by John Benton
I don’t claim to have achieved much, but this is a subject that has exercised me over years.
And it was particularly impressed upon me last Autumn. I was out in our town helping with some of our church’s street evangelism. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I’m not great at this and I don’t often do it. But as we were there on the High Street giving out invitations to a gospel talk a man stopped. ‘The trouble with you Christians,’ he said ‘is you are so shallow. You trot out this trite gospel. But there’s no depth about your prayers – no sense of the divine about you.’ He went on to talk about being a Buddhist and spending time in Meditation. Well I think his religion is wrong. But did he have a point?
Let me follow that up with some words from Kevin De Young:
‘We would be far less likely to lose our young people and far more likely to win some others if the spiritual temperature of our churches was something other than lukewarm. People need to see that God is the all-consuming reality in our lives. Our sincerity and earnestness in worship matter ten times more than the style we display.’
‘We need passion, a zeal fuelled by knowledge. Young people want to see that our faith actually matters to us. They are like Benjamin Franklin when asked why he was going to hear George Whitefield preach. ‘You don’t even believe what he says,’ people told Franklin. To which he replied, ‘I know. But he does.’ If our evangelical faith is boring to us, it will be boring to others. If the gospel is old news to you, it will be dull news to everyone else.’
‘We cannot pass on what we do not feel. Whitefield blasted the church of his day because ‘the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is because they have dead men to preach to them.’ People don’t need a lecture or an oration or a discussion on Sunday morning. They need to hear the mighty deeds of God. And they need to hear the message from someone who not only understands it but has been captured by it.’ ( This is a quote from Don’t call it a Comeback published by Crossway).
It is the same point as is made by Dr. Lloyd-Jones when he says ‘Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.’
All this prompts us to ask the question, ‘How well do pastors know God?’ There has been a tendency in recent decades to make us into academics rather than men of God. There should not be a tension between those two things, but I suspect we have become those who spend hours and hours with books, and hardly an hour in prayer and devotion. And so the fire goes out. Intimacy with God should serve as the foundation for every aspect of our lives, but especially it should be the foundation and mainspring of our ministry to others.
A charismatic leader from years gone by in our town was David Pawson. He used to say: ‘A man with an experience (of God) will always beat a man who simply has an argument.’ That statement requires some finessing, but there’s truth in it. So, ‘How well do pastors know God?’ I have three headings.
A background to intimacy with God
First, let’s get a Bible overview, a rough Biblical theology of knowing God, of intimacy with God, of God’s dwelling with human beings and men knowing his presence. We will leaf through Scripture in seven swift steps with an eye on the temple motif.
- Adam and Eve dwelt in God’s ‘temple’ of the Garden of Eden
- They are made in God’s image, God spoke to them and they knew him, Genesis 1.26, 27; Genesis 2.7; Genesis 3.8
- But when they fell into sin they were banished from the Garden band God’s glorious presence 3.23, but with a promise of restoration Genesis 3.15; 21.
- Abraham and the Patriarchs know God through his visits
- Though men may not visit God, yet graciously he visits them. Sovereignly God comes to Abraham and promises that through him all nations will be blessed, Genesis 12.3. The LORD appeared to Abraham saying… Gen 15.1
- The Patriarchal period is characterised by God’s visiting various people, Jacob at Bethel in a dream, again at Peniel more substantially, but although the patriarchs build altars in various places there is no permanent dwelling place of God.
- Moses and the tabernacle
- After the exodus God enters into a covenant with Israel and tells Moses to build the tabernacle, Exodus 40.1, God’s dwelling place, his sanctuary among his people.
- Though Moses knows the LORD ‘face to face’ Exodus 33.11 exemplifying intimacy with God and the tabernacle is a permanent dwelling place nevertheless access to God’s presence is only occasional and restricted to the high priest on behalf of the people.
- Solomon and the temple
- Restricted access remains yet God’s dwelling place, now in the Promised Land, is made a more permanent temple under David and Solomon, 1 Kings 6.1. God’s glory fills it, 1 Kings 8.10.
- In the courts of the Lord the joy of the Lord’s presence is known and enjoyed. In the temple Psalm 27.4 the Psalmist longs to gaze upon his beauty; Psalm 84.1-4 – the living God is there.
- But through idolatry and the sin of the nation the presence of the LORD departs from the temple, Ezekiel 10.18 and the Babylonians destroy it.
- Though the temple is rebuilt under Haggai and Zechariah there is no record of the glory f the Lord returning, for the LORD through Jeremiah has promised a new covenant in which all his people will know him personally Jeremiah 31.31-34.
- Jesus and the Incarnation
- In the Lord Jesus, the Lord himself comes to his temple. God is seen on earth, for anyone who has seen the Lord Jesus has seen the Father, John 14.9.
- John is one of those who is able to say ‘we have seen his glory’, John 1.14. Intimacy between God and man is being re-established in the most astonishing way as God becomes man in Christ.
- Jesus and the Spirit
- When Jesus is crucified as the atonement for our sins, the veil of the temple is torn down, Mark 15.38.
- At Pentecost the Spirit of God comes to fill his new temple. The church and the bodies of believers provide that new temple. God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, 1 Corinthians 3.16; 619 in new covenant realty.
- We know God in reality as we are born again through the word of God and filled with God’s Spirit. We are brought near Ephesians 2.13.
- But our present experience of God is that of ‘already but not yet’ and will be transformed when Christ returns, ‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face,’ 1 Corinthians 13.12
- Heaven and the Parousia
- Believers who die in Christ in this time go to be with Christ ‘which is better by far’ Philippians 1.23
- Of the new heavens and new earth which Jesus brings we are told, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will be with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’ Revelation 21.3 See his face.
To know God is the essence of salvation, John 17.3 and we have scanned this thumbnail sketch of knowing God through Biblical history.
But with that 1 Corinthians 13 reference in mind we need to locate ourselves on that time-line and recognize that our present knowledge of the Lord is partial. We do know him but not yet know him ‘face to face.’ We are not yet ‘with Christ’ as are those who die in the Lord and go to that state which is ‘better by far.’ So when our Buddhist friend challenges us and we ask about how well pastors know God we must accept limitations. We must not pretend to claims which are unbalanced. And yet, of course, there ought to be a power about us, a sense of God’s presence with us.
It is perhaps worth highlighting at this point some components of knowing God.
Knowing God does include an informative element We know about him. We value the truth about God which comes to us through Scripture. There is no true knowledge of someone unless we know about them.
Knowing God also includes a cognitive element We know him, not just know about him. In the words of Whitefield, we should have a relationship with Christ we can ‘feel’. It is partial, but real. We are able, through the work of the Spirit, to contemplate the Lord’s glory, 2 Corinthians 3.18.
Knowing God also includes a transformative element Going along with that contemplating of the Lord’s glory, inevitably there is a ‘being transformed into his likeness.’ Paul wants to know him and to become like him, Philippians 3.10. And without that transformative element we have not really ‘seen him’ 1 John 2.4.
How well do pastors know God? Our people need pastors who know God. They need men who are ‘men of God.’
A promise of intimacy with God
In that new covenant context of ‘knowing God’ then let’s look at one of Christ’s promises concerning intimacy with God, intimacy with himself.
Jesus promises, ‘Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.’ John 14.21.
There are arguments for the phrase ‘show myself to him’ in this verse as referring to resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples. I don’t dispute that these may possibly be included here, but it seems to me that what Jesus refers to here must include more. But I do not think that the resurrection is the primary reference. Why?
First, the fact that his manifestation is linked to obedience in this verse. The disciples can hardly be spoken of as being in an ‘obedient’ condition when it came to resurrection appearances. They were actually in a shambles.
Second, v21 is very much in the context of the sending of the Spirit v16. The Spirit is ‘Another Comforter’ like Jesus, and will be ‘alongside’ them – parakletos, lives with them, v17 and will be in them.
Third, that v21 is linked both by proximity and the flow of the conversation to the indwelling of the Father and the Son in v23.
Fourth, it seems Jesus speaking of more than resurrection appearances because v21 and v23 are in terms of ‘Whoever’ and ‘Anyone’ and so would seem to have a wider reference than to just the apostles. So I take this as speaking of Whitefield’s ‘felt Christ’.
Now this gives us the vital key to intimacy with Christ – and of course this is nothing new to us. We see in v21 love, showing myself and obedience tied thoroughly together. And that leads us to the straightforward challenge that knowledge of God comes through obedience.
Notice, that intimacy with God does not come primarily through prayer (though of course I do not want to dismiss the importance of prayer) but obedience. There is the challenge.
Let’s just clarify. Don Carson says in his Pillar Commentary on John, ‘The idea is not that the believer initiates this relation of love by demonstrating obedience, and that Jesus and his Father simply respond. After all, the Fourth Gospel repeatedly makes it clear that the initiative in the relationship between Jesus and his followers finally lies with Jesus (6.70; 15.16) or with his Father (6.37; 10.29). The idea, rather, is that the ongoing relationship between Jesus and his disciples is characterised by obedience on their part, and thus is logically conditioned by it. They love and obey Jesus, and he loves them, in exactly the same way that he loves and obeys the Father, and the Father loves him. Moreover, as the Father in function of his love for the Son shows him all things (3.35; 5.20), so the Son in function of his love for his disciples says ‘I will …show myself’ to them. The groundwork is being laid for the ‘oneness’ between Jesus and his disciples that mirrors the oneness between Jesus and his heavenly Father, a theme developed in John 17.’ (page 503).
So it’s not that obedience merits Christ’s showing himself, it is of grace – but a relationship with God necessarily involves obedience, because he is God.
The way I like to sum up the challenge of v21 is like this: Information is turned to intimacy through loving obedience. There’s the challenge to us. Information (Jesus commands) is turned to intimacy (‘I will show myself’) as we obey Christ out of love for him. That’s the great promise of closeness to the Lord. And of course, this is just one NT expression of one of the great themes of Scripture ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’ (cf. James 4.8). And it is as God draws near that we know reality, depth in our faith and fire in preaching.
Let’s face a 9 practical questions to encourage and challenge us.
- Do you long for intimacy with God? Psalm 42.1. A good appetite is usually a sign of a healthy person. Do we love Christ? Do we thirst, have an appetite for God?
- How would you describe your relationship with God? If a non-Christian, like my Buddhist acquaintance, asked you to commend your experience of God what could you say?
- Do you believe, in the light of the gospel, that God wants to know you and to be known by you? Does that prospect excite you? Is your perception of God who loves you or merely tolerates you?
- Do you recognise besetting sins in your life? If intimacy with God is dependent on obedience what are you doing to address those besetting sins? Or have you just made peace with the idols that feed those sins?
- If ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’ (Thomas Chalmers) describes the Biblical pattern of sanctification, how much does lack of knowing God and therefore more deeply loving God make you vulnerable to sin?
- Do we preach the gospel to ourselves when our spiritual life is flat, in order to stir up again our love for Christ? Or do we just soldier on grimly?
- How would you describe your obedience to Christ? Do you read the Bible to get a sermon or to find out how to be obedient and put it into practice? Preachers are vulnerable to being the foolish builders in Jesus’ parable who hear but do not do his word.
- If obedience is the key to intimacy, how far are we willing to change our lives that we might know God better? How far for our own good and good of our people?
- Do you realise it is possible for you to be a great preacher, because through intimacy with Christ you can preach from a heart filled with Christ and, in Whitefield’s words, ‘ what comes from the heart will go to the heart.’
A test of intimacy with God
Let’s flip over now to 2 Timothy 3. Here we have Paul’s counsel to Timothy concerning ministry amid the ‘terrible times’ of the last days. We believe ‘the last days’ includes the whole period between Christ’s first and second comings, and it certainly describes the situation for ministry in the modern West.
Verses 1-5 give a vivid picture of the last days. They begin seemingly talking about society at large v2a, people will be lovers of themselves, but end by apparently describing the false church, where people are ‘lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’v5a. One runs into the other, it is difficult to make a distinction. The frightening thing is that it seems therefore possible to be a Bible teacher and yet be proud, ungrateful, unholy, unforgiving etc.
Notice first, the dominant characteristic of both society and the false church is lack of proper love, in particular lack of love for God, v3a, v3c, v4c. This is what we’ve just been talking about.
Notice second, as Paul goes on to describe false teachers, he likens the false teachers to Jannes and Jambres the opponents of Moses in Pharaoh’s court, and the implication seems to be therefore that the true gospel minister, in some way parallels Moses, the ‘man of God’. Moses was the man who was intimate with God. And it seems meaningful that Paul uses that ‘man of God’ description at the end, 3.17.How can we possibly compare to Moses? Scripture is the great resource, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work, v16, 17. But it goes without saying that Paul has in mind here not just a knowledge of Scripture, but an obedience to it as the word of God.
In contrast to ‘last days’ society and the false church we are to love God, and to know God, to be ‘men of God’. But what does that look like? What’s the test? What’s the litmus indicator of what kind of men we are? The turning point of the chapter is v10. Paul directs Timothy to himself.
In contrast to all the superficial, godless, false, destructive lifestyles you see around you, ‘You however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings…’v10, 11a.
‘If you have a real love for God, and truly know God, you will look like me’, says Paul. If you want to shape up as a man of God then follow my example, says Paul.
That phrase ‘know all about’ at the beginning of v10 is rather under-translated in the NIV. It is better rendered ‘closely followed’ or ‘fully investigated’. It’s the same word that is used by Luke in Luke 1.3 to describe his research into the history of the Lord Jesus. It can also be thought of not just as ‘closely followed’ but ‘steeped myself in’. It is like a tea bag immersed! So if you would be a man of God, a man who truly knows God in the last days, closely follow, steep yourself in Paul.
He sets before us a 9-fold description (rather like the 9-fold fruit of the Spirit) in those verses 10 and 11. But these are the marks of a godly minister a pastor who truly knows God.
These 9 characteristics can be grouped in three sets of three:
The Ministry of the gospel – teaching, way of life, purpose.
First there is Paul’s teaching. It is the ‘whole counsel of God’, all Scripture. But it is not just what we teach but how we teach. I came across this quotation from the autobiography of an ex-slave named Gustavus Vassa, who attended one of Whitefield’s services. Vassa states how he viewed Whitefield as a pious man but that Whitefield preached with “earnestness, and sweating as much as I ever did while in slavery. I was much struck and impressed with this; I thought it strange I had never seen divines exert themselves in this manner.”.’ I think Paul too would have been an earnest teacher.
But notice the ministry is not just teaching. There is a radical wholeness, a unity about all of a ‘man of God’s’ life. His ministry is teaching, way of life and purpose – a whole package. He teaches God’s word but he lives it out so as to be an example to others. That word translated ‘way of life’ has built into it the idea of ‘leading others’ (it is related to the word ‘swayed’ or ‘led away’ in v6). A life which makes others think ‘I want to be like him!’
And purpose – Paul’s purpose of course is to know Christ and glorify him, Philippians 3.10. Ann and I were watching the old film ‘Dr. Zhivago’ recently – a love story set against the background of the 1917 Russian Revolution. And there you are confronted with the dedication of those early Communists in the person of Strelnikov. Only one thing mattered – the Revolution, not their own personal ambitions or feelings. We are meant to be God’s revolutionaries. The ministry is not just my job, my career, it is my life, my everything! And not to my glory but the glory of Christ.
Here’s the litmus test – how well do you know God? Is your ministry for Christ your everything – not to the detriment of family life or friendships – but all those things handled in such a way as to serve the one great purpose – knowing Christ and serving him.
The Life of Faith – faith, patience (longsuffering), love
These three words of course reflect the three classic Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Why are we patient? It is because we have hope. And we ought to just distinguish between the word ‘patient’ here and the seventh word in Paul’s list ‘endurance’. Both can be translated ‘patient.’ What’s the difference between them? According to Trench, John Chrysostom distinguishes them as the first being patient in the sense of persevering with something which is proving difficult but you could give up on, whereas the second is being patient with circumstances over which you have no choice.
But it is out of this inner life of the heart of faith, hope and love. And it is out of this heart (at the heart of the nine) that Paul conducts his ministry and lives as a ‘man of God.’
Where are faith, hope and love nurtured? They are nurtured in the presence of God – in the hidden life of waiting upon God. This is where loving obedience springs from. If we really are concerned to be men of God, people who really believe in God in a secular age, then we will prioritise speaking to God, waiting upon God, Psalm 27.14. And nowhere is that dedication to the establishing of the kingdom of God seen more clearly than in Paul’s commitment to prayer. ‘You know my life’ he says to Timothy. Timothy had lived cheek by jowel with Paul. He would have known those times when Paul slipped away to attend to his prayers. In every letter of Paul he explains how he is praying for people. In Acts 6 how do the apostles sum up their ministry? They say ‘We will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’. Notice which one comes first.
Richard Bewes writes in an introduction to one of the reprints of E. M. Bounds books: ‘The work of God cannot be undertaken without prevailing intercessory prayer. Indeed we must go further and insist that prayer actually is the work.’ If Richard Bewes is right many of us are hardly working at all. No wonder my Buddhist contact concluded that so much Christianity is superficial!
How well do pastors know God? How much time do they spend looking to him? It is out of this inner life, nurtured by gazing at the Lord, that a powerful ministry flows. Faith to believe that with God nothing is impossible. Patience to persevere with a work for God, which is proving difficult which you could walk away from. Love sparked by the love God has shown for you in Christ which is reflected back to God and overflows in love for others.
Here’s the litmus test How well do I know God? If you know him well you won’t give in to the ‘tyranny of the urgent’. Spending time with God will be a closely guarded area of your life – with barbed wire fences, soldiers and dogs on patrol around it – to stop the urgent driving out the important – and to stop frantic Martha coming in and leading you away from Jesus’ feet.
The Reality of Suffering – endurance, persecutions, sufferings
Having directed us to the character of his ministry and the quality of his inner, spiritual life, which makes him a ‘man of God’ he now shows us the reality of suffering, the inevitable reaction to the ‘man of God’ by a godless world.
If Chrysostom is right about the distinction between the two words for ‘patience’ this second, ‘endurance’ means that suffering is inevitable for the ‘man of God’. Indeed Paul underlines that in v12. ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ The only way a man of God can avoid suffering in a godless world is by not being a man of God, not doing what he is actually called to do.
The word ‘persecution’ here is used in the New Testament of persecutions which are exclusively for religious reasons (Acts 8.1; Acts 27.13). The word ‘sufferings’ (always plural) reflects more general sufferings which Christians get caught up in simply, for example, because they are in many places the bottom of the pile in society.
You don’t need me to tell you that as our nation changes and the PC World of political correctness takes over, the reality of suffering for being a faithful Christian in the UK has increased and will increase. North Korea has been at the top of the World Watch list of countries for the worst persecution of Christians for the last 10 years.
I came across this quote from a North Korean describing a Christian friend who was imprisoned for owning a Bible: ‘When he came to faith, he made a decision that one day he would die for Christ. Every Christian in North Korea has made that choice. Every Christian in my country has the spirit of martyrdom in him.’ Looking at those words ‘You know…my endurance, persecutions, sufferings’ v11a it is clear Paul had made that decision. Have you and I? It sounds shocking to begin with, but listen, what better way is there to die – should the Lord will? To die, not just of some disease or old age, but to die in the service of God. That’s Paul’s desire, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,’ Philippians 3.10.
Here’s the litmus test. How well do we know God? Can we put our very lives at God’s disposal and say to him, ‘Lord, if it is your will, I would love to die in such a way as to positively serve the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ.’
How well do we know God? A ministry for Christ which is your everything. A life of faith which shows itself in obedience and deep communion with God A willingness to suffer and even to die for the cause of Christ.
Such pastors know God and preach with the fire of God. There is something of a sense of God about them. Our churches need pastors like this!