Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said, 'I never knew you. Depart from me'?"

Answer: Jesus said, “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:23). It seems strange to hear our all-knowing Lord say there’s something—or someone—He doesn’t know. Jesus refers not to an intellectual knowledge here but to a relational knowledge.

To understand a verse, always start with the context. Jesus is wrapping up His Sermon on the Mount with a final warning about true faith. Jesus predicts that false Christian prophets will be coming as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). They may use all the right “God talk” and even make impressive displays of power, but they will not belong to the Lord:

“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. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23).

In Jesus’ words on Judgment Day, we see several important truths: it’s not a verbal claim that one follows Jesus that saves (Matthew 7:21). Nominal Christianity cannot save. Also, it’s not a demonstration of spiritual insight or power that saves (verse 22). A person can seem like a Christian in the eyes of other people, yet still be an “evildoer” in God’s sight and sent away from His presence (verse 23). Only those who do the Father’s will and who are known of God will enter heaven.

So, what is the Father’s will? Some men came to Jesus once with a question about what God required of them: “They asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’” (John 6:28–29). God wants us to have faith in His Son: “This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23). Those who are born again by faith in Christ will produce good works to the glory of God (Ephesians 2:10).

When Jesus said, “I never knew you,” to the feigned disciples, He meant that He never recognized them as His true disciples or His friends. He never had anything in common with them nor approved of them. They were no relations of His (Mark 3:34–35). Christ did not dwell in their hearts (Ephesians 3:17), nor did they have His mind (1 Corinthians 2:16). In all these ways and more, Jesus never knew them. Note that Jesus is not breaking off the relationship here—there was never a relationship to break off. Despite their high-sounding words and showy displays of religious fervor, they had no intimacy with Christ.

So it turns out that what matters isn’t so much that we know God on some level, but that God knows us. As Paul explained, “Whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3; also see Galatians 4:9). The Lord “tends His flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:11), and He knows who are His sheep (John 10:14).

Those somber words “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” in Matthew 7:23 (KJV) show that Jesus is indeed omniscient. He did not “know” them in the sense He would if they were His followers, but He knew their hearts—they were full of iniquity! Isaiah’s condemnation of hypocrisy fits this group well: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). The evildoers whom Jesus does not know are fake Christians, false teachers, and nominal adherents of religion.

Those who are bid depart from the presence of the Lord will not partake of the blessings of the kingdom: “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15). They will be cast “into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Those fake Christians whom Jesus says He never knew will not produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23); rather, they will produce the opposite, the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19–21).

Jesus warns that one day He will tell a group of religious practitioners, “I never knew you.” God takes no delight in sending people to hell (2 Peter 3:9). But those who are told to depart have rejected God’s eternal purpose and plan for their lives (Luke 7:30). They have spurned the light of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4), choosing the darkness instead, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). At the judgment, they try to justify themselves as worthy of heaven on the basis of their works (prophecies, exorcisms, miracles, etc.), but no one will be justified by his own works (Galatians 2:16). While claiming to do all these good works in Christ’s name, they failed to do the only work of God that counts: “to have faith in the one he sent” (John 6:29, CEV). And so Jesus, the Righteous Judge, condemns them to eternal separation from Him.