By Dawn Wilson, Crosswalk.com
It’s popular today to promote Jesus as gentle and mild-mannered, but Jesus also issued sharp rebukes and serious warnings. His statement in Matthew 7:23 is one of the scariest passages in the Bible. When Jesus said, “Depart from Me, I never knew you,” he wasn’t referring to pagans, but to those who were considered the “good guys”—theologians who adhered to Jewish law. What did Jesus mean when He said, “I never knew you;” and how are those words significant for the church today?
What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Depart from Me, I Never Knew You’?
The word “knew” in Matthew 7:23 is not mere intellectual knowledge, like knowing a fact. Rather, it is specific knowledge about a relationship. The word, ginóskó, means “to come to know, recognize, or perceive.” In Matthew 7, Jesus takes this word deeper. Some followers did not perceive Jesus correctly, and they didn’t know their own sinful hearts. They wanted to be with Jesus, but they weren’t willing to surrender their lives to Him. They did not know Him at the deep spiritual level of salvation—and Jesus knew this.
Consider the context of the verse. Earlier, in Matthew 5-7, Jesus preached a sermon to the curious throng crowding around Him. We call it the “Sermon on the Mount.” He opens with the often-quoted “blessed are…” statements (5:3-12) and then the “light” and “salt” truths (5:13-16). Throughout the rest of Chapter 5 and into the first part of Chapter 7, Jesus explained why He had come and shared some principles that challenged the crowd’s thinking about Kingdom living. His words no doubt made many uncomfortable.
When people consider their eternal destiny, many do not want to think about judgment or hell; but God does not blindside people. He gives plenty of warnings about trusting in anything other than His plan to redeem us from sin. We see this in Chapter 7, verses 15-20, where Jesus warns about false prophets. Their impressive works and words were not rooted in true godliness because they did not really know God. To illustrate, He compared two kinds of trees: those that bear good fruit, and those that bear bad fruit. In verse 20, Jesus said, “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” That is the context of verses 21-23. Some people seem to bear good fruit, but a closer look reveals that the fruit is bad because it comes from a bad tree. God sees beyond external “fruit” to the reality of our “roots”—what has transpired in our heart.
Just as in verse 19—where the trees that do not bear good fruit are “cut down and thrown into the fire”—in verse 23 Jesus says, “Away from me, you evildoers!” Other versions of the Bible say, “depart from me.” Jesus referred to a specific group of people He “never knew” in a relational way, people who would not enter His kingdom.
Who Are the People Jesus Doesn’t Know?
Jesus defined those He knew—true members of the family of faith—as those who understood and did God’s will. Conversely, He didn’t know, relationally, people who refuse to obey God’s will. Jesus criticized the Jewish Pharisees and scribes for their hypocrisy and wicked perversion of God’s Word. He condemned their holier-than-thou ways. As He spoke about them when He addressed the gathered crowd, His words likely pricked many hearts, making them wonder, “Am I a hypocrite too?” Jesus had nothing in common with these Jewish leaders. They couldn’t understand His words or ways. While the Pharisee sanctimoniously thanks God that he is better than other people, the true God-seeker repents and cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).
God, through Isaiah, described hypocrites this way: “The Lord says, ‘These people come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13).
In His omniscience, Jesus knew the hypocrites’ hearts were self-righteous and filled with sin. It is important to understand that Jesus wasn’t saying “depart from me” in order to break off an established but sinful relationship. Jesus had no relationship with the fake followers. They did not know the Lord in an intimate, saving way. The word for “never” in Matthew 7:23 is oudepote, a strong word meaning “not ever, not even ever.” Someday, Jesus will say to many professing believers, “I never, not ever knew you,” because they never had true faith.
What Does it Mean for God to Know Us?
More crucial than our knowing God is the assurance that He knows us! In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Verse 22 goes on to say that people might even prophesy in Jesus’ name, cast out demons, or perform “many miracles,” but that does not mean God, their Creator, knows them relationally. We see this same dynamic in Luke 13:25-27. Jesus told a story about people who are outside a homeowner’s doorway, knocking and pleading for entrance—claiming to know him—but the owner of the house says, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” A person might verbally claim to follow Jesus, might show great theological insight, or even demonstrate some elements of “success” while serving in the church, but it is only those who do the Father’s will and are known by Him who will live forever with Him in eternity.
What did Jesus mean by the phrase “does the will of My Father”? He answered this in other passages: The Father’s will is that we believe in Jesus who He sent and that we place our faith in what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. Doing God’s will isn’t merely external compliance with rules and regulations. It’s internal—a matter of our heart relationship with Him. From God’s perspective, it is the heart that determines our destiny, not appearance or activity. “It is the heart that God sees,” Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote in “Ready for Scrutiny.” “It’s the heart that needs to be right so that the outside can be right.” Good works are important, but they are to flow from a genuine faith relationship. Righteous good works come after salvation, not before (Ephesians 2:8-9). When we know God through a saving relationship in Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and empowers us to do the wonderful works God has prepared for us to do. These good works we do after salvation are one proof of our faith—our justification in Christ.
God knows those He has called and adopted into His family, those who are “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3-14). Being “known by God” is crucial and essential (Galatians 4:9a). When we love God, we will want to obey Him from the heart; and 1 Corinthians 8:3 says, “whoever loves God is known by God.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows His sheep, and Father God gently tends His own flock (Isaiah 40:11). Jesus reminds us we are known or recognized by our “fruit.” While those Jesus knows as His own will produce spiritual fruit, those who are fake believers ultimately can only produce the works, or fruit, of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-24).
What Is the Significance of This Scripture for Salvation?
We want to be careful not to shake the faith of “baby Christians” or those who need to mature and become more like Christ, but it’s important for all believers to know where they stand regarding salvation. Some may be merely paying lip service to being a Christian, or are so-called cultural Christians. In “I Never Knew You,” Greg Morse wrote, “Is any lostness worse than remaining lost while believing you’re found?” Morse says he was like so many “sermon-hearers, Bible-readers, and synagogue-attenders” of Jesus’ day—“traveling toward hell in church clothes.” But Jesus, Morse wrote, showed the insufficiency of intellectualism, the inadequacy of mere emotionalism, and the fantasy of mere activism.
There are spiritual signs of life that can help people know whether they are in the family of faith. In some cases, believers may have become lax in spiritual disciplines and need to be reminded why salvation in Christ is necessary; and perhaps they need to grow in Christian character (2 Peter 1:3-10). But others witness to their sudden realization that they were trusting in their own works or personal “goodness” for salvation, even while they served God. While they made a profession of faith, they came to understand they were not in possession of genuine salvation. For some, Matthew 7:21-23 was part of that awakening to their “Phoney Baloney” religion.
In “How to Process the Scariest Passage in the Bible,” Justin Dillehay wrote, “It’s frightening to think about going to hell. It’s even more frightening to find out too late that you’re going to hell when you thought you were going to heaven. And still more frightening to think that not just a few, but ‘many’ will have this experience.” God doesn’t want us to live in terror of when we’ll stand before Him. He wants us to know—to be assured—of our relationship with Him. God is love and He does not want anyone to “perish” (2 Peter 3:9)—but Satan sure does! Since the Garden of Eden, the devil has tried to delude people into rejecting the Word of God (Genesis 3:1-6; John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 4:4). In “The Price of Revival,” Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill wrote, “One of Satan’s greatest triumphs has been his magnificent success in getting people to believe they can be saved from hell without being saved from their sins and themselves.”
Those who reject God’s sovereign purpose for their lives in salvation will face His judgment; because they love and choose darkness rather than the Light of the Word. God knows each one of us to our core, and someday we will give account to Him (Hebrews 4:13; Jeremiah 17:10). Many who stand before the Righteous Judge on that day will cry out to justify themselves based on their own works, but they will have failed to have faith in the only work that counts for eternity—Christ’s work on the cross—and they will be “shut out from the presence of the Lord” forever. They will not enjoy the blessings of God’s kingdom because they practice “falsehood” in feigning faith in Christ.
In the parable Jesus told in Luke 13:25, the urgent door knockers thought they had a right to enter, but they were turned away. Many today ignore the way of salvation because, deep in their hearts, they don’t believe they needed a Savior. They too will be turned away because they did not enter the “narrow door” of faith. Jesus’ warning is clear. It’s too late to change your mind once the door is closed. Now is the day of salvation. Now is the time to go beyond asking, “Do I know Jesus?” to “Does Jesus know me?”
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Aliaksandra Ivanova / EyeEm
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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