I just love science fiction movies. A number of years ago one of them appeared with the title Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was a great title for the story, and I was sure I remembered it in intricate detail until this week when I tried to think what the encounters of the three kinds were. Can you remember them? The first level of encounter was seeing a UFO, that is a visual encounter. The second level of encounter was something that involved physical evidence. If you saw the picture you know that there were all kinds of electrical phenomena—cars would go dead, the lights in the houses would go out, the refrigerator doors would pop open, and things like that. And then there were the encounters of a third kind, and naturally they were the best of all. That is when the people in the movie actually met an alien and had contact with it face to face.
Now I have used the title of that movie in order to develop a title for this series of conversations which Jesus Christ had with the people of his day as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, changing it from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to “Encounters of the Fourth Kind.” That, of course, is meant to pique your curiosity. What are encounters of the fourth kind? Or for that matter, since we’re speaking spiritually, what are encounters of the first, second, and third kinds, too? Well, the answer to that comes, if you have ever read it, from the opening chapters of J. I. Packer’s book on knowing God. At the beginning of that book, Packer discusses four different ways of knowing. He wants to talk about knowing God and explains what knowing God means, but in order to do that he has to talk about the various levels at which we use the word.
We use the word, he suggests, in the first place, for mere awareness. That’s the kind of knowledge you might have of something that exists in the world but of which you have no experience or no other direct information. Someone might say, “I know that London is the capital of the British Empire.” Even if they have never been there, they nevertheless are aware of this fact. That is knowing of the first kind.
And then there is a second kind of knowing, as Packer explains, where you really begin to get some information about the subject. You could read a book about London, for example, and as you read it begin to learn something of the buildings that are there, the streets that run through the city, the events that take place during the course of a year, and other things like that. At that point if somebody said to you, “Do you know anything about London?” you could very legitimately say, “Yes, I do.” You could then proceed to talk about those things. That is head knowledge or book knowledge.
The third kind of knowing is knowing by experience. This is the kind of knowledge you would have if you went over to London and actually spent a summer in that great city. You would be able to say, “I know London. I know it well. I’ve walked the streets. I’ve looked at the houses. I’ve attended the concerts and done all the other things you do in London.”
But then there is still a fourth kind of knowing, and this is the kind of knowing that we have in mind when we talk about knowing God. Because, you see, to merely be aware of God, the first kind of knowledge, is not a saving knowledge. This basic awareness of God which all men have is what Paul writes about in the first chapter of Romans. Everyone’s aware that there is a God. One has to be a moral fool to deny God’s existence. Others have the second kind of knowledge because they know a lot about God. These are the theologians who have gained a great deal of knowledge about God from studying. But you can be a great theologian and still not be saved. Still others go further by having the third kind of knowledge. They say, “No, it’s more than that with me. I don’t only know about God from reading about him. I’ve actually experienced God in some sense. I have been out in the fields on summer nights and gazed up into the heavens and seen the stars, the wonders of his handiwork, and I have sensed something of the wisdom and majesty of God in that experience.” And that, of course, is very true, and yet a person can have that and nevertheless not be saved.
Knowledge of the fourth kind, or to use the terminology I’m using for this series, an “Encounter of the Fourth Kind,” is not merely an encounter with God’s bare existence or what you can learn about him in theology or even experience about him on a starlit night, but that kind of encounter in which we come to know him personally and are ourselves changed inevitably in that process. It’s in that sense that I’m talking about these encounters that people had with Jesus Christ.
Did it ever occur to you when you’ve studied the Gospels and read these stories that nobody ever met Jesus Christ who wasn’t changed? People were changed in different ways, of course. Some were hardened, just as clay gets when it’s exposed to the sun. They were unbelieving, and having encountered the truth in Jesus Christ and resisting it they became even harder and more unbelieving than they were before. But at other times, the times which bring us joy as we read the stories, hearts were softened. Lives were changed. Illnesses were healed. And people who had been going in a contrary way were rescued by Jesus Christ, brought to faith, and ushered by him into life eternal.
I suppose, because most messages should be applied along the way and not merely at the end, that we should really make an application right there. You have undoubtedly known something about Jesus Christ and about God through Jesus. And you may even say, “Well, I have heard a great deal of theology and I believe it.” You see, that is all very good—certainly better than not knowing it. But it’s not the ultimate question. The question is, have you had an encounter of the fourth kind? That is, have you had a personal meeting with Jesus Christ as a result of which you inevitably are changed? You see, the change in your life is proof of the profession. A lot of people say, “Oh yes, I know him.” In Christ’s day he said, “They call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet they don’t do what I say.” They would say, “We know who he is. Why of course, he’s the Lord.” Yes, but they weren’t changed as a result. They were still obeying themselves. They weren’t following the Master. And so there’s a question even before we get into the study of these encounters. Have you encountered Christ, and have you been changed as a result? If there are no changes, if nothing has happened as a result of your meeting with Jesus Christ, then we should do what we are admonished to do in Scripture, and that is check to make your calling and election sure. Examine your heart, and if you have not come to faith in Jesus Christ, do so quickly.