On Knowing God
by James Montgomery Boice
One hot night in the early years of the Christian era a sophisticated and highly educated man named Nicodemus came to see a young rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. The man wanted to discuss reality. So he began the conversation with a statement of where his own personal search for truth had taken him. He said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him" (Jn. 3:2).
With the exception of the word Rabbi, which was merely a polite form of address, the first words were a claim to considerable knowledge. Nicodemus said, "We know." Then he began to rehearse the things he knew (or thought he knew) and with which he wanted to begin the discussion: (1) that Jesus was continuing to do many miracles; (2) that these miracles were intended to authenticate him as a teacher sent from God; and that, therefore, (3) Jesus was one to whom he should listen. Unfortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus replied that such an approach to knowledge was wrong and that Nicodemus could therefore know nothing until he had first experienced an inward, spiritual transformation. "You must be born anew," Jesus told him (In. 3:7).
Nicodemus's subsequent remarks showed at least an implicit recognition of his lack of knowledge in important things. For he began to ask questions, "How can a man be born when he is old? How can this be?" (vv. 4, 9). Jesus taught him that true knowledge begins with spiritual knowledge, knowledge of God, and that this is to be found in God's revelation of himself in the Bible and in Jesus' own life and work, the work of the Savior.
This ancient conversation is relevant to our day. For the problems and frustrations that Nicodemus faced nearly two thousand years ago are with us in our time also. Nicodemus possessed knowledge, but he lacked the key to that knowledge, the element that would put it all together. He knew certain things, but his search for truth had brought him to the point of personal crisis. That sounds familiar. Much is known in our time. In the sense of information or technical knowledge, more is known today than at any previous time in history. Yet the kind of knowledge that integrates information and thereby gives meaning to life is strangely absent.
The nature of the problem can be seen by examining the two almost exclusive approaches to knowledge today. On the one hand there is the idea that reality can be known by reason alone. That approach is not new, of course. It is the approach developed by Plato and therefore assumed by much of the Greek and Roman thought after him. In Plato's philosophy, knowledge became knowledge of the eternal and unalterable essence of things, not merely knowledge of changeable phenomena. That is, it was a knowledge of forms, ideas or ideals. Our nearest equivalent would be the so-called laws of science.
On the surface, this approach to knowledge through the exercise of supposedly impartial reason seems desirable, for it is productive -- as the technical advances of our day often indicate. But it is not without problems. For one thing, it is highly impersonal knowledge and, as some would say, highly depersonalizing. In this approach reality becomes a thing (an equation, law or, worse yet, mere data), and men and women become things also, with the inevitable result that they may therefore be manipulated like any other raw material for whatever ends.
An example is the manipulation of poorer nations by rich nations for the sake of the rich nation's expanding economy, that is, the injustice analyzed and rightly condemned by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, Capital and other writings. Another example is that of communism itself which, in spite of its desire to better the lot of the masses, actually manipulates them for ideological ends. On the personal level there is the science of behavioral technology and the frightening teaching of a man like B. F. Skinner of Harvard University who claims that individuals must be conditioned scientifically for the good of society.
There is also another problem with the attempt to know reality through reason alone. The approach does not give an adequate basis for ethics. It can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Consequently, the extraordinary technical advances of our time are accompanied by an extreme and debilitating moral permissiveness which promises in time to break down even the values and system that made both the advances and the permissiveness possible. Interestingly, the same thing was also true of the Greek philosophers, who, although they were men of great intellect, on occasion led depraved lives.
In recent years the failures of the rationalistic system have impressed themselves on a new generation with the result that many in the Western world have abandoned reason in order to seek reality through emotional experience. In the ancient world, in reaction to the impersonality of Greek philosophy, this was done through intense participation in the rites of the mystery religions. These promised an emotional union with some god, induced by lighting, music, incense or perhaps by drugs. In our time the same approach is surfacing through the drug cult, rediscovery of the Eastern religions, Transcendental Meditation and other supposedly "mind-expanding" practices.
This modern approach also has several problems. First, the experience does not last. It is transient. Each attempt to achieve reality through emotional experience promises some sort of "high." But the "high" is inevitably followed by a "low," with the additional problem that increasingly intense stimuli seem to be necessary to repeat the experience. Eventually this ends either in self-destruction or acute disillusionment. A second problem is that the approach to reality through emotion does not satisfy the mind. Promoters of these experiences, particularly drug experiences, speak of a more intense perception of reality that results from them. But their experience has no rational content. The part of the human being that wants to think about such things and understand them is unsatisfied.
The result of this situation is a crisis in the area of knowledge today, as in ancient times. Many thinking people quite honestly do not know where to turn. The rationalistic approach is impersonal and amoral. The emotionalistic approach is without content, transient, and also often immoral.
"Is this the end?" many are asking. "Are there no other possibilities? Is there not a third way?"
A Third Way
At this point Christianity comes forward with the claim that there is a third way and that this way is strong at precisely those points where the other approaches are lacking. The basis of this third approach is that there is a God who has created all things and who himself gives his creation meaning. Further, we can know him. This is an exciting and satisfying possibility. It is exciting because it involves the possibility of contact between the individual and God, however insignificant the individual may appear in his or her own eyes or in the eyes of others. It is satisfying because it is knowledge not of an idea or thing but of a supremely personal Being, and because it issues in a profound change of conduct.
This is what the Bible means when it says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7). And, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Prov. 9:10).
Here, however, we must be clear about what we mean when we speak of "knowing God," for many common uses of the word know are inadequate to convey the biblical understanding. There is a use of the word know by which we mean "awareness." In this sense we say that we know where somebody lives or that we know that certain events are transpiring somewhere in the world. It is a kind of knowledge, but it does not involve us personally. It has little bearing on our lives. This is not what the Bible means when it speaks of knowing God.
Another use of the word know means "knowing about" something or someone. It is knowledge by description. For instance, we may say that we know New York City or London or Moscow. By that we mean that we are aware of the geographic layout of the city, we know the names of the streets, where the major stores are and other facts. We may have gained our knowledge of the city by actually living there. But it is also possible that we may have gained our knowledge by reading books. In the religious realm this type of knowledge would apply to theology which, although important, is not the whole or even the heart of religion. The Bible tells us much about God that we should know. (In fact, much of what follows in this book is directed to our need for such knowledge.)
But this is not enough. Even the greatest theologians can be confused and can find life meaningless.
True knowledge of God is also more than knowledge by experience. To go back to the earlier example, it would be possible for someone who has lived in a particular city to say, "But my knowledge is not book knowledge. I have actually lived there. I have walked the streets, shopped in the stores, attended the theaters. I have experienced the city. I really know it." To this we would have to reply that the knowledge involved is certainly a step beyond anything we have talked about thus far, but still it is not the full idea of knowledge in the Christian sense.
Suppose, for instance, that a person should go out into a starlit field in the cool of a summer evening and gaze up into the twinkling heavens and come away with the claim that in that field he has come to know God. What do we say to such a person? The Christian does not have to deny the validity of that experience, up to a point. It is certainly a richer knowledge than mere awareness of God ("There is a God") or mere knowledge about him ("God is powerful and is the Creator of all that we see and know"). Still, the Christian insists, this is less than what the Bible means by true knowledge. For when the Bible speaks of knowing God it means being made alive by God in a new sense (being "born again"), conversing with God (so that he becomes more than some great "Something" out there, so that he becomes a friend), and being profoundly changed in the process.
All this is leading us, step by step, to a better understanding of the word knowledge. But still another qualification is needed. According to the Bible even when the highest possible meaning is given to the word know, knowing God is still not merely knowing God. For it is never knowing God in isolation. It is always knowing God in his relationship to us. Consequently, according to the Bible, knowledge of God takes place only where there is also knowledge of ourselves in our deep spiritual need and where there is an accompanying acceptance of God's gracious provision for our need through the work of Christ and the application of that work to us by God's Spirit. Knowledge of God takes place in the context of Christian piety, worship and devotion. The Bible teaches that this knowledge of God takes place (where it does take place), not so much because we search after God -- because we do not -- but because God reveals himself to us in Christ and in the Scriptures.
J. I. Packer writes of this knowledge, "Knowing God involves, first, listening to God's word and receiving it as the Holy Spirit interprets it, in application to oneself; second, noting God's nature and character, as His word and works reveal it; third, accepting His invitations, and doing what He commands; fourth, recognising, and rejoicing in, the love that He has shown in thus approaching one and drawing one into this divine fellowship."1
"But just a minute," someone might argue. "All that sounds complicated and difficult. In fact, it seems too difficult. If that's what is involved, I want no part of it. Give me one good reason why I should bother." That is a fair objection, but there is an adequate answer to it. In fact, there are several.
First, knowledge of God is important, for only through the knowledge of God can an individual enter into what the Bible terms eternal life. Jesus indicated this when he prayed, "And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (In. 17:3). At first glance even this does not seem important enough to the "natural man" to make him want to know God at all costs. But this is because, lacking eternal life, he cannot begin to understand what he is missing. He is like a person who says that he does not appreciate good music. His dislike does not make the music worthless; it simply indicates an inadequate grounds of appreciation in him. So also those who do not appreciate God's offer of life indicate that they do not have the capability of understanding or valuing what they are lacking. The Bible says, "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14).
It might help such a person to be told that the promise of eternal life is also the promise of being able to live life fully as an authentic human being. This is true, but it is also true that eternal life means more than this. It means coming alive, not only in a new but also in an eternal sense. It is what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (In. 11:25-26).
Second, knowledge of God is important because, as pointed out earlier, it also involves knowledge of ourselves. Our day is the day of the psychiatrist and psychologist. Men and women spend billions of dollars annually in an attempt to know themselves, to sort out their psyches. Certainly there is need for psychiatry, particularly Christian psychiatry. But this alone is inadequate in the ultimate sense if it does not bring individuals into a knowledge of God against which their own worth and failures may be estimated.
On the one hand, knowledge of ourselves through the knowledge of God is humbling. We are not God nor are we like him. He is holy; we are unholy. He is good; we are not good. He is wise; we are foolish. He is strong; we are weak. He is loving and gracious; we are filled with hate and with selfish affectations. Therefore, to know God is to see ourselves as Isaiah did: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Is. 6:5). Or as Peter did: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Lk. 5:8). On the other hand, such knowledge of ourselves through the knowledge of God is also reassuring and satisfying. For in spite of what we have become we are still God's creation and are loved by him. No higher dignity has been given to women and men than the dignity the Bible gives them.
Third, the knowledge of God also gives us knowledge of this world: its good and its evil, its past and its future, its purpose and its impending judgment at the hand of God. In one sense, this is an extension of the point just made. If knowledge of God gives us knowledge of ourselves, it also inevitably gives us knowledge of the world; for the world is mostly the individuals who compose it written large. On the other hand the world stands in a special relationship to God, in its sin and rebellion as well as in its value as a vehicle for his purposes. It is a confusing place until we know the God who made it and learn from him why he made it and what is to happen to it.
A fourth reason the knowledge of God is important is that it is the only way to personal holiness. This is a goal that the natural man hardly desires. But it is essential nonetheless. Our problems derive not only from the fact that we are ignorant of God but also from the fact that we are sinful. We do not want the good. At times we hate it, even when the good is to our benefit.
The knowledge of God leads to holiness. To know God as he is, is to love him as he is and to want to be like him. This is the message of one of the Bible's most important verses about the knowledge of God. Jeremiah, the ancient prophet of Israel, wrote, "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD" (Jer. 9: 23-24). Jeremiah also wrote about a day when those who don't know God will come to know him. "And no longer shall each man 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, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:34).
Finally, the knowledge of God is important in that it is only through a knowledge of God that the church and those who compose it can become strong. In ourselves we are weak, but as Daniel wrote, "The people who know their God shall stand firm and take action" (Dan. 11:32).
We do not have a strong church today, nor do we have many strong Christians. We can trace the cause to an acute lack of sound spiritual knowledge. Why is the church weak? Why are individual Christians weak? It is because they have allowed their minds to become conformed to the "spirit of this age," with its mechanistic, godless thinking. They have forgotten what God is like and what he promises to do for those who trust him. Ask an average Christian to talk about God. After getting past the expected answers you will find that his god is a little god of vacillating sentiments. He is a god who would like to save the world, but who cannot. He would like to restrain evil, but somehow he finds it beyond his power. So he has withdrawn into semi-retirement, being willing to give good advice in a grandfatherly sort of way, but for the most part he has left his children to fend for themselves in a dangerous environment.
Such a god is not the God of the Bible. Those who know their God perceive the error in that kind of thinking and act accordingly. The God of the Bible is not weak; he is strong. He is all-mighty. Nothing happens without his permission or apart from his purposes -- even evil. Nothing disturbs or puzzles him. His purposes are always accomplished. Therefore, those who know him rightly act with boldness, assured that God is with them to accomplish his own desirable purposes in their lives.
Do we need an example? We can find no better one than Daniel. Daniel and his friends were godly men in the godless environment of ancient Babylon. They were slaves, good slaves. They served the court. But difficulty arose when they refused to obey anything in opposition to the commands of the true God whom they knew and worshiped. When Nebuchadnezzar's great statue was set up and all were required to fall down and worship it, Daniel and his friends refused. When prayer to anyone but King Darius was banned for thirty days, Daniel did as he always did: he prayed to God three times a day before an open window.
What was wrong with these men? Had they fooled themselves about the consequences? Did they think that their failure to comply would go unseen? Not at all. They knew the consequences, but they also knew God. They were able to be strong, trusting God to have his way with them whether it meant salvation or destruction in the lions' den or the furnace. These men said, "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up" (Dan. 3:17-18).
A weak god produces no strong men, nor does he deserve to be worshiped. A strong God, the God of the Bible, is a source of strength to those who know him.
The Highest Science
So let us learn about God and come to know God in the fullest, biblical sense. Jesus encouraged us to do this when he said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Mt. 11:28-29). This is true wisdom for everyone. It is the special duty and privilege of the Christian.
What is the proper course of study for one who is a child of God? Is it not God himself? There are other worthwhile areas of learning, it is true. But the highest science, the most mind-expanding area of all, is the Godhead. Spurgeon once wrote:
There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can comprehend and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go on our way with the thought, "Behold I am wise." But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the... solemn exclamation, "I am but of yesterday and know nothing." . . . But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continuing investigation of the great subject of the Deity.2
Every Christian should confidently pursue this goal. God has promised that those who seek him will find him. To those who knock, the door shall be opened.
Born in 1938, James Montgomery Boice, Th.D. was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death in 2000. He received his A.B. from Harvard University (1960), a B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1963), a Th.D from the University of Basel in Switzerland (1966), and a D.D., (honorary) from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church (1982). He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He can be heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast.