Alfred Place Baptist Church

Knowing God

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
John 17:3

These words are from the greatest prayer ever prayed, and they tells us the answer to the quest all mankind has been engaged in since the fall of Adam, what is eternal life and how may anyone obtain it. We are overhearing the Son of God speaking to his Father and he is telling him that he knows what eternal life is, that it is knowing the only true God and himself Jesus Christ. He puts himself up there with God. If you want to have the life of eternity then there is no other way than by knowing God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. You are aware that in the Bible the word ‘know’ mean more than just being aware of a fact, that it I far more affectionate than intellectual. It is loving knowledge; it is passionate knowledge. We are told that Adam knew his wife and that is far more than five feet two and eyes of blue. No eternal life without knowing God, says the Son of Man.

So I decided (I hope being prompted by my Saviour), that I would speak to you for a few weeks about the perfections of God. I wrote to a few friends and said I was going to preach a number of messages on God and I was wondering what to call this little series. “How Great is God! . . . The Grandeur of God. . . . A Portrait of God . . . The Knowledge of God.” My old friend of fifty years, John Frame, wrote back to me and said, “Sometimes I use the phrase ‘The Perfections of God,’” and that was a good idea. Then I was reading the late Dan DeHaan’s book, The God You Can Know, and he has two chapters in it that he’d entitled “The Perfections of God.” So I am going to preach to you for a few weeks on this theme entitled, “The Perfections of God,” and we prayed about these messages on Tuesday at the mid-week meeting asking God to bless the whole series to us all. None of us want dead lectures on the living God. Nothing could be better designed to turn us all into atheists.

1. WHO IS THIS GOD OF WHOM I AM SPEAKING? 

I am talking about the Creator of the rolling spheres, the ineffably sublime Maker of the heavens and the earth. The God who sustains moment by moment the world he made, the God who made everything out of nothing. All mankind lives and moves and has its being not in chance or in meaninglessness but in him. He is a morally righteous God, perfect in goodness, knowledge and power. There is no hint whatsoever of malice, or cruelty, or meanness in him. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. He is also a personal God, in other words, the God who made man in his image and likeness. He is not a silent God, as mysterious as ‘dark matter.’ He spoke to our fathers by the prophets and finally spoke to men and women by his Son and his apostles. It is the God of the Bible of whom I am speaking, not Allah and not Buddah and not any of the gods of the Hindus.

God made us capable of living in a personal love relationship with him and with our fellow human beings. He has spelled out what that means in his law, summarising it like this, that we love God with all our heart and soul, and that we love our neighbour as ourselves. Things like that he has also written on our hearts, and he has given us a conscience that commends us when we act in that way, but rebukes us when we do wrong, It is the God of your conscience of whom I am speaking.

When we rebelled against him in our father Adam and by our own selfishness we spoiled God’s creation; we corrupted ourselves, we damaged relationships, and deservedly we came under God’s condemnation. But in his immense mercy and love he sent a Saviour into the world in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, to restore us and reconcile us to God. Our Lord accomplished this by living the life of love for God and his neighbour that we have failed to live, and he suffered the death of condemnation as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world.

The proofs for the existence of this God are everywhere and are quite irrefutable. The primary one is the existence of the un-inventable Jesus Christ. Eternal life is to know him, his teaching, his example, his signs, his power over creation and over evil and disease and death. He is the brightness of God’s glory; he is the express image of the person of this God. If you have seen him in the Bible and grasped the full picture of who he is and what he did then you are actually seeing God. Jesus of Nazareth is arguably the most captivating, provocative, and influential person in human history – whatever other opinions men may have of him. Born in obscurity and poverty, Jesus claimed to be meek and lowly in heart and a servant of all – yet he also claimed to be pre-existent, equal with God and he received worship unembarrassingly from his disciples. He demanded moral perfection from his followers, to love him more than loving anyone else, even the dearest members of their families. He required them to sacrifice everything for his sake – yet he also promised them the world.

Jesus’ entrance requirements for heaven were impossible. You had to be born from above, a supernatural gift from God – yet he welcomed the most immoral of people into the kingdom of God. He rejected political office and he had no permanent home – yet he also claimed to have divine authority over the entire universe. He displayed divine power, even the power to overcome death – yet he willingly submitted himself to one of the most painful and shameful deaths imaginable. He claimed he hadn’t come to judge the world, yet he also declared that he’d return at the end of history and do precisely that. What exactly do you do with someone like that? There is no one else at all like him. You can’t ignore him in your worldview. Can you dismiss him as a megalomaniac, or as a mad man, or the world’s most terrible liar? If he is none of those then he is God the Son, and if you don’t put Jesus right at the hub of your life, where else could he be?

Another proof for God’s existence is the disciples of Jesus whom in the providence of God, day by day, you meet. Qualities like their transparency and kindness and humility and integrity are proof that their God exists because he has changed them into that kind of grand person. You observe them handling stress and bad news and illness. You are a recipient of their kindness when you suddenly meet the problem of caring for someone with dementia, or having post-natal depression. They are breath-taking in their thoughtfulness and kindness. That Christ-likeness in people you meet is another proof that the God of the Bible and the God of creation lives and he changes us for our good. The proof of God’s existence is witnessed in the universe around us, the heavens and the earth in their beauty, the creatures in all their diversity, the living organism of life in its interdependence and constancy – all this shows the power and godhead of its Creator. This is the God of whom I am speaking.

2. THE IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING GOD.

There is total ignorance of God not only in the land but in the gospel church today. If a Martian came to our town and listened to the activities that many churches set out with enthusiasm, then the Extra Terrestrial would think the purpose of the churches was raising money for people overseas, or planning denominational union, or putting pressure on the government to raise taxes to give to the old and poor, or to refute racism or resisting people who criticised homosexual activity. Those emphases are all a part of a misguided conspiracy to marginalise the essence of true religion and to major in its minor details. The church exists in order to address both the disciples of Jesus and the world in which they live with good news of God Almighty, who he is, what he has done and is doing and will do. We exist to be reconciled to him and worship him as he requires, and to know and love him more and more.

If I had put a big illuminated sign outside the church this week. “Topic for Sunday Morning – THE ANTICHRIST” then there may well have been more people in attendance, and certainly there would have been a buzz of anticipation amongst some of you. Some might welcome a message on that subject more than a message on the Perfections of God. Pity on us when we grow bored with preaching about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Shame on us! He is the only truth worth sacrificing time and money and life itself to know. The Lord Jesus himself said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3). That is the life of eternity. Then let me know it now! Thus there is no more relevant subject for every Christian to consider than the nature of God. The true priority for everyone was, is, and ever will be to learn to know God in Christ.

Dan DeHaan was chaplain of the Atlanta Falcons, and he also taught a vigorous youth group of a 1000 student-aged men and women. At the end of one meeting he was talking one by one to a dozen people who came to him with their questions. All that time a student stood watching until the final questioner had walked away. He came to Dan and spoke to him with a lump in his throat, “Dan,” he choked, “don’t you ever get tired of hearing people asking you the same old questions for which they could just as well get answers from any other Christian?” “Sometimes I do,” Dan replied. The student went on, “I am here because I long to know God. I have been listening to you week after week, and God has made me desperately hungry to know him as you do. Does anyone ever come to you with that desire?” Dan was stunned. He saw how rare was such a desire. None of those others who had talked to him that night were interested in knowing God more. Unfortunately they were getting to know stuff about God before knowing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for themselves. The apostle Paul was like that student longing to be gripped by God stronger, and firmer, and with passionate devotion . . . “that I might know him.” Revival is knowing God more clearly, and loving him more dearly. David had experienced this; remember how he said about his Lord, “He restores my soul.” Moses said to God, “Now, therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in they sight, show me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight.”

So I am going t speak on this theme for a few Sundays because as men and women we will live as long as the angels, and we, like them, have within us the capacity of responding to God, knowing him for ourselves, speaking to him. Animals and birds and fish and insects and viruses can’t know him, but by a heavenly rebirth we can know God; we can set out on the glorious pursuit of God, not give our brief lives to the pursuit of pleasure or the pursuit of wealth or the pursuit of the sights of the world but exploring the infinite riches of the Godhead. There is no limit, neither is there any end to the satisfaction of this search. Bernard of Clairvaux said it like this;

We taste Thee, O Thou living bread
And long to feast upon Thee still.
We drink of Thee the fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.

3. THE MEANS OF KNOWING GOD

How can we know the perfections of God?

A) By the Bible, and by sitting under a Bible-believing ministry. Principally this knowledge of God comes to us by a special revelation that God has taken great pains to give us and it is about himself and his kingdom. This revelation is found in the Scriptures. What good is having a million pounds in the bank if the bank is creating problems and won’t allow you to access and appropriate the funds for your use? We have an accessible revelation of God in the Bible. It is before us now. God has told us about himself speaking through the prophets of the Old Testament, and then by Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament. The stars and trees and clouds and animals remain mute except to display the power and glory of their Maker. To know he is a God of grace and mercy he needs to speak in words and actions that are interpreted by words. He has made the riches of his person known to us in sentences and paragraphs and books with logic and arguments. This is what we are hearing now, taken from the pages of Scripture, and to this holy exercise God welcomes us, “Ho! He that has ears to hear, hear! Come! Explore and study and learn of me from these pages. Search the Scriptures!” said the Lord Christ. No restoration of vital Christianity has ever come by human plans and schemes. Yet light and faith have sprung up when men are given access to the Bible – even a whole population hitherto immersed in materialism, with no prior concerns at all about spiritual things. It was like that in Wales in the 18th century when a movement called the Circulating Schools under the directives of a lively minister called Gruffydd Jones spread from village to village gathering together people who wanted to learn to read the Bible. That new literacy prepared the people for the preaching of the evangelical awakening under Hywel Harris and Daniel Rowland and Pantycelyn when those intelligent learners showed an insatiable hunger for the Word of God. They were prepared to travel to hear Scripture explained, sailing down from Anglesey to Aberystwyth, walking the fifteen miles from the coast to Llangeitho to listen to Rowland preach the living God to them. Such people lived for the Bible, suffered for it, and died for it. The same is happening in China today where one hundred and twenty million Bibles have been published since the end of the cultural revolution. This always happens by the same means. The living God is owning his own word, and the Holy Spirit is at work anointing men to preach Christ. Whenever God gives us men ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ wonderful things are going to follow. That is how men know God, when the Spirit of God uses the word of God and it illuminates men’s minds. Charles Wesley put it like this:

God, through Himself, we then shall know if Thou within us shine,
And sound, with all thy saints below the depths of love divine.

The Spirit and the Word must work together to produce true religious experience. The Scripture must be plainly and faithfully presented, not engendered simply by emotional or religious excitement. The experience has to be regulated by the God of the Bible and sustained by him, and those exercised by such an experience show a genuine affection for the Word of God.

B) By singing the great hymns from the whole history of praise, from the psalms of Moses written 3000 years ago, on throughout the best hymns of the church up to our own century; I am talking about hymns which help you to know God by hear the gospel of Christ clearly in the sound of the music, in the character of the composition and in the lyrics themselves. I am talking about hymns that give a greater picture of the glory of God. I am speaking of hymns that tend to encourage a repentant view of man’s depravity. I am speaking of hymns that encourage the singers to live more disciplined, and godly lives. I am speaking of hymns that help the singers to separate themselves from our sin-crazed world. I am speaking of the kind of hymns which would be sung should there be a great awakening today when men and women are crying out, “What shall we do to be saved?” I am speaking of the kind of hymns under whose influence Christians would be drawn into lives of sacrificial full-time service. I am speaking of the sort of praise we will hear in the presence of God in heaven, where Michael the arch-angel is the worship leader, and there, around and before you, above and beneath you, is the Spirit of God and the Lord Jesus Christ is there in your midst, and you follow Michael as he leads the praise. Will they be addressing God the Son there and telling him to shine? I believe not. All our hymns on earth should be a preparation for a sight of the glory of God that lies before us. Consider Ernst Lange’s 17th century German hymn, translated in the18th century by John Wesley.

O God, Thou bottomless abyss! Thee to perfection who can know?
O Height immense! What words suffice thy countless attributes to show?
Greatness unspeakable is Thine, greatness whose undiminished ray,
When short-lived worlds are lost, shall shine, when earth and heaven are fled away.

John Blanchard was preaching in an evangelistic mission and a youth group pleaded with him to include a rock band in the evenings. They said to him, “If we get a band it will make it easier for people to be saved.” John Blanchard replied, “That depends on who does the saving.” There was no music at all when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, or when he spoke in the Upper Room, or on the Day of Pentecost when 3,000 were converted, nor in the amazing days that followed when “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” So let’s be sure that our music is not a hindrance or a Spirit-grieving influence to God saving people today. Let us value the great hymns and make our vocabulary of such hymns grow and grow.

C) By reading the most helpful Christian books. What are they? Books whose authors know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, books like the letters of Samuel Rutherford, the memoir of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the diary of David Brainerd,  Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the correspondence of John Newton, Elizabeth Elliot’s life of her late husband, the martyr, Jim Elliot, Through Gates of Splendour, and J.I.Packer’s Knowing God. Those kinds of books tell us of the happiness and usefulness of men and women who knew God, attempting great things for him and expecting great things from God. I read J.C.Ryle’s Holiness as a teenager and when I was 20 I read Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. What a window on the life of God those books gave to me. I wanted by the grace of God to live like that and also to preach like those men.

Books change our view of God. For example, Irfon Hughes, my oldest friend in the USA and a pastor-preacher for over forty years, was attending some meetings in the Rhondda valley in 1963 when he saw on the book table Arthur Pink’s The Sovereignty of God. He purchased it and that night he read it hungrily; he had completed it the following night. Christianity made more sense to him having seen the omnipotence of God. Irfon proceeded to read through the letter to the Romans noting every verse that taught sovereignty by writing the letters ‘S.V.’ next to them. He understood God’s providence as never before, even acknowledging that it was his heavenly Father who had allowed the diabetes that he still has to have erupted into his life the previous year. The book laid a foundation for his future years as a preacher. Pink’s words in the book stuck in his mind; “The pulpit needs to thunder out that God lives, that God still observes, that God still reigns.” As a confessional Christian Irfon had believed in the sovereignty of God, but now Irfon knew the implications of omnipotence for prayer and evangelism. His thinking had become more theocentric. The book, The Sovereignty of God taught him that all doctrine must be practical.

So our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the attributes of God but with the living God himself whose perfections they are. We take care should we find ourselves saying over-boldy that we are going to study God, as if we were going to be putting him under a microscope or analyzing or dissecting Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are the ones who are going to shrink, feel our helplessness and shame crying to him for mercy. He is going to be looking at us with 20-20 vision, while we look at him through a glass darkly. As we seek to learn about him we must be led by him. That is why he has told us about himself in the prophets and apostles.

D) By keeping company with the people who’ve experienced God’s love. There are special people whose behaviour and language show that their hearts are filled with the knowledge of the Holy One. When I was a teenager I met while at a summer camp on the Gower peninsula a schoolboy a year older than myself who was just like that. I had never met anyone like him. I wrote a letter home to my best friend and described him and the meetings he arranged and led in the camp. He truly impacted me. He became a medical missionary and he still keeps the faith and is an example to all who know him today. Proverbs chapter 13 and verse 20, “He who walks with the wise grows wise.” Keep company with such people. I met a minister from Newtownards in Ulster last month and he told some of us about a woman in the congregation who runs their weekly Mums and Toddlers’ group. She is a wise and earnest Christian, a spiritually-minded person, and at the end of the morning she gathers the mothers around while others from the church look after the toddlers and she speaks to these Mums about Jesus Christ and his gospel. Recently a person who was thinking about starting a similar Mums and Toddlers’ group came to observe how this well-established group functioned and she saw how it ended with this woman gathering the mothers around and explaining the gospel to them and praying for them. The visitor expressed her surprise to the woman saying that she had heard people say that mothers wouldn’t bring their children to such a group if there was a Christian message at the end. This fine Christian looked at the inquirer and said to her, “What other reason would you have for doing this?” That is a woman who knows God and is motivated in her actions by that knowledge, and she influences all who meet her – quite unselfconsciously!

Two men were walking down a dusty road, bursting with discouragement and another traveler joined them and began to question them. This man loved God with all his heart and soul, and he loved them too, and he began to speak to them about the Bible and its message and soon their burden was gone and their hearts were burning within them. You can begin to know God on the road, over a meal, in school, at university if you are talking with someone who knows God.

So how can we know the perfections of God? I have suggested so far four ways, by the Bible and sitting under biblical ministry, by a growing knowledge of the great hymns, by reading the most helpful Christian books, and by keeping company with the most spiritually-minded men and women. Then as we seek to turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God we try making each truth that we’ve seen into a matter of meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God. Just like Irfon Hughes learned of God’s sovereignty and then brought his newly contracted diabetes into this knowledge and he asked God, “Are you sovereign also in decreeing that I am now to be a diabetic for the rest of my life.” So let me add a fifth way of knowing God.

E) By meditating upon God. How are we to do this? How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is demanding, but simple. Consider each truth of God you have discovered. Say it is that eternal life is to know God. Think of each word, ‘eternal,’ the life of eternity, of heaven where God and all his people and the innumerable company of angels are gathered in all their perfection and enjoyment of God – that eternity – and then ‘life’ not existence, nor survival, but abundant life full of vitality and movement and enrichment – the life of eternity. And it is in knowing, that is personally knowing, knowing in your mind and affections, with delight and assurance, God! The Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, your Creator, the author of every good and perfect gift, the one you are terribly indebted to, the Saviour of his people, the Judge of all the earth, the God who is a Spirit infinite, eternal, unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. Eternal life is knowing this God! You think about each word and you hang them together like a string of the most costly pearls.

Meditation is that J.I. Packer calls, the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works of God, and the ways of God, and the purposes of God, and the promises of God. It is an activity of holy thinking, consciously performed in the presence of God, thinking under the eye of God, thinking by the help of God, thinking as a means of communion with God. Its purpose is to clear away confusion and misunderstanding in order to see God more clearly. Its purpose is to let God’s truth make its full impact on your mind and heart. It is a matter of talking to yourself about God. You preach to yourself what you have learned about God. Indeed, it’s often a matter of arguing with yourself, reasoning yourself out of moods of doubt and unbelief to take hold of God in his power and grace. Its effect is always to humble us and then to encourage us, as we contemplate God’s greatness and glory, and our own littleness and sinfulness, and to reassure us – ‘comfort’ us, in the old, strong, Bible sense of the word – as we contemplate the unsearchable riches of divine mercy displayed in the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is as we enter more and more deeply into this experience of being humbled and exalted that our knowledge of God increases, and with it our peace, our strength, and our joy. God help us, then, to put our knowledge about God to this use, that we all may in truth ‘know the Lord.’

3rd May 2014   GEOFF THOMAS