“This is what it means to know the Lord” (Jeremiah 22:16). The subject of “knowing God” is a thread that runs throughout the Bible. The climax of this theme occurs in the conversation Jesus had with his disciples the night before he died. “This is eternal life, to know you…” (John 17:3). The “eternal life” Jesus refers to does not emphasize a length of time, but rather a quality of the experience. Knowing God involves trusting him and knowing the truth about his character; it involves intimacy and friendship.
The emphasis of “knowing God” is usually understood as something that happens primarily between us and God. It is personal and is not described in terms of how it involves those around us. We were surprised recently to “discover” this passage in Jeremiah 22 which significantly broadens the parameters of what it means to know God. The context is a detailed account of the sins of Jehoiakim in contrast to his father Josiah:
“Doomed is the one who builds his house by injustice and enlarges it by dishonesty; who makes his people work for nothing and does not pay their wages. Doomed is the one who says, ‘I will build myself a mansion with spacious rooms upstairs.’ So he puts windows in his house, panels it with cedar, and paints it red. Does it make you a better king if you build houses of cedar, finer than those of others? Your father (Josiah) enjoyed a full life. He was always just and fair, and he prospered in everything he did. He gave the poor a fair trial, and all went well with him. This is what it means to know the LORD. But you can only see your selfish interests; you kill the innocent and violently oppress your people. The LORD has spoken” (Jeremiah 22:13-17).
Knowing God in this passage describes how we treat those around us. Jehoiakim violently oppressed the poor, exploited the people for his own economic advantage, and his courts were dishonest. In contrast to this, his father Josiah is described as knowing God by not doing any of those things.
Knowing God then involves more than our understanding of God’s character and our relationship with him. How we treat others is a central part of knowing God because, from God’s perspective, there is no distinction between our relationship with him and our treatment of others. For example, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us…as we forgive others…” (Matthew 6:12). He also told them, “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others” (Matthew 7:1). Does this mean that if we forgive others and refuse to judge them that only then God will extend forgiveness to us and not judge us? Do we “earn” a right to be forgiven by God if we forgive others? Do we “earn” a right not to be judged by God if we refuse to judge others?
Our difficulty in understanding passages like this is that we have a tendency to separate into different categories our relationship with God from our relationship with others. The bible, however, describes this as a holistic process that cannot be separated. As we experience forgiveness and God’s non-judgmental attitude to us, the only healthy response is to extend that same forgiveness and non-judgmental attitude toward others.
“Eternal life is to know God” in the person of Jesus Christ. This knowing relationship involves internalizing the radical nature of God’s love for us. It changes us as a natural process and we extend that same love to those around us.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7,8).
Love for others in this passage is one and the same as knowing God. John is also saying that love for others is not possible without knowing God. The two must work together.
Books, seminars, and discussions about God’s character are important because they open eyes to the goodness of God and facilitate “knowing God” at least to some extent. We should not forget, however, that an intellectual understanding of God’s love is not the end-all. As we receive God’s loving character, we must share that love to others. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).