'Knowing the Lord'
"I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10. 14,15 NRSV). In this parable Jesus describes Himself and what He does. The word 'good' is from the Greek word 'kalos' which Barclay says means 'winsome'. A 'good' shepherd looked after the sheep with sacrificial love. Today we might say "what a lovely person"; someone to whom we are readily attracted ‑ someone to whom children are drawn. He is a shepherd who is prepared to sacrifice Himself for His sheep. He is a shepherd who cares for the sheep because they are His own, unlike a hired man. He provides the best pasture and cleanest water so that His sheep can grow. He protects them from robbers and predators. To do that He must know His sheep and they must know Him. Does this really describe our relationship to the Lord? We may know lots of things about the Old and New Testament but if we don't know Him, shall we be ready to meet Him 'face to face'? To know Him best we must be like Him ‑ winsome ‑ truly 'good'. Like the sheep of the flock we must learn to trust and obey Him, for this will not only provide for our needs but prevent us from straying. This gentle, patient shepherd longs to unite us to Himself. His Father becomes our Father.
Jesus took the covenant pictures of the Old Testament, the shepherd, the vineyard and the husbandman and reinterpreted them for His followers in a way that showed how very intimate this relationship becomes. He leads His sheep and knows them all by name. William Thomson describes sheep in the Holy Land, and how the shepherd leads as they follow his voice. H.V.Morton tells of two flocks mixed up together in one pen during the night but in the morning the sheep were separated into their own flock when they recognised their shepherd's voice and followed him out to pasture as he talked and sang to them.
In first century Israel, the 'hireling' sheep-minders didn't know their sheep. Scribes and Pharisees refused to accept those Jews who didn't interpret the Law as they did; yet it is clear that those who were not fussy about traditions were regarded by Jesus as genuine sons and daughters of Israel, more than their leaders. A Jew could not conceive of the idea that Gentiles were part of God's flock ‑ a Phoenician mother ‑ a centurion ‑ a woman by a well.
The ideas contained in the parable in John 10 were familiar to the people of Israel. The picture of Israel as the flock of God was woven in their thinking. Psalm 78. 70-72 speaks of David as an under-shepherd and Psalm 80.1 pictures God as the shepherd. Psalm 95.7 has the reassuring words "we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care." The later prophets developed the theme "He tends his flock like a shepherd; he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." (Isaiah 40.11) Jeremiah saw the result of the waywardness of the flock, "He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd" (31.10) and Ezekiel 11,12 "For this is what the sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep."
In His last discourse with His disciples in the Upper Room, Jesus spoke to them of their closeness to Himself and to the Father (John 14-16). Jews sought eternal life and asked Jesus about it several times in His ministry. Speaking to the Father (John 17) He says "This is eternal life, that they may know you". He develops the theme into a 'oneness' with the Father and the Son and with each other and these relationships are interdependent. From Pentecost until today the oneness between the Father and each of His children has developed the fruit of the Spirit through the work of the Lord Jesus.
What is God like? How can we come to know someone who is so much greater than the vast Universe that He has made? And why select us for this wondrous privilege? If we think in terms of knowledge then it is mind-blowing. His magnificence is too immense for our comprehension. But Jesus assures us that we can 'know Him'. This is not the same as knowing about Him. A child may know very little about his or her parents, but he should begin know them from very early in life and the process begins long before the child becomes aware of him or herself.
To come to know God doesn't demand that we are specially clever or knowledgeable. We do not need to know the world's great thinkers or understand their philosophies. Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor.1 and finally quotes from Jeremiah 9.23,24. "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these things I delight, declares the Lord". (Jer.22.15,16) Through the bitterness of suffering this prophet came to know God as well as any person knew Him until Jesus came to Earth.
We can know God by thinking His thoughts, reading His Word and listening to Him in the conviction of our hearts. No preacher or book can substitute for Him. He wants us to share His life and He wants us to be like Him. He created mankind so that He could express His love because He wants to share. Since the dawn of history God has fostered that companionship. It helps us to understand this if we look carefully at the Old Testament folk. We can start as early as Enoch who walked with God. Did he catch something of the idyllic friendship of Eden? Abraham entertained God's messengers. They were direct representatives of the Living God ‑ to speak with them was the nearest that a human could get to hearing Him speak. Abraham was talking to a friend on that monumental walk to the Judean ridge in which he probed God's mind through the angel (Gen.18). From this record of the Patriarch interceding for the Cities of the Plain it is clear that Abraham already knew something of God's compassion as well as His justice. Isaac met God at Gerar where the covenant and the promise were renewed and he was told that he must 'stay in the Land'. Jacob met God at Bethel and was told to leave the Land to go to Haran; but God would go with him. What God wanted for the father was not what He wanted for the son. They were given quite different instructions. Jacob returned under God's protection and wrestled with the 'stranger' and eventually celebrated His return to the Land at Bethel by worshipping God. In order that he could enter the presence of a holy God in a holy land he had to clean up his household. Much later still, at Beersheba, now he was becoming an old man, God met him again and told Jacob to go from the Land to Egypt. He promised again that He, the God of his fathers, would be with him, to protect him, to provide for him and one day restore his descendants to the Promised Land. In all these incidents a patriarch met God and was given instructions as to what he should do. (Genesis chapters 26, 28, 35 and 46)
As we turn from the book of the patriarchs to the book of the history of God's people, we are faced with the man through whom the Law was given to Israel and through whom the Covenant was made. This man came to know God in a very special way. At the Burning Bush, Moses began a conversation with God that did not end until he stood for the last time on Mount Nebo. Before that he was to reach the heights of Sinai and come as near face to face with God as any man was able. He also reached the top of Pisgah and looked across the Land of the Promise but was not allowed into it. Perhaps his failure to express God's forgiveness to a thirsty people at Meribah had something to do with this great leader being pronounced unholy (Numbers 20). On Mount Sinai it was revealed to Moses and to Israel, what kind of person God really was. Many Christians, over the centuries, have failed to understand and reflect this revelation. Moses had already learned that the God of Israel was the all-wise and all knowing God but now He discovered that He was the One loving, forgiving and compassionate God. (Ex.34.6,7). Moses saw and reflected the glory of God for the rest of His life ‑ but once or twice He found it hard to do so ‑ so did Jonah ‑ so do we all.
Samuel was confused when a voice called to him in the night because he had "not yet come to know the Lord". The story of this great man's life shows that in after days Samuel did come to know the Lord. So also did the King that the prophet anointed at Bethlehem. This was the man who had been a shepherd and was able to write the Shepherd Psalm 23. He had walked through the Valley of Shadows with his Shepherd; he had known the 'still waters' and the 'prepared table' and wanted nothing more than to spend all his days with his God in His House (Psalm 27). He fell from grace in a big way more than once but Psalm 51 shows that David understood God's mercy
Elijah seems to have relished the public drama of a contest with King Ahab on Mount Carmel but it was on Mount Sinai he came really close to God. Elisha was a man of strong determination to root out evil yet he showed God's mercy when he told the King of Israel not to slaughter his enemies but to give them a meal and send them home. "From that time on Aramean raids on Israel ceased." Elisha had discovered how God intended man to treat man. Violence only breeds more violence ‑ oh that men would learn God's way of peace for that is the only way that 'works'.
How difficult it must have been for Hosea to learn about God's compassion when dealing with his unfaithful wife. Yet there can be few more telling lessons than this prophet's forgiveness and restoration of Gomer. He must have gone through mental agony, seeing his wife run away to another man, then to find that she had been made a slave and finally to buy her back and ultimately redeem her as his wife again. Hosea must have spent much time with God to learn that lesson. God has dealt and will yet deal with Israel as Hosea dealt with Gomer. And this is how He deals with His children now. Campbell Morgan wrote that God makes no terms with His people's sin but stays no sacrifice to heal their backsliding. Jesus quoted Hosea twice ‑ at the tax-collector's supper for his former colleagues and in the cornfield when the disciples 'milled the grain' and broke the Pharisees' rules. "I wanted mercy, not sacrifice".
Jeremiah commended Josiah when he wrote of him as "He did what was right and just....He defended the cause of the poor and needy, so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" To know God is to be like Him and this means that every word and every action must be beneath the control of the Spirit and from that kindness and generosity must result.
How are we to learn what God is really like? The writer to the Hebrews in his first few verses tells us that Jesus "is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being". So if we keep "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" we shall be like the Father. When Thomas Carlyle was asked by a young pastor what his parish needed most, the old sage replied "What this parish needs is a man who knows God otherwise than by hearsay". One of the saddest comments in the whole of the Bible are the words of Jesus when He said "I never knew you" (Matt. 7.23; 25.12).
Does He know us?
(to be concluded)