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“I Never Knew You”

Matthew 7:21-23

by Katie L. C. Philpott

Jesus Teaching

Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s seventh chapter, Jesus speaks in verses 21-23 as follows:

"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. 22 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?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' (ESV)

A passage that can produce confusion and anxiety

It is tempting at first reading to interpret these curious statements from Jesus as referring to real Christians who will be terrified to find out at Judgment Day that Jesus has rejected them without discernable basis. If this is one’s first understanding, it will naturally produce confusion and even anxiety, since, if those who call Jesus “Lord, Lord”—an emphatic statement of allegience—and those who also perform mighty deeds in his name are not assured of their salvation, who is? This pericope can be a source of concern, if interpreted this way. It raises sharply the issue of assurance of salvation, and taken alone it can be a cause of great distress to some more sensitive souls. It could also elicit the equally distressing notion that Jesus is condemning the performing of charismatic gifts altogether. However, as in all exegetical “problem” passages, the clues to understanding are best found in the context of the surrounding material and in the likely understanding of those listening to Jesus and the likely understanding of the first readers.

Speaking about false prophets

Once the exegetical tasks are completed, it should be clear that these verses continue Jesus’ discussion about “False Prophets” and raises the issue of election and are not about the possibility of losing one’s salvation or the condemnation or cessation in the future of “signs and wonders” in and of themselves. The majority of translations and commentaries title this section with a focus on “true” and “false” prophets or disciples; that will be the focus here as well. Alongside that will be an exploration of what it means to “recognize” a person (epiginosko) versus “know” a person (ginosko) and how to understand the use of “Lord” (kurie) in this context.

Context and text: Sermon on the Mount

 Throughout the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus frequently denounces hypocritical religiosity. He warns his disciples not to imitate those who do their “good deeds” in public view in order to receive the admiration of other people instead of in private to receive the reward that the Father in heaven gives to those in a heart relationship with him, beginning with his opening beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3), or “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (5:8). He continues that the publicness of a Christian’s life should be salt and light to flavor and illumine the world around them with works that glorify God (5:13, 16). He then exhorts his disciples to surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, whose brand of righteousness Jesus exposes as merely a means to find ways out of obeying the intent of the law. He substitutes for their law-quibbling an almost impossibly high goal of perfect righteousness in the “But I say to you” declarations (5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). Next he directly admonishes his disciples not to be like the hypocrites who give alms, pray, and fast in a public manner to call attention to themselves. They should trust their Father in heaven for all their needs and not be slavishly seeking after the provisions of life (6:24-33). Still maintaining an attack against hypocritical religiosity, Jesus admonishes his disciples to refrain from judging others, which means condemnation of others, not discernment, and gives them a reverse version of the “Golden Rule” which again imposes a high level of righteousness on his disciples (7:12).

Real versus nominal discipleship

With v. 7:13, we enter the last large section of Matthew’s SOTM text. The concluding section of the sermon is taken up with impressing on the hearers the difference between real and merely nominal discipleship, all of which maintains the right-way/wrong-way dialectic but on a more ominous life-versus-death or salvation-versus-damnation level. This is now very serious stuff! There are two gates, a narrow one for life that few find and a wide one for destruction that many enter (7:13-14). And it seems that part of the reason that many go through the wide gate to destruction is that there are plenty of false prophets waiting to mislead the people, and the Christian must be able to recognize them (7:15-20).

End times significance

It is then after the six verses that address the issue of false prophets and how to recognize them that Jesus turns to three verses that seem to turn the goal of perfect righteousness on its head. He tells of how “on that day” (here an indicator that he is speaking eschatologically, about the end times) there will be those who apparently believe themselves to be genuine disciples, calling Jesus “Lord, Lord,” and can appeal to their charismatic activities to prove it, but nonetheless turn out to have no real relationship with the Lord to whom they appeal. They demonstrated what looked like “good fruit,” but apparently others could not “recognize” them for what they were, including themselves. The false prophets of v. 15 deceived others, but these are self-deceived.

"Recognize" versus "know"

That verb in vv. 7:16 and 20,  epiginosko, has the quality of recognition, perception, or simple but accurate knowledge. Jesus gave time-tested advice that seemed logical and straightforward, that the fruit is the test of one who claims to be a prophet. If there is no good fruit there is no good reason for the person to be treated as a prophet. However, when he speaks of the ones who seem to have marvelous fruit in v. 22, he claims in v. 23 that he never “knew” them. He means, “I never knew you, never had any acquaintance with you.” The Greek-English Lexicon has this for the “knew” in our verse: Of God as subject-- recognize someone as belonging to him, choose, almost=elect. In this passage, the “knowing” of God directed toward man is conceived of as the basis of and condition for man’s coming to know God. It is clear that there is a different kind of “knowing” going on in the two conditions: with limited human perception, we may or may not be able to discern false prophets or those who make grand claims about their discipleship and seem to prove it with grand actions, but Jesus is able to both discern his true disciples and to have “known” them in the way that only God does. “I never knew you” means in effect that he does not acknowledge them as part of his true family. This difference of verb usage is the most subtle of the ways in which this passage tells us who Jesus really is.

“Lord, Lord!” - Is this not the earnest plea of a true disciple?

With Jesus’ statement about his never having known these people, how are we to explain their vocative cry of “Lord, Lord”? Isn’t this the earnest plea of a true disciple? First, consider the use of “Lord” (kyrie) in Matthew’s Gospel so far.  He does not use “Lord” to refer to Jesus in his narrative or as a title used by Jesus for himself,  but those calling out “Lord” to him will be the most common form of address to Jesus in the gospel story from here on out, used both by disciples and by strangers seeking Jesus’ help.  The term doesn’t usually hold high theological significance, just a superior social status, and the address of “Lord” in Jesus’ parables often denotes an employer, slave owner, or a father, even applied to Pilate. 

But Matthew uses the term, addressed to Jesus as a Galilean villager of no social prominence, often in the context of expecting miraculous help, so that Jesus is linked, especially when the term is doubled (“Lord, Lord!”), with entry to the kingdom of heaven and with the working of miracles. Another place Matthew uses this pleaing cry is in the parable of entry into the eschatological wedding feast (25:11), and also in the parable of the sheep and the goats in 25:37 and 44. While the term “Lord” in and of itself does not indicate presumed divinity, in these contexts it fits well with Jesus’ presentation of himself as the ultimate judge.  So, the implication of the use of a double “Lord” is that the speakers actually acknowledge that they are speaking to the one who can judge them and are not just being polite. Besides this, they have used the name of Jesus to do their miraculous work.

Doers of miracles = Doers of Lawlessness -- ?

We are still, however, a bit in the dark as to how they can seem to hold Jesus in such high esteem and yet fail to be in relationship with him. To describe those who claim to have practiced prophecy, exorcism, and miracles as “doers of lawlessness” is amazing, with the implication that all this charismatic activity, like their profession “Lord! Lord!” was merely a sham, that their lives were deeply opposed to the will of God. The focus here is on an ethical or spiritual failure, on a refusal to submit to God rather than their attitude to the law as such. The Greek says “the ones doing,” which indicates habitual activities, not a single mistake. The word “lawlessness” is a fairly general term for behavior displeasing to God rather than with specific reference to the breaking of laws. That these professed disciples did not even realize their religious failure, and would no doubt have rejected the term “lawbreakers” with indignation, only makes the verdict the more poignant.

So, if these people claim to be his followers but are apparently self-deluded about this, (much like the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned numerous times throughout the SOTM, throughout the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, and throughout the other Gospels), from where have they obtained the power to perform these miraculous feats, if not from God’s Holy Spirit?  Or does God give his power to those who are not true disciples of Christ?

Another Source of Signs and Wonders at Work

There is another source of signs and wonders at work in the world, one that is counterfeit, and that is the power of Satan and his minions. It is definitely within the realm of that deceiver’s scope to seduce and fool some into thinking they are working for Christ, when all along they are working to impress and lead others astray from truly following Christ, like the false prophets of 7:15. Such is the latitude with which the words "signs and wonders" are used in the Scriptures, that they apply not only to works due to God’s immediate agency, but to those affected by the power of evil spirits. It was apparent by how ready Jesus’ opponents were to claim that his own healing and exorcism miracles were due to the power of Beelzebub (9:34; 12:24) that this possibility of interpretation exists. These are the false prophets and messiahs of whom Jesus says that they will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9;  Mark 13:22 cf. Deut 13:1-4). 

Regardless of whether the power of Satan was at work in these false professors, and regardless of whether their deeds were similar in appearance, at least, to those of Jesus and his disciples and of the early church, nevertheless these persons are thus not criticized for their charismatic activities but for their dependence upon them as a substitute for the righteousness taught by Jesus. They have substituted flashy charismata for a real, called relationship with Christ Jesus.

Conclusion and Application

The Fruit of Righteousness / Authorized by Jesus

 Hopefully, it is clear that Matt. 7:21-23 does not directly address the question of the inherent legitimacy of signs and wonders. It also does not directly address whether we are saved by our confession of Christ or our obedient righteousness. Our eternal salvation is indeed secure if it comes from Christ Jesus (John 10:28: “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand”).  If we are justified by grace through faith, it will be seen in our desire to serve Christ, which will result in good works of righteousness (Eph. 2:8-10). This is the fruit of which Jesus speaks, “You will recognize them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:16). But he calls their fruit rotten (7:16-17), since it was not truly in the service of his lordship, only their own glory. If it were in his service, they would have received their working orders from him, but he did not send them out to perform stunts but to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples of his. They are therefore “doers of lawlessness,” since they had no spiritually legal right to act in Jesus’ name, if he did not authorize them to do so through God-given faith. It is only to the followers called by Jesus himself that he gives the right to perform in such a manner (Matt. 10:7-8; John 14:12).

Jesus is never fooled

We humans can only know someone else by looking at the outside—at the actions of a person—to see the fruit; yet we are sometimes fooled by what looks like fruit: prophesying, casting out of demons, and great works of a miraculous nature, all in the name of Jesus whom they knew about. But Jesus is not fooled. He says that he never knew these people. It is his judgment that counts, not ours. Those who claim to know him when he does not know them are basing their claim to relationship on a unilateral decision of their own, not a unilateral decision of his, which must proceed first. A true relationship with Jesus is the prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom of heaven, since he is the one who decides who does and does not enter the kingdom of heaven, and he bases the relationship on whether he knew them, not the reverse.  Further, the result of their rejection from the kingdom of heaven is that they must go away from him, implying the presence of God who is eternally with his people in heaven. This pericope therefore stands alongside 25:31-46 in making the most exalted claims for Jesus as the eschatological judge and the personal focus of salvation.

False Religion, False Charismata

This, then, brings us back to the original question of whether one’s profession of Christ or one’s works of righteousness are causally linked to eternal salvation. When we examine the kind of works that Jesus considered righteous, we see that, though he claimed his followers would perform mighty works like or greater than his, he consistently exhorts his followers in the SOTM to shun public displays of religiosity in favor of private acts of charity and interaction with their Father in heaven (6:1). He exhorts them to seek the Father’s rewards and not the applause of men (6:1, 4, 6, 18). Therefore, there is nothing unusual about Jesus using another shocking statement, though clearly within the realm of possibility, about apparent Christians finding the door barred on Judgment Day. The problem of false religion and even of false charismata was well-attested in the first century and in our day as well, considering the large number of people wrapped up in the “signs and wonders” movement. It will perhaps be just as surprising for some moderns on Judgment Day to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you doers of lawlessness,” as it will be for those departed closer in time to Jesus and Matthew. However, we have the advantage of seeing Jesus’ warning in Scripture, giving us a chance to examine ourselves, to see that we are truly in the faith!

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