It's Who You Know

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

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. 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.’

Matthew 7.21-23

The problem is very simple: many people think they are Christians but are not. While the statisticians tell us there are something like 2 billion Christians worldwide, we know the reality is different. In this passage they appeal to Jesus clearly believing they are Christians, but he says that they are not. This is self-deception, and the very nature of self-deception is that you do not realise you are doing it. That is why this is such an important passage for us to meditate upon and allow Christ to search our hearts.

Why are people mistaken about this? Two reasons. The first reason has to do with the fact that words are not enough. Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom…’ which indicates that a confession of Jesus as ‘Lord’ is not actually enough (even if it is vital, see Romans 10.9-13). I’ve known friends who claim to be Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Humanists but live inconsistently with their claims, so it’s not a uniquely Christian problem. But it’s still a scary problem because it means you can’t necessarily take your own word for it.

A second reason for this self-deception is that results are not enough. These people appeal to Jesus because of their prophecy, casting out demons, and doing miracles (see v.22). If we met this kind of person we would say ‘What an amazing Christian’. But all of this stuff flows from the power of Jesus’ name, not from the person. God can use any person as his agent to accomplish his will (believer, unbeliever, or donkey). None of these powerful acts shows that the person is truly a Christian; they only serve to show that Jesus’ name is indeed powerful.

We are going to explore what Jesus wants (if words and results are inadequate). But it is so important to notice, at this point, how Jesus makes himself the dividing line. He speaks of people appealing to him on ‘that day’ which undoubtedly means the final day; so he's the Judge. We can debate the relative merits and demerits of all religions and philosophies all day long, but ultimately, for all our modern, pluralistic, relativistic sensibilities, the only thing that matters (Jesus says) is how people respond to him. What then does Jesus want?

Three things are evident from Jesus’ statement of judgment: ‘I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’.

1. Jesus wants you to know him and to be known by him

Jesus says ‘I never knew  you’. What does he mean? What does it mean to know God? Let me begin with a couple of negatives.

First, this knowledge is not an intellectual knowledge. You can know all kinds of things about God and not know him. Even knowing your Bible inside-out (God’s self-revelation) does not mean that you know him. Here is a description I pulled off Wikipedia of a certain kind of fruit:

The fruit is a round to oval single-seeded berry, 3–6 cm (rarely to 8 cm) long and 3–4 cm broad, borne in a loose pendant cluster of 10–20 together. The leathery skin is reddish (rarely orange or yellow), and covered with fleshy pliable spines, hence the name, which means ‘hairs’. The fruit flesh, which is actually the aril, is translucent, whitish or very pale pink, with a sweet, mildly acidic flavour very reminiscent of grapes.

Most people won’t know what is being described here. It’s a rambutan. You won’t find many shops selling them in London. I could tell you they’re a little like a spiky lychee, and you would be getting closer to some idea (in your imagination) of what this fruit is like. But unless you’ve tried one, you still can’t say you know what they’re like. Knowledge that is purely intellectual is never enough.

Second, this knowledge is not emotional or experiential either. I think it is possible to have all kinds of experiences of God and not be a Christian and not know him. This is described so well in the book of Hebrews:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance... (Hebrews 6.4-6)

To my mind, this is a description of a person who has never truly become a Christian. They have had some amazing experiences of God, having been ’enlightened’, and having ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’ and ‘tasted of the goodness of the word of God’. But none of this is enough! They’ve experienced it all and still walked away.

People have seemingly transcendent experiences in all sorts of contexts (meditation, concerts, sex, etc.) and basically what it all amounts to is not much. I’m not saying experience is unimportant, and I’m not saying that experiencing the real thing (as is described in the Hebrews passage) should be ignored or taken for granted—on the contrary, the whole point is that a person who has had such experiences has no excuse for walking away. But I am saying that this sort of experience can never amount to a sufficient knowledge of God.

So what does it mean to know God? It is something more fundamental, more deep than a mere intellectual or experiential knowledge. It is a change in your relationship to God.

The Bible says that we are born enemies of God. Paul puts it like this:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2.1-3)

Whether or not you feel like it, if you are not a Christian then you are a ‘child of wrath’, which is to say, an enemy of God. Now imagine you were convicted of murder and were being held on death row in a prison in the USA (where they still have the death penalty). You might well get to know your guard, relate to him on first name terms, know what he does to relax on Saturday evenings, know the names of his kids, and tell jokes together. But at some point he is going to take you by the arm and march you down the corridor and into a room. He is going to strap you to a chair and you will meet your maker. That guard is not your friend, he is your enemy. In order for him to be your friend you need to have your conviction overturned by a judge so that you can go free. 

In a similar way, in order to know Christ and be known by him something very definite has to happen in your relationship to him; a basic transition from enemy to friend that takes place on a level deeper than what you think or feel. It’s not that your thinking or your feeling doesn’t matter, but that this basic change is a momentary, miraculous, decisive, and irreversible change. Paul goes on to speak of this as God making us ‘alive together with Christ’ (so, it’s a kind of resurrection from death to life, Ephesians 2.4). This is what it means to be born again, to be a new creation, to be adopted: an irreversible change from enemy to friend so that you are known.

What if you can’t think of a time this happened to you? The important thing is to know where you stand, not just how you got there.

2. Jesus wants you to treasure his presence

Jesus says, ‘I never knew you, depart from me…’ Now this is an odd judgment if you think about it. Why? Because the person being judged never valued God’s presence in the first place. What did they value? They valued power.

In their appeal the cry is, ‘Did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ There is only an interest in power, in what works.

This seems to be the exact same approach to religion we see everywhere today. Instead of people being interested in a personal relationship with the living God (on his terms), they are rather interested in what works. That is why we see so many taking a little Kabbalah Judaism, a little transcendental meditation, a little yoga, a little church, a little psychology, a little this, a little that. They are asking ‘What works? Where is the power?’ instead of ‘How do I know God and enjoy his presence?’

Now this is a significant problem. People do not realise how much they are enjoying God’s presence all of the time. The Bible speaks of all the good things we enjoy (from oxygen to food to love) being gifts of God’s common grace to mankind. We are dependent on God’s favour every moment whether we realise it or not. He upholds all things, all the time. All the pleasure we get in life is only ever because of God’s presence.

The trouble is, this is taken for granted. And as the song says, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’. You probably haven’t given much thought to breathing today. But if you were held under water for a few seconds it would feel like a few minutes, and all you would think about is your next breath. That is what the presence of God is like: oxygen. You don’t realise how much you depend on him, and you won’t realise until it is taken away.

So when people mock the idea of hell and judgment (imagining medieval paintings and demons in red tights) they can only do so because they cannot imagine what it would be like to be cast away from God’s presence. How could you imagine something you have never experienced?

Here’s where I’m seeking to take you. I believe that one of our most fundamental problems is ingratitude. We live hedonistic lives in rebellion against God (and imagine our future after death will be more of the same), all the time not realising that we are depending on God and his presence to experience any pleasure and joy at all!

What does Jesus want? He wants us to acknowledge and treasure his presence. Listen to David’s prayer of repentance: ‘Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me’ (Psalm 51.11). The believer is a person who knows that to be in God’s presence is everything. Their worst fear is to be cast out.

3. Jesus wants you to obey his Father

Pay attention to the final part of Christ’s judgment: ‘I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’. And recall how this section opened: 

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.

Right away we need to say that Jesus is not setting up perfection as the qualification for entry. He calls us towards perfection, but never makes it an entrance requirement (and we only get there, by his grace, in heaven anyway). Christianity is for broken people who recognise they are failures; those who are poor in spirit, and who mourn (see Matthew 5.3-4). So please do not misunderstand what is going on here.

You see, we also need to say that being a Christian does not mean taking advantage of God’s grace while you live any way you please. 

Think again about the people Jesus is describing here. They are only interested in religion as far as it works, as far as they experience power (in prophecy, exorcisms, and miracles). They are not interested in a relationship with Jesus or obedience to him. So, their religion is basically selfishness and self-worship. What’s in it for me? they ask.

The kind of discipleship Jesus calls us to is one of loving God and neighbour, but love is not set up against obedience, it is obedience! We stupidly think that obeying God is somehow incompatible with a love relationship. Jesus tells us the very opposite.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15.10)

Are you struggling with obeying God? Are you going back to the same old sins? Are you walking in a direction you know is displeasing to him? Rather than thinking ‘I need to make a cold decision to obey, regardless of how I feel’ you should instead think, ‘I want to love God, and that love is expressed in obedience.’

It’s amazing how often we think of loving God as something different from obeying him, as though he’s impressed with our emotional singing or whatever else, when we’re walking in sin. It’s utter rubbish.

God is calling us to true religion. Let me end by asking you this question: Are you a Christian because it works and you experience power, or because of devotion to God? One perspective is pointing inwards, the other upwards. One is about self-worship, the other about true devotion. One is about power, success, victory in life, the other about love, knowledge of God, holiness.