“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven; but 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 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’” (Matthew 7:21-23). There are going to be many souls on that great and terrible day of judgment who will stand before the throne of God with a list of credentials and accomplishments. There will be great religious leaders who will say that they only taught some false doctrine. There will be lukewarm Christians who will claim that they did pretty good. There will millions of souls who say that they came close to the kingdom of Heaven, but simply had a hard time taking those few necessary steps toward salvation. Does coming close count, though?
Throughout the days of mankind, there have been droves of people who came very close to complete obedience. Perhaps their souls only lacked a few things, or they did not take the final steps in their walk of righteousness. These are the kind of people who think about being baptized, ponder on the Bible without putting their foot down on a doctrine, desire to confess their sins but do not, or feel convicted after a sermon but never follow through with action. Let us focus our minds on a few of the men in the Bible who came very close to salvation. Perhaps we will see similarities between us and them, which should lead us to change our lives. We do not know the endings to these stories, for their spiritual fate is left undetermined in the scriptures – as is ours!
Herod, the curiosity-seeker
Turn with me to Mark 6:14-29, in which the events of the death of John the baptist are described. After being accused of participating in an ongoing adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife, Herod orders John imprisoned, although he is on the verge of execution because of the enemies he has made – indeed, it seems that part of Herod’s heart told him to execute him, anyway (Matthew 14:5), but his motives appear conflicted. While he was desirous of being rid of the pesky prophet, he also understood that John was a good and righteous man, beloved by the multitudes, and blameless of any punishable crime. For the sake of himself, he kept John alive, but had to deal with incessant complaint from the woman of his adulterous relationship, Herodias.
Notice a few things about Herod. “For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe” (Mark 6:20). There is some credit that must be given to Herod for realizing the purity of John. We are told by Christ that no man born of a woman ever came to close to the kind of holiness and fidelity that John the baptist cultivated in his life (Matthew 11:11). But what good does recognizing John’s holiness do if Herod will not act on this knowledge? Truly, this example should dispel any idea from people’s minds that simply respecting Christianity is an appropriate response to its call of righteousness. Often, we hear unbelievers say that they “think Christ was a great man,” yet they do not heed his teachings. Others will say that they respect all the religions of the world, and consider Christianity to be among the greats, yet will never become a part of it. Beyond that, we may have neighbors, co-workers, close friends or relatives who “respect” us for being such good Christians, but do not want that life for themselves. One writer said, “Many a hardened sinners maintains, like Herod, a reverence for men of God, and yet, like him, they go to perdition” (A Commentary On Matthew And Mark, McGarvey, 302). In the scriptures, it appears that Herod wanted it all: he wanted to keep his wife, although they were in an adulterous marital arrangement, but he also wanted to feel like he was a good man by listening to John sermonize. However, our Lord tells us that we cannot serve two masters and please either one (Matthew 6:24). Eventually, Herod would have to choose between his relationship with Herodias, or his sense of allegiance with John.
“And when he heard him he was perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him” (Mark 6:20). From these words it becomes apparent that Herod was never truly interested in the state of his soul, as far as salvation goes. He was a curiosity-seeker. He wanted to study new things, and he enjoyed hearing about the Gospel without being convicted by it. In this world of objectivism and human wisdom, we meet a lot of curiosity-seekers – they are the ones who show up one Sunday unannounced, sit in the back and observe, and leave immediately following the service. They are also the ones who sit down for a Bible study, but have no intention of “being converted.” They only want to have their ears tickled by something new and interesting. The Athenians were curiosity-seekers, too. “And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.’ (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new)” (Acts 17:19-21). Unfortunately, most people who are just curious about the Gospel will not be converted by it, but we must be persistent. Perhaps after a lifetime of just being inquisitive, these people may find something more meaningful in the Lord’s Bible. They may be impressed the foundation of the Truth that underlies all of Christianity, just as some of the Athenians requested that Paul return and teach them more about the Way of righteousness (Acts 17: 32).
The problem with this type of person is that they never end up putting their foot down on anything. While they may know a lot, and study every religion in the world, they never find a firm base and plant themselves in anything, neither truth nor falsehood. By doing this, many hope to just avoid judgment altogether. Christ tells us, however, that anybody who does not stand with Him is necessarily against Him (Matthew 10:38). Those who spend their entire lives “just curious” about the truth end up like the foolish teachers of 2 Timothy 3:7, who are “always learning yet never able to come to the knowledge of the Truth.”
The scribe who was “not far”
We ought to be impressed that in Mark 12:28-24 there was actually a scribe who was willing to sit down with Jesus and look at the scriptures with Him. Very few of the scribes and Pharisees were interested in serious discussion, only trickery, deceit, and even murder. But in our text, this teacher of the Law, first of all, recognized that Jesus was answering questions well, and desired to know more about His teaching. Perhaps the question that he proposes to our Lord was one that he used to test men who claimed to be from God. He is so pleased with Christ’s response that he says, “Right, Teacher, You have truly stated that…” (12:32-33).
“And when Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (12:34). Now we have a third classification of souls who come close to God, that is, those who know the truth but have not done all that is necessary to be right with God. They are completely aware of what must be done, and how it is to be done, but are either too distracted or too embarrassed and frightened to follow through with appropriate action. Being a teacher of the Law, this scribe was aware of what the scriptures spoke concerning the greatest commandments. He also adds that he understands the vital relationship between faith and works (“much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”). Sadly, though, we are never given the ending to this man’s story. Did he ever obey the Gospel? Did he become a disciple? Or did the pressures of other scribes and Pharisees bend his will into submission?
Another example of a man who was “not far” from following Christ was King Agrippa, who listens very eagerly to Paul’s sermon in Acts 26. When Paul is accused by Festus that he is crazy, the apostle turns to the king and says, “‘For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence… King Agrippa, do you believe that Prophets? I know you do.’ And Agrippa replied to Paul, ‘In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26:26-28). Maybe it was because of his embarrassment in the presence of Festus, who would have scoffed had Agrippa shown any more interest in the Gospel, that the king responds in such a way. While he knows what he needs to do, and believes that the prophets were true about Christ, he is unwilling to commit himself to obedience.
Some will argue that “not far” is close enough, as if God will forget about the aspects of the Gospel that we neglect, or that as long as we are basically “Christian” we will be given clemency on the judgment day. If anybody has unbelieving family members, they have probably heard the dismissive phrase, “Yeah, I know what I need to do,” which is followed by a subject change. Knowing what needs to be done, though, is a very different from actually doing anything about it. We hear the same kind of language from neighbors, co-workers, and other unbelieving friends – based on our godly examples, and the Gospel that we try to promote to them, they know what they must do. For these individuals, when God speaks to them form His judgment seat, He will say, “You were not far from the kingdom of God – in fact, it was no farther than your next-door neighbor, your co-worker, or your brother-in-law.”
The rich man who had one thing lacking
Next, consider the story of the rich man in Matthew 19:16-24. “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” It is legitimate question, and we see the inquiry throughout the New Testament. Notice, first, that the rich man knows that there are things that he must do – he is aware of an obligation that he has to be obedient. Second, he already knows the answer to his own question, as he responds to Jesus by telling Him that he keeps all of the commandments diligently. As we deal with individuals who are asking us questions about the Bible, or the Lord’s church, we ought to be careful not to always answer their questions for them. Sometimes it is important for a student to think through his own queries and realize that the answer is right in front of him. Instead of just telling somebody an answer, or shoving Bible verses at them indiscriminately, we ought to answer questions the way the Lord does; “What is written in the Scriptures. What do they say to you?” (Luke 10:26). In Paul’s discussion of the scriptures, in fact, he writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
“What am I still lacking?” Again, this rich man knows that he is missing something in his life. It is admirable that he continues to ask Jesus for more information. Like our Lord, we should always have an answer for those who ask us about salvation. It should not be difficult for any one of us to have a quick response for at least the most basic Christian concepts. As saved believers, we need to be able to give several scriptures on baptism, on the church, on the unity of God and Christ, and the inerrancy of the Bible. We certainly might not know everything, and may require help in locating more obscure verses, but every Christian ought to have a working knowledge of the Bible.
Unfortunately, this rich man had everything going for him except for the fact that he was very wealthy and was unwilling to part with his possessions. “But he went away grieved, for he was a man who owned much.” How disappointing it is for a man who came so close to the kingdom of God to reject it because of his own selfishness! Is this uncommon, though? “His heart was enslaved to the riches of this world and he could not follow Jesus with such an attitude of soul. There was something hard in the answer, yet nothing peculiar, for God requires every rich or poor one to surrender all to him. Jesus does not require the owners of property today to tell all that they have , but He does require that they use all that they have for His honor and glory” (Commentary On Matthew, H. Leo Boles, 393). There are so many lost souls out there who have come very close to complete obedience to God – the only thing they lack is a full self-sacrifice to the will of the Lord. They want to have religion, but on their own terms; they will sacrifice everything for Christ, following all of His commandments, except for the ones that conflict with their own personal interests the most. Such men and women often find themselves caught between things of the world and things of God; a career opportunity that conflicts with church assemblies, an adulterous spousal relationship, all points of the Gospel except for instrumental music or another false doctrine of their liking, or, as the story makes clear, their own wealth. How sad it will be on that day of judgment when people like this rich man stand before God and hear Him say, “O, how close you came to Me, but you lacked only one thing!”
Felix, who feared part of the message
Finally, let us consider the events of Acts 2:24-27, “Some days later, Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul, and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus, and as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you.’ At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul; therefore he also used to send for him quite often and converse him.” This text reveals that there are some folks who have ulterior motives in beginning a Bible study with a Christian. Perhaps they are only interested in money, or in meeting single people, or riling up Christians with numerous supposed contradictions in the Bible. Perhaps they are like the people of Israel who “say to their seers, ‘You must not see visions.’ And to the prophets, ‘You must not prophecy to us what is right, speak to us pleasant words, prophecy illusions’” (Isaiah 30:10). Essentially, these are people who like to hear only certain parts of the message of God, or only like the frills and gimmicks that are offered by today’s denominations, and have no real interest in deeply spiritual or doctrinal matters. Let us look again at Felix; he had no problem when Paul was preaching about faith in Christ (Acts 24:24), and probably enjoyed the discussions thoroughly. As soon as Paul moved on to more difficult subjects – not more difficult to understand, but more taxing on our level of obedience – Felix became frightened and had Paul sent away.
Do we ever become like this? Do we love it when our preachers give lengthy sermons on all of the delightful topics in the Bible, such as faith, love, hope, Heaven, and fellowship? And then do we go up in arms and become upset when we have to endure a sermon on Hell, hatred, or the hopelessness of sinners? If you are in Felix’s position right now, what is it that is preventing you from obeying? Are you frightened by Hell? Then obey the Gospel and fear never again! Are you afraid of self-control? Then just try it and see how wonderful life is when we are free from gluttony and self-indulgence. Does righteousness make you cower? Why? What is to be feared about righteousness, except that it requires us to leave our lives of sins behind and take up our cross in the footsteps of Jesus!
You might find yourself in the shoes of any of our examples from this sermon. Are you just sitting here right now, like Herod, as a curiosity-seeker, uninterested in truly transforming your life (Romans 12:2)? Are you “not far from the kingdom of God” like the scribe? Obey now and never again worry about being left out of the celebration in Heaven (Matthew 25:1-13). Are you like the rich man who had one thing lacking? What is holding you up from obeying right now? What one thing will you not let go of in your journey to Heaven? Whatever need you have, you can take of it right here, right now, and forever praise God in Heaven!