The Key of Knowledge
Our Lord, Jesus was always making statements which seemed strange and mystical. These statements were most often misunderstood by many of those who were present, but many years later as we are able to look back at the life of Jesus, his teaching and his mission, the meaning of many of these statements becomes very clear. One such statement is found in Luke 11:52.
Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. (Luke 11:52)
What did Jesus mean when he spoke of “The key of knowledge?” A key is a device used to open a lock but in this context of course, it refers to a vital, essential element that is necessary for opening up the avenues of spiritual truth. Jesus says that knowledge has a key, there is something that is necessary in order for a person to obtain true knowledge and he accused these lawyers of having taken away this key of knowledge;
These lawyers were not exactly like the lawyers we are familiar with today who are normally associated with the judicial system. However, the basic approach of all lawyers is the same. Lawyers become experts at defining what words mean, but even though they become good at understanding and manipulating words there are sometimes deeper principles that they avoid, or ignore, or perhaps are completely ignorant of in the application of their words.
Words made supreme
Many of us grew up in a religious environment where we were taught that the most important thing is to correctly understand words.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul says,
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2Tim 2:15)
We pay a lot of attention to verses like this and we basically use these verses as the foundation of our approach to the Christian experience. But we should note that the lawyers probably had a similar approach, they were focused on words, they were focused on Scripture, yet Jesus says to them, “you have taken away the key of knowledge.”
In Psalm 89:34, God says,
My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. (Ps 89:34)
That is God’s own statement. He says I am not going to change my word. When I say something it is unalterable, I will not break it. This is one of the things we hold as an eternal verity; There is a lot of support for this kind of emphasis all over the Bible. Isaiah 40:8 says,
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isa 40:8)
Verses like this give us a foundation to stand upon so that we can say “the Bible says.” We can say, “thus saith the Lord,” God says so and therefore it is unimpeachable truth.
Today however, I am going to show you that this is not always the safest position to take because there are occasions when God has changed his word. In fact, I am going to show you where men have caused God to change His word.
God’s word changed
Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. (Jonah 1:1-3)
Now notice that it was God who spoke to Jonah, the Scripture tells us that it was “the word of the Lord” that came to him. God senthim to Nineveh and God told him exactly what he was to say. His message was God’s word, not Jonah’s word. However, instead of obeying the word of the Lord, Jonah decided to run away from God. The people who God chose to be prophets were not normally cowards, so it is strange to find on this occasion that this man seems to be a coward. God tells him, go and warn the Ninevites of coming destruction and instead of going he decides to run away to a place named Tarshish. He is more willing to face God’s disapproval than to face what will happen in Nineveh.
Later on, after his encounter with the great fish, we are told that he finally decided to carry out God’s instructions.
So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. (Jonah 3:3-4)
Jonah’s message was very specific, he gave a definite time of 40 days and declared that at this time, Nineveh would be destroyed so it is clear that the details of the message came from God, not from Jonah, it was not something Jonah was making up as he went along. Jonah was only the bearer of this straight message from God.
So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes (Jonah 3:5-6)
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. (Jonah 3: 10)
The people of Nineveh repented of their evil deeds and as a result, something strange happened; God changed his mind!! When God changed his mind he also changed his word because 40 days passed and Nineveh was not destroyed, the word of God was not fulfilled. The word of God that cannot change nor be altered was changed. This is interesting and we ask the question, how did this happen? What was the mechanism that led to this extraordinary occurrence where the word of God was changed?
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. (Jonah 4:1-2)
Jonah was not happy that God changed his mind, the Scripture says he was “very angry!” As we examine Jonah’s prayer, we discover the reason why he had been afraid to obey the word of God. Astonishingly, Jonah had expected God to change his mind! This was the reason why Jonah had been unwilling to carry the message to Nineveh! Jonah’s main concern had been his reputation! He was not afraid that the Ninevites might have killed him, he was afraid that he might look like a false prophet. This is amazing but this is what human nature is like. The strongest desire is for self to be elevated and Jonah’s complaint was, “before I left my home, I knew this is what you were going to do! That is why I was running from you! Because I knew you were going to ruin my reputation and make me look like a false prophet! I knew you were a gracious and kind God so I decided not to go.”
Greater than God’s words
In this case, Jonah knew the word of the Lord and he also knew the character of God, but his heart was not the same as the heart of God. Can we see that? Although Jonah was a prophet, he did not have God’s heart. As a prophet, the spirit of God worked in him, but I do not believe Jonah had the life of Christ in him. If he had, he could not have been upset that God was kind. Jonah was upset because 120,000 people were saved. In his mind, for the sake of his reputation, it was better that 120,000 people should have died in order that he, Jonah should have retained his reputation of being a “true prophet.”
Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. (Jonah 4:3)
This is really amazing! As far as Jonah was concerned, his reputation was so important that he preferred to die than that he should be known as a prophet whose word failed to come to pass. But it is clear that in spite of his self-centered nature, Jonah understood God’s character. Jonah understood something that a lot of people do not understand, he knew that the character of God is greater than the word of God! I know that this sounds like a strange thing to say, but we will examine this more closely in a while. For this moment I want to say, the character of God is greater than the word of God. In other words, what God speaks out of his mouth can be changed. But what God is can never change. So, if we want true understanding we need to look in the right place. If like the lawyers, we are only looking at words, we will never obtain the true understanding that God wants us to have.
Another biblical example that brings out this principle is found in the encounter that Abraham had with God at the time of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, I am not sure how many people were in Sodom, but I suppose it may have been several thousand. God told Abraham that He was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham was alarmed. I don’t know if it was just because His nephew was in the city but that was probably one of the primary considerations, Abraham started to reason with God, as he tried to get God to adjust his word.
Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen 18:24-25)
The way that Abraham is arguing with God is amazing! He starts to reason with God on the basis of God’s character and he says, “that be far from thee!” His argument was, “you know better than this, I know this is not your style, I know this is not the way you are” That is what Abraham was really saying to God. “You’re not this kind of God, you don’t behave in this kind of way.” Essentially Abraham was saying, “I don’t believe all your word is saying because I know your character.” As Abraham was speaking, I am sure that God was smiling in his heart, because this friend of his, Abraham, knew his heart. He understood God’s character so well that he could tell God what was right and what was wrong.
Another example from the life of Abraham is the incident when he went to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. God is a God of love, mercy and kindness, yet this God who is just and fair said, “take your only son, the son that I gave you by promise, the one that you love, and offer him as a burnt sacrifice; kill him on top of this mountain.” What should Abraham do in this moment? Should he say, “that be far from thee to do after this manner to slay the righteous? I know this is not the way you are. I know that the judge of all the world will do what is right, so how can you be telling me to go and kill my son?’ The problem was that in this case, Abraham could not deny that God had spoken. Somehow, God showed him that the command was coming from him and that he was serious about it, so that there was no doubt in Abraham’s mind.
So, what should he do? I am sure he must have thought, “God is just, merciful, kind and good. How is he telling me to kill my son?” But Abraham knew God and what does his knowledge of God do? Because he knows and trusts God, Abraham finds an amazing way to answer that question. Hebrews 11:19 says,
Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. (Heb 11:19)
Abraham concluded that God’s plan was to bring Isaac back from the dead and I think he expected that when he left that mountain, Isaac would be walking back with him. It is wonderful to know God in this kind of way. No matter how dark things appear to be you know that it is going to work out alright because God is a God of love.
So, what is the key of knowledge? What is this essential factor that gives us the ability to truly obtain the knowledge that really counts? What is this key that the lawyers and doctors had taken away? When we look at the experiences of Abraham, Jonah and many others in the Bible, we conclude that this key to having true knowledge, this key to understanding the will and the purposes of God, is to first of all, know the true nature and character of our God. Regardless of whether we know the Bible from start to finish, if we don’t know the character of God, we are going to be led into all kinds of foolishness.
Not too long ago I heard someone preaching about the character of God. His message was judgmental and condemnatory and it was all about how the people who were not a part of his church were going to be lost. I laughed and cringed at the same time. This was a message from someone who was able to read the Scriptures and could give statement after statement from the Bible, but he had not found the key of knowledge. He did not know God nor understand God’s heart towards people.
This is what the wisest man who ever lived came to understand; this is why he wrote:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (Prov 9:10)
Jesus pointed to the same truth when he said,
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)
Jesus cut through all the smoke and the mirrors and he came straight to the point. Eternal life does not consist in keeping The Sabbath, nor all the commandments put together. Neither is it to know the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, it is simply, “that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” Everything that we need to know is encompassed in this great truth. If we truly know God, we have life. Nothing can keep us from it. This is the key of knowledge.
God’s character is greater than his word, whether written or spoken. Those who know him so that they understand his character have found the key of knowledge, something which will enable them to take hold of that deeper knowledge of God which includes the reality of salvation. This is what I am saying. I am in no way saying that the word of God, spoken or written, is inconsequential. I am saying that sometimes you can read words and misunderstand; sometimes you can use words and you can pick them apart and break them down, but if you don’t understand the character behind the words, you probably will misunderstand those words. That’s what Jesus was saying. He was saying to these people, “you took away the key of knowledge because you are lawyers; you focus on words and statements but you don’t know the person behind these words.” If we just read words, we can come to wrong conclusions because words have no face; they don’t have a smile nor a frown, they have no feelings, they are just statements, usually on paper. If we don’t know the author of the words, we can come to wrong conclusions. We begin to obtain true understanding when we have the knowledge of the holy One. When we put together all the pieces of the Bible and we come to see the true picture of God, then we are beginning to understand, then we have the key to open the door of knowledge.
A word of caution
Having said this, I want to be a little cautious about something. I find that I have to say this very often. I have been teaching on the subject of God’s grace and mercy and God’s righteousness since the year 2005. From that time, I have observed many people who have adopted the theory of the truth about God’s character, but many of them do not know God. Often we find that people like this have taken this truth about God’s character and they use it as an excuse to dishonor the name of God. They say, “we no longer follow the letter of the word of God, we follow the spirit of God,” and they use this as an excuse to do things which are contrary to what the word of God teaches. Not only contrary to His word but also contrary to God’s character and they do it in the name of God’s love and mercy! It is true that God is not a nit-picking God. I agree that God is not obsessed about the little things which we are obsessed about. He isn’t obsessed with whether you are vegan or vegetarian, whether you wear a necktie or a bowtie or no tie. These are things that people obsess about and they make them salvational. Some of these practices may be helpful and beneficial if we practice them, but God is not obsessed with them. However, there is still a lifestyle that God wants for his people. He wants us to live clean, holy, upright lives because we are his sons and daughters and we should be concerned about whether or not our behavior glorifies our father. Some are even willing to justify fornication, adultery, drunkenness, bad language, bouts of anger and irritability and similar traits of carnality, because they know that God saves us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own.
I have often found myself asking the Lord when I go to prayer, “why does this happen? Is this teaching of Righteousness by Faith at fault? Is there something fundamentally wrong with our message?” It disturbs me as I feel that in some ways I am a pioneer in the present understanding of righteousness in Christ. I wonder, why has God’s grace not led me to practice carnality? I am not perfect, I have unholy desires at times and I sometimes lose control and behave in ways that dishonor my father. But I don’t excuse such behavior nor justify it. I reject it whenever it appears and seek the Lord’s strength to not repeat the offence. I take this attitude because I don’t want to dishonor the king. I don’t want to dishonor God because God has set me free! Should I feel that I am free to do anything that I please? Why would I, as a child of God who is born again not want to please him in every way? Why wouldn’t I seek to do all things for the glory of God? Why would I seek to satisfy myself so much that I am finding avenues and ways to step outside of what is the best way?
So I just want to give this word of caution before we continue. We are neither saved nor lost because of our deeds, everything depends on our relationship to Christ who is our righteousness, but at the same time, this does not mean that it is ok to live a life of carelessness. The person who bears the name of Christ and yet is not concerned that his works dishonor the Lord, is a liar and he does not know God, even though he may be very good at quoting the words of Scripture (1 John 2:4).
God’s final word
And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 John 4:16)
God is love. This is the ultimate truth, the one great truth that clarifies and magnifies all other truth. In seeking the knowledge that really counts, statements are very important as long as we understand the character of the person we are dealing with. We know that if God says, “it is not my purpose that you should recover from this illness,” or, “it is my purpose that you should rest in death,” then we know that it is for the good of the person, we know that it is an act based on love because we know God’s character. We know that when God says, “I want to heal,” and the person is not healed it is not because God does not love. There is some other obstruction in the way, because God is love, he is merciful, longsuffering and gracious and these are not just token words referring to a legal state, not at all! This is the truth about what God is like in his nature, in his character, in his heart. I know that when I get to heaven, it will not be presumptuous of me to go and put my head in that almighty lap because the God of the universe is a God of love.
So mere written statements are not the ultimate source of truth that will open up our understanding, that will enable us to obtain knowledge that really matters. It is understanding the character of God that is the key to knowledge. That is why in giving us a true understanding of what he is like, God did not give us mere words, instead, he gave us a living embodiment of his character, in his only begotten son. This is the beautiful reality. The misconception of the lawyers and doctors is well expressed in this statement which I read somewhere many years ago:
The word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and then, through theologians it became words again.
This is the unhappy truth and nothing has really changed over the centuries. Men are prone to exalt and over-emphasize the written word of God when they do not understand the character of God, therefore that written word becomes distorted and a source of confusion because it is still locked until we obtain and apply the key to what is written.
In Hebrews 1:1-2, we are told that in former ages God spoke to men through prophets, but that in these last days he has spoken to us by his son. This does not mean that God no longer uses prophets in this present age, but this passage in Hebrews is expressing a profound truth. Prophets could carry the written or spoken word of God, but as we have seen, written or spoken words can never really give a perfect understanding of what a person is really like. Prophets could say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ as they gave you words. But very often, they did not give you the truth of what God is really like. The great prophet Samuel, who carried the word of God, took king Agag and chopped him into pieces. It is very difficult to see the truth about God’s character of love, God’s heart of tender pity, in that behavior.
But now, in these last days God has spoken to us by his son. This is why Jesus is called “The Word of God.” He is the living embodiment of God, the character of God made visible. He is God shown to us in living color. This is the knowledge of the holy which we need. This is what should guide and direct everything that we believe about God.
I know that there are times when God has to act firmly and move against sin and sinners to prevent the uncontrolled spread of evil. I am not one of those who believes that “God does not kill.” But in order to understand those acts of judgment we must first of all obtain the key of knowledge, we must grasp the truth that God is merciful, gracious, long-suffering, that God is love. From this vantage point we can much better interpret and understand those occasions when God has had to exercise his duty as guardian of the universe, and has had to act in negative ways towards people.
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
Moses brought the words of God – the law, but the truth about God only arrived when Jesus came. The living reality was through Jesus Christ, therefore John tells us,
No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:18)
But I believe that God loves in a practical way. I have gotten some beatings from God, just like I got some beatings from my mother and father because they loved me. I often did not understood some of those beatings from God at the time when they were happening, but I could see the blessing later in life. The week in which I became a Christian my bike was stolen. I had this bike parked in the yard for two years and nobody ever interfered with it, but as soon as I made up my mind to give my life to God, immediately it was stolen! After the shock wore off, by the next day, I was telling God “thank you.” Later I came to understand that at that point, I needed to be without the bike until I had grown in my relationship with God. The bike would have made it easy for me to go back to my old haunts, to my old friends and practices and would have made it too easy for me to backslide. So God used these thieves to cut off my movement for the first few months after I became a Christian until I settled down. I could see the good in it.
Although the hardest things in my life have been permitted by the will of God they helped me to become stronger. God’s love does what needs to be done. The time will come when the wicked need to be destroyed, and God will do it. Because he is a God who deals with what is necessary. His love does not close him off from the reality of what needs to be done.
The final thing I will point out is that God’s love makes him compromise. Consider the case of Naaman the Syrian after he was healed of his leprosy. He went and dipped seven times in the Jordon river as Elisha the prophet had instructed him and he came up cleansed of the disease. He went back to Elisha wanting to reward him by giving him money, but Elisha refused to take any reward from him. What is interesting however, is that Naaman then went on to make another request of Elisha:
And Naaman said, Shall there not then, I pray thee, be given to thy servant two mules’ burden of earth? for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the Lord. In this thing the Lord pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing.” (2 Kings 5:16-18)
What would you have said to Naman? “No you cannot bow to a false god from now on, even if the King of Syria is going to cut off your head”? But Elisha’s answer is not what we might expect from a servant of Jehovah:
And he said unto him, Go in peace. So he departed from him a little way. (2Kgs 5:19)
You see, God takes everybody where he is. If Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had done the same thing, they would have dishonored God. But God sees a man who is coming out of idolatry, who has lived his entire life in idolatry, and now that God has healed him, a little light has come into his mind and he appreciates the God of heaven. But Naaman understands that he is in a dilemma, as one of the chief officers of the king of Syria, and he says, “when I go back my master will want me to bow in the house of Rimmon, ask God to forgive me for this.”
What will God say? Will he say, “let me tell you about idolatry, let me teach you about the commandments and let me give you all the laws of Israel”? No! This heathen man has encountered God and he is returning home with God in his heart, but having very poor understanding of spiritual principles, and God makes allowance for his spiritual immaturity. God is not nit-picking; he compromises because in his love, he understands our situation and he knows that we are only creatures of dust. Those who have greater light are expected to live by that light, but God is dealing with this man where he is.
This is the kind of God we worship. The more we learn about him, the more we see that the great principle behind everything that he does is his awesome character of love. He is merciful, he is gracious, he is understanding, he considers our circumstances, bears with our weaknesses, forgives our failings; in a word, he is on our side, he is not, and never was against us.
When we know God in this way, when this awareness of him is imprinted into our hearts in such a way that we will never be confused into thinking that he is against us, then we have found the key of knowledge! Praise God and with this key, we have access to God’s treasure house where we may behold the wonders of the ways of God.
(Source: David Clayton - Restoration Ministry)