We’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 3 and 4.
Chapter 3, “Knowing and Being Known,” is one of those chapters that I wish I could produce in it’s totality, one in which I have numerous places marked.
Since Jesus said in John 17:3, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent,” and since knowledge of God is commended throughout the Bible, what does it mean to know God?
It is clear, to start with, that ‘knowing’ God is of necessity a more complex business than ‘knowing’ a fellow-man, just as ‘knowing’ my neighbour is a more complex business than ‘knowing’ a house, or a book, or a language. The more complex the object, the more complex is the knowing of it. Knowledge of something abstract, like a language, is acquired by learning; knowledge of something inanimate…comes by inspection and exploration…But when one gets to living things, knowing them becomes a good deal more complicated. One does not know a living thing till one knows not merely its past history but how it is likely to react and behave and specific circumstances…
In the case of human beings, the position is further complicated by the fact that…people keep secrets. They do not show everybody all that is in their hearts…you may spend months and years doing things in company with another person and still have to say at the end of that time, “I don’t really know him at all.” We recognize degrees in our knowledge of our fellow men…according to how much, or how little, they have opened up to us (pp. 34-35).
Taking it one step further, Packer points out that if we’re meeting someone “above us” in some way, like a queen or president, that person takes the initiative into whatever relationship we might or might not have.
And God, who is so much more “above us” than anyone else, has taken that initiative, spoken to us, invited us into His confidence.
Knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a man’s heart. What happens is that the almighty Creator, the Lord of hosts, the Great God before whom the nations are as a drop in a bucket, comes to you and begins to talk to you through the words and truths of Holy Scripture. Perhaps you have been acquainted with the Bible and Christian truth for many years, and it has meant little to you; but one day you wake up to the fact that God is actually speaking to you – you! – through the biblical message. As you listen to what God is saying, you find yourself brought very low; for God talks to you about your sin, and guilt, and weakness, and blindness, and folly, and compels you to judge yourself hopeless and helpless, and to cry out for forgiveness. But this is not all. You come to realize as you listen that God is actually opening His heart to you, making friends with you and enlisting you a colleague…(p. 36)
What, then, does the activity of knowing God involve? Holding together the various elements involved in this relationship, as we have sketched it out, we must say that 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, recognizing and rejoicing in the love that he has shown in thus approaching you and drawing you into this divine fellowship (p. 37).
Packer talks about four analogies the Bible uses to help us understand how we know God: “in the manner of a son knowing his father, a wife knowing her husband, a subject knowing his king, and a sheep knowing its shepherd” (p. 37).
Then the Bible adds the further point that we know God in this way only through knowing Jesus Christ, who is himself God manifest in the flesh. ‘Don’t you know me…? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’; ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14: 9,6 NIV). It is important, therefore, that we should be clear in our minds as to what ‘knowing’ Jesus Christ means (p. 37).
Packer discusses how the disciples knew and interacted with Jesus, and, since His death and resurrection, we can know Him in the same way except in a spiritual rather than physical (bodily) way, and we have more revealed truth than they did, and “Jesus’ way of speaking to us now is not by uttering fresh words, but rather by applying to our consciences those words of his that are recorded in the gospels, together with the rest of the biblical testimony to himself. But knowing Jesus Christ still remains as definite a relation of personal discipleship as it was for the twelve when he was on earth. The Jesus who walks through the gospel story walks with Christians now, and knowing him involves going with him, now as then” (p. 38).
After sharing several passages that talk about hearing Him (John 10: 27; 6:35; 10:7, 14; 11:25; 5:23-24; Matthew 11:28-29), Packer explains:
Jesus’ voice is ‘heard’ when Jesus’ claim is acknowledged, his promise trusted, and his call answered. From then on, Jesus is known as shepherd, and those who trust him he knows as his own sheep. ‘I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10: 27-28 NIV). To know Jesus is to be saved by Jesus, here and hereafter, from sin, and guilt, and death.
He closes the chapter by noting that “knowing God is a matter of personal dealing,…personal involvement,…and grace” (pp. 39-40).
Knowing God is more than knowing about him; it is a matter of dealing with him as he opens up to you, and being dealt with by him as he takes knowledge of you. Knowing about him is a necessary precondition of trusting in him (‘how could they have faith in one they had never heard of?’ [Romans 10:4 NEB]), but the width of our knowledge about him is no gauge of the depth of our knowledge of him.
Chapter 4, “The Only True God,” mainly discusses the second commandment about not making idols or bowing down and worshiping them. He spends a great deal of time explaining why he believes that commandment precludes pictures of Jesus, and I understand his points that any picture, sculpture, etc., in any kind of media will be limiting and may portray Him falsely. Christians through the ages have had various opinions about that (there have been some lively discussions on the Facebook group for this series.) I wrestled with it myself when my husband gave me a print of Jesus as the Good Shepherd having just found the lost sheep. I came to terms with it because I felt it wasn’t meant to be a representation of Him, but an expression of that truth of the Shepherd’s love and care for His sheep and the sheep’s rest in the Shepherd. But I have wondered if I should take it down so it is not a stumblingblock to anyone else.
Packer also cautions us to watch for wrong mental images about God, as they can be just as idolatrous and false as wooden or sculpted ones.
How often do we hear this sort of thing: “I like to think of God as the great Architect (or Mathematician or Artist).” “I don’t think of God as a Judge; I like to think of him simply as a Father.” We know from experience how often remarks of this kind serve as the prelude to a denial of something that the Bible tells us about God. It needs to be said with the greatest possible emphasis that those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment (p. 47).
I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way before, but I think this is the basis of the problem I had with a book that portrayed God as an artist and not a technician. It wasn’t a full and true representation of Him: though we can and do appreciate His artistry and creativity and eye for beauty in His creation, that is only one aspect of His character.
All speculative theology, which rests on philosophical reasoning rather than biblical revelation, is at fault here [emphasis mine here]. Paul tells us where this sort of theology ends: “The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor 1:21 KJV). To follow the imagination of one’s heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol-worshipper, the idol in this case being a false mental image of God, made by one’s own speculation and imagination.
In this light, the positive purpose of the second commandment becomes plain. Negatively, it is a warning against ways of worship and religious practice that lead us to dishonor God and to falsify his truth. Positively, it is a summons to us to recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of any imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable and hence a summons to us to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of him, and to let him teach us what he is like and how we should think of him (p. 48).
This book has been immensely helpful so far, and we’re only four chapters in. We’re taking them two at a time, and they’re not overly long or difficult. It’s not too late to join in!