Real or Not?
What is real? These days, answering this question could be harder than you think. Edgar Allan Poe coined the famous line, “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” That was 175 years ago. Today, the ratio might be far less. Today, anyone with a social media account can become an armchair reporter, political commentator, or amateur scientist with a few swipes on their smartphone. Fake photos, fake recordings, and even fake videos circulate around the Internet, and they’re getting harder and harder to spot. The word of the day, everywhere, is “Fake News!”
That’s not to mention that anybody can be anybody they want to be, on the Internet—just like the famous cartoon caption: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” You can go on social media, and pretend to be anybody you want to be. Girls, imagine the shock of going on a first date with a guy you met online, only to discover he’s twenty years older than he said on his profile, and already been married three times! It happens!
And so, we wonder—what is really real? Can we even know what is real? Is it worth the effort?
These are fundamental questions in the study of philosophy. Ontology ask the question: “what is really real?” Epistemology deals with the next logical question: “how do we know? How do we know what is real?” Well, unless you’re a philosopher, you probably don’t lie awake at night pondering the answers to these questions. But at some level, we all have some working idea of how we would answer these questions. And how we answer these questions defines something that we call, Worldview.
What is worldview? We use the term “worldview” to refer to the set of presuppositions that we hold about reality—the world around us. You could say that your “worldview” is the interpretive framework that you use to understand reality. You could also say that “worldview” is the story we tell ourselves about the world around us. Not the story that’s happening day to day, but the underlying assumptions we make, that we use to interpret what we consciously think about.
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who sees the world very differently than you do? Have you ever wondered why people just don’t “get it” when you try to explain something that seems totally obvious? Many of the arguments and disagreements people have in the real world, come down to a clash of worldviews.
Arguments can be bad
enough, when we argue over things that we can see and measure. But
our disagreements get exponentially worse, when we disagree over
things that we can’t see. What is the nature of reality? What is
the primary, or most important, or fundamental reality? What fact
explains all other “realities” in the world and the universe? The
way we answer these questions forms the basis of our
For the secular mind, prime reality is “matter in motion.” The secular mind has a hard time grasping any concept that does not fit in this framework of matter in motion. The concept of God is outside the interpretive framework of the secular mind.
Christians, on the other hand, look beyond “matter in motion” to find a reality that transcends the physical realm. In fact, virtually all people of faith have some concept of a being that we call, generically, “God.” For us, as people of faith, reality begins with “God.”
Through the creation story, everything that exists, exist because of God. Matter and motion exist because of God. We exist because of God.
That explains, in a nutshell, two broad worldviews that are common in the world. There are others, of course—Muslims, Hindus, and Animists all have different worldviews. But even within these broad categories of “worldview” there is almost infinite variation.
It would be easy to assume that, since all Christians generally believe in God, that we must generally have the right conception of Who He is. After all, God is “big” and “strong,” and he’s been around for a really long time, and you don’t argue with what He says, right?
Well, that may all be true, but what else is true about God? What is His nature? Who is He like? The way we answer these questions can have fundamental and far-reaching impacts on our beliefs, understanding, and behavior. It impacts how we view God, and how we relate to others around us.
As Christians, even though we all say we believe in God, we actually have a lot of different ideas about who “God” actually is. When we read the stories of the Bible, we interpret those stories based on our pre-conceived ideas of who God is. But have you ever stopped to consider that God may be more, far more, then you ever thought or imagined?
Have you ever met a celebrity in person? Before you met them, you might have had all kinds of ideas who he or she was like. Maybe you thought they were tall, or short, or had a certain personality—and when you met them you discovered they were totally different than you imagined they would be?
I remember growing up, my family would always get the AFM Magazine. I would read the amazing stories of missionaries in far away lands, and dream of what it might be like to be a missionary. But then, one day, one of those missionary families came to our church. I imagined that they must be some kind of Spiritual Superheros—people who were always quoting Bible verses and talking about God. People who always knew the right answer to every question and every situation. But as I got to know them, I realized that they were just real people—people just like my family, who were dedicated to God and wanting to serve Him. They certainly didn’t know the answer to every question—but they knew where to go when they didn’t have an answer.
That encounter with “real” missionaries changed my conception of mission life. That was the first time that I imagined that perhaps I, too, could be a missionary. And it wasn’t long before I found myself in Africa, working as a student missionary in the same mission fields I had dreamed of as a kid.
I think this simple story from my experience illustrates the message of this book—the Bible. We say that the Bible is a book about God. We call it God’s book, or God’s word. But when you actually go to read it, you will find that it is mostly a book of stories. Stories of people like you and me, who all have different ideas about God.
But when these people in the Bible actually have an encounter with God, they are surprised. Amazed. Overwhelmed. Because they discover that God is far more then they ever imagined Him to be. It revolutionizes their worldview, because it revolutionizes their view of God.
When Isaiah had a vision of God, he had already begun to prophecy. Already, he had been carrying God’s message to the people of Israel. But in Isaiah 6, when he “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up,” when he heard the heavenly angels and saw the glory of God, he cried out in despair, (verse 5)
“Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts.”
Time and again, throughout Scripture, when men and women have a personal encounter with God, they are forever changed. All of their ideas about Him—all of their presuppositions, all of their beliefs, are challenged—shaken to the core, by the reality of Who He is.
Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the experience of Jacob. Early in his life, after Jacob had deceived his father, as he was fleeing to his uncle Laban, he laid down in the wilderness, with only a stone as his pillow. Weary from his journey, his heart was weighed down with wondering. “What have I done? Have I forfeited the promise God has made to my fathers, by my sin?” But as he fell asleep, he saw a vision of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, and angels ascending and descending. In that instant, he realized that God had not forsaken him. God reiterated to him the promise made He had made to his fathers. As Jacob awoke, he exclaimed “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) He had an entirely knew picture of that desolate wilderness, because he had encountered God, and God had altered his worldview.
But this was not the last time Jacob encountered the God of Heaven. After the years he spent in the land of Padan Aram, after he married and God had blessed him with children, flocks, and heards, Jacob again crossed the wildreness, returning to the land God had promised to give to him and his descendants. This time, he had every assurance that God was with him. This time, the desolate wilderness was bright with the presence of angels—angels whom he could see now, because of his dream so many years before. Then he got the message—Esau is coming to meet you with a band of four hundred armed men!
Jacob’s heart was stricken with terror. His sin in deceiving his father weighed down upon his heart. Now it seemed that not only he, but his innocent wives and children would be slaughtered. He fell to his knees in prayer, and began pouring out his heart to the God of heaven.
At that moment, he felt a strong hand on his shoulder. In an instant he was on his feet, wrestling to the death with this mysterious assailant. For the rest of the night, they wrestled. As the day broke, the two were still in deadlock, when the stranger reached down and touched Jacob’s thigh.
Instantly, Jacob fell to the ground, crippled. But now, he clung to the stranger, pleading– “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”
That stranger was none other than the son of God Himself. And he blessed Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)
Genesis 32:30: “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'”
There is so much profound meaning in this story of Jacob, wrestling with the God. Jacob thought that he knew God. He had served God all his life. He had had a personal encounter with God on his first journey, when He saw the vision of the ladder. But despite everything he knew, when he encountered the stranger in the night, he didn’t recognize Him. He wrestled with him, until the breaking of the day. It wasn’t until Jacob’s body was broken by the Divine hand, that he recognized Who he had been struggling with. But he knew enough of God, that in that moment of recognition, he clung to him with the same strength that he had struggled with him, and would not let go until he had received the blessing.
Jacob thought he knew God, but when he encountered God, he found Him to be far more than he had ever imagined him to be. And from that day forward, he was never the same again. He had a new name—Israel, a Prince! He also had a new gate. As he crossed over to where Esau was, he was limping. I wonder, why did God leave him crippled? It seems to be a rather strange blessing, but a blessing it was. Because when Esau saw his brother, limping as he was, he ran and hugged him, and kissed him. Jacob’s life was saved—and the lives of his whole family, because Jacob had had an encounter with God. And for the rest of his life, every time Jacob leaned on his staff, he remembered the day he became a cripple—the day he had wrestled with God.
And so it has been, for everyone who has ever encountered God. Not the way you expect Him to be. Not a stereotype, but a real, personal being. One who loves you, far more than you could ever imagine.
What is really real? If the heart of reality, as we say, is “God,” than wouldn’t you want to get to know Him? What does it take to get to know someone like that? Like Jacob, sometimes you have to wrestle with Him. Hand to hand combat, if you will. When you encounter Him, you may have to wrestle against everything you ever thought you know about Him. But I can assure you—that once you encounter Him, you will never be the same again.
The most fundamental truth about God found in the Bible is found in 1 John 4:16: “God is love.” We started exploring this idea in my last message, about David and Absalom, and the “outrageous” love of God.
I would submit to you that the prime reality of the universe is the reality of God—not a God who is all powerful, and all supreme, and infinite in life and knowledge and everything else, as true as all of these statements are. Yes God is all these things, for without them God would not be God. But the prime reality of the universe is found in the words of Scripture: God is love. Not that He has love, or that He shows love, but that the very core of His being is love.
Because of His love, God didn’t wait for his wayward creatures to seek an encounter with Him. Over and over, He came to this world, seeking to tell us about Himself. Finally, in the ultimate expression of His love, God became a man, in the person of Jesus Christ. He took on human form, and was born into this world. He lived among us, teaching us by example what it means to live a life of love. But to the religious leaders, His appearance as a humble Galilean appeared so radically different to their expectations, they couldn’t bring themselves to accept him. Like Jacob, the inhabitants of this world had to wrestle with this Unknown Stranger. Who was He? Who is He? Could this truly be the God of heaven? Or is He an imposture?
He came as a babe, born in Bethlehem. He lived in poverty. Like prophets of old, He rebuked the hypocrisy and pretensions of self-proclaimed religious leaders. He worked miracles. He taught the word of God.
And he made amazing claims—he claimed to be the Son of God, and in fact, he claimed to be God Himself! He said to the Jews in John 8:56-58, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad. … Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”
John testified of Him that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) And he declared in vision to John, in Revelation 1:10 “I am the Alpha and the Omega.”
Some accepted him. Others rejected Him. Those who rejected him took him, arrested him, and crucified him. But the tomb could not hold Him, and he arose triumphant from the grave. Even in His death, Jesus accomplished more than His enemies could have possibly imagined.
To this day, many Christians still struggle to understand this thought. Who is Jesus? Where did He come from? How can we describe the relationship He had with His Heavenly Father before His incarnation? Can One God exist in plurality? If Jesus is God’s Son, how can He claim to be Divine?
I believe that today, we must still wrestle with these questions. I don’t believe it’s possible for us, as finite creatures, to ever fully comprehend the mystery of the infinite God. But we can know what is revealed to us—and we must avail ourselves of this knowledge, to the intent that we may believe.
Let me ask the same question again that I asked in the beginning: How do we know what is real? There may be more than one correct answer, but at the heart of it, I believe every one of us must have a close and personal encounter with our ultimate reality. Not just to read about God. Not just to talk about Him, but to encounter Him in person. To experience His presence–yes understanding Him from His word, but also entering into relationship with Him, and asking Him to make Himself real to you.
The most beautiful verse in all of Scripture encapsulates the Good News about God in these words:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
What does it mean to “believe in Him”? I believe it means to have an encounter with Him—a personal relationship, a “wrestling” if you will, until you cling to him as though your entire life depends upon it.
In my next message, I hope to dive deeper into the meaning of John 3:16. I hope we can “wrestle” together for some answers to the perplexing questions about “Who is God” and “Who is Jesus.” We will never reach the bottom. We will never fully understand God, but we can and we must study what is revealed to us about Him.
But today, I want to leave you to ponder this one question: Have you had your encounter with God? If so, are you wrestling with Him? Are you pouring your energy into that encounter, as though your life depends on it? How is He challenging your conceptions of Him? How is he breaking you, in order to make you again? How is He changing you at your very core?
Maybe you’re not sure if you’ve encountered Him. Maybe you’ve encountered Him in the past, but like Jacob, you’re longing for another encounter with Him.
My friends, I invite you today to claim to promise of God, found in Jeremiah 29:13 “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
Are you, my friend, seeking that saving encounter with Him? Are you seeking it with all your heart? Are you willing, yes, to be wounded and broken by that stone, so that you may enter into life, halting upon your staff? My friends, He is already searching for you. If you are searching for Him, you will have an encounter with Him. He will challenge your conceptions of Him down to the very core of your being. And He will be more to you than you ever thought or imagined He could be!