21‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

22On 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?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

It turns out it was not actually Matthew 25:31-46 I was supposed to be dealing with this week. However, having begun, I will continue with the sheep and the goats tomorrow or the next day.

Today I will take a small detour. But this temporary reprieve may not actually be such a side-track from Matthew 25:31-46 after all.

The text I was actually supposed to address this week is Matthew 7:21-23 (see above). It is a tough passage, which I will try to address at a later time. But, in defense of any interpreter who honestly attempts to take on this difficult passage, I will point out by way of introduction, that Matthew 7:21-23 comes at the end of a long series of extremely difficult texts.

What follows has a bearing on how we might hope to authentically and honestly read any difficult text in the Bible. The point of this short trip into Matthew 7 is to acknowledge that the Bible is a complex, often bewildering, book. It is dishonest to pretend that anyone has the final definitive understanding of most parts of the Bible. Any legitimate reader of Scripture will always be willing to admit, “This is only my best understanding at the time; I may be wrong.”

There are few passages of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures of which it could be said, “Here is the obvious, straightforward, simple interpretation.” Leaving aside the extraordinary complexities of translation, especially translation from an ancient language embedded in a completely alien culture for most western readers, even in the best translation the Bible remains deeply challenging in many places.

Matthew 7:21-23 occurs near the end of the discourse from Jesus popularly known as “The Sermon On The Mount” (Matthew 5-7).

“The Sermon On The Mount” records some of the most difficult and challenging sayings of Jesus in all the Gospels. Any interpreter who takes one part of this Sermon and uses it in isolation to prove a point, must in fairness be willing to give an account of how they read each of the difficult parts of “The Sermon On The Mount.” This should be required exegetical etiquette for all readings of difficult passages. If I purport to understand one of the hard parts of Scripture, I need to be willing to demonstrate how my understanding carries over and helps explain other difficult parts of the Bible.

So, before we come to any final dogmatic statement derived from “The Sermon On The Mount” we must be willing to read honestly and offer thoughtfully our understanding of each of the following statements that Jesus made in the same Sermon.

Read these verses slowly. Ponder these words. Ask yourself:

  • How do I understand these statements?
  • How would I explain these words to someone who has no familiarity with the Bible and no commitment to Christian faith?
  • How do these words fit with the fundamental nature of God which the Bible says is ‘love’  (see bottom of this post):

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (5:11)

unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:20)

if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement. (5:22)

if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council (5:22)

if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. (5:22)

everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (5:28)

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away (5:29)

if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away (5:30)

anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery (5:32)

whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (5:32)

Do not resist an evildoer (5:38)

if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also (5:39)

if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well (5:40)

if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (5:41)

Give to everyone who begs from you (5:42)

do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (5:42)

Love your enemies (5:44)

pray for those who persecute you (5:44)

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (5:48)

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth (6:19)

do not worry about tomorrow (6:26)

Do not judge (7:1)

Do not give what is holy to dogs (7:6)

do not throw your pearls before swine (7:6)

everyone who asks receives (7:8)

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (7:19)

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. (7:21)

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.”  (7:22-23)

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If there is one principle of interpretation that can stand as the general guideline for our understanding of Scripture, it is that God is love:

7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (I John 4:7-11)

Love is the baseline, the litmus test against which all interpretations of Scripture must be judged.

The deepest most authentic experience we have as human beings is our capacity to love.  Human love is not a perfect picture of the totality of who God is. God of course always transcends any human image. But human love is the best description we have of the true nature of God.

Any understanding of the Bible that appears to contradict or fall below our deep experience of the nature of love must be open to question and needs to demonstrate how it justifies going against what our hearts understand to be the true nature of love. If our reading of the Bible seems to contradict our understanding of love, it must be able to justify how it is a better and more consistent description of God than our experience of love.

6The Lord passed before Moses, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation… (Exodus 34:6,7a)

34O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.(I Chronicles 16:34)

16they and our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; 17they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9:16, 17)

5The Lord loves righteousness and justice;
   the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.(Psalm 33:5)

5Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
   your faithfulness to the clouds.(Psalm 36:5)

7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:7)

8But I am like a green olive tree
   in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
   for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)

10For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds. (Psalm 57:10)

3Because your steadfast love O God is better than life,
my lips will praise you.(Psalm 63:3)

15But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)

2I declare that your steadfast love is established for ever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.(Psalm 89:2)

64The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love… (Psalm 119:64)

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.
2 O give thanks to the God of gods,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.
3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;

4 who alone does great wonders,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
5 who by understanding made the heavens,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
6 who spread out the earth on the waters,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
7 who made the great lights,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
8 the sun to rule over the day,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;

10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
13 who divided the Red Sea in two,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
16 who led his people through the wilderness,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
17 who struck down great kings,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
18 and killed famous kings,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
22 a heritage to his servant Israel,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.

23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever;
25 who gives food to all flesh,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever.

26 O give thanks to the God of heaven,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever. (Psalm 136)

10For the mountains may depart
   and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
   and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
   says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

24I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:24)