These verses are very sobering. What do they mean in your life and mine?
Let’s do an old-fashioned Bible study to understand the key verses. And then we apply them to our modern world and to us.
This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT.
You are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
Let’s begin. The key verses are vv. 21-23, but here is the context.
15 Watch out for false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothes but inside are ravenous wolves. 16 You shall recognize them from their fruit. They don’t pick grapes from thorn bushes, nor figs from the thistles, do they? 17 Thus, every healthy tree produces good fruit, and the unhealthy tree produces rotten fruit. 18 A healthy tree is unable to produce rotten fruit, nor can an unhealthy tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree not producing good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then indeed you wil recognize them by their fruit.
21 Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one doing the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? And in your name expel demons? And in your name do many miracles?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you! Depart from me, you practitioners of lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:15-23)
Commentary and Exegesis
I put these two passages (the fruit and the fruitless) together because the original Greek manuscripts do not have chapter divisions, and the two passages flow nicely into each other. The first section explains the second. And the previous pericope about the narrow gate and restrictive road also clarifies this passage.
These verses contribute to our interpretation of vv. 21-23:
13 Enter through the narrow gate because wide is the gate and broad is the road leading to destruction, and many are the ones going through it, 14 because the gate is narrow and the road is restrictive leading to life, and few are the ones finding it. (Matt. 7:13-14)
People have to give up many things, like self-will and self-calling and self-recognition. Then they have to do the will of their Father—his will, not theirs.
Further, Luke produces v. 22 with slightly different wording and places his verse in between the good and bad fruit (6:43-45) and those who obey the teachings of Jesus, so their house is built on the rock, and those who do not obey his teachings, so their house is built on a crumbling foundation (6:47-49): “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Therefore, coupling the illustration about fruit trees with the declaration that he never knew false followers is correct in vv. 15-23.
See my post about the Lordship of Jesus:
The Parable of the Ten Maidens says the same thing about not knowing Jesus:
8 But the foolish ones said to the prudent ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our torches are going out.’ 9 But the prudent ones replied, saying, ‘In case there is in no way enough for us and you,’ go instead to the sellers and buy it for yourselves.’ 10 After they departed to buy it, the bridegroom came, and the prepared ones went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. 11 Later on, the remaining maidens also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up to us!’ 12 But in reply, he said, ‘I tell you the truth: I do not know you.’ (Matt. 25:8-12, my translation, emphasis added)
Oil can be a symbol of the Holy Spirit, so maybe we should add that the ones whom the Lord did not know in v. 23 did not have the fulness of the Spirit, even though they worked miracles. Never forget that sometimes miracle workers arise and do not have the true Holy Spirit, but a counterfeit spirit.
So one main interpretive key of those who will be told to depart is that they did not do the will of the Father. What is that? I offer some ideas, below. Another criterion for these false followers being rejected is that Jesus never knew them. Personal, submissive and salvational knowledge of him is essential.
“that day”: it refers to judgment day or the day that wraps everything up. “That day” is often used in both the OT and NT of the final day leading to judgment: you can look up the verses online but here are some references: Is. 10:20; Joel 1:15; 3:18; Amos 8:9; 9:11; Zeph. 1:10, 14; Zech. 14:4; Mal. 3:17-18. And in Matthew’s Gospel: 13:24-30, 36, 43, 47-52; 24:30, 51; 25:12, 30, 46.
“miracles”: it is the plural of the noun dunamis (or dynamis) (pronounced doo-na-mees or dee-na-mis, but most teachers prefer the first one). It is often translated as “power,” but also “miracle” or “miraculous power.” It means power in action, not static, but kinetic. It moves. Yes, we get our word dynamite from it, but God is never out of control, like dynamite is. Its purpose is to usher in the kingdom of God and repair and restore broken humanity, both in body and soul. For nearly all the references of that word and a developed theology, please click on Miracles, Signs and Wonders.
Then Jesus lists the three power giftings—but only representative giftings or ministry power—that the false followers will claim on that day. They can claim to do more than those three gifts, like healing the sick.
These miraculous claims can be confusing for those of us who believe that miracles still happen today—continuationists, in other words. The opposite are the cessationists or those who believe the gifts, particularly the ones listed in 1 Cor. 12:7-11, have ceased (hence the name cessationists).
See my posts on the gifts in 1 Cor. 12:7-11. Each gift has further links to a fuller article:
These false prophets or counterfeit followers who do these mighty works should not be seen as Jewish exorcists who circulated around the ancient world (Acts 19:11-17). No, these are certain people who claimed to follow Jesus and penetrated the Christian communities. Keener points out that the Didache (pronounced dih-dah-kay), an early teaching manual or handbook for Christian communities, provided moral tests for circulating prophets (Keener, p. 252). Likewise, Matthew was not against the charismatic gifts, but in fact these verses assume that they exist. Instead, he warns the early communities to watch out for false prophets. If there are false ones, then there were true ones. Therefore, Matthew was not anti-charismatic, nor does Jesus’s teaching assume this, either. Just the opposite.
Maybe these verses in Matthew 13 will clarify matters about false kingdom citizens:
47 Again the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet thrown into the sea and gathers all kinds of things. 48 When it is full, they haul it up on to the beach and sit and gather the good things into containers, and they throw the bad things outside. 49 In this way, it shall be at the end of the age. The angels shall go forth and separate the evil people from the middle of the righteous people. 50 And they shall throw them into the fiery oven. In that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt. 13:47-50)
This short parable may be too broad for the context in vv. 21-23, but it shows there will be false members of the kingdom. Once again those are challenging and even disturbing angelic activities at the last judgment.
So who are these charismatically gifted and miracle-working followers to whom Jesus will declare that he never knew or recognized them? Verse 22 calls them false prophets. In this context, they seem to be leaders in the church or self-proclaimed leaders. They claimed to exercise spiritual gifts, and people who do this regularly, as a ministry, can be marked as leaders. Therefore, it is doubtful that this pericope applies to Average Joe or Jane Christian.
But beware! Anyone can drift so far from Jesus that they will hear the sobering words at judgment: “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. I never knew you!” This can also apply to average, church-going Joe and Jane.
How the falseness is manifested
Nonetheless, this whole pericope seems to be about leaders, though anyone can work those miracles and not salvifically or personally know the Lord. How does these leaders’ falseness manifest?
First, they did not travel down the restrictive road and enter by the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13-14). They did not produce good fruit (vv. 15-20). They may have judged people, even though these self-appointed judges had beams in their eyes (vv. 1-6). In short, they bypassed Jesus’s strict teaching.
Second, they did not do the will of their Father (Matt. 7:21). What is his will? It is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, and the major theme here is doing righteousness, after the follower entered the kingdom so the Father can empower him to do righteousness. The will of the Father shall also be revealed in the next pericope: those who obey the words and commands of Jesus, and those who do not. The obedient ones will be like those who build their houses on the rock, and the second group who do not obey will be like those who build their house on the sand (Matt. 7:24-27). Doing the will of the Father is obedience to the teachings of his Son. Prophets must submit to the teaching of Jesus, or else they will be declared false.
One more time, here is a post that clarifies:
Third, these charismatically gifted are the ones who produced bad fruit. Some fruit trees appear healthy, but they are not in substance or at their roots. And their unhealthy appearance and fruit may not be visible at first, but the results will come in soon enough. Fruit can mean both moral behavior and not conforming to the teaching of Jesus—bad doctrines, in other words.
Fourth, they are workers or practitioners or doers of lawlessness. What is this entail? Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4-8).
4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. (1 John 3:4-8, ESV)
In those above verses, John teaches us that practicing sin is similar to Matthew’s workers or practitioners or doers of lawlessness. In fact, both John and Matthew agree: sin is lawlessness. John knew about false “disciples” or prophets who infiltrated the Christian communities, and he taught the communities to inspect their fruit. One symptom of bad fruit is practicing sin.
Further, in some early kingdom communities, false disciples could confess his name while seeming to work miracles, expel demons and prophesy, and they can fool many undiscerning disciples who didn’t look for fruit. These false followers exhibited bad fruit that needed inspection, not just the church’s naïve and childish acceptance of their claims to be able to do those things. True followers need discernment.
Fifth, they did not know Jesus or he did not know them. They may have started off in right relationship with him, but like the child who confidently thinks he knows how to explore the woods without getting lost, but in fact does, these false followers gradually lose their way in their own self-confidence and self-deception. They think they know Jesus, and maybe they did at first, but they lost their way in tiny steps. Judas was a disciple, but he gradually drifted from Jesus and betrayed him.
Sixth, the profession of Jesus’s title “Lord, Lord,” may be an outward show, but inwardly they did not know him, truly. The name of Jesus stands in for his character. If the false prophets / followers did charismatic gifts in his name, then they must honor and measure up to his character. Yes, everyone falls short once in a while, but repentance and doing works worthy of repentance is the foundation and first step towards restoration (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20).
Possible modern application and examples
So are there modern examples of false prophets or false teachers? Yes, but I will not mention names, only the practices and beliefs. The following are representative samples.
First, if any leader has performed same-sex commitment ceremonies (also known as same-sex “marriage”) in church, he is not doing the will of the Father. Jesus endorsed the Edenic model of one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). The church leader who strays this far away from the biblical norm is a practitioner or worker or doer of lawlessness.
Second, any leader who endorses sexual misconduct because he is “evolving,” allowing, for example, two people to live together (e.g. same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples), is a worker of lawlessness. Yes, we can be patient with these couples, as God deals with them, but to endorse by allowing their lifestyle is lawlessness. Pastors who sexually abuse people, particularly children, are practicing lawlessness and not even close to doing the will of the Father.
Third, any leader who continuously teaches false doctrines and denies true ones, like the full significance of Christ’s substitutionary atoning death on the cross, is not doing the will of the Father. Jesus instituted the New Covenant by symbolizing it with the bread and wine and then ratifying it by dying in the cross. To deny the full import and the absolute necessity of the cross is to deny the whole purpose of the four Gospels.
We also need the other theories of the atonement:
Fourth, if any leader denies the full authority of Scripture for life and morals and doctrine—setting aside the debate between inerrancy in all its parts and infallibility in its doctrine and practice—is not doing the will of the Father. Jesus had a very high view of Scripture, saying David spoke by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 22:43). Obedience to Scripture and Jesus’s teaching is not optional. Though he came to fulfill the OT, he also said it’s a bad idea for teachers to tell people to break them. This is especially true of moral law, which has been imported into the New Covenant.
Fifth, any leader who says Jesus was just a good teacher and fine moral example and denies his full deity is not doing the will of the Father. The leader is really not understanding what “Lord, Lord” means. He does not understand what it means when Jesus says, “Depart from me” at judgment. This is a declaration of repudiation in Rabbinic usage current back then, but Jesus elevates the severity by placing those words at the final judgment. His being the judge show his full deity.
Here are other verses that explain his full humanity and full deity:
Sixth, any leader not obeying Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the Gospel, (and depending on God’s power and grace to help him), is bound for a crashing fall. This obedience to his teaching includes righteous living and actions. The hyper-grace teachers are revealing themselves to be workers of lawlessness. Yes, God is willing and loving enough to work with our failures (as he does mine daily), but our repentance must bring forth works worthy of repentance (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20), sooner rather than later. Any leader who says repentance is not so important is also a worker of lawlessness.
Seventh, any church leader who says he’s an agnostic and is “searching” and is unable even to utter, from the heart and with firm conviction, the words, “Lord, Lord,” yet remains in his pastoral duties, is a worker of lawlessness. He must step down until he gets things sorted out. He cannot lead people, when the NT totally affirms that these issues, like God’s existence, and doing righteousness and sexual restriction to heterosexual marriage, have already been worked out. If he cannot follow the NT, then he must remove himself until he has developed the conviction that the apostles had. The church belongs to Jesus, not a troubled pastor. And Jesus didn’t doubt God’s existence or teach same-sex “marriage” or have a lackadaisical outlook on righteous living.
Eighth, any leader who lives an extravagantly wealthy life from the donations of Joe Factoryworker and Jane Shopkeeper is in danger of greed and being a worker of lawlessness. He is not doing the will of the Father. Prosperity modestly defined is biblical; becoming wealthy by good business practices is also biblical (1 Tim. 6:17-19). But Christian leaders manipulating and pressuring Joe and Jane to give and then living in massive houses and owning conspicuously luxury items is wrong.
Ninth, discarding the OT is misguided. If you could time-travel back to the time of Jesus and then Paul, they would be aghast to hear that modern Christians are throwing out their Scriptures. Jesus is resurrected now and is Lord of his church, and he never threw out the OT. So I believe that he opposes it right now. The OT’s moral law and Messianic prophecies, for example, are still relevant.
What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old? (The NT for sure keeps moral law)
How do those verses apply to me?
In sum, those doctrines and practices are essential, not peripheral (like interpreting the book of the Revelation in one way or the church policy of giving). The old saying is true: in the essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things charity (love).
God is willing to work with all struggling people (God has shown me mercy over the years), but when the leaders (and everyone else) continually teach lawlessness by word or example, they must repent quickly, so they will not hear the shocking words at judgment: “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness; I never knew you.”
Addendum: The destructive left, a list
Here’s a supplemental list of warnings that you may be drifting towards stealing and killing and destroying.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
Theft, killing and particularly destroying.
The left destroys the following:
Babies: by advocating killing them in the womb (Yes, abortion is a forgivable sin, but it is still a sin)
Gender differences: by claiming boys can be girls (and vice-versa) and shower together and compete together in same sport
Religious liberty: by suppressing freedom of conscience or restricting church attendance. The next link is the foundation for America, and it can also be a fundamental right for the whole world.
Authority of Scripture: by not treating it respectfully or badly misinterpreting it to support the new leftwing norms or severing the New Testament from the Old Testament, to name only those three examples
Truth: by denying there are eternal, bedrock truths and affirming that moral truths are relative; facts and truth do not care about your feelings.
Goodness: by calling good evil and evil good (see Isaiah 5:20)
Sexual boundaries: by “exploring” “erotic theology,” for example
Here is a list of the destruction that the left–whether religious or not–imposes on or works into society, the church, and even entire nations.
The left destroys:
Cities: by burning them down
Entire economies: by government’s wielding as much control as possible, governmental theft
Political fairness: by crushing dissent
Careers: firing those who dissent from the leftwing norms
Free speech: by suppressing dissenting words and a free press and by deplatforming
Fair and honest elections
Objectivity in the news media: by hiring other leftists who hate conservatives and leftwing fact checkers who do not know much.
Western Civilization and America History: by omission, exaggeration and distortion (e.g. the 1619 Project)
Time-honored Traditions: by running roughshod (e.g. FDR’s four terms in office, denying George Washington’s example)
Religious Progressivism is infiltrating and destroying the church, little by little. Advocating for those issues and doing them is to practice lawlessness and may deserve the sobering words: “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness! I never knew you!” (Matt. 7:21-23).
Wise statement I read on Facebook: Popular Christianity is not biblical, and biblical Christianity is not popular.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).