I. Growing in the Knowledge of God
What is the most important thing in the world to every Christian? It is to grow in the knowledge of God.
The knowledge of God is the heart of salvation and of all true spiritual experience. Knowing him is what we were created for. It will occupy us throughout all eternity. In Scripture, it is almost equivalent to salvation. Jesus said that eternal life, or salvation, means knowledge of God: 'Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent' (Jn. 17:3). To be a Christian is not a mindless experience, but involves knowledge and understanding. It means a personal relationship and personal acquaintance with the Lord.
Behind what Jesus says in John's gospel lies the promise that God gave centuries before in the prophecy of the new covenant: 'I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord' (Jer. 24:7). The fulfilment of that prophecy would mean, Jeremiah added, 'No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest' (Jer. 31:34). Isaiah similarly tells us that this knowledge of God is what would mark the reign of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ: 'the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea' (Is. 11:9). What a vision! Yet it summarises what Scripture tells us Christ came to do: to bring us the knowledge of God.
Such knowledge of God is really the heart of all true understanding in the Christian life. A man or woman may be a Christian and remain ignorant of many things. But we cannot be Christians and remain ignorant of God. In the final analysis, says the wise man in Proverbs, 'knowledge of the Holy One is understanding' (Prov. 9:10). While man has never had so much knowledge about the world as he possesses today, perhaps he has never had so little knowledge of God. That is why our times are marked by a singular lack of understanding, appreciation, and genuine insight into the need of the hour.
Scripture also teaches us that the knowledge of God is a great preservative from sin. Isaiah shares in the divine lament over Israel and her rebellion when he says, 'The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand' (Is. 1:3). The root cause of their spiritual decline is their lack of understanding.
When people truly know God and are growing in a genuine relationship with him, however, their lives are marked by integrity and reliability. They do not treat dishonesty of the heart or of the lips indifferentlly. They are, in a word, holy. But our age is frightened of holiness. It is all the more tragic, therefore, that the church has also become frightened of holiness. It likes nothing less than to be different. The same may be true of us individually. Why? Because we do not know God as we should. If we really knew him, it would show in the character of our lives.
The knowledge of God is also essential to Christian growth. In the opening section of Peter's second letter, he draws attention to this crucial fact. He urges his friends to grow spiritually, wishing them grace and peace 'through the knowledge of God.' He tells them that God's power has given us everything we need to live the Christian life 'through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness' (2 Pet. 1:2-3). Similarly, when Paul expresses his desire for the Christians at Colosse to grow spiritually, the same theme recurs: Growth is particularly accompanied by 'growing in the knowledge of God' (Col. 1:10).
Our mistake has been to compose our own ground rules for the Christian life - how presumptuous can we be? - instead of listening to what God himself wants to say to us, namely: 'If you want to grow as a Christian, you must first of all grow in the knowledge of me.'
This knowledge of God is our greatest privilege. Hear Jeremiah again: '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). This declaration is from the same man whose speech had begun with, 'Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears...' (Jer. 9:1). No ivory-tower theologian or author was Jeremiah! Here was a man suffering for the sake of his people, seeing things with the clarity of one who was an outsider in every society, except in the society of God. He penetrated through all the superficialities of life to the heart of the matter. Who cares for the wisdom of this world, or the strength of men, or the riches and fame some attain, if all these things are to be had without knowing God? With devastating honesty, Jeremiah reduced all these things men desire to their proper (and very secondary place) in his 'Jeremiad.' Life is only worth boasting about if at its centre is the knowledge of God, controlling all our aspirations. That is something to boast about.
What do you and I boast about? What subject of conversation most arouses us and fills our hearts? Do we consider knowing God to be the greatest treasure in the world, and by far our greatest privilege? If not, we are but pygmies in the world of the spirit. We have sold our Christian birthright for a mess of pottage, and our true Christian experience will be superficial, inadequate, and tragically out of focus.
Unfortunately, many of our Christian lives are suffering from such spiritual astigmatism. It shows in our personal lives; it shows in our dealings with others; it shows in our lack of impact on the world; it shows perhaps most obviously in the character of our worship. This was what Jeremiah saw in his time. No wonder he wept! No wonder there were moments when he had to fight off the depths of depression - because he too was bound up with the people. He could not castigate them without feeling the blows himself.
How sensitive are you to this issue? Knowing God is your single greatest privilege as a Christian, and the one that sensitises you to every other issue of importance. But is this the issue that lies at the centre of your thinking?"
Sinclair Ferguson goes on in this first chapter to describe "what is involved in growing in the knowledge of God," giving "four fundamental laws governing the knowledge of God in the growing believer," based on Col. 1:9-11. He then concludes chapter one with these words:
"The knowledge of God is our greatest privilege. Yet it is perhaps the Church's greatest need today. It may also be your greatest need just now. You may well profess to enjoy eternal life. But when that life is defined in Jesus' terms rather than your own - knowing the true and living God - how extensive is your experience of eternal life? Is it your boast that you 'know the Lord'?
We need to let these questions sink into our hearts and consciences with devastating effect. If we are ever to have knowledge of God that is worthy of the name, we need to be brought low to see our ignorance. If we are ever to learn that knowledge of God that he gives to those who depend on his Spirit, we need to be emptied of our independence.
The following chapters try to unfold the greatness of God, because developing a heart for him must involve knowing and understanding who he is. But before we go on, we need to turn aside in prayer, so seek the Lord while he may be found, and call upon him while he is near.
"Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise. Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above; praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, mount of God's unchanging love.
"O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be! Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for the courts above."