A version of this article was first printed in the June 2015 edition of The Melbourne Anglican
Ridley College hosted a conference on the theme of being known by God, 29-30 May. The conference was jointly sponsored with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston, USA. The two institutions share an historic link, with Stuart Barton Babbage being the fourth principal of Ridley and the first vice president of Gordon-Conwell. At the conference, being known by God was explored and expounded from biblical, theological as well as practical angles. The following article by Ridley College Principal Rev Dr Brian Rosner offers an introduction to this rich and edifying theme.
The ‘Cinderella of Theology’
No one would deny the centrality of knowing God to biblical theology. Yet few treatments of the doctrines of God and salvation acknowledge that, as with every relationship, the knowledge of God has two sides: believers know God and are also known by him. Whereas knowing God is the focus of countless academic and popular books and articles, being known by God has been sorely neglected.
At first blush the Bible seems to justify this state of affairs. Compared with knowing God, the Bible speaks explicitly of God knowing human beings only rarely, less than twenty in comparison with several hundred.
Interest in God’s factual knowledge, his omniscience, tends to overshadow his personal knowledge. That God knows everything about everyone at all times is a given in the Bible and in Christian theology. God knows our ways, days, thoughts, the secrets of our hearts and so on. As 1 John 3:20 puts it: “he knows everything.” If, to use the language of 2 Corinthians 5:11, God’s omniscience means that what we are is known to God, God’s relational knowledge means that who we are is known to God. Whereas some languages use different verbs for knowing someone and knowing something, Hebrew and Greek generally do not, and being known about can get mixed up with being known. To make matters worse, English Bibles often obscure the theme of being known by God by translating such sentiments as God choosing or caring for someone.
However, references to being known by God typically appear at critical points in the biblical narrative: in the Old Testament, Abraham (Gen. 18:19), Moses (Exod. 33:12), David (2 Sam. 7:20), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) and the nation Israel (Amos 3:2; Hos. 13:5) are all known by God; and in the New Testament being known by God defines Christian existence (Gal. 4:8-9; 1 Cor. 8:3), is a criterion of the last judgement (Matt. 7:23 [‘I never knew you’]; 25:12; cf. Luke 13:27) and is a measure of eschatological glory (1 Cor. 13:12 [‘then I shall know, even as I have been fully known’]).
J.I. Packer, the author of the best-selling Knowing God, recognized its critical importance: “What matters supremely is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it – the fact that He knows me.” Being known by God is the ‘Cinderella of Theology.’ There are good reasons to move being known by God from the fireplace cinders to the place of honour at the Ball.
So what does it mean to be known by God? And what is the pastoral function of this doctrine?
Known by God as his child
Since, as we shall see, being known by God is such an intimate and emotive concept, it is capable of varied and flexible application. We should not necessarily expect a neat and even definition that fits every instance. There are three overlapping meanings in the Bible.
First, being known by God is to belong to God. In the most general sense to be known by God signals God’s ownership of an individual or group. In the Old Testament, in Numbers 16:1-35, during the story of the rebellion of Korah and his followers, Moses explains that God will effect a separation that will end the revolt. The first criterion of judgement mentioned is in verse 5: “God knows those who belong to him’. This affirmation is quoted in 2 Timothy 2:19: “the Lord knows those who are his.”
Secondly, being known by God is to be chosen by him. The link between being known by God and divine election is introduced in the first explicit reference to God’s relational knowledge in the Bible. In Genesis 18:19, in connection with the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promise, God explains his grand plans for the patriarch with the words, “for I have known him.” That God’s choice of Abraham is in view is clear from other numerous references in Genesis pertaining to election and the covenant. In Genesis 12:1ff., for instance, God’s promise to Abraham is to make him into a great nation, to bless him, to make his name great and so on, in distinction from blessing someone else. Accordingly, most English Bibles translate Genesis 18:19 as “for I have chosen him.”
In the New Testament, in the context of the historical outworking of the electing love of God, the apostle Paul affirms in Romans 8:29 that “those God foreknew he also predestined.” As a synonym for election in this verse, God’s foreknowledge refers to the setting of his eternal love upon those who love God and are called according to his purpose. And being known here carries the sense of intimate relationship, as in the famous euphemism for sexual intercourse in Genesis 4:1, “Adam knew Eve.”
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, being known by God is to be a child of God. As it turns out, the theme of God adopting us as his children through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5) is closely associated with being known by God. In Romans 8:29 the purpose of our being known by God is “to be conformed to the likeness of God’s Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” And Galatians 4:8-9, where Paul says that believers in Christ are known by God, is set in the context of being children of God and believers crying out. “Abba, Father” (Galatians 3:26; 4:6).
Compared with the first two definitions, understanding being known by God as a parent knows their child deepens our grasp of the concept. We are chosen by God for adoption. And we belong to God as his children.
Furthermore, being known by God as his child makes good sense in the light of personal experience. In human relationships parents give their children their identity by knowing them. Children are named by and receive their earliest experiences from their parents. Parents come to know their child’s personality, likes and dislikes, physical capability, needs and desires. Indeed, a child’s wellbeing depends less on knowing his or her parents than by being known by them. As we shall see below, to be known by God as his child is of immense practical value to the one who is part of his family.
The Pastoral Function of Being Known by God
Given that good biblical theology is also practical theology, we may ask: to what use does the Bible put the notion of being known by God? The answer is several uses: as a warning in judgment scenes (cf. Jesus: “I never knew you”); to promote humility, in the light of the fact that God knows us better than we know him; to give our fleeting lives significance; and to provide us with moral direction as we come to know ourselves as we are known by him.
To focus on one function of being known by God, consider its use in the Bible to bring comfort to those in distress. The Puritan Richard Baxter called being known by God “the full and final comfort of a believer,” and J. I. Packer claims that it brings “unspeakable comfort.”
The three lowest points in the history of Israel in the Old Testament were slavery in Egypt, wandering in the wilderness and exile in a foreign land. In offering reassurance to the people of God in such dire circumstances, it is significant that God reminds them in every case that they are known by him. Typically, the verb “to know” in such contexts is translated as “be concerned about,” “care for” or “protect.”
In slavery in Egypt, “God heard the Israelites’ groaning … looked on them and was concerned about (= knew) them” (Exodus 2:23-24). With respect to their wandering in the wilderness, the Lord states: “I cared for (= knew) you in the desert, in the land of burning heat” (Hosea 13:5). And in the midst of the struggles of exile in a foreign land, God insists: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).
Being known by God in our most desperate times is a great comfort. It assures us that our Heavenly Father has not forgotten us and that we can count on his love and care. Nahum 1:7 states the matter in the most general terms: “The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects (= knows) those who take refuge in him.”