Hearsay or Experience – How Do We Know God?

This  Palm Sunday sermon is from 1961. To learn more about the history behind it, click here.

Christ Before Pilate / Mihály Munkácsy

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” John 18:33-37 (RSV)

Dear friends in Christ:

Palm Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent. In the Bible we read of a great procession. Multitudes marched with Jesus into Jerusalem. Crowds met Him on the way and joined the procession. A great multitude spread their garments on the ground, others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road, and shouted, “Blessed is He that commeth in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the Highest.”

Only kings were welcomed in such a fashion. People asked, “Who is this king of glory?” We find the answer in many passages of the Bible. Even in the Old Testament, long before Christ was born, David gave the answer, “It is the Lord strong and mighty. Open your gates that the king of glory may come in” (Psalm 24).

It was a tremendous display that first Palm Sunday. The news of Christ’s entry was discussed in many a home that night. Many rejoiced and said, we can look toward a brighter future. Others consulted with each other and formulated devilish plans. They decided they must strike and do it fast; otherwise all the people would follow Jesus and they would lose their support.

The cries “Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” were also heard in the palace of the Governor. However, Pontius Pilate saw no reason for getting upset. He thought to himself, Rome has nothing to fear from this son of David with His few unlearned and uneducated disciples. Most probably he didn’t even put his garrison on alert, but expected it to quiet down in no time.

But in this he was wrong. In the early hours Friday morning he stood face to face with this son of David, who was none other than Jesus Christ. It was a dramatic scene. Pilate was somewhat disturbed. I assume he said to himself, “Is this humble, meek man a pretender to the throne of David? It can’t be. He is different from all who have ever been brought before me. This one will never occupy the seat of David.” Still he asked Jesus the following question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied by asking his own question, “Are you saying this of yourself, or have others told it to you about me?” In other words, Christ asked this man in high office whether he was speaking on the basis hearsay or from his own conviction. This was a searching and daring question. The Lord gave this man another chance. Pilate could still decide for or against Christ. The divine voice still spoke to him. When Jesus stood before King Herod, He did not speak to him. The divine voice was silent. When that happens, when God does not speak to us anymore, neither through His word nor the Holy Spirit, then we are in mortal danger. Christ still spoke to Pilate. He heard the divine voice, inviting him to convert hearsay to experience.

I realize quite well that in a sense this story is unique. The two met face to face; Jesus stood in person before Pilate. However, in a wider sense, the Lord’s question is also addressed to each of us. We claim to be His followers; we acknowledge His kingship, but for many His kingship is only a matter of hearsay, not experience. Are you saying this on your own, or because others say it? Is it based on hearsay or experience? Hearsay can be of great importance, but when it comes to religion, it is not enough.

What is good about hearsay? In many fields it is extremely valuable. We are indebted to hearsay for most of our knowledge. For instance, how much do we know about history? Very little first hand. We heard that someone discovered America. Since he beat us to it, we must depend on hearsay; we weren’t present. It is so with almost every other fact in history.

Astronomers tell us that the sun is 92,900,000 miles from the earth. They also tell us that the temperature there is 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It could well be that in their measurement they are a few feet off, and in estimating the temperature they may have made a mistake of 1-2 degrees, but we don’t dispute it, because we depend entirely on hearsay in matters of astronomy. In America we have a saying that runs, “I’ll take your word for it.” That is what we do in a great many things. In China we had a dispensary. Some bottles were labeled “Poison, not to be taken internally.” We never asked anyone to swallow that medicine, not because we had any proof that it would kill people, but because we believed someone’s word; we depended on hearsay.

Even in religious matters hearsay is priceless, and makes the Bible the most precious book in the world. For example, one saint testified, “I prayed unto the Lord and he heard me and delivered me from all my fears.” What his fears were he does not say, but he tells us that when he prayed the whole pack of wolves left him. In a sense this is hearsay, at least for us, but it is a hearsay that warms our hearts. God delivered that man from his fears, and since He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, He will do the same for us. We can also read the story of Joseph. How dark was his way, how hopeless his situation. He was sold as a slave at an auction. A few years later he had managed to climb into a position of responsibility. Then he was cast into a prison. Yet later he would say, “God sent me this way in order to save many people.” Priceless are all testimonies of men and women of God. They experienced God in their days and give testimony of it. We read the stories and are encouraged by the faith of others. As I say, even in religion hearsay is precious, but it is certainly not enough. Hearsay has to change into experience.

Why, you ask. Because only experience can satisfy the human soul. It is well to know about God, and we should learn as much about Him as possible. Children and young people should do this; so should adults. Yet no knowledge about God can take the place of knowing God Himself. You may be an expert on bread. You may know how to bake it and may know the amount of calories in a slice or a loaf, but no knowledge of bread can satisfy hunger. You many know everything about water and still die of thirst. No knowledge of water will save you when your lips are parched. Only drinking water will bring relief.

When King David prayed, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God,” (Psalm 42:1) he expressed a universal longing. “Lord, show us the Father,” prayed the disciples, and another saint said, “O that I knew where to find Him.” These prayers are as old as man and as new as the latest rain-drop.

The prophet Isaiah, watching the people in their mad rush for pleasure, preached, “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Is. 55:2). People were hungry for something and tried to satisfy their hunger with things that gave no satisfaction. In our day, many have not found in religion what they once hoped to find. They can say “The Lord is a shepherd,” but they cannot say, The Lord is my shepherd,” because they have not experienced the living God. Their religion is based on hearsay, not experience. Unless we convert hearsay to experience there is no spiritual certainty and no full satisfaction.

People who have experienced the saving power of Christ have always been willing and eager to share their experience with others. In the New Testament we have the story of a leper whom the Lord healed. The poor man prayed, “Lord, if you will you can make me clean.” The Lord said, “I will, be clean, but tell no one about it.” But the healed leper was so full that he just couldn’t keep silent. I assume he told the first person he met, “Look at me; I was a leper, but now I am cured. Jesus did it.”

In the Old Testament we have the story of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. It seems he wasn’t very successful, which doesn’t mean he was not faithful. He was often in prison and dungeons. More than once he made up his mind not to preach any more. “What’s the use? No one repents, they only hate and persecute me,” he said to himself. But as often as he made the resolution to stop preaching, he ended up breaking it, because the word of God was as a fire shut up in his bones. He had burning convictions and he had to proclaim them. He had experienced God, not just heard about Him. Not hearsay, but experience.

We all know the experience of the early Apostles. Two of them were sentenced and forbidden to speak about Jesus. But Peter and John said, “We cannot but speak of the things which we have seen and heard.” Their experience with the living God compelled them to speak.

There is something compelling about a person who has experienced God. “We speak of what we do know, and bear witness to what we have seen” (John 3:11). In the book of Acts we find two entirely different groups of religious leaders — the disciples and the priests. What was wrong with the scribes and priests? Their religion was a matter of hearsay while the disciples had experienced the living God. We often hear of doubting Thomas, but he was a changed man from the moment he could say to the risen Lord, “My Lord and my God.” That was experience, not hearsay. When the Apostle Paul came to the end of his earthly path, he said, “I know whom I have believed.” He had experienced God in his life. First on the road to Damascus and later in his work, travels, and prayers. His preaching was the result of his experience with God, not based on hearsay. “I know that my redeemer liveth,” said Job. He also was a man who had experienced God.

To experience God in some way is possible for each of us. I know quite well that not all have the same capacity to realize Him. Some have a clearer vision than others, but all can realize Him in some fashion. The Lord gave all a promise, saying, “If any man is willing to do my will, he shall know.” Our experience of God depends on our willingness to do His will. All who desire their own will are left out. Here we have the conditions on which God will reveal Himself to us. In order to realize God it isn’t necessary to be perfect, it is only necessary to be willing to do the will of God. People who surrender to Him completely have the promise of His revelation. They shall experience God.

Some experience Him instantly while others become aware of Him gradually. The light that breaks in on them is more like the beginning of a new day. Gradually they see His promises more clearly and slowly learn to trust Him more.

I must also say that in this life we know and experience God only partly. We confess with Paul, “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Is our religion based on hearsay or experience? Do you say this of yourself or because others have said it? Hearsay can never take the place of experience. Let us therefore yield to the will of God and experience His blessing.

Palm Sunday, 1961

Categories: Faith, Opinion

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