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by Al Maxey

Issue #801 -- July 12, 2020
No man's knowledge here can
go beyond his experience.

John Locke {1632-1704}

The Omniscient Witness
Reflecting on Genesis 22:12b

"To arrive at knowledge slowly, by one's own experience, is better than to learn by rote, in a hurry, facts that other people know, and then, being glutted with their words, to lose one's own free, observant, and inquisitive ability to study." So wrote the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) whose teaching methods and principles of learning would help shape modern elementary education. Pestalozzi recognized the worth of personal research and study in the acquiring of knowledge. Plato, who lived several centuries before the coming of Christ, correctly observed, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind" [The Republic]. Each of these men, in his own way, has sought to stress the importance of individual inquiry and reflection, rather than a regurgitation of facts learned by rote, in the educational process. Thinking for ourselves and seeking understanding for the purpose of practical implementation of that insight in daily living is not even remotely the same as one who mindlessly parrots the positions and perceptions of others. The former is an attribute of genuine education, the latter merely an attribute of indoctrination. In a speech delivered on October 8, 1952 at the University of Wisconsin, Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), a noted American lawyer, politician, and diplomat, stated, "If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us." This is precisely where many fail in that pursuit, for they fear the inevitable changes that may be required of them by their greater knowledge and understanding.

As much as we humans may long for and seek after fullness of knowledge and understanding, the reality is that we shall never acquire it. None of us are, or ever will be, omniscient. This also holds true for other such unattainable attributes as omnipotence and omnipresence. Not a single one of us can claim to be fully present everywhere at the same time or all-powerful, just as we can't claim to be all-seeing or all-knowing (although we have probably each encountered those who thought they "knew it all"). The first of these terms mentioned above, "omniscience," refers to the ability to KNOW absolutely everything; to know all things fully and perfectly and without the possibility of ever being wrong. This is an ability mankind has generally attributed to deity, and "Scripture everywhere teaches the absolute universality of the divine knowledge" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 599]. "The 'all-knowing' God is an inescapable teaching of the Scriptures. Support for this is on almost every page, as any systematic theology attests" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 532]. "The Bible teaches God's complete knowledge of all things. God knows to an infinite degree all that is both actual and possible" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1248]. Considering such an abundance of biblical testimony, it is odd that the terms "omniscience" and "omniscient" are totally lacking in both the OT and NT writings. "This term does not appear in Scripture as either a noun or an adjective" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 532].

"Scripture connects God's knowledge with His omnipresence. Psalm 139 is the clearest expression of this. Omniscience is the omnipresence of cognition. It is also closely related to God's eternity, which makes Him in His knowledge independent of the limitations of time. God's creative relation to all that exists is represented as underlying His omniscience. His all-comprehensive purpose forms the basis of His knowledge of all events and developments" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 599]. God knows all things because it was He who created all things. God knows all things because all things are part of His eternal purpose and design. Before all things, during all things, and after all things, God IS the great I AM. The "space-time continuum," as it is known in physics, has no hold upon Him, nor is He limited in any way by them; His presence encompasses and even transcends the fullness of both. I dealt with this briefly in my article titled "Four Dimension Comprehension" (Reflections #603). As for David's insight into this, notice this portion of the above-mentioned Psalm 139: "O Lord, You have searched me and You know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue You know it completely, O Lord" (vs. 1-4). "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there" (vs. 6-8). "All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be" (vs. 16).

God is the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, always present, only immortal, eternal I AM. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) indirectly characterized our Sovereign as "a brooding omnipresence in the sky." I think I far prefer the more positive characterization of Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, who captured these various aspects of the divine nature beautifully when they referred to the Lord as "The Omniscient Witness" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory, p. 31]. He knows the number of the hairs on your head, and He knows whenever a little sparrow falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29-30). He is the "all-seeing eye" from whom nothing is hidden, and the "all-knowing" Presence who is aware of our every thought and perceives every yearning of our hearts. Our purposes and motives, good and bad, are laid bare before Him. Our Sovereign knows when His servants suffer; He knows when their hearts rejoice. He hears their cries; He hears their prayers. In fact, these truths are the very foundation of our trust in Him, for we have faith that He is there, that He sees, that He knows, and that He cares! "The very essence of religion as communion with God depends on His all-comprehensive cognizance of the life of every person at every moment" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 599].

It is for this reason that some students, as well as scholars, of the Scriptures find certain passages within these sacred writings troubling, for they seem to suggest, when taken at face value, that the above assertions as to the nature of deity may not be as true as we might like to think. Maybe the Lord isn't present all the time; maybe He isn't aware of everything happening in His creation; maybe He doesn't have the power to deal decisively with the deadly darkness that surrounds us. Maybe He doesn't see every tear, or hear every prayer, or observe every injustice. To the true believer, these are terrifying propositions! This is why some passages trouble us at first reading, for they do indeed appear on the surface to teach such faith-challenging doctrines. In this current issue of Reflections we will examine one such passage. The event in question is one very familiar to us: the call to Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. The text for this is found in Genesis 22, which I would encourage you to read before proceeding with this study. Go back and refresh your memory. For those who would like additional background on this event, you may want to spend some time considering my in-depth study titled "Faith-Testing Near-Death Narrative" (Reflections #780), which I wrote last August.

With that narrative now fresh (or refreshed) in your mind, take a look at what is said to Abraham just as he was about to plunge the knife into his only son: "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me" (Genesis 22:12, New American Standard Bible). Although some find this whole story very troubling (for it seems to go against the character of God to call for a human sacrifice), the particular phrase that has raised eyebrows over the centuries is: "for now I know." NOW He knows?! Are you telling me He didn't know before? You mean the outcome of this whole thing, where "God tested Abraham" (Genesis 22:1), was unknown to the One doing the testing?! What happened to "omniscience"? Does it come and go? If so, how does that fact impact our trust and faith in Him? Can we really be certain of His care for us if we can't be certain of the reliability of His very nature?! Sometimes He knows, sometimes He doesn't; sometimes He sees, sometimes He doesn't; sometimes He's there, sometimes He isn't; sometimes He has power to act on our behalf, sometimes He doesn't. If this is true, is our "faith" little more than a desperate hope that we might catch Him on a good day when we need Him most?!

These are important questions, and in some ways even troubling ones, for they compel us to critically appraise the very nature of our God. That almost smacks of blasphemy in our minds, for we are conditioned never to question or challenge the major doctrines or dogmas of our forefathers in the faith. Yet, such questions need to be asked, and we should be willing to critically examine such matters in light of His revelation to us about Himself in the Scriptures. The question before us is a legitimate one: if deity is omniscient by nature, then in what sense are we to understand the phrase "now I know"? Doesn't this suggest to our minds the possibility that He may not have fully known the outcome of His test of Abraham's character and resolve? If so, how do we reconcile that lack of knowledge with the doctrine of divine omniscience? As we reflect upon these matters, and as we prayerfully ponder them, there are several things which cry out for attention.

First, who is it that spoke those words to Abraham? Was it God? Most people, when asked this question, will generally state it was God. After all, as the narrative begins we are informed that "GOD tested Abraham" (Genesis 22:1). That verse also tells us that it was God who gave Abraham the directions he was to follow, and in verse 3 we are told that Abraham "went to the place of which GOD had told him." This is stated again in verse 9. It was God who tested Abraham, and it was God who spoke to him, giving him the directions he was to follow. In verse 11, however, we find a significant change in the narrative. No longer is God said to be the one speaking to Abraham. Instead, for the remainder of the story it is "the Angel of the Lord" with whom Abraham converses. On the other hand, when comparing verse 1 and verse 11, we see that the initial conversation, both the call and the response, is the same wording. As one examines the conversation that occurs between Abraham and "the Angel of the Lord," one is left wondering: is this "angel" speaking for God, or is this "angel" speaking as God? The language is somewhat ambiguous; one could make a case for either view. Part of the solution is found in the identity of "the Angel of the Lord." This phrase is found several times in the OT writings, and most scholars believe it refers to that part of the "Godhead" that would, at a point in the future, take on flesh and live among us. In other words, this is a reference to "the pre-incarnate Word of God" (i.e., Jesus the Messiah).

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. ... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-2, 14). Many believe "the Word" spoke to Abraham. God the Father tested Abraham, telling him where to go to make this sacrifice, but when the moment came to slay his only begotten son, the "Word" (the pre-incarnate Son) stepped into the narrative and informed Abraham that a substitutionary sacrifice would be provided. How appropriate that "the Angel of the Lord" should appear at this point in the story, for the account is actually pointing to the Word's ultimate sacrifice on that very mount. Yet, whether this speaker is God the Father (making this a "Theophany") or God the Son/Word (making this a "Christophany") has long been debated, although most scholars favor the latter. Either way, we can safely say that the phrase "now I know" was spoken by deity. If we accept that "the Angel of the Lord" is a reference to that part of deity that would one day become "God with us" (Immanuel) in the flesh, then the phrase "now I know" is not as troubling, for Jesus made it clear to His own disciples that there were things the Father knew that the Son did not. Speaking of the second coming (the Parousia), for example, Jesus declared, "Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matthew 24:36). One could make the argument, therefore, that "now I know" would be a natural response on this occasion from "the Son," but it would be less so coming from "the Father." This leads to the speculation, then, that this "test" of Abraham by God may well have, at least in part, been for the benefit (enlightenment and encouragement) of "the Angel of the Lord" (the pre-incarnate Word). Thus, it would be appropriate for the Word to stop the sacrifice that day, for it would be the Word who, on that same spot, would one day in the future become that sacrifice!

Another strong possibility, and one that has long been popular among scholars, is that deity (whether Father or Son) is here speaking in words which humanity (Abraham) would understand. The theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote that these "words are used anthropomorphically" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 1, p. 284]. "The statement 'now I know' should not be taken to mean that God does not know all things. Rather, this is an anthropomorphic statement (in which one speaks of God as if He were human). The whole context shows that the purpose of this entire ordeal was not to secure information for God but to probe the depths of Abraham's faith. ... This passage demonstrates graphically that in OT and NT times alike God wants first the man - his heart, his commitment, his trust - and then, and only then, his sacrifices or gifts" [Dr. John T. Willis, Genesis, p. 293-294]. In fact, the International Standard Version, one of the newer translations on the market, has rendered Genesis 22:12 thusly: "Don't do anything to him, because I've just demonstrated that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only unique one, from Me." This is not a passage about divine omniscience, but about human faith, and in particular a demonstration of the true character of the latter for the benefit of the observer. As already noted, some feel this successful test of Abraham's faith was for the benefit of the pre-incarnate Word. More likely, it was a demonstration of the genuineness of faith that Abraham himself needed.

God the Father did not need this test. He already knew the outcome. Abraham, and those around him, however, did need this demonstration of the true nature of his faith. Would it stand the test of an inconceivable challenge?! Would Abraham's faith allow him to commit an unthinkable act, one that seemed contrary to all reason? "God knew what Abraham would do; but Abraham and Sarah, and all who were around them must know" [Dr. Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings, p. 374]. God did not need to actually see Abraham slaughter Isaac. From the perspective of the Throne, wrote the Scottish pastor Alexander MacLaren (1826-1910), "obedience is complete when the inward surrender is complete; the outward act was needless. The outward deed is only the coarse medium through which it is made visible for men; God looks on purpose as performance" [Expositions of Holy Scripture, e-Sword]. "The Lord knew that the sacrifice was already accomplished in his heart, and he had fully satisfied the requirements of God" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1, p. 250].

Yes, God knew what the outcome of this test of Abraham's faith would be. Indeed, the hand of Abraham was restrained because God did not actually need this act to be completed, for He was able to perceive that the act had already been completed in the heart of Abraham. That intent of heart, that resolve of faith, therefore, was sufficient for God. It is for the sake of mankind that faith must be made visible (see James 2), not for the sake of God. The English pastor and theologian John Gill (1697-1771) wrote, "God, by trying Abraham, made it manifest to others, to all the world, to all that should hear of or read this account of things, that Abraham was a man that feared God, loved Him, believed in Him, and obeyed Him, of which this instance is a full and convincing proof" [Exposition of the Bible, e-Sword]. Yes, our God is indeed "The Omniscient Witness," for He sees, hears, and knows ALL. Human beings, who are far less knowledgeable of the hearts and minds of those around them, need visible manifestations of faith and trust in order to gain a glimpse of what our God already knows and beholds within us. This "knowing" is not just for those around us; it is for ourselves as well. When the account in Genesis 22 is perceived in this light, it becomes far more encouraging to us, generating confidence rather than confusion.


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I loved your guest Reflections by Dr. Barry Perryman on Legalism and Gnosticism titled "It's About the Righteousness of God" (Reflections #800). I think I may have an illustration that clearly explains how the two work and how they disrupt spirituality. As I have told you before, I am a recovered alcoholic. I am what some might call "extremely legalistic" when it comes to alcohol consumption. I stay away from it with a passion. My motivation, however, is not because I think that alcohol consumption is sinful (God made it, so it's good according to the Scriptures), but because alcohol consumption cuts into my love for Christ and my ability to serve Him. Therefore, I avoid it like nobody's business! I love what my sobriety does for my spirituality, so while some might view it as legalism, I view it as a gift I have been given to live a better life. That being said, I also have had "Christians" tell me that since I've been saved, I can therefore now drink alcohol. There is absolutely no reason, they tell me, why I shouldn't be able to have a drink, and because I don't drink, they say that I therefore must not have a full understanding of God's grace. Needless to say, taking a legalistic view of alcohol use is ridiculous. Some people may have a beer or a glass of wine and are perfectly fine. If someone wants to have a glass of wine with their dinner, more power to them! It's just not for me! I've already had all of my allotted drinks for a lifetime! Also, I must be very conscientious about any alcohol entering my system, for it will negatively impact my connection to Christ. Just because someone who is a diabetic is saved doesn't mean that they can now eat as much sugar as they want. Hopefully, that illustrates the point somewhat.

From a Reader in Tanzania, Africa:

Al, this is just a brief comment about Lynn Wooley's "PS" comment in Reflections #800. We have a real problem when we think to limit our time in the assembly. Why? Are there more important things to do with our time? Maybe watch a football game? Maybe beat the Baptists to the local eating place? Perhaps go fishing? Does this perhaps indicate a deeper spiritual problem? I repeat, does this perhaps indicate a very real spiritual problem? I know it does. Could it be that such people are anxious to get out and go tell someone of God's love? As a 78 year old retired preacher, I see a trend in our assemblies. I heard the same complaints back in the 70's. Watch that clock. I even had an elder give me a tie with an alarm clock attached to it. This was funny then, but not so funny now. May I be so brash as to suggest we are losing or have lost our faith?! I think I have heard about all the rationalizations I care to entertain on this matter. Must come with old age!

From a Reader in Canada:

At the end of his "PS" remarks, Lynn Wooley wrote: "It often causes me to long for a time when we can sit together, share a meal, encourage one another around a table and reflect on what Jesus means to us, breaking bread and sharing the cup of remembrance without being concerned about time." When I read that, I thought to myself: I would really like to be at that table, even as the disciples were at a table with the Lord Jesus when He first instituted the breaking of bread (representing His body) and drinking from the cup of wine (representing His shed blood). Wouldn't it be a great idea to have a potluck dinner at an assembly and keep the Lord's Supper during that meal in remembrance of His sacrificial offering of Himself for our sins?! Al, I deeply appreciate all you do for all of us. You are truly a brother to me in the Lord.

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, thank you for this latest Reflections and for sharing the article by Dr. Barry Perryman. It is indeed true that these two insidious doctrines (Legalism and Gnosticism) threatened the early church and were vigorously opposed. I love the emphasis on Romans 3:21-31. I would like to know this brother's view on the correlation between justification by faith and water baptism in reference to a statement he makes in his writing. We are well here: only 22 deaths so far in New Zealand from covid-19. I personally believe God is trying to teach us something from all of this. Incidentally, Dolly Parton has a new song titled "Try" which conveys this thought. I personally feel one thing that is evident to me is that it does show that God is in control, not the opposite. It has concerned me for some time also that people have been rushing through life, and this has been particularly true in the area of traveling anywhere at a moment's notice. We have been scattered, but too often not for the right reasons. The early church in Jerusalem grew because they obeyed the strategy of Jesus in Acts 1:8.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Al, as you may remember, I sent you a copy of my new book back in January. The title is "God's Woman Revisited: Women and the Church." I taught with Dr. Stephen Eckstein at the Bible Chair at Eastern New Mexico University from 1977-1984. A friend of mine follows your Reflections regularly, and from what he shared with me I concluded you might have an interest in having that book on women in the church. Shortly after that book was published, several friends suggested that I might want to write an abbreviated version of the book for the average church member who may not be interested in all the detail of the original book. To address that need, I wrote "God's Woman Revisited: Pocket Edition." It was released in late April on Amazon (in both paperback and Kindle e-book formats). The original book had 356 pages and over 500 footnotes. The pocket edition has only 156 pages and no footnotes. However, I have added discussion questions at the end of each of the 13 chapters to facilitate the book's use as a resource in adult Bible classes and small group meetings at church. Since you have the other book, I just wanted to update you on the latest one. It will appear on the "New and Noteworthy" page of the Christian Chronicle in August.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

I have been out of contact for a good while, but let me send my belated condolences on the passing of your precious Dad. My dad passed away 37 years ago this month, and I miss him every day. I do read each of your articles and am blessed by them. They are certainly encouraging during these times of "lockdown" and uncertainty. I hope and pray you and Shelly and your family are doing well. I pray for all of you!

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