How Could the Lawless Work Miracles?
Near the close of Jesus’ masterful Sermon on the Mount, He reminded His hearers that they must be more than hearers of the Word of God (Matthew 7:21-27); they must be “doers” of God’s Word (cf. James 1:22). Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Jesus then went on to say, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:22-23, emp. added). Recently, a gentleman wrote our offices wondering how someone whom Jesus “never knew” could work miracles such as prophesying and casting demons out of the possessed. How could these individuals do such things without Jesus’ knowledge or authorization?
First, we must keep in mind that the biblical phrase “to know” frequently means more than a mere awareness of something (cf. 1 Samuel 2:18,26; 3:1,7; Lyons, 2006). As Deity (John 1:1-5; 20:28), Jesus certainly “knows” all men (cf. 1 John 3:20). Thus, when He said, “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you,’” He obviously did not mean that He literally does not know (or will not know) who someone is. Jesus was referring to knowing spiritually those “who are His” (2 Timothy 2:19) and are not His. That is, Jesus knows those who are saved and those who are not. In Matthew 7:23, Jesus “was asserting that the accused had never had a saved relationship with Him. They had not followed Him and His teachings, but had refused to commit their lives to Him as Master and Lord” (Roper, 2003, 1:262).
But how could people who were never actually saved work miracles such as curing the demon-possessed? First, simply because God has used a person to work one or more miracles in the past to accomplish His will, does not mean that every one of those individuals were always (or perhaps ever) right with God. Though God gave the apostles power to “heal the sick” and “cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8; 17:21), one of them was a hypocrite (John 6:64-71). God used Balaam to prophesy (Numbers 22:5-24:25) even though he “loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15; cf. Numbers 31:16; Jude 11). Though divination was condemned under the Law of Moses (Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:11), God allowed a medium from En Dor to see Samuel’s “spirit ascending out of the earth” (1 Samuel 28:11,13). The fact is, just as God providentially used wicked nations to accomplish His will (cf. Habakkuk 1:5-13), and similar to how He can use insincere and improperly motivated preachers to teach the Gospel (Philippians 1:15-18), God sometimes carried out His will by giving wicked people the ability to perform one or more miracles. Other than Jesus, no accountable human being has ever been perfect (Romans 3:10,23; Ecclesiastes 7:20), and yet God has continually used human beings to accomplish His will. Therefore, just because a person may have worked one or more miracles in Bible times (cf. Miller, 2003), does not mean that that person was ever “known” (i.e., saved) by Christ.
Another explanation exists, however, for Matthew 7:22. Jesus said, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’” (emp. added). Notice that Jesus never said that these lawless individuals (7:23) were working legitimate miracles in His name. He merely quoted what the lawless will say at the Judgment in their own defense. Many of the scribes and Pharisees were “great pretenders.” They acted as if they were sincere in their devotion to God, when they were actually very deceitful (cf. Matthew 6:1-18; 7:15-20). It may very well be that one of their many deceptions was claiming to work miracles, and even acting as if they cast demons out of the possessed (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:9, NIV, RSV). In reality, however, they were frauds, just as there are many frauds today who are so hypocritical and delusional that one day they may stand before Jesus and attempt to rationalize their wicked behavior, yet to no avail.
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Lyons, Eric (2006), “Did the Patriarchs Know Jehovah by Name?” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/article/1051.
Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-Day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation—Extended Version,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/article/1399.
Roper, David (2003), The Life of Christ (Searcy, AR: Resource Publications).