What it means to call Jesus “Lord” has been a big bone of contention over the last decade or so. I have had a lot to say on the matter here, there, etc., and on Facebook recently. Many people are convinced by a syllogistic Trinitarian logic: YHWH = Lord, Jesus = Lord, therefore Jesus = YHWH. Others, myself included, think that Jesus is confessed as “Lord” because the authority entailed in lordship has been graciously bestowed upon him by God (cf. Phil. 2:9-11).
This latter ante-Trinitarian line of thought can be made to serve different theological agendas. My own view is that it is not an argument against Trinitarianism (that is, anti-Trinitarian). It is an argument for a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament that foregrounds the kingdom-political significance of Jesus in the first century context. This is not the whole story, but it is by far the most important narrative thread in the New Testament, running from the announcement to Mary that her son would receive the “throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32) through to the fall of Babylon the great in Revelation 18-19. I think it needs to be better understood—at the expense of the classic Trinitarian paradigm if necessary.
Anyway, Danny got in touch recently, asking how Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 fit into the narrative-historical schema:
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.’ (Matt. 7:21–23)
So what light does this kyrie, kyrie saying, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, shed on our understanding of the lordship of Jesus?
First thing to make clear…
First thing to make clear: the Sermon on the Mount is not a piece of universal Jesus-wisdom. It has its own historical setting. Beginning with the Beatitudes, it defines a persecuted eschatological community within first century Israel which would be salt in the land, a light to all the house, a new city on a hill during the period of crisis that would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. There is, no doubt, much that we can learn from it, but the “sermon” wasn’t preached for our benefit.
Matthew 7:21-23 is slotted between the warning to the disciples about false prophets, who would not bear good fruit and would be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:15-20), and the little story of the two men who build their houses, one on the rock, other other on the sand (7:24-27).
I have argued before (for example, in my book Re: Mission: Biblical mission for the post-biblical church, 44-45) that this is Jesus’ reworking of Ezekiel 13:1-16.
The word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel….” They are foolish prophets, who have “uttered falsehood and see lying visions”; they have misled the people; they shall be excluded from the people, they will not “enter the land of Israel”.
It gets worse. The people have built a wall, but the prophets “smear it with whitewash”, and Ezekiel has to say to the prophets that the wall will fall:
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath, and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger, and great hailstones in wrath to make a full end. And I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you shall perish in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the LORD. (Ezek. 13:13–14)
You have to admit, that sounds like Jesus.
Like Ezekiel, he says that the false prophets will be destroyed, and the edifice that misguided Israel is currently building will be swept away in the coming storm and flood. Only the house built on the rock of Jesus’ teaching will survive the catastrophe.
Good prophets and bad prophets
So the passage about those who say, “Lord, Lord…” is framed by this narrative of judgment against Israel adapted from Ezekiel. When the judgment comes, when the Son of Man comes—within a generation—in the glory given to him by the Father to “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27), when the master comes home to reward or punish his servants, many will acclaim him, “Lord, Lord!”
Some of those will have done “the will of my Father who is in heaven”, they will have built something solid on the rock of Jesus’ teaching. Others will protest that they prophesied, cast out demons, did mighty works in his name, nevertheless Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23).
I suggest that this is said to his disciples as a prophetic community—the community that would receive the Spirit of prophecy and visions at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18). Their immediate task was to proclaim to Israel the same message about Israel’s future that Jesus had proclaimed. The prophetic announcement would be accompanied by—validated by—healings and the casting out of unclean spirits (cf. Matt. 10:5-8; Lk. 10:9; Acts 4:10-12).
That they prophesied “in the name of” Jesus meant that they were acting on his authority. In the Old Testament people prophesied “in the name of YHWH”, they were authorised to speak on YHWH’s behalf. But we also read of things being done “in the name of” other gods, David, Mordecai, King Ahasuerus (Deut. 18:20; 1 Sam. 25:9; Esth. 2:22; 3:12; 8:8).
Jesus says at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He therefore has received the authority from God to authorise his disciples to go out into the world to make disciples for the coming kingdom of God (Matt. 28:18). When Peter and John are arrested a few weeks later, they are interrogated by the Council: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7). It is a question about authority.
But clearly Jesus expected more from this prophetic community than just prophecy and miracles.
The eschatological judge
To “enter the kingdom of heaven” was the opposite of being excluded from the kingdom of heaven. This is a central theme in Matthew’s Gospel.
The “sons of the kingdom”, who thought that they had an automatic right to admission, the man who turned up at the wedding feast for the king’s son improperly dressed, the five ill-prepared virgins who cried out, “Lord, lord, open to us”, the worthless servant who failed to invest his talent—these would all be shut out of the kingdom, cast into the “outer darkness”, where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:10-11; 25:30).
The Son of Man, having received the authority to rule from God, would come in his glory, within a generation (Matt. 16:28; 23:36; 24:34), to judge the nations according to their treatment of his disciples, “the least of these my brothers” (Matt. 25:31-46). He would divide the sheep from the goats. Righteous Gentiles who had attended to the needs of the disciples would inherit the kingdom. They would have a share in God’s new future. Those Gentiles who had neglected or mistreated the envoys which he sent out into the world to proclaim his accession to the kingdom would be consigned, along with unrighteous Israel, to the punishment of the age.
So the emphatic “Lord, Lord”, uttered by the false prophets and the bungling virgins, identifies Jesus not with YHWH but as the eschatological judge of both Israel and the nations.
That this is also the Son of Man, who must be brought to the throne of God to receive “dominion and glory and a kingdom”, representing righteous Israel (Dan. 7:13-14; Matt. 16:27-28; cf. Lk. 19:12), points unequivocally to the fact that the authority to act as eschatological judge at the moment of impending crisis and transformation, which otherwise YHWH would have reserved for himself, was not an eternal attribute but something that was given to him for a specific purpose.