By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
Certain verses in Scripture stand out above the rest. These are the verses that are unique in some way, the kind that make for good trivia. For example, we know that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) is the shortest verse of the Bible, and that “Amen” is Scripture’s final word. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter of Scripture, and John 3:16, unsurprisingly, is the Bible’s most quoted verse.
Well, if there were ever a vote for which verse was the scariest, my vote would go for Matthew 7:21. Here, Jesus states matter-of-factly that, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Jesus indicates that some may be mistaken about their own righteous connection to God. The fact is, simply calling yourself a Christian is not enough.
As followers of Jesus, we need to take these words seriously. Christ strikes at the heart of what it means to live as his follower. Our discipleship is never about empty words or vain actions. We can’t simply talk a good game or rest upon our spiritual laurels; Jesus demands intentionality and dedication in our faith. Below are four important discipleship-lessons we can glean from Matthew 7:21-24.
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Discipleship Is More Than Using the Right Words
Our faith must be more than simply the words we say. True, Scripture says “it is with your mouth you profess your faith and are saved” (Romans 10:10), yet this does not mean that one’s faith is simply a matter of speech. Empty phrases and hollow prayers will not cut it. In fact, throughout Scripture Jesus is highly critical of those who verbally claim their righteousness while living duplicitous lives. Jesus calls them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). For Jesus, true faith is much more than verbal rhetoric.
We can’t simply talk our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. Correct terminology is not an indicator of our righteousness. Calling Jesus “Lord” is not a password that unlocks the pearly gates for us; nor is the title “Christ” equal to Jesus’ last name. These words convey a divine reality to which we must respond humbly and worshipfully. Recognizing the Lordship of Jesus calls us to a different manner of life, a life of service and adoration.
For this reason, Jesus highlights that “only those who do the will of the Father” enter the Kingdom. Right words are insufficient for salvation if they are disconnected from our lives. Just as a “good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:17), the actions of life testify to our faithfulness before God. Emphatic petitions of “Lord, Lord!” are simply hollow expressions if we fail to follow the will of the Lord. After all, “follow me” is the most fundamental of Jesus’ commands.
These words challenge us to assess our discipleship. What do we mean when we call Jesus “Lord”? Do we follow our verbal proclamations with transformed living? Do we embody the faith we preach? In a similar way, we ought to be wary of disregarding a Christian brother or sister based on differing words or terminology. Does singing “hymns” rather than “praise songs” really discount someone’s discipleship? Believing so makes it seem as if the Christian life is nothing more than saying the right words. True discipleship, however, is a response to Jesus – a response that is much deeper than our words can ever truly describe.
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Discipleship Is More Than Doing the Right Actions
Instead of merely parroting empty words, Jesus highlights doing the will of the Father as the indicator that one is right with God. But does this mean that it matters not if we call Jesus “Lord”? Is Jesus setting up individual actions as the only benchmark of one’s rightness before God?
Many people believe this. Many believe that their own personal goodness will secure their entrance into heaven. “But I’m a good person” is the modern equivalent of prophesy and miracles, and many believe that their good deeds will tip the eternal scales into their favor. They may even quote this verse as biblical evidence suggesting that it is good deeds, and good deeds alone, that is of ultimate importance.
Sadly, this is not the case. Jesus is clear that our works do not earn us a spot in God’s kingdom. Jesus says, “Many will say to me on that day ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, or drive out demons and perform many miracles?” (Matthew 7:22). Importantly, these people believed themselves to have acted righteously. No one would ever dismiss the goodness behind driving out demons our prophesying in the Christ’s name. Thus, these people believed they had performed the necessary acts to obtain their salvation. In their eyes, they earned their place in heaven. Yet in Christ’s eyes, he knew them not.
Jesus completely disregards any faith system by which we earn our place before God. The goodness of our actions will never merit our eternal life. Just as we cannot talk our way into heaven, neither can we work our way in to God’s good graces. Righteous actions such as prophesy, driving out demons, and performing miracles, are not enough. While each of these actions are consistent with the Lord’s desire for healing and reconciliation in the world, they do not by themselves testify to the existence of true faith.
Sadly, even the most blessed of actions can be done with selfish motives or evil intent. The history of pastor-abuse, systemic racism, and institutional failings have made this abundantly clear. If one’s faith is focused on “acting like a Christian” then, in the end our discipleship is an act, and it does not represent a heart turned to the Lord.
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Discipleship Is Living in the Right Relationship
Jesus is clear that those whose faith amounts to empty words or actions do not experience a life-giving relationship with the Lord. In response to those who believe heaven is achieved by effort or argument, Jesus puts forward some of the scariest words of Scripture, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). In the end, all the religious rites we perform, or the faith-laden language we use, does not substitute for the essential requirement of discipleship: knowing Jesus.
Discipleship is about living in an abiding relationship with Jesus. We are created to know the Lord, and to be known by him. The entire Sermon on the Mount is focused on this fundamental truth. Matthew 5:1 says, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” What distinguishes us as disciples of Jesus rather than casual onlookers is not the words we say or our ability to tick the necessary spiritual boxes; instead, disciples of Jesus are people who know Jesus, listen to his voice, and follow him.
Pointing to Hope
Although we may term Matthew 7:21 as the scariest verse of Scripture, it does hold out the hope of the gospel. Beyond mere words or empty actions, Jesus wants us to know him, deeply, intimately, profoundly. Therein lies our hope, and our life. We are invited to know the one who created and redeemed us, and to experience his life-giving presence.
Ask yourself: Have I focused too much on doing the right things and have unwittingly forsaken the call to know the Lord? Is my faith only shallow talk without any connection to how I live my life? These are hard questions, but they are necessary if we wish to live our lives as authentic followers of Christ. So, let us heed Christ’ invitation, put down our reliance on “right words” and “right efforts” and simply and honestly know the Savior.
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