What Jesus Means by "I Never Knew You, Depart from Me" (Matthew 7:21)

Jesus makes a distinction between results and fruit. He seeks a heart that is devoted to him, relationship with other believers, and real joy in worship. He is uninterested in the mighty works of those who do not abide in him.

Contributing Writer
Updated Dec 12, 2023
What Jesus Means by "I Never Knew You, Depart from Me" (Matthew 7:21)

“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).

Jesus says that it is possible to call on him and not be with him for eternity. Yet Romans 10:13 tells us, “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Is it possible to call on God and to be rejected by him?

According to Jesus, the answer is “yes.” To understand this apparent contradiction, we need to examine the context of “I never knew you.”

The Meaning of "I Never Knew You, Depart from Me" in Context

The ESV and other modern Bibles divide Matthew 7 into these subheadings: Judging Others, Ask and It Will Be Given, the Gold Rule, A Tree and Its Fruit, I Never Knew You, Build Your House on the Rock, and the Authority of Jesus. 

Matthew 7:21-23 nestles between Jesus’ instructions about how to obey God, how to treat other people, and signs that one is truly living in Christ.

The verses about A Tree and its Fruit (Matthew 7:15-20) are echoed in John 15 where Jesus describes himself as the vine. His Father is the “Vinedresser.” Those who love Jesus must abide in him fully.

We are a part of Christ and he sustains us, as branches rely on the vine in order to live. Without the benefit of hindsight — which we have — the disciples did not understand what it meant to abide in Christ via the Spirit, but Jesus was trying to teach them that the power to rebuke demons and heal sickness was not given to the disciples separate from him; it was (and is) still Jesus’ power working through believers who rely on him totally. 

Jesus is teaching that on the Day of Judgement, He will know those who belong to him, to others he will say "depart from me, I never knew you."

Jesus teaches that his power is all-encompassing. Consider how Matthew 7:21-23 rests between “by their fruit you will recognize them” and “therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:20, 24). It's important that love God and God loves us - that He knows us as Lord and Shepherd. 

When Jesus tells the disciples, "I never knew you, depart from me", He is displaying his power, his might, and the foundation of His word - and his disciples are changed by it. They change inwardly, becoming more patient and kinder. They also grow from him like branches from a vine and can only live as part of that vine. Unbreakable Rock; sustaining Vine: Our Savior is simultaneously powerful and tender.

Known by Our Fruit - Matthew 7 Context

Jesus provides a test for discerning believers: “You will recognize [false prophets] by their fruits” because a “diseased tree bears bad fruit.”

Believers can recognize one who is in Christ, and be assured of their own salvation, by the same test for “a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-18). Disciples are tender towards those who need Jesus’ power in their lives.

According to Paul, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). You will know someone’s heart by these signs.

Jesus makes a distinction between results and fruit. He seeks a heart that is devoted to him, relationship with other believers, and real joy in worship. He is uninterested in the mighty works of those who do not abide in him. When Jesus speaks, "I never knew you" he is speaking directly the heart of man.

One can accomplish great things in Jesus’ name and abide in him as well, but great works alone do not prove that one is saved. He said, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Those who try to earn salvation, worship their own ability, not Jesus’ power. Those who will depart, have never had Jesus foundational to their lives. Teachers who do not rest on the Rock are “false prophets” who “come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” They proclaim Jesus but inwardly worship self. Not only do they offend God and risk damnation, but they also deceive the unguarded heart. It is possible to be misled, for example, by prosperity preachers or liberal “all-roads-lead-to-God” preachers whose platforms are self-made distortions of gospel truth. Jesus is warning these false religious people, "I never knew you."

What It Means for Jesus to Know Us

“You will know [disciples] by their fruit,” or Jesus will say, “I never knew you.” There are multiple meanings for “to know.” One might recognize a person and say, “I know him” or understand a concept and say, “I know what that means.” When one says, “I know Jim,” he could know Jim as a close friend or as an acquaintance.

With a close friendship, a deep kind of knowing is evident. Respect, honor, concern, love: These are all displayed when two people possess more than statistics, but hopes, struggles, dislikes, goals, dreams, hurts, and joys. Toknow Jesus is to have an inmate relationship with Him that cannot be broken off.

The Bible features multiple meanings for “to know” as well. Matthew 7:23 uses the Greek “ginóskó,” which means “to come to know, recognize, perceive.”

In Luke 13:25, Jesus uses the verb “eidó” or “be aware, behold, consider, perceive.” “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’”

In this latter verse, people ignored the gospel, turned away from Jesus, and did not realize they needed a Savior. The evidence of God’s power did not satisfy them; it will be too late to change their minds once the door is closed.

In Matthew 7, Jesus’ use of “ginóskó” goes deeper. He talks about followers who accept him but do not perceive him correctly. They recognize his power, but not the depths of it or the depths of their own depravity.

They hope to obtain power and authority for themselves by their connection to Christ; Jesus himself is not their greatest need and desire. Those who do not have an intimate relationship with Jesus are are those who will depart on Judgement Day.

Is a person saved by calling on the name of God? John 15 is helpful here. Calling on the name of the Lord and being saved means living in and for him; this is intimate “knowing.”

What Happens to Those Jesus Does Not Know

This teaching by Jesus emphasizes that both a mere verbal profession of "Lord, Lord" without obedience and relying solely on good works without genuine faith can lead to condemnation. True salvation requires both faith and good works (James 2:24). A false profession of faith may endure until the day of judgment.

Sometimes, this judgment occurs through the trials and challenges of life. Just like the seed of God's Word that falls on shallow ground in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:4–9), some people's commitment to faith falters when faced with testing. Many individuals have professed faith in Christ but later denied it when following Him became spiritually demanding.

However, the judgment described here likely refers to the ultimate judgment before God. While we should not extrapolate all the doctrines found in the Epistles from this parable, the main point that Jesus illustrates is that mere profession of faith will ultimately be tested before God. Those who have placed their trust in Christ and have demonstrated their faith through obedience have nothing to fear; their foundation is solidly built on the Rock. In contrast, those who have professed faith in Christ but have not obeyed God's will will face condemnation.


Calling “Lord, Lord” means calling on the names of the Lord, many of which are embodied above, but others of which are essential for living a fruitful life in the Vine. Jesus is the Cornerstone of Luke 20 and the Tree of Matthew 7.

Jesus is Lord and Father; Master of the House (Luke 13:25). Jesus gives his whole self, not as an option, but as a command. We get all of him or nothing.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/iprogressman

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.


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