Have you ever considered the words of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who, when told by Moses to let Israel go, responded, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2). As rebellious as Pharaoh was, this was actually a good answer. To Pharaoh, the Lord was an alien god, not part of the Egyptian pantheon. He, literally, did not know him. But, through a series of judgments, God worked miracles against Pharaoh stating, “By this you will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:17). Through his judgments, God took Pharaoh from knowing nothing of the Lord to knowing who he was, though he ended up condemned.
What process have you gone through to come to know the Lord? I’d like to suggest that there are six stages we go through to come to the knowledge of who God is, and specifically, to come to know him intimately. In your Christian experience you should be able to identify where you are on this scale.
Now, I don’t want you to think that this is some gnostic means of gaining some secret knowledge. Not at all. What I’m about to share is nothing more than a helpful description designed to aid us in coming to know the Lord intimately. It is not exhaustive, but it can be helpful.
Here are the six levels of knowledge that we grapple with as we come to know the Lord.
- Theoretical knowledge
- Learned knowledge
- Revelatory knowledge
- Experiential knowledge
- Practical knowledge
- Intimate knowledge
First, a little background. During biblical times, people of the Old Testament had a view of knowledge that was a bit different from ours. “The people of Old Testament times viewed knowledge as a relational understanding of the present based on an experiential understanding of the past.” (1) Most things, to ancient people’s, were an expression or working out of a deity’s will. For Ancient Near East people, whatever happened on earth had a parallel to what happened in the heavens. The two were not as separate as what we think of today. This is very much like African or Asian animism is today. Animism believes that whatever happens in the spiritual realm has a corresponding event in the earthly as well.
In New Testament times, the ancients carried the Ancient Near East ideas forward, but expanded upon them with a different kind of knowledge sourced from the Greeks. “For the Greeks, knowledge was based on reason and philosophy. The most common verb meaning ‘to know’ (οἶδα, oida) in the New Testament literally means ‘to have seen’ and as such is related to the audience’s having experienced something in the past prior to knowing it in the present.” (2) In other words, something could not be known in the present without also having knowing it in the past. The Greeks also believed that true knowledge was that which was reasoned out in the mind, but not necessarily experienced. So, where does this take us biblically?
Biblically speaking there is knowledge we can learn, but there is some knowledge that without the aid of God, can never be attained. This is Revelatory Knowledge. Let me break down the six kinds of knowledge with a little definition to help you understand what the Christian goes through in the development of his knowledge of God.
Theoretical knowledge applies when we speculate about spiritual things but have no true knowledge of them. This includes wondering about the afterlife, if God exists, what God might be like, and so on. Interestingly, the unregenerate person doesn’t usually wonder about knowing God. He usually wonders about going to heaven or some celestial place after he dies. It’s not about God. It’s about himself. It is also the beginning of inquiry. Many people wonder about spiritual things but never move beyond asking questions that seem to them to have no answer.
Learned knowledge is when we begin to research spiritual things, specifically, reading the Bible to learn about God, or come to know other, seemingly, spiritual people and interact with them about what they think are spiritual things.
Revelatory knowledge is the knowledge of God we get when he reveals himself to us. We cannot discover God on our own (Romans 8:8, John 14:6), he must reveal himself to us in order for us to gain knowledge of him (Matthew 16:17). Without revelatory knowledge there is no way anyone can know God personally.
Experiential knowledge comes when we have made a commitment to Christ and begin to apply scripture to our life. We begin to experience God’s love and grow in the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts during the process of revelatory knowledge (John 16:8-11), but as we grow in Christ that conviction continues as the Holy Spirit brings to our minds issues that need addressing, such as sin to repent of or situations where we can express trust in God or share our faith.
Practical knowledge comes as we mature in Christ and discover the practices of the faith and how to live day-by-day in a way that pleases God. This happens over time until we hit the ultimate in knowledge.
Intimate knowledge is to become close to the Lord in our relationship and in the application of scripture. God wants us to know him intimately. This is more than knowing about God. This is knowing God personally. This is when our thoughts, feelings, and actions continually turn toward the Lord, his ways, his word, and his kingdom. Christ becomes first in all things in all we think, feel, and do. This is true love for the Lord.
The key to all of this is right in the middle, Revelatory Knowledge. Many people, having never come to Christ, go through these five other steps (in a general way) if they are interested in what they think are spiritual things. This applies to any religious idea or system: Buddhism, Islam, even atheism. They seek, they learn, they experience what they learn, they apply it practically, and even become intimate or well-educated about it. But without the revelation of Jesus to us by the Holy Spirit, all of this so-called spiritual knowledge is incorrect, wrong. No one gets to God through wrong knowledge. That would be like a stranger knocking on my door asking for Peter. I’m not Peter. He may have made a series of discoveries that led him to my home, but not knowing me correctly means I’m not letting him in the door. So too, God does not let us into his heaven without a right knowledge of who Christ is.
Now, the ultimate goal of this progression of knowledge is the last of the six. God wants us to have intimate knowledge of himself. This is because Christianity is not simply a matter of rules or philosophy. Christianity is a matter of relationship. God not only wants us to know him personally, but to know him intimately. “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24).
Intimate knowledge requires time to know God in a deeper way. “I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning” (I John 2:14). “From the beginning” indicates a long period of time.
Now, where does this take you in your relationship with the Lord? Have you ever thought in terms of Intimate Knowledge of God? For many people who claim to be Christians, this is where they stumble. We study the scripture, but don’t have an intimate knowledge of God. Jesus talked about this when he rebuked the Jewish leaders, saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
All of these types of knowledge are actually tied together. We cannot have an intimate experience with the Lord without Experiential Knowledge or Practical Knowledge. If we think we can, then perhaps we don’t know the Lord at all.
So, where are you on this scale of knowledge? Where do you want to be? What is the Lord convicting you of right now?
(1) (2) Garrett, J. K. (2016). Knowledge. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.