For most of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been happy to dance in the fuzzy intersection between the “now” and the “not yet”—between the old age that is passing away and the new age that is breaking in. So, it often seems like what he says could apply to either this life or the next life. Here at the end of the sermon, that ambiguity vanishes. When Matthew says “that day” in Matthew 7:22, this is prophetic shorthand for “the Day of the LORD.” This is Judgment Day.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:21-23)
This paragraph makes almost everyone nervous. First of all, we’re quite fond of making the distinction between “nominal” Christians and Christians who are really committed. That’s not the distinction Jesus makes. Jesus makes the distinction between those who talk about him a lot (“Lord, Lord”) and those who actually do what he says.
“Jesus makes the distinction between those who talk about him a lot and those who actually do what he says.”
The really scary thing is that when Jesus talks about the wide and narrow paths (Matt. 7:13-14), he’s talking to an entirely Jewish audience. He is not standing with the religious “in crowd” thumbing his nose at the vast sea of heathen scum. No, he’s talking to “church people” (per se) and warning them! He’s telling them to pay attention to what path they’re on. Being part of the “in” group is not the same as being on the right path. Unfortunately, it looks like the “many” who say to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” (Matt. 7:22) are also the “many” who are on the wrong path.
But this judgment day picture is even worse. When I was in Bible college training for ministry, we couldn’t help but notice that the folks that Jesus didn’t know were people who were doing ministry! Spectacular ministry, at that. They were driving out demons and working miracles. If these people weren’t close to God, who was?
The point of these examples—prophesying, casting out demons, working miracles—is to take things to the absolute extreme. There is no greater ministry a person could hope to do. And on the day of judgment, it doesn’t mean anything. Judgment day is not a work performance review. Jesus is not going to look at your metrics to see if you met or exceeded your stretch goal.
He’s going to look at your heart.
“Jesus is not going to look at your metrics to see if you met or exceeded your stretch goal. He’s going to look at your heart.”
The “will of my Father”—the obedience that Jesus is looking for—is exactly what he’s been talking about this entire sermon. It is the “righteousness” that surpasses the Pharisees. It is the visible transformation of character that causes the world to glorify God. It is our heart renewed to reflect the heart of God.
And it’s not about being “good enough.” It’s about living from a heart surrendered to him. Did his work in your life bear at least some fruit? Were you at least walking on the right path?
For this question, the specific tasks you did along the way are meaningless.
And that’s where it got personal. I composed a lot of this in the home improvement store where I work. No kid says, “I want to work retail when I grow up!” It took me years to accept that this job really was part of who I am. Even then, I hated it. I swam in anger, depression, and bitterness for about eight years until I finally started to see ways in which my job was a blessing.
First of all, I never confuse my job with my identity in Christ. There is absolutely no temptation to think that my meaning and value is found in the tasks I do there. A lot of my ministry friends are not so lucky. When you’re standing in front of people talking about God all the time, those lines can get real blurry. But, on judgment day, Jesus is going to look past all of that.
“When you’re standing in front of people talking about God all the time, those lines can get real blurry. But, on judgment day, Jesus is going to look past all of that.”
The second blessing took me about 13 years to recognize. I looked around and realized that, since retail is a challenging environment of quick, often emotionally charged encounters with total strangers, it was a near-perfect laboratory for learning how to love people. I’m not saying that I’ve become a master at it. My workplace is a good laboratory precisely because it can be really hard. I just figured out that that’s what I’m supposed to be doing!
Here’s the thing: learning to love people simply is learning to see them the way God does (seeing them through his love for them). If I learn to see people the way God does, then I experience something of God’s heart. That means that, in learning to love people, I get to know God better. So retail became a vehicle for knowing God more.
God took me out of ministry and put me in retail to draw me closer to him.
“In learning to love people, I get to know God better.”
God is speaking. It doesn’t matter if you’re a peasant working in the fields, a stay-at-home parent, a missionary in the jungle, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. These are not ends. They are means.
Meeting Christ there doesn’t mean asking, “How can my relationship with God make me more effective at this task?” It means asking, “How is God using this task to draw me closer to him?” That’s the end everything is working towards. Preaching to 10,000 people in a multi-site mega-church is great for the congregation. But they’re not with you on judgment day. How has God’s heart been formed in you?
Truthfully, this breaks down all the “compartments” we split our lives into—work, home, church, play, whatever. These don’t just flow out of our relationship with God. They pour into it. When it comes to our hearts, they have no meaning in and of themselves. They only have meaning for us as we meet God there.
“How is God using this task to draw me closer to him?”
Theology 101: God is everywhere. Start looking for him there. If we focus on meeting Jesus in all of our experiences, then we’ve spent our entire lives getting to know him. Then there is no fear in the final judgment (1 Jn. 2:28). When we stand before him on That Day, he’ll remember all the times we walked with him in the mundane and the glorious, in the dedicated work and in the laid-back down time. As old friends, he’ll be bursting at the seams waiting to see us—waiting to cry out, “I know you!”