These were the words which were read from a wall in ancient Babylon to an ancient king who’s time was up. And while this divine proclamation was first made over 2,500 years ago on the very night of Babylon’s fall, these sobering words should still cause all of us to carefully consider our paths in life, particularly when it comes to our eternal future.
One of the most sobering (if not scariest) verses I’ve long pondered and even worried about is found in Matthew 7 (specifically, Matthew 7:21-23), which involves Jesus addressing some of those who will one day stand before Him. To their surprise and dismay, He will mercilessly condemn them to the Outer Darkness:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
What has always really gotten me about this passage (to put it mildly) is that the very ones Jesus calls “evildoers” were completely convinced they were following Him and were by all accounts His disciples. They were doing everything in His Name such as prophesying, casting out demons, working miracles, and bearing all sorts of other spiritual fruit, yet He plainly declares to them, “I never knew you!”
If that doesn’t give every single one of us who profess to follow Him a long moment’s hesitation, then perhaps we need to re-read His words ― and maybe several more times for good measure! In their words and deeds, weren’t they in fact “doing His will”? And “you who practice lawlessness”? What on earth does He mean by that? Those people He’s condemning were doing all sorts of good works in His Name and likely not breaking any “laws”, nor practicing what we would consider to be “lawlessness” (idolatry, murder, stealing, adultery, etc.).
However, those standing before Him were indeed breaking one law ― the primary One. The One Law that really matters. The One Law that God raises above all others that says we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Matthew 22:37, Jesus citing the Sh’ma from Deuteronomy 6:5). And while they were doing good works in His Name, they weren’t exactly “doing His will”, meaning to love Him with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Now, it’s one thing to be loved by God and us to acknowledge Him as God and even fear/revere Him, but quite another thing to actually LOVE GOD, to enjoy God for who He is and for who He reveals Himself to be in His Word. After all, isn’t everyone inherently loved by God simply because He’s our Creator? (Of course, God has those He likes and dislikes, loves and even hates at times, such as Jacob vs Esau in Malachi 1:2-3.) However, the fear and reverence of God is still a far cry from actually loving God as you would your spouse, children, parents, etc.
Really, truly, loving God means knowing God, and that’s where we should really start to realize that we’re in over our heads, as CS Lewis discovered after the death of his wife in his book, “A Grief Observed”. When his time of grief and suffering came, he found that God felt as if He was nowhere to be found, unlike the rest of their relationship when life was good:
“When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels— welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
And then elsewhere in that same book, he considered his feelings and beliefs and wrote:
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
What if we only “think” or feel that we know Him, but we in fact do not? What if God isn’t who we believe Him to be at all, and we’ve been inadvertently fooled by our Sunday-school teachers, pastors, and even our own studies, thoughts, and feelings? What if we live our entire Christian lives self-deceived to the point that we “know” we’re saved and on our way to Heaven, only to find out on that Day we really aren’t? Personally, I can’t think of a more disappointing ― and utterly terrifying ― thing in the universe! And that’s the thing that used to worry me every time I read that Matthew 7 passage.
However, a year or so ago I was reading an old Desiring God post titled “Knowing God Versus Being Known by God“, when the following verse jumped out at me from 1 Corinthians 8:3:
“But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.”
While I’ve read that verse and passage many times over the years, I never really had an “AHA!” moment until I’d read that short DG post. Suddenly, the roof was opened and bright sunlight streamed in. I must’ve read that verse over and over that night and thought about it for a long time. In my mind, that “What if I’m weighed and found wanting?” question was finally settled in my mind and heart, and it opened up an entirely new line of thought, prayer, and contemplation.
Instead of me worrying over and over about the Matthew 7 passage (among others), the answer was right there in front of me the entire time: “If we want to be known by God, we are to simply, purely, and completely LOVE God just as He tells us to in His Primary Law”. That’s it. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Our everything. Nothing more, nothing less.
Our “good works” and the rest of the tangible fruits of “doing His will” naturally flow out of that love, His love for us and our reciprocal love for Him. The tragedy of those being condemned in Matthew 7 are that while they were doing good works in His Name, they really didn’t love Him nor know Him, and therefore He didn’t know them either. Even in their response to Him, the focus was on them and what THEY had done rather than on Him and what HE had done for them on the Cross. The Gospel is all about HIM and He has done, not us and our works.
How important is His One Law that towers above all others? Well, to start off with, it’s mentioned five times in Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the first several books of the Bible which was to be read and recited often among the Israelites. It’s also explicitly mentioned in the first three Gospels (Matt 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27) by Jesus Himself.
So then the question becomes, “How exactly do we love God?” By obeying Him and keeping His commandments, namely the first two: love God and love others as ourselves. While we have five “love languages”, God really has only one: obedience. But even that one starts with and is firmly rooted in love:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” ― John 14:15
Does that mean we are to diligently keep the hundreds of commandments as specified in the Torah and the Old Testament? For Jews at that time, yes ― but like the Pharisees who kept the Letter of the Law (rules and regulations) but not the Spirit of the Law (intent/motives), they could not because they did not love God nor love others. Because of that, they fell far, far short, showing their dire need for the Promised Redeemer regardless of how well they kept the written and oral Law.
So what are we to do now in the Church Age, in which through Jesus fulfilling the Law and establishing the New Covenant, God has broken down the distinction between Jew and Gentile and divided the world between the “saved” and the “lost”? Exactly as Jesus said in the Gospels:
Love God and love others the way we want to be loved. Forgive as we would want to be forgiven. Bless as we would want to be blessed.
It’s that simple yet that daunting, that easy yet that difficult. In fact, sometimes loving God and loving others is the hardest thing to do in the world, especially when they’ve hurt, insulted, betrayed, or maligned us in some way. Any way. Every way. And loving God? It’s hard to love God when it feels like life (or even He Himself) is completely against us. It’s hard to love God when we can’t see, hear, or feel Him. It’s hard to love God when we’re downcast and brokenhearted, particularly for long stretches of time. It’s hard to love God in the dark seasons of trials and waiting.
But that’s where His unchanging, everlasting Word comes into play, the timeless passages about Him being for us and not against us (Romans 8:31), about Him never forsaking us (Hebrews 13:5), and the multitudes of psalms, Jesus’s words, the Epistles, and rest of Scripture are to be our comfort and strength in our times of trial. We are to rely upon Him and His Word and not ourselves nor our ever-changing thoughts and turbulent feelings.
And then the Payoff ― being known by Jesus and God Himself on that great day when we stand before Him and He welcomes us into His Kingdom― is far worth whatever grievance we may have against anyone or anything in this life.