In the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays a working-class, underappreciated, young man with a remarkable mind. After assaulting a police officer, Damon’s character is assigned to work through his problems with a therapist, played by Robin Williams. One scene from this film has always stuck in my mind.
Sitting on a bench as swans swim by, Williams’ character speaks to his client about the difference between knowing something intellectually and truly knowing something experientially. He says, “If I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book that’s been written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him… life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope… the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”
You see, some things cannot be fully explained or understood in a merely intellectual manner. Some things simply must be experienced. For instance, it’s one thing to hear about God and to accept facts about Him, similarly to how one might hear and accept facts about George Washington. However, it is something completely different to have a true encounter with God.
One of the major claims of Biblical Christianity is that one does not simply know about God but one can actually know God. In fact, knowing God is not an optional benefit for Christians, but rather a necessity. Knowing God is what salvation is all about (John 17:3). Christianity, biblically speaking, is not merely a religion of mental assent, but of experiential encounter. An individual who is dead in his sins (Ephesians 2:1) is granted new birth (John 3:3) when God radically intervenes in his or her life (Luke 19:10). Therefore, Christianity cannot be something that is merely believed in a solely intellectual way, but something one also believes through experience.
Simon was a fisherman by trade. Not only was he a fisherman, but likely his father and his grandfather were also fisherman. Simon, later known as the Apostle Peter, would have grown up learning the art and science of fishing. He would have learned the tools of the trade, the best methods to employ, and the waters that he would spend hours and hours on every week. Peter knew how to fish. Yet one day Jesus, who was not a fisherman by trade, told Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). How did Peter respond?
Peter first heard about Jesus from his brother Andrew (John 1:41), and while he may have had some intellectual ideas about who this man was, Peter didn’t truly know Jesus. That is what makes this moment so interesting. Jesus told the professional fisherman to put out his nets and Peter replied, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). Peter would normally have ignored anyone else’s suggestion to let down the nets. They were out on the water all night and caught nothing! And after all, Peter was the expert. However, Jesus tells him to try one more time and Peter listens.
Perhaps it’s not much of a stretch to say that Peter may have been trying to discern this Jesus. Who is this man? Peter had spent time listening to Him preach and yes, indeed, Jesus preached with authority (Matthew 7:29). But could He be more than an inspired, exciting speaker? This is an important question we all have to ask ourselves even today. You see, I know a lot of people that have an intellectual opinion about Jesus, but I question if they truly know Jesus. That is, have they experienced Him?
After Peter threw the nets back into the water, the nets began to break because of the large number of fish caught inside it. The net was so full, in fact, that Peter had to call his partners in another boat to come and help. Jesus was right. Or was He more than right? Did Jesus simply predict what would happen or did He ordain what was to happen? What’s the difference? The difference is between Jesus being a mere man or the God-Man.
I think it is important for us to look at how Peter viewed his own experience. He jumped out of the boat, fell on his face before Jesus, and cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Why this response? Why not just be amazed at witnessing a miracle? It’s important to note that Peter’s response points us to his understanding of who Jesus truly is. In other words, Peter’s head knowledge was transformed and became experiential knowledge. In this encounter, Peter saw that Jesus is God in the flesh and the immediate experience of being in the presence of his Creator caused Peter to recognize his own fallen creatureliness. This is the same sort of response Isaiah had when he encountered the living God. Falling on his face, Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for 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!” (Isaiah 6:5).
You see, when one has a true encounter with God, he is changed from the inside out. And when an individual comes to see who God is, he will be confronted with who he is. Why? Because God is holy and I am not. Because God is good and I am not. However, God made a way for fallen people to be forgiven and redeemed. Anyone who puts their faith in Christ and what He has accomplished through His death and resurrection can come to truly know God.
Have you encountered God? Have you been confronted with your sin in light of the holiness of God? Instead of thinking it’s good enough to know things about God in a merely philosophical or intellectual manner, open up the Bible and pray that you would have a life-changing encounter with the living God through His holy word.