Of all the things that Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, what he says in our passage today is the most frightening. How can a person who prophesied in Jesus’ name, cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and did many mighty works in Jesus’ name one day stand before the Jesus they called “Lord” only to hear from his lips: “I never knew you; depart from me, you worker of lawlessness?” How is that possible? What kind of savior will do that to those who not only called him “Lord” but “Lord, lord” during their lifetime? This is the question I hope to answer for you today.
Understand that these words in Matthew 7:21-23, they serve as the third series in the final part of Jesus’ sermon that call us to action. To understand what Jesus is saying here, we must consider his words in light of what he said about the narrow gate verses the wide gate, the good teacher verses the false teacher, and now the true Christian verses the fake Christian. What is scary about Jesus’ words here is that a person can claim to be a Christian, do lots of great things in Jesus’ name, and even claim he is lord, but not have the forgiveness of sins promised to all who believe in him: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
Before I try and help you make sense of these verses and why it is so important that you understand what they are saying to you, permit me to point out something that Jesus says in verse 23 that serves as the linchpin to what Jesus says in verses 24-27. A while back in this sermon series, I explained the meaning to a phrase known as the “hermeneutical key” to understanding a passage. As a refresher, a hermeneutical key can be a word, a phrase, a verse, paragraph, or section in the Bible that makes sense of a particular passage in the Bible. The “hermeneutical key” for understanding what Jesus is saying here in Matthew 7:21-23 is found in verses 23, and more specifically, it is a single word. Permit me to read to you the verse and then I will point out what word I am talking about: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” I believe the “hermeneutical key” is the Greek word Jesus used for “knew.”
Jesus could have used the word oida for the word know, like he did in Matthew 7:11 which states: “If you then, who are evil, know [odia] how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Oida is the kind of knowledge that is more mental or cognitive. It is the kind of knowledge I have of my wife and children where even in a crowded room, I know what they look like; it is a knowledge that some of you could have of my wife and children as well.
Instead of using oida, Jesus used the word ginōskō in verse 23. It is a fuller knowledge than oida, for it is a knowledge that is much more intimate of something or someone. Ginōskō is the kind of knowledge I have of my wife and children; it is a knowledge that is experiential and only deepens the more I do life with my wife and children. There will be “many” Jesus says who he will declare to their horror on the day of judgment: “I never knew [eginōn] you; depart from me…”.
The contrast Jesus makes between the two types of people who claim to be a Christian seems to be with what is said verses what is done. I want to focus on the person who claims Jesus is lord first since most of what Jesus says is addressed to such a person, then I will talk about the other person.
Those Who Say Jesus is Lord
The Greek word for “Lord” that Jesus uses is the same word Romans in the first century would use for the emperor as a god, the word used is kyrios. It is word used for an owner, a ruler, or a master. In this case, the person Jesus has in mind is a person who claims to follow him, but not just follow him, this person has a doctrinally sound understanding of Jesus. In this person’s mind, Jesus is divine, he is master, and he is the owner. This person believes that Jesus is Lord.
The other thing that must be noted is that the person Jesus is describing is not just saying he believes Jesus is Lord, he is excited about Jesus. This is why Jesus uses kyrios twice. This was a literary device used in the same way we use the explanation point. The doubling of a word in Jesus’ day was used to intensify emotion in the form of literature. It is the same literary device used to describe King David’s deep grief over the death of his son Absalom in 2 Samuel 19:4, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The person Jesus is describing here claims to believe in him, is doctrinally sound in that belief, and is excited about what they believe. Yet, Jesus continues in his description of this person who he will declare he never knew! These are people who are serving him inside and outside the church by prophesying, casting out demons, and doing mighty works in his name! These people are speaking and proclaiming God’s word, they are liberating the demonically possessed, and they are doing things in the name of Jesus that is changing lives… all in the name of Jesus as Lord! What this means is that there will be pastors, their wives, and their children; there will be Bible teachers, seminary professors, Life Group leaders, Children’s church teachers and workers, missionaries, and so much more who will hear the words of Jesus on the Day of Judgment: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (v. 23).
Matthew 7:21-23 are not my words, these are Jesus’ carefully thought-out words my dear brothers and sisters! I wish these words were not in the Sermon on the Mount, but they are! What are we to do with them? Timothy Keller offered his explanation of what Jesus meant in these verses: “What Jesus is saying is, ‘You have the doctrine right. You’re excited about me. You’re in the church. You’re doing ministry. You’re changing people’s lives, and you’re not saved. You have no saving relationship with me. There is no real spiritual connection with me. There never has been. I never knew you.’”
What you are feeling right now is the same thing I am feeling. I don’t want to feel the way this passage makes me feel, and my guess is that you do not want to feel that way either. These words force us to self-reflect and ask ourselves some very important questions: “Am I on the wide road?” “Am I a diseased and unfruitful tree?” “Does Jesus know me as his own?” The point is that you can be all around the gospel of Jesus Christ and yet not have it affect change in your heart. Just because you believe Jesus is who he claimed to be, just because you are excited about what you believe about Jesus, and just because you are doing things in his name… might only mean that you oida him. Your ideas about Jesus are orthodox, but do you ginōskō him?
The same word Jesus uses to describe what he will say to the fake Christian is the word he uses in his prayer to describe the true Christian in John 17:1-3, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know [ginōskō] you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:1–3). The apostle Paul used the same word to describe his religious pursuits as a pharisee in contrast to his relationship with Jesus:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith… (Phil. 3:7-9)
The kind of knowing that made every loss worth it for the apostle Paul was the ginōskō kind of knowing. Paul’s knowing included orthodoxy, but it was so much more than just orthodoxy, it also included orthopraxy; it was both a knowing in the mind and a knowing in experience, so Paul continued: “…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11).
What Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, through the cutting of his scalpel-like words, is simply this: “Do I really know Jesus, does he really know me, and what place does he have in my life?” By the way, to ask these questions is not only healthy, but encouraged in the Bible, for the apostle Paul demanded that the Corinthian Church do the same, here is what Paul said: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5a).
Those Who Know Jesus as Lord
Let us now turn our attention to the true Christian. Jesus contrasts this person with the fake Christian by saying that unlike those he does not know, those who know him as Lord, “…does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (v. 21b). So, is it in doing God’s will that saves a person? The answer to that question is a resounding “No!” The doing of the Father’s will is the fruit of the one whose knowledge of Jesus is not superficial, but the ginōskō kind of knowing. The doing of the Father’s will is evidence that you are on the narrow way, that you entered the narrow gate naked because you entered as one who is poor in spirit, mourning over your sin, and have laid aside your pride at the narrow gate, which is the cross of Christ.
What kind of life does a ginōskō kind of knowing produce in the life the Christian? It produces a changed and changing life. Jesus tells us that this type of Christian not only does the will of the Father, but in verses 24-25 (which is our passage for next week’s sermon), he says: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” Don Carson, who is a leading New Testament scholar offers a helpful perspective on Jesus’ words:
It is true, of course, that no man enters the kingdom because of his obedience; but it is equally true that no man enters the kingdom who is not obedient. It is true that men are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ; but it is equally true that God’s grace in a man’s life inevitably results in obedience. Any other view of grace cheapens grace, and turns it into something unrecognizable. Cheap grace preaches forgiveness without repentance, church membership without rigorous church discipline, discipleship without obedience, blessing without persecution, joy without righteousness, results without obedience.
Carson concludes his thoughts with the following indictment on the American Church: “In the entire history of the church, has there ever been another generation with so many nominal Christians and so few real (i.e. obedient) ones?” Is Don Carson so far off? Jesus did not use the word “few” in describing the number of people who have preached sermons, taught bible studies, helped out in the church nursery, greeted visitors, went to the mission field, prophesied, cast out demons, and did many other mighty works in Jesus’ name! The numerical word used by our Savior’s lips is “many.”
Permit me to share with you scripture passages that will help you see what is missing in the lives of the many who will hear Jesus say: “I never knew you…”
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14–17)
“But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:8–10)
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
What is missing in the lives of the many who are not known by Jesus is a love for Jesus. Oh, they know who he is. They know that he died on a cross for the sins of the world. They know what the Bible says. However, the kind of knowing that would compel one who truly loves Jesus to say: “…that I may know Jesus and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11)… is foreign to them.
To the one who “knows” Jesus as Lord, has come to him not only because he is the only way to salvation, not only because he is the only means to receive the forgiveness of sins, not only because he conquered death and promises the same to all who trust him, but because he is a treasure to be treasured, a beauty to be beheld, a majesty to be wondered at, a savior to be prized, a redeemer to be treasured, the Lord of Glory to be worshiped! Jesus is not only to be understood, but to be known! This is why Jesus said to all who would consider following him: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26–27).
To this point John Piper wrote:
Saving faith does not receive Christ as disappointing. It does not receive Christ as boring, or foolish, or inferior, or secondary, or ugly, or undesirable. Saving faith receives Christ as he really is. Not that we know the totality of his greatness at the beginning of our relationship. But given what we do know, we see him as supremely desirable. No one could be a greater source of joy than Christ. Saving faith tastes this (realizes this substance) and receives Christ as such—with joy.
Could there be any other possible reason why all of the redeemed in heaven continue to sing and shout: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing…. To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev. 5:12-13).
The question we are all forced to ask ourselves in the wake of Matthew 7:21-23 is, “To whom does my heart truly belong?” The question I ask you now is simply this: “Will you chose this day the kind of ‘knowing’ you want to pursue Jesus with as you follow him?” Is it time to stop playing “church” and to start living out what it means to be the Bride of Christ? For it is not religion that seeks the will of the Father, but a relationship with Jesus motivated by love that generates a desire to do the will of the Father.
 This verb is in the aorist, active, indicative from ginōskō.
 Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013. Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
 Akin, Daniel L. (2019). Christ-Centered Exposition: The Sermon on the Mount (p. 145). Nashville, TN: Holman Reference.
 Piper, John (2022). What is Saving Faith (p. 177). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.