On Knowing God: What does it Mean to Know God?

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HE REPLIED, “I TELL YOU the truth, I don’t know you.” Jesus had just finished telling a parable in which people were waiting for the gates of paradise to open. Some stood in line with what they thought were proper credentials to get in. They were turned away with the awful words, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” The tragic part of the story is that these people thought they had everything necessary to enter into the kingdom of heaven. They were part of a larger group, some of whom got in. (Matthew 25:1-12).

This parable is not like the Garden of Eden. At Eden, Adam and Eve knew they were separated from God. They knew they had violated the conditions for living in paradise. They knew they had broken fellowship with the Creator. And when they were expelled from the Garden, it was not a surprise. As we read the second and third chapters of Genesis, we also understand that they knew God and in what way they knew him. In the parable in Matthew 25, the picture is not as complete. Yet, we can see that the people who were turned away from the door of heaven arrived there fully expecting to be welcomed in.

We pick up more detail from an earlier passage in Matthew. Jesus was winding up what is called the Sermon on the Mount. Here, the picture is of a group of people who also expected to be welcomed joyfully into the kingdom of heaven. They said, “We have prophesied in your name, driven out demons and performed many miracles” for the benefit of the kingdom (Matthew 7:21-23). This group thought that religious activity would be the ticket to enter heaven. The painful response from God is, “I never knew you.” They are turned away from the kingdom. It is apparent that these people thought they had a relationship with God. They thought they knew God, but they didn’t.

There’s good reason we want to look at what Jesus said and what happened in the Garden of Eden. Our understanding about God and what it means to know him have huge and eternal consequences. We are not talking here of missing our flight at the airport—there is always another one soon to arrive. We are talking about a relationship with someone that determines how we will live today and tomorrow and settles our eternal destiny. That deserves our serious attention.

Knowing God In Eden
Let’s review what we looked at in our opening chapter and single out a few thoughts. We noted that God created “man” in his own image. We understand that means we are compatible with God. It’s important to realize that God is someone we can talk with. He will listen, he understands and he responds. God also gave Adam and Eve work to do. To Adam, he gave the task of naming all the animals. That was a long and demanding job, but we are told he got it done. In the process, Adam realized that aside from God, there was no one or thing he could talk to and enjoy fellowship with.

In addition, Adam cooperated with God in the creation of Eve, his wife. God put Adam to sleep and took one of his ribs around which he formed Eve. God planted the Garden of Eden as a place for the couple to live and a garden for them to care for. To the couple God said I want you to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28). As we have seen, the first couple was working with God so that his plan would be carried out. Living in fellowship with God, taking care of God’s creation and living in harmony with each other were all part of God’s will for them.

Did the first couple know how they were doing? Yes, there were those times of fellowship and conversation with God. Here’s how the writer described what happened: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’

“He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’ ” (Genesis 3:9, 10). Here we have a series of events taking place where God and mankind have conversation together. The couple was given assignments and God talks things over with them to see how things are going. It appears from reading this section that Adam and Eve had developed a routine to their daily work and walk. They understood what they were to do and were comfortable in talking daily with God. We could say, Adam and Eve knew God! Something, of course, broke that routine.

As we look into their relationship with God, several elements stand out as being essential to “knowing God.” First, Adam and Eve knew who God was. They understood that he was the Creator of everything they saw, including them. The Creator is the Almighty. With that awareness, they also knew who they were: They were dependent on, and subordinate to the Creator. Until they fell prey to Satan’s temptation, they had placed their full confidence in the Creator. They listened to God and took him at his word; he was their source of knowledge and wisdom.

Adam and Eve also had an understanding of the will of God. It was two-fold: Specific in terms of the “forbidden” tree and generic regarding the care and tending of the garden. There were choices they could make. For example, would they eat or not eat the forbidden fruit in the center of the garden? That specific choice embodied a larger choice: Will we obey our Creator or go our own way? That choice raised the possibility of placing their view of things into conflict with God’s view.

While the first couple may not have known the full extent of the consequences of disobeying God (we are not told), they knew that death would overtake them. God had warned, “when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17). As you read the story, you find that after they disobeyed God, their nakedness brought them shame and fear. Physical death began its course through their bodies while spiritual death embraced their souls. The daily conversations with God ended and they were expelled from the garden.

That’s not the end of the story—their relationship with God and knowing him would be restored. There would be a second Adam. Redemption and reconciliation would be available to all mankind.

The Second Adam
Before we look at the restoration of Adam and Eve, let’s step aside to see who the New Testament refers to as “the second Adam.” That’s important since the first Adam, as the son of God (Luke 3:37), is the head of the fallen race. The second Adam, as the Son of God, is the head of the redeemed race.

The Apostle Paul best writes about the two Adams, one who brought mankind into death and the other who brought us into life. He had been talking about mankind’s sin and reconciliation. He writes, “For if, by the trespass of the one man (Adam), death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:17, 18). Paul is saying that Adam sinned and brought death and condemnation to the human race. Jesus Christ came to earth as the second Adam to bring life and restoration with God to the human race.

He went over this again with another church: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’, the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.” (I Corinthians 15:22, 45-47). We see that Jesus did what Adam was not able to do. Yes, Adam has given us natural life. It is the Son of God who brings us spiritual life.

While these verses are about condemnation and justification, let’s use them to talk about Adam and Eve’s relationship with the Creator. Remember that their creation was separate and special from the rest of God’s creation activities. (Genesis 1:26, 27). Likewise, Jesus’ birth was a separate act of God, which was different from all other human births. (Luke 1:30-37). We are not told when but at some point in his life, Jesus became aware that he was the Son of God.

Now, how is Jesus’ “knowing God” the same as, or different from Adam’s? Jesus went through birth, childhood and onto adulthood. Adam didn’t—he was created an adult. However, both Jesus and Adam were doing what God wanted them to do. Since we’ve already looked at Adam’s record, here are a few verses about Jesus. Once while in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it . . . whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” (John 12:49, 50). “. . . but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31).

Finally, just before Jesus was tried and crucified, he is in conversation and prayer with God. He says, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). These verses show that Jesus was obedient to God the Father. Even when facing death, he was actively pursuing the will of God in his life.

When he taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father . . . your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus himself was the model for that verse. The difference between Jesus and Adam was that Adam began correctly but failed in the early stages. Jesus did not fail. To “know God” means a commitment to the Creator and his will for our lives. The second Adam fully satisfied the requirement of commitment. He led the way and supplies the power for us to have relationship with God through redemption and reconciliation.

Commitment, Conversation and Control
We could say that Adam began with a commitment to do the will of God. He fell to the temptation put to him (and Eve) by the Tempter, or Satan. During their time of commitment, they had open conversation with the Creator. That is important to get a hold of. If we are to bridge the gap between the Creator and ourselves, we must understand what got us to where we are. We can’t repair the damage unless we can see what is broken.

As soon as Adam and Eve went against the Creator and said, “We’ll do it our way!” the connection with God was broken. Did that mean he was no longer their Creator? Did that mean he was no longer interested in them? Did it mean that God was going to throw them out and start all over again? Not at all. Yes, the door to conversation closed. There were consequences that came about. The Creator had promised that.

The critical point is that conversation with the Creator was possible due to their commitment to be about his will and obey his word. That link has implications for us today. There is something about saying, “Yes!” to the Creator that empowers us to have a dialogue with him. To act as if he is a shadow or a myth or “the unmoved mover” or some cosmic force is not going to get it done. That kind of reasoning is what Adam and Eve did when they decided to go their own way. At that point, the Creator God no longer mattered. He just wasn’t too bright about how to run things (so they thought). They would take over the controls.

This whole business about being in control leads us to the center of the problem for us humans. We all like to think we are in control of things, particularly our own lives. That was the yearning of the first couple. And only one thing stood in their way—obedience to the will of the Creator. The Tempter convinced them that God their Creator did not have their best interests at heart. He was trying to deprive them of special knowledge and the good life. “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4, 5).

For Adam and Eve, conversation with God ended when they turned their backs, walked away from their commitment to the Creator and grabbed the controls of their lives. As one writer in Scripture stated, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:1, 2). Sin broke the connection with God. So if we are to restore relationship and fellowship with God, we have to recognize that sin caused the break. While their sin brought death to themselves and the human race, that is not the most important part of the creation story.

The Great Story Of Creation: Life
If there is one thing we learn about the Creator in Genesis 1–3, it is that God is big on life—he is the author of life. On the first day or time period, we find that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. We don’t know exactly what that means except that the Creator’s Spirit—his life giving Spirit—was active throughout the creative process. In the third phase of creation, God brought into being plant life, vegetation with seeds and fruit—things necessary for subsequent animal life. The fifth stage of creation belonged to sea life and fish and birds. And, of course, on the sixth day or period, it was land animals, capped with the creation of human kind.

Don’t lose sight of the great story of creation—God is in the business of bringing life. Sometimes we go off to extremes: We concentrate on the vastness of the universe of stars and galaxies, or we become absorbed with the immediate solar system, or we get stuck looking at the end of our nose, completely self-centered. A few years ago, C. S. Lewis, a remarkable British author, wrote a book entitled Your God Is Too Small. One of the problems we have, of course, is that the Creator God is so huge we can’t begin to conceive of his infiniteness. But here is a concept I believe we can all grasp—God is the author of life. For me, that is the core of the creation story.

To say God is the author of life is to declare it takes life to bring life. It goes back to the questions we looked at in the first chapter: Where did the super condensed ball of matter come from in the first place? Then there are the questions of the origins of life and intelligent, self-conscious life. Everything we see and know leads to the great undeniable truth: Life can only come from life! Is it so complicated to accept the idea of a Creator God being responsible for life? We routinely acknowledge that a very minute amount of living material is taken from a man and placed in a woman, brings into being a living person. Simply stated, it takes life to create life. But what about the death sentence?

The Death Sentence
Why would the Creator, the “life giver” of the universe, impose a death/life sentence on the first couple? That is a fair question. We already looked at some alternatives the Creator had available, including eliminating Adam and Eve and beginning all over again. To properly answer this question, we go back to God’s intention seen through his declaration when he created humankind. Let’s review the verses that reveal what was on God’s mind.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ ” (Genesis 1:26-28).

You will recall we noted that being created “in God’s image” included God’s moral image. We carry within us the sense of justice and righteousness that is a reflection of God’s holy character. Cain, for example, knew others would want to kill him for his murder of Abel. He asked for the Creator’s protection and God provided it. We, too, carry the same judicial sentiment—that sense of outrage when horrible crimes are committed. There is a justifiable feeling of violation when we are robbed or our home is burglarized. These, too, stem from the image of God implanted in us.

The eternal Godhead (the God of three persons) was revealed when God said, “let us make man in our image . . . ” If the cosmologists are correct dating the universe in the range of 15 billion earth years, the Triune God has been in business and in loving relationship and fellowship within the Godhead for a long time. That image of loving relationship was passed on to humankind. Adam could not find his “soul mate” from among the animals no matter how long he looked. So God created the woman of his life, Eve, to be his mate. And as we say today, “to have and to hold, until death do us part.” Thus, the Creator is not only the giver of life; he is the giver of love.

We should not neglect to point out the inauguration of marriage and the family (Genesis 2:22-24). The unity described here is a mirror image of the unity of God: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (verse 24). Each time we celebrate the “uniting” of a man and woman to “become one flesh,” we are recognizing that our God is one God, made up of a unity of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit.

Besides life and love, justice and righteousness, what else was included in “God’s image”? The first couple was given dominion over earth’s creatures. Mankind is a higher order than anything else on earth. Adam was assigned to give names to all animals—God-given wisdom and ability. Eve was to be the mother of all humanity, to bear and to nurture her children and become the model of motherhood. That responsibility is still being carried out daily by millions of women. These and other characteristics make humanity the bearers of God’s image.

Another part of God’s image we touched on in chapter 1 was mankind’s free will, or freedom to choose. We are created as free moral agents—we can choose good and evil. If Adam and Eve could not choose evil, would they be free agents or just puppets on strings? For mankind to be in God’s image, there had to be freedom, even to choose to disobey and sin.

The death life sentence that Adam and Eve received came as the result of their decision to disobey the Creator. That set in motion the negative aspects of the covenant that the Creator had with the first couple. They died, spiritually, when the lifeline connecting them to God was severed by sin. Physical death began its unwanted march through their bodies. Rather than living forever in God’s presence and fellowship, they would be returned to the ground. Though still alive, the sounds of death were all around them. Those of us who are older recognize the ravages of time on our bodies.

The Remedy To The Death Life
Although God did expel Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he did not dispose of them and start over. Despite the disruption to the Creator’s original plan, he was already prepared to rescue his fallen race. Here is where questions sometimes arise. For example, if God knew that Adam and Eve could or would fail, why did he bring them into being? If God didn’t know they could fail, can he be God? That is the old “catch 22” dilemma. Since the heavens and the earth demonstrate that he is the Creator God then it follows that he knew Adam and Eve could and would fail. One final question belongs to this series: “Why did God bring them into being?” There’s only one answer: “Because he wanted to.” There is no valid challenge to God’s holy, perfect and sovereign will.

So, here we are with Adam and Eve, broken in relationship with God, damaged in relationship with each other (each blamed someone else for the sin), and thrown out of Eden. What was the remedy? Because they could not do it themselves, the remedy had to involve substitution: Someone had to take their place. It is somewhat like an incident that took place during the American Civil War.

There was a young father named Pratt, with a wife and two children, who was to be drafted into the Union Army. A close friend of his named Matt who was not married, realized that his friend Pratt needed to stay at home with his family. Matt took the draft notice and volunteered to take the place of Pratt in the army. Matt was drafted into the army. Pratt was freed from his obligation to serve.

As the War Between the States dragged on, Matt was killed in battle. His body was returned and was buried in the town cemetery. Soon after, Pratt received a second notice to be drafted into the Union Army. Pratt took out the certificate showing that Matt had taken his place and he took the officials to Matt’s burial plot. He pointed out that because Matt had taken his place and Matt had died, he, Pratt, was released from any further military obligation. Someone had taken his place and for the purposes of the law, he, Pratt, was dead. The board members rescinded Pratt’s draft notice.

That story mirrors what was necessary to repeal Adam and Eve’s death penalty. There would have to be a substitute who could take the sentence of death for them. In this way, the substitute would stand in their place. There is some difficulty here because another human being could at best only substitute for one person. In our example of Pratt and Matt, Matt could only be counted for one person. Other men had to serve their own draft obligations. What, then, was God’s plan to rescue his creation?

It begins with God’s initiative described in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve were naked. The shame they felt at their nakedness stemmed from guilt over their sinning. So, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21). The covering for their nakedness was possible because animals died. The death of the animals also provided a covering for their sin in Eden. The Creator changed the consequences of their sin through the death of the animals.

As we get further into the Scriptures, we learn that the animal deaths were a temporary covering until a fully acceptable substitute was provided. The couple could be forgiven and restored to relationship in a just manner. The time would come when the “offspring of the woman,” a man not an animal, would become the perfectly acceptable substitute. That substitute would be the full and complete remedy for the death sentence. We will see that resurrection life for the physical and restoration to spiritual life is made possible by an infinite sacrifice.

Knowing God
This chapter opened with the terrible words, “I don’t know you!” We also said that from the first few verses of Genesis, we would find clues to what it means to know God. What have we already seen from Genesis? First, it was sin or disobedience that brought the rupture in relationship with God. Let’s call this “the sin problem.” The sin problem started when the first couple decided not to follow the Creator’s plan. Within the Garden story are the seeds of all we need to understand what it means to know God.

As you read through these opening chapters of Genesis, you notice right away that God’s word or speech is prominent. “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” That pattern is repeated numerous times. “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image” is another example. The matter that makes up the universe, starting as a super compressed ball the size of a grain of sand, responded to the Creator’s word.

We note the same response from both Adam and Eve in the early stages of their interaction with God. Both listened and followed the directions they were given. They accepted the sovereignty of the Creator God over themselves and their living. They entered the Garden by saying “Yes” to God’s plan. While they had not received all of God’s revelation, they knew who God was and they knew who they were. They stepped into the relationship because they trusted God.

Adam and Eve’s dependence on God changed when they decided not to trust his word. Remember the Tempter’s approach, “Did God really say not to eat from any tree in the Garden?” The crack in their trusting God began when they considered doubting the truth of what God had said. Remem-ber that of all people in history they knew God was the Creator of heaven and earth and of life itself. There was no reason to doubt.
Restoration to life began when Adam and Eve accepted the covering of skins that God provided for them. Their return to relationship with their Creator became real when they owned up to the sin problem. Yes, their action alone brought about their expulsion from the Garden. They reconnected with God when they reinstated their confidence and trust in what he told them. In taking the skins of clothing, they were recognizing the substitution of animals for their sin. While they could not say they knew everything about God, God’s disclosure of himself could only take place when they placed their confidence in him. That is the only way they or any of us can ever know God—simple trust in what he says.

Trust and Obey
All American currency carries the phrase, “In God We Trust.” That is nice and I’m glad it’s on our money. While it is perhaps symbolic, to me it’s a reminder that the energy and abilities I have to earn a living comes from God. But beyond being a nice phrase, what does it mean for me to say, “I trust in God”? Is there any other way you can tell if I trust in God? We turn again to our experience with Adam and Eve for the answer. It becomes clear that they knew they stopped “trusting in God” when they decided not to obey his word to them. And what was God’s word to them?

“And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ ” (Genesis 2:16, 17). We’ll note in passing that at this point Eve had not yet been created. Adam had to pass the knowledge of that command on to Eve at a later time. What is important is that Adam and Eve knew for sure what God’s desire for them was. He wanted them to rely on him for their knowledge and understanding of what is right. In effect, God was saying: Put your confidence in me; I can be trusted!

In addition, God was telling them you have all the freedom in the world. Just stay on the path I have marked out for you. Adam and Eve challenged God on this one issue of control. Sadly, the first couple decided they were not going to have God running their lives; they wanted exclusive control. They were viewing God’s freedom as a restriction to their living the “good life.” Ultimately, they did not trust God so they did not obey God. Those two go hand in hand: Trust and obey.

We’ll have more to say about how our trust in God is seen in how we obey God. Before we get there, we want to explore what the rest of Scripture has to say about creation and the Creator. What does the Bible say of its importance to understanding God? The creation account is the first thing we read in Scripture. How is creation treated through the rest of Scripture? How important is it to us?