Matthew 7:21-23

ON FALSE PRETENSES

Matt. 7:21-23

Not everyone that says to me: “Lord, Lord” will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but 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 did we not cast out devils, and in your name did we not do many deeds of power?” Then will I publicly announce to them: “I never knew you. Depart from me you doers of iniquity.”

There is an apparently surprising feature about this passage. Jesus is quite ready to concede that many of the false prophets will do and say wonderful and impressive things.

We must remember what the ancient world was like. Miracles were common events. The frequency of miracles came from the ancient idea of illness. In the ancient world all illness was held to be the work of demons. A man was ill because a demon had succeeded in exercising some malign influence over him, or in winning a way into some part of his body. Cures were therefore wrought by exorcism. The result of all this was that a great deal of illness was what we would call psychological, as were a great many cures. If a man succeeded in convincing–or deluding–himself into a belief that a demon was in him or had him in his power, that man would undoubtedly be ill. And if someone could convince him that the hold of the demon was broken, then quite certainly that man would be cured.

The leaders of the Church never denied heathen miracles. In answer to the miracles of Christ, Celsus quoted the miracles attributed to Aesculapius and Apollo. Origen, who met his arguments, did not for a moment deny these miracles. He simply answered, “Such curative power is of itself neither good nor bad, but within the reach of godless as well as of honest people” (Origen: Against Celsus 3: 22). Even in the New Testament we read of Jewish exorcists who added the name of Jesus to their repertoire, and who banished devils by its aid (Ac.19:13). There was many a charlatan who rendered a lip service to Jesus Christ, and who used his name to produce wonderful effects on demon-possessed people. What Jesus is saying is that if any man uses his name on false pretenses, the day of reckoning will come. His real motives will be exposed, and he will be banished from the presence of God.

There are two great permanent truths within this passage. There is only one way in which a man’s sincerity can be proved, and that is by his practice. Fine words can never be a substitute for fine deeds. There is only one proof of love, and that proof is obedience. There is no point in saying that we love a person, and then doing things which break that person’s heart. When we were young maybe we used sometimes to say to our mothers, “Mother, I love you.” And maybe mother sometimes smiled a little wistfully and said, “I wish you would show it a little more in the way you behave.” So often we confess God with our lips and deny him with our lives. It is not difficult to recite a creed, but it is difficult to live the Christian life. Faith without practice is a contradiction in terms, and love without obedience is an impossibility.

At the back of this passage is the idea of judgment. All through it there runs the certainty that the day of reckoning comes. A man may succeed for long in maintaining the pretenses and the disguises, but there comes a day when the pretenses are shown for what they are, and the disguises are stripped away. We may deceive men with our words, but we cannot deceive God. “Thou discernest my thoughts from afar,” said the Psalmist (Ps.139:2). No man can ultimately deceive the God who sees the heart.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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