My daughters Hannah and Katy asked me the other day, 'How did you get to know Mummy?' They asked because we were in Cambridge, standing outside the church where Vivienne and I met. I said that I already knew Vivienne – who she was, at least - through the Christian Union, but that our friendship didn't begin until we started talking to each other that day in church. From then on we knew each other as friends. A year or so later, we got engaged. By then we knew each other well and our commitment to each other was deep. About a year after that, we were married. Now that we've shared over twenty years of life and been through a lot together, I know Vivienne a great deal better even than I did when we were married, and she knows me better. I told Hannah and Katy the story of meeting Vivienne in that pew, and they were fascinated. Ben was just bored. Apparently I tell the same story every time we go to Cambridge.
It is possible to know about someone without knowing them personally. And even when you do know someone very well, you can still get to know them a great deal better. If you're married, it's important that you keep learning about each other.
The same is true of God. We can know about him but not know him. And even if we do know him, we need to know him more. The church is, at is were, engaged to the Lord Jesus. The day will come when the church is presented to him as a bride to her bridegroom. And that relationship that we have with God through Jesus is at the very heart of the reason for our existence. As the Shorter Westminster Catechism puts it, the purpose of our lives is 'to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.'
This morning we start a new series called 'Knowing God', and that's my title. The passage I want us to look at is Colossians 1.1-14, so please find that.
I want to ask two questions and see what answers there are in what the apostle Paul is saying here to the young and spiritually beleaguered church in Colosse. The first question is simply 'How can we know God?', and the second is 'How can we grow in the knowledge of God?'
These were urgent questions for those Colossian Christians as they are for all of us. The reason they were beleaguered and under spiritual attack was that they were getting some seriously conflicting teaching on how they could know God. What Paul and his team were telling them was being undermined by other teachers. And Paul was worried that they would be deceived and lose their way and in the end lose sight of God altogether.
At the beginning of chapter 2 he tells them what all the struggle of his ministry is for. In 2.1 he says that he has in mind, I quote, 'all who have not met me personally' – and I take it that we can apply that to ourselves. So he says (v 2):
My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no-one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.
He wants them to know God and not be deceived. So:
First, HOW CAN WE KNOW GOD?
Some people will tell you that you can't know God because he/she or it is a mystery, hidden from our eyes, utterly unknowable. But Paul says he wants us to know 'the mystery of God, namely Christ.' In other words the mystery is a mystery no longer. The invisible God has made himself known. The secret is out. We can know God because of Jesus.
It is obvious from Colossians 1.1-14 that the key to knowing God is Jesus Christ. These verses are saturated in Jesus. Take verse 3 as an example:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus…
Who is Paul praying to? God! Yes, but who is God? Most people think they have some idea about who God is. They pick up vague notions from here and there. They listen to what one religion or another is telling them. So it's no good just talking about 'God'. We need to know who God really is. And Paul tells us: God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the one who reveals God to us. When we look at him, we see God. When we see how he lives, we see what God is like. So when Philip said to Jesus "Lord, show us the Father…," Jesus responded: "Don't you know me Philip…? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…" (That's John 14.8-11.)
We've been playing Cluedo in our house since Christmas. Never mind the details, but you have to try and work out the mystery identity of a murderer (Mrs Peacock, Reverend Green – whoever it is.) I haven't managed it once yet – and that's with a 1-in-8 chance just by sheer guesswork. A card with the murderer's picture is hidden in an envelope. You can pick up hints and clues as the game progresses, but you can't be sure who it is until that card is taken out of the envelope and you can see it for yourself. Then the mystery is a mystery no longer.
When Jesus came, lived, taught, died and rose again it was as if the card was taken out of the envelope – and there is God before our eyes.
Many people will tell you about God. But God has made himself known. You can look for yourself. We can know God because of Jesus.
Now I say that you can look for yourself, but of course you can't see him with your eyes. You could have if you'd been there, and one day you will because he's promised to return and then everyone will see him. But for now you can't. So how can you look for yourself? By reading. Because God has spoken, and what he has said is here in this book. We can know God because God has spoken.
Paul says he thanks God for the love and the faith in Christ that the Colossian Christians have (v 5)…
… that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.
God has revealed himself in his Son Jesus, and he has told us all about Jesus and what he's done for us in the gospel – the word of truth. That's what the gospel is: God's message about Jesus. So we get to know God by listening to the gospel. And how does the gospel come to us?
Well, first of all, through God's chosen messengers: the apostles. In 1.1 Paul opens his letter with these words:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God…
In other words he's reminding them that God chose him, gave him his message about Jesus, and sent him out to tell it to others. So when we read Paul (and come to that the teaching of the other apostles in the pages of the New Testament) we are listening to the voice of God himself through his messengers.
How can we know God? Listen to Paul and the rest of the New Testament, and you'll get to know Jesus. Get to know Jesus and you're getting to know God.
But there's a further way the gospel comes to us. It comes through other faithful Christians. Look at verse 7:
You learned it [that is, the gospel] from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf…
When we listen to Christians who faithfully relate what the apostles teach about Jesus, then we get to know Jesus and we get to know God.
So we can know God because of Jesus; we can know God because he has spoken. But there is something else that needs to be said and it is this: we can know God by faith.
This is if you like where the personal encounter happens. It is not enough simply to find out about God by finding out about Jesus. You have to relate to him personally. You have to enter into a relationship with him. God is a living God, and his Son Jesus, though he died, is alive today and he calls us to him through the gospel. He wants us to seek his forgiveness and to entrust the whole of our lives to him and to begin to relate to him day by day by faith.
I could never have got engaged to Vivienne just by listening to her friends talking about her. I had first to get to know her personally and become her friend. So it is with God. And 'faith' is the word that describes our personal response to God as we put our trust in Jesus.
That faith is a matter of taking hold of the gospel. At the end of verse 6 Paul says '… you heard [the gospel] and understood God's grace in all its truth'. Faith grasps hold of the gospel and takes on board all its implications for our lives.
So to have faith is certainly something that we do, but it is in fact God's initiative in our lives. It is his gift to us. Even a marriage relationship is two way. It requires an answering positive response from the other party. It isn't just down to me. With God in the end the whole thing depends on him. That's why Paul says in verse 3 and 4:
We always thank God… because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus.
We believe because God opens our hearts to himself and enables us to return his love. It is his initiative.
And faith is not just a matter of the mind but of the heart as well. There is no true faith without love, both for God and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. So Paul thanks God for their 'faith and love' (verse 5). And this love is 'in the Spirit' he adds in verse 8. Faith involves the whole of our being and we find that our lives are lived in by the Holy Spirit.
So here's a direct question for each one of us: do you know God?
If your idea of what God is like isn't Jesus-shaped, then you're on the wrong track. That's not the true and living God you've got an image of in your mind. Chuck it out and take a look at Jesus.
And if you know about Jesus because you've been reading the Bible, but you don't know him personally because you've not put your trust him – you've not let him take over the driving seat of your life – then you no more know God than I know George 'Dubya' Bush. But you need to know him. So isn't today a good day to put your faith in him? Do it. Just talk to him. Tell him you want to know him. Tell him you believe in Jesus. And then this will be the most significant new year of your life. Don't put it off any longer.
But what about those of us who have got to know God personally through faith in Jesus? That is no more the end of the story than the day I got engaged to Vivienne was the end of the story of our relationship. So on to my second question:
Secondly, HOW CAN WE GROW IN OUR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD?
Paul wants the Colossians believers to get to know God better and better. He prays that they'll have wisdom and understanding. What for? Look at verse 10:
And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God…
Growing in the knowledge of God: that sums up what our lives are all about. That is our unspeakably great glory and privilege: by the grace and mercy of God we're able to grow in our knowledge of him. Surely that is the supreme aim of our lives. Nothing else could come close. Compare that to 'acquiring a Porsche', or 'getting a promotion', or even 'having a good family life'. Anything else looks tawdry or puny in comparison with knowing God.
Let the supreme aim of our lives be to grow in our knowledge of God. Then all of our subsidiary aims will fall into place. If they're just plain wrong, then we can drop them from our 'to do' list altogether. If they mesh in with God's plans for us then we'll get them in proper perspective. But always at the centre of our concerns will be a hunger to know God in Christ better and better.
So Paul wants us who are believers in Jesus to keep growing in our knowledge of God. How then does he envisage that happening? Here are four ways.
First, we will grow in our knowledge of God in answer to prayer. Verse 9:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will …
… and so on, in order that you may grow in the knowledge of God. Getting to know God is never so much us finding out about him as God teaching us more of himself. So we have to ask him. That's hardly surprising is it? Prayer, after all, is talking to God. And that communication is pretty key to our relationship.
Vivienne tells me that it's rather important that I talk to her. It's amazing how easily I forget that. But how much more should we be talking to God in order to deepen our relationship with him. So ask him to help you get to know him better. Ask other people to ask him to help you. And you ask him to help others grow in the same way. We're in this together and God wants to involve us in one another's spiritual growth. So pray.
Secondly, we will grow in our knowledge of God by understanding the gospel.
Don't imagine that the gospel is basic training and that once we've got that behind us we move on to higher things. The gospel is the pinnacle of all knowledge, and we never exhaust it's riches (if I might mix my metaphors). The more we live with the great truths of the gospel, and meditate on them, and rejoice in them and are grateful for them, the closer we will grow to Jesus who is the centre of the gospel. So verses 12 to 14 here are just reminding them again of the gospel they have begun to know so well. Verse 14:
… in [Jesus] we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Continually think about Jesus and all that he's done. So pray; and meditate on the gospel.
Thirdly, we will grow in the knowledge of God through a life of faithful discipleship.
There is no knowledge of God without a life lived in his service. And that requires endurance, and obedience to his will, and a desire to please him. That's why growing in the knowledge of God is linked up here in verse 10 with living a life worthy of the Lord and bearing fruit in every good work. If you want a deeper relationship with God, then don't just read books of theology. Cut out of your life the things that you know displease him. And look for ways to serve him. Live for him. Pray; meditate on the gospel; live for Christ.
Fourthly, we will grow in the knowledge of God by the working of God's astounding power within us by his Spirit.
So in verse 11 Paul prays that they will be growing in the knowledge of God…
… being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father…
It's God's work. It's his plan that we will know him more and more in Christ. He is unleashing all his almighty and glorious power to make sure it happens. And if that's not a cause for rejoicing, I don't know what is.
So, how will we grow in the knowledge of God? It will be in answer to prayer; by understanding the gospel; through a life of committed discipleship; and by the power of God himself.
The church is the bride of Christ. Collectively, if we are believers, we are engaged to him. By his grace we already know him. But there is so much more to know! What is our supreme concern for 2002? Let's make sure it's that we grow in our knowledge of God.