This is a passage that takes people in all sorts of directions. I’ve never heard an inaccurate interpretation of the passage but I’ve never heard a sermon on the passage that treats it contextually. There’s a great weight to the context of the Sermon on the Mount that will help us get something richer than usual from this passage.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’
It is, of course, a warning passage. And the message is quite clear — we might say anything we wish but saying it doesn’t make it true. There is judgement in the future for those have not actually made Jesus Lord but mouth empty words and try to curry favor with works.
But, as always, there’s more. And it’s in the immediate and extended context of the passage.
In the immediate context is the question of obedience. The law demands character. And living outside of the Law is lawlessness. If we include 5:17 in what the Jewish reader though of law, we could also say that “the character demands of the Torah” is at least part of what Jesus meant by obedience to the Law.
Verse 24 makes this clear. He is challenging those who hear His words but do not obey. They do not have a changed character and do not as such obey His teachings.
Often this is read as an eschatological statement — something about the end times. There is, after all, a judgment coming where people will be judged. This is one way that they will be judged. While that’s true there is more to the passage.
We might be tempted to read this passage with an application as our initial impression. We read it as talking about us today, as though that’s Jesus’ first message. He is telling us to listen and obey. And of course he is.
We might also read it as a condemnation on the Pharisees though they’re not mentioned here. We know that they taught a surface obedience without a changed heart. You’ll hear that in sermons now and then. But there’s something else here that again gives greater weigh to the passage.
Who is it that is hearing Jesus right now? It’s the crowds that came to listen to Him. This is, at its core, a warning passage to the casual listener. This is a message to us today to take His words seriously. When we read it today we do well to treat ourselves as being in the position of the hearers.
But why did Jesus find this necessary? It goes to His goals. He had a plan for the listeners. See 5:20
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
He is telling them the consequence of not having their righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Going back just a little further to 5:17, their, the scribes’ and Pharisees’, lawless character might be understood as being “Torah-less” as they are not able to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.
So what can we conclude here? By taking into account the broader context of a passage and being careful about the target audience and timing, we add a greater weight of meaning to the word. The meaning does change in this sense: We dismiss the simplicity of surface reading and interpretation and replace it with a fuller contextual study of a passage. We gain a better understanding of God’s intentions for us. We grow more, can obey better, and can build up others to be more faithful.