A few days ago, I wrote about “Why Religious Knowledge Alone Won’t Save You–And What You Can Do About It.” However, I realized that more needs to be said. How much do you need to know to be accepted by God and begin a relationship with Him?
Very little, as it turns out; but an essential minimum. Even if you believe a lot of wrong things, God can still accept you and do what He does best. We see this clearly in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
A Canaanite Woman
Matthew and Mark tell us about a trip Jesus took from Jerusalem to the mostly gentile region of Tyre and Sidon where He met a woman who knew very little, but just enough to receive Jesus’ help.
This story actually begins in Jerusalem with a debate between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees about a technical question in their law. These leaders had a LOT of religious knowledge. They knew the Hebrew Bible back and forth, and volumes of theology too.
But Jesus ended up telling them: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:7-9). Jesus’ point is that we can have a lot of religious knowledge, but be far from God.
It is at this moment Jesus leaves the center of learning and culture and travels with his disciples to Tyre and Sidon (northern Syria today, quite a journey on foot). From the center of religious knowledge in Judaism, Jesus led His followers to an area known for its superstition and false gods. From great knowledge to little knowledge. It was a cross-cultural mission trip; and I think Jesus was trying to teach His disciples a lesson.
There, a Canaanite woman came begging Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). She cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly” (Matthew 15:22).
A pathetic situation, one which should have aroused the disciples’ compassion. Instead, they complained to Jesus, “Send her away because she keeps crying out after us” (v. 23).
Their reaction is hardhearted, for sure. But a little background helps us understand their reaction from their perspective. Canaanites were gentiles, with very distorted views of God (from a Jewish viewpoint). They were the corrupt people of the land when Israel arrived centuries before, which God told Israel root out. In Jesus’ time, they were still seen as pagans, and under curse of God.
Unexpectedly and out of character, as the woman begs for help, Jesus ignores her. When He finally speaks, He tells her that it wouldn’t be right for Him to take the children’s (Jews’) bread and give it to their dogs (gentiles).
I can hear His disciples muttering, “Right!” Some Jews referred to gentiles as dogs in Jesus’ day. So Jesus is treating her as some of His people might do. He is giving His followers a lesson–one we also need today.
The woman’s desperate and persistent response is, “True Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v. 27). Jesus immediately replied, “‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed at that moment” (v. 28)
What gave her this persistence? Was it Jesus’ expression of sympathy, His tone of concern, a twinkle in His eye? Was it her own desperation? Something made her keep trying.
How much did this woman know? Not much; but enough. When she first called on Jesus, she cried, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v. 22).
Clearly, she had heard of Jesus. She believed He was the Jewish Messiah, descended from David. Jesus had learned about His willingness to extend mercy and love to those who did not deserve it. She had heard of His miracles, and perhaps a few rumored teachings. Where had she gotten this sparse, but important information?
Much earlier Matthew reports that news about Jesus had “spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24).
The woman may have talked with some who heard Jesus teach or received His healing touch. Her knowledge was limited, but it was enough. She believed Jesus had come from God and that He extended grace and mercy to those who needed it. Putting her trust in Him, her daughter was healed.
Jesus disciples were amazed. God loves everyone the same? He has no favorites? He will love and give race and blessings to even the “heathen?”
The people God entrusts with a knowledge of Him are blessed so they can bless others, not horde His gifts. Jesus died for all, bearing the sins of every human on the cross, so all who wish may receive mercy. How much knowledge is necessary for that?
At Jesus’ Birth Too
We see this illustrated at the beginning of Jesus’ life. Poor shepherds, considered unclean and low class by the Jews, and the gentile Magi, both groups slim on Jewish religious knowledge, are the ones to come to the welcome Messiah. His own people who should know the prophecies, are oblivious, or preoccupied. Even at Jesus’ birth, God was signaling that His love and mercy were for everyone.
First Sermon Nearly Ends in Death
Later, we observe it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In his first sermon at his home town of Nazareth, He reminds the worshipers that God’s heart is bigger than Israel. Elijah had been sent to provide food for a heathen widow in Zarephath. Namaan, an Aramaean (Syrian) army officer in the time of Elisha, had been healed of leprosy. God’s own people had not asked, but these “non-believers” had.
If you’ve read the story, you might have been shocked that Jesus home-town people tried to throw Him off a cliff when He said this. Why?
When we grow up in a religious community, it is easy to believe that God’s blessings are restricted to those who believe the right things, those who have the “correct” theology. It is possible to look down on others.
With that perspective, we may feel we don’t “know enough” for God to accept us. But God’s love and mercy and acceptance are as wide as the world, and He gives them freely to those who simple believe and ask.
At the Cross
We see this again at the cross.
A young man hangs from nailed wrists, mouth dry as cotton, flies buzzing, body and brain exploding with pain. He is in agony, slowly dying. He has lived a life of crime, led on by bad associates. A lapsed Jew, he may have had some religious knowledge, but he had tossed it aside like a crust of stale bread years ago. It was like a hazy memory now.
Yet strange, hopeful thoughts are going through his mind. He has heard Jesus’ followers say they had believed the crucified Man on the center cross was the one who was going to deliver Israel. He heard the religious leaders mock, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).
He remembered his mother telling him about the sacrifices and how they pointed forward to a Messiah deliverer who would die for others. He watched Jesus’ behavior, heard His few words, and as the Spirit spoke to his heart, slowly the realization dawned on him that this was the Messiah, dying for the world’s sins, his sins. Did Isaiah 53, the prophecy of Messiah’s suffering and death come back to him?
This life held nothing for him now; it was almost over. But what about his eternity? In a parched voice, he called out from the depths of his heart, “Lord, will you remember me when you come in your kingdom?” (Luke 23:42). And immediately, Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).
This backslider, with faint religious memories, sees in Jesus a gracious, loving Savior, puts all his trust in Him, and is assured of eternity.
I have heard stories of addicts, incarcerated persons, and people from all walks of life who had little religious knowledge, but called out to God in their time of need; and God responded and gave them a new spiritual life. It turned their lives around. Why is this possible?
Because, simply, Jesus died for the whole world and every person in it. God’s love is not restricted to a chosen few; it is for everyone. That is wonderful news. God’s grace and love are as free and available as the air we breathe because of the cross. If you realize your need of God, you can call on Jesus today and put your faith in Him as your Savior. He will accept you because He paid for the right to do so.
A Place for Knowing More
I am not saying here that religious knowledge and education is unnecessary. It is extremely important. The Bible encourages parents and the church to teach this as the foundation of faith for children and believers. And once we come to faith, Peter says we should “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
The more we know about God and the One He sent, the more we love them. And the more we know about God, the more we can become like Him. Truth describes God’s will and path for us. It helps us avoid spiritual deceptions and stay in the center of God’s will.
What I am asserting is that it is wonderful news that God’s love is so broad and Christ’s grace is so free that anyone in the world can call on them, no matter how much or how little they know, and God will forgive and receive them as His children.
Jesus did the really hard work of overcoming Satan in our flesh and then dying for the sins of the world–so God can accept absolutely anyone who comes to Him in need and faith. Knowledge is no barrier. Your wandering, sinful past will not stop Him.
That is really good news. And so the saying is true, “It’s not how much you know, but Who you know, that counts.” “This is life eternal that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, Whom You have sent” John 17:3.
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