Acknowledging Jesus as Lord (Matthew 7:21-23)

What does it mean to call Jesus, “Lord”?

Open Matthew 7:21-23.

Matthew 7:21-23 (my translation):
21 Not all who call me “Lord! Lord!” will be part of heaven’s kingdom — only those who do what my Father wants. 22 There’ll be many who say to me at that time, “Lord! Lord! Didn’t we use your authority to speak for God? Didn’t we use your authority to cast out demons? Didn’t we use your authority to do many powerful things?” 23 Then I will confess to them, “But I never recognized you. Take your leave from me, you agents of lawlessness.”

The Good News of the kingdom is that Jesus is Lord. Sin and death no longer enslave humanity; our heavenly Father has brought us back under his reign through his appointed ruler, Jesus our Lord. Peter’s gospel was, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). Paul called people to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9). The hope of the world is that “every tongue confesses Jesus the Messiah is Lord” (Philippians 2:11). He is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).

We’re a quarter of the way through Matthew’s account of the Good News, and this is the first time he has applied the word Lord (κύριος) to Jesus. Jesus is not exercising power the way kingdoms normally do: he has not been running around Galilee demanding that everyone call him Lord.

Think about how kingdoms functioned in ancient times. Imagine you belonged to a city state under King Perseus. Rome attacked and defeated Perseus’ army, so your city now belonged to the empire. Roman officials came into town and announced, “Good news! You’re under new management, protected by the Empire. You’re assured of Roman justice and peace. We’ll drive the pirates from your ports, and the rebels from your roads. So who is your lord?” At this point you’re supposed to say, “Caesar is Lord.” If you say, “Perseus is Lord” you’re dead.

Jesus has a problem in making his kingdom announcement. He doesn’t demand allegiance with the threat of death, but he must make the kingdom announcement that he is Heaven’s appointed ruler, and that his reign has real authority that decides destinies. What he does is to point not to himself but to the one he represents — his Father, the eternal king of heaven and earth.

Shockingly, Jesus announces that it isn’t enough to say that you submit to Jesus. You can call him, “Lord! Lord!” but you’re not fooling anyone if you don’t follow his Father’s decrees for life in his kingdom.

He evaluates who are genuinely his by seeing what our lives produce (5:20). He checks whether we treat people the way we would like to be treated (5:12). He checks whether we take matters into our own hands to get justice or invite God to sort it out: asking him to reign, seeking his kingship, knocking on his door (5:7).

The problem is that people want power. False prophets claim to speak for God, but they just want to command his sheep (7:15). When Jesus sorts the sheep from the wolves, power-hungry people who will claim that their harsh words were spoken in Jesus’ name, that they took power over spirits in Jesus’ name, that they performed acts of power in Jesus’ name (7:22).

To act in Jesus’ name is to act with his authority, the authority of the King. Those who want to control others disguise that desire by claiming to operate in Jesus’ name:

  • Condemning words are presented as prophecy, though Jesus never authorized these people to judge on his behalf (compare 7:1-6).
  • Some become preoccupied with the demonic, because they love the sense of power that comes from ordering spirits around.
  • There’s a danger with those who want to perform “extensive powers” in Jesus’ name. Lurking in any kingdom are corrupted people who want great power.

That corrupt craving is the essence of sin, making us agents of lawlessness, not servants of the king in the restoration of this world. Feigned fealty doesn’t fool King Jesus. He is looking for obedience to what his Father has decreed for humanity. The lawless who claim to function in his name have no place in his royal presence (7:23). The tell-tale signs are in what our lives produce (7:20).

We must confess Jesus as Lord. Even more importantly, our Lord must confess us as his people.


What others are saying

Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017) 99:

The context in which this passage is situated pertains specifically to entering true life (“enter through the narrow gate!”— 7:13), a warning against false prophets (“by their fruit you will recognize them!”— 7:16), and the necessity of putting Jesus’s words into practice (“everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock”— 7:24). So the point in context is that even those who have confessed Jesus as Lord and who claim (on the basis of their own questionable testimony) to have performed good works in Jesus’s name may not have truly enacted fidelity to Jesus as Lord. Notice Jesus calls them “workers of lawlessness,” meaning their wicked practices are at issue. Professed allegiance is not sufficient; the allegiance must be realized by genuine, albeit not perfect, obedience.

[previous: The produce defines the tree]

[next: A rock worth building on]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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