Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

I Never Knew You

Posted by BrianJ on April 14, 2007

Two passages in the Sermon on the Mount seem clear when read separately, but read consecutively (as they are written) they appear to be contradictory. The first is a parable that teaches how one can distinguish false from true prophets; the second is a warning to those who would only pretend to be Christ’s disciples:

Passage 1

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits…. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit…. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20)

This parable seems pretty straightforward: If someone is doing good things and teaching others to do good things, then that person must be a true prophet. In other words, if the actions are good then the person is good.

Passage 2

Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

This passage also seems clear: Jesus is warning us about a particular type of false prophet, a kind that performs miracles and preaches sermons but does so for his own glory. As an example, these verses are often used to condemn certain televangelists and faith healers. In LDS circles, the priesthood is brought into the discussion: the pretenders Jesus warns about are those who act without authority.

A contradiction?

The problem with these interpretations is the obvious contradiction: If I am working miracles—casting out devils, healing the sick, etc.—then I am doing good, and if I am doing good, then according to vs. 15-20, I am good. So how could I ever be rejected at the judgment seat? Similarly, if I follow someone who is doing good works, as vs. 15-20 seem to imply that I should, but he is rejected by Christ, what will become of me?

Reading with a different focus

I think there is a different way to read these verses which resolves the contradiction—and is also mindful of the context of the rest of the chapter. My interpretation hinges on what I see as the focus—the single most important word—of verses 15-23: “will.”

Focusing on this word changes how vs. 21-23 are read. Two points:

1) There is no concern on Jesus’ part over whether the miracles were real or fake. When the pretenders protest, “Didn’t we do good things?” Christ does not reply, “You just faked it; those were parlor tricks or devils casting out devils.” As the verse reads, the devils really were cast out, the mighty works were actually performed, and the prophecies were made.

2) The ‘pretenders’ were not acting for their own glory. They maintain that what they did was “in [Christ’s] name” (v.s 22) and Christ does not refute it; that is not his stated reason for rejecting them.

So I think vs. 21-23 are not a warning against pretenders and the unordained, but they are actually a warning to those who have been authorized (by priesthood or by calling) to do the will of the Father. They are a reminder that a calling or a title does not free one to act however one wants. Examples:

1) A bishop is authorized to call anyone in the ward to be a Sunday School teacher, but he must call the person the Lord chooses.
2) A young woman is called to “stand as a witness of God…,” but the way in which she witnesses must be in accordance with the Spirit’s promptings.
3) An elder can give a blessing to one who is sick, but the words of the blessing must be God’s words.

In short, there is no suzerainty within the Lord’s kingdom. Note that perhaps the closest exception to this that we see in the scriptures is Nephi, who was promised “that all things [should] be done…according to [his] word,” but that is qualified because he would “not ask that which is contrary to [God’s] will.” (Helaman 10:5)

The interpretation of Passage 2 affects that of Passage 1

When we read the second passage this way, it also changes the first passage. There will be prophets—true and false—but they will not be distinguished by miracles and prophecies because these are not the “fruits” of which Jesus speaks. The “fruits” of a true prophet are that others will be persuaded to do good; a false prophet will lead people away. In other words, the “fruit” doesn’t “grow on” the prophet in question, it “grows within” me. So it’s not a question of “he healed me/preached to me/spoke of Jesus,” but rather “he helped me/showed me/caused me to do the will of the Father.” (see Ether 4:12)

Context of the chapter

I think this reading fits within the message of the chapter, which can be broken in seven parts:

1) Do not judge others—worry about where you are headed (vs. 1-6).
2) Ask, seek, knock—and you will learn God’s will (vs. 7-12).
3) Few find the narrow gate—not for lack of searching, but for lack of searching correctly (vs. 13-14).
4) A good tree yields good fruit—i.e. good is defined as leading to the narrow gate (vs. 15-20).
5) Beware of pretenders—but more importantly, beware of becoming one (vs. 21-23).
6) The wise man built his house upon the rock—because he heard Jesus’ words and followed them (vs. 24-27).
7) Jesus taught with authority—where did he get it and how did he use it? (vs. 28-29).

A pattern that shows the will of the Father

In his role as the Savior, Jesus’ willingness to submit to the will of the Father is repeatedly mentioned in scripture (e.g. John 4:34). He is the ultimate example of one who was given power and authority but always acted according to the Father’s will—which leads to an interesting circularity in the way the godhead works. Because, after all, what is the will of the Father? I’ll answer that by quoting one of my favorite primary songs (despite its omission of Matthew 17:5*), which expertly illustrates the pattern the Father follows when expressing his will:

Jesus entered Jordan’s waters
When His work had just begun.
God the Father spoke from heaven:
“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

Nephites gazing into heaven
Saw their white-robed Savior come.
And they heard the Father witness:
“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

Joseph saw two glorious beings
Shining brighter than the sun.
God again presented Jesus:
“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

As I read the scriptures daily—
Words of Christ, the Holy One—
In my heart I’ll hear God tell me:
“This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

(Children’s Songbook, This Is My Beloved Son, 76)

* Bonus points (see Robert C for your prize) for anyone who submits a fifth verse to this song that incorporates Matthew 17:5.

11 Responses to “I Never Knew You”

  1. Peter, James and John, his brother
    Saw Moses and Elijah come,
    Heard, while Jesus stood transfigured
    “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

  2. I’ve always found a great deal of meaning in this, and used D&C 121 as a mirror for it as well.

  3. brianj said

    BiV: I like it! My kids, of course, will be the ultimate judges/critics….

  4. BRoz said

    “have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?”

    In physics, the definition of work is: When a force acts to move an object. If the object does not move it doesnt matter the force applied (effort) there is no work performed.

    In this case there is no work done either. First, Satan cannot cast out satan, and noone can say that Christ is Lord save he is filled with the Holy Ghost. So, there is no work becasue noone is brought closer to the true Christ by their efforts.

  5. Matthew said

    Thanks for the interesting insights.

    It does seem that verses 22 & 23 are saying that it isn’t enough to do wonderful works we must actually do the will of the Father. As I see it you are calling miracles (prophesying & casting out devils) and doing wonderful works as merely the clothing of a true sheep (a true follower of Christ) what really determines whether one is a sheep or a wolf in sheep’s clothing is whether one does the will of the Father.

    That makes sense…but then what are we to make of the the fact that Jesus clearly seems to do miracles as a way of testifying to the fact that he is doing the will of the Father? How are we to interpret Mark 3:22-25 if not as a statement that to cast out a devil is a sure sign that one is not a wolf?

  6. Robert C. said

    Great post. Don’t forget Moses 4:2. Perhaps:

    Satan wanted all the glory,
    Jesus said thy will be done.
    Father chose and said to Moses,
    “Behold My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”

    (Bored in Vernal, your prize is a standing invitation to guest-blog here, and a free account at the Feast wiki!)

  7. brianj said

    Matthew: I like how you put it: “Good works are the clothing of sheep, but what determines whether one is a sheep or wolf is whether one does the will of the Father.”

    I don’t know how to respond to Mark 3. I also don’t know how to address this verse in 3 Nephi 8:1

    “…behold, it was a just man who did keep the record—for he truly did many miracles in the name of Jesus; and there was not any man who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus save he were cleansed every whit from his iniquity—”

    Sorry to dodge your question with an “I don’t know.” I’ll come back to it if I receive any enlightment.

  8. brianj said

    Robert: you receive an “honorable mention,” but I’m afraid the actual phrase “This is my Beloved Son: Hear him!” does not occur in Moses 4. If I tried to pass your verse off on my daughters, I’m certain they would catch the deceit and lynch me.

  9. Robert C. said

    Brian #8: Deceit, eh? You daughters sound like tough judges indeed! Honorable mention is very generous.

    Regarding Matthew’s queston on Mark 3:22ff, I think this would probaby make for a great discussion question for a Sunday school class because I think it forces us to read to more carefully, to think about possible intertextual tensions, and to be very careful in trying to reduce the scriptures to a handbook of rules we can simply follow unthinkingly.

    That being said, here’s my very-much-evolving take on the issue:

    First, I think this is related to the issue in John 6:26 which Jim and I discussed here, where Jesus seems to berate his followers for following because they were hungry not because they saw the miracles he performed. Whereas sign-seeking is usually condemned, it seems there that an important distinction is being raised between seeking signs vs. following signs, and following signs seems not to be a bad thing.

    But if following signs isn’t a bad thing, why are we told that we can discern wolves in sheep’s clothing in Matt 7? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a mistake to think that we can know the fruits simply by looking. That is, over and over it seems scriptural metaphor discusses fruit being sweet vs. being bitter and, well, let’s just say my wife always complains when I pick out fruit (and veggies, celery and cucumbers in particular) b/c it seems I always pick out the bitter b/c I can’t tell the difference by the outside (perhaps this isn’t politically correct, but I’m a firm believer in women’s intuition). That is, I think BrianJ is right in helping us think about fruit a bit more broadly, that it’s either that which grows in us, or how it affects others, or how it tastes to us, or something…. (Note, Cheryl, Jim F. and I discussed this a bit here in comments 4-11 or so.)

    Now, how to read Mark 3:22ff. I guess I’m apt to think that even someone who isn’t completely in tune with God’s will can cast out devils by invoking God’s power, not the Satan’s power. For example, we might (MIGHT!) think about the Pharisees as “having the Priesthood” and perhaps even successfully casting out devils by the power of such priesthood. But the teachings of the Pharisees were wrong in that they only advocated outward works divorced from God’s will.

    Sorry this isn’t very coherent, but I don’t have time to try to reword this more clearly….

  10. Debbie Smith said

    Hi there

    My name is Debbie. I recently visited Salt Lake City.

    this is a very interesting article. i think it is a good conclusion to draw, that if one does not help us to do the will of the Father, then they are a false prophet.

    I am a Christian and I have a few questions regarding these points: I ask out of genuine interest not becuase i am trying to be antagonistic.

    2) Ask, seek, knock—and you will learn God’s will (vs. 7-12).
    3) Few find the narrow gate—not for lack of searching, but for lack of searching correctly (vs. 13-14).
    4) A good tree yields good fruit—i.e. good is defined as leading to the narrow gate (vs. 15-20).

    When Christianity has been around for about 1500 years more then Mormonism, why do you see Mormanism as the narrow gate?

    And if Mormanism is the narrow gate, should it be growing as largely as it has in Salt Lake city and worldwide?

    Thanks
    Debbie

  11. brianj said

    Debbie: Thanks for the questions. I’ll start by saying that I may answer differently than others here.

    “When Christianity has been around for about 1500 years more then Mormonism, why do you see Mormanism as the narrow gate?”

    I don’t see Mormonism as the narrow gate. I see following Jesus and doing the will of the Father as the narrow gate (with baptism as the outward symbol). I see Mormonism—or more specifically, the teachings and practices within Mormonism—as leading me toward that narrow gate and along the strait path beyond. In other words, Mormon church services, religious practices, and scripture help me to know the will of the Father.

    As for the age of Christianity and Mormonism, I don’t see a distinction between the two. Part of my belief as a Mormon is that I am worshipping the same God as Peter, Matthew, John the Baptist, and others did. So as the terms apply to me personally, “Christianity” and “Mormonism” are synonymous. Of course, I recognize that there are many different Christian denominations, so “Mormon,” “Baptist,” or “Presbyterian” become terms to distinguish Christians with different sets of beliefs as the terms are applied to others (e.g. you are Christian but not Mormon).

    As a parallel to this idea, I would say that Adam and Noah, Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, Isaiah and Malachi, and Peter and Paul all worshipped the same God, even though across these times there were different labels placed on their respective religions.

    “And if Mormanism is the narrow gate, should it be growing as largely as it has in Salt Lake city and worldwide?”

    My first answer sort of answers your second question, but just to be sure…. I do not think that Mormonism is the narrow gate. One can “find” (join) Mormonism, but still miss the narrow gate, just as one can “prophesy in [Jesus'] name,” but not “know” him. The growth of Mormonism, I believe, is a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus spreading throughout the world, but it is not a measure of how many have found the narrow gate.

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