Knowing God

Jeremiah 9:23-24

A sheriff in a small west Texas court rose to testify against a prisoner. “What’s this feller here charged with?” the judge demanded. “Bigotry, judge,” answered the sheriff. “He’s got three wives.” “Three!” snorted the judge. “Why, you ignoramus, that ain’t bigotry. That’s trigonometry!”

It really is important to know the meaning of the words you use. And this morning I want us to look together at scripture to see what the biblical writers mean when they use the words “know God.” Because “knowing God” is the most important thing we will ever do.

There is a sobering passage in 2 Thess. 1:8-9: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power…

Paul says that God’s punishment is reserved for those who “do not know God and do not obey the gospel.” As much as we might want to erase or explain away those words, there they are – unvarnished and unavoidable.

It is not just that some people have chosen a different path or focused on other priorities. Paul says these people deliberately choose not to know God and intentionally refuse to obey the gospel.

And he’s not talking about somehow getting the wrong answers on a multiple choice exam and failing the test about God. He is saying they “do not know God.”

This is one time it might be good to know what Paul means by “know God.” He’s certainly not talking about information, because James points out that the demons know all about God, and they shudder. He’s not talking about having correct religious doctrine, because nobody was more precise in their knowledge of the Bible than the Pharisees, and yet four times in John 5-8, Jesus tells them “you do not know God.” Specifically, in John 5:39-40, Jesus says, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Knowing the Bible, as important as that is, is not the same as knowing God.

But then, what does it mean to know God? It actually sounds a little presumptuous, like you’re name dropping some celebrity that you’ve met in passing.

In fact, Paul asks, “Who can know the mind of the Lord?” But for Paul it was his ultimate pursuit: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” David writes: “As the deer pants for streams for water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirst for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?”

The apostle John had quite a bit to say about knowing God. It was the central purpose of why and what he wrote. In Jesus’ prayer in John 17:3, which John alone records, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Knowing God is not an accomplishment, a task to be finished, but a lifetime pursuit. It is not information to be filed, a degree to be earned, but a relationship to be developed. In fact, seeking God is knowing God, just as John describes the Christian life as not so much finding the light as “walking in the light.”

Jeremiah wrote, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:13)

Illustration – Howard Rutledge, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, p. 34.

Blaise Paschal, a great man of faith and science in the 17th century, described an emptiness within man that can only truly be filled with God. What is amazing, but not surprising are the things we will try to substitute for knowing God. Jeremiah called them “broken cisterns” – dried up wells where the traveler hoped to find water, but found them empty.

Jeremiah lists three of those poor substitutes. In fact, they are as prevalent today as 2,600 years ago – they are the world’s keys to success. And there is nothing inherently wrong with any of them, in and of themselves. It is a matter of the priorities we set and the price we pay as they infringe upon and finally replace what is and should be most important in our lives.

This is what the LORD says: “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 who boasts 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 I delight,” declares the LORD. (Jer 9:23-24)

Let’s look at each of those and ask whether we haven’t tried these substitutes ourselves:

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom…”

We encourage and commend education, but the pursuit of education and knowledge that draws us away from God or demeans a belief in God, or even knowledge that distracts us from pursuing God is a dead end street. Wisdom and knowledge are deceptive pursuits – they have a tendency to puff up, rather than to build up, to increase our self-reliance, while diminishing our reliance on God.

David wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps 111:10) James tells us that if we lack wisdom we should pray for it and God will give it to us generously.

Wisdom should ultimately and intentionally draw us to a closer walk with God. But we need to make sure that goal is clear in our minds and first in our priorities. Knowledge can be like an addictive drug, filling us with arrogance and clouding our eyes to the real goal of knowing God.

Second, Jeremiah writes: “Let not the strong man boast of his strength…”

Look around you at the values of the world. Physical strength and beauty are portals into worldly success. The American pursuit of beauty and the industry of beauty are amazingly powerful. Just a casual glance at the advertising on television will reveal the not so subtle message that if you are strong and athletic or handsome or beautiful you will find true happiness.

If that were true, beauty pageant winners and fashion models and Olympic athletes and professional sports figures ought to be the happiest people in the world, but tragically they aren’t.

No god is more fleeting or elusive than beauty and strength. Paul warns Timothy, Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim 4:7-8)

We aren’t a lot different than the Israelites to whom Jeremiah spoke, or the Christians to whom Paul wrote. They had apparently put a lot of stock in the external person to the neglect of the inner man. Yes, God gave us physical bodies and we are stewards of those and are to keep them healthy and use them wisely, but not as an end in themselves. We should train ourselves in godliness, because long after our muscles begin to weaken and our skin begins to sag, our spirits will be strong and healthy.

Finally, Jeremiah writes: “Let not the rich man boast of his riches…”

Nothing in this world makes a poorer master than money. It is never satisfied. If wealth is your goal, and money is what motivates you, you will never have enough, regardless of how much you have. Money makes promises only God can keep, yet it deceives us into thinking what we really need, what would really, finally satisfy us is a little more money, a few more possessions – that happiness is just one more purchase away, contentment is in a little bigger house, a little newer car, security will come when we have just a few more dollars in our bank account.

Paul writes, again to Timothy, But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim 6:6-10)

Jeremiah may not have punched your button here, but as you examine your life and look deeply and honestly into your heart, do you find something that challenges God’s place of priority in your life?

So, if we have waded through the quagmire of substitutes and firmly and intentionally placed our feet on the path of knowing God and walking closely with him, let’s let God’s word define what it means to know God.

What does it mean to know God and how can you look in your life and have some indicators that your life is in focus and knowing God has the priority that God demands?

Jeremiah followed up his trio of warnings with a clear call to seek God: “…but let him who boasts 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 I delight,” declares the LORD.

If you know God, you will begin to imitate him. As I said a few weeks ago, you will begin to look like him, share his interests, copy his values, carry his word in your heart.

And what does God tell Jeremiah will define someone who understands and knows him?

He exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth. These are the things that can’t be neatly packaged and checked off a list of things to do, they are the nature of God, the things in which he delights.

Kindness is not just doing nice things and treating people politely. This is the Hebrew word, hesed, a word that describes God’s covenant love, his steadfast faithfulness to his promise. It is the word Solomon uses when he writes, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…” It is the word David uses when he writes 25 times in Psalm 136: “His love endures forever.” If we are to imitate God in this quality, it will be in the way we are faithful to our promises, treating others with respect and love.

This love is the very heart of God’s nature. In the NT, in the apostle John’s first letter, he writes, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

John tells us that it is not just that God shows love, but that he IS love, and since God is love and has loved us, John says, “we also ought to love one another.” The way we treat people is molded by the way God treats us.

And did you hear what else John said?: Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. If our ultimate goal is to know God, then we must be people who love others as God loves them: unconditionally and sacrificially.

In the same way, justice is more than having an impartial and fair legal system, it is each of us treating people fairly, defending those who cannot defend themselves, having a heart for the poor and weak and defenseless. God’s love of justice and his heart for those who are most at risk should inform the way we perceive and treat people.

Righteousness is bringing our actions in line with God’s will. Though we will never live with perfect righteousness, it is striving to live in a right relationship with God, honoring him and obeying his commands. God’s righteousness is the center around which we build our own conduct. When biblical writers say, “You must be holy as God is holy,” they aren’t writing with hyperbole, they are defining an expectation that God’s perfection will be the goal toward which we ourselves strive as we seek to be more and more like the God we worship.

When Paul wrote to the Galatian churches, they had been seduced by the false teachers who had convinced them that grace was a myth and that salvation could only be earned by hard work and perfectly keeping the law. Paul responds: Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Gal 4:8-9)

Paul says that knowing God is the key to walking closely with God. And it is not just that you know God, but that God knows you. It is a mutual relationship of love and caring. Knowing God is our ultimate pursuit. Becoming like him is the serendipity along the journey.