Imagine you and a friend go to lunch. Your friend begins to tell you about a certain celebrity who is well known throughout the world. At some point she says to you, “do you know him?”
“I know him,” you reply.
With that single phrase, “I know him,” you could mean at least four different things. You may mean one of the following:
1. You are aware of his existence.
2. You are familiar with his work.
3. You have met him before.
4. You are close friends.
So the word, "know" can have a range of meanings. I have often explained my relationship to a new acquaintance as, “I know him but I don"t know him.” Maybe it"s because of my limited vocabulary that I can't think of another word other than "know" to describe two different levels of relationship.
It"s not just modern English that demonstrates this phenomenon. The Bible uses the word, "know" to describe a range of meanings as well. In fact, to "know God" is sometimes used to mean salvation, and other times used to mean discipleship. It is the context of the verse that clues us into the particular meaning. Let"s look at this verse in John 17:3.
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.1
These words appear in Jesus" famous prayer before his crucifixion. There could hardly be a question as to what this verse is referring to. It speaks of a knowing in terms of salvation. In the context of this verse, to know God and Jesus is to be saved. How do we know that? It"s a verse about salvation because it opens with the line,
And this is eternal life…2
In the Gospel of John, eternal life refers to the free gift that God offers to all those who believe in his son. That this verse is describing the salvation experiences is irrefutable.
However, the word "know" is not always used of the salvation experience. In fact, in the same Gospel, John uses the word differently. In chapter fourteen Jesus is having a private question and answer session with his disciples. It is an intimate discussion where Jesus is delivering some troubling news. Jesus also makes the claim that whoever has known him has known the Father. Philip is confused and asks for Jesus to reveal the Father to them. Jesus responds in John 14:9.
Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, "Show us the Father"?3
Notice that Jesus uses the concept of knowing the Father and the Son here, but it is not in the same sense as the verse we previously looked at. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and by this point all the disciples but Judas4 were believers.5 Jesus was responding to Philip, a saved believer, when he said that he hadn't known him or the Father. It would be easy to think of this as a contradiction if we don"t remember that "know" can have a range of meanings.
In the same way that I might say, “I knew my great-grandmother, but I didn't really know her.” I mean to say I met her once, but I was not familiar with her. In fact, I wouldn't even recognize my own great-grandmother if we passed on the street. Jesus is saying a similar thing to Philip. Something to the effect of, "You're not on a familiar basis with God, because you don"t recognize him sitting right here in front of you."
This shows us that it"s possible to know God in the salvation sense, but not be well acquainted with him because our discipleship efforts are lacking. The context of the verse is indispensable in finding out whether the author is talking about salvation or discipleship. Here is another great example from1 John 2:3.
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.6
John, the same writer of the above verses, let"s us see what kind of "know" he is talking about in 1 John by these types of statements. Following commandments is not about salvation, since salvation is a free gift. So this verse proves itself to be about discipleship. Knowing him, in 1 John is about our obedience.
We also see the double layered cake here when John says,
we know that we know Him.7
He uses the word twice back to back. If I claimed to know a famous person, someone might challenge me by saying, “do you know him? Or do you know know him.” We will sometimes make double use of a word to signify intensity or quality. John seems to be doing something similar here. He"s not talking about casual acquaintance knowledge, but instead a familiarity, fellowship, a know know kind of relationship. This fits with the overall theme of 1 John which focuses on the mature believer"s fellowship with God.8
That means that 1 John 2:3 is certainly speaking of discipleship. Here is another great one from 1 John.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.9
What type of "know" is John talking about here? There are a handful of clues that make it clear. First, he opens these verses by calling his readers, Beloved. He"s writing to believers, and not only that but believers who have a loving fellowship. 1 John is penned to a spiritually mature and growing audience. Our next clue comes when he says,
…everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.10
Notice that he didn't say, “everyone born of God loves,” But only that, “everyone who loves is born of God, and knows him.” In other words, not all saved people will love and know God, but all people that love and know God are able to do so because they are born-again.
It"s important that we don"t try to turn this into an external test for who is saved and who is not. That"s because there are saved people who don"t love and even others who pretend to be loving but are not.11
What's even more telling is that John divides the ideas, “born of God,” and “know God.” Born of God is certainly a reference to salvation.12 If born of God means salvation, then what does knowing God mean in this context? It must be something other than salvation. Certainly, it is a reference to discipleship. He goes on to say,
He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.13
Which kind of "know" might he mean by this. Many have claimed that he means, it is impossible to have salvation if we do not love God. However, the Gospel of John, the Bible"s evangelistic gospel, never says that we must love God to be saved. It"s believing in Jesus that allows us to have everlasting life, not the quality of our love. Unbelievers are enemies, not lovers of God14, and therefore no one could ever get saved if loving God were the requirement. Love is not a condition for salvation, but it is a condition for being well acquainted with God.
He never says that all those who are saved will love God, and never implies that Love for God is automatic. He simply shows that saved people are able. Which is why only those who have been born-again can love God.
Salvation allows the opportunity for someone to engage in discipleship. It is not, however, their salvation that is in view when John says, "know God," it"s their discipleship.
In this chapter we"ve learned that context is the key to understanding which term is meant when "knowing God" is in question. Sometimes John meant salvation, and other times he meant discipleship. Being aware of the Biblical landscape will allow you to steer clear of most of the misinterpretations that come from not knowing which "knowing" John was talking about.
1 John 17:3.
2 John 17:3
3 John 14:9.
4 John 6:64
5 John 2:11
6 1 John 2:3.
7 1 John 2:3.
8 1 John 1:3
9 1 John 4:7–8.
10 1 John 4:7
11 1 John 2:11, 3:10b, 3:15, 4:20
12 John 3:3
13 1 John 4:7–8.
14 Romans 5:10, Colossians 2:21