It’s common today to promote Jesus as mild-mannered and gentle, but He also issued sharp rebukes and severe warnings. In Matthew 7:23, we find one of the Bible’s scariest passages. When Jesus declared, “I never knew you; depart from Me,” He was talking about pagans but those who were considered the “good guys,” theologians who followed Jewish law. So, what did Jesus mean when He said, “I never knew you,” and how are those words significant to today’s church?
What does Matthew 7:23 mean?
In Matthew 7:23, the word “knew” isn’t mere intellectual knowledge, like knowing a fact. Instead, it’s specific knowledge about a relationship. The word “ginóskó” means “to recognize, come to know, or perceive.” However, in Matthew 7, Jesus takes this word deeper. Some followers didn’t correctly perceive Jesus, and they didn’t know their sinful hearts. They wanted to be with Jesus, but they didn’t want to surrender their lives to Him. They didn’t know Him on a deep spiritual level of salvation, and Jesus knew this.
Still, consider the context of the verse. Earlier, in Matthew 5-7, Jesus preached a sermon to the curious flock crowding around Him, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. He opened with the often-quoted “blessed are” statements in Matthew 5:3-12 and then the “light” and “salt” truths in Matthew 5:13-16. Throughout the remainder of chapter five and into the first part of chapter seven, Jesus explained why He’d come and shared some principles that challenged the crowd’s idea of Kingdom living. No doubt, His words made many uncomfortable.
When people think about their eternal destiny, many don’t want to think about hell or judgment, but God doesn’t blindside people. He issues plenty of warnings about trusting in anything other than His plan to save us from sin. We see this in Chapter 7, verses 15-20, where Jesus warns about false prophets. Their extraordinary words and works weren’t rooted in true godliness because they didn’t really know God. To demonstrate, Jesus compared two kinds of trees: ones that bear good fruit and ones that bear bad fruit. In verse 20, Jesus said you would recognize them by their fruit, which is the context of verses 21-23. Some people appear to bear good fruit, but a closer look shows that the fruit is bad because it comes from a bad tree.
God sees beyond external fruit to our roots and what has transpired in our hearts. As in verse 19, where the trees that don’t bear good fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire. In verse 23, Jesus says, “Away from me, you evildoers!” but other versions of the Bible say He said, “Depart from me.” Jesus mentioned a specific group of people He never knew relationally, those who wouldn’t enter His Kingdom.
Who are the people Jesus will tell to depart?
Jesus characterized those He knew, genuine members of the family of faith, as people who understood and did God’s will. Conversely, He didn’t know people who refused to obey God’s will. Jesus condemned the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for their wicked perversion of God’s Word and hypocrisy. He criticized their holier-than-thou ways. As He spoke about them when He addressed the crowd, His words likely pierced many hearts, making them wonder if they were hypocrites, too. Jesus didn’t have anything in common with Jewish leaders, and they couldn’t understand His ways or words. While the Pharisee piously thanked God that he was better than other people, the genuine God-seeker repented and cried to God, asking for mercy, as detailed in Luke 18:9-14.
In His omniscience, Jesus knew that the hypocrites’ hearts were filled with sin and self-righteousness. It’s essential to understand that Jesus wasn’t saying “depart from me” to break off an established but sinful relationship because Jesus didn’t have a relationship with the fake followers. They didn’t intimately know the Lord. The word for “never” in Matthew 7:23 is oudepote, a strong word that means “not ever, not even ever.” Someday, Jesus will tell many professing believers that He never, not ever knew them because they never had true faith.
What does it mean for God to know us?
More important than our knowing God is the assurance that He knows us. In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” to Him would enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of His Father in heaven. Verse 22 goes on to say that people might even prophesy in Jesus’ name, perform “many miracles,” or cast out demons, but that doesn’t mean God knows them relationally. We see a similar dynamic in Luke 13:25-27. Jesus told a story about people who are outside a homeowner’s doorway, pleading for entrance and claiming to know Him. However, the owner of the house tells the outsiders that he doesn’t know them or where they come from, telling them to get away from his door.
A person might verbally claim to follow Jesus and show great theological insight or even show some elements of “success” while serving in the church, but it’s only those who do the Father’s will and are known by Him who will live forever in Him in eternity. God knows those He’s called and adopted into His family, those who are “in Christ.” Being “known by God” is critical and essential, according to Galatians 4:9a. When we love God, we’ll want to obey Him from the heart, and 1 Corinthians 8:3 tells us that whoever loves God is known by God. Jesus knows His sheep, and Father God manages His flock. Jesus reminds us that we’re recognized or known by our “fruit.” While the people that Jesus knows as His own will yield spiritual fruit, the fake believers can only produce fruit of the flesh.
What’s the significance of Matthew 7:23?
Those who discard God’s sovereign purpose for their lives in salvation will face His judgment because they love and choose darkness instead of the light of the Bible. God knows each one of us to our core, and someday, we’ll give account to Him. Many who stand before God on that day will cry out to defend themselves based on their works, but they’ll have failed to have faith in the only work that counts for eternity, Christ’s work on the cross, and they’ll be shut out from the Lord’s presence forever. They won’t enjoy the blessings of God’s Kingdom because they practice falsehood by faking faith in Christ.
In the parable Jesus told in Luke 13:25, the door knockers thought they had the right to enter, but they were turned away. Today, many ignore the way of salvation because, in their hearts, they don’t believe they need a Savior. They will also be turned away because they didn’t enter the narrow door of faith. Jesus’ warning is clear. Once the door is closed, it’s too late to change your mind. Now is the time to go beyond asking if we know Jesus and ask if Jesus knows us.