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Matthew 7:21-29 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 13-27: WIDE GATES AND FALSE PROPHETS
Our Gospel lesson is part of a larger unit (vv. 13-27) in which:
• Jesus warns against wide gates and broad roads that lead to destruction. He calls us to small gates and narrow roads that lead to life (vv. 13-14). We are tempted, not only by obvious sins (misuse of sex, money, and power), but are also tempted to take shortcuts in building the kingdom. I recall a large church sign announcing, “Less talk, more rock.” We had been looking for a place to worship, but after spotting the sign, turned around, got back in the car, and found another church. The church that cares about filling pews instead of developing disciples will probably do neither.
• Jesus warns against false prophets, ferocious wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing—to be known by their fruits (vv. 15-18). By Matthew’s time, the church was struggling not only against persecution from the outside, but also against false leaders on the inside.
• Jesus warns that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 19).
• Jesus warns that only those who do the will of the Father in heaven can expect to enter the kingdom of heaven (vv. 21-23).
• Jesus warns that those who fail to act on Jesus’ words are like a house built on sand—headed for a great collapse (vv. 24-27).
Each of these warnings contrasts two kinds of people—those who choose the right or wrong road—those who bear good fruit or bad—those who do or fail to do the Father’s will—and those who build on rock or sand. Throughout life, we make choices that lead to life or death—salvation or condemnation.
Luke 6:47-49 parallels Matthew 7:24-27.
MATTHEW 7:21-23. NOT EVERYONE WHO SAYS TO ME, “LORD, LORD”
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ (Greek: kyrios, kyrios), will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ 23Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity.'” (Greek: anomian—lawless)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ (kyrios, kyrios) will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (v. 21a). Kyrios has a wide range of meanings. Jesus uses it to speak of the owner of a vineyard (20:8; 21:40), but it is also used frequently in this Gospel to speak of God (1:20, 22, 24; 2:13, 15, 19; 4:10, 5:23, etc.). In this verse, Jesus uses kyrios to portray himself in a God-like role where he exercises authority over entry into the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God is composed of those who have submitted themselves to God’s rule. Therefore, entering the kingdom of heaven means submitting to God’s rule—becoming God’s loyal subject.
Matthew prefers the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven,” but the parallels in Mark and Luke say “Kingdom of God.” The two phrases are roughly synonymous, and denote the domain over which God rules. While we tend to think of the kingdom of heaven as the place to which the faithful will go when they die, in this Gospel Jesus says twice that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near (4:17; 10:7). He also said, “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28)—the implication being that his miracles demonstrated his kingly authority.
“but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (v. 21b). The dividing line is whether we have merely professed faith or have actually done the Father’s will.
Neither theological degrees nor tenure in church offices will save us. A resume that might wow a pastoral search committee will not influence a Lord with x-ray vision—capable of seeing into the innermost recesses of our spiritual hearts.
It is all too easy to busy ourselves about the work of the church without stopping to reflect on whether we are obeying Jesus—to busy ourselves with programs while neglecting people—to prepare sermons while neglecting prayer—to do great things in Jesus’ name while neglecting Jesus—to assume that full pews validate our ministry when, in fact, we have lost touch with the Lord.
If doing the Father’s will is crucial, what is the Father’s will? For Matthew, it is keeping the Torah as interpreted by Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that obedience requires poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking (5:2-11). It requires us:
• To let our light shine (5:16);
• To keep the commandments (5:17-20);
• To deal with anger and to resolve conflict (5:21-26);
• To maintain proper marital relationships (5:27-32);
• To speak honestly without fanfare or oaths (5:34-37);
• To act in generous and loving ways—even toward our enemies (5:38-48);
• To give alms and to pray in secret (6:1-6);
• To forgive (6:14-15);
• To seek first the kingdom of God (6:24-34);
• To refrain from judgment (7:1-5).
As this Gospel continues, Jesus will give additional insights into God’s will. We are to show mercy (9:13); to speak the word that God gives us even in adverse circumstances (10: 19-20); to care for little ones and to seek and save the lost (18:10-14); to resolve conflict (18:15-17); to observe justice, mercy, and faith (23:23); to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to visit the prisoner (25:31-46); and to make disciples of all nations (28:16-20).
This raises the issue of salvation by works. Are we saved by what Jesus has done or by what we do? It would be easy to misinterpret Jesus’ requirement to do the will of God. Jesus is not advocating salvation by works but authentic faith that produces good fruit—that impels us to act in accord with God’s will—that leads to faithful action.
“Many will tell me in that day” (v. 22a). This phrase points to the Day of the Lord, an eschatological (end of time) event that will bring judgment to the guilty and deliverance to the faithful. There are numerous references in the prophets to the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7, 14; Malachi 4:5). Most of these references emphasize God’s wrath, but some also include a note of vindication.
Later in this Gospel, Jesus will give a vivid portrayal of this Judgment Day. All the nations will be gathered before the Son of Man, who will be sitting on the throne of glory, and he will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. To the righteous, he will say, “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” but to the unrighteous, he will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:34, 25:43). The difference in that case will be whether or not the person being judged has given aid to people in need. While helping the needy might seem to be a different standard than obeying Jesus words, Jesus has commanded us to love our neighbor (19:19; 22:39) and even our enemies (5:43-46)—so the standard in Matthew 25 continues to be doing what Jesus has commanded us to do.
“Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?” (v. 22b). Jesus describes people who appear to have great ministries. They not only call Jesus Lord, but also achieve spectacular things in Jesus’ name. They prophesy, cast out demons, and accomplish deeds of power in the cause of Christ. Televangelists come to mind—showmen who tell the lame to throw away their crutches for the benefit of the cameras—who sell prayer handkerchiefs for profit—whose television time is dedicated more to raising funds than to ministry—who exploit vulnerable people for personal profit.
But we should not assume that Jesus means these words only for others. Who is to say that people with modest ministries are exempt? Is it possible that Jesus might reject a person who spends a lifetime in ministry? Is it possible that Jesus might reject a long-time pastor, elder, deacon, choir member, Sunday-school teacher, or board chairperson? If so, why? By what criteria will we be judged? How will Jesus decide whether to accept or reject us? The standard is whether our discipleship is genuine or merely a veneer that provides an attractive exterior to an unfaithful life.
“Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you'” (v. 23a). In the Bible, knowing a person implies relationship—not mere knowledge. In some cases, it implied a sexual relationship—Adam “knew Eve his wife. She conceived, and gave birth to Cain” (Genesis 4:1). In other cases, it refers to a relationship between God and humans. For instance, the Bible speaks of Moses, “whom Yahweh knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). Therefore, when Jesus declares, “I never knew you,” he means that no relationship exists between him and the person being judged.
“Depart from me, you who work iniquity” (anomian—lawless) (v. 23b). Jesus warns that he will disavow any relationship with the anomian, a word that comes from the Greek word for law (nomos). The “a” at the beginning reverses the meaning, so anomian means “lawless”—rejection of the Torah as interpreted by Jesus.
MATTHEW 7:24-25. LIKE A WISE MAN, WHO BUILT HIS HOUSE ON A ROCK
24“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock. 25The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock.”
“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock” (v. 24). Jesus can speak with authority about building houses. As a carpenter (Mark 6:3), Jesus understands home construction. Here he speaks as an architect, advising us on the first principle of construction—to establish a solid foundation. No plan can be finalized until we have a site, and nothing is more important than secure footing on that site.
“The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock” (v. 25). A strong foundation makes it possible for the house to survive terrible storms. In Palestine, seventy percent of the annual rainfall would fall during a four-month period (Nov.-Feb.). It would cascade down the mountainsides and fill the wadis (gullies) and wash away anything not securely grounded (Hultgren, 133-134).
When we describe a house, we are likely to talk about the color of the paint, the number of bedrooms, or the layout of the kitchen. Jesus speaks of nothing but the foundation. The thing that distinguishes this house from other houses is that, being built on a strong foundation, it can survive the worst imaginable weather. Its strength was established at the beginning—with the laying of the foundation.
Note that the house is not spared storms. Its survival does not depend on being sheltered. This suggests that God does not shelter Christians from life’s storms (illness, accidents, death, job loss, etc.). While faith can reduce our stress-level and prayer can, in some circumstances, lead to miraculous cures, Christians must be prepared to live through the storms and tragedies that are common to humankind.
The Day of Judgment will be the ultimate test. On that day, God will blow away every pretense. Those who have only the appearance of faith will be as utterly undone as a flimsy house in a great hurricane.
What gives us a strong foundation? It is hearing and doing the words of Jesus (v. 24).
Before we can do Jesus’ words, we must hear them. The most reliable sources of Jesus’ words are the scriptures, the preaching and teaching of the church, and the mystery of the sacraments. We can also hear Jesus’ words through Christian books, music, and media, as well as the counsel of Christian friends. It is even possible for Christ to speak to us through less traditional means—secular books, plays, movies, music, or personal experiences. However, we need to recognize that the less traditional the means, the less reliable the message. We must test every insight by laying it alongside scripture to test its validity.
MATTHEW 7:26-27. LIKE A FOOLISH MAN, WHO BUILT HIS HOUSE ON THE SAND
26“Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man (Greek: moro—from moros), who built his house on the sand. 27The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
“Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man (moro—from moros), who built his house on the sand” (v. 26). Jesus told us about the wise man. Now he tells us about the foolish man. The Greek word is moros—from which we get the English word moron.
“The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall” (v. 27). The wise man and the foolish man face identical circumstances—devastating rain, floods, and wind. The difference is not in the circumstances but in the house (which is a metaphor for the man himself). The wise man’s house survives because he built it on solid rock (Jesus’ words). The foolish man’s house falls because he built his house on sand. The difference is whether or not they have done what Jesus taught.
Our secular culture tells us that it is not so simple. It insists that true wisdom requires a good education—a diversified investment portfolio—insurance against catastrophe—safe sex—exercise—a nutritious diet—an annual checkup. Ironically, people who dismiss religious fervor as fanaticism are often fervent about these things. In many cases, money and health have become their God.
Earlier in this sermon (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus addressed this materialistic focus, saying: “Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:31-33).
The people whom Jesus describes as wise or foolish are religious people. They have tried to obey Jesus’ words, but have failed to see the forest because of the trees.
MATTHEW 7:28-29. HE TAUGHT THEM WITH AUTHORITY
28It happened, when Jesus had finished saying these things, that the multitudes were astonished at his teaching, 29for he taught them with authority, and not like the scribes.
“It happened, when Jesus had finished saying these things” (v. 28a) is Matthew’s signal of the conclusion of an important section of instruction (see 13:53; 19:1; 26:1—also 11:1).
Jesus “taught them with authority” (v. 29a). His words have authority, not only to instruct but also to heal. In this Gospel, he will tell a leper, “Be made clean,” and the leper will be immediately cleansed (8:3). He will tell a centurion, “Go your way. Let it be done for you as you have believed,” and the centurion’s servant will be healed in that hour (8:13). He will tell a paralytic, “Get up, and take up your mat, and go up to your house” and the man will do exactly that (9:6-7). Jesus’ words have compelling authority.
“and not like the scribes” (v. 29b). Jesus’ authority contrasts dramatically with the scribal practice of deferring to authority. “The scribes quoted authorities; (Jesus) spoke with authority” (Buttrick, 335). In this sermon (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus says again and again, “You have heard that it was said, …but I tell you” (Matthew 5:21-22).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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