“I never knew you.” Matthew 7:23 shows us that we are supposed to do things the way God wants us to, and not make up our own agenda and expect that it will be acceptable to God. Jesus does not contest the fact that the people had cast out demons and done miracles in his name. They almost certainly did those things. However, they did things in their own way, in their own timing, and for their own glory, because Jesus calls them workers of “lawlessness.” Thus, when Jesus said he never “knew” the people, he is not saying that he did not know about them or have intellectual knowledge of them, but rather that he had no experiential knowledge of them—they did not really love him or walk in fellowship with him.
The word “know” is the word ginōskō (#1097 γινώσκω), which occurs more than 200 times and has a wide semantic range including intellectual knowledge (Acts 1:19; 23:28) and experiential knowledge. For example, when the Bible says that Jesus “knew” no sin (2 Cor. 5:21 KJV), it is not that he did not have intellectual knowledge of sin, but rather that he had no experiential knowledge of sin. Similarly, when Romans 3:17 says the wicked have not “known” the way of peace, it is not saying that the wicked do not know what peace is, but they have not experienced it. The semantic range of ginosko also includes “knowing” someone intimately and experientially via sexual intercourse (see commentary on Matt. 1:25).
This verse applies to Christians because even though a Christian’s salvation will not be in doubt at the Judgment, there are Christians who live “lawlessly” and never really follow or obey Jesus. Jesus will not “know” those people in the sense of having fellowshipped with them, and the works they did that were not built on Christ will be burned up (1 Cor. 3:10-15). 1 Corinthians 8:3, which says, “but if anyone loves God, that one is known by him.” In this verse, God “knows” the people who love Him. God “knows” everyone, but in this verse, like Matthew 7:23, “know” means to know on an experiential level, not just “have mental knowledge of” (cp. 2 Tim. 2:19).
“Away from me.” This verse is written about people before the Day of Pentecost who acted as if they are walking with Christ and obeying God but were not. Today a Christian can turn from God and live lawlessly and selfishly without his everlasting life being in jeopardy, but before the Age of Grace that was not possible because there was no New Birth and no guarantee of salvation [For information on the permanence of salvation, see Appendix 1, “The Permanence of Christian Salvation”].
It is very important that Christians understand this verse in Matthew, even though it was written to people who lived before the Administration of Grace. The general principle is that even if people do some good things or utilize the power of God, if their use of God’s power is outside the will of God such as being for their own aggrandizement or done without love, it is not pleasing to God. The phrase “depart from me” has to be taken in the context of Matt. 7:21, which speaks of entering into the Kingdom of Heaven and having everlasting life. Before the Day of Pentecost, those people who were not faithful to God will have to depart from Christ and will not receive everlasting life.
We should ask the question, “When can we use the power of God and be outside the will of God?” The abilities, talents, and ministries that people have are given to them by God. In contrast to our God-given talents, which we naturally possess, is godly character, which takes a lot of effort to develop. Developing godly qualities such as the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) or the character that leaders are supposed to have (1 Tim. 3:3-12; Titus 1:6-9) is hard work. In the systems of the world that Satan sets up or oversees, talent is more valuable than character. If a person is a good singer and can pack an auditorium, the fact that he or she is a drunkard, sexually immoral, mean-spirited, etc., gets overlooked by the world. This attitude must never be allowed to leak over into the way believers do things.
Every believer has God-given talents. There are believers who are great singers, administrators, teachers, businesspeople, etc., but their talent and their success are never as important as whether or not they exhibit the character of Christ. That was the case in this section of Matthew. Jesus teaches us that at the Judgment men and women with ministries and abilities in prophecy, working miracles and discerning of spirits will come forward, proud of their “great accomplishments.” However, if these people did not develop the character of Christ and did not walk in obedience to God, then they “did their own thing,” and thus they are said to “work lawlessness,” i.e., do things in a way that does not follow the ways and laws of God. This is made clear by the last phrase in Matt. 7:21, which makes the point that these people did not do the will of God.
We must not be confused by the fact that the people Jesus was referring to here in Matthew had holy spirit and were casting out demons, and think because of that this was a reference to people who were born again, like Christians are today. The New Birth that we Christians have started on the Day of Pentecost, but God had given the gift of holy spirit to many people in the Old Testament. Many leaders of Israel had it (cp. Num. 11:17, 25), the prophets, the judges in the book of Judges, many kings like David and Solomon, and others, had the gift of holy spirit upon them.
“lawlessness.” The Greek word is anomia (#458 ἀνομία), literally, “a,” without, and “nomos,” law, therefore “lawless, contempt for and violation of, the law (lawlessness can also be due to ignorance of the law). Although some English versions have “iniquity” (KJV), “evildoers” (NIV), or “you people who do wrong” (CEB), those translations are not as accurate as “lawlessness.” Usually casting out demons is a good thing, but these people were doing it “lawlessly,” meaning they were doing it outside the law of God, and therefore for their own purposes and self-aggrandizement, not for the furthering the Kingdom of God. Many people use the power of God to further their own cause, not God’s cause. It has been said, “The gifts and talents we have are God’s gift to us; the way we use them is our gift to God.” The people in Matthew 7 were not being faithful to God in their use of His power; they were being selfish and unloving. So Christ said he did not know them.