A Warning of Danger Ahead

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Good evening. Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you for giving us your Son. And as we listen to his words this evening, give us hearts and minds that are humble, receptive and teachable. Help us by your Holy Spirit to listen to him, to learn from him, and to put what we learn into practice in our lives. In his name we pray. Amen.

If we believe (as we should) that Jesus is God’s Son, then we should be paying the closest attention to everything that he says, and that can be tough. Why? Because sometimes Jesus says things that on the face of it seems downright frightening. Our Bible passage this evening is a case in point. It’s Matthew 7.21-23, and I’ve called this ‘A Warning of Danger Ahead’.

We’re in the final stages of our series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And this last part, in Matthew 7 from Matthew 7.15 to the end of the sermon in Matthew 7.27, really focuses on different responses that people have to the words of Jesus, and therefore to all that he’s been teaching up to this point.
Matt took us through Matthew 7.15-20 last Sunday, and they are a warning about false prophets. That is, those who don’t listen to Jesus, but nonetheless take it on themselves to speak in his name. Such people are dangerous, says Jesus. Watch out for them, and don’t listen to them.

Next week we’ll come to the parable about building on rock or sand. That’s about whether we will really listen to Jesus, and therefore do what he says. It’s no good if the words of Jesus go in one ear and out the other. They have to go in and stay in, living inside us, changing us. Don’t be like the fool who doesn’t really listen to me, says Jesus. Do what I say.

Our passage for this evening is sandwiched in between those two: Matthew 7.21-23. If you’ve got a Bible to hand, have that open in front of you. And it contains a warning that ties these last three parts of the sermon together. The warning’s there in Matthew 7.21. Jesus says:

Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

When Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of heaven, it’s clear that he’s referring to what will happen on the Day of Judgement, the Day of Resurrection. As the Nicene Creed says, summing up the Bible’s teaching:

[The Lord Jesus Christ] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

That reality should never be far from our minds. It should shape our thinking, speaking and living. So take a look at what the Lord Jesus does after giving us that warning in Matthew 7.21. Quite astonishingly, he opens a window for us onto that future day.

The other day I saw the trailer for the new Christopher Nolan thriller Tenet that’s coming into our Covid-secure cinemas – a brief glimpse of a drama to be seen in full in the future. And very dramatic it is. But not real, of course. What Jesus gives us in Matthew 7.22-23 is a brief glimpse of a drama to be seen in full in the future, but it is real, and what’s more we’ll be in it. Inescapably. Whether for now we believe in Jesus or not. We’ll all be there. Some will enter his kingdom. Some won’t. This is just a glimpse. It doesn’t show us everything. But what it does show us, we have to take with utter seriousness. Here it is, Matthew 7.22-23:

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 mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Why is it that we can easily find that frightening? Because we think to ourselves, ‘Could that be me?’ If we have any spiritual sensitivity and self-awareness, we’re all too conscious of our own failures of obedience – our failure to be a person who, as Jesus says in Matthew 7.21, does the will of my Father in heaven. Well, if you do find this a frightening prospect and you are anxious about it, I hope to be able to reassure you as we look more closely at what Jesus says. But we do certainly need to heed the warning Jesus gives.

What, then, are we to learn from this? I have three headings that sum up three key lessons for us from these verses. We’ll work through them. So:

First, OUR ETERNAL FUTURE DEPENDS ON JESUS

That may seem obvious to you if you’re a believer (and I hope it is), but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s very far from obvious to the culture around us. Indeed, it’s a notion that either wouldn’t occur to most people, or seems absurd. The other day I heard a radio discussion about a new book outlining five possible ways that our cosmos (and therefore our world and us) will come to an end in due course. The whole premise of the conversation was that clearly it’s to astrophysics that we have to look to find out. If you’d been in the studio and pointed out that it’s Jesus who’s the one who will determine our end, I suspect you would have been looked at with a puzzled and pitying look, and you would have been ignored (politely or otherwise). But it’s true; Jesus is the one on whom the future of the cosmos (and our eternal future) depends.

So do you see how everything Jesus says in our three verses centres on our relationship with Him, and on what He has to say? Just to rub that in, look again at what Jesus says here:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ … On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ … And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me ...

This is God speaking in the person of Jesus, no less. So three things are clear in our verses:

1. Jesus is the judge.

2. Those who enter the kingdom are those who are known by him.

3. Whether we are known by Jesus is shown not only in what we say but in our fruitful obedience.

Do you get nuisance phone calls? We get so many that I’m wary nowadays of answering a call if I don’t know who’s on the other end. If I relent and pick up the phone, it goes like this. After some pauses, and assorted whirrs and clicks, someone says, ‘Is that Jonathan Pryke?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Can I have a few moments of your time to tell you about …’ And without waiting for an answer they launch into whatever the spiel is on the computer screen in front of them. And I say, ‘I’m not interested thank you very much’ and put the phone down. I don’t know them. They pretend to know about me but they don’t. How different it is if a friend or a member of my family calls! (Though they’d probably tell you I don’t talk to them either!)

Those who will enter the kingdom on that day are those how are already known by Jesus. Our eternal future depends on him. Lesson one.

Secondly, MANY MAKE FALSE CLAIMS OF FAITH

What do they say to Jesus himself, during his earthly ministry, and since then in the prayers they use? Matthew 7.21:

‘Lord, Lord …’

And what will they say even on the Day of Judgement itself? Matthew 7.22:

‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’

And what will Jesus say to them on that day? Matthew 7.23:

‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

So despite how good and indeed how Christian their claims sound, in fact they are false. They claim to speak and act in the name of Jesus, but in fact they are only speaking and acting for themselves. They call Jesus Lord, but in practice they don’t accept his Lordship. They speak in his name, but in practice they don’t listen to his voice. They act in his name, but in practice they reject his commands. So what do we need to understand from this?

Well, it’s clear that claiming to speak in the name of Jesus while rejecting the words of Jesus is spiritually lethal. We saw that last week in Jesus’ strong warning against false prophets. That’s reinforced here. Such people are, says Jesus, workers of lawlessness. It’s a very strong phrase. The apostle Paul uses the same word in 2 Thessalonians 2 when he speaks of the coming of the one he calls the man of lawlessness, who is the spirit of antichrist personified. So the apostle says in 2 Thessalonians 2.9-10:

The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.

That’s a pretty direct reflection of what Jesus is saying here about many, but concentrated in one individual. So these people Jesus calls workers of lawlessness are in Satan’s grip (though they would never recognise that themselves). After all, they call themselves Christians. And this evil armlock extends both to what they teach and to their behaviour. And we mustn’t be under any illusions. Such people who, without repentance, in practice reject Jesus, will in the end be rejected by him. Matthew 7.23:

And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’.

I was contacted a while ago by someone looking for guidance. She was a Christian at a church nowhere near Tyneside. She told me about her bewilderment as she heard the teaching of leaders of the church where she belonged. They were saying serious things and doing things that she knew were quite contrary to the teaching of Jesus, but they were saying them and doing them in the name of Jesus. Where could she turn? Such things did not only happen two thousand years ago. The warning that Jesus gives is for all time. Many make false claims of faith. That’s lesson number two. Should we then be frightened? Could this be true of us? Well here’s our final lesson for this evening.

Thirdly, HEED THIS WARNING, BUT DON’T BE AFRAID

This is serious stuff from Jesus, let’s be in no doubt. We like to think of Jesus as cosy, but he’s not. He’s the Lamb who was slain and the Lion on the throne. He’s the Judge of all (as well as the Saviour of all those who put their trust in him). So this warning needs to be taken to heart. We must never forget it. It’s a warning that should make us discerning about who we listen to, even if they present themselves as Christian leaders. Do they speak the words of Jesus as we have them in the Scriptures? Do they live by the words of Jesus – not perfectly of course, but penitently and sincerely?

If, then, we’re inclined to be anxious and fearful in the light of this warning, why should we not be afraid? Because this is not a warning that’s aimed at the true disciple of Jesus who lacks assurance. If we are worried (even fearful) when we hear these words of Jesus, then the reassuring truth is that there could be few clearer signs that we’re on the right track. So don’t be afraid. Those who should be afraid are not those who are worrying about it, but those who are not even listening to it.

One of our summer staycation walks was along a cliff path. The cliff was high and precipitous. If we’d fallen off it would have been fatal. But we didn’t need to be afraid. Why? Because we took note of what our guidebook said: ‘Keep away from the cliff edge’. That warning wasn’t there to make us afraid. It was there to keep us safe. And it did. So let’s make knowing Jesus and being known by him our great preoccupation.

Of course if you haven’t been paying attention to Jesus up to now, then you should be afraid, and this is the moment to start listening to him. Repent and believe in him. Put your trust in him. Start following him. And then you will not need to fear ever again. And if you are already trusting in Jesus and by grace obeying him, though imperfectly, then rejoice that you are known by him (and your eternal future in his kingdom is secure). So here is a warning of danger ahead. But if we heed it, we need not be afraid. Let’s pray:

Jesus Christ, you are our Judge, our Saviour, and our King. Please, Lord, have mercy on us. And help us by your grace, in the power of your Holy Spirit living within us, so to heed this warning of danger, that we need not be afraid. Amen.

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