"Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
- Luke 10:20 (ESV)
I have a good friend. He’s exceedingly kind, outgoing, and generous. He makes friends wherever he goes precisely because he treats even complete strangers like friends. He makes Dale Carnegie look like a misanthrope.
As you might imagine, there is little relational distance with this guy. Immediately upon meeting him, he talks about awkward things; he confesses intimate struggles; and, although his revelations are sometimes utterly cringe-worthy, most find him completely endearing.
So, one day, my buddy (we’ll call him ‘Rob’ because, well, that’s his name) walks into Dunkin Donuts and sees a mutual friend of ours. The friend is facing the other direction, enjoying a donut and some coffee all by himself, blithely unaware of the social wrecking ball about to pummel him. Rob quietly slips over undetected, sidles up to our mutual friend, and licks his ear lobe from behind! Can you even believe it?!
Our friend immediately stands up, turns around, and reveals that - wait for it - he isn’t our friend at all! He's a complete stranger!
Let’s just say that an awkward and tense scene followed.
And the moral of the story is clear: if you think you know who somebody is, you better be really, really sure.
That couldn't be any more true than when it comes to Jesus.
When we come to a figure like Jesus Christ, most of us think that we know him. We presume to know who he is and what he's all about. For us, Jesus is a predictable, comfortable character.
And maybe we do know Jesus. After all, God is knowable. We follow a God who reveals himself that we might know him. The Apostle Paul confidently declared that the light of God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The Apostle Peter commanded believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The Apostle John likewise declared that “we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
Here we have the testimony of three apostles all saying the same thing. We don’t need to stumble in the dark concerning Jesus; we can be enlightened with the truth. We can indeed know him. Paul assures us that “ if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3).
Nevertheless, not all who claim such knowledge should be so confident. Jesus himself warned that many claiming to know and be known by Jesus will be shocked at the end of the age:
21 “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. 22 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?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
Obviously, what Jesus describes here is a lot worse than licking the wrong ear at Dunkin Donuts!
This can and probably should create some tension in our mind. On the one hand, we know that we can know and be known by God. On the other, we know that such confidence is sometimes misplaced. The obvious question: how can we know for sure?
Well, a workweek devotional isn't the place to work out every aspect of this deep question, but let's start by noticing something about the pleas of those dismissed at the end of the age. On what do they base their confidence before Jesus? Listen to them:
Did we not prophesy?
Did we not cast out demons?
Did we not do mighty works?
In whom are they trusting? Sure, they make mention of Jesus, but their trust is ultimately in themselves. By trying to stand before God on their own merit, they reveal a very low and ignorant view of God and very high (and also ignorant) view of themselves. They know neither God nor themselves rightly.
This episode finds an interesting companion in a famous exchange between Jesus and his first disciples. After Jesus empowers them to prophesy, cast out demons, and do mighty works in his name, they're amazed - and understandably. Yet, Jesus warns them against celebrating these powers and accomplishments. He says, "Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 ESV). What is Jesus saying? He's warning them (and us) against grounding ultimate confidence before God in what we do. If we're truly his, we find our ultimate confidence in what he's done, not what we're doing or not doing.
Child of God: While God's work in you and through you is cause for sincere and ample rejoicing; it is never the ultimate ground of your assurance. If it was, you'd lose heart every single day because we all continue to stumble in many ways (James 3:2). What you have in the gospel is so much better: the perfect performance of Jesus for you. Because of the work of Jesus, your name is written in heaven and will never be erased. As the old hymn says:
My name from the palms of His hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains
In marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heaven.*
You're loved. Don't forget it.
* By Augustus Montague Toplady (Even if you like the hymn, don't name your kid that. Ever.)
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