What Did Jesus Mean When He Said, ‘I Never Knew You’?

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.

Candice Lucey
Woman holding her hand up in rejection

“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.”

Jesus 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 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).

As the Rock, he is mighty, his word is foundational, 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.

Growing Fruit on the Rock

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.

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).

Jesus frequently chooses the worst situations to show his power because that’s where power seems unlikely, even impossible: Miraculous. He can work through anyone, in spite of that person’s proclaimed beliefs, but joy comes with submitting to the one true God.

Disciples rest in him because, thanks to rich, daily personal time with him, they know he is trustworthy. Like David, who praised God even while hiding from his enemies, we can declare, “On my bed I remember you” (Psalm 63:6).

Even though “sleep is a time when one would be especially vulnerable to surprise attack,” David knows “that God is his shelter. Because of this, he is confident in God’s protection.”

Sleeping might not seem like an act of worship, but in this case, David really is demonstrating his full reliance on and trust in God. This is as important, perhaps more important, than having the courage to fight an enemy in battle.

David’s relationship with God is foundational. He knows his life is in God’s hands. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” says Psalm 118:22. Jesus is the Cornerstone, evoked in Luke 20, adding that “everyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Luke 20:18).

Those who try to earn salvation, worship their own ability, not Jesus’ power. He is not 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.

Meaning of ‘To Know’

“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.

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.

The verb is even used in reference to sexual intimacy, and although that is not what Christ is referring to here, he does invite communion with his people at the deepest spiritual level.

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.”

Taken out of context, one might build an incomplete picture in which all you have to do is cry “Jesus!” but truly knowing Jesus, relying on him, is similar to abiding.

Abiding in Jesus

There are five features of abiding in Jesus, which all believers share:

1. Those who abide in Jesus bear good fruit. Good fruit stands in contrast to one’s unique pre-salvation fruit; the harvest of conflict, worry, or greed.

Angry people are less inclined to fight with others and enjoy warm, peaceful relationships; greedy individuals covet money less and are more generous, and worriers enjoy peace.

2. Those who abide in Jesus keep his commandments. The two greatest of these are to worship God with one’s entire being and to love others as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-40)

A life abiding in Christ is not perfect, but worship becomes deeper, richer, more frequent: Central to one’s life. Making worship central feels like privilege, not drudgery.

3. Those who abide in Jesus read his word, and it comes alive. It is relevant, meaningful, essential.

4. Those who abide in Jesus love well. They find themselves loving people who are hard to love; people who might not love them back or who even reject and abuse them.

5. Those who abide in Jesus are joyful. Knowing the hope of Christ, that salvation awaits them, provides disciples with “pure joy” when they “face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

Calling on the Name of Jesus

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 loves Christ and writing about His promises brings her much pleasure. She lives in the mountains of BC, Canada with her family. 


Originally published October 21, 2020.