The most terrifying verses in the Bible

Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

This passage has caused me more fear and self doubt than any other in Scripture, because it tells the story of people who have heard the word and done the deeds and seem genuinely shocked when Jesus rejects them at the seat of judgment. These people sure sound sure of their salvation when they are begging Jesus to reconsider, and the possibility that you could be so sure and have borne what seems to be such good fruit and still not make it is a very scary thought.

I have yet to find an interpretation of the passage that I am confident in and can endorse, so I will instead list my questions and thoughts and see if any of my readers have any ideas. Growing up, I was taught that this passage referred to people who simply claimed to be Christians but never repented and never showed any fruit, being unregenerate because they have never actually been saved. My teachers said that these were the hearers of the Word, but not the doers – those who came to church as kids or who had learned all about the Bible but never believed, never let it change them because they never turned over control of their lives to God. It kind of felt like being told there was a monster in your closet ready to eat you if you disobeyed your parents.

I don’t think that it’s a correct interpretation. Here’s why.

The preceding passage is a long sermon from Jesus on a multitude of topics, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, which this lesson concludes. Immediately prior to this, Jesus warns his followers to beware of false prophets and to identify them by the fruits they bear out in their lives, using the example of a garden as an illustration for mankind. Immediately after saying “you will recognize them by their fruits,” he then says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” He separates actions from deeds right off the bat, which is where I think this interpretation comes from, and at first glance it makes sense that Jesus would be doing a simple compare/contrast here to reiterate what he had just said. But the next thing that those rejected at the throne do is offer their actions as evidence: “Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”

Prophecy in the name of Christ is a big deal, and we know there are false prophets out there – Jesus just finished warning us about them! – so we can probably ignore that first evidence as being definitive proof of any kind. The third evidence, “many mighty works,” is vague enough upon first read that we really don’t know what it means beyond that they did some stuff while saying they did it for Jesus. The Greek doesn’t help that much either, but it gives a little more insight. The word used there for “mighty works” is dunamis, translated elsewhere as “miracle” or “power,” and conveys some sort of special power, in this context presumably spiritual and drawn from the claim of Christ – it’s used in Acts and elsewhere to describe acts done by and through the Holy Spirit.  So these guys were definitely claiming to have performed supernatural acts of some kind in the name of God. However, there are accounts in Scripture of people performing miracles apart from the power of God, either through demonic power or deception, such as Pharaoh’s magicians or the medium at Endor, and Jesus also warns that false prophets may be able to perform great wonders in Matthew 24. Thus, while this is a more impressive and substantial claim, ultimately it may mean nothing.

The second claim, though, is what gives me pause. They claim to have exorcised demons in the name of Christ. Every other successful exorcism I can find in scripture was done by a believer in the name of Christ or by Christ himself – the one attempt that is recorded that was made by false prophets ended with the lot of them badly beaten and sent running by a demon who laughed at their efforts. This leaves us with four scenarios as to what really happened at these events the men are describing:

1) They were able to exorcise the demon without God’s power. It seems unlikely to me that this would be the case, especially given the example made of the sons of Sceva in Acts 19.  Only a holy God has the kind of power to command a demon, not a solitary fallen man. The demon also could not be cast out by another demon, as Jesus explained to the Pharisees. Maybe the demon was a wuss and they did it on their own. Can demons be wusses? Not sure on that one, ask your local pastor. Doesn’t seem likely though.

2) They are simply lying. This doesn’t make any sense to me. First off, lying to God to his face would take extraordinary chutzpah and seems rather futile once you’re actually standing at the seat of judgement. Second, it really doesn’t seem to fit in with the story. Jesus is indicating that not only are the words empty, but the actions are as well; if the men are simply lying about the actions then we’re missing the point of the story entirely and I suppose that a successful exorcism can probably be taken as definitive proof of salvation.

3) They exorcised it through the power of God because they were regenerate at the time and later lost their salvation. No way. I’m a big fan of the doctrine of eternal security and from everything I can see, so is God (and I plan to post in more detail on that later). “Losing their salvation” is simply not an option, as convenient as it may be in this case.

4) They exorcised it through the power of God even though they were not regenerate. This one is the only one that remotely fits based on the process of elimination. It just doesn’t make sense based off of what we know to be true about how God acts. Now it is hinted at in Hebrews 6 that there is in some way the possibility of someone “partaking of the Holy Spirit” and “tasting the Word” but not being saved. Or at least that’s what it might mean. Peter talks about Paul being hard to understand, and I think he was referring to Hebrews when he wrote that. This is really the only potential explanation I’ve seen, and it’s entirely unsatisfying to me.

So what do you think, friends and readers? Any ideas? Am I crazy for overthinking this? Am I way off? There’s a comment section right down there for you to tell me.

11 thoughts on “The most terrifying verses in the Bible”

  1. I don’t feel confident enough in my knowledge of the Scripture to even start thinking about forming my own opinions on this verse, but thanks a lot for posting it. You have some great thoughts here and I think that if there’s one verse in the Bible that we as Christians must understand, it very may well be this one. It is truly a terrifying verse. It has also made me reflect on how I live my life and realize how often I compromise the standard every day. My best “Christianity” is not even close to good enough.

    Thoroughly enjoy your blog. I just may sit down with my pastor sometime and talk this verse over.

  2. Thanks for the reply Jeremy. I should be clear that I don’t intend to try and scare people with this passage, that’s not what it’s there for; it’s clearly teaching an object lesson about how your works and words are not enough apart from the gift of regeneration given us by God, and we can be assured and comforted in the finality and security of that gift. It’s just a little troubling to see that people can be so assured of their salvation by looking only at their works and deeds that they would stand before God and hear “I never knew you.” Thankfully we have more than just a to-do list from God!

  3. Two things jump to my mind about this and they are more comments/questions than answers really.

    1: Judas was never accredited for doing any signs specifically yet scriptures does state that “the disciples” performed signs and cast out demons. I personally think it’s safe to assume that Judas did do some signs and wonders. He obviously was not a believer nor did he become one and lose his salvation (your assessment is 100% on that issue). How did he performs these things?
    a. Can Satan himself command his demons? Perhaps Satan himself (or the upper echelon of his regime, if there is such) could command other demons, thus “casting” them out of people without the power of God. That’s more of a thought nugget than an answer really.
    b. If God can/does command even the demons, could it be said that God used others/non-believers, to accomplish His will? In regards to exorcism?

    2: Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” in regards to false prophets, etc, but he also said the same thing about believers. And I believe it is in John 14-15 that he specifically says that they will know us by our fruits which I believe is addressed later as our “love for one another”. So I guess the question boils down to the definition of “fruit”. Is it these miraculous signs or is it more in line with Paul’s “Fruits of the Spirit”?
    Like I said, more questions/comments than answers but that’s what came to my mind.

  4. Chris, I don’t like the idea of Satan having them leave because of what Jesus said to the Pharisees about Satan dividing his kingdom, but I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility.

    Your “1b” answer is what I think is likely as good an explanation as I’ll get on this one – that is, that God used these unregenerate men to benefit the exorcised person despite their nature. It still doesn’t “feel” right, but there are some things I suppose we’ll have to wait on God to give us a final answer on someday.

    Good point on fruits. I tend to think it’s both.

  5. Yes, I realize that was not your intent. It is a blessed thing that our faith is not a “to-do” list, but rather a living breathing relationship with God. That is a big part of what separates us from the rest of the world. I know the whole “relationship, not religion” thing has been beaten to death but it’s nonetheless true.

    The whole discussion regarding the casting out of demons and performing miracles is really interesting. I do follow your logic with your four points and I’m inclined to agree. According to my understanding of the Bible, #3 is out of the question. In light of Matthew 12, #1 seems improbable at best, and the example you used only adds to that notion. #2 is pretty straightforward-it is hard to imagine any scenario in which someone would try and lie to God’s face. I am initially hesitant to accept the fact that an unbeliever could exercise a miracle through the power of God, Him being their enemy, but I suppose it’s not out of the question. I also think that what Chris said in 1b helped to see it from a different angle: what’s stopping God from using nonbelievers to accomplish His will? Nothing, of course. That doesn’t mean that we understand it but then again, how much of what God does do we understand anyway? This may be one of those things, like you said, that will have to wait until we see Him face to face.

    I appreciate the fact, with all the unfortunate bickering in the Christian community, that we as believers can discuss the harder concepts like this, and even come to different conclusions at times, but still function fully and effectively as followers of Christ without knowing all the answers to the trivial stuff.

    In any case, I think that what this verse boils down to is to ask the question: what is God’s will for me?

  6. Another thing I just thought of, while it’s 2am and I can’t sleep. Perhaps we are reading the passage incorrectly. Instead of reading it as a question; “Lord did I not…?” we should instead read it more of a statement. That changes the reading from this; “Lord, did I not do your will on earth?” to this; “Lord, did I not do YOUR job for you?” Instead of being an innocent question of rejection and confusion it becomes an arrogant and prideful statement from someone who sees great value and worth in his own works (though, tried passing them off as done in “His name”).

  7. Ah, another good possibility. Good thought. Perhaps the original Greek might help clarify which it might be? I wish I knew Greek; it seems to help a lot with the Bible.

  8. im not a strong christian persay but i pray gods will be done with me wutever he needs. Heaven or hell. He chooses your path in the end so just have faith that no matter wut he puts u where he wants you.

  9. I would like to thank the author for his marvelous efforts. I always enjoy reading such articles which provides knowledge based information. Regards, Annabelle Lynam

  10. This was the most startling and yes terrifying verse for me during part of my walk. I asked spiritual leaders around me for answers, and got nothing substantial. I would add two points…
    1.) I’ve learned that there are many great minds that have devoted their entire lives to interpretation and revelation regarding Scripture. I find myself less and less asking the ‘opinions’ of myself and those around me and spending more time reading commentaries from historical great men of faith.

    2.) Paul Washer is a modern-day preacher who does an excellent job of bring the lost doctrine of Regeneration back to the church. Once I began to see and understand Regeneration, so many verses in Scripture started to come to light. And I began to gain assurance after assurance of my re-birth. Matthew 7 no longer bothers my soul, but it continues to bother me because of the lack fo regeneration I see in those around me.

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