“I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Jesus, Mat 7:23, ESV).
Oh how people hate to deal with this verse because He’s talking to people who think they’re going to Heaven and are shocked to find that Jesus “never knew them.”
Over the years I’ve thought about this verse a lot because it’s one of those verses that’s really pretty scary. Jesus is talking to people who go to church, who give money and time in his name. If these people who claim to have done so much can’t get into Heaven, what hope do the rest of us have? It’s this verse that’s kept me somewhat humble over the years. I say somewhat because I struggle with arrogance and our Father has to bring me up short fairly regularly.
Recently I had another conversation about this verse with a person who’s very close to me. We’ve had words about this verse many times over the years. You see, this person “has a problem with God” (his words) because of what’s written here. He and I both know that people are being led astray daily because of bad theology and bad leadership. He’s convinced that this verse is talking about people who were led astray by these things and that being the case, God Himself is allowing these people to go to hell. How just is God if He won’t stop these leaders who are actively leading people in the wrong direction? I completely understand his frustration and up until today I didn’t really have an answer.
At least two places in the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 29:3 and Hosea 8:13, our Father essentially says that His people offer sacrifices but their hearts are far from Him. In their arrogance they believe that they can go to the Temple and offer whatever sacrifices they’re offering, but then continue to offer sacrifices to other gods, be merciless and heartless, and cheat people in their business dealings. Hosea records, “…Yehovah does not accept them [sacrifices]. Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins…” (ESV). The prophets all record people being shocked that their sacrifices at the Temple weren’t enough to keep them out of trouble. Weren’t those supposed to be enough?
The answer is a resounding NO. Hosea 6:6 says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (ESV). The problem with these people was their hearts; they had no love in them but they sure could recite what they’d done for Yehovah. Essentially the Father said, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
So here’s my answer to the conversation I keep having over and over; the people Jesus is talking to are those who are trying to earn their way into Heaven. I have this image of all these people standing around on Judgment Day. Some of them are looking around at each other and saying, “Boy did we get that one wrong. Thank the Father that He’s merciful and gracious or we’d be in serious dog doo.” Others are shocked at the judgment they’ve been given and are actually arguing with the Judge: “But look at all we’ve done in your name? Didn’t we earn the right to enter in?” It’s their arrogance Jesus will reject, their lack of love for his Father and for people. They will list their deeds, but never admit their iniquity.
And a last thought on this. The words “I never knew you” really struck a chord with me today. Jesus doesn’t say, “You never knew me,” but “I never knew you.” To the one who comes before the Judge saying, “But I never knew You,” and yet is a “doer of the Law” (read all of Romans 2), to that person I believe (and see in ALL of scripture) that Jesus will say, “But I knew you.”