A statement by Jesus that engages and holds my attention appears near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. He says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he 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 perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil- doers.’”
When Jesus speaks of “that day” he means the day of final judgment. In the New Testament this end-times references is called “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8; Philippians 1:6,10).
In this passage, Jesus, the young prophet, leader of a dozen men, tells us that at the end of history there will be a final judgment and on that day he will know the hearts of all men, and will have power to pronounce eternal banishment from the heavenly kingdom for some, saying: “I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers.”
Particularly surprising is the unexpected rejection of one class of believers who claimed to have done great, even miraculous, ministries in his name: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?”
Instead, there will be only one category who will be received into the kingdom of heaven. It will be those “who (do) the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Obedience is the key. That is, the heart’s obedience to the Father’s will, rather than general and especially self-directed service or accomplishment. That will be the fundamental criterion for anyone’s acceptance into heaven. To explain why that first group will be rejected for heaven, Jesus makes clear that in “that day” performance, even dramatic religious performance like the casting out of demons in the Lord’s name, will not be enough.
This issue of heart obedience is addressed repeatedly in Scripture. Isaiah said of a very religious generation, “These people come near me with their mouth / and honor me with their lips, / but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). In the closing hours of his earthly life, Jesus said to his closest followers, “If anyone loves me he will obey my teaching” (John 14:23).
In both Testaments, the bearing of the heart is the big issue. Even working wonders in Christ’s name will not count if the heart has not been open to the Father.
There’s a line in a well-known Negro spiritual that likely was inspired by these words of Jesus about the judgment: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t agoin’ there – O my Lord.” This should awaken us to examine the quality of our obedience to the Father — above all else.