“Houston, we have a problem.” This is the classic statement from Captain James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, during a live television broadcast on April 14, 1970.
Captain Lovell’s words set in motion an intense rescue scenario that guided the crew safely back to earth, landing them in the Pacific Ocean on April 17. It was a harrowing three-day experience that captured the world’s attention on television.
If Houston can rescue a space capsule and deliver its crew from what appeared to be certain death, why is it that when Christians cry out, “God, we have a problem,” the other end of the phone sometimes seems silent? Most of us believe that God knows everything and that he loves us. Therefore, it seems reasonable that God should provide immediate direction to his children when we call for help.
Why, then, do we often struggle with knowing God’s will for our lives? Life seems like a maze that challenges us to move from the entrance to the exit without getting caught in deadend paths. Inside the maze, we only see walls and turns. God stands above the maze and looks down on our plight. He knows the right path. Yet we often find him silent as we evaluate the crossroads we confront. Or, we thought we heard him say, “Turn left,” only to find ourselves in a box canyon and in the dilemma of explaining the wrong direction we credited to God. How do we balance the reality of life we experience with good theology?
Seeking God’s will for a particular decision begins a journey into one of the most basic yet profound issues in the development of a Christian worldview. What can we know? How do we know what we can know? How does God communicate knowledge to us? These kinds of questions relate to what philosophers and theologians refer to as “epistemology.” Epistemology is the study of the sources, nature, and validity of knowledge. It is essential to think about these questions as a foundation for discussing how we know God’s will for our lives. This chapter will help you to see the big picture of this problem, how God has addressed the problem, and how God’s people in the record of Scripture have pursued life in spite of the challenge to know God and his ways.
How Do We Know Things?
How do we gain knowledge of our world? Let’s begin with the world in general. Philosophers recognize four ways that we know what we know. These include sense perception, reason, authority, and intuition.
Our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch help us know our world. How many times have you said, “When I see it I will believe it!” This statement means that when I actually see an event for myself, I will then know that it is true and worthy of belief. (On the other hand, a blind person knows the world by touch, smell, and hearing, senses that are often intensified when sight is not present.)
If someone says it is cold outside, we might go out the door to feel just how cold it is. We confirm some claims about reality with our senses in order to gain knowledge. Sense perception is more objective by nature. That is, senses are not merely internal feelings or hunches without something concrete to back them up. To confirm knowledge by the senses requires an objectively observable setting.
Sense perception alone, however, is not adequate for all knowledge. Consider the following illustration. I once heard a joke about a Quaker and an atheist. Quakers are known to stress their experience of knowing God. A certain atheist wanted to demonstrate a Quaker’s inability to prove that God existed so he asked a series of questions.
“Ms. Quaker, have you ever seen God?”
“I see him in his creation,” she replied.
“That does not count,” countered the atheist. “Creation could be the product of evolution.”
“Well then,” she replied, “if you mean have I ever seen God in physical form, I would have to say no, I have not seen God.”
“Ah ha,” said the atheist. “Have you ever touched God?”
“I see,” she replied, “that you are insisting that I can only know God by direct sense perception. By that test, I would have to say that I have never touched God.”
The atheist was feeling very proud of himself and blurted out in disgust, “Well then, have you ever smelled God!”
“No,” she meekly replied.
“Therefore, Ms. Quaker, I have to conclude that you have no God.”
Then she replied, “Mr. Atheist, might I ask you some questions?”
“Of course,” he arrogantly answered.
“Mr. Atheist, have you ever seen your brain?”
“I see the product of my brain in thinking,” he responded sharply.
“Now, Mr. Atheist, you would not allow me the privilege of implicational evidence, so that will not count for you either. Mr. Atheist, have you ever touched your brain?”
“This is ridiculous,” he replied. “What is your point?”
“Well, Mr. Atheist, on the basis of your model of how to know something exists, and since you have never seen or touched your brain, I can only conclude that you have no brain!”
This humorous story illustrates that knowledge is more complicated than simple sensory perception. Knowing something requires the ability to reason from point A to point B, to delineate between evidence and implication.
We can sense that it is raining outside when a feeling of wet corresponds with our sense of touch. Or we might hear the sound of rain and conclude by the sense of hearing and reason that it is raining. But to know whether a brain or God exists requires a coherent reasoning process beyond the senses.
Sense perception and reason are the two primary sources for obtaining knowledge about our world. Secondary sources include authority and intuition. Most of us know what we know because someone we trust told us, “This is the way it is.” Authority as a source of knowledge organizes our world until we mature and make our own decisions. Then we become an authority to someone else! Authority may also originate from a group (e.g., creationists, evolutionists, postmodernists) that has determined through the senses and reason that the world should be interpreted in a certain way. Such groups develop worldviews that provide different sets of presuppositions, giving their followers a framework to explain their world. This illustrates why humanity can have very different answers for the same set of questions. Divergent proposals explaining “what we know” result in conflicting and competing views.
Intuition is “the direct apprehension of knowledge that is not the result of conscious reasoning or of immediate sense perception.”1 Intuition might be claimed for something as simple as my self-awareness of things that I know by the senses or reason. If I hear a police siren, I now know intuitively what I learned by other means. Some refer to intuition to explain how our accumulated knowledge and experience can converge unconsciously and cause a thought or insight to come to us. This accounts for the “unexpected” insights that sometimes come to scientists, teachers, writers, poets, factory workers, and all manner of persons who work for years in a certain setting. Intuition also explains the mystical knowledge claimed by many types of religions. It is a direct apprehension of knowledge that cannot be accounted for by the senses or reason. Because intuition tends to be of a more subjective nature, it is precarious to allow it to be our only source of knowing something. We should test our intuitions by the more objective sources of knowledge.
Clearly, we know things in many different ways. We might use our external senses or the process of reason, or we might lean on intuition or some authority we trust to provide us with knowledge. Usually, no one source is adequate in and of itself. The knowledge these sources provide collectively gives us a foundation in our quest to understand our world. The questions about life that trouble us, however, do not always seem to be clarified by the more objective processes.
For example, a young person comes to you and says, “You know that Kelly and I have been dating for some time and that we really like each other. Do you think we are in love? How do I know if she is the one? How do I know that it is love and not just friendship?” Or maybe you have struggled with choosing between various job options or churches to attend. The options all seem to be acceptable, but you want certainty.
You want to know if one is more God’s will for you than another. How do you decide between seemingly equal options? My experience is that most people struggle with finding a confident answer to these kinds of questions. I hope to demonstrate, however, that you should be able to think through the scenarios life presents, and I hope to provide an objective analysis that will lead you to appropriate and God-honoring answers. But first let us review how the Bible presents the problem of knowing.
Know the Bible to Know the World
We need to review the biblical story about the problem of knowing in order to explain the state of our world. Created in the Image of God Before we focus on the problem of knowing God’s will after Adam’s sin in Eden, let’s consider God’s original design for humankind. Although Genesis 1–3 is brief, we find some significant implications about God’s intentions for Adam and the human race. We are introduced to humans on the sixth day when God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over [the earth]” (Gen. 1:26). Humans are the closest to being like God than any other category of creation. We were designed in the image of God in such a way that we especially reflect and represent the Creator in his creation. We were particularly created for God’s glory (Isa. 43:7; Rom. 11:36), and the chief goal of men and women is to glorify God (1 Cor. 10:31).
Theologians discuss a variety of issues about what it means to be created in God’s image. We are particularly unique in our capacity for critical self-reflection and moral responsibility. Animals surely have some level of thinking and feeling capability. You know this if you own a pet! But my dogs have never demonstrated the critical thinking skills to let themselves out and get their own food, even when doing so would require little reflection. The ability to think critically and do right are premiere reflections of our Creator. Who we become as persons and how we operate in our world provide either a good or bad reflection of our Father in heaven.
But how did God design the measure of whether we are a good or bad reflection of him? Consider what little we know about Adam in the original Eden. The fuller summary of Genesis 2:15–25 offers a few pointers. God gave Adam some simple directions. He commanded that his creation work the garden and feed himself at his own discretion, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was off-limits. These directions constituted God’s will for Adam. They created a context in which Adam could make decisions and express himself within God’s set parameters.
Adam received adequate information so that he could make good judgments. He was responsible to act without being micromanaged. Although Adam was originally without sin, he needed time for moral development. His moral development progressed just like ours. He was to obey God’s instructions and reason from them in his daily decisions.
The relationship between God and Adam is much like the created bond of mother and daughter or father and son. Parents provide their children with the parameters that constitute acceptable standards in their family unit. These are often intentionally broad because a parent wants the child to learn to think, “What will please my mother and father?” Children need fences and space to develop. God the Father set the original model by providing Adam with both.
Children’s following the will of their parents involves two levels. They must (1) exercise raw obedience to the non-negotiable standards and (2) learn how to anticipate the parents’ desires by reasoning through what they already know and applying that to the decision they are about to make. This second area thrills the parents. When children, by their own reasoning and will, reflect the expectations of the parents, there is no greater joy on the part of the parents.
God designed that Adam and all humankind glorify him in a similar manner. He wants us to respond to his directions, to make choices without being micromanaged, and to make progress in becoming like our Father. The model is one of parent and child, not employer and employee.
Genesis implies more about what God expected from Adam. In the context of Genesis 2:18–25, it seems God used Adam’s naming of the animals to cause Adam to come to the realization that life is two by two, not one by one. After using his tremendous intuitive reasoning to characterize the animals by names, perhaps Adam noticed that all created kinds had a Mr. and Mrs. except for his own! God knew this already (2:18), but he set the environment in which Adam came to this conclusion himself. Adam’s skills of inductive reasoning were cultivated.
How long did the paradise of Eden last? Nobody knows. I think it was rather brief. It was at least long enough for Adam and Eve to have some conversations about that tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Otherwise, how did Eve add the proviso “you must not touch it” (3:3) to God’s statement that “you must not eat from the tree”? It seems that they had taken the context of the tree in the garden to another level.
After two chapters in Genesis, paradise is over. The rest of the Bible describes the aftermath of Adam’s sin. We now see that the fall brought distortion to our ability to know God and even ourselves. The ability to glorify God through our obedience to his revealed truth has been aggravated by our participation in humanity’s fall from paradise. But alas, all is not lost. Though the fall brought distortion to our being created in his image, clearly we carry on as image bearers (see Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). While it is now harder for us to obey (Rom. 7), it is not impossible. In fact, God demands our obedience.
Romans 12:1–2 reminds us of our responsibility to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This merely means that we are now to think about what it means to conform to God’s expectations in an unfriendly world. We therefore do the will of God as we come to understand how biblical truth applies to our everyday lives. In fact, our moral development is a biblical theme of hope, for when we see Jesus, we will be like him (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 1 John 3:2). Our likeness to Jesus is a moral likeness that is the product of obedience to God’s teaching. This is what doing God’s will is all about.
How God dealt with Adam is reflected in his dealing with persons throughout the Bible. Studying the nature of this relationship sets the stage for how God operates with us. We now need to turn to a more comprehensive review of how the consequences of Adam’s sin affects our ability to know God and his will.
Paradise Lost . . . Living in the Aftermath
Maybe you have wondered why God put that tree in the garden, especially since he knew the path his human creation would take. It is not a coincidence that this was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:15–17). The lure of the tree was to know as God knows. The serpent worked this angle well, tempting Adam and Eve to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). At this point in time, Adam and Eve had not yet disobeyed God. In spite of their privileged position, they still fell for the illusion that they could bypass God’s design for gaining knowledge. Genesis teaches us that after Adam’s rebellion, Adam and his descendents began a new struggle to know God and his will.
What does the Bible have to say about the problem of knowing? Following Adam’s failure, the Bible presents a story about the quest to know God and his will for his creation! The record of this story in the Bible is framed in four major movements: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Think about how these themes permeate the Bible. Genesis begins the Bible with the story of creation, and Revelation ends with the account of end times and the consummation of history on earth. The burden from Genesis 3 through Revelation is to give creation an opportunity to enter into a redemptive relationship with the Creator, a need resulting from Adam’s sin, the fall. An understanding of these four themes within the biblical story is required to interpret God’s work in the world.
The Old and New Testaments are also self-contained within these themes. Genesis is a book of beginnings. But by the end of the Old Testament, the prophets moan the failure of the world to respond to God’s message. They look off into the future to a consummation of earth history when God will set things in order. These same themes are reworked in the New Testament. The Gospels present a new beginning with Christ. John 1 particularly views Christ as the Creator who comes to redeem the world. Yet Christ is crucified by a fallen world that will not respond to God. The apostles pick up the themes and proclaim to their audiences this same understanding of God’s will for the world. Yet the world does not hear. Therefore, the Book of Revelation, like the Old Testament prophets, presents divine intervention as the only hope to consummate earth history.
You can see that whether we look at the whole Bible or the Old and New Testaments respectively, the story line is the same. God created the world to know and have fellowship with him. Adam and Eve failed the test that determined our destiny. God in his grace began to pursue his creation in order to bring those who respond back into an originally intended relationship with him. This pursuit has not yet achieved full success, but God continues the pursuit until the day he has appointed to consummate his plan. The Book of Revelation reflects the end result when believing humanity once again enjoys being in God’s presence in the New Jerusalem with, interestingly, its river and tree of life (Revelation 21–22).
Interwoven within this story of earth history is the quest of the redeemed to know God. The quest is hampered, however, by the consequences of the fall. The events in Eden shortcircuited our ability to know God immediately and accurately. Because discerning God’s will requires that we address how we know what we know, we need to understand how Adam’s sin has affected our ability to know God.
Romans 12:1–2 asserts that we need a “transformed mind” in order to pursue God’s will. This need confirms that we have a problem.
In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All
The biblical story of the fall in Genesis is the reason behind a number of the consequences of Adam’s sin imposed upon the human race. In the biblical story, physical and spiritual death is attributed to the fall (Rom. 5:12–14). Adam’s exclusion from the Garden of Eden presents the image of humanity’s exclusion from the presence of God as a normal way of operating. After the fall, men and women are portrayed as inclined to evil. We possess a depraved human nature, and our ability to reason about God has been darkened. Our conscience is not able to make true judgments, or is easily distorted, because the value system to which it responds has been corrupted. The Bible teaches that because all have sinned, all participate in distorted understandings of God. This is our dilemma. This is what we must overcome in order to make good decisions about God’s will. We will discuss the solution to this problem, but we must first convince ourselves that we have a problem and that it impacts our quest to know God’s will.
The biblical testimony confirms our dilemma. The summary in Genesis 6:5–6 captures the plight of humanity at an early stage: “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (cf. 8:21). Please note in this text how the term heart is a synonym for mind. This is true throughout the Bible.
Hundreds of years later, King David reflected upon his own sinful behavior and then remarked, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). David attributed his own moral problem to the fact that he participated in the results of Adam’s sin and therefore chose paths contrary to God’s will.
This is also true for you and me. We can observe how we are prone from birth to do wrong by observing “innocent” children. Perhaps you have a younger brother or sister. Did you ever tell them, “Don’t do that!” Did they do it anyway? Why do we spend most of our time raising children to do right rather than wrong, to make good judgments rather than careless or bad ones? Have you ever seen a book on how to raise bad children? The very patterns of life confirm that at the core of our lives there is a propensity to go our own way. What is true for children is also true for adults. Adults are simply more sophisticated.
At the end of the Old Testament period, the prophets reviewed Israel’s behavior and declared it contrary to God’s will. The prophets were “covenant police.” They examined the revealed will of God in the stipulations of law and the implications of it for daily living and proclaimed Israel an abysmal failure. Isaiah declared, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (64:6). Jeremiah chimed in with “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (17:9; see also 7:24). In Hosea, God connected the problem back to Eden by saying, “Like Adam, they have broken the covenant—they were unfaithful to me there” (6:7).
The New Testament continues the theme of the consequences of the fall in bold relief. Romans 1–3 nails the human coffin closed with a series of Old Testament quotations, culminating in “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). Ephesians declares that all “are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (4:18). Paul is addressing the state of the Gentiles and therefore a believer’s pre-Christ life. The effects of sin, however, are no less prevalent in the lives of believers when they refuse to hear God’s teaching.
Paul made this clear to the Corinthians in regard to their rejection of revealed truth when he called them immature and carnal in their thinking (1 Cor. 1–3; 14:37–38). Moving from darkened to enlightened thinking requires a conscious, focused transformation of the way we think about our world and ourselves (Rom. 12:1–2).
Scripture highlights the results of this problem as an issue of what we know and how we know it. That is, the problem of sin affects our ability to know God and his will, and therefore we will have to look outside ourselves for another solution to knowing. Deuteronomy 29:29 declares that “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the law.” Knowledge is now conditioned on the basis of whether God chooses to reveal it. In the Old Testament, God’s children were given adequate instructions (the law) about living, and they proceeded to order their lives on that basis.
Proverbs follows up on this by saying, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but blessed is he who keeps the law” (29:18). Ecclesiastes reflects on the fact that “no man knows the future,” and we should therefore follow ordained stipulations in order to move through life in a way that pleases God (Eccles. 8:7).
Paul reflects on the problem of knowing in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Paul views our ability to know as limited until the consummation of the age.
In regard to knowing God’s will, the impact of Adam’s sin has distorted our ability to know the mind of God immediately and accurately. We lost our capacity to know God correctly on our own because our reasoning processes have been tainted (cf. 1 Cor. 2:6–16). The earth yields thistles; people distort the Creator. Salvation alone does not overcome this problem of distortion (cf. 1 Corinthians 1–3), because as 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us, we will only see clearly at the final consummation. (See figure 2.)
When you try to look to God, you have to peer through layers of distortion brought about by the fall. Furthermore, your own capacity to think is tainted! Is there hope?
The Distortion Solution
First Corinthians 2:6–16 explains God’s provision for overcoming the problem of knowing.2 The first letter to the Corinthians is not friendly. An influential group within the Corinth church challenged Paul’s representation of the gospel message. Paul wrote to them to explain the origin and authority of the message he proclaimed. Chapters 1–4 particularly address this problem, with 2:6–16 as the explanation of why the message of the cross is valid. Paul informs the Corinthians that the message he proclaims is not his own bright idea but divinely revealed truth. This truth is so special that it can only be known by accepting it as revealed truth (see 2:6–16; 14:37–38).
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 2:6–16 in its context and see how Paul explained how he knew this message was from God and not his own invention.
Paul confronted a community that resisted his exposition of the gospel, a community eaten up with division and rivalry. In chapters 1–4, he presented an apology for his ministry and its message. He argued that his ministry was not for self-promotion but was focused on Christ (1:10–17). The message of the cross that Paul preached was based on God’s wisdom, not Paul’s. This message had an edge that some Corinthians wished to avoid (1:18–25). The Corinthians’ initial conversion demonstrated the power of Paul’s message (1:26–31), so why the change? Paul’s approach modeled a message that stood on its own without power plays by the speaker (2:1–5). Although Paul’s ministry was hampered by the factional and foolish values of the Corinthians (3:1–23), his ministry was confirmed as valid by its own testimony (4:1–21).
In the midst of the flow of chapters 1–4, 2:6–16 provides Paul’s epistemology (how he knows what he knows!) for the message of the cross. Stop here and read this passage from your own Bible. Please note that the content of this passage reflects the biblical story we have described previously, rehearsing the dilemma of a fallen race that does not know God or his will. Verse 9 is the crescendo of 1 Corinthians 2:6–9:
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”—This verse has nothing to do with the promise of heaven, as it is often applied; rather it states the fact that the world cannot know God’s will without help (the sentence ends with 2:10). The failure of the senses and unaided reason to know God’s will for salvation leaves humanity in a major dilemma. The wisdom of Paul’s message does not originate from human wisdom but from God. This wisdom is described as “hidden” (2:7) and the exclusive property of God. Verse 9 clearly states that the sense perception of “eye” and “ear” cannot provide the message. Neither can reason originate the divine will—“no mind has conceived.”
If we stopped with 2:9, we would forever be in darkness concerning who God is and what he requires of us. We cannot know these things without God’s direct intervention to provide us with knowledge of himself and his ways.
In spite of our dilemma, 1 Corinthians 2:10 brings God’s solution for the problem of knowledge into bold relief: “But God has revealed it [the message] to us [the apostles and through them to the rest of us] by his Spirit.” The key term here is revealed. When the human race was at a loss to know God, God himself overcame that dilemma by direct revelation. Figure 2, describing our dilemma, now needs one additional perspective. God revealed himself and his will in the Bible (see figure 3). Divine revelation is the only way to bypass the distortion imposed on the world by sin. Paul speaks about how God’s mind was communicated to humankind in 2:10–13. This section is the most detailed explanation of the process of revelation in the Bible. Yet this process is still hard to comprehend.
Paul declares the fact of the process by analogies, but he does not explain it. Such a process cannot be put into a scientific test tube. We can accept Paul’s affirmation and understand it, but we will never comprehend this Spirit-enacted process. In fact, that is exactly what 1 Corinthians 2:14–16 states!
The product of revelation that Paul declares in 1 Corinthians is the Bible. Even though the Bible provides an accurate record of God’s mind, we as readers still have the problem of our own mental distortion. The Bible becomes subject to imperfect interpretation, because interpretation is a human task. Consequently, the solution God has provided is only partial. God has not chosen to overcome the mental distortion we all possess. This is why we need the exhortation of Romans 12:1–2, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The solution, therefore, to the problem of knowing, is that God overcomes our lack of knowing his mind by means of revelation. Yet, how does God reveal? When does God reveal? To whom does God reveal? Is a revealing act common property of all believers or something reserved for specially called persons? Is a revealing act normative for God’s guidance of his children? How does the Bible portray God’s revealing acts in regard to the direction of believers in life’s decisions? We will discuss these questions as we proceed through the following chapters. For now, it is important to note that the problem of knowing God and his will requires that God communicate to us. We are not sufficient in ourselves to know God’s mind without help.
As we continue our study, we will develop the proposition that the Bible is God’s sufficient communication to us to know his will, if we will only learn to read and apply its truths appropriately. We will also see that God’s revealing acts are special and not normal operating procedure.
God’s recorded acts of revelation provide for us the data we need to pursue life’s decisions. As with Adam, God defines our fences and expects us to tend the garden within his guidelines.
The Quest to Know God and His Will
The desire to know God has obstacles, both external and internal. Adam’s sin affected the world we live in and the minds we use to interpret our world. Those who place their faith in the God of the Bible still struggle to know God in terms of his desires for how they should live life on earth.
That quest has occupied the attention of believers through the ages. Our knowledge of God and his will depends upon his choice to disclose himself and his desires. We depend totally upon such selfdisclosure in order to have accurate knowledge concerning our Creator and his will. A brief review of how the Bible records the quest of believers to know God and of how God has responded uncovers a pattern of God’s method of revealing himself.
The term knowledge first appears in the Bible in Genesis 2:9: “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This tree is the central symbol of the Garden of Eden. It distinguished between God and humanity, between choosing a life of obedience to God’s revealed will and choosing disobedience and death. God viewed Adam’s violation of the tree as death (2:17). The serpent presented it as the gateway to becoming like God in the realm of knowledge (3:5). Eve interpreted it as “desirable for gaining wisdom” (3:6).
For whatever reasons, Adam and Eve were not satisfied with God’s provision of knowledge. They wanted to launch out on their own and become independent persons, capable of knowing by, and for, themselves. Their choice also carried them into a new realm of moral independence from God by breaking his command. Rejecting God’s way of knowing was an act of open rebellion. The consequences of their actions included banishment from the Garden, the place symbolizing the presence of God and his open communication with his creation. This environment is now replaced with pain and only an occasional word from God.
Genesis 4–11 covers hundreds of years of earth history, with Noah as a bright spot in the midst of moral darkness. For a long period of time, God’s communication to his creation seems meager. Then Abraham appears and Genesis 12–50 recounts the story of God’s dealing with Abraham and his seed. This period covers a history of about 350 years. Abraham lived around 2000–1825 B.C.E., and Joseph died around 1640 B.C.E. No written Bible as we know it existed at this time.
God’s communication to his people came in occasional events represented by “the Lord said to . . .” Knowledge of God was conveyed to select individuals, such as Abraham, and they in turn conveyed it to others. Oral tradition of these communications from God was the source of knowledge at that time.
What we know as the Bible, particularly the Jewish Scriptures, began its written history as Scripture with Moses, around 1450 B.C.E. according to a prominent dating method. Job may be an early exception to this. Moses’ knowledge of God was twofold. He received the oral tradition that had existed since Eden, and he received direct communication from God. The historical narrative of his writings probably utilized the existing traditions under the divine umbrella of inspired preservation. The law codes, however, were particularly a part of direct divine revelation (see Exodus 19 and 34).
This was true of the core law codes and many other regulations. “The Lord said to Moses . . .” is a common introduction to sections in Exodus and Leviticus. Deuteronomy, a title that means “second law,” was chosen to symbolize Moses’ rehearsal of the law to Israel in the wilderness. Moses had previously received and taught this material. As he repeated that original teaching, it seems Moses expanded the application of its values to new real-life situations. Although we cannot do this in an inspired manner as Moses did, the principle of applying biblical truth to life’s situations is still our responsibility.
The first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, provide the theological foundations for the rest of the Old Testament, and even the New Testament. It is interesting to observe how the writings that follow Moses’ writings reflected and built upon what he provided. God continues to give direct revelation from time to time, but the Pentateuch provided the core, and it was the responsibility of future generations to relate to it.
The psalmists reflected upon the law in relation to life (Psalms 1, 119), the writers of Proverbs used the law as a base for the development of wisdom (Prov. 3:1–6; 28:7), and the prophets were covenant policemen calling Israel back to obedience to the ancient laws that God had given them (Isa. 8:16, 20; 51:7; Jer. 26:4–6; Dan. 6:5). When we realize that the law reflects a relationship between God and Israel and is not just rules and regulations for its own end, the law becomes much more powerful to guide life, as the biblical writers so ably illustrated.
The pattern of each successive generation of believers living from the “deposit” received from God’s past revelation is a major theme in Scripture (see figure 4). The basic ideas given in the core information of revelation become more focused throughout time. Old Testament writers such as the psalmists and prophets illustrate this pattern, as we have noted. The pattern continues with Jesus and the apostles. Jesus’ incarnation and earthly ministry fulfilled the first phase of messianic promises of the Old Testament. During his earthly existence, Jesus ordered his life according to relevant Old Testament passages.
During the wilderness temptation, Satan called the personhood and mission of Jesus into question. Jesus appealed exclusively to the Book of Deuteronomy to combat Satan’s attacks (Matt. 4:1–11). Jesus, as the unique Son of God, was capable of bringing God’s Word into existence in his own speech. He chose, however, to live his life on the basis of Old Testament teaching.
Jesus commanded his apostles to continue this pattern by saying, “[Teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
Paul captured the continuation of this pattern of passing on revealed truth as the standard for living in his second letter to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). The apostles and their protégés normally taught by passing on the “deposit” of truth revealed to the believing community by God’s special means (Luke 1:1–4; 1 Cor. 15:1–5; 2 Peter 1:12–21; 3:15–16). Each successive generation of believers is responsible to live from the revelatory deposit of previous generations. God’s acts of special revelation vary with each generation, but this pattern never varies within the biblical testimony. Each successive generation of believers draws their knowledge of God and his will primarily from the record of God’s special revelatory acts.
In this chapter we have explored the problem of “knowing” and how the God of the Bible has addressed it for his followers. I am glad that God designed us with sense perception, the ability to reason, intuition, and authority. These ways of knowing bring our world alive. Yet we need help to know the mind of God. In the biblical story, the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden plunged the human race into a dilemma. The heirs of Adam’s sin do not naturally know God or his ways. Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians 2:6–16 that even the most intelligent and powerful persons in society cannot construct an accurate understanding of God and his will. The only way to overcome our distorted understanding is for God to perform revelatory acts whereby he communicates accurate information about himself and his expectations for his creation.
The most objective record of God’s revelation is that which is contained in the Bible.
God addresses his children’s quest to know him and his ways by placing his revealed will into a “deposit”-type reservoir so that each succeeding generation of believers can benefit from his self-disclosure. Finding guidance for life from this deposit, the Bible, is the normal way God guides his children. We will visit this idea in detail in part 2 as we survey the Bible and its “will of God” contexts.
When we understand the problem we face in knowing God and his will, we can begin to develop structures to help us reflect on what Jesus would really do if he were confronted with the same questions we face. Answers to our questions are not always found in a particular verse from the Bible but sometimes are found in understanding what the Bible teaches as a whole.3 The first step in this development is to understand how to think within the framework of a biblical worldview and the values it provides. In the next chapter, you will learn what worldview-based thinking is all about.