What did Jesus mean when He said, 'I never knew you. Depart from me'?Matthew 7:23 says: "And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'" Upon first read, the concept that God doesn't know someone seems contradictory to His omniscience as God. However, in this verse, the word know is being used in a relational sense rather than an intellectual one. In order to understand this verse, we have to look at the context. This verse is found within the final portions of the Sermon on the Mount in a section discussing true as opposed to false faith and the eternal judgment of God.
Before this verse, Jesus shares a warning about false prophets. These people may claim to be Christian, may say all the right things or have miraculous power displays, but in reality, they may not truly belong to God (Matthew 7:15). Jesus says that we will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:20) and then expounds: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:21–23).
What do we see from these verses? Claiming Christ in name only does not save (Matthew 7:21). Demonstrations of power in the name of Christ does not save (Matthew 7:22). A person can do these things and still be a "worker of lawlessness" or an "evildoer", as the NIV translates it, in God's sight (Matthew 7:23). Knowing and, more importantly, being known by God indicates that we are truly saved (Matthew 7:23). Some people asked Jesus "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" (John 6:28). He responded, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29). We are to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord. In one of his New Testament epistles, John echoed, "And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us" (1 John 3:23–24).
When we put our faith in Jesus, we become children of God (John 1:12; Romans 8:14–17). We know Him and He knows us (1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:8–9; John 10:14). When we know God through salvation in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit resides in us and is at work in us (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 1:13–14). It is by God's power that we are able to walk out the works that He has for us (Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:12–13). We do not do mighty works or merely claim the name of Jesus Christ to garner salvation. Rather, we are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). Then, in knowing Christ we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit and enabled to do works in Jesus' name, we are able to share the gospel with others, we are transformed into His likeness, we come to truly know Him, and He will never turn from us (Romans 8; 2 Timothy 2:13).
Jesus said "I never knew you" to false disciples who, while they claimed to be working in His name, did not actually have a relationship with Him. God "tend[s] his flock like a shepherd" (Isaiah 40:11). John 10:14 records Jesus saying, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me." When we truly love God, we are truly known by God. In the words of the apostle Paul, "if anyone loves God, he is known by God" (1 Corinthians 8:3; also see Galatians 4:9).
We've talked about the words "I never knew you; depart from me" in a relational sense—these people told to depart never had a true relationship involving being known by Christ. But, there is also an intellectual side to the word "know" as well—this phrase indeed shows that Jesus is omniscient in that He sees the iniquity within the hearts of men, as well as the hearts that are truly turned toward Him (see Isaiah 29:13). Jesus desires that all people come to a place of true repentance, but He cannot allow those who are false disciples to enter His kingdom (2 Peter 3:9–10; John 3:16–18).
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