What kind of knowledge?
How much does knowledge matter for Christians? In a survey done among Christian churches across this country, and across various denominations some years ago, if I remember the figures correctly, something like 27% of church members claimed that they read their Bibles regularly. The obvious question then is, where do we get our understanding of what it means to be a Christian? Some people have claimed that they became Christians by ‘osmosis’! What does that mean?
The Jewish leaders were accused by Jesus of taking away the key to knowledge.
Woe to you experts in the law; because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering. (Lk. 11:52).
This is an intriguing statement by Jesus. What did he mean? Jesus was not referring to knowledge in a general sense. He was referring to the key that unlocks knowledge of God.
We are going to have a look at what is involved in ‘unlocking the door’ to this knowledge.
How not to use the Bible
The key does not lie in reading the Bible for the following two wrong reasons:
A The Bible Is Not An End In Itself
It is not merely a book of information, so that if we learn the information correctly, we are going to be commended by God for being faithful to him. Reading the Bible, and familiarising ourselves with its stories, its language, its ethic, is not enough. Learning passages off by heart is not enough. The Bible is not a book of magic, or some kind of sacred icon. Holding it up will not keep us from demonic attacks.
People have fought for its integrity, its truthfulness, its authority, and rightly so, but it hasn’t always been used for the right purpose. God has given us his written Word, in order to lead us to KNOW HIM, and his Son Jesus Christ. Knowledge about him must lead us to knowledge OF him, and then knowledge OF him, will encourage us to want to know more ABOUT him. Unless we are excitedly caught up with what God is doing in the world, and found our place in what he is doing, we have not allowed the Bible to achieve its God-given purpose in our lives, no matter how vehemently we defend it.
B. The Bible Is Not The Basis For Causes
Some people get caught up with causes that inspire them. They want their lives to be meaningful, and being part of some cause gives them that significance. In recent years the strongest cause that has challenged the Christian churches across denominations is the cause of the ‘poor, the marginalised, and the oppressed’ in the world.
That is not to say that we should not be concerned for these issues, but we have to draw a distinction between this kind of work being a Christian ministry, and it being merely a good cause. Where does the distinction lie? Christian ministry in this area is done out of obedience to God; the other is simply a good thing to do, and what God wants for these people doesn’t come into consideration.
Unfortunately, there are Christians who claim that we should do these good things regardless of any spiritual implications. Yet, Jesus told us to act in such a way that people will see our good works and praise our Father in heaven. How will they do that unless they are aware that we do these things in Christ’s name, as his representatives expressing his concern for them on his behalf? And, that he wants them to experience freedom from bondage to their own sinful nature, and not merely physical wellbeing that does nothing to solve their deeper problems.
We cannot extract from the context of Scripture what appeals to us, and then make it the basis for a cause—no matter how good and legitimate that cause may be. Of course the Christian Church should be concerned for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed, because God is concerned for them, but it has to be within the framework of the Gospel, and done in the spirit of the Gospel, with God’s desire to bring people out of darkness into his light in Christ. His desire is that every human being ultimately comes to worship God, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the book of Proverbs we read that it is not good to have zeal without knowledge (Prov. 19:2). The Scriptures give us the framework within which we are to understand what God requires of us, and what he wants for the nations of this world. Paul used the same verse when he told the Jews what was wrong with their understanding of the way they worshipped God in the OT. He said, You were zealous for God but your zeal was not based on knowledge. (Rom. 10:2).
Can we really know God?
I mean, can we know him in the sense of having a relationship with him? Charles Price is the senior pastor of the People’s Church in Toronto, Canada, probably the largest church in the nation. From his wide experience as a pastor and as an internationally recognised convention speaker, he says that although we Christians speak about the Christian life as a relationship with God, few Christians seem to know very much about this relationship.
Throughout the OT we see God acting powerfully in such a way that his actions need no explanation. But there are times when he explains his actions to his servants the prophets so that there is no argument about how they are to be understood. There are also times when God acts, and he doesn’t explain himself, because it is not for us to know. In Deuteronomy 29:29 we read, the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us. What we are meant to understand about God, what he does, and why he does it, have been revealed to us. What does that suggest to us?
A. God Wants To Be Known
It’s one thing to convince people that he is sovereign over the nations, and especially in the affairs of Israel, it’s another thing to want to be known by them in a personal way. Is there any indication that God actually wants people to know him; or, that he makes it possible for people to know him more intimately?
That very thought is repulsive to a Muslim. Allah is so holy and completely outside the realm of human beings that it is impossible even to think that he would want to reveal himself to his followers. For the Muslim it is humanly impossible to know Allah. The closest you can get to, is to discover his will, and that only through intermediaries, especially through the Q’uran. Allah himself remains completely inaccessible.
Yet, in the OT, when Moses was having problems with the rebellious tribes of Israel in the desert after leaving Egypt, he wasn’t prepared for an angel to lead them to the Promised Land. He wanted God himself to lead them, because it was God’s presence among them that would distinguish them from the other nations. He said to God, you know me by name (personally), but I want to know you. Teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favour with you. (Ex. 33:12-13). The Lord’s response was, I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name (personally). (33:17), …but you cannot see my face!
When Jesus prayed for his disciples prior to the cross, he said,
This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (Jn. 17:3).
In his first letter, John wrote that,
the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. (1 Jn. 5:20).
B. Head Knowledge Alone Leads To Disappointment
As human beings we look for easy ways to understand what we hear and learn. If someone comes up with a system of belief about God that is simple for us to understand, we grab hold of it. And if that system of belief does not take into consideration everything else in the Bible, we can always close our minds to that. Some Christians find security in simplicity. When our system of belief suffers a broadside through difficult-to-explain experiences, we can easily become disillusioned and disappointed with God. We may have known God well enough over the years not to blame him openly, but inside of us, we can’t help asking the question, ‘Why is God allowing this to happen to us when we have always acknowledged him?’
Head knowledge about him doesn’t help us in any way, least of all when we need him most. Knowledge about him has to be converted into experience of him, and it has to be done constantly, and in every area of life. Only then will we find ourselves growing strong enough in that relationship not to be too discouraged when we don’t get the answers we want.
C. A Close Relationship With Christ Brings Fulfilment
When we are in a relationship with another person and difficult experiences have to be faced, it’s the strength of the relationship that carries us through those difficulties. When this relationship involves God, we can always rely on his unfailing love, even when we walk through the darkest experiences.
When Israel found themselves in exile due to their constant rebellion against God, it was the godly among them who probably found it the hardest to understand what was happening to them. They were uprooted from their homeland; the temple (their place of worship) was destroyed; the walls of their beloved city had been pulled down, and they found themselves among a people whose language they could not understand. Unlike the wilful blindness and rebellious spirit that characterised their fellow Israelites, those who remained faithful to God, were going through a crisis of faith. They were in the dark. They were told not to give up trusting God because he was deeply concerned for them and would rescue them, but he had his ways, and his timing for everything. They had to maintain their trust in him, even when their understanding failed them. God’s ways are past finding out, but their relationship was certainly not built on blind faith.
Knowledge about him remains important because it leads to knowledge of him. Some people say that knowledge about God is not enough, we have to come to know him. That’s true but no-one has ever come to know him, without first coming to know about him.
Where do we find this key?
A. Knowing God In The OT
When I want to understand my computer, I have to begin with my computer. I will read the manual to see what does what, but the computer is before me all the time. Unless I am applying what I am reading to way I use the computer, I will never really come to understand my computer.
The kind of knowledge God wants us to have, must begin with him. Solomon said, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Pr. 1:7; 9:10). God has to be our starting point when we come to the Bible. When we read the Bible for any other reason, we’ll miss the point entirely. The Christian position is that God is the beginning of all wisdom, all knowledge, and all understanding. As Creator, he must be the One who alone can explain the reason and purpose of life.
When some of us studied at post-graduate level, we were told very clearly that when referring to other writers or thinkers, we had to go to the primary source documents. It wasn’t enough to refer to the interpretation given these documents by others. That’s second-hand information. Yet, people constantly try to understand the meaning of life from every source but the primary source, the Bible. That’s where God has chosen to reveal himself to us. It is his Word to us. But we have to approach him with an attitude worthy of the Creator God.
The psalmist asked the question, Who, then, is that man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he has chosen for him. (25:12). He goes on to say, The Lord confides in those who fear him;… (25:14). Isn’t the word ‘confide’ on the part of God, who is utterly awesome, completely inappropriate here? Yet, that is what God does when a person comes to him with the kind of awe and wonder that he deserves. When addressing Israel through the prophet Isaiah God said, Listen to what I have to say, you who tremble at God’s word. (Isa. 66:5). God himself is the key to all knowledge and understanding. He gives us the perspective on life from his point of view—the only legitimate perspective for any person to have.
The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with his justice and righteousness. He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure. (Isa. 33:5-6).
B. Knowing God In The NT
When we come to the NT, we discover that God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:26a). The Word of God became the living Word. All that God is, Christ is. When Moses asked God to show him his glory (Ex. 33:18), God said, I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord… But you cannot see my face, for no-one can see me and live.” (vv.19-20). Yet, in the NT we read that God himself has given us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6). All that we are to know about God we now see and hear in Jesus Christ. When Jesus prayed for his disciples prior to his death, he said,
Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (Jn. 17:21).
Paul’s favourite expression for a Christian is a person who is ‘in Christ’—not, Christ is in us—although that is also true. The emphasis is on our need to be ‘in him’. We need to strive to be ‘in Christ’. For the Christian, Christ is the key to all knowledge, wisdom and understanding. If that sounds abstract, it isn’t. We have to begin by having a right relationship with him. Only from that kind of relationship can we discover how we are to see things from his point of view.
Paul said that everything that used to be important in his life had lost significance in the light of Christ and his experience of him, and this happened so that he might be ‘found in Christ’. (Phil.3:9). He says he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. (Phil. 3:10). To really know another person, we have to be prepared to go through ‘thick-and-thin’ with them. Jesus Christ wants us to share the difficult experiences with him, as well as the pleasant one. Our readiness to trust him when life seems dark and incomprehensible, leads us into an understanding of him, that we could never come to otherwise.
Is ignorance bliss?
The saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ has found a place in our language because enough people believe it. Why can’t I simply choose what I want to know, and leave the rest to those who want to know more? This attitude sometimes camouflages a person’s unwillingness to know more, lest it demands more of them. I have heard believers say, ‘I like to keep things simple’.
If the key to our knowledge of God is Jesus Christ, then within my relationship with him, it has to do more with him, rather than with me. He is the one into whom we are told to grow. God reshapes his image in us, through Christ. God doesn’t ask us what benefits of his salvation we want, or don’t want. I am not given the opportunity to remain ignorant of what he wants to do in my life. I am called to co-operate with the Holy Spirit as he works to bring me to maturity in Christ. As a Christian, Christ is now my life, not just my salvation.
All the resources that I need to help me grow into Christ have been made available by God. I cannot plead ignorance. Wilful ignorance will not make me less accountable. I can’t bury my head in the sand, as it were, and say, ‘But I didn’t know what was expected of me.’ Very few people would openly take this stance, although there are some who think like that, or act like that, because they prefer to be busy with other things.
When we are too busy to grow in grace and in the knowledge of God, a lot of dissatisfaction remains in our lives. We easily fall into periods of discouragement, disappointment, even disillusionment, with nothing to back us up at times like that.
A. Ignorance Opens Us To Wrong Influences
Ignorance, or poor understanding of the Scriptures, makes us prey to all sorts of undermining influences. We become more susceptible to doubt and fear. We also open ourselves to misinformation. This was the problem in the Corinthian Church. The Church in Corinth was the product of God’s work through Paul’s ministry. Most of the members of that Church had come from a very pagan background, but God had begun a good work among them, and wanted to continue to transform them more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Paul was an itinerant missionary. Once the Church was planted, he would appoint a few leaders to look after the believers, and would be on his way to the next town. Before long, the Corinthians had some visitors who claimed that they had come with letters of recommendation to provide them with stable leadership. They were well presented, they had an air of authority about them, they had the ‘gift of the gab’ as we would say, and they were very convincing. They had all the characteristics that were highly regarded by Greeks.
Soon after their arrival Paul began to hear what they were really up to. In order to establish their own authority in the Corinthian Church, they began to demean Paul and his ministry. They were so convincing that many in the Church began to turn against Paul. This simply opened the door to teaching that was ‘way out’. Many of the believers appraised these visitors on the basis of outward appearances—wrong criteria! Jesus did not tell his disciples never to ‘judge’, he told them to use the right criteria when making their judgements. He said, Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgement. (Jn. 7:24).
The Scriptures give us the criteria for correct judgement or evaluation of all that we see, hear, and read. It saves us from the ‘gurus’ of this age. We can get influenced by the so-called ‘significant’ people in the Christian community as much as the Corinthians did, unless we know the Scriptures well enough to recognise the difference between falsehood and truth. Very often falsehood comes in very attractive clothes, sounds plausible, and very acceptable from the world's point of view. Although Satan is malicious and extraordinarily destructive, he knows how to come to us as an ‘angel of light’.
The writer to the Hebrews says solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:14). When we fail to train ourselves to recognise this distinction, we are in trouble.
B. Ignorance Is Destructive
In Hosea God says, my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6). What did he mean by that? They had effectively turned their backs on him. When people neglect what God has said in his Word, they are not merely neglecting his Word—they are rejecting him. Our relationship with him is maintained through his Word. Our neglect can be a gradual process where we become colder and colder towards God with the passage of time. Or, it can be a deliberate attitude.
In the book of Proverbs, God, personified as Wisdom, addressed the people saying,
How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you.” (1:22). Because they hated knowledge and chose not to fear the Lord, the Lord told them that when calamity overtakes them, they were not to turn to the Lord for help, because He would refuse to listen to them. (1:27-29).
I wonder if there is someone who finds himself or herself in a hole from which they cannot get out. There is a way out that God in his grace provides, but it needs repentance. Repentance involves a returning to the kind of relationship that God has always wanted to have with us.
Responsibility to know
1. My Responsibility
Ultimately, we are all responsible for what we know and what we don’t know, especially, when that which is to be known, is available to us. God’s Holy Spirit is prepared to help us understand God’s Word, but he can’t help us if we don’t give him the opportunity, by avoiding his Word in our daily lives. God doesn’t expect from us more than we are capable of absorbing. There are many people in the world because of one handicap or another who cannot absorb as much as the rest of us. God in his grace knows all about that. For the rest of us, we are accountable for that which we are capable of absorbing. A number of commentators believe that when Paul said to the Christians in Rome, that on the ultimate day of God’s judgement he will give to each person according to what he had done (Rom. 2:6), the context suggests that Paul was referring to “what he had done with the light that he had”. Christians have been given a lot of light, a lot of knowledge, a great deal of understanding. That means that we are all the more responsible for what we do with it. It is my responsibility to grow in grace and in the knowledge of God.
In his first letter, Peter says to his readers, prepare your minds for action… (1 Pet. 1:13). The literal rendering of this verse says, "Therefore, having girded up the loins of your mind"—it's an image of a person wearing flowing garments tucking the garments into his belt so that he can run and move about freely and quickly without tripping over his clothes. And the part of you that is to be freed by this girding up, is your mind. Then Peter goes on to say, be sober. It implies alertness, and evaluating things correctly, because you see clearly, and your mind isn't numb with intoxicating influences.
2. Our Responsibility
It is also the responsibility of congregations not to act like sheep that are prepared to go whichever way we are led. When Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd, he said,
When he (the good shepherd) has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger, in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice. (Jn. 10:4-5).
How well do we distinguish the voice of the Good Shepherd from the voice of the stranger? We need to exercise discernment based on knowledge of God and his Word. Paul didn’t criticise the Berean Christians for not accepting everything he said at face value. He commended them for checking his preaching against the Scriptures that they had. We need to do this with open Bibles, and not on the basis of our memory. Even when people preach to us, we need to be more actively involved in comparing Scripture with Scripture. God never says anything that is inconsistent with what he has already said in his written Word. His written Word is the measure by which we need to assess all we hear and read.
3. Leaders’ Responsibility
When Israel went astray in the OT, all were blamed: prophets, priests, kings, and the ordinary people. Leaders have to be particularly discerning.
Church leaders carry a heavy burden of responsibility on their shoulders because they are ultimately accountable to God for what they teach, or fail to teach. They are responsible for the direction they take in leading the flock. They are responsible for feeding the flock on solid food that helps them to distinguish between what is true and what is false. We need to pray for them very much.
Putting it all together
- God can be known and he wants to be known.
- We come to know him through his Word.
- We can understand that Word only from within a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
- A right relationship also motivates us to know him better.
- It is our responsibility to grow in our understanding.
We have been told to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18).