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Better Than Knowing
July 24, 1994


A cartoon in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine shows a couple looking at menus in a restaurant. The waiter explains, "The specials marked with asterisks are recommended by the Christian right." There are lots of groups and movements today who think they know more than the rest of us, are very eager to tell us what to think and believe, and if they had the power, would demand that the rest of us submit to their superior knowledge.

Many denominations owe their existence to theological differences. Dissenters knew they knew what God knows and started their own denominations. To keep the record straight, Methodism does not owe its origin to theological debate, but Methodism started because the established Church of England would not allow John Wesley to preach from its pulpits. The poor people were coming to hear him, and the church did not appreciate the type of people he was attracting, nor did the church like Wesley's emphasis on personal experience. Methodism started as a church renewal movement for all of God's people. Methodism historically has been quite tolerant of diverse theological beliefs.

But, today, as in many times in the past, there are strong voices who are very sure they know what is right. In the Scripture lesson for today, Paul eloquently and passionately affirmed there is something better than knowing, there is something more important than knowledge.

As the church spread throughout the Roman Empire, it encountered Gentile Greeks who approached religion intellectually. The Greeks were the descendants of giant minds of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who laid the groundwork for western civilization. Thinking Greeks of Paul's day required a religion to offer an intelligible explanation of the whole of reality. The letter to the Ephesians, as was the letter to the Romans, was Paul's response. Paul offered a Christian theology--a reasonable philosophy--to make Christianity clear to the Greek mind. But, Paul made it clear that while such knowledge is worthwhile in itself, knowledge is not the final goal.

On at least one occasion, Paul had little success trying to convert Greeks to Christ. In Athens, the capital of Greece, Paul debated with philosophers. He tried to present the gospel logically, rationally, philosophically. They listened until he got to the resurrection. Then, they laughed him out of town. As far as we know, Paul made no converts in Athens. As far as we know, no church was organized in Athens during Paul's time.

There is something better than knowing. Knowledge is not enough. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday afternoon told the stranger all about what was happening. They knew all about it. They had knowledge, but they didn't know Jesus. They didn't recognize the stranger.

There is something better than knowing. Let's be clear. Paul is not anti-intellectual. Paul is not saying we are not to use our minds. Paul is not saying we are not to form a theology. Paul is not saying that we are not to seek truth. What Paul is saying is that knowledge is not enough in itself. Knowledge in itself can be dangerous. We can blow up the world with our superior knowledge. Knowledge in itself can lead to pride, arrogance, intolerance. There is something more important than knowledge. There is something that tempers knowledge, there is something that unites people on a deeper level than ideas. Totalitarians, authoritarians, dictators do not understand Paul in the least. There is something more important than agreement, subservience, and conformity.

Ephesians 3:19, The love of Christ surpasses knowledge. Paul goes even further. His prayer for his readers is that they come to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Paul prayed that his readers be given strength to comprehend all that is involved in God's great design, and above all that they make love the foundation of their life, rooted and grounded in love, and know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.

If we are to have the power to comprehend the truth in its fullness, we must be rooted and grounded in love. Truth, and knowledge of the truth, is more than a head trip. Knowledge is more than intellectual propositions. Truth includes emotions, feelings, and a commitment to God, living in love. One cannot really be knowledgeable, one cannot really be wise until one loves, until one is rooted and grounded in love. Otherwise, wisdom is self-serving, arrogant, and possibly wrong. For the knowledge most to be desired is to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.

How is one rooted and grounded in love? In verse 17, Paul says the inward power imparted by the Holy Spirit and the abiding presence of Christ in the heart result in a life rooted and grounded in love, and this love gives power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love. Paul runs out of superlatives to describe the love of Christ, and uses an image. Paul invites us to look at the universe--to the limitless sky above, to the limitless horizons on every side, to the depth of the earth, and says, "The love of Christ is as big as that."

One ancient commentator sees the cross as the symbol of Christ's love. The upper arm of the cross points up; the lower arm of the cross points down; and the crossing arms point out to the widest horizons beyond the range of the eye to see. Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin said that the love of Christ reaches up to include the holy angels; it reaches down to include even the evil spirits and devils in hell; in its length it covers those who are striving on the upward way; and in its breadth it covers those who are drifting and wandering from Christ on evil paths. William Barclay said that in the breadth of its sweep, the love of Christ includes everyone of every kind in every age in every world; in the length to which it would go, the love of Christ was obedient unto death and accepted even the cross; in its depth, the love of Christ descended to experience even death; in its height, Christ still loves us in heaven, where he lives to make intercession for us.

Note how Paul says we are to comprehend the breadth, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ. Verse 18, with all the saints. The highest knowledge of God and of God's truth is not an individual attainment, nor a privilege reserved for a few. Knowledge of God is learned by the community of Christian believers. To know Christ is impossible unless it is with all the saints, unless it is within the Christian community, the church. Christ dwells in his church. Think what it must have meant to the early Christians to be received into the fellowship of the church. The Holy Spirit powered them, overcoming their weaknesses. Sinners could walk upright in the fellowship of repentance and forgiveness. Women could be leaders. A slave could receive the dignity of being brother-in-Christ to his master. To be fully a person implies receiving status and importance. In the Christian church the humblest received rank, the poorest enjoyed the untold wealth of brotherly love. The presence of Christ when two or three gather in his name was a reality. No wonder they worshiped in awe. No wonder they praised God. No wonder they risked their very lives worshiping and fellowshiping in the church. Their knowledge was more than an intellectual exercise. Their knowledge was rooted and grounded in love. They knew and trusted what they knew because their lives had been changed. They had experienced the love, power, and grace of God.

There is something better than knowing. There is something better than being right, or left. There is something better than arrogance, intolerance, self-righteousness. There is something better than empty doctrines, cold theology, lifeless principles and propositions. Listen again, Ephesians 3:16-19,

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris