And John answered and said, “Master, we saw one casting out demons in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us.”
But Jesus said unto him, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).
“He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23).
The Bible is full of mysteries and has a few conundrums, and here is one right from the mouth of Jesus. It also has great relevance for today since there are plenty of people who, in reality or in effect, just quote these two verses against one another. If you are not for Jesus, are you, by necessity, against Him? Or if you are not against Jesus, are you really for Him? How could anyone be for and against Jesus at the same time?
While the two statements may seem contradictory, they are not. They are in different contexts talking about different situations, and there is much to be gained from considering them.
Mark (Mark 9:38-40) and Luke (Luke 9:49-50) record the interaction between John and Jesus regarding the one who cast out demons in Jesus’ name but who did not walk with the disciples. We do not know precisely why John brings this up– perhaps he is internally questioning the decision, or perhaps he is attempting to get some kind of commendation for his activity. Nevertheless, John receives a rebuke. This gentleman, whoever he is, should not be censured for his conduct. Mark reveals a bit more of Jesus’ reasoning than does Luke: “for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me” (Mark 9:39). This is why Jesus says that “he that is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). They have some level of recognition that there is power in Jesus’ name, and they cannot be as quickly to speak evil of Jesus or those who follow Him if they have that recognition. Yet it should bear noticing that such a person, while perhaps being “for us,” still is not included in “us.”
Matthew (Matthew 12:22-30) and Luke (Luke 11:14-23) record Jesus’ interaction with the crowd and the Pharisees. Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees, always more interested in justifying themselves than perceiving the truth of God in Jesus, declare that He casts out demons by the power of Beelzebub prince of the demons. Jesus first devastates that claim– Satan would not cast out Satan, and the Pharisees would have to condemn their own sons– and then goes on to show the real problem. The Pharisees are blaspheming against the Spirit, declaring the work of God to be the work of Satan (Matthew 12:31-32). In such a condition there is little hope of repentance. It is to these Pharisees that Jesus declares that whoever is not with Him is against Him, and that whoever does not gather with Him scatters (Matthew 12:30). Such people have no belief in Jesus and are entirely hostile to Him and to His purposes. They are not “for” or “with” Him in any sense of those terms.
Jesus is not confused and He is not trying to be confusing. He is indicating that there are at least three groups of people out there– Him and His disciples, those who have some recognition of Jesus and His authority, and those who are entirely against Jesus and His disciples.
The ones who are against Jesus are those who do not recognize Him and who act in ways that are contrary to His will. They are like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus and were more than willing to ascribe His works to Satan in order to justify themselves. Such, without repentance, will scatter, and will be condemned on the final day (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
There are some who recognize that there is something about Jesus, however, and who are more sympathetic to Him and His purposes. Since they are not actively opposing the work of God in Christ, they show a level of approval, and are in that sense “for” Jesus.
Yet, ultimately, it is not enough to just not be against Jesus. If we wish to be saved, and to have eternal life, we must follow Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:3-6). We must seek to do His will in all things (Colossians 3:17). We must renounce all that is “us” and put on Christ (Galatians 2:20, 3:27). Let us not be found to be against Christ, or even that we were simply not against Him; instead, let us be found to be one of His followers, and obtain the promises!
Ethan R. Longhenry