This article is taken from A Passion for Christ: A Devotional Journey into Christlikeness by Ralph I. Tilley. To purchase the book, click on the title in the Books section on this blog.
A PERSON WHO VIEWS GOD as only a curious object to be studied instead of the infinite Father who desires fellowship with each member of the human family thinks it foolhardy when hearing Christians speak of knowing Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son. After all, wasn’t Jesus of Nazareth killed and buried two thousand years ago? How can one know a dead man whom they have never physically met?
Saul of Tarsus must have had a similarly distorted view before his Christ encounter on the Damascus Road (see Acts 9:1-19). However, that one personal revelation of the resurrected, living Christ suddenly transformed the mistaken theology of this radical rabbi, thrusting him into a lifelong quest. He had seen Jesus with his own eyes; he had heard Jesus with his own ears; after that, he aspired to know this One who knew this chief of sinners so well (see Phil. 3:1-11).
In commenting on Paul’s conversion experience and how it propelled him into a single-minded journey to know Christ more fully, biblical scholar F. F. Bruce (1910-1990) wrote, “A relationship of mutual knowledge and love was established there and then between the apostle on earth and his exalted Lord, and to explore the fullness of this relationship was from now on Paul’s inexhaustible joy. For him, in short, life was Christ—to love Christ, to know Christ, to gain Christ.”1
To know Christ in the experiential reality of saving grace and the aspiration to know him intimately and deeply is a key ingredient in cultivating and expressing passionate love for him. The Bible assumes Christ can be known personally and increasingly. Every authentic disciple of the Lord Jesus knows this to be true.
Christ Can Be Known
“I walked in the sunshine with a scholar,” noted evangelical theologian J. I. Packer, “who had effectively forfeited his prospects of academic advancement by clashing with church dignitaries over the gospel of grace. ‘But it doesn’t matter,’ he said at length, ‘for I’ve known God, and they haven’t.’”2 Packer said the man’s remark caused him to do a great deal of thinking; such thinking resulted in his writing Knowing God, a book now considered a classic in its field.
No one, including the greatest of the Church’s saints, has ever been able to fully comprehend God (the finite is incapable of fully comprehending the Infinite). However, the Bible affirms that God can be known—not perfectly, not absolutely, but he can be known experientially by those to whom he reveals himself—to those who cultivate a healthy spiritual appetite for him. “Because God is infinite and we are finite or limited,” writes systematic theologian Wayne Grudem, “we can never fully understand God.” Grudem further explains: “In this sense, God is said to be incomprehensible, where the term incomprehensible is used with an older and less common sense, ‘unable to be fully understood.’” Grudem adds, “This sense must be clearly distinguished from the more common meaning, ‘unable to be understood.’ It is not true to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is true to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively.”3
While God cannot be known exhaustively, in the sense of fully understanding him, he can be known personally. God has chosen through the centuries to grant a limited knowledge to man by revealing himself in several ways: through natural creation, the written Word of God, signs and miracles, and the conscience. However, God’s ultimate revelation of himself culminated in the Incarnation of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14).
In the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son revealed more perfectly what God is like: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side has made him known” (Jn. 1:18). Thus, to see Christ was to see God—in a limited measure to be sure—but the most perfect measure man had ever experienced until that point in history. As the apostle would later write, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). And as Jesus himself once explained to an inquiring disciple who asked to see the Father: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9).
Jesus was God in the flesh. Yet many people saw Jesus during his earthly ministry but never came to know him as the Christ of God. They only saw a man. One of his apostles would later lament this fact: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (Jn. 1:10-11). The prophet and forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist, exclaimed to his hearers one day, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know” (Jn. 1:26). While teaching in the Temple one day, referred to God as his Father. Some unbelieving Jews, upon hearing Jesus’ comments, asked sarcastically, “Where is your Father?” Jesus replied, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (Jn. 8:19). Here Jesus plainly says these people neither knew his Father nor him, yet they were actually in Jesus’ physical presence and saw Jesus with their own eyes and heard him with their own ears.
Clearly, this shows that it was possible to know Jesus as a man but not know him as the Son of God and one’s own Savior and Lord. To know the Lord Jesus to be more than a man, to know him to be the Son of God, and to be one’s personal Lord and Savior requires the revelation of the Spirit. One’s spiritual eyes—inner heart—must receive divine illumination before such knowledge is possible. The Lord Jesus and the apostles affirmed such a truth.4
One of the classic New Testament examples of the necessity for divine revelation in order to know that Jesus was indeed the Christ of God occurs during Jesus’ ministry at Caesarea Philippi. On this occasion, Jesus had asked the disciples who the people were saying he was. The disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt. 16:14). Even so, Jesus desired to know who the disciples themselves believed him to be: “But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Mt. 16:16). Jesus thereupon informed Peter and the other disciples that Peter did not come by such knowledge through human reason but by personal revelation: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 16:17).
Furthermore, Paul writes to the Galatian churches that the revelation of the gospel was uniquely given to him: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). The apostle also prayed for the Ephesian Christians: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17). He then proceeds in the text to elaborate on the specific knowledge he has in mind.
According to Paul, one cannot know Christ without the Holy Spirit revealing Christ. Paul knew this so well. He told the Corinthians, “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer” (2 Cor. 5:16, NASB). Before his Damascus Road revelation, there was a time when the apostle thought of Jesus in merely human terms—“according to the flesh.” However, that all changed for Paul after seeing Christ personally and being illuminated inwardly. He recalls this event in his letter to the Galatians: “But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16, NASB).5
Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ can be known. Do you know him? Not merely intellectually, but personally—from the heart?
Knowing Christ Personally
How is Christ to be known? One way in which Christ can be known personally is as one’s Savior and Lord. Such knowledge is appropriated by faith and given to those who hunger and thirst for a right relationship with God (see Eph. 2:4-10; Mt. 5:6).
God, of course, has taken the initiative in making such knowledge available through the atoning death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and by sending his Holy Spirit into the world to convict sinners of sin, righteousness, and coming judgment (see Rom. 3:21-26; Jn. 16:8). This personal knowledge is not acquired by merely an intellectual assent to prescribed biblical texts or to creedal formulations of cardinal theological statements. The apostle Paul knew this too well before his conversion to Christ and would later write in his Roman letter, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:9-10).
The history of evangelical conversions to Christ records the testimonies of countless individuals who were well-versed in the Bible, knew many of the creeds verbatim, but who, nonetheless, did not know Jesus Christ personally as Savior and Lord until they were able—through the Holy Spirit—to appropriate such knowledge of Christ by the grace of faith. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, is one famous evangelical example of a person who knew a great deal about Christ but did not know Christ experientially for many years.
John Wesley (1703-1791) was born into the home of devout English Anglicans Samuel and Susanna Wesley. His father served as a minister in the Church of England for many years, and his mother gained a reputation for being a very godly woman. The ten Wesley children surviving infancy were raised in a Christian atmosphere where the Scriptures were daily read, and prayers were consistently offered. Because of the parents’ influence on their children’s religious training, and Susana Wesley’s in particular, biographer Skevington Wood says of that England manse, the “Epworth rectory has been rightly epitomized as the cradle of Methodism.”6 Susana Wesley’s instructions were so thorough in preparing John for his first Holy Communion that the father served his son the sacrament at the age of eight.7
Wesley later became a student at Christ Church College, Oxford, at the age of seventeen. In due course, he graduated with Bachelor’s and Master of Arts degrees. He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England at the age of twenty-two, and three years later, he was admitted as a priest. He was elected as a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1726. During this time, what later became known as the “Holy Club” was born. Called such by its antagonists, this small accountability group was formed by its members to encourage one another spiritually and to serve the poor. George Whitefield (1714-1770), who was later to become a renowned international evangelist, eventually joined this fledgling group.
Believing that he should serve God and his church as a missionary in the state of Georgia, Wesley and his brother Charles (1707-1788) sailed to the American colony in the fall of 1735. His brief ministry of approximately two years in this foreign land was a failure, according to his own testimony. In his February 1738 journal entry, Wesley laments his shortcomings:
It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country to teach the Georgian Indian the nature of Christianity: But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why, (what I least of all suspected,) that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God [later editing his Journal, he noted: ‘I am not sure of this’]. ‘I am not mad,’ though I thus speak; but ‘I speak the words of truth and soberness’; if haply some of those who still dream may awake, and see, that as I am, so are they.8
It was not until May 24, 1738, that John Wesley came to an experiential knowledge and assurance that Christ was his Lord and Savior. God used some devout Moravian Christians and Luther’s Commentary on Romans to lead Wesley to an evangelical faith in Christ. In writing about this transformational experience, he entered the following in his diary:
In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.9
What about you, reader? Are you trusting in your religious traditions, good works, or keeping your particular church’s rules for your salvation? Or are you trusting only in Christ and walking in daily fellowship with him? Do you long to know Christ—personally, savingly, intimately, and increasing?
More than a historical figure,
More than a word on paper,
More than a tradition to savor—
I long to know you, O Christ!10
- F. F. Bruce, Philippians, New International Biblical Commentary, Vol. 11 (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989), 114.
- James I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 20.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 149.
- Scholars often distinguish between “revelation” and “illumination” because of a desire not to confuse the uniquely inspired revelation of the written Word of God with the wisdom the Spirit regularly communicates to Christians.
- The NASB translators render εν εμοι literally, as it should be, “in me,” not “to me” as in other versions, such as the ESV. The NIV also renders this as “in me.”
- Skevington Wood, The Burning Heart: John Wesley, Evangelist (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1967), 31.
- Ibid., 33.
- John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., Vol. I, reprint of 1872 edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n. d.), 75
- Ibid., 103.
- By Ralph I. Tilley.