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.’
— Matthew 7:21–23 —
I suspect that Jesus words in Matthew 7:21–23 might raise some questions if one does not have a basic understanding of God’s knowledge. What does it mean that Jesus never knew you? Certainly, God knows all things, and because Jesus is God the Son, he must know all things. So what do his words mean?
The answer comes from knowing the way knowledge is spoken of in the Bible. Going back to Genesis 4, we find knowledge often describes covenantal relations—either between two people (as in marriage) or between God and man. Either way, knowledge is a relational term and one that consistently carries the idea of covenant-making and covenant-keeping.
In what follows, I share a handful of examples and come back to Matthew 7.
Knowledge: A Sampling of Verses
Genesis 4:1, 17
The language of covenantal knowledge is best illustrated in the way Genesis 4 speaks of a man knowing his wife.
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”
17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
This knowledge is not intellectual, nor academic—it is deeply personal. In context, sexual knowledge is what initiates the covenant of marriage and renews it. Indeed, by way of analogy—and we must strongly emphasize the analogy here—the knowledge between a man and woman illustrates the type of covenantal (not sexual) knowledge between God and man.
Genesis 15:9, 13 and Genesis 18:19
Next, in Genesis 15 God makes a covenant with Abraham, where Abram asks how he will know (yada) that God’s word of blessing would come true. In response, Yahweh promises, “Know (yada) for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.”
These words of knowledge express the kind of personal relations God designs for his people. We are called to know him—not things about God. Rather, our knowledge is to be filled with personal trust, based on his promises. In short, this is covenantal knowledge.
And our knowledge of God responds to his initiating love for us. As Genesis 18:19 goes on to say,
For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
Speaking of Abraham, he uses the word “know” (yada) but the ESV appropriately translates it “chosen.” Why? Because God’s knowledge is personal. God chose to set his love on Abraham and this is what the Bible calls knowledge.
Perhaps the most clear testimony of knowing as covenantal language is found in the passage that promises a new covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31–34, the Spirit inspires Jeremiah to write of a coming day when God will make a covenant unlike the covenant he made with Israel—a covenant God’s people broke. Here in verses 33–34 we see the promise of once again knowing God.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Clearly, this knowledge is more than just informational; it is relational. Knowing God is the gift God gives to his people (cf. Jer. 9:23–24).
Furthering our understanding of God’s covenant knowledge, Amos 3:2 reads,
You only have I known of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.
These words to Israel communicate God’s unique covenant relationship with Israel. Hence, he is bringing judgment against them—what Isaiah calls his strange work, to punish those whom he has chosen—because they alone are in covenant with him.
Similarly, Hosea calls the people of God to return to God and to press on in our knowledge of God.
1 “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. 3 Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”
More than a call for deeper intellectual study, “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (v. 3) is a call to reestablish covenant relations. Just as Hosea redeemed his wife Gomer, so that she might know the intimacy of a restored marriage, so this call to knowing God is one that offers a restored covenant.
God’s covenant with Levi also depended on knowledge, as evidenced in Malachi 2:7.
My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.
To assist the nation of Israel in their covenant with God, Yahweh made a covenant with the house of Levi to be the covenant teachers of Israel. Their knowledge of God was meant to support and strengthen Israel’s knowledge of God. They failed in this commission, but it is another layer by which we understand the covenantal aspect of knowledge.
Additionally, this covenantal understanding of knowledge helps us appreciate the language of “foreknowledge,” as in Romans 8:29–30
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
When the Bible says God predestines those whom he “foreknew,” he does not mean that he merely knew ahead of time and made his decision on foreseen faith (or some other condition). God doesn’t know like we know. His knowledge determines history; he does not acquire knowledge from history—even history ahead of time.
Rather, as Amos 3:2 and the rest of the examples suggest, God’s covenant knowledge is something that God began before the foundation of the world. In time, the events of history, including his work of redemption, is based upon his decree. In other words, because he set his love on his people before the world began, we come to know him, because he first knew us.
Knowledge in the Rest of the New Testament
Throughout the rest of the New Testament, this personal, covenantal, and God-initiated approach to knowledge continues. Here are a few more examples,
3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Galatians 4:9)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Colossians 3:9–10)
In order, these verses remind us that knowing God is the source of life; our knowledge of God is rooted in his antecedent knowledge of us; and that by our covenantal relationship and knowledge of God we are becoming like God our Creator—being transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Indeed, we could say so much more about what it means to know God. And then we still would only be scratching the surface. Knowing God, and growing in our knowledge of God, is reality that will continue for all of eternity. And thus, when Jesus says in Matthew 7 that he did not know the workers of lawlessness, his point is much more than a statement of facts. He is declaring, that because these people had no relationship with God, they had no place in God’s everlasting kingdom.
Truly, knowledge of God is more than just an acquisition of facts. It is a personal, loving, trusting response to the covenantal knowledge of God. For those whom he set his love upon will come to know God, and those who know him, know that in him there is life eternal and that there is no other place to go for salvation, love, or life.
In this way, Jesus’s words to his disciples call us to press on to know the Lord, to forsake all other allegiances, and to find life in covenant with him. This, I would suggest is the whole meaning of the sermon, and the whole meaning of life. We are created to know God, and to know him in the most personal, loving, and trusting way. In other words, we are to live in covenantal knowledge with God. To that end, let us press on.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds