such (mis)treatment of these passages (as has been done by far too many within our heritage in the past) detracts greatly from the grace, mercy, and free gift of God, and makes of His Gospel just another legal system. Keep up the good work of exposing this, brother!

From a Reader in Arizona:

Brother Al, I've just read your Reflections on those who do not "obey" the Gospel. Again, you have made a careful examination, and have made a clear distinction, that corrects a long-held misunderstanding. Thank you for studying and writing on this!! The beauty of Jesus has been obscured too long in all the churches. By the way, I'm looking forward to meeting you, because not only have I seen in your Reflections a care to be impartial in setting out the ideas of the inspired words of the biblical text, but your teachings also reflect a sincere love of others (the greatest gift we can give one another). I imagine the flock where you serve as a minister and shepherd feels very loved!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, In my opinion, your article today -- "Can We OBEY the Gospel?" -- is one of your very best Reflections!!

From a Reader in Australia:

Brother Al, I think it's very interesting that the Dutch language NT uses "listen to," and not "obey," in Romans 10:16 ... "Maar niet iedereen heeft geluisterd naar het goede nieuws van God." Perhaps those fluent in other languages could weigh in here!!

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, Thank you very much for this Reflections. Keep preaching Truth, brother. You have our prayers and support!

From an Elder/Physician in South Carolina:

Brother Al, Thanks for provoking good thought and permitting feedback that strengthens us all.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Dear Brother Al, Today's Reflections is SO TRUE!! I'm afraid, as you have noted, that those of us within the Stone-Campbell faith-heritage have devised our own language and "code-speak." The phrase "Obey the Gospel" focuses on just one specific act -- baptism -- as the final, and only, true measure of obedience. I have heard too many preachers try to sew together this phrase and others to prove a preconceived notion that "Obeying the Gospel" really means "obeying the command to be baptized," and they completely miss what both Paul and Peter were really saying! Thank you, brother, for such crystal clear insight into what this phrase really means!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Dear Brother Al, Right on; write on! Your thoughtful analysis (in your article "Can We OBEY the Gospel?") illustrates yet another example of three perfectly good passages of Scripture being hijacked for sectarian purposes! It seems to me that Jesus had something to say about those who substituted the traditions of mere men for the precepts of God.

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I LOVED this Reflections ("Can We OBEY the Gospel?"). Al, your Reflections inspire me to examine my walk with Christ and my study of His Word. Today's article really spoke to me in a very special way. Thank you for helping me in my efforts to better serve our Master.

From an Elder in Massachusetts:

Brother Al, Such an inspiring article ("Can We OBEY the Gospel?"), and greatly appreciated, as are all of your writings! You certainly stepped on a "sacred cow" within the Churches of Christ with this one!! I can already hear the attacks coming your way. God's "good news" should always be a joy to hear and believe, and never a burden to endure and fear. Thank you, Al, for your boldness, and for your commitment to continue opening the eyes of those of us blinded by our traditions (truly a modern day miracle). Also, thanks to all those who respond to your Reflections, as I always enjoy reading their comments, and I gain encouragement from many of them.

From an Author in California:

Dear Bro. Maxey, The typical viewpoint we have had of "obeying the Gospel" is what Timothy Keller would call "religious currency." Religious currency is what religions say one "has to do in order to connect to God." It is what one must do "in order to earn one's way to God." This is not what Christianity is about! God has sought us, and the 'good news" is that Jesus lived and died to "earn" the way unto God for us!! That is "good news" to which we respond BY FAITH and with joy, not out of any legal obligation.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, WOW!! I was just in a discussion with somebody last night about this very topic (obeying the Gospel). You are always surprisingly on time!! Hmmm. I wonder what Shelly would have to say about that!! (LOL) Have a blessed week, my friend.

From a Minister in Kansas:

Dear Brother Al, As I was reading your article on "obeying" the Gospel (GREAT piece, by the way), it occurred to me just how many times we, who have come to Christ within the Church of Christ fellowship, have been duped!! Al, I have literally lost count of the number of times that I've come to realize that the theology, the terminology, the doctrines, and the practices I had been taught over the years are just flat, outright WRONG!! I no longer use any materials produced by Churches of Christ, for I have found error after error in them. I am now appalled at the error I have taught over the years! The phrase "obey the Gospel" is a case in point -- I have misused and misapplied this phrase for years!! Al, how do you keep on keeping on, knowing that the group we represent (Churches of Christ) is so full of holes?! Signed -- Your friend, and a disgruntled minister of the Church of Christ sect.

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