God knows his people in a way which differs from his knowledge of those who reject him. This explains why Jesus can say that those who do not live in obedience to the Father will be told, “I never knew you” when the day of judgement comes, despite the plain teaching of the Bible that God knows all. In order to see understand the way in which we are known by God I will begin at the beginning and then consider the different nuances of God’s knowledge of people.
Creation in the image of God
There is a fundamental connection between humanity and God because first of all we are his creatures and creatures cannot disconnect themselves from the Creator. He is our sustainer. But humans are even more connected to the Creator because we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). Humans were made in a more personal way than the animals, so we have a closer connection to God than does every other part of creation.
Second, the way in which humans were created is significant. In the second creation account this intimacy is described. “[T]he LORD formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). We are made from the dust and cannot ever disconnect ourselves from the earth. By the same token we are given breath by the divine breath and cannot ever disconnect ourselves from the God who made us. The divine breath might be otherwise described as the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed affirms that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. It is by the Spirit that God is forever connected to his human creation. Although sin means that humans need reconciliation with God, there is a sense in which humanity can never be without relationship with God, because our very being and existence is continually sustained and renewed by the Holy Spirit. This idea appears again in the New Testament when Paul spoke to the people of Athens. He told them, “[God] is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27b-28a).
For this reason when God knows something about a particular person, his knowledge is not acquired from afar but from a place of intimate closeness. God’s knowledge of humanity cannot ever be other than relational knowledge. It is personal knowledge, knowledge of a person by another person. This close personal knowledge of humanity by God does not imply a reciprocal knowledge of God by those who are known. Humans are in need of reconciliation, because as sinners they are in rebellion against God. But our estrangement from God cannot prevent him from knowing us. There are, however, different nuances to the knowledge that God has of people.
God’s compassionate knowledge of his people’s plight
God’s knowledge of the world he created extends to knowing every bird and even the insects (Ps 50:11). He knows the events of the past and declares what will happen in the future (Isa 45:21). But his knowledge goes beyond lower creation and events. He knows human beings and cares for them, because they were made to rule his creation (Ps 144:3; Ps 8). But the knowledge which God has of his people and their circumstances is particularly tied to his deep concern for them (Ps 103:13-14), simply because he has chosen them.
Israel lived in Egypt for four hundred years and became mistreated and enslaved by the Egyptians. But “God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exod 2:25). God knew what Pharaoh was doing to Israel and consequently sent signs and wonders against him (Neh 9:10). The knowledge that God has of his people is not neutral knowledge. No doubt God is aware of what is happening in the world to every person. The difference with regard to the people who he has chosen is that when God becomes aware of their situation he acts on their behalf. God acts to redeem his people because they belong to him and they are blessed. Hundreds of years earlier, God had promised Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Gen 12:3a). Thus the knowledge which God had of his people in Egypt caused him to act upon this promise and to deliver them from slavery there.
The psalmist (David) cries out to God for deliverance from his enemies. He prays, “You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed; all my enemies are before you” (Ps 69:19). This knowledge of God is again tied to an expectation that God will act on behalf of the one who knows him. In another psalm he writes, “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way. In the path where I walk men have hidden a snare for me” (Ps 142:3). That God knows these things is a comfort since others provide no refuge for the petitioner, but God cares since he knows the troubles and hardships his people experience. Jeremiah was also aware that God knew the threats of those who opposed his ministry (Jer 18:23). These cries of God’s people are heard by the God who knows them. He hears and he acts on our behalf.
God knows human sin
God knows the sins of people. The wicked fool themselves in believing that God cannot see what they do (Ps 73:11). They try to hide what they are doing from him and yet this is as foolish as the clay thinking that it is cannier than the potter (Isa 29:15-16). God knows the futility of every human plan (Ps 94:11), since they are plans made in rebellion against him (Jer 48:26, 30). He knew what the king of Assyria was planning against Israel and the truth that this was raging against God himself (2 Kings 19:27). It may seem unsurprising that God is aware of people’s sins, but it is not awareness from a distance. When in conversation with Abraham, the LORD says, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me” (Gen 18:20-21). God went up close to Sodom and Gomorrah in order to know decisively about their sins.
The sins of God’s people are also known by him. He is the God who knows (1 Sam 2:3). The people are rebuked because of the sins that cannot be hidden from their God (Hos 5:3; Amos 5:12). The nation imagines how righteous it is and wonders why their God does not know it. And yet he knows more than they imagine about their supposed righteous acts (Isa 58:3). Yet those who trust in the LORD are happy that their sins are known by God and are confident to cry out to him (Ps 69:5).
There is repeated reference to God’s knowledge of human sin. The question is really how God knows our sin. He cannot know our sin in the sense of understanding it by experience, since God is holy and does not and cannot engage in sin. (Humans can understand sin from an experiential point of view because we do engage in sin.) Many of the references to sin and God’s response to that are requests for forgiveness or thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness (Pss 32:1, 5; 51:2; 85:2). There are temple sacrifices set up for make atonement for sin (see Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers). It seems clear that God wants to cover over sin and forgive it. His knowledge of sin is not comfortable for him, but distressing. He knows about our sin but desires to see us turn from sin so he can forgive us (Jer 36:3; Ezek 18:30).
God knows the heart
God also knows the heart. Indeed he alone knows the human heart (2 Chron 6:30). If his people had turned away to follow other gods he would know since he knows the secrets of the heart (Ps 44:21). Knowing the heart is not simply a matter of being aware of sin. God also knows the positive motives of the heart. He revealed to Abimelech in a dream that he knew of his clear conscience. Thus he kept Abimelech from sinning by not allowing him to touch Abraham’s wife Sarah, despite Abraham’s deception (Gen 20:6). Now there is no evidence that God had chosen Abimelech to belong to him in a saving way. And yet the act of speaking to Abimelech in a dream implies some level of relationship. Such a relationship with an unsaved person must be possible because of the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. God is not far from each one. The distinctions between those who hear him and those who do not are surely a matter of how receptive the heart is to God.
Solomon knew that God searches the heart and knows every desire and every thought (1 Chron 28:9). He tests the heart and knows those who have integrity (29:17). The clearest example of this testing of the heart is with Abraham. “Some time later [after the birth of the promised son Isaac] God tested Abraham” (Gen 22:1). When Abraham had placed his son on the altar to kill him, the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and told him not to kill Isaac. “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (22:12). In this case the heart was laid bare by Abraham’s actions. This instance is also an instance of God’s relational knowledge.
The difference between this instance and the relational knowledge that God had of Abimelech is that the incident with Abraham was part of a long-term relationship between God and his chosen. God knew Abraham and Abraham knew God. He was God’s friend (James 2:23). God’s knowledge of humanity is always a relational knowledge. But humans are not always receptive to that relationship. The wicked do not want to acknowledge that God knows their sins and the motives of the heart. The godly, however, are happy to ask God to search the heart (Ps 139:23). They know that God’s knowledge of sin is not a destructive thing. The godly also know about God’s willingness to forgive sin. Since forgiveness is freely given to those who ask, there is no fear of God’s knowledge of the heart for those who are receptive to God. The relationship which God has with people cannot be undone by human sin and denial of his existence, but it will not be reciprocated until the people understand God’s mercy and grace.
Jesus knows hearts
Jesus also searches hearts and minds. During his ministry he knew what people were speaking about behind his back and he knew hearts. There are many instances in which Jesus knew what was in the heart of a person. He knew that the religious leaders thought that he was blaspheming when he said that he could forgive sins (Mark 2:8; Luke 5:22). He knew that people asking him seemingly innocent questions had evil intentions (Matt 22:18). He knew the hearts of the religious leaders, who studied the Scriptures diligently but did not love God (John 5:42). These are instances of wicked people who rejected Jesus. The evil of their hearts was known by Jesus, but they did not follow him. There were others who were captivated by his miracles and believed in him, and yet Jesus refused to entrust himself to them because he knew the hearts of people (John 2:23-25). These people were not opposed to Jesus, but not at the point where they might be called true disciples. Jesus had knowledge of their hearts and no intimate relationship with them. The relationship was one that resulted in a negative judgement on the part of Jesus.
However, the instances in which Jesus deals with the hearts of his people are a little different. After he had risen from the dead, Jesus spoke to Peter. Three times he asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (This corresponds to the three times that Peter denied Jesus before his death). Peter replied, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21:7). This interaction is a restorative one. Jesus knows that his people love him even if we fail him sometimes. This is not knowledge of the evil intent in the wicked person’s heart, but knowledge of people with whom Jesus is in intimate relationship.
The second example takes place after Jesus had ascended to the right hand of God. He walks among his churches. He says to the church in Thyatira regarding the false prophetess “Jezebel”, “I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Rev 2:23). Jesus knows people, whether they are his or not, whether or not people are truly repentant. There is no hiding anything from the risen Jesus. He is Lord of all. But the knowledge of his own results in call to holiness. Holiness must be part of the ongoing relationship that Jesus has with his church. Those who have no faith in Jesus cannot be holy.
Both the Father and the Son know the hearts of those in the church through the Spirit. The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Since he indwells us there is nothing he does not know. “For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11). Since the Holy Spirit both indwells the Father and the Son and indwells the church he knows God and believers equally. The Spirit of God in believers knows every thought and every motive of the heart. But he also changes the heart. Perhaps this is the primary difference between God’s knowledge of the unbeliever and God’s knowledge of the believer. The unbeliever is not transformed by God’s knowledge of him/her. But the believer is transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit as he/she willingly submits to the knowledge of God. Since God knows our hearts he calls us to repentance through his word, in written and prophetic forms, and enables that repentance by the power of the Spirit because of the cross.
God’s relational knowledge of people
The way in which God knows the righteous is different to the way in which he knows the unrighteous. The psalms contrast these two kinds of knowing. “For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Ps 1:6 NAS). It is already clear that God knows the sins of the wicked and nothing about them is hidden. Yet God knows the way of the righteous. This is not simply knowledge of what the righteous do. It is a positive knowing that causes God to act on behalf of the righteous. This is why many Bible versions translate this as “The LORD watches over the way of the righteous.” Psalm 37 says something similar. “The days of the blameless are known to the LORD, and their inheritance will endure for ever. In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine they will enjoy plenty. But the wicked will perish: The LORD’s enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, they will vanish—vanish like smoke” (Ps 37:18-20). Here the LORD’s knowledge of the righteous is something which results in his blessing. The LORD does not know his enemies in a positive way. Their sins are not forgiven and he does not act to bless them.
When Jeremiah says, “Yet you know me, LORD; you see me and test my thoughts about you” (Jer 12:3), he is contrasting himself with the wicked who are always talking about God, but he is “far from their hearts” (12:2). He is confident that the LORD understands him, remembers and cares for him even as he is persecuted (15:15). God’s knowledge of Jeremiah also requires something of Jeremiah. He is called to repentance so that he can serve God (15:19) in calling others to repentance. The knowledge which God has of his people is intimate knowledge of the heart and this in turn leads to a relational expectation that his people would turn away from sin and obey him.
David was comforted by God’s intimate knowledge of him. “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps 139:1-6). In contrast to the wicked, who deny that God knows what they are doing and who try to hide from him, David is confident that God’s knowledge of his life is good. It is not knowledge from outside, but knowledge of his thoughts and words even before they are spoken. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” The word “wonderful” is translated as “unknowable” or “beyond understanding” in Judges 13:18. That God would have such knowledge of every aspect of our being is incredible and beyond our capacity to grasp. One thing we can be sure of is that God is intimately connected to his people and hence knows them very well.
Christian believers are people who know God, but more so are known by God. It is easy to collect knowledge (whether accurate or inaccurate) about God. This is not the point of the Christian life. “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Cor 8:2-3). To be known by God is the goal. It is his knowledge of us which transforms lives and makes us friends with God. Paul assures us that when Jesus returns we will know God fully, even as he fully knows us (1 Cor 13:12). In the present we are known by God and consequently set free from things which enslave us (Gal 4:9). Since “The Lord knows those who are his” they are to “turn away from wickedness” (2 Tim 2:19). The intimate relational knowledge which God has of those who are righteous in his sight, those who are justified by the blood of Christ and his resurrection, is transformative. God’s knowledge of his people makes them able to live a life pleasing to him.
The relationship of the Father and the Son is the basis for God’s knowledge of his people and his peoples’ knowledge of him
The Father and the Son have a relationship which is exclusive. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27; compare Luke 10:22). Although some Jews Jesus spoke to claimed to know the Father they did not. But Jesus does know him and obeys him (John 8:54-55). Although this relationship is an exclusive one and no one can enter into it unasked, the Son chooses to reveal the Father. The knowledge that the Son has of the Father is the basis for the knowledge that believers have of the Father, since we are invited into that relationship by Jesus. On the other hand, the knowledge that the Father has of the Son is the basis for God’s intimate knowledge of Christians, since the Father sees all believers through the Son. Jesus told his disciples, “The Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27). Jesus is the good shepherd. He knows his sheep (the people of God) and his sheep know him in the same way that the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father (John 10:14-15).
How is this intimate knowing of believers accomplished? The Holy Spirit is the one who mediates between Father and Son (Luke 10:21). The Spirit knows the thoughts of God and since he indwells the people of God he makes known God’s thoughts to them (1 Cor 2:11-12). By the same token, since he indwells the people of God he is so close that all that can be known about believers is known by the Spirit, who then makes that known to God. Although the Holy Spirit is the giver of life to every human being, and therefore the one who enables all of God’s knowledge of humanity, the indwelling Spirit enables God to have a more intimate knowledge of his people.
Just before his death Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to his disciples and they would not be alone (John 14:15-21). The indwelling Spirit enables believers to understand that Jesus is in the Father and we are in Christ and he in us (14:20). The mutual indwelling of Father and Son means that they know one another intimately. But since Jesus has taken us into the relationship he has with the Father, this means that believers are also known by God in an intimate way and can know him intimately.
God knows people in advance
The knowledge which God has of his people is said to be from before the foundation of the world. “For he chose us in him [Christ] before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4a). God’s choice implies knowledge of people. God clearly knows his people in advance. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29). His foreknowledge of the people of Israel means that he will not reject the nation. Consequently, although many in Israel have rejected Jesus as Messiah, God has kept a remnant for himself, chosen by grace (Rom 11:1-5). God’s foreknowledge of his people is based on the foreknowledge he has of his Son. “He [Christ, the lamb without blemish or defect] was chosen [foreknown] before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (1 Pet 1:20).
The fact that God knows his people in advance because he first knows Jesus Christ in advance explains how God can have intimate knowledge of sinners without compromising his holiness. The blood of Christ is shed for sinners. He is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). The Father knows humanity through the Son. They were created in and through Christ (Col 1:16) and therefore humanity is knowable by God in and through the Son. The blood of Christ is the means by which the Father is able to come close to sinners. The heart of the sinner condemns him/her but God is greater than the heart and knows all things (1 John 3:20). He knows his Son and that the blood shed by the Son is enough to cleanse the heart (Heb 9:14).
I never knew you
Hopefully by now it is clear that there is a distinction between the way God knows people in general and the way in which he knows his own people, those set apart for himself. All people are made by God and known by him. But the knowledge that God has of his people causes him to act on their behalf, rescuing them from their enemies and giving comfort. He knows the sins of people, even the secret sins that people try to hide. But when God knows the sins of his own people he does so in order to forgive them and cleanse them. God knows the hearts of people, whether good or bad. He tests the hearts of those he loves so that they might trust him more perfectly. Jesus knew the hearts of people, that they were sinful. But his knowledge of hearts in the church serves to bring his people to repentance and restored relationship. God’s knowledge of his people’s hearts is made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit. When God knows people he acts. He knows the wicked and they are judged. He knows the righteous and he acts to protect and to care for them. His knowledge of the people of God is transformative. God knows his people because he first knows his Son. The Father knows Christians through the Son and in the Spirit. His knowledge of us is from before the world began. Even then he saw his people through the blood of Jesus, shed for them.
With this background in place it is possible to comment on what Jesus said about those who do not do the will of God. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt 7:21-23).
Based on the study I have just done, the statement “I never knew you” does not mean that Jesus somehow forgot who these people are. They were always known by God because all humans are known by God. We should not, however, turn it around to mean “you never really knew Jesus”. What it does mean is that these people who Jesus never knew do not receive the blessing which comes with God’s intimate knowledge of humanity through his Son, the one whose blood washes away all sin. Since these people have chosen to base their claim to God’s blessing on their own works, they cannot be known by God through his Son. Those who are known through the Son are forgiven and sanctified. Those who are not known through the Son and washed by his blood will never enter the kingdom of God and will never receive God’s blessing of intimate fellowship with him that can only be had through Christ.