First John 2:4 is a verse that has often been misunderstood. In the New King James Version it reads like this:
He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His
commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
Many evangelical Christians today read these words as though they meant that if a person is living a disobedient life he is not a Christian at all. But there is no good reason to take these words in that sense.
It is true, of course, that a saved person can be said to know God or Christ. In John 17:3 we are told: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” So salvation brings with it the knowledge of God.
But eternal life in the Bible is not just a static entity. It is not merely a measurable essence whose parameters can be precisely defined. Instead, eternal life is the very life of an infinite God. It follows, then, that eternal life can be possessed in varying measures and degrees. This becomes clear to us from our Lord’s words in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
But if eternal life is knowing God, then having that “more abundantly” must mean knowing Him better. Or perhaps we should say that it means knowing Him in a larger number of ways; i.e.,knowing Him at various levels of experience or in various facets of His character and nature. Thus, the New Testament concept of eternal life is fluid enough to allow for various conceptions of what it means to know God.
We should also point out here that in most languages the idea of “knowing” someone tends to be multi-faceted. Thus, I once heard a husband addressing other husbands and saying, “Men, get to know your wife.” No one misunderstood him. Of course, all the married men in his audience already knew their wives. Presumably none of them had married a stranger. But, obviously, this husband’s exhortation really meant: “Get to know your wife in depth.”
There is such a thing as knowing God “in depth,” too. Obviously, such knowledge should spring out of fellowship with Him, just as fellowship with other human beings enables us to know them in depth.
It was clearly about such knowledge of Himself that our Lord was speaking when He said to Philip: “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him” (John 14:7). And when Philip responds with a request to be shown the Father, our Lord gently rebukes his ignorance by saying, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip?” (14:9).
But Philip did know Christ in one sense. He was a saved man and possessed eternal life. Thus, he knew Jesus as God’s appointed Savior. But in the deeper sense in which our Lord was speaking to him, Philip did not know Jesus. Thus he could not perceive how perfectly the Father was reflected to him in the Son. Later on in this chapter (verses 19-24) Jesus speaks to Philip and to the other disciples in terms of a disclosure of Himself to them which is contingent on obedience to His commands.
And it is precisely in a passage like the one in John 14 that we meet the seed-bed for the idea expressed in 1 John 2:4. For in 1 John 2:4 we have the Epistle’s first reference to knowing Christ, and it follows immediately a passage about fellowship with God and with Christ (1 John 1:5–2:2).
Thus, the experience of “knowing” Christ in 1 John 2:4 should not be taken as a reference to the knowledge of God which all born-again people possess. Instead, it refers to that deeper knowledge of our Lord and Master which can arise only out of a life of fellowship with Him and out of obedience to His commands.
Thus, 1 John 2:4 is a warning that any claim a man may make to intimate knowledge of God is a false claim if his life is not a life of obedience to his Lord’s commands.
Getting to know Christ intimately is a great privilege and joy. But it is a privilege and joy which is reserved for the obedient believer.
This is a reprint of an article which originally appeared in the Texas Bible College Journal, Winter 1990, p. 2. Used by permission.
Zane Hodges, a member of the GES board, is an author, scholar, and minister of the gospel. He lives in Mesquite, Texas.