Good Monday morning, and welcome to a new week on the podcast — to a week we are devoting to the theme of knowing and following God’s will. Today we look at the key to it all. Without this key in place, following God’s will will be impossible. Then on Wednesday we look at an example of how one man proceeded with confidence in a real-life decision, knowing he was following God’s will. It’s a great story, and it’s on Wednesday (in APJ 1808). And then we will end this week hearing from a super busy Christian man. How does he prioritize his life when he cannot get everything done? That’s on Friday (in APJ 1809).
So, we start the week talking about the key to knowing and following God’s will. We’ll get there through a Bible question from a listener named Kyle. “Hello, Pastor John! In Colossians 1:9, Paul uses the terms ‘knowledge,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘understanding.’ Do these terms each have a different meaning? How do these three words relate to each other in the context of that passage?”
Yes, I think they do have different meanings, and I think there’s a practical usefulness in trying to understand the differences. But it’s good to keep in mind — as I step back and just let myself think about the difficulties of handling words like this — that, the way the human mind works and the way language works, it would be a mistake to think that words like knowledge (or knowing), wisdom, understanding are so precise that they don’t overlap with each other. They do overlap.
Borders Between Words
The borders between words like knowledge and wisdom and understanding are not like walls, not like fences that are real nice and clear and precise, with one field on one side and one field on the other. They’re more like the space where the fresh water of a river flows into the salt sea. You can’t draw a line between fresh water and salt water, but everybody knows there’s a huge difference between fresh water and salt water.
Words that refer to processes of knowing and words that refer to processes of feeling are inevitably more flexible and more imprecise than words that refer to objects, like dog or daffodil or peach. Acts of knowing and feeling are not like a dog or a daffodil or a peach. You can’t see them; you can’t touch them; you can’t hear them; you can’t smell them; you can’t draw them. How would you draw wisdom? How would you draw understanding? You can’t point to them with your finger; they’re a peculiar kind of reality. And so, when language tries to capture them or give expression to that peculiar kind of reality, we have to leave room for some overlap in meaning. So, that’s a preface to how difficult it is sometimes to do what Kyle is asking me to do.
Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding
Colossians 1:9–10 says,
From the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge [that’s the first word, epignōsis in Greek] of his will in all spiritual wisdom [second word, sophia] and understanding [synesis, sometimes translated ‘insight’], so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God [same word, epignōsis].
So, Paul starts by praying that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, and he ends that prayer by praying that they would go on increasing in the knowledge of God himself.
“Knowing God increasingly and knowing God’s will increasingly are part of the same experience of knowing.”
I think in Paul’s mind, knowing God increasingly and knowing God’s will increasingly are part of the same experience of knowing, because to know somebody, when you think about it, is to know what they love, know what they hate, know what they desire, know what they will. That’s what it means to know them.
Knowing Versus Knowing
But to really grasp what Paul means by knowing God, which I think we must do here at the outset, it helps to look at Romans 1:18–23, where Paul talks about people who are outside Christ and yet have some kind of knowing of God. It says,
By their unrighteousness [they] suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse. For [this is the amazing part] although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.
It’s an amazing statement: “although they knew God” — every human being outside Christ. So, there is a kind of knowing God that is absolutely useless — indeed, worse than useless. It makes you guilty. It takes away your excuse. This is not the kind of knowing God or knowing his will that Paul is praying for in Colossians 1:9. That’s not what he’s praying for. So, the question is, What’s missing? What’s the difference between the knowing God and knowing his will that he’s praying for and the knowing that will only get you damned?
What’s missing is precisely what Paul is praying for in Colossians 1:9 — namely, that we would come to know God and know his will in or by spiritual wisdom and spiritual understanding. The word spiritual modifies both of those nouns — “spiritual wisdom and spiritual understanding.” The key word is spiritual, which in Paul’s language refers to something that is given by and formed by the Holy Spirit. It’s not just a vague feeling of mysticism or something like that. It’s a Holy Spirit–given, a Holy Spirit–shaped wisdom and understanding.
So, what needs to happen so that the man of Romans 1 knows God — the way Paul is praying for us to know God and his will in Colossians 1:9 — is for the Holy Spirit to take away his blindness to the greatness and the beauty and worth of God. And we can watch this happen in 2 Corinthians 4:6, where Paul says, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” So, the formerly blind man of Romans 1 now sees God as glorious. A few verses earlier, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul had said in describing this very miracle, “This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
So, this miracle of seeing God for what he really is, is what Paul means in Colossians 1:9 by “spiritual insight” or “spiritual understanding.” When the Holy Spirit removes our blindness, we don’t just know God as Romans 1 knows God — disapproving, suppressing. We know him as glorious, as infinitely valuable, as worthy of all our allegiance and trust and love. This is spiritual understanding to know him like that.
Now, to stir in the word wisdom — and specifically “spiritual wisdom” — from Colossians 1:9, let’s go back to Romans 1, because Paul does just that; he stirs in the word wisdom.
He’s been describing the unbelieving person as knowing God and yet suppressing that knowledge and failing to thank God and glorify him, and now he describes the same failure in terms of foolishness and pretended wisdom. He says, “They became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” And then they do something that tells you what wisdom is all about: “[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Romans 1:21–23).
“Spirit-given understanding of the true worth of God leads to Spirit-given wisdom.”
So, in Paul’s mind, wisdom and foolishness relate not merely to whether we see things clearly, but whether we make choices or experience preferences that fit reality. If the darkened heart is not illumined by spiritual understanding, then the heart will act foolishly and make the absurd exchange of Romans 1:23, trading away God for something he made. That’s foolish. That’s crazy. And that’s what the lack of wisdom does. Spiritual wisdom would never do that. Spirit-given understanding of the true worth of God leads to Spirit-given wisdom in not making absurd choices that involve treating other things as more valuable than God.
Knowledge of His Will
So, in answer to Kyle’s question, one way to describe the difference between spiritual wisdom and spiritual understanding is that spiritual understanding is the work of the Spirit enabling us to see reality (particularly God and his ways, his will) for what they really are — namely, great and beautiful and valuable and wise — while spiritual wisdom is the effect of that spiritual understanding upon the way we evaluate things, the way we experience preferences in our preferring heart, and the way we make choices that accord with (or not), that are in harmony with (or not), reality and are not the result of our former blindness.
So, when Paul prays in Colossians 1:9 that we would be “filled with the knowledge of his will in [or by] all spiritual wisdom and [spiritual] understanding,” he’s asking God to pour out his Holy Spirit upon us, and that more and more the Spirit would remove our blindness and the dimness of our ability to see God for who he really is. Then, as a fruit of that spiritual understanding, we would have spiritual wisdom that experiences preferences and makes choices that are in harmony with reality. And then, when those two are operating the way they should, we will be filled with the knowledge of God’s will for our daily lives.