What Does It Mean To “Know God”?

Many are familiar with Jesus’ words at John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (NRSV) What, however, is involved in “knowing God”?

The term “know” in the Scriptures often has a sense beyond the basic meaning of simply having intellectual knowledge of something or someone. Thus The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (vol 2, Page 398) refers to occasions where:

… it expresses a personal relationship between the one who knows and the one known …

Proverbs 3:5-6 urges, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart . . . in all your ways acknowledge him” (NRSV). Here, with many translations, the NRSV renders the Hebrew imperative of yada‘ as “acknowledge.” While such a translation is acceptable, it may not convey to English readers the precise nuance of the Hebrew verb in this context.[1] The verb yada‘ (“to know”) exhibits a wide array of meanings in biblical Hebrew. In various contexts yada‘ and its cognates may denote sense perception, intellectual apprehension, possession of facts and information that can be learned and transmitted, practical skill, discriminating judgment, even physical intimacy. However, when yada‘ has God as its object, it implies far more than simple ‘acknowledgment.’ Nahum Sarna writes:

In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness and mutuality (Exodus, JPS Torah Commentary, p. 5).

Other reference works support this judgment. “To know God,” observes the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, “is to be in right relationship with him, with characteristics of love, trust, respect, and open communication” (II: 313). When yada‘ refers to God, explains another, it denotes an “intensive involvement . . . that exceeds mere cognitive relationship” (Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, s.v. “Yada‘”). Of King Josiah, God said through his prophet: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know me? Yahweh demands?” (Jeremiah 22:15, 16; NRSV; JB)

Such comments clarify the close link in Proverbs 3:5-6 between trusting and knowing God. To “know God” is to have a vital relationship with him, one characterized by faithfulness, and rooted in love, confidence, and profound, enduring regard. Trust and knowledge are integral and inseparable aspects of such a relationship. To “know God” in all one’s ways is to act in a manner that ennobles that relationship, that solidifies it, that promotes its welfare and shows that one cherishes it above all else (cf. 1 Chron 28:9). It is to rely on God, to trust the rightness of his ways and seek to be guided by them in every circumstance. To thus “know God” pleases him (Jer 9:24; 22:16; Hos 6:6; Ps 36:10). Jesus Christ in his earthly life exemplified what it means to know God: “I saw the Lord always before me” (Acts 2:25, NRSV; John 8:29; cf. also the example of Moses—Heb 11:27).

Conversely, while knowing God necessarily includes objective, factual data, one might possess intellectual knowledge of God and his ways, yet still not know him. God through Jeremiah rebuked Israel’s religious leaders: “The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me” (Jer 2:8, NRSV). Certainly the priests and others who ‘handled the law’ recognized God’s existence and power; surely they had intellectual knowledge of God’s law; they likely also publically acknowledged its validity—but they did not know the God who gave it: they neither loved, nor honored, nor trusted God (cf. Jer 4:22; 9:3-6, 23; Hos 5:4-5; 8:1-3). The same was true of some in Jesus’ day (John 7:28-29; 8:15, 19; cf. 5:44). Thus, when Jesus refers to some who would claim to have done many works in his name, and says to them: “I never knew you, go away from me you evildoers” (Matthew 7:23, NRSV), he clearly did not mean that he had no intellectual knowledge of them, otherwise he would not have been able to know that their pretensions of devotion were not genuine, and that they were indeed “evildoers.” His not ‘knowing’ them, therefore, was in the sense of not having been in relationship with them, or as the above dictionary paraphrases his words, “I never had anything to do with you.” Commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:21 and the statement that “Christ knew no sin,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says: “[This] does not mean he had no intellectual knowledge of sin, but rather that Jesus had no personal truck [dealings] with sin.”

In striking contrast, the apostle Paul could say: “I know in whom I have put my trust, and I have no doubt at all that he is able to safeguard until that Day what I have entrusted to him” (2 Tim 1:12, NJB). Paul spoke with such conviction not only because he knew the Scriptures, but because he had entrusted his way to God and thus repeatedly experienced the truthfulness of God and his promises. It is for this reason that he enjoyed such robust confidence in God and his word (2 Cor 4:7; Phil 4:12-13; 2 Tim 4:16-19). He trusted God because he knew God: he experienced God’s friendship, his loving care and his guidance. To “know God” in this way is of inestimable value: established on the unshakeable foundation of the sacrifice of God’s Son, attested and nourished by sacred Scripture, it promises and anticipates the enduring benefits of everlasting fellowship with God and his Son—it is eternal life (John 17:3; cf. Ps 84:10-12; Rom 5:6-8; 14:9; Phil 1:21-23; 3:20-21; 2 Cor 4:18-5:2, 6-8; 1 Tim 6:19).

[1] – Other translations, notably the Stone Edition Tanach, Young’s Literal Translation, the NET Bible (footnote), and that of C.K. Barrett (The Gospel According to John, second ed. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978], 503.), render the imperative (= da‘ehu) “know Him.”


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