Dr. Harold Bryson tells of the two boys who went to their pastor to request his advice on what they could do to help people. The pastor told them of a blind man who would love to have someone come and read the Bible to him. The man was delighted when the boys came and told him of their plan. "Where do you want us to begin," they asked? "Well," he said, "Since you will be coming back each week, let's start with Matthew, and read through the New Testament." So the boys began their reading, and as you recall, they first chapter of Matthew is full of begats. "Let's skip this list of names," the boys suggested. "No, read them all," the blind man urged. It was an effort, but they plowed through the list the best they could. When they finished they noticed tears coming down the blind mans cheeks. "What is so emotional about a list of names"? one of the boys asked. The blind man said, "God knew everyone of those fellows, and he knew them by name. Boys, that makes me feel important to know that God knows me, and He knows my name."
You don't have to make a name for yourself to be known by name to God, for God knows the least as well as the greatest by name. In fact, God not only knows all persons by name, He has even assigned names to His inanimate creation. Ps. 147:4 says, "He has determined the number of the stars and calls them each by name." The implications of this are amazing, for if God even gives names to the billions and trillions of stars, then you can be assured there has never been a nameless person ever conceived. The unknown soldiers of the world are known to God. The John and Jane Does of the world have a name to God. All of the unknown and unnamed of history are known and named in the mind of God, for God is omniscient, which means, He is all-knowing.
Even the human mind can be amazing in what it can know. One night just before the orchestra was to play, the bassoon player rushed over to the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini and said his instrument would not play E-flat. Toscanini held his head in his hands a moment and said, "It will be all right-the note E-flat does not appear in your music tonight." He was a genius, and knew every detail of his music.
This is impressive, but it cannot compare to Gods knowing the number of hairs on our heads. This is not very stable information, and it changes with every combing, yet it is not impossible for an omniscient God to be aware of this constant variation. It makes even our best computers primitive by comparison. But our text takes us to that which is beyond the borders of comprehension. Jesus takes us into the realm of God's omniscience that is so mind-boggling and incomprehensible that many theologian reject it as impossible.
Jesus goes beyond saying God knows everything that has ever been, that is, and that will ever be. That sounds like a sufficient body of knowledge to qualify God for being omniscient. But Jesus goes one step further into a realm of knowing that man cannot follow. Jesus says God can even know what might have been. God can actually know the answer to all of the what if questions of life. What if Jesus would have come into history centuries earlier, and done His miracles in Tyre and Sidon, or even the notorious Sodom? Jesus says not only does God know what would have been, and how these wicked cities would have responded, but He says His judgment of these people will be modified by this knowing of what might have been. They will be less severely judged because God knows that they would have repented had they gotten the same chance as Bethsaida and Capernaum.
Jesus takes Gods omniscience into a realm that is so beyond the mind of man that as far as I can determine it is an embarrassment to many theologians. You sometimes have to choose between the God of the theologians and the God of Jesus, and here is a case in point. Many theologians lock God into only being able to know what He has foreordained or predestined. In other words, they say the reason God knows all is because He has decreed to be. Even the great Jonathan Edwards said, "Without decree foreknowledge could not exist." In other words, all God can know is what He has decreed to be. But Jesus says God not only can know what He would do in all possible situations, but He can know what men would do in all possible situations. It was not determined that Sodom would receive Christ's miracles and repent. Just the opposite was the case, but God knew they would have repented had they received those miracles. This is hard to grasp-more like impossible, so the theologians back off from this text. We need to thank God for tough passages like this, for they set God free from the bondage of man's schemes.
The omniscience level to which Jesus exalts God is necessary, for without it theologians would think they had gone beyond Paul, and were not limited to seeing in part, and seeing through a glass darkly. They would limit God to a system that is very human so that we could comprehend God. The very goal of such a scheme, however, is contrary to the Bible. Paul says in Rom. 11:33-34, "How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out. Who has known the mind of the Lord."
It is an important part of our knowledge of God that we know we cannot know Him as He knows us. He knows us completely, but we can only know Him partially. This means God is by His very nature incomprehensible. This means whatever we know about God is not the ultimate in what is knowable about God. God knows much more about Himself than what He could reveal to us because it is beyond our capacity to comprehend. The experience of the honest theologian is like that of the poet who wrote-
I have ridden the wind, I have ridden the stars,
I have ridden the force that flies,
With far intent through the firmament,
As each to each allies;
And everywhere that a thought may dare
To gallop, mine has trod--
Only to stand at last on the strand
Where just beyond lies God.
God is always beyond us, or He would not be God. A God we could fully comprehend would be unworthy of our worship and adoration. We would worship our own minds if they had such a capacity as to comprehend God. I like the way one theologian put it-"We are not presumptuous Lilliputians, running out with verbal stakes and threads, to pin down the tall, majestic Gulliver of the Eternal and dance in theological exaltation round our captive."
The wise theologian and laymen alike recognize that God is not bound by our grasp of him. Job 11:7-8 is a series of questions that speak to this issue. "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the almighty? They are higher than the heavens-what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave-what can you know?" There is no basis for pride in theology, for what we know of God, He has either made clear by His creation in His world, or by His revelation in His word. There is much basis, however, for humility as we consider how much we do not know, and cannot know, because as God says in Isaiah 55:9, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." How much higher are the heavens than the earth? Even this is beyond our measure, for we have not yet comprehended the creation of God, and this is but the work of His fingers.
God created us to love Him, and not to comprehend Him. We have to know much about Him to love Him, but to ever think that we fully grasp Him is to begin to lose Him, for in pride we are setting up our knowledge as a mental idol of the true God, who is vastly superior to knowledge of Him. Only the humble theologian is truly Biblical theologian, for He will not pretend to have God boxed up with no loose ends, but will say with Alexander Pope-
Thou Great First Cause, least understood,
Who all my sense confin'd,
To know but this, that thou art God,
And that myself am blind.
Thank God He makes the blind to see and by His grace He has given light abundant, and we know all we need to know about God to be saved, and to fulfill His purpose. But let us never forget He is always more than we know. When David considered the omniscience of God in his own life, and of how God knew when he rose or sat, went in or out, and knew the thoughts of his mind, and the words he would speak before he spoke them, he says in Ps. 139:6, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain."
Wise theologian know how little they can know of God's all-knowing. The old Puritans like Richard Baxter could say, "You may know God but not comprehend Him." Richard Sibbes, "You shall apprehend God but not comprehend Him." Stephen Charnock, "It is visible that God is, it is invisible what He is."
What this means is, we can know how God knows much, but we cannot know how He knows all. Some people can do two or three things at once, and some have such powers of concentration they can remember hundreds of things at the same time, but this is all amateur night compared to God. God specializes in everything, and attends to all things that exist at once. Some of this is comprehensible. God naturally knows all that He has predetermined. I can do this. I can know that tomorrow I will go to the store, read John 1, take out the garbage, and change oil in my car. If I have determined this is what I will do, it is no big deal to know that I will do this. I can have foreknowledge of these, and of who I will talk to if I intend to contact them. I can relate to this kind of knowing and foreknowing, for I can have this myself. The difference is that God can be sure He can do what He plans, and I may not be able to carry out my plans.
Jesus does not limit God to knowing only what He has foreordained. God did not foreordain that His son would be known in the days of Sodom. In fact, He ordained that He would not be born then. Nevertheless Jesus says God can know what might have been had He chosen a different course of history. It is no wonder theologians shy away from this passage. It is so mind-boggling that nobody can grasp it. It makes God so free and unbound in His knowledge that He cannot be made to fit into any system of theology that man has devised.
All agree this is the hardest of the attributes of God to grasp. We can grasp how God can know all He has ordained, for that is fairly easy. We can see how it is possible for God to know what is happening anywhere in the universe. His omnipresence makes this inevitable. If God is everywhere present He will know everything that is a part of reality. Prov. 15:3 says, "The eyes of the Lord are everywhere keeping watch on the wicked and the good." Heb. 4:13 says, "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account." The eye has been a symbol of God all through history. The ancient Egyptians used it, and the seal on our dollar bills has the eye of God over the pyramid, symbolizing His watchful providence over the land.
Knowing what is determined is not impressive knowledge. Astronomers can predict when Haley's Comet will return, for it is already determined. Knowing what is happening in your presence is also not all that profound. We can know what is happening in our presence. But when we move into the realm of God knowing the free acts of men before they make them, this gets more complicated and makes theologians struggle for answers. Two of the easy ways out are to deny foreknowledge, or to deny there are any free acts. Many go both ways, but they are cop outs from the Biblical view that says both are real.
If you deny that men are free to receive or reject God's will, then you will be hard pressed to figure out why Jesus is so angry at these cities of Israel. He is angry and threatens them with severe judgment, for they had great evidence of the Messiah in all the miracles of Jesus. In fact, many of the major miracles Jesus performed took place in or around Capernaum. No other place had such evidence, and to whom much is given much shall be required.
Ignorance is an excuse, for you cannot be as accountable for what you don't know as for what is made clear. They had clear evidence, and God will hold them accountable in the day of judgment for this evidence. They will be worse off then those in Sodom, who never saw a miracle in their life. Those in Sodom were more wicked, but they were so because of their darkness. God does not hold them responsible for the light they did not have. But He does hold those responsible who had the light. Because men are judged according to the light they have, all agree there will be different degrees of punishment of the lost. Jesus is saying these sophisticated and religious Jews will suffer greater judgment than those awful Gentiles who were so terrible God had to wipe them off the face of the earth.
Alexander Maclaren, the great English preacher, points out that we today are walking in light far greater even than that of Capernaum. They did not have the cross, resurrection, ascension, and promise of the second coming. We have the full gospel plus two thousand years of its impact on history. They had a flood light compared to Sodom's candle, but we have the noon day sun. How much greater will be the judgment on the modern world if they reject the salvation and teachings of Christ?
The apathy of those Jesus condemned was their greatest sin. They did nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence to do everything. They could have been the highest, but they will be the lowest, for they did nothing with their light. "The measure of light is the measure of responsibility." America has a higher obligation to be Christian than does Libya, Russia, Syria, Iran, etc. They do not have the light that we do. Guilt is relative to knowledge. If I tell my son not to take my car because something is wrong with it and I need to get it fixed before it is driven, and he takes it anyway, my judgment is going to be more severe than if I forgot to tell him of the problem. It is deliberate disobedience when you go against knowledge. The same damage maybe done in ignorance, but the person is not as responsible when they do it in ignorance.
The people of Capernaum would regard the people of Sodom with abhorrence, yet they were more guilty, and will suffer greater judgment than the wicked people of Sodom, because they sinned against light, and Sodom sinned in darkness. All people of all time and all places will be treated equal by God, for they will be judged on how they responded to what they knew, and how they might have responded had they had the same light that others had. You cannot beat this for fair and square justice for all.
God's omniscience makes Him the only completely and absolutely fair judge that has ever been or could ever be. No other judge can know all of the facts, and all of the knowledge to make an absolutely perfect judgment. Only God can have the knowledge adequate to be the final judge of men, for He alone can know what might have been had the guilty been given the same opportunities as the innocent.
He also knows the opposite-what would the innocent have done had they been confronted with the same temptations as the guilty. "There but for the grace of God go I," is a famous statement we all must say, for had we been raised in the same environment, and had the same circumstances to face as those now in prison, would we be there now as well? God only knows, but because He knows, He also knows where those prisoners would be if they had the blessings, love, and support we have had. They may be far more thankful and responsive to the grace of God than we have been. We can conceive of Jesus saying, "If the population of the Stillwater prison would have had the spiritual resources you have had, they would have done ten times with it what you have done. So they will be better off in the day of judgment than you, for you have returned little on the vast investment God has made in you."
When you get into God's omniscience on this level, it can be a powerful motivator. It makes you think about how His all-knowing will have an effect on all of our lives in judgment.
If this was the only place in the Bible that this idea of God knowing what might have been, but never happened, then we would have the right to be cautious, even though these are the words of our Lord. It is not that we should ever doubt Him, but it is right to question a rare idea, especially if it is based on one text alone. But the idea of God's knowing what might have been is illustrated for us elsewhere in God's word. In I Sam. 23 Saul is persuing David, and he hears that David has gone to the town of Keilah. When David learned that Saul knew his whereabouts, he prayed to God for guidance and said, "O Lord God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me. Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down as your servant has heard? O Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant. And the Lord said He will. Again David asked, will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul? And the Lord said, they will."
Now, if we stop here, we have God giving a direct positive yes to these questions, and so it should be assumed that what God has said will be, will be, for He said yes, Saul will come to Keilah, and yes, the citizens of Keilah will turn you over to Saul. It is all cut and dried. God knows the future, and He tells David what it will be. But the surprise is in the next verse which says, "So David and his men, about 600 in number, left Keilah and kept moving from place to place. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he did not go there."
The very things that God said would be did not happen at all. Saul did not come to Keilah, and the people did not surrender David, for David used the knowledge of the future to change the future so that the future that God foresaw did not take place. The point is, God could know what would have been for sure had David stayed there. It never became a part of history, but it might have, and God knew what would have been, but never was.
God also said in forty days Ninevah will be destroyed. It was a sure thing, yet it never happened because what God foresaw was changed by their repentance. Had they not repented history would have been just as he saw it. This is so fascinating that it makes Bible study the most fun you can have in life. God's knowing of something does not mean that it will certainly be, for by prayer we can gain insight that can change what is going to be. God sees all the possibilities. God may see that I will go off the road and get injured. The fatalist says if God sees that, than its all over, nothing can be done to change it. What is to be will be. But the Bible led believer says, I will pray for God's guidance before I make this trip, and I will be sensitive to the leading of His spirit. This can enable me to use precaution, and take actions that will prevent what God sees from being the actual story. God saw what would be if David had not prayed, and had stayed. But David did pray and did not stay, and this changed so that what God saw was to be, never came to be.
If this was not the case, all prayer would be meaningless. If all is locked in, and whatever will be will be, then asking God for anything is a waste of time, for regardless of your prayer whatever will be will be. The Bible says prayer changes things-even the things God knows will be if things are not changed. God knew Saul would come to Keilah, but David prayed and changed his plans, and Saul didn't come to Keilah. Prayer can even change what God knows will be. God has made man not a mere puppet, but a co-writer of the play of history. We can change the scene and the lines, and have an enormous role in determining the course of history. This is why we need to pray without ceasing, for every action we take, and every attitude we express, is deciding our future.
God can see the future when we do His will, and He can see the future where we do not do His will. He can see the future where His name is honored through us, and the one where it is not. He can see the future where we are delivered from temptation, and the one where we are not. The point of prayer is to help us tap into the all-knowing mind of God, and get the feed back we need to make the choices that will produce the positive history rather than the negative one of what might be. Prayer is so vital to our not doing foolish, stupid, and sinful things. The brightness of our future depends upon our being in a prayerful state of mind.
We cannot comprehend the omniscience of God, but like many other realities of life that are beyond us, such as light, electricity, gravity, etc. We can use it for making our lives more than they can ever be without it. Let us never cease to pray, and seek for more light in God's word, for by these resources we write daily a better story of our own history, for by these means we plug into the mind of our God who is omniscient.