Authority and Knowledge

Chatswood Baptist Church

1. How can we know God?

Today we begin the first of a four-part series looking at the topic of ‘Knowing God’. For many of us who go to church regularly, talking about ‘knowing God’ seems fairly basic doesn’t it? We know lots of information about God – we can quote Bible verses, we are very educated about who God is and what he has done.

But why do we say that? Isn’t it quite arrogant to claim to know God?

Psalm 145 says:

3Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.

(Psalm 145:3)

Romans 11 tells us:

33Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”

(Romans 11:33-34)

Or God himself says in Isaiah 55:

8“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
9“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

(Isaiah 55:8–9)

The God of the Bible is a transcendent God – he is beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience.

We live in a world marked by the 5 senses: taste, smell, touch, sight and sound. But Jesus tells us in John 4:

24God is spirit…

(John 4:24)

Our world is the physical world. The world you can taste, touch and experience.
And God? You can’t touch God. You can’t see God. You can’t hear God He is outside of our box – our ecosystem.

It’s like a 2-storey house with no staircase. We live on the ground-floor of a house and God lives upstairs. There’s a floor separating us from God. We might hear some noises coming through the ceiling. We might imagine (or guess) what’s going on upstairs, but we have no access to find out and explore what’s really going on. Many people have tried to reach upwards to God to find him (most famously the Tower of Babel was a giant attempt to build a staircase up to meet God!) but none of us have succeeded. God is a mystery. God is unknowable. God is incomprehensible.

Which shouldn’t surprise us, because if God is God (if he is our Creator – outside of this creation) then of course we shouldn’t expect to be able to know him. God is infinite – outside of time and space. We are finite – we exist stuck within time and space. We have limitations. God does not. As our Maker and Creator, he is more complex than we are. We shouldn’t expect to understand him any more than a bridge should expect to understand its engineer.

So where does this leave us? There are 2 possible responses to God being a mystery and unknowable:

  1. We could despair. We could want to know God but despair at not being able to. Like someone who wants to find love but never can. We’re looking for a way to get upstairs and find out what’s going on, but we can never get there.
  2. God’s unknowable nature can lead to apathy. We just give up and don’t care anymore. Sure, God might be upstairs – but given we can’t get up there to know him, let’s just get on with our lives downstairs and enjoy what we can experience and know.

Knowing God isn’t a simple thing to do for creatures like us. It seems like an impossible task given our limited ability to know an infinite being.

2. Epistemology 101 (or “How do we know stuff”)

In thinking about whether we can ‘know’ God, we need to think about how it is that we know anything in life at all. This is the study of what philosophers like to call ‘epistemology’ (i.e. “How do we know stuff”)

In life, there are 4 main ways you can know stuff:

  1. You can know stuff through experience. This is primarily how science works. We experience water falling on our face and say “It’s raining”. We know it’s raining because we observe it with our senses. We see the rain. We feel the rain (we may even smell the rain).
  2. You can know things through reason (using logic). You might not see any rain falling from the clouds, but you observe dark clouds above you. You see lightning flashing in the distance and you deduce that it’s very likely that rain will soon be falling from the sky. Without observing rain, you can still use reason and logic to know that rain is on its way.
  3. You can know stuff through tradition (or through people passing on or mediating knowledge to you). You can watch the TV weather forecast or you pull up the Bureau of Meteorology app on your smartphone – and other people will mediate or pass on information about whether it has rained (or will rain). Trusted and reliable sources give you information you could not know on your own.
  4. You can know information from Scripture. The Bible won’t tell you if it’s going to rain tomorrow, but it does tell you in Matthew 5 that:

[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
(Matthew 5:45)

You don’t get a weather forecast from the Bible, but you do get a theological explanation about the weather. Unlike the other ancient religions that had storm gods (that needed appeasing) – in his kindness, God sends rain on those who do deserve it but also on those who don’t. We learn from Scripture that God sustains his world with rain even when we don’t deserve his kindnesses.

These 4 ways-of-knowing-things can also be used to know about God:

  1. We can know God through experience. We can use the senses we have to experience the world around us and know our Creator. It might be as we look at the beauty of a sunset. It might be through the circumstances of our life – the joys and the griefs we go through. We might know God through our experience of spiritual practises like prayer and fasting. We might know God through communal church experiences – when we sing passionately and feel so ‘on-fire’ for God. In times of praise and worship, that experience can make us feel so close to God and we feel like we can tangibly experience the palpable presence of the invisible God. Sometimes people appeal to an ‘inner voice’ or a subjective experience of God as a way of knowing the divine.
  2. We can know God through reason. We can use the brains God has given us to think about who he is and what he is like. The word ‘trinity’ does not appear in the Bible and yet for centuries Christians have declared that they believe in one God who is Father, Son and Spirit. Logic and reason help us to make sense of the Biblical data – to order it, to understand it, to extrapolate from it. E.g. the Bible never talks about the internet, but we can use reason to deduce how we should use the internet for good (and not for evil).
  3. We can know God through tradition. We stand on the shoulders of generations of Christian who have come before us. I personally heard the gospel from my mother, who heard it from her father, who heard it from his work colleague. It was ‘passed on’ from person to person. That’s how God used a bunch of 11 scared disciples to spread Christianity all over the world for the past 2000 years. We can learn from others before us (and especially from Christian leaders and institutions who have wisdom to pass on to us). That’s why as Christians we have creeds and confessions. Orthodoxy should not be ignored or dismissed lightly! Things like the Apostles’ Creed and the Second London Confession of Faith are historical traditions that have served God’s people well for centuries.
  4. We can know God through Scripture – the Bible.

These 4 methods of knowing things (experience, reason, tradition and Scripture) are often held up as four equally-valid-but-different paths to journey up ‘the mountain of knowledge’.

But this is not the case. There’s a danger in placing them all on equal authority. What happens when one of them disagrees with another? What about when my experience of God disagrees with tradition (what others tell me about God)? Or what about when my reason and thinking about God-and-the-problem-of-Evil doesn’t match up with what I observe in the world as I experience it?

Which one will I decide is right?

This is a real problem (not just theoretically, but pastorally) Will you trust the traditions passed onto you? Will you trust your experiences cos they feel so ‘real’? Will you trust your brain and logic? Or will you trust the Bible?

On campus, the first statement in AFES’ doctrinal basis says that in our Christian groups at uni we believe in:

“The divine inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture as originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”

Do you notice what that statement does and doesn’t say about the Bible?

It says that Scripture is the supreme authority. It’s not saying that it’s the exclusive or only authority in life. It’s not denying that reason and experience and tradition can help us to know the truth. Instead it’s highlighting that Scripture is the supreme or final authority.

When the Bible doesn’t appear to match up with our experiences, which will we choose? We choose the Bible.

When our church or pastor teaches something that doesn’t seem to be consistent with the Bible, who do we listen to? We listen to the Bible.

When it doesn’t seem logical that God is 100% in control of everything and we are 100% responsible for our actions, what do we accept? Our logical deductions? Or the Bible’s truths?

Do you also notice what this statement doesn’t say? It doesn’t say that the Bible is the supreme authority in business marketing or commercial property law or mathematics. The Bible’s authority is in matters of faith and conduct.

In the end, it’s not just a battle between reason or experience or tradition or Scripture. It’s human reason and human experience and human tradition versus God’s Word (the Bible). Will we trust ourselves as the final authority? Or will we trust God as the final authority in our lives?

This helps us understand another big question when it comes to knowing things: “Can we know the truth?”

In modern history there have been two opposing worldviews when it comes to knowing the truth:

  1. Modernism is a worldview that arose out of science and said “Yes! We humans can know the truth. There is objective truth out there – and we can discover it!” It is a confident way of thinking about the world. It’s a why right now researchers all over the world are investing millions of dollars into finding the truth about a COVID vaccine and seeking to use that truth to make our lives better. Truth is real. Truth is discoverable and we can indeed know real things about life!
  2. But in response to this ‘certainty’ an alternative worldview arose called Post-modernism. Post-modernism says that we can never truly know truth or what something means. We always view information through our own biases and we’re unaware of our own cultural blind spots. Unlike science and modernism (which says there is truth and we can find it), post-modernism says “What even is truth?” You have your truth, I have my truth and our world’s motto is: “Live your truth”.

The Bible recognises the good and bad of both of these philosophical systems. In John 14 Jesus says:

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

(John 14:6)

Jesus claimed not to be one-of-many truths, but the truth. Christianity affirms modernism’s insistence that there is objective truth. The Bible claims to be God’s words, truth revealed from our Creator.

But the problem is not with the clarity or truthfulness of the message. The problem is with the confusion and deception of our hearts. In Jeremiah we are warned:

9The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

(Jeremiah 17:9)

Our hearts don’t approach the truth objectively. We deny things we don’t want to hear (whether it’s about climate change, vaccines, COVID conspiracies or fake news). We prefer lies when they tell us what we want in our hearts to hear.

Modernism says “There is objective truth and we can discover it”.
Post-modernism says “There is no such thing as truth and you can never discover it”

The problem with both of these approaches is that they are human-centred. The Bible offers a third way:

“There is objective truth. You cannot discover it. But God has revealed it”

Look with me at Deuteronomy 29:

29The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

(Deuteronomy 29:29)

The infinite and incomprehensible God is mysterious and has secrets we cannot discover. But what he reveals to us, we can know as objective truth.

You don’t discover God. God discloses (or reveals) himself to you.

We see this so clearly in the passage from Deuteronomy we had read out earlier in our Old Testament reading where it describes how Israel knew God because of experience in verse 34:

34Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?

(Deuteronomy 4:34)

They saw and experienced God’s salvation and miraculous signs. But they also knew God through traditions:

37Because he loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt

(Deuteronomy 4:37)

They had the promises of Abraham passed on from generation to generation and later they were to ‘pass on’ these traditions to their children:

40Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you

(Deuteronomy 4:40a)

They knew God through reason and logic. Moses begins with a rhetorical question in verse 32:

32Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of?

(Deuteronomy 4:32)

Moses reasons with them. He makes a logical argument that nothing so great has ever happened before in history, therefore God must be worthy of their obedience.

But supremely they knew God through Scripture – because God has spoken to them:

33Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived?

(Deuteronomy 4:33)

And what was the purpose of God revealing himself in all these ways?

35You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other.

(Deuteronomy 4:35)

God shows himself in various ways so that we might know he is God (and no one else is). God wants to be known.

3. The Goal of Knowing Stuff

But what is the point of knowing stuff? Isn’t this promoting intellectualism? When we talk about ‘knowing’ something. There’s 3 different things we mean. In German they have 3 different words to describe the nuances of ‘knowing’:

  1. Wissen – i.e. knowledge about something. To know a fact (like 1+2 = 3) or to know a fact about someone (e.g. “I know that Pastor Philip likes chocolate. I know that Pastor Matt likes coffee. I know that Pastor Mark likes the Manly Sea Eagles footy team”) It’s information! It’s about your head.
  2. Können – i.e. knowledge about how-to-do-something. E.g. I know how to ride a bicycle. I know how to perform surgery. It’s about your hands.
  3. Kennen – i.e. knowing someone. E.g. I don’t just know about Pastor Philip, I know him (as a friend) We have a relational knowledge. It’s about your heart.

You can know information, you can know skills and you can know a person.

The goal of knowing information about God is so that we can have a relationship with God. That’s the goal of life! Look at what Jesus says life is all about:

3Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

(John 17:3)

We don’t want to know about God so we can win first prize at a Bible trivia night. We want to know about God so we can know God personally and have a relationship with him.

Information leads to Relationship.

If you go on a first date with someone you don’t know very well, most people spend that first-date asking questions so they can learn information (i.e. facts) about the other person. What they do like and what they don’t like. You might think it’s romantic to buy them chocolates – only to find out that they are lactose intolerant! Information helps you have a relationship with someone.

That’s the goal of learning about and knowing more about God – so we can love him more and more! To learn what he does and doesn’t love and to learn what he wants from us.

Sometimes people pit ‘head’ Christians (i.e. those who love theology and studying the Bible) against ‘heart’ Christians (i.e. those who love experiencing God and living out their faith)

But in the Bible you need both! Knowing more information in your head about God leads you to love him more in your heart as you know him relationally.

4. The Unknown God?

And so let’s look briefly at the God who wants to reveal himself. In Acts chapter 17, Paul (one of Jesus’ followers) went to Athens. While he was walking around, he saw lots of idols – statues representing various gods of the ancient Greek world. It made Paul greatly distressed and upset. He was upset because people who were made to know the one true living God were living their lives under a lie. Living their lives in ignorance, without knowledge.

Paul sees a statue with an inscription that says: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”. It seems like the Ancient Greeks had bought into the lie that says “You cannot truly know what goes on upstairs. You cannot know definitively about God or the gods” So to make sure they hadn’t left anyone out, they had a leftover idol dedicated “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” just in case they’d missed one and that god felt left out!

Paul says they worship something unknown and he is going to proclaim or reveal him to the Athenians. What do we learn about the God who wants to be known?

24The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.

(Acts 17:24–25)

God is the Creator. He made us and the world and he is not dependant on his creation, but we are dependent on him. As we saw earlier, God is infinite and we are finite.

26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

(Acts 17:26-27)

God made us and sets the boundaries over when and where we live. But in verse 27 he does this with a purpose. You are limited and finite (God places you where he did) so that we would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. God did this so we would know Him. The reason God made the world (and the reason God made you) was so that you would seek him, reach out for him and find him.

The transcendent, mysterious God is not far away from each one of us.

The problem is not that God made himself distant from us. The problem is that we made ourselves distant from God. Because of sin (our rebellion against God) we decided to not seek after God, but to seek after idols and statues (anything but God!) We were supposed to reach out to him and instead we pushed him away.

So how does God respond to our failure to find him?

30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

(Acts 17:30-31)

Do you notice what Paul says? He says in the past God overlooked our ignorance (our lack of knowledge about him). We didn’t know that God didn’t like idols, but now we do. And now God commands (he doesn’t ask or suggest) all peoples everywhere to repent.

God understands our ignorance but he’s not content for us to stay in our ignorance about him. We were made to know Him and he calls on all people in every place to repent – to turn away from not just ignorance (a lack of information about God) but also their ignoring (a lack of relationship with God).

The problem is not that God doesn’t want to be known. The problem is that we don’t want to know God.

This is why at Chatswood Baptist you have Mission Month. Because knowing God is not just for those who are part of Chatswood Baptist Church. It’s for those living in Chatswood, Lindfield, Artarmon and surrounding suburbs who don’t know God (who live their lives ignoring him). It’s for the 35,000 uni students in Adelaide CBD who don’t know God (who worship the idols of career and materialism). Knowing God is for those in the Philippines who are caught up in confusing or unbiblical ways of knowing God. So you generously and sacrificially send people to all places in the world to call on all people to repent – to stop ignoring God and to start knowing him because he wants us to know him.

5. Respond to the God who wants to be known

So how should we respond to the God who wants to be known?

We’ve already seen it in a few places:

  • Knowing God leads to obeying God. In Deuteronomy 29 it says:

29The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

(Deuteronomy 29:29)

The purpose of knowing God is that we will follow all his words – that we will obey God.

The reason we often don’t want to know the one true living God is because once we do know him, we’d have to obey him and listen to what he asks from us. It’s easier to claim ignorance.

  • Knowing God leads to repentance. When we only look at ourselves we think we’re doing a good job of being human. But when we know God and what he wants, we realise how far we fall short of his glory and of his standards. Knowing God should lead to repentance. Repentance is changing your mind about who God is, who Jesus is and who you are in light of them. It’s a completely new operating system for thinking about life – one that realises that God is at the centre of life, not you.
  • Because knowing God involves relational knowledge, it involves faith. Faith is just ‘trusting God’. We trust people who we know well. We trust people who have shown themselves to be good and reliable. It’s right for us to respond to the One who is perfectly good and perfectly reliable by trusting him and taking him at his word, believing him when he speaks and placing our lives into his safe hands and merciful care.

As we finish this morning, which of these 3 responses do you need to make in response to the God who wants to be known?

Do you need to turn back to him in repentance and stop ignoring him? Do you need to start living under his kingship by obeying what he asks of you? Do you need to stop listening to the lie that God is ‘untrustworthy’? Do you need to ask him to help you overcome your unbelief?

Let’s pray.