Knowing the Only True God
"This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17. 3 NIV).
As we think about knowing God we must ask the question, 'what is He like?' Perhaps there is no better answer than that given by the writer to the Hebrews as he commenced his letter. "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." The Jews who wrote and spoke about Him in Old Testament days could read the records of those of their faith who had gone before to which they could add their own personal encounter with God. In many respects it was like looking at 'puzzling reflections'. In the New Testament the revelation through the Son was a true reflection of the Father. In Jesus we have the complete answer to the question. Those who watched and listened to Him and those who believed their record, recognised Him for who He was. The Jews who saw Jesus, but had never been properly acquainted with the God of the Old Testament, failed to recognise Jesus as the one who had come from God, so they wanted to destroy Him. His life was a judgment upon their ungodliness. In Old Testament times, knowing God was a major part of the lives of those who served Him. In the New Testament it was everything. In the first century people wanted that quality of life which would continue forever. Jesus was the only way to discover that kind of life, by coming to know the Father through Him. By observing Him they could really see what God was like, but the religious leaders of Jesus' day were unable to identify His Son when He arrived.
In the last two thousand years, human perception of what the Almighty Creator is like has not greatly improved. Israel stumbled over the Law that was just and good. Similarly, leaders of the Christian Church have stumbled over the teaching of the New Testament. Old and New Testaments were given by God, through faithful writers, and they covered every phase of spiritual life. Small 'sects' are as much to blame for this confusion as large denominations. They failed to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and 'knowing God' has not been their priority. Jesus referred to His Father, as "your Father" making those who are 'born again', brethren in Christ. Jesus said that His people were to offer 'the other cheek' to their enemies but they have more readily turned their back on their brethren.
For those who truly accepted the 'family likeness' in recognition of God as their 'Father', values began to change. It also changed their relationship to God. One of the most important aspects of this change was that following Jesus meant shedding the characteristics of worldliness. But with the passing centuries separation from the world became confused. Some became so separated that they could no longer bear witness to their faith ‑ they live monastic lives; a characteristic not confined to monasteries. Others made no real difference from the world and so the Christian Church became worldly. But there has always been a tiny minority, one here and one there, who alone sought the friendship of God.
Jesus demonstrated what God is like in His teaching and in His way of life. It was this that appealed to some of the Jewish nation and attracted them to Him ‑ and to His Heavenly Father. As they accompanied Jesus, becoming His disciples, they began to change and become like Him. His compassion and meekness was shown by His concern for those He healed and for the relatives of those He raised from the dead. As He moved among ordinary people, and expressed His sympathy with the poor and outcasts of society He demonstrated the real meaning of the word 'love'. He sought the lost sheep of Israel. William Barclay lists the qualities of a 'good shepherd' as strength and courage, ceaseless unsleeping vigilance, infinite patience, unwearied kindness and the spirit of self-sacrifice. An example of the way in which these qualities can be transmitted by example is given in Phillip Keller's book 'Lessons from a Sheep Dog'. He describes how a totally mixed up 'border collie', verging on being a wild animal, was transformed into one of total loyalty and love by being treated with the real love. Keller wrote about the Good Shepherd. "In reciprocation of affection, in genuine gratitude for His generosity, in profound appreciation for His tender touch upon my life, there is born within me the desire to be His love-slave. 'We love him because he first loved us'. This interchange of loving concern and real care for each other was the bedrock upon which trust and confidence was built between this beautiful dog and myself."
In the Gospels we discover what God is like as much by the way Jesus lived as by what He said. In the synoptic Gospels ‑ the first three ‑ we see Jesus at work, endearing Himself to people by the outpouring of His love in action. Yet the greatest act of His love in suffering and death was hardly recognised by most of His friends until it had passed into history. Those that stood round the cross and were first at the tomb three days later had best absorbed the reality of that love. John appears to have recognised the depth of Christ's love more readily than his fellow apostles. Known as 'John the beloved', his gospel and letters reveal how much the relationship had developed between the Lord and himself. Many years elapsed between the time of our Lord's ministry and of John writing his gospel. During that period he had time to reflect upon why the Jewish people and leaders had failed to understand their Messiah ‑ they did not know the Father (16.3) as Jesus did. He also spoke of how some might boast of how much He had done in their streets and how many great things they had done in His name but His condemnation of them is the saddest in Scripture ‑ "I never knew you" (Matt.7.23). Knowing Christ has little to do with superficial or academic knowledge of Him but is the intimate knowledge of friendship. His followers must know Him really well. This is important knowledge ‑ the kind of knowledge that will remain when theoretical knowledge "vanishes away" (1 Cor 13.8).
Paul began His Christian life by an experience that taught him how Jesus regarded the relationship between Himself and His disciples. The Lord said to him "Why are you persecuting me?" In that question Saul of Tarsus realised the oneness between Jesus and His people. In the days to come Paul pondered those words and he too entered into a friendship with Jesus that he described to the Philippians. He was prepared to sacrifice everything for His sake; "I consider everything as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in himů.I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings." (Phil. 3. 8-10)
Paul was a great missionary evangelist, and a wonderful pastor to those he converted and visited. But the most important thing in his life was 'knowing his Lord' ‑ in fact that was the central point of his message and that which drove him on to serve and preach as he did. Paul was no abstract theologian, brilliant as he was in explaining the Hebrew Scriptures. His theology was typically Hebrew - practical and concerned with the great realities of life. Towards the end of his life he wrote to Timothy "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I've committed unto him against that day." Later in that same letter he wrote of his first trial before the Emperor and said that "all deserted me. But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully".
In John's first letter (2:4,5) he wrote "By this we may be sure that we know him if we keep his commandments. He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him". The Apostle makes it clear that Jesus' commandment was to love, and described some examples of that love. This is the identification of those who know Christ ‑ those who are our brethren in Christ. That love can only develop through the power of the Spirit, bringing us ever closer to Him and His people.
'Knowing Christ' means deliberately spending time every day in His presence ‑ some would say at the beginning of the day ‑ in prayer and meditation upon His Word. This sets the pattern for the hours that follow as we go out into the world. Work can never be boring if we do it for Him and with Him. Wherever we are, whatever the kind of problem or situation we face, we do so with Him. All our relationships, with everyone we meet, are governed by the unseen 'presence' with us. If we cannot share an experience or a friend with the Lord we had best terminate that experience and that friendship quickly. No matter where we are or what we are doing He is at hand to guide and strengthen us for the occasion. Abstract philosophy or a particular interpretation of certain Scriptures can only be of value if they guide us in the ordinary, everyday things of life. But if we are obedient to the will of God, as He has so far revealed it to us, then we can be sure that He will increase our understanding of the Word and guide us still further in living totally for and with Him. Then when faced with temptation and we meet circumstances that are confusing, He will show us the way out. But it is important to stop and look to Him and be obedient.
"If to the right or left I stray,
That moment, Lord, reprove;
And let Thy goodness chase away
All hindrance to Thy love.
O may the least omission pain
My well instructed soul,
And send me to the blood again
That makes and keeps me whole." ‑ BSH 178
As we become closer to the Lord, there will be a whole lot of circumstances in life that will no longer be acceptable to Him. We live in a very stimulating environment in which the media are determined to attract our attention and make us listen to the 'siren calls'. But they will not save us. Politicians and entertainers alike have but one object ‑ to woo our interest and support for them. We have the choice ‑ and if we feel uncertain ‑ don't! It takes absolute honesty and determination to make certain that He alone is what matters in our lives. He promised there would be denial of selfish ambition and desire at the beginning of our walk with Him. As the reality of who and what He is becomes stronger, the world's tinsel and tawdry toys lose their attraction. The difficulties of life become easier to bear and its problems more readily solved as we turn them over to Him. Those who are not walking our way, will not understand. But our love for Him will grow stronger and our desire to express His love to our brethren - and the world in general ‑ will increase until at last we shall be like Him ‑ and see Him as He is. May God who loves and gave His dearest and best for us, help us so to do ‑ because walking with Him will make us better spouses, better parents, better neighbours and friends, better at whatever we do all day long ‑ because we shall be doing it with the Lord.