In Luke 9:50 Jesus is reported as saying, “… for he who is not against us is for us” (par Mark 9:40).1 But later, in Luke 11:23, the Lord seems to be saying just the opposite: “he that is not with me is against me …” (par Matt. 12:30).
Those leaning toward and embracing the theological left have been known to exploit the former passage in defense of ecumenical diversity and broadening their circle of acceptance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the latter text has been favored to justify narrowing lines of fellowship beyond what is biblically prescribed. Meanwhile, antibiblicists cite both texts, pitting one against the other and claiming the Bible contradicts itself.
None of the above approaches is correct. Each demonstrates the interpretive fallacy of ignoring context and then proof-texting to bolster a preconceived misconception. An honest, sympathetic, and careful examination of these passages reveals both the intended meaning and a coherent harmony of the two.
On the Lord’s Side
In the first passage, the apostles were forbidding the good works of an apparent disciple of Jesus simply because he was not in their immediate apostolic circle. Contextually a childish dispute had arisen on their journey to Capernaum (Mark 9:33-34), and they later asked the Lord, “Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (Matt. 18:1).2 Their worldly focus was on which person should be considered preeminent (cf. Luke 22:24), while Jesus redirects their attention to the quality of character needed (Mark 9:35-37).
Christ teaches an important lesson by taking a small child in his arms (Mark 9:36) – the epitome of spiritual purity and innocence (cf. Mark 10:13-16).3 The disciples are challenged to turn from their selfish, vain, haughty ambitions, to develop the childlike attitude of humility, and to receive (be accepting and considerate of) those who exhibit the same humble disposition (cf. Mark 9:38-42).
Here is where John4 reveals the prideful/arrogant temperament of the apostles as he informs Jesus they had forbidden the good works of a man simply because he was not one of the twelve (Mark 9:38); “he doesn’t follow with us” (Luke 9:49, emp. added). However, Christ had more loyal followers than just the twelve (Mark 9:41; Luke 10:1), and no one could truly cast out demons in Jesus’ name unless the Lord had given him this power (cf. Matt. 10:8; Luke 10:17). What this man had done wasn’t contrary to the way of Christ, so the admonition is given: “Don't forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50; cf. Mark 9:39-40).
Not on the Lord’s Side
In the second passage (Luke 11:23; par Matt. 12:30), the Lord is speaking to antagonistic Pharisees who were falsely accusing him of doing the devil’s work. This is where he says, “he that is not with me is against me …” This situation, the people involved, and the issue addressed are very different than the above.
The antagonists were Pharisees (Matt. 12:24), identified by Mark as scribes from Jerusalem (3:22), indicative of Jesus’ widespread influence and reputation and the growing animosity toward him. Their options were to (1) deny the miracles; (2) accept that Jesus’ power was from God; or (3) attribute the miracles to another source. They couldn’t reasonably deny the reality of Christ’s miracles, and they refused to accept Jesus as a legitimate representative of God.
Jesus was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28; cf. Luke 11:20), and his opponents responded with “blasphemies,” i.e. reviling; irreverence, slander, defiant hostility. The verbal form blaspēmēsē (Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10) is in the aorist tense, involving a state of mind as long as it lasts, viz. conscious and deliberate opposition to God.
On this occasion the sin was stubbornly dismissing the obvious working of God’s Spirit and defiantly attributing it to the power of Satan. Enemies of truth, resistant to Christ’s message, are decidedly against him.
The teachings of Christ call for both exclusiveness and inclusiveness, depending on the circumstances. A genuine disciple of Jesus is not to be rejected (cf. Acts 9:26-27), and the New Testament gives clear instructions about being faithful to the Lord and recognizing faithfulness. But not everyone who wears the name of Christ wears the name legitimately (Matt. 7:21-23); in such cases, Luke 9:50 (par Mark 9:40) does not apply. At the same time, Luke 11:23 (par Matt. 12:30) is not about petty differences and disputes among brethren. The focus here is on false teachers and enemies of truth who reject Christ and the way of Christ.
Out of context, there appears to be a discrepancy between these two statements, while they seem to conflict with other passages as well. But in context, they are easily understood and harmonized.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the World English Bible. The Byzantine Majority Text reads hēmōn … hēmōn (“the one not against us is for us”), as in the N/KJV and RAV, while the NA/UBS Critical Text has the alternate reading, humōn … humōn (“the one not against you is for you”), as in the ESV, N/ASV, et al. See Text of the NT Part 1 <Link>.
2 Mark and Luke give abbreviated versions of this incident, while Matthew devotes the entirety of chapter 18 to it.
3 Matthew’s expanded recounting of the Lord’s words: “Most certainly I tell you [all], unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me …” (Matt. 18:3-5; cf. Luke 9:47-48).
4 John was one of the “sons of thunder” who struggled with impatience, intolerance, and selfishness (Mark 3:17; 10:35-37; Luke 9:54).