This is part two of a multi-part series you can find part one here.
Today I was running and listening to John Bevere’s book Killing Kryptonite: Destroy What Steals Your Strength and I got to thinking about the topic of knowing if a teaching is from God or not. What has interested me for some time is how often people from God in scripture expect their audience to get the fact that they are giving reliable information about spiritual things often even during the first time they have spoken to the people. For instance, Paul went to synagogues and marketplaces and started out not by talking about his credentials but by reasoning that Jesus was the Christ. He did this famously in Athens in Acts 17 arguing to the Gentiles who would listen that there was one God, that that God was the God the Jewish people believed in and that that Jesus Christ was the key to the salvation needed before that God and somewhat shockingly some believed! Or when the prophets of the Old Testament went to give their first message they often did not have miracles to prove their prophetic standing instead there was an expectation that the people should know the words are from God (For instance see Jeremiah’s first speech in Jeremiah 26). There is something about the word of someone speaking for God that is recognizable without credentials, discernable without much context at all.
The General Knowledge of God
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.Romans 1:18-23
The heavens declare the glory of God,Psalm 19:1-4
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
There is a general truth about the world that God is in it and is obvious in it. The Psalmist says the heavens or nature, they stars reality itself pour forth speech and knowledge about God and His glory. Paul says that God’s just standard and attributes can be known and what follows from this is that what it takes to be obedient to God is known by all. This is the foundation for all of the half truths about God that are generally known all over. In China for instance in addition to other gods their was worship of the King of Heaven, in the Greek and Roman pantheon there was always a god who stood above all other gods. These legends point to something of God but often have fallen very far from the reality dilutingGod to a character in a story rather than the God He is. These stories though show a gleam of light into the reality that all people have this basic knowledge of God and so on that basis for instance the Gentiles in Athens could recognize some truthfulness in what Paul said.
Scripture Gives More Clear Knowledge
The Jews however, had a little more than the average person because as Jesus says “Salvation is from the Jews”. The writer of Hebrews says it well:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.Hebrews 1:1-3
In other words, the OT gives more clarity on what God has to say and then His Son Jesus finally gives even further clarity. Now, a question that can come up here is if God is unjust for not giving every person in history equal access to Jesus’ Word. I am sure the answer is a resounding no. As Paul points out in Romans the basic knowledge we have of who God is and what the right standard of living is, is enough to condemn us to be separated from God for our disobedience to that standard by willfully doing things we know are against His will and wrong in how we treat our neighbor.
The Truth is Recognizable
All this backdrop serves to make the main point, that when we here God’s truth we can discern it is from God by using what we know of His general revelation if a person has not utterly rejected Him, then more clearly by comparing it to His Word and most clearly by really getting to know Jesus most especially by repenting, receiving Him as our Lord and Savior and receiving His gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2, John 16:13).
This is the reason for God’s answer for instance when Jeremiah was surrounded by false prophets, Jeremiah complained:
For the land is full of adulterers;Jeremiah 23:10-11
because of the curse the land mourns,
and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.
Their course is evil,
and their might is not right.
“Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
even in my house I have found their evil,
declares the Lord.
God’s answer was:
Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?Jeremiah 23:28-29
Imagine being Jeremiah in a generation where almost everyone else was giving a completely wrong message and saying it was from God then loudly saying Jeremiah was telling lies. Jeremiah must have wanted God to immediately act in some way to justify the truth yet, God says in effect His word is a completely separate and recognizable thing from the straw that the false prophets are preaching. If the people of Israel would desire the Lord, they would repent and, in their repentance, recognize the God who they knew spoke through Jeremiah. Unfortunately, in Jeremiah’s day most did not.
Also remember Jesus’ evidence He gave in John 5. First and foremost, He says
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.John 5:37-38
In other words in the Jews had known the Father then they would be able to recognize the Father in Jesus teaching, they could recognize the message was from Him just like a long lost lover could recognize their loved one years later, because they knew the person and could recognize the patterns in that person’s speech, their likes, their personality, their loves, passions etc etc. Notably, in the very next verse Jesus says the Jews then should have known Him based on the scriptures but they also did not square totally with the scriptures and so missed the obvious reference to Him that is found there.
What’s the Point?
Today, there is a tendency for believers to first go to commentaries, to listen to the pastor to interpret scripture only with a cognizant spiritual advisor who is specialized with scripture who can give them the interpretation. I have found most Christians take a TON of convincing to really believe they can read a speech from Jesus or a letter from Paul and really get the meaning. The false truths taught about literary criticism often leave our generation with a false veil between them and God created by the generation and sometimes sadly proclaimed by the church. This leads not only to a separateness from God but also all kinds of false teachings and people trying to get to God someway around scripture. The answer is to know we can and are expected to discern the truth. In the same way too when we speak the truth others have the ability to discern if they are really in line with what God says, this provides tremendous freedom to witnessing and discipleship which is so needed in the lives of individual followers of Jesus today.