Because of the nature of this passage, I'm going to be using less of my personal commentary today, and instead focusing on directing you to Scripture.
For organizational purposes, we're going to break it up as follows:
1 - Verse 12. This is pretty mild, though still related to the passage, so it's a much happier way to start. :-)
2 - Verses 15-20. This talks about fruit in our lives, something we've covered before, so we won't go into terrible depth.
3 - Verses 13-14 and 21-23. Here's where stuff really starts to get scary, and where we'll spend the most time.
Let's dive right in.
The Famous "Golden Rule"
12 "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
This saying is well-known even in secular circles as the simplest basis of social morality. You're probably also familiar with the slightly longer version provided in Matthew 22:35-40:
One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, "Teacher, which is hte great commandment of the Law?" And He said to him, "'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' This is hte great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' One these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."
The Law and the Prophets is what we now know as the Old Testament. To the Jews, it was God's entire rulebook for how humans were supposed to behave. We know that loving God is obviously first, but in today's passage, Jesus only mentions our love for others. Why is this? My opinion is that His following words deal with determining a person's salvation based on their outward actions - which are, indeed, the only things we can actually see. It is far easier to observe a person in the social sphere than the spiritual sphere.
So, with that little tangent of "what connection does this have to the larger passage" out of the way, what is the main point of verse twelve? It's that, in the social sphere, we shouldn't have to have all these little rules about what is moral behavior - if we simply treat everyone as we'd want them to treat us, if we love them like we love ourselves, we will do right by everyone.
What does this look like in practice? Let's look at James 2:14-17 and Matthew 25:34-40 for some examples.
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
[Jesus speaking about the final judgement] Then the King will say to those on His right, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer Him, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?" THe King will answer and say to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine [that means any believer - see Matthew 12:49-50], even the least of them, you did it to Me."
Loving others means loving them through action, not just feeling the emotion of love for them. We are called to sacrifice of ourselves - our time, energy, money - to help them. True love costs something (see 2 Samuel 24:24).
Watch for the Clues
15 "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
16 "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?
17 "So every good tree bears fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
18 "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.
19 "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 "So then, you will know them by their fruits."
Let's start out by briefly reviewing the types of fruit. Bad fruit, according to Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
And the good fruit, according to Galations 5:22-24:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and desires.
[For a much deeper look into these fruits, you an read our studies on Fruit of the Flesh here and Fruit of the Spirit here.]
Now, is this passage saying that if any believer exhibits one of the "deeds of the flesh" or lacks any of the "fruit of the Spirit," they are not really a Christian? NO! Becoming like Christ is not instantaneous upon salvation - it's a process. The point is that we should gradually change from the bad list to the good list. It's all about growth. That is the entire point here - we are to have our eyes peeled for growth, for positive change, for improvement.
Also notice that this passage is not giving us permission to start spying on other believers to determine if they are really saved or not - this is for false prophets. We are supposed to look for this fruit in two groups of people: (1) ourselves, which we will get to later, and (2) our spiritual leaders, just to make sure we are not being led astray by false teachers/prophets.
One final note on this - verse 19 could be misconstrued as saying that if you don't produce fruit, you're going to hell. That interpretation would mean that we have to earn salvation, which is the opposite of the Gospel (more on this to follow). But remember, verse 15 makes it clear that these people are masquerading as believers - they're faking. In this, verse 15 is not saying that you have to produce fruit to earn your way out of hell, but rather, that the group just talked which does not produce fruit will go to hell, because they are not real Christians. It's a subtle difference, but it makes a huge difference in your understanding of the Gospel.
The Minority Makes It In: Big Picture
13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
14 "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
21 "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.
22 "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'
23 "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'
Alright, prepare for this to get discombobulated. :-)
This passage makes clear that there will be many people who call themselves Christians but aren't really. We see this a lot in American culture - "Christian" has come to mean a whole slew of things, including I was raised that way, I attend church on Easter and Christmas, I try to live with good morals, and I'm American. But the word Christian literally means "little Christ" - that is, someone who acts like Christ. Interesting how much society's definition has changed. It is for this reason that I most often describe myself as "a follower of Jesus Christ" - "Christian" doesn't mean a thing in this culture anymore.
We've already talked a lot about what a Christian life looks like. But let's differentiate some more. :-)
First off, James 2:19: "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder." Clearly, then, believing that God exists is not enough. The verse preceeding sheds more light on this: "But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." The point is not that you're earning salvation through works, but that works - or fruit - are inherent evidence that your faith is real. True faith is belief that God exists and should be the Lord - the Ruler - of your life (see our study "What Is Faith?" here). Therefore, works/fruit will naturally flow from true faith. So, the Christian life has fruit in it.
What, then, does this passage prompt us to do? Let's look at a couple more Scripture references to answer that:
Philippians 2:12-13: "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." Even though it is God who is at work in us - who causes the change in us - He will not do so unless we allow Him to. That's the whole point of faith - where the relationship comes in. So, today's passage prompts us to allow God to change us.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." Today's passage pairs with this one to establish that yes, our Christian walk will be extremely difficult, and many will fail, but the ultimate goal is worth it a million times over.
The Minority Makes It In: Misinterpretations
Now, on to a couple of misconceptions. First off, some cults have twisted the above mention of "only one receives the prize" and the narrow gate to arrive at the (false!) conclusion that there is some precise, set number of "salvation slots," and you actually have to compete with other Christians to get one. This is heretical - 2 Peter 3:9 tells us, "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance."
Second, some think that verse 21 ("Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven...) is a contradiction to Romans 10:9 ("that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved"). But remember that the Greek word used in Matthew is lego, which means to speak, but the word in Romans is homologeo, which means to declare and acknowledge. The first is just saying it; the second is saying it and meaning it - i.e., meaning that Jesus is actually in charge of your life now.
The Minority Makes It In: Encouragement
With all that out of the way, does the scene of Jesus saying to people who thought they were Christians, "I never knew you" disturb you? It should!
But that said...
There are times in our Christian walk when we need a reminder that a relationship with God means we are to follow Him - we should never get too big for our britches to the point that we think God has to save us, no matter what. I think that, because of the entitlement culture we live in, passages such as this need to be taught a lot more. But, there are other times in our walk when we feel unsaved and like God no longer loves us, when it is simply not true. If you're in the latter camp today, I do not want you to feel discouraged. Remember: you are a precious child of God. Here's some encouragement for you:
Matthew 19:25-26: When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, "Then who can be saved?" And looking at them Jesus said to them, "With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
"For I am convinced that neither death, nor love, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us form the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Someone in my family once phrased this issue very well. He said that if you never question your salvation, you should be worried because that might stem from apathy, but if you're freaking out worrying that you're not saved, that means you don't have any reason to worry, because clearly you still care about God.
So What Do We Walk Away With From This?
1 - Be encouraged to press on - it is more than worth it.
2 - Keep the right perspective, the right priorities in focus - today is a part of eternity. Are you living in a way that treats it as such?
3 - We should not only witness to unbelievers, but also share the real Gospel to those in are lives who claim to be Christians in the American sense - those who have never experienced a personal relationship with Christ.
4 - GOD LOVES YOU!!! More than you could ever imagine...He wants you to spend eternity with Him.
5 - Hebrews 12:1-3: "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
For Even More....
If you'd like to read more on this topic, click on the "Faith versus Works" button below this post to direct you to more of our studies on this topic.
Let's Make It a Discussion
How can we actually live out the "Golden Rule"? What growth in your life have you seen - what fruit of the Spirit has appeared over time in your Christian walk? Have you ever been in a time when you really, desperately questioned your salvation? Any other questions or comments? Think I oversimplified or overcomplicated something, or missed a big point? Leave it all below! :-)