Thursday, August 20, 2015

J.I. Packer’s “Knowing God”

The sermon at our church this past Sunday was on Acts 13, the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul (Paul) by the church at Antioch for what we know as Paul’s first missionary journey. Two things about the passage I found particularly striking.

First, the selection and commissioning of the two was unexpected. While the church was worshipping and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke, likely through someone in the church, to set Barnabas and Saul apart “for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). This wasn’t a suggestion or proposal by Barnabas and Saul; this wasn’t the result of a great plan of missions and outreach by the church. It happened during the normal course of worship.

And the pair were immediately commissioned; instead, there was more fasting and prayer and then the church “placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).

Second, no one had any idea where they were going. Barnabas and Saul didn’t have a presentation on the spiritual needs of Cyprus or Galatia. Instead, the two were “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:4). They make their way to Seleucia, the seaport for Antioch about 16 miles from the city. From there, they sail to Cyprus and eventually to Pisidian Antioch in Galatia, in what is now Turkey.

This doesn’t sound at all like what I have known of the churches I’ve attended. Imagine being in a regular Sunday worship service and someone stands up, points to Joe and Susan Miller, and says they are to be set apart for the work of the Lord. We would all think that a little strange, and I bet Joe and Susan Miller would find even more than a little strange.

But that’s how God worked in the church at Antioch. And I ask myself the question, how well do I know God?

I’m getting ready to find out.

I first read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God some 40 years ago. I might have reread it some 10 or 15 years later, but it has remained on the bookshelf, a work I treasured.

Tim Challies, associate pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, is leading a reading of Knowing God starting today (you can find the details here). Challies has a popular blog, Informing the Reforming, and every so often he leads a discussion of a classic Christian work. Knowing God has been a classic Christian work from its first publication in 1973.

Here’s what Packer wrote in the foreword to the 1973 edition: “The conviction behind the book is that ignorance of God – ignorance of both his ways and of the practice of communion with him – lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”

Can we say anything is different 42 years later? Can we say it might possibly be worse?

Challies is well-suited to leading this discussion. If you’re familiar with his blog, you know the depth of his understanding and how he works to provide resources to help build knowledge and encourage the body of believers we call the church. He reflects a Reformed Christian tradition, which is the same tradition of my own church in St. Louis. He’s the cofounder of Cruciform Press and the author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (2007), Sexual Detox: A Guide For Guys Who Are Sick of Porn (2010), and The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion (2011).

All that’s required to participate is to follow along. I may occasionally post articles here but I’m not planning on a regular weekly post. But I will be following and participating in the discussion at Tim’s blog and via social media.

Consider joining the reading. It’s a wonderful work, and it’s needed just as much now as when it was first published.

Photograph by Christina Spiegeland via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

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