Albert Einstein once said that if he had an hour to answer a question, he would spend the first 55 minutes trying to understand the question. In our case, the question in the heading actually comprises two questions, both of which we need to understand:
- When I say, “I know Jesus,” what does “know” mean?
- When I ask, “How do I know,” we are asking for evidence. What qualifies as evidence to support the claim that I know Jesus?
What does “know” mean?
The word “know” is tricky because it has multiple, overlapping meanings in English. In the Old Testament, the word “know” often refers to sexual intercourse and, for our purposes, I am certain that we can dispense with this use of the word. “Know” can refer to facts, such as “I know the sun is shining.” This use of the word is slightly different than “I know French” or “I know Ithaca.” In the latter case, knowing Ithaca includes knowing street names and building locations, but also includes spatial relationships between streets or buildings. The latter begins to stray into a special case of knowledge that is more complex than a simple fact… something I would refer to as a concept. Learning a language involves knowing more than just vocabulary. Grammar involves relationships among words. Idioms go to a whole other level of language knowledge. Even so, such knowledge is about facts, things that are provably true.
I can also “know” a person. I know former President John Kennedy even though I never met him. I can quote from his speeches. I can recognize him immediately in photos or videos. I can even recognize his voice. These are the provably true facts that I know about John Kennedy.
I also know my wife. Beyond the kinds of things that I know about John Kennedy, I am very familiar with my wife’s childhood, her educational experiences, her family. I know far more facts about my wife than about John Kennedy, and so I can say that I know my wife better than I know John Kennedy. My knowledge of her is more complete.
My knowledge of my wife goes beyond mere facts, though. I not only know what movies she has seen but I can predict fairly accurately what movies she will enjoy. I know what makes her happy and what makes her sad. Here, though, we are not talking about facts, or even concepts, but about belief. There is a certain amount of unpredictability in answering the question, “Will X make my wife happy?” Thus, the word “know” is not the right word. Instead, it would be more accurate to say, “I believe X will make my wife happy.”
The difference between knowing and believing is that what I know will always be true. One plus one will always equal two. If I can see the sun shining, then I can say, “I know the sun is shining.” When I believe something, I give room for the possibility that what I believe may not be true.
What qualifies as evidence?
When it comes to believing, confidence plays a large role. If a horoscope said, week after week for ten years, that the planet was undergoing climate change, someone might believe it because of its consistency. But, a horoscope is considered a terrible basis for believing anything, and belief in climate change on that basis would be ill-advised.
I believe that global climate change is occurring, not because I can see it, as in “I can see the sun,” but because there is a large amount of evidence to support the hypothesis. Not only does the scientific evidence engender confidence in my belief, but science provides a sound and highly respected approach to understanding the world. Not only is there good evidence of climate change, but there is a good basis for believing the accumulated evidence.
When it comes to facts, I know more about John Kennedy than I do Jesus, and there is no hope of a remedy since I am two thousand years late to the show. Most of what I know about Jesus falls into the category of belief rather than facts. How close those beliefs come to factual knowledge depends on my confidence in what I believe and in the quality of the basis for those beliefs.
The gospels comprise (mostly) first-hand accounts of the life of Jesus, however sketchy those accounts might be. The fact is that none of the documents in our possession is original. This is the kind of problem for which historians are well-prepared, though. In addition to the Scriptures, extra-biblical literature and archaeological artifacts provide sources of information for historians. Over the centuries, but particularly in the latter part of the twentieth century, the scholarship that has been brought to the Scriptures is impressive. Professional historians, because of the high quality of their tools and skills, have provided a sound basis for my belief in a large database of knowledge about Jesus with a level of confidence that is satisfactory in my judgment.
When it comes to the question of knowing Jesus, though, something is still missing.
Suppose that, in the future, a historian were to gather together all the cards and letters (there are hundreds upon hundreds!), voicemails, and phone conversations left by my wife. The historian transcribes interviews with scores of people from across her whole life. In the end, a biography is written. The book is featured on the New York Times best-seller list, so you read it. Do you now know my wife like I know my wife?
When I say that I know my wife, I am not referring solely to the database of knowledge and beliefs that I have about her. Those are crucially important, but I also mean to include the life that we have shared together: the trials, the difficulties, the triumphs, the wins, the strokes of luck and bad luck over a period of more than 40 years. Nothing can substitute for that shared experience. Happy times. Frustrating times. Scary times. Rewarding times. The impact on my imagination, my memory, and my will is incalculable. My brain is physically different because of the life we have lived together.
My wife and I have not changed over the years because we have acquired many facts about each other just as you are not substantially different because you read my wife’s biography. My wife and I are different people, now, because we have shared 40 years of experiences together.
Most Christians know Jesus because they have read his biography. Few know him because they have lived life with him. For the most part, modern Christianity has lost the methods and mechanisms (i.e., disciplines) for living life with Jesus. Even so, some believe that Jesus is not accessible, since he lives in heaven. His invisibility and his silence is a problem for many others. There are those who believe that working in the church is the equivalent of getting to know Jesus. Still others believe that they are saved by grace and, though living with God now is impossible, they are assured of meeting God after death.
Jesus made it plainly clear that he would be with his disciples to the end of the age. In John 14-17, Jesus elaborates extensively on the relationship he would have with his disciples even after his death. Despite these staggeringly amazing statements by Jesus, I would predict that most Christians are not interested in expending the necessary work and discipline that it takes to live life with Him.
Do I know Jesus?
I have read his biography. Only to a limited extent have I lived life with Jesus in any conscious, disciplined, and intentional way. The requisite skills are still rudimentary in my hands. My motivation (commitment) can be described as being higher than in many other Christians, but still only slightly better than lack-luster. Over the course of my lifetime, examples of people who live life with Jesus have been few and far between. The cultural opposition, including the general state of the church, is significant. Excuses abound. Help and encouragement are sparse.
Nevertheless, I can say that I have embarked on the journey. Because others who have gone before me have spoken of the difficulties of their journey, I am somewhat anxious about impending adversity. But the ultimate reason for the journey, the treasure that lies ahead, spurs me on. What treasure, you ask? It is this:
“You will find Me.”