21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 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 in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7, NIV)
Many people read these verses and think, "Jesus says that only those who do the Father's will enter heaven. But those who come to Him on Judgement Day claiming to have prophesied, to have cast out demons, and to have performed miracles in Jesus's name do not enter heaven. Jesus even calls them evildoers! Therefore, it must not be the Father's will for us to do those things! In fact, the people who do these things are probably all false prophets and false teachers."
Let's look closely at some evidence from the rest of the New Testament to see whether the above interpretation of this passage in Matthew 7 passage fits with the teachings and beliefs of the founders of our faith.
1. All Miracle-Workers Condemned?
First, let's consider some candidates from Scripture who could fall into the crowd that Jesus says will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. The candidates include those who have (1) not done the will of the Father and who have (2) prophesied, cast out demons, and/or performed miracles in Jesus name. Let's collect examples from Scripture of those who meet criterion (2) and then see if we can make a connection between those who meet criterion (2) and those who meet criterion (1). I will list a sampling from my brief survey of the New Testament here:
- The 12 Disciples: Luke 9:1-2 - Jesus gave the disciples authority to cast out demons and cure every disease.
- A Group of 72 Believers (During the earthly ministry of Jesus): Luke 10:1-24 - Jesus gave them power to preach the Gospel with signs and wonders.
- A Group of 120 Believers (After the ascension of Jesus): Acts 1:8, 1:15b, 2:1-4 - They received the power of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by their speaking in tongues.
- Stephen: Acts 6:8 - He performed many signs and wonders.
- Paul and Barnabas: Acts 14:3, 14:8-18, 15:12 - They told stories of their signs and wonders, and they were venerated as gods (to their disapproval).
- A Group of Jews: Acts 19:13-16 - They cast out demons in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preached. They were also attacked by the demons because they were not true followers of Jesus.
- False Messiahs and False Prophets: Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10 - They will perform many signs and wonders at the end of the age ("end of age" = 1. sometime after the man of lawlessness is revealed--see 2 Thess. 2, and 2. sometime during the Great Tribulation, if the Olivet Discourse is interpreted in non-preterist terms--see Matt. 24 and Mark 13).
From my brief survey, it seems pretty clear that there are at least some true followers of Jesus who have performed the signs mentioned in the Judgement Day passage in Matthew 7. In fact, the majority of the miracle-workers reported in the New Testament seem to be true Christ followers. Granted, the survey is not exhaustive, but even so, it seems a bit hasty to think that the Judgement Day passage (in Matthew 7) is teaching us that everyone who has ever prophesied, cast out demons, or performed miraculous signs in Jesus's name is a false teacher destined for hell.
Thus, it appears that all those who meet criterion (2) do not necessarily also meet criterion (1). If all miracle-workers were condemned to hell for not doing the Father's will, then Jesus, the disciples, and other founders of the faith would be among the damned. This is certainly not the correct interpretation. Thus, there must be some other way in which the those described in the Judgement Day passage failed to do God's will such that they merited rejection from God's kingdom.
2. Whose Power: God's or Satan's?
If performing signs is not the condemning aspect in the Judgement Day passage, then perhaps it is, rather, performing false signs that merits condemnation. Perhaps the miracle-workers were empowered by Satan to perform deceptive signs under the guise of Jesus's name. This would certainly be against God's "will" (or, "desires"), would it not?
From Scripture, we see that it is possible for people to perform miraculous signs by Satan's power. (For an example from the Old Testament, recall that Pharaoh's sorcerers, through Satan's power, replicated the signs that Moses performed by God's power.) Jesus Himself warns His followers of false prophets and false messiahs who rise up at the end of the age, performing miraculous signs and deceiving many. If people throughout history have falsely claimed to be "the Christ," then it seems possible for people to also falsely claim to do miracles in "Christ's" name. Perhaps, then, the Judgement Day passage simply points out that there are those who do miracles in "Christ's" name (but by Satan's power) and who hope to enter heaven, only for Jesus to turn them away at the door as "evildoers." The Judgement Day passage, then, could be interpreted as a warning that the righteous facade of false teachers will not earn them (or their followers) passage into heaven.
However, I do not think this account fits the passage well. Notice that the people present their miraculous signs to Jesus as reasons to let them into heaven. It would seem that the people genuinely thought that they were doing something great for God's kingdom. Thus, it seems unlikely that they were simply false prophets and teachers empowered by Satan to deceive the world.
One could reply to the above conclusion by pointing out that the miracle-workers could have themselves been deceived as far as whom they were serving. If they believed that they were working for Jesus but were in fact Satan's servants, then Jesus would certainly say, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"
Let me tell you why I do not believe that the miracle-workers in the Judgement Day passage were servants of Satan (explicitly or implicitly). I believe that the list of works that the miracle-workers present to Jesus sheds light on the issue of who powered the works. Notice the three works mentioned: prophecy, casting out demons, and miraculous signs. Of the three, we have Scriptural evidence that Satan can replicate two of them. Notice, however, what Jesus says about someone casting out demons by Satan's power:
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come." (Mark 3, NIV)
Thus, I believe that Jesus settles the issue of the source of the power of the miracle-workers in the Judgement Day passage in Matthew 7. If the miracle-workers cast out demons in Jesus's name, then their power must have come from God. But how could this be, since we know that these same miracle-workers didn't do the will of the Father?
Here it is interesting to point out that people can perform signs by God's power in Jesus's name without being a follower of Jesus. Recall the story of the Jews who were enamored at Paul's ability to cure the demon-possessed (in Acts 19) and then started casting out demons simply by asserting Jesus's name. It is evident that the demons were expelled by God's power (c.f. Mark 3:22-27) even though the Jews were not themselves aligned with Christ. [Note: If it is possible for unbelievers to operate in God's power, how much more should it be possible for believers to operate in it!]
Thus, it appears that the miracle-workers in the Judgement Day passage in Matthew 7 could have failed to do God's will even if they performed their miracles by God's power. (Paul echoes this principle when he says, "2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."--1 Corintians 13, NIV.) I believe that this understanding of the miracle-workers best fits the Judgement Day scenario as Jesus describes it.
Given the nature of Jesus's response to the miracle-workers, it makes sense that these miracle-workers performed signs by God's power and yet didn't carry out God's will because they lacked a relationship with Jesus. Notice that Jesus doesn't say that their works weren't genuine. In fact, I think he implicitly acknowledges that their works were sincerely performed in His name. Jesus replies to miracle-workers' presentation of (godly) works by pointing out that the miracle-workers didn't have a relationship with Him. I believe that Jesus's take-home message is that our relationship with Him (and not our spectacular display of works) is the only factor that will weigh in on whether or not we enter the kingdom of heaven on Judgement Day.