49 Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.” (Lk. 9:49,50)

“He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” (Lk. 11:23)

Shortly after the familiar apostolic debate – ‘which one of us is the greatest?’ (Lk. 9:46) – and shortly after Jesus perceived the thoughts of His disciples and gave them an illustration, along with some instruction, about true greatness (vs.47-48), John, for whatever reason, called Jesus’ attention to something he and the others had seen at some earlier time; namely, a man who wasn’t among them but was casting out demons in Jesus’ name (vs.49). A quick glance at the verse reminds us that this guy was being used in this way. This was not a case like in the book of Acts where the seven sons of Sceva tried to cast out a demon in the name of “Jesus whom Paul preaches” and it didn’t work (Acts 19:13b). Here, the guy was actually casting out demons in Jesus’ name. So all we know about this man, which is very little, suggests that he believed in Jesus and was being used by God to advance the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ response to John, per the NKJV, went like this: “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side” (vs.50). As noted in two NKJV footnotes, it appears that, according to the oldest manuscripts, the words us and our (towards the end of the verse) are replaced by the words you and your. That point in itself can begin to stifle the accusation that this verse contradicts the statement in Luke 11:23. But even if one were to stick with the older manuscript translation, or if one were to argue that the connotation of Jesus’ words, even according to older manuscripts, suggests the same idea – ‘he who is not against us is on our side’ – there still would not be a contradiction.

First, let’s be clear about what Jesus did not mean. Jesus does not mean – a person can believe whatever he wants and be ‘on His side’ or on the side of His apostles as long as he is not antagonistic towards Christianity. How do we know that? Well, besides the myriad of demonstrative statements that Jesus and His apostles made about the exclusivity of salvation through Christ (Jn. 14:6; Acts. 4:12), let us consider the text that appears, on the surface, to say the opposite of what we read here:

“He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” (Lk. 11:23)

But immediately, before we even explain what Jesus appears to be saying here, the fact that both statements are recorded so closely together in Luke’s Gospel should be a clue that a contradiction is not in view. It’s reminiscent of how Proverbs 26:4 says to not answer a fool according to his folly, while Proverbs 26:5 says to answer a fool according to his folly. It would be silly to think that Solomon put those two verses back-to-back without realizing that they were contradictory. He could put them alongside one another because they did not contradict at all. They are both true in different circumstances. In one case it is wise to answer a fool according to his folly and in another instance it is not, and that’s the point of the proverb. Likewise, we shouldn’t think that Luke put contradictory statements so close together as though he didn’t realize he was setting forth a contradiction. By no means!

When we set Luke 9:50 and Luke 11:23 alongside of one another we see that one party is “not against” and the other party “is not with.” Contextually, the individual in Luke 9:50 who was not against Jesus and His disciples was someone who appears to have been a believer and follower of the Lord Jesus, while those who to whom Jesus was responding in Luke 11 were those who were saying that He casted out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons (Lk. 11:15-20). One party was “not against” Jesus and His disciples because he was with them in faith and practice even if he wasn’t in their literal travels, while the other party was “not with” Jesus in faith and practice, and thus was against Him.

And at the end of day the two passages are reminders that there is no room for neutrality when it comes to Jesus. Someone is either not against Jesus and His apostles because he or she is with them – trusting Him, following Him, etc., or someone is against Jesus because he or she is not with Him. Whether the latter be antagonistic or indifferent, to not be actively engaged in faith-prompted, Christ-exalting obedience is to be passively engaged Satan’s service (Lk. 11:23b).