September 1, 2023
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Knowing, Seeing, Experiencing God

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” (Jn 10:14). What is the biblical meaning of the word ‘to know’? In order to understand this better, let us look at the meaning of knowing from the Hellenistic and Hebrew point of view. The word ‘knowing’ has different meanings in the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages.

First we look at the Hellenistic, the Greek meaning. In Greek tradition, knowing the word is comparable to seeing the word. We see something to understand it. For example, to see a stone is to understand that this is a stone. Hermes is one of many gods in the ancient Greek religion. He is the messenger of the gods who brings the message of the gods to mortals and also translates and interprets it (hermeneutics). Hermes is often portrayed as a shepherd deity or as a kriophoros (ram bearer). One of the prayers to Hermes is: “I know you, Hermes, who you are and whence you are. I also know your barbarous names. … I know you, Hermes, and you know me. I am you and you are I.”[1] In the ancient Greek religion, knowing God means seeing him with inner eyes, looking at him. So, is the Greek religious act more contemplation about being, or the reality of God?

The Hebrew meaning of the word ‘knowing’ is not to see as in Greek, but to experience. How do the different meanings of the word ‘knowing’ reflect in the Greek and Hebrew context of religion? For the Greeks, knowing means seeing or understanding, but in Hebrew, knowing means experiencing. For Hebrews, Israelites, the primary thing is not to look at God, but to experience God, to come into contact with God. Accordingly, for Israelites, the first priority is not religious contemplation and inner gathering, but the possibility of making a covenant with God, just as God made a covenant with Abraham, with Moses or with the Israelites.

Against this background, we understand what the good shepherd meant by the words: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (Jn 10:14). This mutual knowledge of the shepherd and his sheep, Christ and His people, does not simply mean knowing or seeing, but represents an intimate, heartfelt bond and is reflected in the intimate love between God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (Jn 10:14). How does one understand this bond? The next sentence explains this: “…just as the Father knows me and I know the Father….” (Jn 10:15). That is, as the Son is in His Father, so must the people be in the Son, Jesus Christ. “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).

Often we Christians lack this experience of God, this experience of Jesus Christ. Many Christians in their religion are satisfied with the ancient Greek mentality concerning God, to just know God. They are even very much impressed by God. However, they do not take steps to come into personal contact with God, as the Israelites do.

Many say that ‘I believe in God’, meaning that ‘I know that there is a God’. Many have a wonderful knowledge of God or Jesus Christ and often have passionate discussions about God even in their families. A deep theology, solid structures, organizations and beautiful churches are all necessary. Have these Christians also experienced Jesus Christ, have they experienced God? This is what many Christians lack. No wonder the world does not believe us! (cf. Jn 17:21).

Every time Christians leave the Church after Mass, they should not leave empty without having experienced union with God, but having experienced a loving, intimate and heartfelt union with our Lord and God, the Good Shepherd.

[1] (Bauer, 137). Word Biblical Commentary, in Commentary on John 10:14.

Illustration photo, Judith Cronauer.