A lesson on Knowledge, part of a three-part “Wisdom” series featuring entries on Understanding and Wisdom —
Several years ago, I took a few of my kids to Burr Oak, Iowa to visit a 19th century hotel where the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived and worked. In the hotel, there is a collection of implements and artifacts from that era, one of which was the examination Laura had to pass in order to become a certified teacher. I am an engineer. I know a thing or two about solving problems. But the questions on this exam were impossible–ranging from complex differential equations to territorial legislative processes. I marveled how a farm girl barely in her teens was able to pass this thing. Educational expectations have certainly changed over the past 150 years.
The pursuit of knowledge is no longer a mainstream passion in America. And, instead of being a beacon of light for change, the church has followed suit. If you really want to study the ancient writings of the Old Testament, considering the language structure, references, as well as the cultural, historical, geographical and political contexts, more often than not, you can’t do it in a church. We are uncomfortable with in-depth study, think it too hardcore, too intense, too uninteresting for churchgoers. I know a pastor who, in reference to in-depth Bible study, often quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes–“don’t be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.”
Many churches have become “seeker-friendly”, a place where the Bible message is watered down to the lowest common denominator, relegated to simple messages that anyone can understand. You will more likely watch a video, hear a song, or see a skit in a service than hear expository decomposition of scripture. The sermon you hear will invariably have a three-part application, for application is king in contemporary Christianity.
You will likely be told “large services are for the masses, if you want more dedicated study of the Bible, do that in a small group.” But when you go to the small group, you barely have time to catch up, share prayer requests and get through the announcements. There is little time left to really dive in and discuss the important details–the method, word choice, and theme God is trying to get across in a particular passage. The leader of the small group is doing his best but more often than not is unable to dissect the passage and bring out its meaning and purpose in the 30 minutes allocated for study.
As a result, Christians are becoming weak in their theology. In an article entitled, “The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches” by Ed Stetzler (Christianity Today, July 2015), 1 in 5 churchgoers admit to never reading the Bible at all. In the same article, Stetzler writes:
“Because we don’t read God’s Word, it follows that we don’t know it….the United Kingdom Bible Society surveyed British children and found…almost 1 in 3 didn’t choose the Nativity as part of the Bible and59 percent didn’t know that Jonah being swallowed by the great fish is in the Bible.”
If we are not careful, we will become the early Christians Paul rebuked when he discovered to his surprise that they “still needed milk and not solid food” (1).
This in no way is a criticism of pastors nor church members. Some of the most kind, loving, and devoted people I know are people I have met at church. Pastors have it rough. I am sure they are encouraged by their board members to boil every sermon down to three tangible action items that can be applied later that afternoon. Wrap it up, neat and tidy, with a bow on top. Don’t got too bogged down into details; useless, trivial information that cannot be applied today.
To some degree, it’s good that we are cautious. The pursuit of knowledge can lead to arrogance (2), which the New International Version of the Bible so vividly describes as “puffed up” pride. I think pastors have done a good job warning us of the dangers of such puffiness and have emphasized the pan-essential importance of loving people. We take Paul’s admonition to heart: “…if I have all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing” (3). But we have taken it to an extreme.
Churches that promote commitment to love and service ought to be commended. They are trying to make a difference in the world, following Christ’s mandate to “go…and make disciples…”, trying to combine God’s message of forgiveness with kindness and love. Our world could certainly use more of that. But as we emphasize love through zealous commitment, let us not downplay the importance of knowledge. Knowledge guides us, keeps us on track. It perfects our love and zeal. God Himself is described as a God of knowledge. So it behooves us to not ignore it, but to treasure it, and to allow it to shape our growth to maturity.
Knowledge in Classical Education
My wife and I have run around with different crowds in our 20+ years of parenting, one of the rowdier ones being the dyed-in-the-wool homeschoolers. These folks take education and learning to another level. In the course of rubbing shoulders with these wonderful people, we came across the teachings of Charlotte Mason and her masterful learning philosophy known as the Trivium. The key premise of the Trivium is that there are three stages of learning children need to step through to fully develop their potential. The three stages are:
- Grammar (ages 12 and younger) involving the learning of facts, usually by observation, repetition, and memorization.
- Logic (ages 13 to 15) involving the processing of facts through reasoning.
- Rhetoric (ages 16 and older) involving the mastery of creative and persuasive speech.
The grammar stage sounds laborious and mundane, but it is important because it equips the learner for the more advanced logic and rhetoric stages. Adherents of the Trivium liken the grammar stage to coat pegs lined in a row. The pegs are facts and dates upon which the learner can “hang” new information, establish context, compare and contrast events, and ultimately, draw conclusions.
Charlotte Mason was a genius. But actually, her notion of the Trivium is not a new concept. In fact, it has been around since the beginning of creation. The God of the Bible was the first to establish a three-stage prescription for learning. The three stages are knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
Knowledge, the seeking and acquiring of facts, is the first stage, the essential bottom layer. Understanding builds upon this layer, assimilating, comparing, contrasting, looking for patterns and consequences. Wisdom, the practical application of knowledge, is the upper layer, the beautifully articulated expression of knowledge and understanding–in music, painting, writing, oration, or any other forms of communication and expression. The person who builds on this pattern–knowledge, understanding, and wisdom–is said to be skillful in a particular way, in any given field of occupation.
As an engineer, I am constantly learning facts–new technologies, methods, and products and how we can apply them. I am also learning about my customer’s needs and values, as well as my competitor’s products. Knowing these facts enables me to accentuate the benefits my company brings and show why the customer must buy my product and not the other guys’. In the same way, the painter must learn basic techniques of color tinting, brush stroking, shadowing, perspective and other tools before becoming a Picasso. The seamstress must learn various forms of stitching and the qualities of each before becoming a skilled embroiderer. The jazz musician must learn how to play scales before being able to freelance with the melody while simultaneously expressing his soul in song. In ancient Israel, God appointed skilled artisans to create the tabernacle. Bezalel is identified as a skillful worker whom God personally filled with knowledge in all kinds of craftsmanship such as wood carving, stone cutting, and goldsmithing (4). From this knowledge, Bezalel applied logic and wisdom to masterfully create the tabernacle God had in mind. In all cases, knowledge is the building blocks upon which skilled artists can express and create.
In the same way, Christians wanting to grow to maturity cannot get there without knowledge. By knowledge, I am referring to the knowledge of all things pertaining to God, which I break down into three categories:
Knowledge of God’s Nature
This is the knowledge of God’s character, how He describes Himself, the way He thinks, and what He likes. It is a study that you will never complete for God is infinite, unbounded, not constrained by space or time. He is omnipresent–He cannot be contained by the highest heavens for He fills the heavens and the earth (5). He is omniscient–He knows everything, even your hidden thoughts and motives (6). He is also omnipotent–nothing is too difficult for Him (7). Furthermore, to know God is to know eternal life, as Jesus affirmed the night before His crucifixion (8). Paul and Peter implore their readers to grow in the knowledge of God (9), to assign teachers to teach it (10), to spread it throughout the world (11).
Knowledge of God’s Moral System
This is the knowledge of the way God has established morality in the world; what He defines right and wrong, good and evil. God established the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden at Creation (12), so without excuse this knowledge has always been available to man. This knowledge is not pleasant, for it reminds us of our corrupt, selfish nature (13) and the hopelessness of our situation without God (14). Indeed, God told Adam that if he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he would surely die–not an instantaneous, physical death, but a spiritual loss of joy and hope. But Knowledge of God’s Moral System also says there is forgiveness and restoration of hope for those who acknowledge their sin and seek repentance (15). Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day for not teaching the people about this “key of knowledge” (16)–they laid heavy, legalistic burdens on the people without mercy.
Knowledge of God’s Sovereignty
It is one thing to know that God is omnipotent. It is another thing to know that He can do anything He wants to to influence your life and control your destiny. It is a humbling thing. He holds the universe together (17). He gives life to lifeless beings, and He defies Einstein’s theory of relativity by calling things into being that which does not exist (18). He holds sway over every living being (19). He even controls all people on the earth (20). Knowledge of God’s sovereignty keeps us from relying too much on our own ability and reminds us of our human limitations (21).
The combination of all three of these categories make up when Isaiah refers to as “the knowledge of the Lord” in Isaiah 11:9. There, he is describing a future state, the time of the Millenium when Jesus will physically rule as king. His reign will be characterized by righteousness, peace, and justice. It will be a return to the way things were in the beginning; a time when the entire earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord.
We should be excited about knowing God more. The knowledge of God is mind-blowing, fantastic, and marvelous To grow in knowledge of God is to launch on a journey filled with amazing and endless new discoveries. Instead of questioning your need for knowledge, you should be asking yourself, “why wouldn’t I read, study, and meditate on the infinite knowledge of God?!?”
Can’t Ignore Knowledge
Christians intent on growing in their faith cannot ignore or downplay the importance of knowledge. Knowledge is important to God. In fact, God is proclaimed as a God of knowledge (22). His knowledge is not shallow, but fathoms upon fathoms deep (23). To treat knowledge with contempt is to treat God with contempt. On the other hand, the one who begins to fear God, who inclines his heart to acknowledge His greatness, power, and influence over everything can’t help but discover knowledge (24) for knowledge is inherent in God’s character. If you want to grow in faith, you have to grow in your knowledge of God.
It’s actually not as hard as it sounds, for God makes knowledge inescapably evident to everyone in the world (25). We just forget to notice, or, don’t care to notice. We’re often so busy looking at our handheld devices or listening to the music being pumped into our head through earphones. We should take notice, for suppressing such clear and obvious truths about God sets us on a very dangerous path (26).
To downplay or ignore the pursuit of knowledge is to invite destructive influences into your life. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, identified several types of people in the book of Proverbs: the wise, the malicious, the foolish, and the naive. In the lesson on “Understanding”, we saw that the fool is the one who knows the truth, yet ignores it. In this lesson, we introduce the naive person. One who is naive doesn’t even know the truth at all. He sees no need to acquire knowledge. He is wayward, drifting aimlessly through life being carried here and there by the waves. Naivety sounds harmless, but is in fact quite toxic, rendering you susceptible to anxiety and dread (27).
More than any other people group, the Israelites had seen and experienced God. Their history as a people group began with God and was littered with clear and indisputable indications of God’s intervention and tenderness toward them. Yet, the Israelites fell prey to the inherent, universal desire to be self-sufficient. They became obstinate and stiff-necked, rejecting the knowledge of God. God shows the absurdity of Israel’s rejection, saying, “an ox knows its master…but Israel does not know, My people do not understand” (28). He warns them that exile is the inescapable end that awaits them (29) if they continue, a promise that came true with the dispersion in the time of the Assyrian invasion not long after. Paul says Israel is an example for us, that we might avoid the mistakes they made (30). I pray the church will heed Israel’s example and add to its love and zeal a dynamic embracing of knowledge.
Combine Love and Zeal with Knowledge
The church does well to promote zeal and love, but without knowledge, our zeal and love will lack depth, certainty, and authority. It can even lead us astray.
We celebrate gifted evangelists for their fearless passion and confident ability to preach God’s love, who create colorful metaphors and keep it entertaining. Never mind that the Word of God is not actually read except for a verse here and there. Folks, be careful of discounting the weight and value of good exposition. Even Philip, the guy who had the nickname “evangelist”, was so well-versed in the ancient writings he was able to share the gospel, not from a Four Spiritual Laws tract, but from the richly complex prose of the prophet Isaiah (31).
Paul praised the Philippian church for their demonstrated love. But he did not want them to maintain status quo. He wanted them to grow still more in their love, to abound in it. And notice the way in which they were to grow in love:
“…this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ…” (Philippians 1:9-10)
The Philippians’ growth in love was to be guided by knowledge and discernment. Knowledge channels love in the proper direction. If the Philippians obeyed, Paul says they could ensure the sincerity of their motives and integrity of their actions. Knowledge of God would give them prudence, the ability to see all the good possibilities and choose the most excellent things. Don’t we all want that? In a world of so many good options and causes to choose from, knowledge can show us which ones are the most excellent.
I’m part of a fast-growing and youthful church that is filled with excitement and passion. I am an old geezer, but am invigorated by our worship services and encouraged to see so many young adults and couples engaged and committed to the cause. Some of the sacrifices of these young people cause me to gasp in disbelief. I know several couples who left their jobs, sold their homes, and moved to a strange town to start our church and others like it. Our rally cry is to reach the masses in our city with the good news of Jesus Christ. I have to watch myself–it’s easy to get in the way of such youthful vigor. I need to stand back, let the Spirit move in these passionate young people. I’m not sure they need the advice of an old man. But just in case, here it is: temper your zeal with a healthy pursuit of knowledge. We already saw how knowledge guides love. Knowledge can also guide zeal, and keep us heading down the right track. In Romans 10:1-3, Paul praised his fellow Jews for their religious zeal, but in the next breath, he called out their ignorance of God’s righteousness and demonstrated how their zeal was leading them down a dangerous path of self-reliance. Without knowledge, we will make the same mistake.
Conclusion: Value Knowledge!
No wonder God places so much value on knowledge, advising to take knowledge rather than choice gold (32). No wonder Paul valued knowing Christ more than any great accomplishment (33). No wonder God advises us to boast not in our might, wealth, or wisdom, but in the simple knowledge of God (34).
So, be a seeker of knowledge (35). Start with being a good reader. It has become clear to me that if I want to be good at anything, if I want to be skilled in any particular area, I must read about it first. Then I must process what I read. Meditate on it. Memorize it. Let it simmer in my brain like a good stew.
As you read, seek to be filled by the Holy Spirit who is inherently a source of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge and the fear of the Lord (36)–things we desperately need. Then pray that God would remove barriers–walls and fortresses raised up in your heart and the hearts of others that prevent the knowledge of God (37). Let us all look forward to the day when the whole earth will once again “be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (38)
- Hebrews 5:12-13
- I Corinthians 8:1-2
- I Corinthians 13:2
- Exodus 31:2
- I Kings 8:27
- Psalm 139:1-3
- Jeremiah 32:17
- John 17:3
- Colossians 1:10, II Peter 1:2-3, 3:18
- Ephesians 4:13
- II Corinthians 2:14
- Genesis 2:17
- Romans 3:20
- Ecclesiastes 1:18
- II Timothy 2:25
- Luke 11:52
- Hebrews 1:1-3
- Romans 4:17
- Psalm 50:10-11
- Psalm 24:1
- James 4:13-16
- I Samuel 2:3
- Romans 11:33
- Proverbs 1:7
- Romans 1:19-20
- Romans 1:18, 21-32
- Proverbs 1:32-33
- Isaiah 1:5
- Isaiah 5:13
- I Corinthians 10:6
- Acts 8:26-35
- Proverbs 8:10
- Philippians 3:7-10
- Jeremiah 9:23-24
- Proverbs 18:15
- Isaiah 11:2
- II Corinthians 10:4-5
- Isaiah 11:9