Last time we looked at Matthew chapter seven in a new way, but today I want to put back on our traditional lenses and consider again what we find in that same chapter.
Specifically, I want to talk about Matthew 7:21-23, which says this:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
Please tell me if I’m not being fair to the traditional perspective in what follows, but we have read these verses and say something like, “There will be many surprises in heaven – surprises about who is there and who is not there. There are many people sitting in church today who think they are saved when, in fact, they are not.” (As an aside, this was the thought process that motivated my own conversion experience at the age of eight. Take a look at my first article on Medium by clicking here.) Through traditional lenses, we see Jesus saying that some people who think they are going to heaven will actually end up in hell. In these verses, rather than seeing an admonishment to examine ourselves and consider our own motivation, we see a statement about eternity.
If that is true, if our interpretation of the many surprises awaiting us in heaven is accurate, then I want to ask the following question: Will you or I be surprised? Meaning, you and I who think we are on our way to heaven, is it possible we’re actually going to end up in hell? If there will be many surprises, why is it not true for you or me? What makes you or me so confident in our own standing before God? Why will we not be the ones surprised? The people in these verses seem genuinely puzzled, even shocked that they are being sent away. “Didn’t we perform miracles in your name?” Could that not be us?
Through traditional lenses, your response and my response might be, “Well I have faith in Jesus. My faith is in Jesus so I’m safe.” And I want to say: How do you know? Why are you so certain you have faith? Jeremiah says that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). How do you know you’re not the one deceived? Maybe your faith is dead. Maybe although you claim to have faith, it’s not the kind of faith that saves (James 2:14). Or maybe you have given all you possess to the poor and have surrendered your body to the flames, but you don’t have love, so you have nothing (1 Corinthians 13). Could that not be you? Could that not be me?
If you think about it long enough, maybe you’d end up saying: Well, Jesus died for me. I’m just trusting in God’s grace and mercy. And I would say: Exactly. All we are doing is throwing ourselves upon the grace and mercy of the Lord. Salvation is but acknowledging that we can’t do it by ourselves and trusting that in the end God is going to do the right thing, the loving thing, the just thing. We don’t really know; maybe there will be some surprises. But if God knows what it’s like to be us, if Jesus has been in our shoes, then maybe we can trust His grace and mercy enough to believe He might just even save all of us.
I don’t think we need to interpret Matthew 7:21-23 in a way that only results in fear and anxiety, or in arrogance and unfounded certainty. I think instead we find in the teaching of Jesus an admonishment not to trust in ourselves, not to have faith in our own goodness, or in our own deeds. In Jesus we find a strong reaction against those who thought they were doing everything right but were not approaching God in humility or building their lives upon the foundation that is Him.
I don’t think we need to be afraid. I don’t think we ought to be arrogant. And if we’re going to be surprised in heaven, maybe we’ll be surprised that we didn’t trust God’s grace reaches as far as it does . . . to everyone.
His grace, his mercy, his love is really good news, really.
Let’s keep moving! Matthew has more on “hell” we need to consider.