MENU

Where the world comes to study the Bible

29. The "Backside" of God (Exodus 33:18-34:9)

Introduction

Generally, we tend to think of the backside of anything as its worst side. A person from the back woods is viewed as ignorant and poorly educated. The person who brings up the rear is the loser. The devil, we are told, gets the hindmost. And yet Moses is said to see the “backside” of God in our text. Does this suggest that Moses got less than he asked for, or less than he had hoped for? Hardly! The text makes it clear that the backside of God is His good side, for it is the “goodness of God” which will pass before Moses.

Why is the “backside” of God His “good” side? What does this “side” of God have to do with His glory, which is what Moses asked to see? Why could Moses see this side of God, but not the other? The events of our passage are the last to occur before the renewal of the Mosaic Covenant, and thus are closely related to the revival of Israel’s hopes. These verses will tell us much about Moses, and even more about the God whom he sought to know more fully.

The structure of this text provides us with significant clues to its interpretation. Essentially there are two main divisions: first, the request of Moses to see God’s glory, followed by God’s response; secondly, the revelation of God’s glory, followed by Moses’ response. Outlined, the text looks like this:

    A. Moses’ Petition and God’s Provision, 33:18-23.

      1. Moses’ petition, v. 18.

      2. God’s promise, v. 19.

      3. Divine protection and provision, vss. 20-23.

    B. The Revelation of God and the Request of Moses, 34:1-9.

      1. Moses, Mt. Sinai, and the tablets of stone, vss. 1-4.

      2. The glory of God, vss. 5-7.

      3. Moses’ response, vss. 8-9.

In many ways this passage parallels chapter 24, where the nation Israel ratified the Mosaic Covenant for the first time. On the other hand, there are a number of significant differences. These similarities and differences provide us with the keys to understanding the Mosaic Covenant as given by God for the second time. Let us give heed to the Word of God, which we are studying in this lesson.

Moses’ Petition and God’s Provision
(33:18-23)

The petition of Moses in verse 18 is the third and final request in chapter 33. Moses has already asked that God make His ways known to him, so that he may continue to find favor in His sight (33:12). God promised His presence to Moses personally, but He has not said that He would be present among His people. Thus, in his second petition Moses asked that God show His favor to Israel, as well as to Himself, and that God not send the nation toward Canaan without a promise that His presence will accompany His people (33:13, 15-16). God’s response in verse 17 would lead one to believe that this second request will be granted: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.’”

The first part of Moses’ first petition, “… let me know Thy ways …” (v. 13), has not yet been granted. I believe that Moses left this petition till last, until after God assured him that He would be present with His people. Now that the requests for the people have been met, Moses returns to his first petition. Thus, the first request, “let me know Thy waysand the petition in verse 18, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” are essentially the same. To know God’s ways is to see the glory of God.

Moses has already prepared us for the use of this term “glory,” for it has occurred a number of times already in Genesis and Exodus. The term “glory” was used of Jacob’s wealth (Gen. 31:1) and of Joseph’s splendor in Egypt (Gen. 45:13). In Exodus the “glory” of God was the visible manifestation of His presence. The “glory of the Lord” first appeared in the cloud to Israel in the wilderness, when the people grumbled against Moses and the Lord, and asked for meat (Exod. 16:7, 10). In a similar form, the glory of the Lord descended upon Mt. Sinai, at the time the Mosaic Covenant was ratified (Exod. 24:16, 17). The altar, on which the sacrifices were to be made daily, God said would be sanctified by His glory (Exod. 29:43).

Later, after Moses’ request to see the glory of God (Exod. 33:18), the glory of God would fill the newly constructed tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-35). On various occasions during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness God’s glory would be manifested to the people. On a number of these occasions, the glory of the Lord appeared to stop the people from sinning. For example, in Numbers 14:10 the glory of the Lord appeared, stopping the Israelites from stoning Moses and Aaron. On the other hand, the glory of God also appeared in response to Israel’s sacrifices. After describing the sacrifices which God required of the people, Moses said to them, “This is the thing which the LORD has commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you” (Lev. 9:6).

A little later in this account, after these sacrifices were offered, we are told,

Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he stepped down after making the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting. When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces (Lev. 9:22-24).

Thus, I believe that we can conclude that God’s glory can be manifested either by God’s response to man’s sin, or by God’s response to the sacrificial system, which is man’s confession of sin, and his act of obedience with regard to God’s means of putting off the consequences of it. The glory of God is almost always some visible manifestation of God’s presence and of His splendor. For Moses, the sight of God’s glory would serve as an assurance to him of God presence with him, and ultimately with the entire nation.

God’s response in verse 19 is to grant Moses all that He possibly can, which would be to Moses’ best interest: “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”

The granting of Moses’ petition would include God’s causing of all His goodness103 to pass before Moses. As the term goodness is employed in the Old Testament, this meant that God’s benevolence, God’s graciousness and generosity would be seen by His servant Moses. This term, rendered “goodness,” is used in Genesis 24:10 of the “good things” which Abraham sent with his servant, as a present to the family of the future bride of his son. It is used of the “good things” which Pharaoh provided for Jacob and his family, as they traveled to Egypt from Canaan (Gen. 45:18, 20, 23). It also refers to the “good things” which the Israelites will enjoy in the land of Canaan (Deut. 6:11). Especially in the Book of Psalms, the goodness of God is emphasized. Here, the emphasis of “goodness” falls not on the things which God gives, but on the goodness and generosity of God as the giver of good things.104

Perhaps the best sense of the word “goodness” is found in the Book of Nehemiah, where we read,

“And they captured fortified cities and a fertile land. They took possession of houses full of every good thing, Hewn cisterns, vineyards, olive groves, Fruit trees in abundance. So they ate, were filled, and grew fat, And reveled in Thy great goodness. … But they, in their own kingdom, With Thy great goodness which Thou didst give them, With the broad and rich land which Thou didst set before them, Did not serve Thee or turn from their evil deeds” (Neh. 9:25, 35).

In His goodness, God gave His people the “good things” of the land of Canaan, but instead of being full of gratitude, so that they would worship and serve God, the Israelites turned from God, rebelling against Him. The “good things” which God provided for His people were testimony to His goodness to His people. Goodness therefore almost equals prosperity or blessing, so that God’s goodness is His benevolence, or generosity. To see the goodness of God would, at this point in time, greatly encourage and assure Moses of a future for Israel.

In addition to having all His goodness pass before Moses, God also promised to proclaim His name, the “name of the LORD,” before Moses. Once again, we have been prepared for the significance of a name in the Pentateuch, for many times in Genesis and Exodus, a name has been shown to have great importance. The specific name which God will proclaim is the name YAHWEH. This is the name by which God identified Himself to Moses at the burning bush, and by which God was to be known to Israel. YAHWEH was the name which spoke of God as Israel’s Savior and Deliverer. YAHWEH is the name of the God who made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I am who I am”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” And God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations” (Exod. 3:13-15, emphasis mine).

If there was any name which would have given Moses encouragement, it was this name, Yahweh.

God’s response to Moses’ petition included a third element, a declaration of His Sovereignty: “… I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” I believe that there are two reasons why God included this statement here:

First, it is a reminder to Moses that God is under no obligation to show mercy to anyone. Moses’ petition for the people was a petition for God’s grace. There was absolutely nothing Israel could do to earn God’s favor. Israel had done enough already! The bottom line was that Moses could not, by his mediation, claim that God had any obligation to be gracious to this sinful, stiff-necked people. Sovereignty and grace can never be separated. Thus, whenever grace is shown, it is done at the exercise of God’s sovereign will. The reason for this is that grace has no reason for being manifested on a person except for the graciousness of the giver. Whatever is not of grace is of merit, and no one can ever be saved on the basis of his or her personal merit before God. Surely no Israelite at this point in Israel’s history would have dared to claim that he deserved God’s favor.

Second, one of the “glories” of God is His absolute sovereignty. God’s sovereignty means that He is free to do anything He chooses which is consistent with His character. God, in His holiness, could have destroyed this sinful people and have been absolutely just in doing so.105 On the other hand, God could also forgive His people, so long as their sins were atoned for. Whether we like to hear it or not, God is just as holy in condemning a person to eternal damnation as He is in graciously bestowing on another the gift of eternal life. The sovereignty of God is one of the many facets of His glory, and thus is mentioned here.

The sovereignty of God in the bestowal of His grace is one of the commonly neglected (or rejected) areas of biblical truth. For example, spiritual gifts are a matter of grace, as the Greek term for “gift” indicates. How is it, then, that some seem to think that they can specify to God which gift He is to bestow upon them, or others? Prosperity (success) is another manifestation of grace. God sovereignly bestows success on some, but not on others, but it is a matter of divine sovereignty. To be specific, God not only sovereignly bestows spiritual gifts to His children, but He also sovereignly bestows the measure of success one will have in the exercise of that gift: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). Thus, one person with the gift of evangelism may be instrumental in winning thousands to Christ in a year, while another is used of God to win a handful. The measure of our success in such matters is a matter of God’s sovereign choice. Wherever the result is grace the means is sovereign.

God has granted Moses’ petition to “see His glory,” but not without restrictions. These restrictions are for Moses’ own good. Verses 20-23 describe the restrictions which God must place on Moses’ request, along with His provision for Moses’ protection in the process of seeing His glory.

Moses has asked to see the glory of God in visible form. God speaks of the “form” in which He will manifest Himself to Moses in what theologians call an anthropomorphism,106 which is a sophisticated way of saying that God speaks of His self-revelation to Moses in man-like terms. Thus, God speaks of Moses as being able to see His back, but not His face. In the context of the passage this means that Moses will be able to see all of God’s goodness, but not some of His other attributes.

The Bible consistently teaches us that no man is able to see God face to face and live.107 Had God granted Moses all he had asked for, Moses would have been struck dead by the presence of the living God. It is only in heaven, when we are rid of all sin, that we shall behold God face to face (Revelation 22:4). Thus, God will grant Moses the privilege of seeing more of Him than he (or any other man to this point, I believe) has ever seen before. He will see part of God’s glory, but not all of it. He will see, in human terms, God’s back, but not His face.

Verses 21-23 describe the provision for Moses’ protection which God promises. There on Mt. Sinai, there was a rock on which Moses could stand (v. 21). While he stands upon this rock, God will pass by Him in all of His goodness. God’s hand will shield Moses from the full radiance of God’s splendor (v. 22), much as a welding helmet filters out most of the brilliant light of the welding arc, or as asbestos clothing shields a man from intense heat. When God has passed by, He will take His hand away so that Moses can look upon a portion of His glory—His back side (v. 23).

Let us not fail to appreciate the wonder and the honor of this revelation of God to Moses. While it was “only” God’s backside it was all that Moses could survive, and it was more than any man had yet been privileged to see. To see a little of the infinite God is to see much more than the mind can fathom. Moses will be dipping deeper into the bottomless well of God’s infinite glory than man has ever dipped before, and yet he still will have but skimmed the surface of His splendor.

The Revelation of God and the Request of Moses
(34:1-9)

While Moses met with God at the “tent of meeting,” which was “outside the camp” (Exod. 33:7), the renewal of the Mosaic Covenant would take place at the top of Mt. Sinai. The revelation of the glory of God to Moses would, it seems, take the place of the manifestation of God to the 70 elders of Israel, as described in chapter 24. There are both similarities and differences between this renewal of the covenant in chapter 34 and the first ratification of the covenant in the previous chapters (especially chapter 24).

Similarities include the fact that the requirements of God are virtually identical. It is the same Ten Commandments which will be written on the two stone tablets. It is the same code of the covenant which God will lay down as His standard of conduct for the Israelites (compare Exodus 21-23 with chapter 34). Both times the covenant is given to Moses by God from atop Mt. Sinai. As before (cf. Exod. 19:12-13, 21-25; 24:2), the people are told to keep their distance from the holy mountain (Exod. 34:3). As the ratification of the covenant involved a vision of God (24:9-11), so it does in the renewal of the covenant (34:5-7).

The differences, however, are perhaps even more enlightening. The Israelites are represented only by Moses, and not by the seventy elders as before (cf. Exod. 24:1, 9). This time, there are no promises made by the people. Before, the people repeatedly affirmed, “All that the Lord has said, we will do” (19:8; 24:3, 7), but this time there are no promises made. And little wonder! Israel could not be counted on to keep her word, no matter how sincere her intentions at the time.

Finally, and I believe most significantly, Moses is noticeably more prominent in the renewal of the covenant than he was in the first ratification of the covenant. His level of involvement is considerably higher. In the first ratification of the covenant, God carved out the stones and wrote the commandments on them (cf. 31:18). In the renewal of this same covenant Moses cut out the stones and wrote the commandments on them (34:1, 27-28). Some would have us think that Moses had to cut out the stone because he had rashly broken the first pair of stones.108 I believe that Moses was given an even greater participation in the renewal of the covenant, so that now God can say that this is a covenant made between Him and Moses and Israel (34:27), a statement which was not previously made. There is no inconsistency here in the fact that we are told on the one hand that God wrote on the tablets (34:1), and, on the other, that Moses did (34:27-28). The account is informing us that God wrote on the tablets through Moses. This is no different than saying that one of Paul’s epistles, written by his own hand, is, at the same time, the Word of God. Moses’ role of mediator is thus enhanced. No wonder all of Israel stood at the doorway of their tents when Moses went out to meet with God at the tent of meeting (33:8).

Verses 5-7 describe the fulfillment of God’s promise to Moses in 33:19-23. God descended in the cloud and His goodness passed in front of Moses (vss. 5-6a). God also proclaimed His name before Moses: “Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin’” (Exod. 34:6-7b).

There are many blessings to be derived from a careful study of each of these expressions proclaimed by God here,109 but the essence of all of them can be summed up in a single word: goodness.

The final words of verse 7 must have puzzled the Israelites throughout the entire Old Testament period: “Yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exod. 34:7c). While God said that He was forgiving, He also said that the guilty would not go unpunished. This means, first and foremost, that God does not forgive sin by ignoring or overlooking it. Sin is a much more serious malady than this. A righteous God cannot minimize sin, and thus He cannot simply forgive men by ignoring what they have done. There must be punishment. The punishment, we learn from Isaiah chapter 53, is to be borne by the Messiah. Men’s sins are forgiven because someone was going to bear the penalty prescribed by the Law (death) for sin.

At first glance, it does not seem gracious that God would visit the sins of the fathers on their children and grandchildren, but I am convinced that this was a gracious provision of God for His people. This solves a very serious dilemma. God, in order to be just, must punish sin. God, in being gracious, can forgive sin. God, in order to keep His covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants, must fulfill His Abrahamic Covenant through the nation Israel. If God punished this generation of Israelites for the sins of idolatry and immorality completely and instantaneously (as He threatened to do, Exod. 32:10), then there would not be a second generation of Israelites, nor a third, and so on. In other words, there would not be an on-going line of Israelites through whom Messiah would come. By spreading out the consequences of the sin of this first generation of Israelites, God was able to preserve the nation, and assure the messianic line, until the time when Messiah would be born of a virgin of the tribe of Judah, of the family of David. Once this took place, the consequences of the sins of a given generation would not pass on to later generations (Jer. 31:29ff.). While the analogy is not entirely parallel (our government and economy have no coming Messiah to deliver it), the great national debt of our country is not imposed on our generation entirely, but rather is spread over several generations, especially those yet to come. So it was with the consequences of Israel’s sins.

Moses’ response to this revelation of God was instantaneous: “And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, ‘If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O LORD, I pray, let the LORD go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession’” (Exod. 34:8-9).

The revelation of God’s goodness to Moses was a revelation of those aspects of God’s character which were the basis for Israel’s future, and thus Moses petitioned God to forgive this sinful people, and to dwell in their midst, not because they were righteous, but because He was gracious and forgiving. The grace of God is the basis for repentance and for restoration, and thus Moses requested that God forgive His people and make them His possession, as He had previously done.

Conclusion

It takes a little time and thought for the impact of this text to come home to the reader. In human-like terminology, God allowed Moses to see His back side, but not His face. The back side of God was His goodness. What, then, would be the face of God? I would like to suggest that from this text and others, the face of God might be His severity.

In Romans chapter 11 Paul sums up his argument with the words, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). The kindness or goodness of God is that aspect of God’s person which Moses was enabled to see fully—he saw “all of God’s goodness” (Exod. 33:19). Moses saw some of God’s severity, too. He beheld the anger of God at the idolatry of Israel in the incident of the golden calf (cf. Exod. 32:10). He knew that God could easily have wiped this whole nation out, except for His promises to Abraham and his offspring (cf. Exod. 32:13). Moses reflected this anger in his own response to Israel’s revelry and rebellion (Exod. 32:20). He demonstrated this anger when he commanded the Levites to go about the camp, slaying those who had refused to pledge their allegiance to Yahweh (Exod. 32:25-29).

There was no comfort for Moses or for Israel in an in-depth revelation of God’s severity, for it would have only intensified the fear of the nation’s destruction (cf. Exod. 33:3). The dimension of God’s character which would encourage the heart of Moses was the goodness of God, which gave Moses (and Israel) hope of forgiveness and of God’s presence among His people. The vision of God’s goodness which God granted Moses produced exactly what God purposed, his petition that God forgive Israel and claim them as His own people (Exod. 34:9).

These two dimensions of God’s character, His goodness and His severity, give us a frame of reference for summing up Israel’s history throughout the Old Testament period. Generally speaking, Israel was either experiencing the severity of God in His discipline due to their stiff-necked rebellion, or they were appealing to the goodness of God by repentance and obedience.

Let me pause momentarily to say emphatically that the goodness and severity of God are not two opposing attributes, one of which must win out over the other. The fact is that God’s severity is good, that is, when God judges sin it is because of His goodness. Sometimes those good things which God brings into our lives come in ways that appear severe. Thus, the two dimensions of the goodness and severity of God are complimentary, not competitive. God never sacrifices one attribute to manifest another. But, from a human point of view, one attribute may appear to be the more predominant one, at a given point in time.

For Israel, the revelation of the severity of God, as occasioned, for example, by the idolatry of the golden calf, was a purifying force. Knowing how seriously God took their sin encouraged them to be very wary about sinning against a holy God. On the other hand, because the Israelites were sinners, or, as God put it, a stiff-necked people, the truth of God’s goodness always gave the people of God hope, even in the dark hours of God’s severity.

This can be illustrated in the Old Testament Book of Joel. The message of Joel is (initially, at least) one of judgment: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near, A day of darkness and gloom, A day of clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:1-2a).

And yet, in this same chapter which outlines the coming severity of God, there is a word of hope, based on the goodness of God:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a libation From the LORD your God? (Joel 2:12-14).

These words are so similar to those found in our text in Exodus, that I cannot help but think that the prophet, by divine inspiration, borrowed them to express the hope of the nation Israel, based in the goodness of God, a goodness which inclines Him to forgive the repentant.

The goodness and the severity of God is seen in other Old Testament prophecies, which speak of Israel’s coming Messiah. For example, the goodness of God in the Messiah to come is seen in these passages from Isaiah:

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isa. 42:1-3).

Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isa. 53:1-3).

Here we have some of the prophecies of the first coming of the Messiah, those which emphasize His gentleness and the kindness of God. But there are other prophecies which are not as comforting, those which speak of the second coming of the Messiah, to judge the wicked and to establish His throne by overthrowing His enemies: “The Lord is at Thy right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country” (Ps. 110:5-6).

I want to say something now which may be misunderstood, or may be too quickly rejected. I believe that in the first coming of Jesus Christ as reported in the gospels of the New Testament, the predominant revelation which we see of God in Christ at this time was the goodness of God. In His first coming, He did not come to condemn, but to save. Thus He could say, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17; cf. 8:15; 12:47).

Jesus could thus say to the woman caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more” (John 8:10).

In the earthly life of our Lord the heavenly glory of our Lord was largely veiled, so that men could look upon Him and see one whom they regarded as but a man. There were a few occasions when this veil was lifted momentarily, so that some of the fuller glory of God was apparent. The transfiguration, for example, was one such time. Another momentary glimpse of His glory came at the time when the soldiers were about to arrest Him, and upon hearing Him say that He was the One they were looking for, they drew back and fell to the ground (John 18:6).

In His teaching, especially as His appointment with the cross drew nearer, the Lord Jesus spoke of His future coming, in His glory, when He would return in power to judge, just as the Old Testament prophets foretold:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Matt. 25:31-34; cf. also Matt. 24:30; 26:64).

In addition to this, our Lord’s high priestly prayer focused on the glory of Christ which was yet to be revealed:

These things Jesus spoke; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee, even as Thou gavest Him authority over all mankind, that to all whom Thou hast given Him, He may give eternal life. And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou has sent. I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given Me to do. And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:1-5).

The words of our Lord expressed here in this prayer to the Father indicate that while the Lord Jesus glorified the Father on the earth, there was also a greater glory which He left behind, and to which He desired to return. It is this glory that will accompany our Lord when He returns to overcome His enemies.

At the cross of Calvary we see both the goodness and the severity of God. The severity of God is seen in the penalty which our Lord Himself bore, the anticipation of which is reflected by our Lord’s agony in the garden. The goodness of God is seen in the cross as well, for it is by this means that God was enabled to be just and yet to be the justifier of those who would believe (cf. Rom. 3:26). He was just in that His severity toward sin was carried out; He was the justifier in that the sins of the human race, put off throughout the Old Testament period, were forgiven in Christ, for all who believe.

After the resurrection of our Lord, the message which Peter preached at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) was that of the second coming of Christ, to judge His enemies, just as God had foretold in Psalm 110. Thus, the sermon of Acts chapter 2 was a message focusing on the severity of God, but also one of God’s goodness, if men would but repent and believe on Christ as God’s Messiah. The Book of Revelation is the account of the return of the Lord Jesus to punish the wicked and to manifest the severity of God toward sin and the sinner. A new name of the Lord will be manifested at this time:

And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called the Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty (Rev. 19:12-15).

I have found, to my dismay, that I, along with most other Christians, like to focus only on the goodness of God, but to ignore or minimize the severity of God. Men like to think of God as One who says to sinners, “Neither do I condemn thee …” Liberal scholars would have us think that there are really two “gods”: the Old Testament “god,” who was harsh and severe; and the New Testament “god,” Jesus, who is kind and benevolent. The truth of the Bible is that God is both goodness and severity. Those who think that God must be only good to men are wrong, just as those who think God is only judgmental are wrong. When we would think of sinning, let us remember the severity of God. And when we have fallen victim to our waywardness, when we have sinned, let us look to the goodness of God, confessing our sins and begging His forgiveness. Let us not minimize either the goodness or the severity of God, for both are a part of His nature.


103 Hyatt says of the term “goodness”: “… this is the only occurrence of the phrase in a theophany. Elsewhere it means either (a) beauty, fairness in appearance, as in Hos. 10:11; Zech. 9:17; or (b) the goodness of Yahweh in bestowing good things upon his people (Heh. 9:25) or in saving them (Isa. 63:7; Ps. 25:7; 145:7).” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 317.

104 The psalms speak of the goodness of God to His people, which is the basis for the petition of the psalmist: Ps. 25:7; 27:13; 31:19; 65:4; Isa. 63:7-10; Hos. 3:5; Zech. 9:16-17.

105 The one thing which kept God from destroying the Israelites was the fact that He had promised to bless Abraham and the whole world through this people. This was the basis of Moses’ petition in Exodus 32:11-13.

106 Gispen writes, “He had a ‘face’ and a ‘back’ only in the sense that there were degrees in His revelation of Himself. His ‘face’ was then, so to speak, the focus of the radiance of His appearance on the mountain (cf. 34:5), while His ‘back’ was, as it were, the ‘fringe’ of that radiance as it passed by (cf. Job 26:14). It was like the glow of the sun immediately after it has set. Another possible conclusion is that the Lord revealed Himself to Moses in human form, and that this vision was a prophecy of the incarnation of the Word; in this case ‘face’ and ‘back’ can be understood literally” W. H. Gispen, Exodus, trans. by Ed van der Maas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982). p. 310.

Hyatt adds, The term for ‘back’ “… is used elsewhere of (i) the ‘back’ of the Tabernacle (26:12); (ii) the ‘hinder parts’ of the twelve bronze oxen which held up the molten sea in the Temple courtyard (I Kg. 7:25); and (iii) the ‘backs’ of the men who worshipped in the Temple in the time of Ezekiel, their backs being to the Temple and their faces to the E. (Ezek. 8:16). In the present theophany Yahweh is presented in very anthropomorphic terms, with references to his face, his hand, and his back. The meaning is that, while man can know something of the ways of God with man in his world (verse 13), the ultimate mystery of God’s nature is hidden from man’s knowledge.” Hyatt, p. 318.

107 Cf. Gen. 32:30; Exod. 19:21; Dt. 4:33; 5:24, 26; Jg. 6:22f.; 13:22; Isa. 6:5; John 1:18; 6:46; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; 1 Jn. 4:12.

108 “It was appropriate that Moses should hew for himself the new stones (v. 1). It was he who broke the former tablets (32:19) which ‘were the work of God’ (32:16).” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 295.

109 “The Lord proclaimed His own name (cf. 33:19). And then the Lord in His glory passed in front of Moses; but the most important aspect of this experience was that the Lord proclaimed His name, Jahweh, before Moses (cf. ch. 3), and thus revealed Himself to Moses in those attributes that constitute His Being. Each word in this mighty ‘proclamation’ of the Lord is of paramount importance. … ‘God’ (El) emphasized especially God’s power: His compassion and grace were not based on weakness (cf. 15:2). ‘Compassion,’ cf. 33:19: the powerful God had compassion on His elected people. ‘Gracious’: God bestowed His favor freely, His people had no claim on it. ‘Slow to anger,’ unlike the desert demon to which Jahweh is demoted in some circles. ‘Love’ … is the counterpart of His ‘grace.’ ‘Faithfulness’ is found in 18:21 in the sense of ‘reliability, trustworthiness,’ the attribute of someone one can depend on. …” Gispen, p. 312.

“The words in which the revelation is here made are repeated frequently in other passages, sometimes with variation or abbreviation: 20:5-6 (=Dt. 5:9-10), Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Jer. 32:18; Nah. 1:3; Jl 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8.” Hyatt, p. 323.

12. God’s Plan for the Present: Its Impact on Our Perspective and Our Plans

Introduction

When I was in high school, one of my classmates fell into a very deep sleep in class. As the end of the class period approached, the teacher asked the class to file out very quietly without waking the sleeping student. Well into the next class, the sleeper awoke, gradually regaining his mental momentum. Looking around, he saw no familiar faces; even the teacher was different. When he noticed the time, his mystery was solved. Quietly, with some remaining dignity, he gathered his books and went to the next class.

The early church, especially the apostles, could identify with this “Rip Van Winkle” from my high school days. They did not wake up and find themselves in a different class, but in a different dispensation. The disciples were a part of the generation in Israel which looked on while the Old Testament economy passed out of existence, replaced by the church age or the “times of the Gentiles.” It was not an easy adjustment.

Throughout the Gospels, we find our Lord preparing His disciples for the new age, but they were only able to think in terms of the old. Because they did not clearly understand the age which was passing away, they could not understand the new age which was about to begin. In the Book of Acts, we find the apostles and the church in Jerusalem gradually waking up to the change which took place when the “times of the Gentiles” commenced. Reluctantly, these Jewish Christians, who supposed that God’s salvation belonged only to Israel, recognized that the coming of the Christ was for the salvation of the Gentiles as well (see Acts 10-11). Through the sovereign working of God, the Jerusalem church passed off the scene, and predominantly Gentile churches like the one in Antioch took the initiative in proclaiming the gospel throughout the whole world.

It was not the disciples of our Lord, but others like Stephen and Philip, Barnabas and Paul, who became the front-runners in the evangelization of the world. Paul was the instrument through whom God revealed His plans and purposes for the new age, the “times of the Gentiles” (see Luke 21:24; Romans 11:25). Paul explains in his epistles the eternal plan and purpose of God. The “mystery”148 of previous times was revealed to Paul, and he has revealed it to us.149

Our purpose in this lesson is to focus on the present dispensation and its implications for us as Christians in this age. Because our study is of vital importance, allow me to suggest some of the benefits at the outset.

(1) The study of dispensations enables us to better understand the perfect plan of God. God’s plan is an eternal plan, encompassing everything from eternity past to eternity future. It is a certain plan and one that includes all the details. The plan is worked out in various dispensations or phases, just as a book has chapters. When we understand the role of dispensations in God’s plan, we better understand the plan.

(2) The study of dispensations is fundamental to our study and interpretation of the Bible. Why do we seek to obey certain commands in the Bible but not others? Why, for example, do we feel free to eat those foods which the Law of Moses declared to be unclean (see Leviticus 11)? Why do we not keep the Sabbath as Old Testament saints were required to do? What parts of the Old Testament, or even the Gospels, are we not to apply directly? On what basis do we determine what applies to us, and how? The study of dispensations provides the key.

(3) A study of this present dispensation, and its relationship to the dispensation it replaced, will keep us from the errors of those who wish to turn back the dispensational clock. The disciples of our Lord and the early church had difficulty understanding the change from one dispensation to another which was taking place before their very eyes. Some sought to turn back the clock and merge the previous dispensation with the present age (see, for example, Acts 15; Galatians). The New Testament writers consistently warn their readers to avoid the errors of such men. These errors are still present today. Gaining insight into the way God employs various dispensations to accomplish His eternal plan is crucial to understanding the error of those who seek to turn back the clock.

(4) A study of this present dispensation, and its relationship to the age to come, will guard us from the errors of those who wish to turn the dispensational clock ahead. Some evangelical Christians and others have no desire to turn the clock back. They desire to turn the clock ahead. Some say we can experience in the present those blessings God has purposed and promised for the future. They strongly believe that suffering is simply the result of sin and our lack of faith. They believe those who have enough faith can expect, even demand, the blessing of God. Others are confident that Christians can achieve today what Christ is to achieve in the future. They also believe the church can take charge of this world and prepare it for the coming of the Lord Jesus, who will come once we have made things ready.

(5) Understanding the distinctives of this present dispensation is essential to good stewardship. In the New Testament, three terms based on the same root word are used for (a) a steward; (b) the action of stewarding; and, (c) the administration or dispensation which is the steward’s responsibility. Being a faithful steward therefore requires that the steward know his “dispensation” or “stewardship.”150

We are not slaves called upon to act mindlessly without a grasp of what God is doing in our time (see John 15:15; 16:13). We are God’s stewards, called to consider what He has revealed concerning His plan and purpose for the present, and then to take part in it. We cannot be faithful stewards until, and unless, we understand the stewardship God has given us in this age, and grasp the uniqueness of this dispensation from those which precede and follow it.

(6) Understanding what God is doing in this present dispensation provides the Christian with much guidance in the area of God’s will for his life. The plan of God for His creation, and His plan for our life, are directly related and intertwined. If we are to grasp God’s will for our lives, we must first understand God’s will for eternity and for this age in particular.

Allow me to illustrate this from the life of our Lord as described in the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was a Jew, “born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). When tempted by Satan to act independently of the Father, Jesus turned to the Old Testament Law, particularly the Book of Deuteronomy (Luke 4:1-12). He understood that even though the dawning of a new age was at hand, the principles of the Old Testament Law guided Him in His response to Satan’s temptations.

In Luke 4:16-30, our Lord presents Himself as Israel’s Messiah to the people of Nazareth, His home town. After reading from the prophecy of Isaiah 61, Jesus tells the people that these prophecies are being fulfilled in their hearing (Luke 4:16-21). The people are delighted, until Jesus tells them more, based on His knowledge of the age which He is to inaugurate.

I have always thought Jesus informed the Jews that some Gentiles would be included in the salvation He was to bring about. I believed the Jews strongly reacted to the possibility of any Gentiles being included in the salvation promised in the Old Testament. But Jesus’ words are even stronger than this, with good reason. Jesus did not just say that some Gentiles would be saved. His words clearly imply that many Gentiles would be blessed, while few Jews would be. Listen to what He tells the people of Nazareth about His mission:

And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his home town. But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:24-27).

The facts are clear: the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah. As such, though the gospel was proclaimed first to Israel, the message of salvation would be offered to the Gentiles. As Paul explains in Romans 9-11, the present age is the “times of the Gentiles,” when few Jews come to faith in Messiah, and many more Gentiles do.

What Jesus says to the Jews in Nazareth simply foretells the age of the church or the “times of the Gentiles.” He reminds this rebellious, stiff-necked generation of Jews that during the days of Elijah and Elisha, the nation Israel did not receive the blessings of God, while Gentiles did. The widow of Zarephath was a Gentile, and so was Naaman, the Syrian. In that day, and in the day of our Lord’s ministry, unbelieving Israelites would not be blessed, but believing Gentiles would be. Jesus understood the new age which He would commence on the cross of Calvary. But when He tells the Jews about this, they are furious.

The end of Luke 4 provides yet another example of the guidance our Lord gained from an understanding of the present dispensation:

And when day came, He departed and went to a lonely place; and the multitudes were searching for Him, and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from going away from them. But He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I was sent for this purpose.” And He kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea (Luke 4:42-44).

Jesus has just healed Peter’s mother-in-law, resulting in the word of our Lord’s healing power spreading among those who are in the vicinity (4:38-41). That evening, many came to our Lord and were healed or delivered from demon possession. The next day, a great crowd gathers for healing and deliverance. When the disciples look for our Lord, He has gone to a lonely place to pray. They urge Him to seize the opportunity and to take up the healing ministry He has so successfully begun. Jesus refuses. He tells them His primary ministry is not healing, but preaching,151 and that His mission is to proclaim the kingdom to many other cities. And so He moves on, continuing to preach about the coming of the kingdom of God.

Finally, we see in the life of our Lord a very clear understanding on His part of the distinction between this present age and the age to come, the time which commences with His second coming:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).

The Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah in two very different ways: the first was of a suffering Savior (for example, Isaiah 52:13--43:12); the second was of a triumphant King (for example, Psalm 2). This puzzled the prophets who did not understand that there must be two “comings” for Messiah (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). Jesus understood the difference between His first coming (and the dispensation it inaugurated) and His second coming (and the age which would result from it.) Thus, when speaking of His first coming, Jesus emphasized that He came to save men from their sins. It was entirely consistent for Him to seek sinners and associate with them. His second coming would be as the Judge of men, when sinners will be removed from His presence and punished for their sins. This is why Jesus refused to cast a stone at the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2-11). He came to bear the penalty for this woman’s sin, not to condemn her for her sins.

Many seem inclined to think Jesus received His guidance directly from the Father through specific guidance and instruction, something like the occasional guidance received by Paul or the apostles.152 This may have been so in some instances, although we have no record of such guidance. I believe Jesus, who took on human flesh, limited Himself to the same kind of guidance God gives to men. His guidance came largely from the Old Testament Scriptures and His understanding from the Scriptures of God’s plan and purpose for the past, present, and future dispensations.

The plan of God for this age is the basis for our Christian thinking and behavior. As we commence our study in this lesson and as we conclude this series, let Paul’s prayer be our own:

For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:15-23).

For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).

You Do Not Have to be a
Dispensationalist to Recognize Dispensations

Does one have to hold to dispensationalism in order to view biblical history dispensationally? Not at all. Contrary to popular opinion, dispensations are not the private property of dispensationalists.153 While the term “dispensation” may not be used, almost every evangelical Christian will acknowledge that there are at least two dispensations: the time before Christ’s coming and the time after His coming. Even dispensationalists will differ over just how many dispensations there are.

What is a Dispensation?

A “dispensation” is an administration, a system of management. Every four years, our nation elects a new president. When the president takes office, he creates a new administration. Usually, this involves a new emphasis or philosophy (at least in terms of his campaign promises), new legislation proposed to carry out his plans, and new appointed officials (such as the cabinet). Certain things do change from one administration to the next. Other things seem to remain changeless from administration to administration.

God’s eternal plan is one which includes a number of administrations or dispensations. While there is one eternal plan, each administration focuses on a particular group of people, with a specific purpose and calling, and with different legislation. Each administration has its own focus and contribution to the plan of God, and all of them combined work together to produce that which God has planned and purposed--the display of His glory and the good of those who are His people (see Romans 8:28).

The essence of each dispensation is a divinely instituted program or administration, with specific requirements, duties, and obligations for the believer as God’s steward. Each dispensation builds upon the previous ones and prepares for what follows. Each dispensation has a continuity with the past and the future, but each also has a uniqueness distinguishing it from what has come before and what follows.

Certain elements are common to nearly every biblical dispensation. The following elements are found in many of the dispensations in biblical history.

(1) Divine revelation. God does not institute a new dispensation without defining it and declaring it to be in force. Nowhere in the Bible does a dispensation come into existence apart from divine revelation. Often, there is a prophet on hand through whom the revelation is disclosed to men. Abraham and Moses were both prophets with whom new dispensations came into being. The coming of the Messiah was also announced through the prophet, John the Baptist, and the two men who appeared at the Mount of Transfiguration (Moses and Elijah) were prophets.

(2) The making of a covenant. Often, though apparently not always, God institutes a new covenant in conjunction with the new dispensation. The covenant specifies the promises God makes to man and the obligations or actions this covenant requires of man. The covenant God establishes with men usually includes a designated “sign” of the covenant. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah was a rainbow (Genesis 9:8-17). The sign of the Abrahamic covenant was circumcision (Genesis 17:1-14). The sign of the Mosaic covenant was the keeping of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17; Ezekiel 20:12).154

(3) The declaration of rules and regulations which are pertinent to the new dispensation. In each dispensation, God defines man’s duty and also declares any restrictions which men must obey. Sometimes the conduct required is similar to that God has required in the past; sometimes it is not. Rules and regulations apply to various areas. Religious ceremonies, rituals, and holidays may be instituted for one dispensation and ignored in another.

(4) A clarification of the relationship between men and God. God will indicate the way in which He will manifest Himself to men and where the meeting place between God and men will be. Just as the way in which God manifests His presence among men is indicated, so is the way in which men should relate to God. The place and the manner in which men should worship God is often modified from one dispensation to the next.

(5) A new dispensation signals the need for change, but it also reveals continuity. God has but one plan, worked out in time through various administrations. Each new administration brings change, but it also reveals continuity. Some things never change. Consider some of these: First, God’s character never changes (Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17). Second, God’s purposes and covenant promises do not change (Romans 11:29). Third, the principles which govern God’s dealing with men do not change. God has always blessed men on the basis of His grace and not human works or merit. Furthermore, men have always been justified by faith (see Romans 4; Ephesians 2:8-9; Hebrews 11).

Yet another changeless reality remains constant throughout each and every dispensation: man does not change. In every dispensation, man fails, due to his sin. Each dispensation shows man to be helpless and hopeless, in need of God’s grace. Each dispensation proves God to be faithful, in spite of man’s unfaithfulness.

I say this with a particular point in view. Christians seem willing and able to admit that men fail in every dispensation, but we are not so ready to admit this in our present dispensation. We know that Adam failed, as did Noah and the nation Israel. We readily admit this. We also acknowledge that even after 1,000 years of justice on the earth, unbelievers will seek to rid themselves of the rule of God (Revelation 20:1-10). But we seem a bit reluctant to see the church failing in this present age.

The Book of Acts describes the church in its “golden age,” those first days of its existence and ministry. Yet it is very clear that the church was far from perfect. There were hypocrites like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-6). It may have acted hastily (Acts 1:15-26). It was reluctant to accept the evangelization of the Gentiles (Acts 8:1-3; 10-11). There were disputes and differences of opinion (Acts 15).

The Epistles do not depict improvement in the church over time. All of the churches mentioned in the New Testament had their struggles and failures. The seven churches of Asia addressed in Revelation 2 and 3 were not the picture of success either. Descriptions of the church in its last days are far from flattering or encouraging (see 2 Timothy 3-4). Our Lord’s own words give us pause for thought:

And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:6-8).

The church, in this age, will fail too just as Israel did and men before that. As there was but a small remnant of faithful saints in Israel, we should expect no greater success in the church. Men will fail, but God will not. Herein is our hope (see 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Hebrews 13:5-8).

Recognizing Dispensations in Time

It is easier to recognize a dispensation than to define one academically. When we study the Scriptures, dispensations begin to stand out and are difficult to miss. Dispensational differences become rather dramatic when we trace the theme of worship through the Bible. We see that while people of faith have always worshipped God, they have done so very differently, depending upon the time in which they lived. These differences are by divine definition and are a matter of obedience to that divine revelation. Consider the chart on the following page to see how worship has changed from one dispensation to the next.

In the chart we see different dispensations indicated not only by the changes evident in man’s worship of God but also in what men of faith eat. When a restaurant menu changes, there is usually only one explanation--new, higher prices. In the Bible, man’s mealtime menu changes for a different reason--a new dispensation.

The chart which goes on this page is at the end of this document. It requires running off and then pasting the appropriate titles in their places. See hard copy master.

When we trace the theme of man’s food through the Bible, we find ourselves making our way through the dispensational framework of Scripture. In the Garden of Eden, the menu for both man and animals was strictly vegetarian. Both men and animals were allowed to eat every green plant (Genesis 1:29-30). After the

flood, God changed the menu. Now, men were permitted to eat meat too, as long as the blood was drained from it (Genesis 9:3-4). When the Mosaic covenant commenced, certain kinds of meat were declared “clean,” which could be eaten; others were “unclean” and thus forbidden (Leviticus 11). This definition of “clean” and “unclean” remained in existence until the coming of Christ and the commencement of the present dispensation (see Mark 7:14-23; Acts 10-11). When the menu changed, so did the dispensation. God chose something close to a man’s heart to call his attention to a dispensational change.

The dispensational change which took place during the lifetime of the apostles was dramatic and, for them, traumatic. Consider how God signalled the change from the dispensation where men had to identify themselves with Israel to become part of the “people of God,” to the new age, when men (including the Jews) had to identify themselves with Christ and His church to be numbered with the “people of God.”

While various labels have been applied to the previous dispensation under the Law of Moses, and the present dispensation of grace,155 let us for the moment label them the “times of the Jews” and the “times of the Gentiles.” In the times of the Jews, only those who believed God’s promise of a Messiah were justified by faith, like Abraham (see Romans 4). The Gentiles who wished to become a part of the people of God had to separate themselves from their heathen culture and creed and identify themselves with Israel, much as Ruth did (see Ruth 1:15-18). In the “times of the Gentiles,” all men, Jew or Gentile must identify themselves with the “people of God” by their identification with Christ and with His church. Just as the Gentiles had to renounce their pagan religion and to identify with Israel, lost Israelites also must acknowledge their sin and the worthlessness of any “righteousness” obtained through Judaism, trusting only in Christ and His righteousness for salvation (see Philippians 3:1-11).

What God required of the Jews for salvation during the “times of the Gentiles” came as a great shock to them. They were used to having the Gentiles come to Judaism, or so they thought, for salvation. Now they would have to come through a “Gentile” door to enter into God’s promised blessings. Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus indicated that His coming was to include blessing for the Gentiles, a revelation which greatly angered the Jews (see Luke 4:22-30).

There were other indications that a change of dispensation was coming. The first is our Lord’s practice and teaching concerning the keeping of the Sabbath. (The Sabbath, remember, was the sign of the Mosaic covenant.) On various occasions, Jesus performed miracles on the Sabbath. This, to the legalistic Pharisees, was work, and thus was the breaking of the Sabbath. The Sabbath issue became one of several matters of conflict between Jesus and His opponents among the Jews.

His response to their Sabbath objections took several forms.156 While most of the “violations” with which Jesus was charged should have been thrown out of court, Jesus made a point of emphatically declaring that He did indeed have the right to actually violate the Sabbath. More than this, Jesus indicated that the basis on which Sabbath-keeping was practiced had changed, and thus Sabbath-keeping was soon to be set aside altogether. Jesus encountered a man in pitiful condition laying beside a pool in Jerusalem. He healed the man and then instructed him to take up his pallet and walk. The man was rebuked by the Jews for “working on the Sabbath.” Jesus also was accused of wrong-doing. Our Lord’s response is laden with meaning:

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do no sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:14-18).

The keeping of the Sabbath was a sign that the Jew had submitted himself to the Mosaic Law. It was also man’s imitation of God, who rested on the seventh day. Both of these bases for keeping the Sabbath were being set aside as obsolete, replaced by something else. The Father had finished working and was at rest. Jesus’ words indicate that He is once again at work. He was at work accomplishing man’s redemption, through the sending of His Son to the cross of Calvary. Jesus was working because the Father was working. It was no longer a time to rest. Furthermore, Jesus came to inaugurate the New covenant. There was no longer a need for the Mosaic covenant, and thus there was no need to keep the sign of that covenant.

Suppose that a man was married to a woman for many years, but she died. The man remarries. On his finger, he places a new wedding band, symbolizing his new marriage, alongside the old wedding band, symbolizing his former marriage. Is this not inappropriate? It is the same with the keeping of the Sabbath, for those who have died to the Law and become the bride of Christ.

The second clear indication of change is our Lord’s teaching concerning the ordinance of communion and its relationship to the New covenant. The New covenant had been promised by the Old Testament prophets. One of the clearest prophecies comes from the pen of the prophet Jeremiah:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Just before His death, our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper with these words:

And having taken some bread, when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

The New covenant was that which Jesus instituted by His death (Hebrews 9:16), by His shed blood. Because the death of our Lord inaugurated the New covenant, the old must be put away. This is one of the principle themes of the Book of Hebrews. The Judaisers continued to seek to carry over the old covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and to somehow blend it with the New. God will have none of this. If the New covenant commenced with the death of Christ, the dispensation changed at the same period of time.157

The New Testament reveals yet another indicator of a change in dispensation growing out of the first coming of our Lord. It pertains to the removal of the Old Testament distinctions of “clean” and “unclean.” In the Gospel of Mark, the Lord Himself declared all things “clean”:

And summoning the multitude again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all food clean.) Mark 7:14-19.

The meaning of implications of this declaration were not fully grasped until after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension. It is in the Book of Acts that the significance of our Lord’s declaration becomes apparent. The event and its outcome are described by Luke in Acts 10 and 11.

Peter was about to be summoned to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile who feared God. Prior to the invitation to come to the home of Cornelius, Peter was given a vision, a vision which forever changed his outlook and his ministry. The vision was of a sheet, let down from heaven. On this sheet were all kinds of animals. In the context, we realize that some of the animals had to have been unclean by Old Testament definition (see Leviticus 11). In spite of this, Peter was instructed by the Lord to “kill and eat.”

How could Peter possibly do so? To do so would have been to violate one of the Old Testament regulations, given to the Jews. When Peter objected, the reason for God’s command (and Peter’s obedience) is given:

“What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (Acts 10:15; 11:9).

Peter comes to understand, along with the church, that this was to convey the message to the Jews that the gospel was not just the private possession of the Jews, but was to be proclaimed to the Gentiles as well:

“Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

For longer than I would wish to admit, I thought that this object lesson was primarily about food and dispensations. So it is, in part. Since the old dispensation has been set aside by the New covenant in Christ’s blood, distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” are unnecessary.

The fear of contamination through contact with the Gentiles, particularly their food, was a great excuse for practicing segregation and racism. As the “change of menu” had signalled a new dispensation in the past, so it would do once again. Jesus taught that contamination was not a matter of external things, like food. Contamination came from sin. Contamination comes from within our own hearts!

Why, then, did God distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” in the first place? For a very important reason. The lesson here was important for the Jews and is equally important for us. Many have tried to explain the “clean-unclean” distinctions by way of explanation. For example, some would say that the “unclean” foods were, at that time, unhealthy. Pork, without refrigeration, would spread disease.

I differ. I differ strongly. There is one fundamental difference between that which is “clean” and that which us “unclean”--a divine declaration. Under the Law, something was “clean” because God declared it to be clean. So too something was “unclean” simply because God declared it so. The “clean” food was really no better than the “unclean,” other than the fact that it was declared clean. The difference was divine declaration.

The Jews thought they were better than the Gentiles. This is the real reason why they did not associate with them. It was the real reason why they, like Jonah of old, did not want to evangelize among the Gentiles. They thought themselves worthy of God’s blessings and the Gentiles worthy only of divine wrath. The truth is that the Jews are no different from the Gentiles. They were no different except for the fact that God set them apart from the rest of the nations.

Salvation does not come through works or through Law-keeping, but only through justification by faith. When men are saved, it is on the basis of the work of Christ. Men are righteous because God declares them to be righteous. The difference between the “clean” and the “unclean” is the same difference between “righteous” and “unrighteous.” Peter’s dream reminded him of this fact. The church would, reluctantly (see Acts 11:19), acknowledge this as well. In the case of those who were saved at the home of Cornelius, God had clearly declared them righteous, a part of the church. How could the church refuse to acknowledge this fact? Men are saved by God’s choice, by God’s activity, and by God’s declaration. Those who are saved are no better than those who are lost; they are just as worthy of divine wrath. Peter’s vision dramatically reminded him and the church at Jerusalem of this truth.

The “unclean” was cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and was thus declared to be “clean.” What God has called holy, let no man call otherwise. Cornelius was just the first-fruits. Many more Gentiles were to follow in his steps. The change of dispensations was a change from the believer’s identification with Israel to the believer’s identification with Christ and with His church. Since the Jews had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, they would now have to hear the gospel from Gentiles, share it with them, and be but a minority of those numbered among the elect in the present age. No wonder the Jewish church was reluctant to recognize this change of dispensation. The change was neither flattering to Israel nor did it reflect the favoritism they wrongly desired.

The Unique Role
of the Present Dispensation

Hopefully we have come to see that there are different dispensations. A dramatic change in dispensations occurred during and shortly after the days of our Lord upon the earth. Since each dispensation has its own unique characteristics and its own distinct purpose, it is imperative that we seek to understand the unique nature and function of this present age in which we live. To do so is the first step to being a faithful steward.

This past week, my wife and I took a late evening walk in our neighborhood. As we were walking, we passed a neighbor who was outside with a telescope, peering into the sky. We paused for a brief conversation, and he informed us of a rare convergence of three planets: Mars, Jupiter, and Venus. These three planets were not really close to each other, but from our perspective, they appeared quite close to each other in the sky. The man with the telescope invited us to look for ourselves, which we did.

This convergence during a certain period of time is very much like the present dispensation, as I understand it. This present dispensation not only follows the previous administrations of God, it brings them all together in a climactic, culminating way. This dispensation is the convergence of all previous dispensations. Let me first demonstrate that this is true, and then seek to spell out some of its implications.

The one central, unifying center of gravity for all dispensations is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the “head of all things.” We may safely say, “In Christ, all things come to a head.” He is the converging point of God’s plan for creation and for all of human history.

For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body though death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach--if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister (Colossians 1:9-23).158

Let us very briefly walk our way through the course of human history and the dispensations into which it is divided.159 If we begin at the beginning, with Adam and Eve after their fall in the Garden of Eden, what is their one overriding hope? It is the hope of the promised “seed” who will bring about Satan’s downfall and man’s salvation (Genesis 3:15). Jesus Christ is that “seed.” Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of God to Adam and Eve and their hope of salvation.

In Noah’s day, divine wrath was poured out on the world through the flood. God’s covenant with Noah promised that mankind would never again be wiped out by means of water. How, then, will God’s promise be fulfilled? How will God deliver sinful men from the wrath they deserve? The answer, once again, is Jesus Christ:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you -not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him (1 Peter 3:18-22).

This text in 1 Peter is perplexing, but we can see the parallel which Peter draws between the flood and the work of Christ on the cross. All who were in the ark were spared from the flood of God’s wrath. All who are in Christ are likewise spared from the coming wrath of God, which will be poured out upon all mankind and destroy the present heavens and earth (see also 2 Peter 3:8-13). The Noahic covenant points forward to Christ.

God’s covenant with Abraham is fulfilled in Christ. He was promised a seed, and this seed was to be a source of blessing for all the world. This “seed” was none other than Jesus Christ:

Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “AND TO SEEDS,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “AND TO YOUR SEED,” that is, Christ (Galatians 3:15-16)

Abraham’s faith looked forward to Christ (see Romans 4). Abraham saw, by faith, the day of our Lord’s coming:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56).

The sacrifice of Abraham’s only son was a prototype, an anticipation of the sacrifice of God’s son, “the Lamb of God,” the Lord Jesus Christ (see Genesis 22). The Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled in Christ.

The Law was given, not as a means by which men could be saved by their good works, but as a standard of righteousness which all men would fail and thus shown to be sinners in need of God’s grace. God’s grace was manifested to sinners in Jesus Christ. He bore the curse of the Law in the sinner’s place. He provided the righteousness which sinners lack. Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Law. In Him, we are righteous, under the Law, by grace.

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:19-26).160

The present age is unique in that it is a reversal of the previous dispensation. Under the old (Mosaic) covenant, Israel was chosen as the people of God. The Jews were not made righteous by law-keeping, but by their faith (Romans 3:19-20). Like Abraham, those who believed in God’s promise concerning the Messiah to come were justified on the basis of their faith (Romans 4). Gentiles could enter into the promised blessings of God by trusting in the God of Israel and by identifying themselves with Israel as the people of God. The Israelites were to be a holy nation, and thus they must beware of the influences of the Gentiles. The Canaanites were so wicked the Israelites were commanded to annihilate them all, including their livestock (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

Now in this present age the tables are turned. The exact opposite is taking place. This is not the age of the Jews, but the “times of the Gentiles.” The “people of God” are those who are “in Christ” by faith in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s chosen Messiah. This Messiah is the one whom the Jews rejected and put to death. They must repent, acknowledging their sin and turning to the Lord Jesus (see Acts 2). As the Gentile of old was required to identify with Israel, so the Jew is now required to identify with Jesus, with His church, and with the Gentiles who are the bulk of its members. And just as the danger for the Jews was corruption by the Gentiles, now the great danger for the church is corruption by Judaism and the Judaisers.

Israel relished its role under the old covenant and in the former dispensation. They chafe over their role in the present age, because they do not appear to have the status they once believed they possessed as Jews. The Gentiles now find themselves in the privileged position, but the same dangers of pride and presumption threaten the church, and thus we find Paul’s warning to the church in Romans 11.

If, in the Old Testament time, the unbelieving Gentile must find salvation through faith and obedience in the God of Israel, then in this age unbelieving Jews must find salvation only “in Christ” just as the Gentiles are saved. Both are saved equally, without distinction, without favoritism. There is no special caste of Jewish Christians, only those who are “in Christ.”

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands --- remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments, contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We are Jew by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up forme. I do no nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:11-21).

The Practical Implications
of this Present Dispensation

As we come to the end of this lesson, let us reflect on the importance of understanding the age in which we live.

(1) Understanding our present age greatly contributes to our understanding of God’s eternal purpose. We are able to view time, our times, in the light of eternity. We can see the present from the perspective of the past and the future. We should be impressed and grateful that God has included us in His plan and that we have a part to play in the purposes of God.

(2) Understanding our present age enhances our understanding of the Old Testament. We can see that God’s Word and His work in times past was preparatory. We can delight that many of those things which were a mystery to the saints of old have been made clear to us (for example, Ephesians 1-3; 1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 11:39-40).

In addition to gaining a broad perspective from which to view the events and revelation of the past, we gain a good deal of guidance as to how we should interpret and apply the Scriptures. We have, for example, the perspective of fulfilled prophecies. If we would rightly interpret those prophecies which are as yet unfulfilled, let us do so in a way consistent with the prophecies we know have been fulfilled.

We know there is a consistency and continuity in God’s plan and program, as well as diversity due to different dispensations. When we read the Old Testament, we should look for the things which never change: God’s promises, His character, His standard of holiness, His grace, mercy, and justice. As a result, we can apply much of the Old Testament directly, because it is changeless truth.

Conversely, we should be sensitive to those things which do change. The distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” do not apply today nor does the obligation to observe the Sabbath. The way of worship has also changed. But even when we recognize that what we are dealing with in the Old Testament does not apply directly, it still has something to teach us today. We see this from the way Paul and the other apostles use the Old Testament. The text which commands that men not “muzzle the ox” is based upon a principle which still applies today: “the laborer is worthy of his hire” (see 1 Corinthians 9:3-10). I believe God’s instruction not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” has a very clear application to abortion.161 As we have seen, the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions teach us the eternal principle that it is God whose definition or declaration makes things clean or unclean. That is what justification is all about.

Understanding the various dispensations, especially our own age, must not be an excuse for doing away with all those teachings in the Bible we do not want to acknowledge or obey. All of the Bible is for our edification and instruction (see 1 Corinthians 10:11; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Understanding dispensations helps us interpret and apply the Bible in a way consistent with God’s eternal plan, and especially in a way consistent with His plan for the present.

(3) Understanding our present age greatly enhances our understanding of the New Testament. Once we see that the Gospels and Acts describe the transition from the old order to the new, from a previous dispensation to the present administration, we have a context within which to interpret and apply the New Testament Scriptures.

Jesus spoke of the days from His crucifixion to His second coming in the three synoptic162 Gospels (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21). John’s Gospel did not repeat our Lord’s teaching. John complimented it with the discourse and prayer of our Lord recorded in John 14-17. As I understand this passage, Jesus’ teaching assumes the outline of history laid out in the three synoptic Gospels. It assumes our Lord’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. It assumes the difficulty of the last days as well as the opposition of unbelievers to the gospel and the saints who believe and proclaim it.

John 14-17 focuses on God’s provisions for this present age, the “times of the Gentiles.” Several truths emphasized in this text of Scripture tend to characterize the ministry of the saints and the provisions of God in this present age. These same areas of emphasis are apparent in the Epistles, especially the Epistles of the apostle Paul.

The first area of emphasis is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our present age, more than any other, is the age of the Spirit. It is not that the Holy Spirit was absent in the past, but only that He is much more visibly apparent. His ministry is necessitated by the physical departure of Jesus to the Father. He is the One who reveals truth to the apostles and reminds them of the truth Jesus had already taught them. He is the One who enables them to understand mysteries previously not understood. He ministers the presence and power of Jesus. He convicts sinners, regenerates them, and draws them to faith in Christ. He seals every believer and gives each a spiritual gift, enabling them to play a part in the work of God through the body of Christ, the church. The more one studies Paul’s Epistles, the more one sees his emphasis on the ministry of the Spirit. Paul’s methods were not those proven to be most persuasive or successful, but those which demonstrated His reliance on the ministry of the Spirit.163

The second area of emphasis is unity. As the return of our Lord draws nearer, men’s opposition to the gospel and to believers will increase. Men’s love for one another will grow cold. Unity of the faith and love for the brethren is prominent in the teachings of our Lord and of His apostles. The unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ is a strong area of emphasis.

For thousands of years, the Israelites have struggled with the Gentiles about them. At times, the Israelites have been subject to the Gentiles. At other times, the Gentiles have been subject to the Jews. There has been, since the days of Abraham and the births of his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, a tension, a hostility between Jews and Gentiles. That tension can be seen in the days of our Lord and in the days of the early church as described by Luke in the Book of Acts. That hostility has been dealt with, once and for all, in Christ. That is what Paul has written in Ephesians 2:11-22 (see above). There is no such thing as a “Christian Jew” or a “Christian Gentile.” There are only those “in Christ” and those “separate from Christ.” This mystery is much more fully expounded by Paul, but it is rooted in the work of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2). This unity is to be promoted and protected (see Ephesians 4).

(4) Understanding this present dispensation gives insight into God’s will and plan for our lives. The purpose of God for this age is for Christ to come as the Lamb of God and to provide salvation for all who will believe and receive Christ. God’s purpose for our Lord was suffering--and then glory. So it is for us. As He was rejected by men, so must we suffer in Him, and for Him. Life in this age includes suffering and groaning, due to man’s sin and its consequences (see Romans 5:3-11; Romans 8:18-25). In our suffering, we find opportunity to identify with Christ (Philippians 3:10). We see our sufferings as a gracious gift of God (Philippians 1:29)--something we are called to do in following His example (1 Peter 2:18-25), an extension of His sufferings (Colossians 1:24). We suffer knowing that as suffering was the path to His glory, so it is for all who are in Him by faith (1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 12:2; 2 Timothy 2:12; 1 Peter 5:10).

Our Lord was called to proclaim the kingdom of God, to offer to men the salvation which He was to accomplish. Our task, our calling, is also the same as we see in the Great Commission:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

In days of old, the Jews were to be holy by keeping themselves separate from the Gentiles. Indeed, they were to kill the Canaanites. Now that is separation! But the incarnation of our Lord brought a change. The God who would not allow men to draw near to Him is the God who drew near to sinners in Christ. He not only came to the earth, He associated with sinners. His holiness was not physical separation but spiritual separation, a holy life.

Separation for the Christian is to be the same. We are not to isolate ourselves from sinners, but we are to keep ourselves pure from the defilement of sin, by His grace. Just as we are to draw near to sinful men to proclaim the good news of the gospel, so we are also to draw near to God in an intimacy which far surpasses that of the saints of old. Our Lord removed the barrier between a holy God and sinful men. The barrier was our sin and the law which condemned it. In Christ, we have died to the condemnation of sin and the law. We may now draw near to God in a way men before could not do. Our way of worship is thus different from that of men of previous dispensations.

If Christ Jesus is our Savior, we are members of His body, the church. Corporately and individually, we worship and serve Him. Individually, we each have a task to perform as faithful stewards. He has enabled us with spiritual gifts to fulfill our task. His will for us is to take part in His plan for this age through His body, the church, by means of the gifts He has given each of us.

Like our Lord and the apostle Paul, we do not need frequent revelations concerning His will, for He has revealed His will in His Word. When specific individual guidance is required, He will provide this through His Spirit. The greater our grasp of God’s plan for this age, the greater our guidance for our own lives.

Conclusion

God is orchestrating human history so that all things will be summed up in Christ. As God’s holiness and justice has been more fully revealed, the sinfulness of man has become more apparent. Man’s need for salvation has been fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ.

The majesty of Christ and the magnitude of His work and worth is far beyond human comprehension. God has used the various dispensations to focus on different facets of Christ, His person and His work. With the first coming of Christ has come the beginning of a new age. Many facets of the Messiah’s person and work have converged, being fulfilled in His first coming and now being displayed in this present age.

How often have I heard Christians speak nostalgically of some past dispensation as though it were preferable to our own time. They want to live at a time when God spoke to men directly, like Abraham, or Moses. But we live in that age when God has spoken fully and finally in Christ. Never before has man had such revelation as we have in Him!

For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:16-18).

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and uphold all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Christ is not just a part of our life; He is our life. As He is central in every dispensation, especially in our own, He is to be central in our own life. What is life? To the apostle Paul, life was Christ. Death is but a doorway, the opportunity to be with Christ:

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).

We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

The great danger, as Paul and the apostles so often speak of it, is losing the simplicity of Christ, the centrality of Christ, and the sufficiency of Christ. No age has ever had so full a revelation of Him. He is our salvation, our life, our hope, our all. May God grant that He is the focus of our life, and may life for us be Christ--and Christ alone.

Comments on
Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology

Two dominant and somewhat opposing schools of theology exist within evangelical circles: dispensationalism and covenant theology. I must admit that I find myself somewhat “between a rock and a hard place,” as we Texans say. I feel a debt of gratitude to J.N. Darby, the founder of dispensationalism, not only for his insights into the various dispensations, but even more so because of his teaching on the New Testament church. I hold many of the views which Darby brought into focus, which are practiced by churches sometimes known as the Plymouth Brethren. I do not agree with all of Darby’s views, but I sense a debt of gratitude to this man and to the school of thought to which he gave birth. Needless to say, I also feel a great debt of gratitude to Dallas Theological Seminary, from which I graduated. This school has historically held and taught dispensational theology.

On the other hand, I am also greatly indebted to covenant theology, or more precisely, to covenant theologians. Covenant theologians played a dominant role in the reformation and have historically been some of the greatest defenders of the faith, taking a stand against liberalism and heresy in various forms. Many of the great commentaries have been written by covenant theologians. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest American theologian, and J. I. Packer are examples of men who hold to covenant theology who are highly regarded in the Christian community.

Most Bible teachers and Christian leaders have identified themselves with one of these two schools of theology. Some who sit under my teaching would probably prefer for me to identify myself with one school of thought or the other, but I find this impossible to do. Quite honestly, both sides have strengths, and both sides have weaknesses.

Dispensationalists are not unique because they believe in dispensations. So do almost all covenant theologians, even though they may choose different labels or definitions for their views. In my assessment of the two schools of thought, dispensationalists stand apart from covenant theologians in several ways:

(1) Dispensationalists make a strong distinction between Israel and the church; covenant theologians do not. Dispensationalists believe that the promises which God made to Israel must be literally fulfilled. Consequently, dispensationalists believe that the millennium is necessary for the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the Jews to be literally fulfilled. Covenant theologians believe that while the nation Israel was once the “people of God” they have forfeited this privilege by their disobedience and rejection of the Messiah. Now, they believe, the people of God are all those in Christ, without distinction. Thus, they believe that the promises made to the Jews will be fulfilled in Christ through the church. They do not look for a literal fulfillment during the millennium. I find myself agreeing with the dispensational position on this point.

(2) Dispensationalists view the plan and purpose of God in terms of two tracks: one track is the outworking of God’s plan for Israel; the second track is God’s plan and purpose for the church. They see God’s plan, His promises, and His covenants as being specified for one group or the other, but not for both at the same time. Covenant theologians see both Jews and Gentiles as one body through faith in Christ, with one plan, one set of covenants, one fulfillment. I (along with some others who would call themselves dispensationalists) agree with the covenant theologians here. I believe there has always been but one “people of God.” In the Old Testament times, believing Jews were a part of the “people of God,” while unbelieving Jews were not (see Romans 2; 4; 9:6-13). Those Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel identified themselves with the “people of God” by renouncing their heathen religion and by identifying themselves with the God of Israel (like Ruth--see Ruth 1:15-18).

When the nation Israel disobeyed God, especially when the nation rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God rejected the nation. The Jews who were once God’s people were declared to be “not My people.” Conversely, those who were “not My people” were to become the “people of God” (see Hosea 1-3; Romans 9-11). The “people of God” in Old Testament times were those who, by faith, were in Abraham; those in New Testament times who are God’s people are those who, by faith, are in Christ. There are not two, but one people. The Jews are set aside during the “times of the Gentiles,” and once the “times of the Gentiles” end, then God’s program for His people, Israel, commences once again. Thus, I see one people, not two, and one plan, not two.

(3) Dispensationalism tends to view the Old Testament Scriptures and even much of the Gospels as primarily directed to the Jews, while the New Testament Epistles are directed to the church. Many dispensationalists will probably disagree with this statement, but I still believe it to be accurate: Dispensational teachers seem to teach disproportionately from the New Testament, and particularly from the Epistles, while giving less attention to the Old Testament, particularly the Law. Covenant theologians seem, in theory, if not in practice, to give the Old Testament Scriptures a more even treatment.

I believe all the Scriptures have been given for all the saints in every age (see Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1). The Scriptures do not all apply directly, but they all have something to teach us. When we study any text, especially an Old Testament passage, we must (as my former professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke, used to say) ask the question, “Does the New Testament ratify, modify, or nullify this teaching?” Even those things which the New Testament sets aside may have something to teach us. While Sabbath keeping is not carried over into the New Testament, the other nine commandments of the “Ten Commandments” are virtually carried over into the New Testament.

(4) Dispensationalists sometimes disagree more sharply with other dispensationalists than with some covenant theologians. Hyper-dispensationalists believe that the New Testament Epistles have a strong priority over the rest of the Scriptures. They may not even attempt to teach or to apply some other portions of Scripture. For example, some dispensationalists avoid the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), because they believe it to be directed to the Jews, particularly to the millennium. Other dispensationalists agree that the Sermon on the Mount is directed to the Jews but seek to apply this text to contemporary Christian living. In so doing, they would find themselves, in practice if not in theory, in closer proximity to the covenant theologian than to the hyper-dispensationalist.

I find myself preaching very much as I would expect a covenant theologian to preach. The great temptation a dispensationalist faces is in using his dispensationalism as an excuse to avoid or excuse himself from obeying clear commands. Do some want to use dispensationalism to do away with the Sermon on the Mount because it is so hard to obey? After all, who wants to “turn the other cheek?” Many of our Lord’s commands are explained away dispensationally when I wonder if they ought not to be taken seriously, and even literally.

(5) Dispensationalists emphasize the biblical covenants of the Bible, those covenants clearly identified as covenants: the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9), the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12), the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), and the New covenant (Jeremiah 31). Covenant theologians base their theological system on three implied or assumed covenants: the covenant of works; the covenant of redemption; and the covenant of grace. I find implied covenants and doctrines (like limited atonement) less convincing and compelling than clear-cut covenants and doctrines.

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) What is a “dispensation”?

A dispensation is an administration, a specific period of time, which defines the nature and requirements of man’s relationship to God and men. A dispensation is always defined and described by divinely inspired revelation (Scripture), often stated in the form of a covenant between God and men.

Some Christians may prefer to use some other term than dispensation. I have no argument with this, so long as we grant that there are differences in the way God has dealt with men throughout history.

Considerable difference exists among Christians concerning what each of the dispensations should be identified as. Nearly everyone acknowledges the difference between the Old Testament dispensation under the Mosaic covenant and the New Testament “times of the Gentiles,” under the New covenant.

(2) How important is it to understand dispensations, especially the present dispensation?

We are God’s stewards who have an administration, a task, to carry out. Our task is to carry out God’s plan and purpose for this age. If we do not understand what God is doing in this age, we cannot be good stewards. Knowing God’s will for this age supplies us with much information concerning His specific will for our lives. God’s will for us must be compatible with His will for this age.

Many of the errors prevalent among Christians have their basis in a misconception of this present age. Some errors are attempts to import into this age that which belonged to a previous age (such as keeping the Sabbath and infant baptism). Other errors are attempts to introduce into this age those things which are a part of God’s purpose for a future age. Much of the “prosperity” movement seems to go wrong here, insisting that the suffering God has purposed for us in the present is due to sin and unbelief, and that future blessings can be claimed now. The reconstruction movement seems to err here as well. They appear to believe that what God will do upon His return, we can do now to hasten and prepare for His return.

(3) How would you characterize this present dispensation? What is unique about the dispensation in which we live?

This present age reverses the past dispensation. The curse which the Law pronounced on every man has been borne by our Lord on the cross of Calvary. In the past age, God saved some Jews and fewer Gentiles. In this age, God is saving some Gentiles and fewer Jews. In the former dispensation, Gentiles had to identify with Israel (in particular, the God of Israel) in order to be saved. In this age, the Jews must identify with and submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, and His church, which is primarily Gentile. This age draws together the hope of all previous dispensations, centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Now, through His church, God is displaying the wonders of His glory and grace.

(4) What things have changed in the various dispensations? What has not changed?

The way in which God rules over men changes with the various dispensations. The way in which men were instructed to worship and serve God has changed in some ways. That which men have been allowed to eat has changed. The way that men could meet with God has changed.

What has not changed is the overall plan and purpose of God for His creation, God’s promises, God’s character, God’s standards of holiness, and man’s sinfulness.

(5) Why has God employed dispensations?

God has employed various dispensations to demonstrate in a variety of contexts His holiness and grace, man’s sin, and the need for a salvation which is by grace rather than works. God’s glory is so great it must be revealed

progressively, and it should be viewed from various perspectives. No matter how God’s way of governing man changes, He is always faithful, and we are always sinful and rebellious. Only by His grace will any of us enter into His blessings.

Scripture Texts

Matthew 24-25
Mark 13
Luke 4; 21
John 4:19-26; 14-17
Acts 10-11; 15; 28
Romans 9-11
1 Corinthians 1-3; 12-14
2 Corinthians 3-6
Ephesians 1-3
Galatians 1-2
Colossians 1-2


148 As I understand the term “mystery” in the New Testament, a “mystery” is not something never before referred to but something which has never been understood. The “pieces” of the puzzle (mystery) are there, but they are not seen as a whole picture. The “mystery” is solved in Christ. The “mystery” of Messiah’s suffering and His glory, which perplexed the prophets, (1 Peter 1:10-12) has been revealed in Christ, who came first to die for sinners and who comes again to condemn those who have rejected Him.

149 See Romans 9-11; 1 Corinthians 1-3; Ephesians 1-3; Colossians 1-2.

150 In the King James Version of the Bible the term “dispensation” is frequently employed. In the NASB the terms “administration” (three times) and “stewardship” (six times) is its replacement.

151 In the Old Testament, the miraculous ministry of the prophets was a ministry of compassion, but it was primarily for the purpose of underscoring the power of God in the prophet and of the truth of the words which he spoke in the name of the Lord. Thus, miracles were subordinate to preaching. This is exactly what our Lord understood and practiced. He knew what it was that He had been called to do. He also knew that in spite of His many miracles and signs, men would not be convinced or converted (see Matthew 12:38-45).

152 See, for example, Acts 8:26-29; 9:1-19; 13:1-2; 16:6-10.

153 Dispensationalists are explained in the Addendum on pages 18 and 19.

154 Is there any specific sign associated with the New covenant? Some might think it is baptism or the Lord’s Supper. It almost seems as though the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church (as seen in Acts) could be viewed as the sign of the New covenant.

155 I do not like the labels “Law” and “Grace” because they do not convey the essence of the distinction between these two dispensations. In both (indeed, all) dispensations, men are saved by grace, through faith. Men have never been saved by the “Law” but only condemned by the Law (see Romans 3:19-20).

156 First, Jesus responded by pointing out their hypocrisy and lack of compassion. They would “work” on the Sabbath if their ox were in the ditch, and yet they had no compassion on those whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-18). It was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-13; Luke 14:1-6). Second, Jesus was able to “break the Sabbath” (like David did) because He was greater than the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8). Third, many of the acts of our Lord which the Jews considered a violation of the Sabbath were really just an infraction of their rigid rules and interpretations and not violations of the Law of Moses (Matthew 12:9-13).

157 I have tried to carefully choose my words to leave room for the fact that while the change from the old to the new was instituted by the death of Christ, the transition from the old to the new took longer. I believe the transition occurred over a period of about 70 years, from the time of our Lord’s birth to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The accounts of the Gospels and Acts indicate that it took considerable time to convince the disciples and the church of the change that had happened. Even after this, there were dangers of lapsing back into an old dispensation mode of thinking and acting (see, for example, Galatians 2:11-21 and the Epistles which warn of Jewish error).

158 This text is the most concise statement of Christ’s headship, but the fuller description is found in Ephesians 1-3, which I strongly recommend for your study and meditation.

159 I am making an effort here not to be dogmatic about each and every dispensation, as there is not unanimous agreement on each particular dispensation which some propose. Even if one were to reject dispensations altogether, it can still be shown that all of human history leads to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the divinely appointed goal of history.

160 See also Romans 5:12-21; 7:1-6; Galatians 2:11-21; 3:9-22; Colossians 2:1-23).

161 See Exodus 23:19. The mother’s milk was designed to sustain the life of her kid. It was inappropriate to employ that which was given to support the life of the kid (its mother’s milk) to prepare the dead animal for eating. The mother’s milk was for the kid’s food, and it should not be used in the process of making the kid our food. The mother’s womb is designed by God to sustain and protect the infant. How inconsistent for the mother to have an abortion, which is to produce the opposite of what she (her womb) was designed for.

162 The term “synoptic Gospels” applies to Matthew, Mark, and Luke because they, unlike John, tend to view the life of our Lord in the same general light. John’s Gospel is unique, for which we can be deeply grateful.

163 See 1 Corinthians 2-3; 12; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 3:1--3:18.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Theology Proper (God)

30. A New Beginning (Exodus 34:10-35)

Introduction

I have always disliked introductions. I do not mean introductions like the one I am now writing. I am referring to the kind of introductions that one person gives before other speaks. In effect, introductions are an effort to convince people that they should listen to what the speaker is going to say. My personal opinion is that no one will know whether or not the speaker is worth listening to until after he has spoken. Then everyone will know! I am saying that introductions are rather a waste of time because they focus on the speaker, rather than on the message. No matter how well known or how great any speaker is reported to be, the importance of listening carefully is only as great as the message he is about to give.

Introductions tend to focus on the messenger, rather than upon the message. To press the matter a little further, introductions focus upon the credentials of the speaker. We are thus told about the speaker’s education (especially emphasizing academic honors), about his accomplishments and human recognition. If we would believe what an introduction seeks to accomplish, the importance of the person determines the importance of the message.

Credentials do affect our attention and response to the words of another, but the kind of credentials which God gives are seldom of the same type that we would expect. When Moses was told by God to go to Pharaoh to demand that he let the Israelites go, Moses was very concerned with his credentials. He was concerned that he would be regarded as a nobody, and that no one would heed his message (Exod. 3:11). Even after God assured him that men would hear him, because “I Am” was with him and had sent him (Exod. 3:12-15), Moses still feared that he would not be taken seriously (Exod. 4:1). Therefore God gave Moses three very impressive “credentials.” The first was a staff that turned to a deadly, venomous serpent (4:2-5). The second was the ability to cause his hand to turn leprous, and then to restore it (4:6-7). The third was the ability to pour out water from the Nile, which turned to blood (4:8-9).

Moses, however, was not convinced that these credentials were enough. He feared that because he was not eloquent in speech he would not be taken seriously. God then gave Moses Aaron his brother as a spokesman, and also the plagues which would be poured out upon Egypt. These, my friends, were very impressive credentials, credentials which even Pharaoh reluctantly recognized, so that he finally released the Israelites.

While Moses was able to make the Egyptians listen, the Israelites, due to the stubbornness of their hearts, proved to be disinclined to heed the words of God through Moses. This is evident in Exodus chapter 32, where the people rejected the commandments of God by worshipping the golden calf, which they had persuaded Aaron to fashion for them. Now, after much mediation on the part of Moses, God is about to renew the covenant with Israel which they have just broken. Moses will play an even greater role in the leadership of the nation. I do not know whether or not Moses staff could still become a snake, but in any case God is about to give Moses an addition to his already impressive credentials, which will encourage the Israelites to heed his words.

Moses is going to return from the mountain with a radiantly beaming face, a reflection of the glory of God which he has seen. Every time he speaks to God face-to-face, the radiance will be renewed. Every time he speaks to Israel with his beaming face, the people will know that God is speaking to them through Moses, thus giving him credentials which the people dare not ignore.

Such credentials might seem very distant and unrelated to the New Testament saint, who lives at a different time, under a different covenant, and who has never experienced the “glow” which Moses was given by God. If it were not for the commentary of the New Testament, such a conclusion might be correct. The inspired writings of Matthew and Paul cause us to take this incident in Israel’s history much more seriously, however. Let us first look at the passage in Exodus, and then turn to its interpretation and application in the New.

The structure of our text is straightforward. The entire section describes the re-making of the Mosaic Covenant. Verses 10 and 11 introduce the covenant, while verses 27 and 28 serve as the conclusion. The code of the covenant or its conditions are contained in summary form in verses 12-26. Verses 12-17 are the negative prohibitions, while verses 18-26 are the positive practices which Israel is to faithfully pursue. The final section, verses 29-35, describes the radiance of the face of Moses as he returns from the presence of God. Thus, in outline form our passage is structured in this way:

    A. The stipulations of the covenant, vss. 10-28.

      1. The results of the covenant, v. 10.

      2. The requirements of the covenant, vss. 11-26.

        a. Negative, vss. 12-17.

        b. Positive, vss. 18-26.

      3. The recording of the covenant, vss. 27-28.

    B. The splendor of the covenant—the radiance of Moses’ face, vss. 29-35.

The Characteristics of the “New” Old Covenant

In verse 10 we read the words of God, spoken to Israel through Moses,

“Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth, nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you” (Exod. 34:10).

Verses 11-26 contain the stipulations or the “code of the covenant” which God is making here. They are considerably more abbreviated than the “code of the covenant give in chapters 20-23. This “new” old covenant will be best understood as we compare this covenant with that previously made and broken.

First, there is a “sameness,” a distinct similarity between this covenant and the first. The Ten Commandments, written on the two stone tablets are the same. Moses went to the top of the same mountain, and stayed there for the same time period—forty days and nights. The same standards are laid down in the second covenant as were contained in the first. Israel’s sin did not bring about a reduction in God’s standards for His people. The covenant which is made here is thus virtually a renewal of the former covenant. There are some differences however …

Second, there is a “newness” to the covenant which God made with Israel in our text. The term “renewal” or its equivalent is not found in our text, nor is there any reference to the former (first) covenant.110 The first covenant was based upon the “miracles”111 which God had done in delivering the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, while this covenant looks forward to the miracles which are instrumental in Israel’s possession of the land of Canaan (Exod. 34:10-11). (Ironically, the miracles which God formerly accomplished in Egypt resulted in the Egyptians driving the Israelites out of their land; now, the miracles which God is promising to accomplish will drive the Canaanites out of Israel’s land.)

There are a number of differences between the way this “new” covenant is given and the way in which the former was given, which tend to underscore the “newness” of it. Previously, Moses, along with 74 of Israel’s leaders went to the mountain, to ratify the covenant. Now, Moses alone goes to the mountain, apparently not even accompanied by Joshua.112 Formerly, the people repeatedly emphasized that they would obey all of God’s commandments, but no promises were made this (second) time. While the blessings of this covenant are still conditional, there are no “if’s” stated here, as there were at first (cf. Exod. 19:5).

Finally, the “code of the covenant” which is given in chapter 34 is significantly shorter than that found in chapters 20-23. The first code of the covenant placed a great deal of emphasis on social matters, such as the treatment of slaves and just compensation for losses caused by negligence or theft. In this abbreviated “code of the covenant” the emphasis falls on Israel’s walk with God, which had so quickly been interrupted by Israel’s idolatry and apostasy. The prohibitions of verses 12-17 forbid those contacts with the Canaanites which might lead Israel to turn from God. The way Israel is to deal with pagan idols is even more severe in the second statement of the “code of the covenant.”113 The practices referred to in verses 18-26 are those which would enhance Israel’s worship and walk with God. Thus, without referring to Israel’s fall, this abbreviated statement of the previously given “code of the covenant” focuses on those commands which will keep Israel from falling again, if they are obeyed.114

We have previously discussed the even greater role played by Moses in this covenant than in the former one. Moses alone went to the mountain and saw God, where previously it had been Moses with 74 other leaders of the nation. This time, we are told that Moses cut out these two stone tablets (34:1) and that he wrote on them (34:27-28). Moses becomes the central human figure in this covenant. This will become even more apparent in the final section of this chapter, where Moses’ face is said to become radiant when in the presence of God.115

The Splendor of the Covenant—The Transfiguration of Moses116
(34:29-35)

The Israelites were waiting once again, for another forty days and nights, until Moses returned with the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. The mood was very different this time from the last. The first time Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, Moses found the people worshipping a golden calf, which they had convinced Aaron to fashion for them. There was a heathen quality to this pseudo-worship and Moses was furious, just as God was. The stone tablets were smashed and pulverized by Moses, as was the golden calf. Three thousand were slain before the situation was back under control. There was much intercession before God finally promised Moses that He would forgive Israel and be present with them as they went on to possess the land of Canaan.

You can be sure that this time the people were most careful to wait patiently for Moses. After Israel’s apostasy, there may have been some doubt as to whether or not Moses would return with the stone tablets, and with the assurance that God had once again entered into a covenant with His people. If every Israelite stood at the doorway of his tent when Moses went out to the tent of meeting (33:8), you can be sure that every eye was fixed on Mt. Sinai, waiting for the first sign of Moses’ return. You can imagine the joy of the people when the first person shouted that Moses was spotted as he descended the mountain.

On that first descent, the people were unaware of Moses’ descent, but Moses and Joshua became increasingly aware of the revelry and apostasy of the people. Moses’ anger must have intensified with every downward step. Now the circumstances were different. Moses was unaware of the fact that his face was radiant,117 literally aglow with the glory of God. As Moses drew near, the people became increasingly aware of his radiant countenance, and in fear they withdrew from him. Moses must have been puzzled by what he saw. The people kept edging back away from him. A look of terror could be seen on the faces of those nearest to him. Little children may have cried and fled to their mothers.

At that point, perhaps, Moses may have turned to Joshua, or even have taken him aside, to ask what was wrong. In his amazement, Moses may have rushed into his tent and looked at himself in his wife’s mirror. What he saw must have amazed him as much as it did the Israelites. This was no mere redness of his cheeks, as though he were suddenly embarrassed; nor was his face a flushed white. It was the radiance of a powerful light.

In one sense, the story of Moses’ face does not seem unusual to me at all. It sounds rather like the promises of the cosmetic commercials which I can see almost every day. On the other hand, this is a very strange incident. Imagine, if you can, being the wife of Moses, and trying to get to sleep on a night after Moses has been in the presence of God, with a virtual spotlight blazing in the darkness. I can visualize her tossing and turning for hours, and finally saying to Moses, “Oh for goodness sake, Moses, turn out that light!,” and then, perhaps, throwing a blanket over his head.

Predictably, the people were at first frightened by the brightness of Moses’ countenance, but then eventually were able to draw near enough to hear Moses speak and to accept his words as from God Himself. Moses began to employ a veil. He would remove the veil when he went to speak with God and would leave it off until he had conveyed God’s words to the people. Then, the veil would be put on until the next time he spoke with God. The text seems to indicate that Moses did this on a number of occasions, with some degree of regularity. I believe that this occurred when Moses entered into the tent of meeting.118

The greater intimacy of Moses with God is apparent by the people’s actions here. In the past, the manifestations of the glory and majesty of God were more distant, so that the people wanted to keep their distance from God, and Moses to be their intermediary (cf. 20:18-20). Now that Moses’ face radiated with the glory of God, the people were reluctant to get too close to him (cf. 34:30).

What function did the “beaming,” radiant face of Moses play here? First, I believe that it further elevated Moses, showing him to be the one who God had chosen to be the mediator of His people.119 It also gave great force to the words which he spoke. When Moses came from the tent of meeting after having spoken with God everybody knew that what Moses was about to convey to them was a word directly from God. When Moses’ face was aglow, the words which Moses spoke were the very words of God. The radiant face of Moses gave testimony to the divinely inspired utterances which he spoke to the people.

The meaning of this periodic transfiguration of Moses is not pressed in our passage, other than to imply that Moses’ words, which were spoken with this shining face, would likely be taken very seriously by the Israelites. It is not until the New Testament that this unusual phenomenon is taken up more thoroughly.

The Transfiguration of Christ
(17:1-5)

Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of Christ is an especially significant commentary of the transfiguration of Moses in our text:

And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased; hear Him!” (Matt. 17:1-5).

This manifestation of the glory of our Lord, evidenced by His brilliant countenance and his glowing garments, is but a foretaste of His splendor, which will again be His when He is raised from the dead and ascends to the heavenly throne of God. John describes the radiance of the face of the glorified Christ in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation: “And in His right hand He held seven stars; and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16). It is no wonder, then, that heaven will need no light other than that of His radiance: “And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).

The radiance of Moses’ face has great prophetic significance, for in the Book of Deuteronomy Moses spoke of the Messiah who would come, who would be a prophet like him: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him” (Deut. 18:15).

The striking similarities between these accounts in Matthew’s gospel and in the Book of Revelation and that of our text in the Book of Exodus prove that the prophet of whom Moses spoke was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice the similarities between Matthew’s account of the transfiguration of our Lord and Moses’ account of his own transfiguration:

  • There is the “high mountain” in both accounts.
  • There is the beaming face of both Moses and our Lord.
  • There is the fact that Moses appears in both passages.
  • The manifestation of glory is proof of God’s favor of the one who is thus transformed.
  • There is the emphasis on listening carefully to what the one with the gleaming face has to say.

Thus, the transfiguration of Moses was intended to serve as a prototype, a prophecy of the Messiah to come, who was in many regards, a prophet like Moses. Just as the radiance of Moses’ face was a part of his credentials, which caused the people to listen to him carefully, so the radiant splendor of Christ was one of His credentials, instructing us to listen carefully to Him:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature …” (Heb. 1:1-3a).

For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Heb. 2:1-4).

When Moses radiated, it was with the glory of God, and thus men were induced to listen to his words. When our Lord was transfigured, it was with His own glory, as God, that He glowed. The writer to the Hebrews thus encourages each of us to take His words most seriously.

The Greater Glory of the New Covenant
(2 Corinthians 3 and 4)

This is not all, however, for the apostle Paul also refers to the transfiguration of Moses in Exodus 34:29-35 in the third and fourth chapters of his second epistle to the Corinthians. Paul uses the account of the transfiguration of Moses in Exodus 34 to teach us several important lessons:120

But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stone, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory on account of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech, and are not as Moses, who used to put a veil over his face that the sons of Israel might not look intently at the end of what was fading away. But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; But whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 3:7–4:6).

Paul’s argument in these verses is based upon a very important premise: THE GLORY OF THE NEW COVENANT SURPASSES THAT OF THE OLD, FOR THE NEW COVENANT IS SUPERIOR TO THE OLD COVENANT. The old covenant, Paul tells us, was one that was written in stone; the new is written on men’s hearts (3:3). The old covenant produced condemnation and death; the new produces righteousness and life (3:6, 9). The old covenant had a fading glory, the new an eternal glory (3:7, 11). The old covenant was reflected in the face of Moses; the new in the face of Christ (3:7, 18; 4:6).

On the basis of the greater glory of the new covenant, Paul draws his applications. The first is that the preaching of the new covenant can achieve that which the proclamation of the old could never accomplish. In Exodus chapter 34 Moses, not the people, wore the veil. In 2 Corinthians, Paul changes the imagery, saying that the real veil which obscured the glory of God from the Israelites was their own hardness of heart. “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart” (2 Cor. 3:15). Added to the veil of the hardness of men’s hearts is the blinding of Satan: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is in the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

The veil of unbelief and hardness of heart, the veil of satanic blinding, which the old covenant could not remove, is only removed in Christ, through the proclamation of the new covenant: “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). Thus, the preaching of the new covenant is more glorious, and its effect is greater than that of the old, for it can remove the veil of blindness, bringing men to faith in Christ, and thus transforming the hearts and lives of men.

This leads us to Paul’s second (and primary) application. From all that we can learn about Paul’s gifts and ministry, I think it is safe to say that Paul was not the most dynamic speaker of his day. From all appearances, Apollos was a more dynamic speaker. It would seem that Paul’s teaching and authority were under attack, partly due to his lack of charisma in speaking. Those false Corinthian teachers who were admired and followed by many in the church were seemingly men of great oratorical skill. Thus, they had these humanly appealing and impressive “credentials,” which caused many to listen to their teaching and follow after them.

What, then, were Paul’s credentials? What could he point to, to prove that his teaching should be adhered to, that his apostleship was from God? The answer which Paul gives is to be found in the greater glory of the new covenant, which surpasses that glory revealed in the face of Moses in Exodus chapter 34.

One evidence of the authority of Moses was the fact that he held in his hands the two tablets of stone, on which the commandments of God were written. Paul claimed to have gone one better. He did not possess tablets of stone, but he could point to hearts of stone which were turned into hearts of flesh, written upon by the Spirit of God, even as Jeremiah had prophesied (Jer. 31:31-34). He did not have a transformed face, but Paul could point to the transformed hearts and lives of those who had been changed by the gospel of the new covenant which he preached:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts. And such confidence we have through Christ toward God (2 Cor. 3:1-4).

Furthermore, Moses’ authority was evident in his radiant face, after he had been speaking with God. Paul did not have any such spectacular external manifestation, but he did have the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within every Christian, and who bears witness internally to those to whom the new covenant is proclaimed. This is what our Lord promised His disciples before He left the earth (John 16:8-16). Whenever we speak the word of God in truth, the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, bears testimony within the listener, validating the truth of what has been said.

What credentials did Paul claim? Those which were even greater than the credentials of Moses—the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, and transformed lives.

These credentials, my friend, were not only those which Paul could claim, but they belong to every believer in Christ, to every one who speaks for God in this age. It is not where we went to school that counts. It is not even whether we went to school at all that counts. Our credentials are the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the transformed lives which God brings to pass through the preaching of the gospel.

Do you not have a theological education? Have you never attended seminary? Are you unable to point men to the Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible? These are not essential credentials. The only credentials which you must have are those which Paul claimed. Are you not eloquent and forceful in delivery? Apparently Paul was not either, and Moses claimed not to be. Jonathan Edwards, as we have been told, read his sermons in a monotone voice. The important thing is not our delivery (though we need not try to make it poor), but the clarity and integrity of our message, driven home by the Spirit of God, resulting in transformed lives. Let us speak the truth in love, looking the Holy Spirit as our only needed credentials.


110 “There is nothing in the language which suggests a covenant renewal … The present account tells nothing of a ceremony in which the people accept the covenant and its terms, as one finds in 24:3-7. … The present account emphasizes the initiative of Yahweh in making the covenant on the basis of the words he speaks to Moses.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 323.

The reference to the former covenant in our chapter are very few and indirect. In verse 1 God told Moses to cut out stones tablets, “like the former ones.” In verse 4 we are told that Moses “cut out two stone tablets like the former ones.” My point here is that God does not keep bringing up the past, reminding Israel of her previous sin. Apart from reading the previous chapters, one would hardly know that a previous covenant had been made and broken. As a matter of fact, Hyatt points out that a number of (liberal) scholars feel our text contains the “original” covenant. Cf. Hyatt, p. 319.

111 “Marvels.” “The same Hebrew word has been used to describe the plagues sent upon Egypt (Ex. 3:20). Here, the sense is explained by saying that God will do a terrible thing (better ‘something of which men will stand in awe’).” R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 229.

112 Not only is Joshua not mentioned, but the fact that Moses was unaware of his glowing face would indicate that Moses was alone as he descended the mountain.

113 “Earlier in the Book of Exodus (23:24) the command had been simply to ‘break down their images’ but after the Israelites had displayed an interest in idolatrous practices, they were now commanded to destroy the altars and the groves: in other words, all forms of idolatry were to be destroyed completely.” John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 296.

114 “To recall the duties of the covenant once more to the minds of the people, the Lord repeats from among the rights of Israel, upon the basis of which the covenant had been established (chap. xxi.-xxiii.), two of the leading points which determined the attitude of the nation towards Him, and which constituted, as it were, the main pillars that were to support the covenant about to be renewed. These were, first, the warning against every kind of league with the Canaanites, who were to be driven out before the Israelites (vers. 11-16); and second, the instructions concerning the true worship of Jehovah (vers. 17-26). The warning against friendship with the idolatrous Canaanites (vers. 11-16) is more fully developed and more strongly enforced than in chap. xxiii. 23 sqq.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on The Old Testament, Vol. II, The Pentateuch, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company [reprint], 1968), p. 242.

115 “This reflection of the splendour thrown back by the glory of God was henceforth to serve as the most striking proof of the confidential relation in which Moses stood to Jehovah, and to set forth the glory of the office which Moses filled. … The office could only confer such glory upon the possessor by virtue of the glory of the blessings which it contained, and conveyed to those for whom it was established. Consequently, the brilliant light on Moses’ face also set forth the glory of the old covenant, and was intended both for Moses and the people as a foresight and pledge of the glory to which Jehovah had called, and would eventually exalt, the people of His possession.” Ibid, p. 244.

116 I have borrowed this expression from Hyatt (p. 326) who calls this section “The Transfiguration of Moses.”

117 “This very old story contains two unusual linguistic usages, which guarantee its authenticity. The first is the verb translated shone here; ‘shot forth beams’ would be the better translation. Unfortunately, because the cognate noun also means ‘a horn,’ the Vulgate mistranslated the verb as ‘having horns,’ and so it is that Moses appears in mediaeval works of art as wearing a pair of horns.” Cole, p. 233.

118 “Most of the following verbs are imperfect, or perfect with ‘waw-consecutive,’ to indicate repeated, customary action. … This section must, therefore, describe some repeated action on the part of Moses, not the single action that took place when he descended from the mountain. If it has historical value, it could apply to his customary practice in going in and out of the tent of meeting, described in 33:7-11.” Hyatt, pp. 327-328.

119 This is further supported by the fact that God often used the singular “you,” referring to Moses, rather than the plural “you,” referring to the nation (e.g. 34:10, 27-28). This was to show that Israel’s destiny was intertwined with Moses.

120 “The Apostle Paul used the veil of Moses to teach three important truths. the first is that the veiling of Moses’ face typified the veiled glory of the old covenant in contrast of the unveiled and abiding glory of the new covenant. The full and majestic revelation of God’s glory was to be witnessed in the New Testament period (II Cor. 3:13). The veil, in the second place, represented the veil which was upon the heart of the Jews of his day. It was a way of symbolizing their spiritual blindness in not discerning the identity of Jesus the Messiah (II Cor. 3:14-16). The third reference to the veil is found in II Corinthians 3:18 and is a reference to the unveiled vision given to the believer by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Every believer is in the process of being changed into the image of our Lord as a result of the new life which is within him. The culmination of this process will be when the Lord returns and we will behold Him face to face.” Davis, pp. 298-299.

31. Concerning Contributions (Exodus 35:1-36:7)

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Tell the sons of Israel to raise a contribution for Me; from every man whose heart moves him you shall raise My contribution. And this is the contribution which you are to raise from them: gold, silver and bronze, blue, purple and scarlet material, fine linen, goat hair, rams’ skins dyed red, porpoise skins, acacia wood, oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and setting stones and setting stones, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:1-8).

Then Moses assembled all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and said to them, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a Sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” And Moses spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, “This is the thing which the LORD has commanded, saying, ‘Take from among you a contribution to the LORD; whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it as the LORD’S contribution: gold, silver, and bronze, and blue, purple and scarlet material, fine linen, goats’ hair, and rams’ skins dyed red, and porpoise skins, and acacia wood, and oil for lighting, and spices for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and setting stones for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let every skillful man among you come, and make all that the LORD has commanded’” (Exodus 35:1-10).

Introduction

There is a wide-spread attitude among Christians that the Old Testament concept of giving differs from that of the New Testament as day differs from night. This is only partially true. It would be more accurate to think of Old Testament giving as differing from New Testament giving as Old Testament salvation differs from New Testament salvation. While there are distinctions between the old dispensation and the new, so there is continuity. In this account of the generous, free-will offerings of the Israelites, we will seek to identify those points of continuity with the New Testament teaching on giving. In this way we will focus on the application of this text to our own lives.

To accomplish this purpose I will begin by characterizing the contributions of the Israelites. We will make seven observations about the nature of Israel’s giving, as described by Moses. We will then briefly compare the giving of the Israelites with that of the Corinthians in the New Testament. Finally, we will seek to apply what we have seen to our own giving in our own day and time.

The importance of this portion of Scripture can be discerned from several important factors. First, the importance of this passage can be discerned from its proportions. Note that the commandments pertaining to the construction of the tabernacle (Exod. 25-31) and the account of its being carried out (Exod. 35-40) take up 13 chapters out of a total of 40 for the entire book. This is approximately the same amount of space devoted to the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Thus, the construction of the tabernacle is of great importance in the Book of Exodus, as judged by the space devoted to it.

Second, the significance of our passage can be determined on the basis of its position in the book. In a word, the text we are considering (that is, chapters 35-40)121 is the conclusion to the Book of Exodus. We should no more minimize the importance of this conclusion than we would the conclusion to any book. The events of the entire book are all seen as having their importance in relationship to the goal of the book, that to which the author brings us as the fulfillment of the account and its completion.

Third, the significance of this text is evident by its principle theme. The theme of this section is the presence of God in the midst of His people. The final verses of chapter 40 describe the cloud descending to cover the tabernacle and the glory of the LORD filling it. That which Moses valued most highly, for which he petitioned God most fervently—the presence of God in the midst of His people—is the major theme of our passage. It is for these three reasons, then, that we must conclude that we have come to the high water mark of the Book of Exodus. Let us listen well to the words of this text.

The Structure of the Passage

We are now dealing with the concluding section of the Book of Exodus. In chapters 1-18 we have read of the plight of the Israelites, the call of Moses, the plagues on Egypt, Israel’s escape from Egypt, and her arrival at Mt. Sinai. Chapters 19-24 detailed the giving of the Law from atop Mt. Sinai, including the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant. Chapters 25-31 then contain the design specifications and instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, by which means God will dwell in the midst of His people. The fall of Israel in the incident of the golden calf, the breaking of the covenant, and Moses’ mediation for the people are reported in chapters 32-34. Chapters 35-40 conclude by describing the construction of the tabernacle, climaxed by God’s descent into the midst of the camp.

In outline form, chapters 35-40 can be summarized as follows:

      A. Contributions—the offerings of the Israelites for the tabernacle: Exodus 35:1—36:7.

      B. Construction—the making of the tabernacle: Exodus 36:8—39:43.

      C. Consecration and condescension—the dedication of the tabernacle and God’s occupation of it: Exodus 40:1-38.

This message will focus on the contributions of the Israelites, as described in chapter 35 and the first 7 verses of chapter 36. The final two messages will deal with the construction and the consecration of the tabernacle.

Israel’s Offerings

The events of chapters 35-40 can only be understood in the light of God’s instructions concerning the construction of the tabernacle, given to Moses as recorded in chapters 25-31. There is a great deal of similarity between these two accounts, as has been observed.122 The first nine verses of chapter 25 serve as the introduction to God’s instructions concerning the tabernacle, including the divinely appointed means of providing the needed materials from which the tabernacle, its furnishings, and the priestly garments will be made.

One may very well wonder why God would take so much (“valuable”) space to report to us God’s instructions in chapters 25-31, only to repeat nearly the same words in chapters 35-40 to report that these commands were carried out. Let me suggest that this repetition is by divine design, and is intended to convey an important truth, a truth worth the repetition.

The repetition of chapters 25-31 and 35-40 underscores the fact that those things which God had commanded in chapters 25-31 were carried out to the letter. What is even more amazing is that God’s instructions were willingly and precisely carried out by this people who were “stiff-necked” and rebellious. All this happened in spite of the “fall” of the nation, the account of which interrupts the two major sections dealing with the tabernacle. The lesson to be learned is this: WHAT GOD PURPOSES TO DO, HE WILL DO, AND JUST AS HE SAID HE WOULD DO IT. This can be seen in all of the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible. Better yet, we can be assured that those unfulfilled prophecies of the Bible will be fulfilled to the letter. What God says, He will do. That is a lesson well worth a little repetition.

In comparing chapters 25-31 with chapters 35-40 it is interesting to note that just as the first portion ended with instructions regarding keeping the Sabbath (31:12-17), so the first verses of the latter portion begin with Sabbath instructions (35:1-3). The Sabbath was, of course, the sign of the covenant, and thus a very significant observance. It is also possible, as Keil and Delitzsch suggest,123 that this command is given here to insure against Israel’s violation of the Sabbath in the construction of the tabernacle. The undertaking of such a project might have seemed so holy that a Sabbath rest could be set aside to work on the construction of the tabernacle.

Characteristics of Israel’s Contributions

There are many details concerning the contributions of the people in this account, but for our purposes we shall attempt to focus our attention on some of the more general characteristics of the contributions to the tabernacle. We shall then compare these characteristics of Israel’s giving with the giving of the Corinthians in the New Testament. Consider the following characteristics:

(1) Israel’s contributions were voluntarily given. There is an interesting comment given to us in verse 20 of chapter 35 which reinforces the voluntary aspect of Israel’s gifts. After Moses had given God’s instructions to the people, explaining the opportunity that each had to make a contribution, he dismissed them: “Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel departed from Moses’ presence” (Exod. 35:20). It is not until later, after the people had been dismissed, that the people began to bring their offerings to the Lord.

A number of modern-day fund-raisers would never think of dismissing a congregation until after they had made a commitment to give a particular sum. They would have pressed the Israelites to make an on the spot commitment. They would have passed out pledge cards to sign, so that the enthusiasm of the moment was not lost. Moses dismissed the people, so that they had time to themselves, apart from outside pressure, to determine what they could and should contribute. This insured the fact that the gifts were indeed voluntarily donated, and not obtained under some kind of emotional or psychological duress.

(2) Israel’s gifts were willingly, joyfully given. God instructed Moses to collect an offering from “whoever is of a willing heart” (Exod. 35:5), and the text frequently informs us that this was the case (cf. 35:21, 22, 26, 29). Every indication of our text is that the people gladly gave their gifts so that the tabernacle could be built.

(3) The gifts of the Israelites were abundantly given. The excitement and enthusiasm of the Israelites is evident by the abundance of their gifts. In fact, the text informs us that the gifts exceeded the need, so that Moses was requested by the workers to command the people to stop giving (Exod. 36:2-7). This is the first time in the history of mankind that I know of that people were told to stop giving because all that was needed was given. Today, there might have been a proposal to enlarge the tabernacle, so that donations would keep coming in. How wonderful it would be, just once, to be told not to give.

(4) The giving of the Israelites was unanimous. While all were free to give or not to give, the text strongly suggests that there were few, if any, who refused to have a part in contributing toward the construction of the tabernacle (cf. 35:23-28).

(5) The giving of the Israelites was proportionate. While virtually everyone gave something for the tabernacle, each one gave in accordance with what he or she had to give.

Everyone who could make a contribution of silver and bronze brought the LORD’S contribution; and every man, who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service, brought it. And all the skilled women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue and purple and scarlet material and in fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred with a skill spun the goats’ hair. And the rulers brought the onyx stones and stones for setting for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and the spice and the oil for the light and for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense. The Israelites, all the men and women, whose heart moved them to bring material for all the work, which the LORD had commanded through Moses to be done, brought a freewill offering to the LORD (Exod. 35:24-29, emphasis mine).

Those who were wealthy gave what only the wealthy would possess—the finest stones and gems, the most precious oils and fragrances. Those who had lesser means gave what they had.

(6) The giving of the Israelites included both material goods and technical services. The building of the tabernacle required two essential elements: goods and services. That is, there must be the raw materials from which the tabernacle and its furnishings were to be constructed. This included gold, silver, precious stones, animal skins, spices and ointments, and fine cloth. Then there must be skilled workers, both men and women, who would fashion these raw materials into objects of beauty. Some of those who gave to the tabernacle gave of their goods, while many others gave of their skilled abilities, to create a place of great beauty and worth.

(7) The contributions of the Israelites were of the highest quality. The tabernacle was to be of such quality and craftsmanship that it would befit the God who was to dwell within it (cf. Exod. 25:8). Thus, the materials used in building it were the finest that were available (cf. 35:6-9). So, too, with the craftsmen who were to create the intricate and beautiful works of art within the tabernacle (35:30-35). God was given the finest men had to offer, and all of these fine things, whether goods or skills, were God-given in the first place.124

A Comparison of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9

As we compare the characteristics of the contributions of the Israelites in our text with the contributions of the Corinthians (as described in Paul’s Corinthian epistles125) we find that there are some remarkable parallels. Consider some of the similarities of the principles and practices which Paul teaches in his epistles with what we have just observed of the Israelites’ giving in Exodus.

(1) Neither were compelled to give, but encouraged to do so voluntarily (cf. 2 Cor. 8:3). The Corinthians were given time to think about what they would give, and were not put under any pressure. They were given time to raise their contributions (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:2-5).

(2) Both were giving willingly, cheerfully, and bountifully (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-3; 9:7).

(3) The Corinthians, like the Israelites, gave out of those things which they had, out of what God Himself had provided (2 Cor. 9:8-11). The Corinthians were encouraged to give only as they themselves had prospered (2 Cor. 8:12-15).

Comparing the giving of the Israelites in Exodus 35 and 36 with that of the Corinthians, we can safely conclude that with regard to voluntary giving, the principles and practices of both testaments are nearly identical.126 But what about the many Old Testament texts which command the people to give in a very different way? The majority of Old Testament instances where giving is taught involve mandatory contributions, not voluntary gifts. For example, in Exodus chapter 30 the same term for giving found in Exodus 35 and 36 is found, but in a distinctly mandatory context:

“When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them. This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the LORD. Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the LORD. The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel, when you give the contribution to the LORD to make atonement for yourselves” (Exod. 30:13-15).

Notice that there are at least two ways in which this contribution differs from that of chapters 35 and 36, in spite of the fact that the same term127 for giving is used in both passages. First, the contribution is not a voluntary matter, but is compulsory. Second, the contribution is not one that is proportionate to one’s financial status, but all, rich or poor, are to give the same amount.

In the New Testament our Lord affirmed the legitimacy in principle of this compulsory “temple tax”:

And when they had come to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter, and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” And upon his saying, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Consequently the sons are exempt. But, lest we give them offense, go to the sea, and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a stater. Take that and give it to them for you and Me” (Matt. 17:24-27).

While our Lord, as the “king’s son,” was not obliged to pay the temple tax of Exodus 30, His payment of the tax underscored the legitimacy of such a tax for Israelites in general.

The Old Testament, then, has at least two different types of giving: (1) that which is voluntary and free-will; and (2) that which is obligatory or mandatory. Few would dispute this fact, but many seem reluctant to acknowledge that the same two categories of giving are found in the New Testament. Voluntary giving, as we have already seen, can be found in the Corinthian epistles. It is also shown to be an accepted principle by Peter’s response to Ananias:

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

I believe that in the New Testament, as in the Old, two types of giving are described: the first is voluntary giving, and the second is mandatory. Consider the following texts, and see if there is a not a kind of giving taught in the New Testament which is obligatory and binding:

“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42).

“In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).

Contributing to the needs of the saints … (Rom. 12:13).

And recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do (Gal. 2:9-10).

Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need (Eph. 4:28).

Instruct them [those who are rich] to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18).

And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:16).

This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (Jas. 1:27).

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (Jas. 2:16).

Beyond the meeting of the needs of the poor and the afflicted, there is the obligation to support those who minister the Word of God:

And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches (Gal. 6:6).

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim. 5:17-18; cf. also 1 Cor. 9:1-14; 2 Tim. 2:4-7).

Thus, while there are some areas where giving is optional, a matter of individual leading, there are also obligations which no Christian should dare to neglect because they are mandatory, not optional.

THE QUESTIONS MUST ARISE, THEREFORE, “WHY ARE THERE TWO DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO GIVING IN THE BIBLE, ONE WHICH IS VOLUNTARY, AND THE OTHER COMPULSORY? I think that our text and others suggest some very practical reasons, all of which are wrapped up in the nature of men and in the nature of different kinds of needs.

Giving for the tabernacle did not need to be mandatory because the motivation of the Israelites was extremely high. The tabernacle was the means of God’s personally dwelling among His people (Exod. 25:8). This was a one-time need, for which the people had been amply enabled to contribute. This was an opportunity which would be of great personal benefit to the donor. Which such motivation, God could easily allow the nation to provide the skills and materials for the tabernacle voluntarily. This is not meant to diminish the enthusiasm or the generosity of the people, but simply to explain why such generosity would be easy to practice in this instance.

There were other needs in Israel, however, which were not so glamorous, and which were of a much longer duration. To insure these needs being met, God made giving a compulsory matter. There was an on-going need for the support of the priests and Levites, who devoted themselves to the service of God in the tabernacle. Once in the land of Canaan, these servants of God would not be able to serve God and support themselves and their families at the same time. God therefore prescribed a set “contribution” at a stipulated interval, so that the tabernacle services could be constant. Returning to the “temple tax” of Exodus 30, this was for the support of the service of the tent of meeting, so that this memorial would be continual: “And you shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel, and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the sons of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves” (Exod. 30:16).

I fear that in some of our Christian circles we have overreacted to the compulsory element of our giving. Rightly, I believe, we point out that the tithe was a binding obligation on Israel, and should not be brought directly over to the New Testament church, to be imposed upon the saints of this age. Wrongly, however, we have concluded that all of our giving in this age is always of the free-will type, of the kind where we give because we feel like doing so. While the tithe percentages of the Old Testament economy are nowhere reiterated in the New Testament for the church to follow, we should nevertheless see the applicability of giving on a regular, consistent, and sacrificial basis. Thus, Old Testament sacrificial terms and imagery are frequently used in reference to New Testament giving (cf. Phil. 4:15-18; Heb. 13:15-16).

In the name of New Testament liberty and individual leading Christians have given more by impulse and feeling. All too often the more gullible saints have given in response to the subtle (or not-so-subtle) persuasive techniques of unscrupulous “hucksters” (cf. 2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). Financial crises must occur (or perhaps are even “created” by those with few scruples on this subject) in order to prompt people to make a contribution. Consistency in giving is too seldom evident in individual giving. We can see the devastating results in almost every church and in every Christian organization. The income of some months (e.g. December—tax deductible gift time) is high, while at other times (e.g. the summer months—vacation time), it falls off significantly. Meanwhile, while giving vacillates radically, financial needs and obligations are consistent.

The saints are often fickle in their giving. Most of us would rather designate our giving to projects which capture our imagination or give the appearance of significance than to pay the rent or the light bill. We would rather support prominent and visible individuals (as the Corinthians did), rather than those with quiet, substantial, but unseen, ministries. Rather than giving consistently to the general fund, we divert our gifts from one cause to another, creating financial havoc. Those experienced in the financial end of Christian ministries call this “the old general fund problem.”

I have said that Christians (and others, too) are more eager to create than to maintain. Looking at giving in another way, people are much more inclined to give toward something which they can see, something tangible (such as a building), than they are to give to other, more abstract needs (such as operational expenses). This is a bit inconsistent when we remember that faith focuses not upon what is seen, but on what is not seen. Why is it that we can say we trust in what we don’t see, but we won’t give to anything we can’t see?

What am I suggesting? Simply this. We should delight in those opportunities to give which are exciting, dramatic, and of obvious significance. On the other hand we must be faithful in giving to those more mundane needs which must also be met. These obligations may not be a delight as much as they are a duty, but if they are our duty then let us give to them with diligence, with discipline, and with regularity. And when special opportunities arise when we have the occasion to give, let us not neglect the mundane in providing for the magnificent.

Does this sound a bit legalistic to you? Structure, consistency, and discipline may become legalistic, but it need not do so. The lack of any structure is just as wrong as having too much rigidity. We must have both form (structure) and freedom (individual leading) in our giving.

I have been trying to establish a principle from our study, which can be stated in this way: BIBLICAL GIVING INCLUDES BOTH THE JOY OF PROVIDING FOR THOSE PROJECTS WHICH ARE EXCITING AND THE DISCIPLINE OF MEETING THOSE MORE MUNDANE NEEDS WHICH ARE OUR OBLIGATION TO SUPPLY.

This principle pertaining to money also applies to ministry, in two ways. First, ministry, like money, involves both the exciting tasks, which stir us to action, and those routine tasks, which must be done and are our duty to carry out. I see many Christians in churches who seem to disdain regular, routine, consistent ministry, especially that ministry which isn’t public and doesn’t smack enough of being “spiritual.” They are continually waiting and looking for a “significant ministry” that really grabs them, that is exciting, that they are eager, at any given moment, to perform. The reality of the Christian life is that the great bulk of Christian ministry is that of “maintenance” work, of doing those things which must be done to carry on the work of our Lord. Week after week, Sunday school classes and nurseries must be staffed. Week after week, the church must be cleaned and the lawn mowed. Is this glorious and exciting? Not really, at least not all the time. But these are the things which we are obligated to do.

There are those few opportunities which arise in our lives which really do catch our imagination, which inspire in us a vision and an enthusiasm. These are the exciting kinds of ministry, which should not supplant those mandatory maintenance kinds of ministry. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that those exciting ministry opportunities often arise in the process of our being faithful to perform our more mundane ministries.

Thumbing through the New Testament I found that Zacharias was visited by God’s angel and told of the birth of his son, and thus of the coming of Messiah, in the course of doing his duty (Luke 1:8ff.). Anna, the prophetess, never left the temple, serving there night and day for what must have been more than 50 years. On one such day, the Christ child was brought to the temple, where God privileged her to witness His arrival (Luke 2:36-38). Barnabas and Saul were set apart for missionary service while they were actively engaged in ministry (Acts 13:1-4).

Second, money and ministry are related in that proving ourselves faithful in the “little thing” of money is often the test which God requires us to pass before He gives us greater responsibilities. Jesus said,

“He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. If therefore you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous mammon, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12).

In our desire to do what is a delight, let us not neglect our greater responsibility to do our duty. In our desire to be fulfilled, let us not forget our greater obligation to be faithful. In our giving to such majestic causes as that magnificent tabernacle, let us not neglect the on-going duty to maintain the works that God is performing in our midst.


121 “An interesting feature of these chapters [35-40] is that the LXX translation of them differs more markedly from the Hebrew text than does any other portion of the OT of similar length. The Greek translator often uses different Greek words for the same Hebrew words than those used in the Greek of chapters 25-31. He has some glaring omissions, such as the incense altar, the boards (or frames) of the Tabernacle, the goats’ hair curtains, and the two sets of skin coverings. He describes the making of the various items in a different order—e.g., he describes the making of the priestly vestments in chapter 36, whereas in the Hebrew they are in chapter 39. Occasionally he adds some information not in the Hebrew. …” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 328-329.

122 “In many cases the wording of the former chapters is repeated verbatim, with the tense of the verbs simply changed from future to past. In some cases there are abridgements or minor omissions, and there are some expansions, especially at the beginning (35:4–36:6), and at the end, where chapter 40 relates the setting up of the Tabernacle and its equipment, and the descent of the glory of Yahweh upon it. Occasionally these chapters add some new information to the chapters 25-31, but taken as a whole they contribute little to our understanding. …” Ibid, p. 328.

Elsewhere, Hyatt says of 35:4–36:7: “An expansion of 25:1-9 and 31:1-11. This is a long narrative about how the Israelite men and women contributed offerings of various kinds and their own work for making the Tabernacle. It adds in 35:22 the offering of personal jewelry (cf. 33:6), and in 35:25f. the spinning of cloth by the women. In 35:34 the statement that Bezalel and Oholiab were inspired to teach the other workers is a new element. 36:3-7 emphasizes the overwhelming response of the people to the point of their having to be restrained.” Ibid, p. 329.

123 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on The Old Testament, Vol. II, The Pentateuch, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company [reprint], 1968), p. 245.

124 The “gifts” which were given by the Israelites to build the tabernacle were the “spoils of war” which were obtained from the Egyptians. In the New Testament, the gifts which God has given His saints to build up the church are also spoken of as spoils of war in Ephesians 4:7-13. Is there a parallel here?

125 The central texts are 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8 and 9.

126 I believe that there is a principle illustrated here which should be applied whenever we compare the Old Testament teaching on a particular subject with that of the New. The principle is this: THERE IS BOTH CONTRAST AND CONTINUITY TO BE FOUND BETWEEN THE OLD AND THE NEW TESTAMENTS. Dispensationalism, for example, tends to focus on the differences between the two testaments, sometimes to the neglect of that which is common to both. Covenant theology, on the other hand, can so emphasize the continuity of the testaments that it minimizes the distinctions which must be taken into account. Ideally we should be striving to see both the continuity and the contrasts between the Old and New Testaments.

127 Of this term Keil and Delitzsch write, “… to swing or move to and fro, is used in connection with the sacrificial ritual to denote a peculiar ceremony, through which certain portions of a sacrifice, which were not intended for burning upon the altar, but for the maintenance of the priests (Num. xviii. 11), were consecreated to the Lord, or given up to Him in a symbolical manner (see at Lev. vii. 30). Tenuphah, the wave-offering, accordingly denoted primarily those portions of the sacrificial animal which were allotted to the priests as their share of the sacrifices; and then, in a more general sense, every gift or offering that was consecrated to the Lord for the establishment and maintenance of the sanctuary and its worship.” Keil and Delitzsch, p. 246.

32. The Tabernacle, the Dwelling Place of God (Exodus 36:8-39:43)

Introduction

The importance of the chapters in Exodus which deal with the tabernacle has been stated well by Witsius: “God created the whole world in six days, but he used forty to instruct Moses about the tabernacle. Little over one chapter was needed to describe the structure of the world, but six were used for the tabernacle.”128

Although most evangelicals would readily acknowledge the importance of the tabernacle, throughout the history of the church there has been little agreement concerning its interpretation. I would recommend that the reader make an effort to survey the history of the interpretation of the tabernacle, which is the subject of our study. Through the centuries many have sought to find the meaning of the tabernacle in terms of its symbolism.

Already in the Hellenistic period … the attempt had been made to understand the function of the Old Testament tabernacle as basically a symbolic one. It is immediately apparent from the biblical language why this interpretation seemed a natural one. First, the dimension of the tabernacle and all its parts reflect a carefully contrived design and a harmonious whole. The numbers 3, 4, 10 predominate with proportionate cubes and rectangles. The various parts—the separate dwelling place, the tent, and the court—are all in exact numerical relation. The use of metals—gold, silver, and copper—are carefully graded in terms of their proximity to the Holy of Holies. In the same way, the particular colors appear to bear some inner relation to their function, whether the white, blue, or crimson. There is likewise a gradation in the quality of the cloth used. Finally, much stress is placed on the proper position and orientation, with the easterly direction receiving the place of honor.129

The earliest interpreters had no doubt that the importance of the tabernacle lay in its hidden symbolism, and the issue at stake was properly to decipher its meaning. … For Philo the tabernacle was a representation of the universe, the tent signifying the spiritual world, the court the material. Moreover, the four colors signified the four world elements, the lamp with its seven lights the seven planets and the twelve loaves of bread the twelve signs of the Zodiac and the twelve months of the year.130

Origen in his ninth Homily on Exodus makes reference to Philo’s approach, but then moves in another direction. He saw the tabernacle as pointing to the mysteries of Christ and his church. His moral analogies in terms of the virtues of Christian life—faith compared to gold, the preached word to silver, patience to bronze (9.3)—were picked up and elaborated on at great length throughout the Middle Ages … 131

The problem with attempts to interpret the tabernacle symbolically is that there have been no universally accepted guidelines or standards for assigning any kind of spiritual correspondence between the parts of the tabernacle and some other entity.132 Thus “spiritual” meanings have never been agreed upon by various interpreters.

In my initial study of the tabernacle, it was my intention to interpret and apply the tabernacle texts somewhat directly. Since both the tabernacle and church buildings can be thought of as meeting places for the saints, I thought we could learn much about church buildings in the New Testament age from the tabernacle of the Old Testament. I believed that the tabernacle could provide us with some principles which could govern our own understanding of the design and use of church buildings. I have come to see that this approach has serious problems, too.

Does this mean that this extensive material in the Book of Exodus dealing with the tabernacle has no clear-cut application to us? I think not. God has always had a dwelling place in the midst of His people. It was first in the tabernacle, and later in the Old Testament period it was in the temple. In the gospels, God dwelt (literally “tabernacled”) among His people in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, in the church age, God dwells in the church.

It is my understanding that there are certain common elements in all of these ways in which God has dwelt (or does dwell) among men. Thus, the description of the tabernacle provides us with the first biblical revelation as to how God dwells among men, and what this requires or suggests for the church today, in which God dwells.

Our approach will be to first study some of the characteristics of the tabernacle, as it is described in Exodus. Next, we will briefly survey those texts which describe the construction of the temple(s), focusing on those ways in which the temple is similar to and distinct from the tabernacle. Finally, we will move on to the New Testament, to relate the common characteristics of the tabernacle and the temple to the dwelling of God in the midst of men by means of “His body.” I believe that we will find a close correspondence between all of the means which God has used to dwell among His people.

Characteristics of the Tabernacle

(1) The tabernacle was a very functional facility. The tabernacle served as a meeting place between God and men, and was thus known as the “tent of meeting”133 (cf. 35:21) This was no small task, for having God in close proximity was a very dangerous thing. When Moses plead with God to dwell in the midst of His people (Exod. 34:9), God warned him that this could prove fatal to such a sinful people: “For the Lord had said to Moses, ‘Say to the sons of Israel, “You are an obstinate people; should I go up in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you”’” (Exod. 33:5a).

The tabernacle solved the problem of having a holy God dwell in the midst of a sinful people. The solution includes two provisions.

The tabernacle solved one problem with its portability. God had revealed Himself to His people from atop Mt. Sinai. When the people left Sinai for the promised land of Canaan, they would need some portable place for God’s presence to be manifested. Since the tabernacle was a tent, the problem of portability was solved.

The tabernacle also solved the problem of a holy God dwelling in the midst of a sinful people. The tent curtains, and especially the thick veil, served as a separator, a dividing barrier, between God and the people. Beyond this, the tabernacle was sanctified and set apart as a holy place. This spared the people from an outbreak from God which would have destroyed them (cf. 33:5). Also, the tabernacle was a place of sacrifice, so that the sins of the Israelites could be atoned for. While the solution was not permanent, it did facilitate communion between God and His people.

(2) The tabernacle was a facility which displayed fabulous wealth and beauty. It does not take more than a casual reading of the text to learn that the tabernacle was a very costly project:

The most recent study of Hebrew weights by R. B. Y. Scott (Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, London and New York 1962, sect. 35) reckons the talent at about 64 lbs. (29 kg.) and the sanctuary shekel 1/3 oz. or 9.7 gr. According to this calculation there would be some 1,900 lbs. of gold, 6,437 lbs. of silver, and 4,522 lbs. of bronze.134

The project involved not only very expensive materials, but these materials were fashioned in such a way as to create great works of art: “… God … commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known.”135 The tabernacle and its furnishings were provided for the Israelites for both “glory” and “beauty,” (cf. (28:2, 40).

(3) The building of the tabernacle involved all of the people. All of the people would benefit from the tabernacle, and thus all were permitted to participate in its construction, either by their donations of materials, or of skilled labor, or both.

(4) The tabernacle testified to the character of God. The excellence of the tabernacle, both in its materials and its workmanship, was a reflection of the excellencies of God. The tabernacle was also a holy place, because abiding in it was a holy God (cf. 30:37, 38):

The tabernacle testifies in its structure and function to the holiness of God. Aaron bears the engraving on the diadem, ‘Holy to Yahweh’ (28:36). The priests are warned in the proper administration of their office ‘lest they die’ (30:21), and the death of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10.1) made clear the seriousness of an offense which was deemed unholy to God.136

(5) The tabernacle was composed of various elements, but the unity of all, in design, function, and purpose, was emphasized. “And he made fifty clasps of gold, and joined the curtains to one another with the clasps, so the tabernacle was a unit” (Exod. 36:13). “And he made fifty clasps of bronze to join the tent together, that it might be a unit” (Exod. 36:18).

What Schaeffer has written about the temple can also be said of the tabernacle:

We should note that with regard to the temple all of the art worked together to form a unity. The whole temple was a single work of architecture, a unified unit with free-standing columns, statuary, bas-relief, poetry and music, great huge stones, beautiful timbers brought from afar. It’s all there. A completely unified work of art to the praise of God.137

Not only was there unity in architecture and structure, but there was also a unity in the function of the tabernacle. The purpose of the tabernacle was to provide a place where God may dwell in the midst of men. All of the furnishings facilitate ministries and ceremonies which contribute to this one place of providing a “tent of meeting.”

(6) The tabernacle was designed as a permanent facility. Repeatedly we find expressions such as, “perpetual” and “throughout your generations” (cf. 30:8, 16, 21, 31). The tent was used daily for much more than 40 years, and it would seem as though God had designed it to be used throughout Israel’s history. The tabernacle was not only “built to last,” to mimic an automobile manufacturer’s claim, but it was designed to last.

(7) The tabernacle was God’s idea, God’s initiative, God’s design.

Where did the pattern come from? It came from God. … God was the architect, not man. Over and over in the account of how the tabernacle is to be made, this phrase appears: ‘And thou shalt make …’ That is, God told Moses what to do in detail. These were commands, commands from the same God who gave the Ten Commandments.138

The tabernacle was made after the divine pattern shown to Moses (25.9). The … instructions emphasized that every detail of the design was made by explicit command of God (35.1, 4, 10, etc.). Bezalel and Oholiab were equipped with the spirit of God and with knowledge in craftsmanship (31.2ff.) to execute the task. For the Old Testament writer the concrete form of the tabernacle is inseparable from its spiritual meaning. Every detail of the structure reflects the one divine will and nothing rests on the ad hoc decision of human builders. … Moreover, the tabernacle is not conceived of as a temporary measure for a limited time, but one in which the permanent priesthood of Aaron serves throughout all their generation (27.20f.).139

The Temple as the Dwelling Place of God

Once Israel possessed the land of Canaan, there was no need for a portable facility to house the ark of the covenant and the other furnishings of the tabernacle. The ark, you will recall, had been used by the Israelites as a kind of giant “rabbit’s foot,” which they took with them when they fought against the Philistines, under the leadership of King Saul and his son Jonathan. The Israelites lost this battle and the ark was captured by the Philistines. After repeated difficulties directly related to the ark, the Philistines sent the ark back to Israel. The return of the ark and David’s dwelling in a lavish house seems to have prompted him to propose the construction of a different place for the ark to be kept: “And it came about, when David dwelt in his house, that David said to Nathan the prophet, ‘Behold, I am dwelling in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under curtains’” (1 Chron. 17:1)140

Nathan quickly (and apparently without consulting God) encouraged David to build a temple (1 Chron. 17:2). God had different plans, however, for David had been a man of war and had shed much blood. God would indeed allow a temple to be built, but it would be built by Solomon, David’s son, a man of peace. While David wanted to build God a house, God promised to give David a house, and so it is in the context of David’s request to build a temple that God proclaims what has become known as the Davidic Covenant, the promise that David’s seed will rule forever, and so it became known that Israel’s Messiah would be the “Son of David” (1 Chron. 17:4-15).

Like God’s victory over the Egyptians, David’s military victories over the surrounding (hostile) nations provided many of the materials needed for the construction of the temple (cf. 1 Chron. 18-21).141 Although David is not permitted to build the temple, he does make extensive preparations for it. In chapter 22 of 1 Chronicles David began to gather the materials needed for the temple. Solomon was given instructions concerning the construction of the temple. The people were encouraged to assist in this project. Those who would minister in the temple were designated as well (chapters 24-26). The plans which David gave to Solomon were inspired by God (1 Chron. 28:11-12, 19), and were thus divinely provided, as were the plans for the tabernacle.

David generously gave materials needed for the construction of the temple, as did the people when they were invited to do so (1 Chron. 29:1-9). In celebration, sacrifices were offered and all the people ate and drank in the presence of God (1 Chron. 29:21-22), in a way reminiscent of the ratification of the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 24:5-11). After David’s death (1 Chron. 29:28), Solomon reigned over Israel (2 Chron. 1), and constructed the temple (2 Chron. 2-4). It was elegant in materials and in workmanship, just as the tabernacle was (2 Chron. 2:7; 3:8-17, etc.). When it was completed, the nation was assembled and the ark was brought into the temple (2 Chron. 5:2-10). Like the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34ff.), the cloud descended on the temple and the glory of the Lord filled the place (2 Chron. 5:11-14). The temple was dedicated, and Israel was instructed about the purpose of the place, paramount among which was that it was to be a place of prayer (2 Chron. 6). After Solomon had finished speaking, God spoke to the people, promising both blessing and cursing, depending upon Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant which God had made with them (2 Chron. 7). If Israel was not faithful to their covenant, the temple would be destroyed, and the people would be scattered. Nevertheless, if Israel repented and prayed (in the direction of the temple), God would hear and would restore them.

Israel’s history bears out the truthfulness of God’s words. The people did not remain faithful to God and they were driven from the land and the temple was left in ruins. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return of the faithful remnant from their captivity to the land of Canaan, where they rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem, guided and encouraged by the minor prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. When the temple was rebuilt, it did not have the splendor of the first temple, and thus some of the “old timers” wept at the sight of it (Ezra 3:12). The prophet Haggai, however, speaks a word of encouragement, assuring the people that the temple is glorious because God is with them, that His Spirit is dwelling in their midst (Hag. 2:4-5), and that in the future God will fill His house with even greater splendor and glory (2:7-9).

The temple is also spoken of in the future tense by the prophet Ezekiel (chapters 40ff.). The promise of the future return of the nation Israel to the land of Canaan and their spiritual restoration are assured by the description of the millennial temple which is measured and described in great detail by Ezekiel.

God’s Dwelling Place in New Testament

In the Gospel of John the Lord Jesus Christ is introduced as the Son of God who tabernacled among men (John 1:14). The Lord Jesus was thus the dwelling place of God among men during His earthly sojourn. He could thus tell the woman at the well that there was a time coming when the place of worship is not the principle concern (John 4:20-21). From the time of Christ’s coming to earth to the present, the dwelling place of God among men is not conceived of in terms of buildings.

As a momentary aside, the physical building (the temple) had become a kind of idol to many of the legalistic, unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day. The presence of the temple was proof to them that God was with them and that they were pleasing in His sight. Even the disciples were impressed by the beauty of the temple building, yet Jesus cautioned such enthusiasm, knowing that the temple would soon be destroyed (cf. Matt. 24:1-2). You can well imagine how upset the scribes and Pharisees would have been when our Lord spoke of destroying God’s temple (not knowing, of course, that it was He who was that temple). The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. was a fulfillment of the warnings of the Old Testament Scriptures, proof of Israel’s disobedience and of God’s chastening hand on the nation, once again.

After our Lord’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, Stephen was put on trial by those who put our Lord on the cross. One of the charges against him was that he spoke against the temple (cf. Acts 6:13). Stephen’s response, given in his own defense, made it clear, as the Old Testament Scriptures had already done, that God did not dwell in man-made places (Acts 7:47-50; cf. 2 Chron. 2:5-6; 6:18, 30).

The New Testament epistles go on to teach us that the dwelling place of God is now the church, not the church building, but the people who comprise the body of Christ:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).

And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9).

Conclusion

There are a number of ways in which the construction of the tabernacle is applicable to our lives, even though we are separated from the Israelites of Moses’ day by many centuries and at least one dispensation.

First, I believe that we can legitimately learn the value of art from the tremendous artistic contributions of this structure. Many are those who have pointed out the various forms of art that are to be found in direct connection with the tabernacle. It is very likely true that we have become far too utilitarian, viewing only those things as important which have some great usefulness. Art has a definite value in our worship and in the expression of our devotion to God. This theme has been well developed by various Christian artists and is well worth our serious consideration. Nevertheless, I do not think that this is the principle thrust of our text.

Second, we should learn that God should not be thought of as dwelling in buildings made with hands, but rather in terms of dwelling within the church, within the body of those who truly believe in Jesus Christ. We are wrong in telling our children to “hush” when they enter the church building, because “this is God’s house,” which suggests to them that God lives in a building, and we visit him once a week.

If God indwells the church corporately, as the Scriptures teach, then the way we conduct ourselves as members of the church is vitally important. If God is holy, then His church must be holy as well (cf. 1 Pet. 1:16). This gives us a very strong reason for exercising church discipline (cf. Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5, 11), for the church must be holy if God indwells it.

Further, if God indwells the church and manifests Himself in and through the church, then the way in which we conduct the church is vitally important to the adequate representation of God. It is for this reason that the apostle Paul wrote, “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:14-15).

It is in this first epistle to Timothy that Paul speaks about doctrinal purity in the church (chapter 1), about public ministry (chapter 2), about church leaders (chapter 3), about false and true holiness (chapter 4), about the responsibility of the church for the widows and others (chapter 5), and about the pursuit of prosperity in the guise of seeking greater piety (chapter 6). How we conduct ourselves in the church is vitally important, my friend, for God Himself indwells the church today.

Let us be as careful in the way we build up the church as the Israelites of old were in the building up of the tabernacle, so that the glory of God might be made manifest to men.


128 Misc. Sacrorum I, 1712, pp. 394f., as cited by Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), p. 547.

129 Childs, pp. 537-538.

130 Ibid, pp. 547-548. Childs has also written: “Several classic symbolic interpretations emerged which sought to deal with these factors. Philo explained the tabernacle as a model of the universe whose four materials represented the elements of nature, and whose precious stones reflected the signs of the Zodiac (Vita Cita Mos. II. 88, 126). Again, Maimonides saw the tabernacle and its cultus as a symbolic reflection of a royal palace whose servants sought to do honor to the king with the various rites (Guide III. 45-49). Protestant orthodoxy, especially in the tradition of Cocceius, explained the tabernacle as a figurative representation of the kingdom of God in which the vocation of the church was fully realized. But perhaps the most exhaustive defense of a symbolic interpretation was that of Bahr, Symbolik (1837), who scrutinized every biblical figure even in the context of extra-biblical parallels to demonstrate a symbolic representation of God’s creation and revelation in the tabernacle” (p. 538).

131 Ibid, p. 548. Childs (pp. 547-550) has provided us with one of the best surveys of the history of the interpretation of the tabernacle.

132 “The basic methodological problem turns on the fact that nowhere does the Old Testament itself spell out a symbolism by which the role of the tabernacle is to be understood. Therefore, it remains very dubious to seek an interpretation on the basis of symbols constructed from other parts of the Old Testament or from the general history of religions. This is not to deny the fact that much of the description of the tabernacle appears to reflect a symbolic dimension, as we noted above. The issue at stake is how one understands this dimension. It is quite clear from comparative religion and recent archaeological research that the description of the Old Testament tabernacle shares many features with its Ancient Near Eastern background. The construction of the three partitions, indeed the dimensions of the whole tabernacle, appear to be traditional elements. In other words, the Old Testament appropriated a common tradition which was already thoroughly saturated with symbolic meaning.” Childs, p. 539.

133 The Israelites could not all assemble in this tent. There were nearly 2 million Israelites and this was but one small tent. It was known as the “tent of meeting” in the sense that God met with representatives of the people, either Moses (29:42) or the priests, and thus with the people (29:43).

134 Ibid, p. 637.

135 Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 12. Schaeffer goes on to show that the artistic representations were not all precisely true to nature: “But there is something further to note here. In nature, pomegranates are red, but these pomegranates were to be blue, purple and scarlet. Purple and scarlet could be natural changes in the growth of a pomegranate. But blue isn’t. The implication is that there is freedom to make something which gets its impetus from nature but can be different from it and it too can be brought into the presence of God. In other words, art does not need to be ‘photographic’ in the poor sense of photographic!” (p. 14).

136 Childs, p. 541.

137 Schaeffer, pp. 27-28.

138 Schaeffer, p. 12.

139 Childs, p. 540.

140 A parallel account is found in 2 Samuel 7 and following, but I have chosen to refer to the text of 1 and 2 Chronicles because of its more complete description of the construction of the temple.

141 I have not considered this matter before, but it seems to me that we can interpret 1 Chronicles 18-21 in the light of the temple which is to be built. Does Satan “move David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1) in hopes of preventing the construction of the temple?

Related Topics: Tabernacle

33. The Consecration of the Tabernacle and the Presence of God (Exodus 40)

Introduction

There are many reasons why this final chapter of the Book of Exodus is worthy of our study. In the first place, this chapter is the conclusion, the climax, of the Book of Exodus. For the Israelites there is the excitement of setting up the tabernacle for the very first time. Preparations and construction of the tabernacle have taken approximately six months. Now, at last, the tabernacle is being set up for the first time. Imagine the excitement of this day. The delight of seeing the tabernacle set up for the first time is intensified by the splendor of God’s glory descending upon that tent. The cloud, the visible manifestation of the glory of God descends upon the tabernacle, to dwell in the midst of this sinful people, and to guide them into the promised land.

The joy of God’s presence in the midst of His people is all the more glorious in the light of Israel’s “fall” in chapter 32. In the absence of Moses the Israelites decided to create an image, an idol, which would assure them of God’s presence among them. At first it appeared as though God was going to utterly destroy the people, banishing them from the face of the earth. The threat of Israel’s destruction makes the descent of the cloud even more spectacular.

Second, the 40th chapter of Exodus is Moses’ introduction to the Book of Leviticus. One of the best written books I have read in recent years is Loving God, by Chuck Colson. Some of the stories which are told in this book take several chapters to describe. Either Mr. Colson or his editor have done an excellent job of tying the chapters of his book together. At the conclusion of one chapter there is a certain climax that is conveyed, and yet, at the same time, the reader is prepared for the continuation of the story in the following chapter.

The conclusion to the Book of Exodus in chapter 40 is much the same. On the one hand, we are brought to the high point and the climax of the book, for the tabernacle is completed and the glory of God descends upon it. On the other hand, we are prepared for the book which follows, the Book of Leviticus. The anointing of the priesthood, which God commanded in chapter 40 (vss. 12-15), will not be reported until we come to the 8th and 9th chapters of Leviticus. And while the construction and arrangement of the tabernacle furnishings have been spelled out in detail in Exodus, it will not be until we come to Leviticus that we find God’s instructions regarding their use.

Third, the cloud which descends upon the tabernacle has a New Testament parallel, which should make the text an important subject for our own study. The more we can grasp the significance of the cloud to the people of God in the Book of Exodus, the better we can understand the significance of one of God’s great provisions for His people, the church.

The structure of our text142 is quite simple and clear-cut. Verses 1-16 are an account of the divine instructions given Moses concerning the arranging of the tabernacle and its furnishings, along with the anointing of the holy things. Verses 17-33 describe the way in which Moses carefully carried out God’s commands in setting up and sanctifying the tabernacle. Verses 34-38 are an account of the glory of God descending upon the tabernacle in the form of the cloud. In outline form, the structure of our chapter looks like this:

      A. Divine Instructions: Arranging and Anointing—Vss. 1-16.

      B. Moses’ Implementation: The Erection of the Tabernacle—Vss. 17-33.

      C. God’s Glory Fills the Tabernacle—Vss. 34-38.

The approach of this lesson will first be to make some observations about each of the first two sections of the chapter, which comprise the bulk of the passage. We will then focus our attention on the descent of the cloud on the tabernacle, which is the climax to Israel’s exodus and sojourn at Mt. Sinai. Next, we will seek to discover the meaning of this event in the context of the Book of Exodus. Finally, we shall attempt to discover the relevance of this event to our contemporary experience as New Testament Christians.

Divine Instructions
(40:1-16)

Several observations about these verses will enable us to grasp their meaning and importance in this text:

(1) There is a distinct change in the personal pronoun employed in chapter 40 from that used in the immediately preceding verses. The change is from “they” (e.g. 39:43) to “you” (e.g. 40:2). The shift is from the construction of the tabernacle, in which all the people were involved, to the setting up of the tabernacle and the anointing of it, which was the responsibility of Moses (cf. 40:1, 16).

(2) The first 16 verses of chapter 40 are divided into two sections, as indicated by the repetition of certain terms. The first division consists of verses 1-8, where the terms “place,” “arrange,” and “set up” frequently occur. Thus, the first half of this section deals with the proper arrangement of the furnishings of the tabernacle. There is, as it were, “a place for everything,” and “everything was to be in its proper place.” The second division includes verses 9-16, where the predominant terms are “anoint” and “consecrate,” which results in the object becoming holy. I have summarized the two divisions of verses 1-16 as “arrangements” (vss. 1-8) and “anointing” (vss. 9-16).

(3) There is a distinct order and sequence to be seen in the items which are named in these verses. There is a descending order of “holiness” to those items referred to in the chapter. We move from the inside of the tabernacle to the outside courtyard. We begin in the holy of holies, the most holy place in the tabernacle, and we end in the courtyard, the least holy place. This order and sequence is found in each of the three listings of the furnishings of the tabernacle in chapter 40, as we can see below:


Set Up (1-8)


Anoint (9-15)


Erected (17-33)

HOLY OF HOLIES

Tabernacle (2)
Ark (3)
Veil (3)

Tabernacle, all in it (9)
Ark (vss. 20-21)

Tabernacle (17-21)
Veil (21)

TABERNACLE

Table and Shew Bread (4, 22-23)
Lamp Stand (4)
Altar of Incense (5, 26-27)
Veil (5)

 

Table and Shew Bread
Lamp Stand (24-25)
Altar of Incense
Veil (28)

TABERNACLE COURT

Altar of Burnt Offering (6)
Laver (7)

Altar of Burnt Offering (10)
Laver (11)

Altar of Burnt Offering (29)
Laver (30)

OUTER PERIMETER OF THE COURT

Tabernacle Courtyard Boundaries Defined (8)

   

PRIESTS

 

Aaron and sons (12-15)

Washing: Moses, Aaron and sons (30-31)

(4) The anointing of Aaron and his sons, directed by God in verses 12-15 is not described until Leviticus chapter 8. The details of this anointing fit better into the scheme of Leviticus than that of Exodus. From verse 16 we can assume that it was done at this time, but not described until later in the Pentateuch.

The Tabernacle Is Assembled and Raised
(40:17-33)

Consider the following observations, which enable us to capture the thrust of these verses:

(1) There is a mood of excitement and anticipation here. A period of nearly 6 months must have been required for the Israelites to collect the materials and to fashion and construct them into the various components of the tabernacle.143 Now, after a long period of rising expectation, the tabernacle is about to be erected for the first time.

Have you ever wanted something very badly, looking in the stores and in the catalogues, seeking to find the best product at the most reasonable price? Finally the day arrives when you order it. Then you wait for it to be delivered. When the package arrives, you immediately open it. What you find is a great quantity of individual parts, which you are to assemble. You get a list of the parts, a set of directions, which tell you how to assemble the parts, and then a user’s manual, telling you how to use the product.

The Book of Exodus has given the Israelites a list of the various components for the tabernacle. Verses 1-8 are the assembly instructions for the tabernacle. Imagine that you were Moses, or one of the Israelites. As you finish making one of the component parts of the tabernacle, you bring it to Moses. I would imagine that there was a kind of “tent-warehouse” in which all of the tabernacle parts were kept. As you brought your completed part to Moses, you could see all of the other parts that had been finished and were in storage, waiting for the initial raising of the tent and arranging of the furnishings. The more pieces that have been completed, the greater the anticipation of the first time all of them will be put together. Everyone wondered what it would look like and how it would work. The excitement of seeing this tabernacle “come together” and work must have been great. This mood must have prevailed in the camp. Waiting for the appointed day must have been harder than waiting for Christmas to come, so that you can open your gifts.

(2) A precise timing is indicated. Verse 2, along with verse 17 informs us that there was a particular day determined by God when the momentous occasion of erecting the tabernacle was to occur. This day was indicated by God as the first day of the first month of the second year. This means that the tabernacle was constructed on Israel’s first anniversary as a free nation (Exod. 12:2), and approximately 9 months from the time of her arrival at Mt. Sinai. It would also appear that the tent was erected on this one day, since the materials were all made and ready before this time (cf. 39:32-43).

(3) Moses seems to have a provisional role here, a priestly role, which continues until Aaron and his sons are anointed and installed as the official priesthood of Israel. Moses offered incense (v. 27) and burnt and grain offerings (v. 29), and washed himself (v. 31), like Aaron and his sons.

(4) The text emphatically reports exacting obedience with regard to the carrying out of God’s instructions. Two things signal this emphasis. First, verse 16 informs us that Moses carried out God’s instructions, but then verses 17-33 go on to describe his obedience in detail. This detailed repetition of Moses’ meticulous obedience must have been done to underscore the importance of the precise compliance of Moses to the commandments of God. Second, seven times in verses 17-33 we are told that Moses did exactly as God commanded him (vss. 19, 21, 23, 25-26, 29, 32).

The Glory of God Descends Upon the Tabernacle
(40:34-38)

In these five verses we come to the end of the Book of Exodus. There are several features of this paragraph of which we should take note:

(1) These verses are the conclusion, the climax, and the “high water mark” of the Book of Exodus. The best has truly been saved till last here. The glory of God descending upon the tabernacle is the realization of Israel’s highest hopes, of Moses’ most noble and impassioned petition.

(2) The account is very brief. While this paragraph serves as the climax and conclusion to the Book of Exodus, we should realize that it is a very brief account. There is a longer, more detailed account of the same event in Numbers 9:15-23, but this does not suit Moses’ purpose here. There is no effort to embellish the account, in fact the matter is almost understated. If any author wished to wax eloquent, this event would have provided the material to do so. It is my conviction that the glory of this event is to be viewed as but a signal to the glory of the tabernacle, and ultimately the glory associated with the sacrificial system which it facilitated. Thus, the Book of Leviticus plays out this glory in much fuller detail.

(3) The descent of God’s glory upon the tabernacle is the fulfillment of God’s previous promises to Israel and to Moses:

So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite (Exod. 3:8).

And He said, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be a sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).

And I will meet there [at the altar] with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; and I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God (Exod. 29:43-46; cf. 33:7-11).

(4) The cloud was a visible manifestation of the glory of the Lord. The cloud, in it various appearances, is identified with the presence and the glory of God (cf. 13:21; 14:19, 24; 16:7, 10).

(5) The glory of God revealed in the tabernacle was greater than any glory previously revealed to Israel. The glory of God in the tabernacle was so awesome that even Moses could not enter the tabernacle.144 It should be remembered that Moses apparently had seen more of God’s glory than any man alive. He had seen the glory of God in the burning bush (Exod. 3). He had seen God’s glory in the plagues and the exodus of Israel. He alone had seen the glory of God from inside the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19, 24). At his request, he had seen even more of God’s glory when he was privileged to view the “backside of God” (Exod. 33:17–34:9). But the glory of God in the tabernacle was greater than that which Moses (or any other Israelite for that matter) could behold. Thus, the glory of God which now abides in the presence of the Israelites is the greatest glory known to man to this point in time.

(6) There is both a “sameness” and a “newness” to what happens here. The cloud of God’s glory is not new. In verse 34 it is called the cloud, indicating that it is the same cloud mentioned previously.145 We find it first mentioned in chapter 13:

Then they set off from Succoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exod. 13:20-22).

In chapter 14, the cloud went from before Israel to behind them, to separate them from the Egyptians (v. 19). From the midst of the cloud God brought confusion to the Egyptians (v. 24), which led ultimately to their destruction. In chapter 16 (vss. 7, 10) it was associated with God’s provision of manna and meat for the grumbling Israelites. In chapter 19, the cloud was manifested atop Mt. Sinai (vss. 9, 16-18), as well as in chapter 24 (cf. vss. 15-18).

Since the cloud was present with the Israelites from the time they left Egypt, and never departed from them, there is a sense in which nothing new occurs here in chapter 40. It is, so to speak, the same cloud as before.

There is a “newness,” about this appearance of the cloud, which is indicated by three facts. The first difference lies in the fact that the cloud, and thus God’s glorious presence, is now nearer to the Israelites than ever before. What was once distant (either before or behind the nation, or far away, atop Mt. Sinai) is now in the very midst of the camp. The second fact is even more significant. The appearance of the glory of God in the tabernacle took place after Israel’s great sin (the golden calf), which is reported in chapter 32. Finally, the glory of God settled on the tabernacle to abide there, not just as a momentary manifestation of God.

(7) The cloud had a very practical function—that of guiding the Israelites on their way to the promised land of Canaan. Verses 34 and 35 describe the phenomenon of the descent of the cloud, while verses 36-38 describe the function of the cloud. By this cloud God led the Israelites, informing them as to when they should make or break camp, as well as leading them in the proper route. While the guiding function of the cloud is not a new one, it is an assurance to the Israelites that they will get to the promised land of Canaan, for God Himself was going before them.

Conclusion

The Meaning of the Manifestation of God’s Presence

What, then, is the significance of this event for the Israelites and for us? I believe that the lesson which God had for the Israelites of old is similar to that for the people of God in our own day. Consider the following lessons which can be learned from the events of this concluding chapter of Exodus.

First, this chapter reminds us of the importance of exacting obedience for the people of God. God manifested His presence in the place which He prescribed, and among those people who precisely carried out His commands pertaining to the tabernacle. The exacting obedience of Moses (in this chapter) and the people (in the preceding chapter) are underscored in our text. God not only refused to associate Himself with the people’s independently made golden calf, but He threatened to disassociate Himself from this people permanently. It was not until the tabernacle was made in complete compliance with God’s instructions that He descended upon it.

Some may be tempted to identify this exacting obedience to God’s commandments as that kind of legalism which the New Testament rejects. The kind of exacting obedience which God required of the Israelites was not legalism. Legalism was a corruption of the Law (which James has called “the perfect Law, the Law of liberty,” Jas. 1:25), just as libertinism is a corruption of grace. There are those who in the name of sparing the church from legalism actually promote a false liberty, which results in a very sloppy attitude toward God’s instructions.

Let me mention just one example of this kind of sloppiness, taught in the name of grace. The commands which God had given Israel through Moses pertaining to the tabernacle are paralleled today by those which God has given to the church through the apostles. And yet it is these very precepts which many reject, insisting that they were merely an extension and expression of some of Paul’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. Paul, however has written, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it” (1 Cor. 3:10). These words, in their full context, teach us that what Paul has prescribed regarding the structure and conduct of the church he has done as an apostle of Christ, and as a “master builder,” whose role was to lay the foundation of the church for all generations to follow. When we set aside the practices and principles which Paul has laid down we reject the divinely appointed apostolic foundation for the church. Let us not forget those sobering words of Paul which follow:

Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

Let us seek to be meticulous in keeping God’s commands, and not just in their letter, but in their spirit as well.

Second, the manifestation of God’s glory in the tabernacle was to be an assurance to Israel of God’s presence among them. This assurance of God’s presence was even more precious after the great sin of the nation in making and worshiping the golden calf (Exod. 32). God’s presence assured the Israelites that God would be among them, in their midst, in spite of their sin. This did not minimize their sin, but focused their attention on the primary function of the tabernacle, which was to provide a place and a means of atonement, where sin could be set aside (temporarily, cf. Rom. 3:25) by the shedding of the blood of animals. God’s visible presence in the tabernacle, as well as His daily guidance, facilitated by the cloud (Exod. 40:36-36), further assured Israel of the fact that God would be present with His people.

God has provided us with the same kind of assurance as that which the cloud provided for Israel. Through His Spirit, God indwells the believer, giving assurance of the forgiveness of sins, of the presence of God, and of continual access to Him, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.146

However you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (Rom. 8:9)

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Rom. 8:11).

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:14-17).

And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:17-22).

The Holy Spirit ministers to the saints today as the cloud once ministered to Israel. The Spirit of God abides within the saint as the cloud used to abide within the tabernacle. If we have been truly born again by personal faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us and assures us that we are the children of God. The Spirit also gives us guidance, as the cloud guided the Israelites.

Some, I fear, would rather have the cloud than the Spirit. That is, they would prefer something visible, something spectacular, to assure them of God’s presence and guidance. In one sense the descent of the Spirit of God on the church was not unlike that of the cloud on the tabernacle. Both were initially spectacular events, accompanied by visible glory. I would contend, however, that the ministry of the Spirit is both different and superior to that of the Old Testament cloud.

That which makes the cloud appealing—its visible splendor and miraculous nature—is precisely that which makes it inferior to the work of the Holy Spirit. Visible, miraculous, “signs and wonders” have never had a lasting impact or value. It was with the spectacular cloud (not to mention the miraculously provided manna) in sight that the Israelites grumbled against God, resisted and rejected Moses, and fashioned their golden calf. It was in sight of the cloud that the Israelites refused to possess the land of Canaan, fearing the giants who lived there.

In the days of our Lord, as recorded in the gospels, the miracles which He performed did not have a lasting effect on either his unbelieving enemies, nor upon the disciples. I believe the reason is that miracles don’t change hardened hearts. The new covenant was the promise that God would turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1ff.). This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 17:1; 31:31-34; 2 Cor. 3:1-6). Thus, the ministry of the Spirit is vastly superior to that of the cloud.

Furthermore, the presence of God achieved by Christ and mediated by the Holy Spirit is far more intimate than that which Israel experienced. The presence of God was indeed dear to the Israelites, who had never had the presence of God closer to them. Nevertheless, God was still separated from the people. Even Moses could not enter into the presence of God in the tabernacle and only the high priest could enter into the holy of holies, and but once a year. Christ has torn the veil asunder, and He dwells within each individual believer, not just in the midst of the nation. We have a far greater intimacy with God than did the Israelites.

It is possible, my friend, that you have never experienced this intimacy with God, this nearness to Him through His Spirit. You may attend church and feel God’s presence among His people, but not in the midst of your own heart and soul. If this is so, it is likely because you have never experience the new birth of personal conversion. To do this you must not only believe that Christ died to save sinners, but personally receive Him as your Savior, the One whom you trust solely for the forgiveness of your sins, and for the blessings of His presence, both now and for eternity. Then you will experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who assures you that you are a child of God, and who will guide you day by day.

Finally, the events of Exodus chapter 40 were but a prelude, an introduction to the Book of Leviticus. If the Book of Exodus contains the description of the “parts” of the tabernacle, as well as providing the assembly instructions for its erection, the Book of Leviticus is the “owner’s manual,” which tells the Israelite how they are to take advantage of the mediatory role of the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the priesthood, which enable them to draw near to God.

I believe that we will find great profit in this book as well, and so it will be the subject for our next series of messages.


142 The structure of this chapter is similar to that of chapters 25-31 in relationship to chapters 35-40. God’s instructions are first recorded, followed by a description which shows that these instructions were precisely carried out. Verses 1-15 of chapter 40 are God’s instructions, while verses 16-33 are the account of the way these were carried out.

143 This six month construction time helps to explain the reason for the temporary “tent of meeting” described in 33:7-11.

144 Verses 34 and 35 do not tell us the whole story. They only tell us that Moses could not enter the tabernacle. Obviously he was able to enter it later on, although he could not go into the holy of holies. It is my opinion that Moses was not able to enter the outer portion of the tabernacle until the glory of God resided within the holy of holies, where only the priest could enter once a year. The thrust of these statements, I believe, is to emphasize the greatness of the glory that now resided in the tabernacle.

145 Technically this would be known as an “article of previous reference,” in which the definite article (the) points to a previously referred to object in a more definite way.

146 Cf. J. I. Packer, Keep in Step With the Spirit (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984), p. 47.

Related Topics: Tabernacle

The Trinity (Triunity) of God

Related Media

Introduction

Because the word trinity is never found in the Bible some wonder about whether this is a biblical doctrine or not, but the absence of a term used to describe a doctrine does not necessarily mean the term is not biblical. The issue is, does the term accurately reflect what the Scripture teaches? In reality, due to the incomprehensible nature of the truth this term reflects, some believe it is a poor word to describe exactly what the Bible teaches us about this truth concerning God. When anyone studies a doctrine like this, reads about it in a theology book, or in an article like this one, it may appear that the writer is saying, “Here are the doctrines we believe, and this is what you must believe, so believe them!” But as Ryrie points out, “If that’s the case it is only because you are looking at the results of someone’s study, not the process”1 that led to their position on a particular doctrine.

The goal is to investigate the facts of Scripture so one can see from the process of investigation presented in this study just what the Bible teaches us about how God exists. Historically, the church has believed that He exists in Holy Trinity or Triunity. The tri-personality of God is exclusively a Christian doctrine and a truth of Scripture. It is this doctrine that will be investigated in what follows. Our purpose, then, is to demonstrate that the doctrine of the trinity (triunity) of the Godhead is another biblical revelation that teaches us more about the nature of God or how He exists. The Bible teaches us that God not only exists as a personal Spirit being, but that He does so in Holy Trinity.

The Nature
of this Revelation About God

Before we investigate the facts of Scripture, I want to begin by pointing out that this is a doctrine beyond the scope of man’s finite mind. It lies outside the realm of natural reason or human logic. The late Dr. Walter Martin points out:

No man can fully explain the Trinity, though in every age scholars have propounded theories and advanced hypotheses to explore this mysterious Biblical teaching. But despite the worthy efforts of these scholars, the Trinity is still largely incomprehensible to the mind of man.

Perhaps the chief reason for this is that the Trinity is a-logical, or beyond logic. It, therefore, cannot be made subject to human reason or logic. Because of this, opponents of the doctrine argue that the idea of the Trinity must be rejected as untenable. Such thinking, however, makes man’s corrupted human reason the sole criterion for determining the truth of divine revelation.2

So what’s the issue that faces us? The ultimate issue as always is, does the biblical evidence support the doctrine of the Trinity or tri-personality of God? If biblical evidence supports it, we can know it is true. Comprehending it is another matter. John Wesley said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God.”3

We should not be bothered by this fact. Why? Because God’s Word tells us that we should expect His revelation, the revelation of an infinite, omniscient, all-wise Creator, to contain an infinite depth that corresponds to His infinite mind. In Isaiah, God tells us about this and says:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Kenneth Boa has an excellent word here concerning the concept of God’s thoughts being higher than ours:

It follows from all this that we cannot and should not expect to understand the Bible exhaustively. If we could, the Bible would not be divine but limited to human intelligence. A very important idea comes out of this, something over which many non-Christians and even Christians stumble: Since the Bible is an infinite revelation, it often brings the reader beyond the limit of his intelligence.

As simple as the Bible is in its message of sin and of free salvation in Christ, an incredible subtlety and profundity underlies all its doctrines. Even a child can receive Christ as his Savior, thereby appropriating the free gift of eternal life. Yet no philosopher has more than scratched the surface regarding the things that happened at the Cross. The Bible forces any reader to crash into the ceiling of his own comprehension, beyond which he cannot go until he sees the Lord face-to-face.

Until a person recognizes that his own wisdom and intelligence are not enough, he is not ready to listen to God’s greater wisdom. Jesus alluded to this when He said to God, “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21).4

God has communicated to men truly though not exhaustively. Moses expressed this to us in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”

An understanding of the way the Greek word mystery was used in the New Testament may help us here. It is the Greek word musterion and refers to what was previously hidden, but is now revealed to us through the revelation of the Word (1 Cor. 15:51; Eph. 3:3, 4, 9). Sometimes it is used simply of that which God makes known through His revelation to man which man could not know on his own (1 Cor. 2:7). But there is a sense in which some of God’s truth, though clearly revealed in the Bible, remains a mystery. Though it is a truth revealed in Scripture, like the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God or the divine/human nature of Jesus Christ, the Trinity is a kind of mystery in that it goes beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. God hasn’t explained all the mysteries of His revelation to us undoubtedly because we simply cannot yet grasp them.

The Apostle Paul wrote: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

A city like Corinth, famous for its bronze mirrors, would have particularly appreciated Paul’s final illustration. The perfection and imperfection mentioned in verse 10 were deftly likened to the contrasting images obtained by the indirect reflection of one’s face viewed in a bronze mirror and the same face when viewed directly. Such, Paul said, was the contrast between the imperfect time in which he then wrote and the perfect time which awaited him and the church when the partial reflection of the present would give way to the splendor of perfect vision. Then Paul would see God (cf. 15:28; 1 John 3:2) as God now saw Paul. Then partial knowledge (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1-3) would be displaced by the perfect knowledge of God.5

Because of our limited capacity in this life, some of the revelations of God given to us in the Bible defy explanation and illustration. When seeking to explain those truths that fall into this category, our explanations and especially our attempts to illustrate them must of necessity fall short of our ability to clarify and comprehend them.

Does this mean a doctrine cannot be true simply because it defies our human imagination or ability to comprehend it? The answer is, of course not. It would be nothing short of human arrogance to say it was. The truth is, we must recognize our need to simply trust in God’s special revelation to us, the Bible, and submit our minds to that teaching which is truly expressed in its pages. This does not mean we do not test the Scripture to make sure these things are truly taught, but once we are convinced that that is what the Bible says, we must lay hold of it by faith and wait on the eternal future for complete understanding.

It would be the height of egotism for a person to say that because an idea in the Bible does not make sense (does not conform to his or her reasoning), it cannot be true and the Bible must be in error on this point.6

The doctrine of the trinity or triunity is part of God’s revelation of One who is infinite to those who are finite. So again we must ask, doesn’t it seem logical that in our study about God we are going to find things that are incomprehensible, mysterious, and super-rational to finite man’s rational thinking capacity? So, let’s understand from the beginning of this study, “God in His existence as the Three-in-One is beyond the limits of human comprehension.”7

There is another important issue about the nature of this revelation in Scripture. We need to think a moment about the words, explicit and implicit for these two words are important to rightly understanding what Scripture teaches about this doctrine. Explicit means “fully and clearly expressed; leaving nothing implied; fully and clearly defined or formulated.” Implicit means “implied or understood, though not directly expressed.”

Ryrie writes:

Trinity is, of course, not a biblical word. Neither are triunity, trine, trinal, subsistence, nor essence. Yet we employ them, and often helpfully, in trying to express this doctrine which is so fraught with difficulties. Furthermore, this is a doctrine which in the New Testament is not explicit even though it is often said that it is implicit in the Old and explicit in the New. But explicit means “characterized by full, clear expression,” an adjective hard to apply to this doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine grows out of the Scriptures, so it is a biblical teaching.8

Historical Background

Though the Bible taught truth of the Triunity of God implicitly in both Old and New Testaments, the development and delineation of this doctrine was brought about by the rise of heretical groups or teachers who either denied the deity of Christ or that of the Holy Spirit. This caused the early church to formally crystallize the doctrine of the Triunity. Actually, Tertullian in 215 A.D. was the first one to state this doctrine using the term, Trinity.9 Concerning the struggle the early church went through, Walter Martin writes:

As the New Testament was completed toward the close of the first century, the infant church was struggling for its life against old foes—persecution and doctrinal error. On the one hand were the Roman empire, orthodox Judaism, and hostile pagan religions, and on the other hand were heresies and divisive doctrines. Early Christianity was indeed a perilous experiment.

Probably no doctrine was the subject of more controversy in the early church than that of the Trinity. Certainly the teaching of “one God in three Person” was accepted in the early church, but only as this teaching was challenged did a systematic doctrine of the Trinity emerge.

The Gnostic heresy, for instance, (which permeated Christendom in the lifetime of the apostles) drew strong condemnation in Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and John’s First Epistle. Denying the deity of Christ, the Gnostics taught that he was inferior in nature to the Father, a type of super-angel of impersonal emanation from God.

Following the Gnostics came such speculative theologians as Origen, Lucian of Antioch, Paul of Samosota, Sabellius, and Arius of Alexandria. All of these propagated unbiblical views of the Trinity and of the divinity of our Lord.

But perhaps the most crucial test of Christian doctrine in the early church was the “Arian heresy.” It was this heresy which stimulated the crystallization of thought regarding both the Trinity and the deity of Christ … 

Today there are still remnants of the Gnostic heresy (Christian Science), the Arian heresy (Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Socinian heresy (Unitarianism) circulating in Christendom. All of these errors have one thing in common—they give Christ every title except the one which entitles Him to all the rest—the title of God and Savior.

But the Christian doctrine of the Trinity did not “begin” at the Council of Nicea, nor was it derived from “pagan influences.” While Egyptian, Chaldean, Hindu, and other pagan religions do incorporate so-called “trinities,” these have no resemblance to the Christian doctrine, which is unique and free from any heathen cultural vagaries … 10

The point, then, is simply this: While the term Trinity is never specifically used nor the doctrine explicitly explained in Scripture, it is nevertheless implicitly stated. The church councils, in their fight against heresy, were forced to think through what the Bible says about how God exists. The result was the doctrine of the Triunity, but let it be emphasized, the development of this doctrine was based on a careful study of Scripture.

Cairns discusses this time of theological controversy in the early church and the extreme care given to this issue:

It was an era when the main dogmas of the Christian Church were developed. The unfavorable connotation conveyed by the word “dogma” in a day of doctrinal laxity, such as the present, should not obscure the value to the Church of dogma. The word “dogma” came through the Latin from the Greek word dogma, which was derived from the verb dodeo. This word meant to think. The dogmas or doctrines formulated in this period were the result of intense thought and searching of the soul in order to interpret correctly the meaning of the Scriptures on the disputed points and to avoid the erroneous opinions (doxai) of the philosophers.11

Finally, it should be said that,

… the doctrine of the Trinity is the distinctive mark of the Christian religion, setting it apart from all the other religions of the world. Working without the benefit of the revelations made in Scripture, men have, it is true, arrived at some limited truths concerning the nature and Person of God. The pagan religions, as well as all philosophical speculations, are based on natural religion and can, therefore, rise to no higher conception than that of the unity of God. In some systems we find monotheism with its belief in only one God. In others we find polytheism with its belief in many separate gods. But none of the pagan religions, nor any of the systems of speculative philosophy have ever arrived at a trinitarian conception of God. The fact of the matter is that apart from supernatural revelation there is nothing in human consciousness or experience which can give man the slightest clue to the distinctive God of the Christian faith, the triune, incarnate, redeeming, sanctifying God. Some of the pagan religions have set forth triads of divinities, such as, for instance, the Egyptian triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus, which is somewhat analogous to the human family with father, mother and child; or the Hindu triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Schiva, which in the cycle of pantheistic evolution personifies the creative, preservative and destructive power of nature; or the triad set forth by Plato, of goodness, intellect and will—which are not examples of true and proper tri-personality, not real persons who can be addressed and worshipped, but only personifications of the faculties or attributes of God. None of these systems have anything in common with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity except the notion of “threeness.”12

Before we investigate the evidence for the Trinity, let’s define it and then study the evidence.

Definition of the
Trinity (Triunity) of God

Trinity: Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of trinity: “The union of three divine persons (or hypostases), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one divinity, so that all the three are one God as to substance, but three Persons (or hypostases as to individuality).” Synonyms sometimes used are triunity, trine, triality. The term “trinity” is formed from “tri,” three, and “nity,” unity. Triunity is a better term than “trinity” because it better expresses the idea of three in one. God is three in one. Hypostases is the plural of hypostasis which means “the substance, the underlying reality, or essence.”

Ryrie writes:

A definition of the Trinity is not easy to construct. Some are done by stating several propositions. Others err on the side either of oneness or threeness. One of the best is Warfield’s: “There is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence.”13

Person: In speaking of the Triunity, the term “person” is not used in same way it is in ordinary usage in which it means an identity completely distinct from other persons. Actually the word persons tends to detract from the unity of the Trinity. According to the teaching of Scripture, the three Persons are inseparable, interdependent, and eternally united in one Divine Being.

It is evident that the word “person” is not ideal for the purpose. Orthodox writers have struggled over this term. Some have opted for the term subsistence (the mode or quality of existence), hence, “God has three substances.” Most have continued to use persons because we have not been able to find a better term. “The word substance speaks of God’s essential nature or being and subsistence describes His mode or quality of existence.”14

Essence: In its theological usage, essence refers to “the intrinsic or indispensable, permanent, and inseparable qualities that characterize or identify the being of God.” The words triunity and trinity are used to refer to the fact that the Bible speaks of one God, but attributes the characteristics of God to three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the trinity states that there is one God who is one in essence or substance, but three in personality. This does not mean three independent Gods existing as one, but three Persons who are co-equal, co-eternal, inseparable, interdependent, and eternally united in one absolute Divine Essence and Being.

Typically, the words triunity and trinity are used to help us express a doctrine that is scriptural, though replete with difficulties for the human mind. Again, it needs to be emphasized that this is a doctrine that is not explicitly stated either in the Old or New Testaments, but it is implicit in both. Note the following points:

(1) Evangelical Christianity has believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, Triunity, or the Triune Godhead because of the teaching of the Bible as a whole (Old and New Testaments) and not because of one or two particular passages. As will be shown below, the whole of Scripture gives testimony to this doctrine.

(2) There are many specific passages which teach us there are three distinct Persons who possess deity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, but the Bible also teaches us with equal emphasis that there is but one true God or one Divine Essence or Substance and Being.

(3) Taking the whole of Scripture, one can see that there is stress on: (a) the unity of God, one Divine Being and Essence, and (b) on the diversity of God in this unity, three Persons identified as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It speaks of these Persons in such a way that it ascribes absolute undiminished deity and personality to each while stressing that there is but one God in divine substance. It is the doctrine of the trinity that harmonizes and explains these two thrusts of Scripture—oneness in three personalities.

When we see that the Bible teaches these three things: (a) there is but one God, (b) that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each God, and (c) that each is set forth as distinct Persons, we have enunciated the doctrine of the Triunity of God. In a chart, it can be expressed as follows:

Ancient Diagram of the Holy Trinity

The three Persons are the same in substance, i.e., in essence or in their essential nature, but distinct in subsistence which describes God’s mode or quality of existence in three Persons. By mode of existence we do not mean one God acting in three different ways, but one Divine Being existing in three distinct Persons within one Divine Substance or Essence. Again, this is not exactly three individuals as we think of three personal individuals, but one Divine Being who acts and thinks as one within a three-fold personality. This is incomprehensible to our finite and limited minds, but it is the teaching of the Scripture. “In the Being of God there are not three individuals, but only three personal self distinctions within the one Divine Essence.”15

Recognizable and Important Distinctions

The New Bible Dictionary has an excellent summary of this point:

In the relationship between the Persons there are recognizable distinctions.

a. Unity in diversity

In most formularies the doctrine is stated by saying that God is One in his essential being, but that in his being there are three Persons, yet so as not to form separate and distinct individuals. They are three modes or forms in which the divine essence exists. ‘Person’ is, however, an imperfect expression of the truth inasmuch as the term denotes to us a separate rational and moral individual. But in the being of God there are not three individuals, but three personal self-distinctions within the one divine essence [italics mine]. Then again, personality in man implies independence of will, actions and feelings leading to behavior peculiar to the person. This cannot be thought of in connection with the Trinity. Each Person is self-conscious and self-directing, yet never acting independently or in opposition. When we say that God is a Unity we mean that, though God is in himself a threefold centre of life, his life is not split into three. He is one in essence, in personality and in will. When we say that God is a Trinity in Unity, we mean that there is a unity in diversity, and that the diversity manifests itself in Persons, in characteristics and in operations.

b. Equality in dignity

There is perfect equality in nature, honour and dignity between the Persons. Fatherhood belongs to the very essence of the first Person and it was so from all eternity. It is a personal property of God ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ (Eph. 3:15).

The Son is called the ‘only begotten’ perhaps to suggest uniqueness rather than derivation. Christ always claimed for himself a unique relationship to God as Father, and the Jews who listened to him apparently had no illusions about his claims. Indeed they sought to kill him because he ‘called God his own Father, making himself equal with God’ (Jn. 5:18).

The Spirit is revealed as the One who alone knows the depths of God’s nature: ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God … No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10f.). This is saying that the Spirit is ‘just God himself in the innermost essence of his being.’

This puts the seal of NT teaching upon the doctrine of the equality of the three Persons.

c. Diversity in operation

In the functions ascribed to each of the Persons in the Godhead, especially in man’s redemption, it is clear that a certain degree of subordination is involved (in relation, though not in nature); the Father first, the Son second, the Spirit third. The Father works through the Son by the Spirit. Thus Christ can say: ‘My Father is greater than I.’ As the Son is sent by the Father, so the Spirit is sent by the Son. As it was the Son’s office to reveal the Father, so it is the Spirit’s office to reveal the Son, as Christ testified: ‘He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (Jn. 16:14).

It has to be recognized that the doctrine arose as the spontaneous expression of the Christian experience. The early Christians knew themselves to be reconciled to God the Father, and that the reconciliation was secured for them by the atoning work of the Son, and that it was mediated to them as an experience by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Trinity was to them a fact before it became a doctrine, but in order to preserve it in the credal faith of the church the doctrine had to be formulated.16

Errors to Avoid
Concerning the Trinity

Tri-theism. This is the teaching that there are three Gods who are sometimes related, but only in a loose association. Such an approach, abandons the biblical oneness of God and the unity within the Trinity.

Sabellianism or Modalism. Sabellius (A.D. 200), the originator of this viewpoint, spoke of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he understood all three as no more than three manifestations of one God. This teaching came to be known as modalism because it views one God who variously manifests Himself in three modes of existence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Arianism. This doctrine had it roots in Tertullian, who made the Son subordinate to the Father. Origen took this further by teaching that the Son was subordinate to the Father “in respect to essence.” The result was ultimately Arianism which denied the deity of Christ. Arius taught that only God was the uncreated One; because Christ was begotten of the Father it meant Christ was created by the Father. Arius believed there was a time when Christ did not exist. Arius and his teaching was condemned at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.17

Biblical Support for the Trinity

Since the Trinity involves the key aspects of oneness and threeness, support for this doctrine will be dependent on the discovery of these two aspects in Scripture as it reveals how God exists.

Scriptures on the Oneness of God

Old Testament Scriptures

(1) Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”

Verse 4 is subject to various translations, though the statement is likely stressing the uniqueness of Yahweh and should be translated, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”

However, there is also a secondary emphasis—The Lord’s indivisibility. This is apparent in most English translations. This confession clearly prepares the way for the later revelation of the Trinity, but how? “God” (Elohim) is a plural word, and the word one (the Hebrew, echad) refers to one in a collective sense. As such, it is used of the union of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:24) to describe two persons in one flesh. Further, it is used in a collective sense, like one cluster of grapes rather than in an absolute sense as in Numbers 13:23 when the spies brought back a single cluster of grapes. Furthermore, the oneness of God is implied in those Old Testament passages that declare that there is no other God beside Yahweh, the God of Israel.

(2) Deuteronomy 4:35 “To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him.”

(3) Isaiah 46:9 “Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.”

(4) Isaiah 43:10 “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, In order that you may know and believe Me, And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.”

The New Testament is even more explicit:

(5) 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 “Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”

(6) Ephesians 4:4-6 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”

(7) James 2:19 “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.”

Scriptures Demonstrating
God, Who is One, is Also Three

Old Testament Scriptures

While there is no explicit statement in the Old Testament affirming the Triunity, we can confidently say that the Old Testament not only allows for the Triunity, but also implies that God is a triune Being in a number of ways:

(1) The name Elohim, translated God, is the plural form of El. While this is what is called a plural of plenitude pointing to the power and majesty of God, it certainly allows for the New Testament revelation of the Triunity of God.

(2) There are many instances where God uses the plural pronoun to describe Himself (see Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8).

(3) In the creation account, both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are seen in the work of creation. It is stated that God created heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1), but that it was the Holy Spirit who moved over the earth to infuse it with life in the sense of protecting and participating in the work of creation (Gen. 1:2).

(4) Writing about the Messiah, Isaiah reveals Him to be equal with God, calling Him the “Mighty God” and “Eternal Father” (Isa. 9:6).

(5) Several passages reveal a distinction of Persons within the Godhead.

  • In Psalm 110:1, David demonstrates there is a distinction of Persons between “LORD,” the one speaking, and the one addressed called by David, “my Lord.” David was indicating the Messiah was no ordinary king, but his own Lord, Adoni (my Lord), one who was God Himself. So God the first Person addresses God the second Person. This is precisely Peter’s point when He quotes this Psalm to show the resurrection of the Messiah was anticipated in the Old Testament.
  • The Redeemer (who must be divine, Isa. 7:14; 9:6) is distinguished from the Lord (Isa. 59:20).
  • The Lord is distinguished from the Lord in Hosea 1:6-7. The one speaking here is Yahweh, the Lord, yet, note the statement in verse 7, “I will have compassion … and deliver them by the Lord their God.”
  • The Spirit is distinguished from the Lord in a number of passages (Isa. 48:16; 59:21; 63:9-10).

(6) In the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, God made it clear that the One who would be born of the virgin would also be Immanuel, God with us.

(7) Two other passages which imply the Trinity are Isaiah 48:16 and 61:1. In Isaiah 48:16 all three Persons are mentioned and yet seen as distinct from each other. See also Gen. 22:15-16.

New Testament Scriptures

The case for the Triunity of God is even stronger in the New Testament. Here it can be unequivocally demonstrated the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Furthermore, the New Testament teaches us that these three names are not synonymous, but speak of three distinct and equal Persons.

(1) The Father is called God (John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor. 8:6; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 4:6; Phil. 2:11; 1 Pet. 1:2).

(2) Jesus Christ, the Son is declared to be God. His deity is proven by the divine names given to Him, by His works that only God could do (upholding all things, Col. 1:17; creation, Col. 1:16, John 1:3; and future judgment, John 5:27), by His divine attributes (eternality, John 17:5; omnipresence, Matt. 28:20; omnipotence, Heb. 1:3; omniscience, Matt. 9:4), and by explicit statements declaring His deity (John 1:1; 20:28; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8).

(3) The Holy Spirit is recognized as God. By comparing Peter’s comments in Acts 5:3 and 4, we see that in lying to the Holy Spirit (vs. 3), Ananias was lying to God (vs. 4). He has the attributes which only God can possess like omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10) and omnipresence (1 Cor. 6:19), and He regenerates people to new life (John 3:5-6, 8; Tit. 3:5), which must of necessity be a work of God for only God has the power of life. Finally, His deity is evident by the divine names used for the Spirit as “the Spirit of our God,” (1 Cor. 6:11), which should be understood as “the Spirit, who is our God.”

Ryrie writes: “Matthew 28:19 best states both the oneness and threeness by associating equally the three Persons and uniting them in one singular name. Other passages like Matthew 3:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 associate equally the three Persons but do not contain the strong emphasis on unity as does Matthew 28:19.”18

The New Bible Dictionary, adds to this the following evidence:

The evidence of the NT writings, apart from the Gospels, is sufficient to show that Christ had instructed his disciples on this doctrine to a greater extent than is recorded by any of the four Evangelists. They whole-heartedly proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity as the threefold source of redemption. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost brought the personality of the Spirit into greater prominence and at the same time shed light anew from the Spirit upon the Son. Peter, in explaining the phenomenon of Pentecost, represents it as the activity of the Trinity: ‘This Jesus … being … exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear’ (Acts 2:32-33). So the church of Pentecost was founded on the doctrine of the Trinity.

In 1 Cor. there is mention of the gifts of the Spirit, the varieties of service for the same Lord and the inspiration of the same God for the work (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

Peter traces salvation to the same triunal source: ‘destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet. 1:2). The apostolic benediction: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Cor. 13:14), not only sums up the apostolic teaching, but interprets the deeper meaning of the Trinity in Christian experience, the saving grace of the Son giving access to the love of the Father and to the communion of the Spirit.

What is amazing, however, is that this confession of God as One in Three took place without struggle and without controversy by a people indoctrinated for centuries in the faith of the one God, and that in entering the Christian church they were not conscious of any break with their ancient faith.19

From the above evidence, it should be clear that the Scripture teaches God is one and three.

Difficulties With the
Trinity Considered and Answered

The Meaning of “Only-begotten”

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

In John 1:18, the King James Version has huios, “Son,” in place of theos, “God,” and reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

Because to our mind the words “only begotten” suggest birth or beginning, some have tried to take the use of this designation of Jesus Christ to mean that Christ had a beginning, that He only became the Son of God. Such an understanding denies His eternality and also the concept of the trinity. So what does John mean by the term “only begotten?”

“Only begotten” is the Greek monogenes, a compound of monos, used as an adjective or adverb meaning “alone, only.” Kittel writes: “In compounds with genes, adverbs describe the nature rather than the source of derivation (emphasis mine). Hence monogenes is used for the only child. More generally it means ‘unique’ or ‘incomparable.’”20 In the New Testament the term occurs only in Luke, John, and Hebrews, but an instructive use is found for us in Hebrews 11:17 where it is used of Isaac as the monogenes of Abraham. Isaac was not the only Son of the Patriarch, but he was the unique son of the promise of God. The emphasis is not on derivation but on his uniqueness and special place in the heart of Abraham.

Vine has an excellent summary of the use of monogenes in John 1:14 and 18:

With reference to Christ, the phrase “the only begotten from the Father,” John 1:14, R.V. (see also the marg.), indicates that as the Son of God He was the sole representative of the Being and character of the One who sent Him. In the original the definite article is omitted both before “only begotten” and before “Father,” and its absence in each case serves to lay stress upon the characteristics referred to in the terms used. The Apostle’s object is to demonstrate what sort of glory it was that he and his fellow Apostles had seen. That he is not merely making a comparison with earthly relationships is indicated by para, “from.” The glory was that of a unique relationship and the word “begotten” does not imply a beginning of His Sonship. It suggests relationship indeed, but must be distinguished from generation as applied to man.

We can only rightly understand the term “the only begotten” when used of the Son, in the sense of unoriginated relationship. “The begetting is not an event of time, however remote, but a fact irrespective of time. The Christ did not become, but necessarily and eternally is the Son. He, a Person, possesses every attribute of pure Godhood. This necessitates eternity, absolute being; in this respect He is not ‘after’ the Father” (Moule).

In John 1:18 the clause “The Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father,” expresses both His eternal union with the Father in the Godhead and the ineffable intimacy and love between them, the Son sharing all the Father’s counsels and enjoying all His affections. Another reading is monogenes Theos, ‘God only-begotten.’ In John 3:16 the statement, “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son,” must not be taken to mean that Christ became the Only Begotten Son by Incarnation. The value and the greatness of the gift lay in the Sonship of Him who was given. His Sonship was not the effect of His being given. In John 3:18 the phrase “the Name of the Only Begotten Son of God” lays stress upon the full revelation of God’s character and will, His love and grace, as conveyed in the Name of One who, being in a unique relationship to Him, was provided by Him as the Object of faith. In 1 John 4:9 the statement “God hath sent His Only Begotten Son into the world” does not mean that God sent out into the world one who at His birth in Bethlehem had become His Son. Cp. the parallel statement, “God sent forth the Spirit of His Son,” Gal. 4:6, R.V., which could not mean that God sent forth One who became His Spirit when He sent Him.21

The Meaning of “First-born”

Another term that has been misinterpreted by some as it is used of Christ is the term “firstborn.” It is used of Christ in Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18; Hebrews 1:6; and Revelation 1:5. Again, because of the thought of birth that this word denotes in our minds, this passage has been used to teach that Christ was not the eternal second Person of the Trinity because He had a beginning as the firstborn of God. “Firstborn” is the Greek prototokos (from protos, first, and tikto, to beget), but this word may mean (a) first in time, or (b) first in priority. The point and focus of the word must be taken from the context in which it is used.

In Colossians 1:15, as verse 16 makes clear, it refers to Christ’s sovereignty expressing His priority to and pre-eminence over creation, not in the sense of time, the first to be born, but in the sense of (a) being the sovereign Creator, the One in Whom were the plans of creation as architect (“by Him all things were created” can also mean, “in Him …”), (b) by Whom all things were created as the builder (“all things were created by Him”), and (c) for Whom all things were created as the owner (“and for Him”). Colossians 1:15 is declaring Christ’s sovereignty as the Creator. We can see this meaning of prototokos to express sovereignty or priority in the Septuagint’s use of this word in Psalm 89:27 where the clause that follows explains the meaning of “firstborn” or prototokos. Psalm 89:27 reads, “I also shall make him My first-born, The highest of the kings of the earth.” Who is the firstborn? He is “the highest of the kings of the earth,” the sovereign Lord.

In the words of Colossians 1:18, “and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead,” it means first in time, the first one to rise in an immortal and glorified body. But even here, He is the first-born of the dead so that He might come to be pre-eminent in all things as the head of the body, the church (vs. 18b). The point is that prototokos can mean either first in time or first in priority and it is the context which determines the meaning. As the second Person of the Trinity, Christ is God and sovereign, but as the God-Man who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, He is the pre-eminent head of the body of Christ, the church. In Colossians 2:9, the Apostle confirmed this meaning when he wrote, “For in Him all the fulness of deity dwells in bodily form.”

The word for “Deity” is theotetos, a strong word (used only here in the NT) for Christ’s essence as God. The full deity of Christ is nonetheless in bodily form—a full humanity (cf. Col. 1:22). Both Christ’s deity and humanity were challenged by this early Gnostic-like heresy. Those heretics diminished Christ to an angel whose “body” was only apparent, not real. Paul affirmed here that Christ is both fully God and truly man (cf. 1 John 4:1-6).22

Practical Ramifications
of the Doctrine of Trinity

All doctrine is practical and has specific ramifications to life. This is no less true of the Triunity of the Godhead which draws our attention to the concept of the tri-fold personality of God. This communicates all the elements of personality—moral agency, intelligence, will, emotion, and communion that exists within the three Persons of the Godhead. What are some of the ramifications of this doctrine not only for theology, but for Christian experience and life?

(1) It teaches us that God is a God of revelation and communion.

Scripture teaches us that God is light, and one of the main functions of light is illumination. The act of revealing is as natural to God as it is for the sun. Before the creation of any being, angel or human, there was revelation and communication taking place within the Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, and so on with the Spirit. When, in the eternal decrees of God, He willed to create a universe with angelic and human beings, it was merely the expression of this very nature of God.

So if God is a fellowship within himself he can let that fellowship go out to his creatures and communicate himself to them according to their capacity to receive. This is what happened supremely when he came to redeem men: he let his fellowship bend down to reach outcast man and lift him up. And so because God is a Trinity he has something to share: it is his own life and communion.23

(2) It means that the Trinity is the basis of all true fellowship in the world.

Since God is within himself a fellowship, it means that his moral creatures who are made in his image find fullness of life only within a fellowship. This is reflected in marriage, in the home, in society and above all in the church whose koinonia is built upon the fellowship of the three Persons. Christian fellowship is, therefore, the divinest thing on earth, the earthly counterpart of the divine life, as Christ indeed prayed for his followers: ‘That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us’ (Jn. 17:21).24

(3) It gives variety to the life of the universe.

There is … diversity in the life of God. God the Father designs, God the Son creates, God the Spirit quickens; a great diversity of life and operation and activity. For that reason we can realize that if the universe is a manifestation of God, we can expect a diversity of life within the whole of the created universe. We think that the so-called uniformity of nature is utterly untrue. All the wonders of creation, all the forms of life, all the movement in the universe, are a reflection, a mirroring, of the manifold life of God. There is no monotonous sameness, no large-scale uniformity of pattern, for nature reflects the many-sidedness of the nature and character of the living God.25

What Are the
Choices Regarding the Trinity?

As in the case of God’s sovereignty and man’s volition (or the God-man mystery), there are three basic responses a person can make concerning the biblical concept of the Trinity. First, historically, men have either ignored it or rejected it as illogical and incompatible with human reason. Second, finding it incompatible with human reason, men have sought to solve the problem by reducing it to their own reason and in the process, they typically gravitated toward one extreme or another maintaining that God is one, or God is three, but He can’t be both. Third, historically and for the most part, the church has accepted it completely by holding both truths (God is three in one, triune) in a proper balance. Based on all the data of the Bible, the church has accepted this doctrine by faith though it is incomprehensible to our finite minds.26

The Problem of the Two Extremes

Any time man elevates his own reason above the clear revelation of Scripture and he is faced with those truths in Scripture that defy his human logic, he usually goes in one of two extremes. For instance, when faced with two truths which seem to contradict each other (e.g., God’s sovereignty and man’s volition, or Christ’s undiminished deity and true humanity in one Person, or God is One and Three), one of two things happens. In his attempt to make the truth harmonize with his reason, he will inevitably move to one extreme or the other. He will accept one (truth A, God is one) either to the neglect of the other or reject it completely (truth B, God a tri-personality), or he will swing to the other side and either minimize or reject truth A and emphasize truth B.

Kenneth Boa has some excellent comments on this issue:

In an effort to water down the doctrine of the triune God many have fallen into error. One such error is unitarianism. This view regards God as only one Person. Since, for most this Person is God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are stripped of their genuine deity. Jesus is reduced to a mere man (“the humble teacher from Nazareth”), and the Holy Spirit is turned into an impersonal force or fluid that emanates from God. The Unitarian-Universalist Church is an example of this extreme.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are essentially unitarian because they deny the deity of Jesus Christ and view the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force (Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1965, p. 47). This new Arianism repudiates the Trinity because it holds it to be unreasonable.

The second extreme is tritheism. This is a variation of polytheism because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are regarded as three separate Gods. Sometimes this is carried a step further into the idea that there are many different gods, some perhaps associated with other worlds or realms. Mormonism is an example of tritheism, for it speaks of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct Gods (Ibid., p. 178). Mormonism is actually polytheistic since it indicates that there are other gods besides these three.

The only way to avoid these extremes is to accept all the biblical facts in a balanced way. The Trinity cannot be comprehended by the human mind because it is super-rational. Nevertheless, when anyone places his faith in God and the truth of His Word, he finds a satisfaction in this and other difficult areas of revealed truth. There is no need for a continual struggle.27

Conclusion

The doctrine of the trinity is truly beyond human comprehension or the limits of our finite minds, but it is nevertheless a vital truth of the Bible. It is a doctrine that is closely connected to other key doctrines like the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. In fact, our salvation is rooted in the mysterious nature of the Godhead who coexists as three distinct Persons all of whom are involved in our salvation in all its aspects, past, present, and future. It encompasses everything we know and practice as Christians—our sanctification, our fellowship, our prayer life, our Bible study, or our corporate worship. That this is true and a precious truth for us to rest in is evident in Paul’s closing benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14 and in Peter’s salutation and doxology in 1 Peter 1:1-5.

2 Cor. 13:14. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

1 Peter 1:1-5. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May the Lord bless you in your study of His precious Word and in your walk with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


1 Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine, Moody Press, Chicago, 1972, p. 29.

2 Walter Martin, Essential Christianity, Vision House, Santa Anna, 1975, p. 21

3 Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, Assurance Publishers, p. 504.

4 Kenneth Boa, Unraveling the Big Questions About God, Lamplighter Books, p. 12.

5 The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Editors, Victor Books, Electronic Media.

6 Ibid., p. 16.

7 Ibid., p. 42.

8 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1987, electronic media.

9 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

10 Martin, pp. 22-23.

11 Cairns, p. 141.

12 Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology, The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976, pp. 80-81.

13 Ryrie, electronic media quoting B.B. Warfield, “Trinity,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, James Orr, ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930, 5:3012.

14 Boa, p. 46.

15 R. A. Finlayson, “Trinity,” The New Bible Dictionary, Eerdmans, p. 1300.

16 The New Bible Dictionary, Electronic Media, Logos Bible Software.

17 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press, p. 199.

18 Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 53.

19 The New Bible Dictionary, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1962, Electronic Media, Logos Bible Software.

20 Kittel, Gerhard, and Friedrich, Gerhard, Editors, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.

21 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1981, pp. 140-141.

22 Norman L. Geisler, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament edition, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Editors, Victor Books, p. 677.

23 The New Bible Dictionary, Logos Research Systems, Electronic Media.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Boa, p. 50.

27 Boa, pp. 50-51.

Related Topics: Trinity

1. Evidence For God's Existence

Introductory Matters

The Nature and Purpose of This Study

No doctrine or aspect of theology is more basic than the doctrine of God, sometimes referred to as Theology Proper. Since the term theology (the study of God) is often used of the study of other biblical subjects like the Bible, angels, man, salvation, and so on, Theology Proper is the designation sometimes used for just the study of God Himself. Rather than an exhaustive treatment, the study which follows is designed to be a general overview of the key features of what the Bible teaches about God, His existence, Persons, and attributes of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here is an essential part of the foundation needed for solid spiritual growth and insight into life in general and into the Christian life in particular.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.

This study will be helpful for the new Christian or anyone who needs to get a handle on the essential elements of the doctrine of God. It will also benefit those looking for a review of these essentials, perhaps for Sunday school teachers in the preparation of material for their classes, or for those training disciples.

The Possibility of the Knowledge of God

The Bible gives witness to two facts regarding the knowledge God. First, it teaches us that God is incomprehensible, and but then it also declares that God is knowable. Both are true, but not in an absolute sense. To say that God is incomprehensible simply means that finite man cannot know everything there is to know about God who is an infinite being. To say that God is knowable means that, though incomprehensible, God can be known and man can grow in the knowledge of God, at least in a limited sense and to the degree that is needed for man to trust God and have a personal and growing relationship with Him.

God’s incomprehensibility is declared in passages like Job 11:7 and Isaiah 40:18:

Job 11:7 Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?

Isaiah 40:18 To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him?

The fact that God is knowable is evidenced by the very gift of the Bible as God’s revelation of Himself to man, but note also the following passages:

John 14:7 If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.

John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.

1 John 5:20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

The Importance of This Study

Unfortunately, many are turned off by the term “doctrine” or “theology.” For many people these two terms mean something boring, impractical, and useless, but nothing could be more removed from the truth. Bible doctrine, the teaching of the Bible as God’s supernatural revelation to man, is the necessary foundation for knowing and understanding God, His creation (including man himself), and His plan for mankind. People, whether they realize it or not, have a set of presuppositions which form their doctrinal viewpoint or theological perspective about God, the world, and man himself. And this viewpoint, whether picked up through formal instruction or simply by the process of osmosis from their culture, is not without serious repercussions on the way people think and act. People eventually become like whatever god they worship. Concerning idols, the Psalmist wrote, “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8 NIV).

The late Francis Schaeffer wrote of the significance of one’s world view, which, in the final analysis, represents one’s doctrinal perspective about God and life:

There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind—what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity …

People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves may realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists. People’s presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and their basis for their decisions.

“As a man thinketh, so is he,” is really most profound. An individual is not just the product of the forces around him. He has a mind, an inner world …

Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what world view is true …

It is important to realize what a difference a people’s world view makes in their strength as they are exposed to the pressure of life. That it was the Christians who were able to resist religious mixtures, syncretism, and the effects of the weakness of Roman culture speaks of the strength of the Christian world view. This strength rested on God’s being an infinite-personal God and his speaking in the Old Testament, in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and in the gradually growing New Testament. He had spoken in ways people could understand. Thus the Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot find out by themselves, but they had absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society and the political state in which they lived …1

The many references in the New Testament to doctrine or teaching (83 times these words are found in the NASB New Testament) make it clear that doctrine or theology is not a cold and impotent force, but a vital element to the spiritual, moral, and social being of mankind (1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6, 16; 2 Tim. 3:10, 16; 4:2-3). Indeed, it is the difference between life and death, a sense of significance and happiness, and joy and peace. It is the doctrines of the Bible which bring people into a factual knowledge of the “true and living God” which must form the basis for knowing God personally. Only then can people turn from all the false gods of the world to the one true and living God (1 Thess. 1:9).

A healthy relationship with God must begin with an intellectual knowledge of who He is, which then matures into a deeper personal experience of knowing God in life. God manifests Himself to us on the mountain peaks, in the valleys, in the swamps—in all aspects of our lives.2

The study of the knowledge of God, just one of the many doctrinal themes in Scripture, is the greatest theme that can engage the mind of man. Nothing can even begin to parallel it in its impact on a man’s life. Undoubtedly, for this very reason, the very first words of the Bible introduce us to the reality of God as the source of the universe, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).

These, the very first words of the Bible, are most basic to the understanding of the whole. No more important words have ever been uttered or written. Compton, the physicist, calls them the most wonderful words ever written. All else in the Bible stands or falls upon the validity and truthfulness of these words. Study of the person and work of God is of inestimable importance and value for all who would know the truth. Without a proper understanding of Him and His plan, everything else in the Bible and in life becomes hazy and meaningless.3

In his book Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes:

The world becomes a strange, mad, and painful place and life in it is a disappointing and unpleasant business for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.4

In John 17:3 Christ prayed these instructive words, “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” Here was Christ’s own definition of salvation and life. Christ who was sent to be both the revelation of God to man and the reconciliation of man to God declares that knowing God is the essence of eternal life. But by eternal life Christ was not simply speaking of gaining an entrance into heaven, but of knowing and experiencing an eternal quality of life now, a life of meaning, purpose, and usefulness to God and mankind with peace and joy. All the real issues and questions of life ultimately find their answer in the knowledge of God which comes to man through Jesus Christ and the Scripture, Genesis through Revelation.

Before moving into the specifics of the doctrine of God, a few things should be said about theology as a whole.

Definition of Theology

The term theology is a compound of two Greek words, theos, meaning “God,” and logos, meaning “word, speech, expression, discourse.” Both Jesus Christ as the Living Word and the Bible as the written word are the Logos of God. That which the living and written Word reveals is theology—a discourse on the specific subject of God. Though the word theology is never found in Scripture, it is Scriptural in character. In Romans 3:2 we have the words, ta logia tou theou, “the oracles of God,” meaning the discourses or utterances of and about God. In 1 Peter 4:11 we find logia theou, meaning “the utterances of God,” and in Luke 8:21 we find, ton logon tou theou, “the Word of God.”

Distinctions in the Types of Theology

In the use of the term theology several types develop depending on how the Word is used.

(1) A theological system: The word theology may be used of an exponent of a theological system as Augustinian, Calvinistic, Arminian, Covenant, or Dispensational theology.

(2) A method, source, or content of theology: It may be used of the source or content of the theology or the method of theology as:

  • Natural theology—Facts concerning God and His universe derived from nature or creation.
  • Revealed theology—Facts concerning God and His universe derived from Scripture as a whole.

(3) Biblical theology: Facts concerning God and His universe as set forth in the various books of the Bible from whence we derive other classifications as Pauline, Johannine and Petrine theologies.

(4) Historical theology: The study of the historical development of doctrine as well as its variations and heretical departures.

(5) Theology proper: This is theology in its true and proper sense. Theology proper contemplates only the Person of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, existence and attributes without reference to the works of each person of the trinity. This is a part of systematic theology.

(6) Systematic theology: This is the collecting, scientifically arranging, and categorizing, comparing, exhibiting, and defending all facts from all sources concerning God and His works.

For our knowledge of God to be accurate, the primary source must be the Bible, the special revelation of God, and the primary method must be the literal inductive method which is founded on a careful study of Scripture especially in the original languages in which it was written, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

A true and accurate systematic theology must also be an exegetical theology and a revealed or scriptural theology. This is primary. Too often the study of theology is man-centered, i.e., centered around what the so-called great theologians have said, historical theology, rather than centered in the Bible. This does not mean we ignore the writings of these men as they have sought to represent what the Scripture teaches, but our final conclusions need to be based on Scripture itself as much as is humanly possible.

Divisions of Theology

These are the categories which should form a part of any system of systematic theology:

Bibliology: From biblos + logos. This is the study of the Bible, i.e., revelation, inspiration, preservation, canonization and illumination.

Theology Proper: From theos + logos. This is the study of the essence, being, and trinity of God.

Angelology: From angelos + logos. This is the study of angels, fallen and unfallen.

Anthropology: From anthropos + logos. This is the study of man, his creation, make-up, innocence and fall.

Hamartiology: From hamartia + logos. This is the study of sin, its nature, derivation and classifications.

Soteriology: From soterios + logos. This is the study of God’s plan and work of salvation for mankind.

Ecclesiology: From ekklesia + logos. This is the study of the church, universal and local.

Eschatology: From eschatos + logos. This is the study of prophecy and last things. Dispensations may also be included.

Christology: From Christos + logos. This involves the study of the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-Man.

Pneumatology: From pneuma + logos. This involves the study of the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Systems of Perception Used in Theology

    Rationalism:

In rationalism reason becomes the sole guide in discovering and learning about God whether in Scripture or in nature. Here the supernatural is generally explained away by human reason and its bias against the supernatural, i.e., the supernatural is irrational to the human mind and must be rejected.

    Empiricism:

This is the system of pursuing knowledge through observation and experiment. In the empirical system, everything must be checked out through the senses. One must be able to smell, see, touch, hear, or taste in order to know or come to a bonafide conclusion. The empirical method or the empiricist is one who depends on experience or observation alone, without regard to theory or faith.

    Faith:

This is complete confidence in someone or something expressed in a non-meritorious way. Faith is the primary and Biblical means of perception (Heb. 11:3 “by faith we understand”).

Faith is the means by which we understand spiritual phenomenon. Spiritual phenomenon is an infinite subject beyond the experience and reason of man. But faith is an infinite means of perception which alone is able to grasp the infinite. By the faith means of perception, a person reads the Bible, sees a fact of spiritual phenomenon and accepts it by faith. This becomes spiritual fact or truth by which an individual operates and has confidence. But is this rational? Does one have to put his brain in neutral with the faith means of perception?

(1) In Matthew 18:3 Christ said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (NIV). Children humbly accept a lot of things as true by faith, but always because they have confidence in a person, parent, or teacher. So with faith all biblical facts are accepted because of an underlying faith in God’s person and then in God’s Word. Faith begins with someone higher and greater than ourselves where rationalism and empiricism do not. They begin and end with man.

(2) Faith as a means of perception is not irrational, nor unreasonable, nor without evidence. So we read in Scripture that nature sings out the fact of God, giving constant evidence not only for the reality of God, but for something of the nature of God (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20). The Bible holds fantastic evidence that its source is in God and that God has given us this book without error. For evidence of this, see the book, Evidence Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, Campus Crusade.

(3) John came to the tomb in unbelief, saw the evidence within, reasoned, and went away in faith; but behind this were the previous words of Christ along with the evidence in the empty tomb (John 20:30-31). However, reason alone or rationalism, because of its bias, would say this cannot be true because it is supernatural, and this is unreasonable. Or empiricism alone would say—I have not observed it so it cannot be true, or unless I observe it, it cannot be true. Thomas, who doubted at first, may have been an empiricist (John 20:1-10, 26-31).

Illustration: The statement “the cow jumped over the moon” is irrational and cannot be believed because of what we have observed about cows and their limitations. But the statement “So the sun stood still and the moon stopped” (Josh. 10:13), though it defies our understanding, is not irrational because of what we know and believe about God. This is perception by faith.

False Views About God

The following are a few of the false views about God. These are either a product of rationalization or the failure of men to accept the Word of God by faith or both. They are the gropings of the human mind that operate on negative volition and as unaided by faith and God’s revelation (cf. Rom. 1:18-20). These systems reveal the truth of 1 Corinthians 2:14.

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

    Atheism:

Atheism is open and positive denial of the existence of God (Ps. 14:1). The word atheism comes from a + theos which means no God. It does not refer to a mere ignorance of God, but applies to one who considers himself informed on the claims and evidence for the existence of God and who emphatically denies them.

There are three types of atheist, practically speaking:

(1) The Absolute Atheist. This is one who denies the absolute existence of God. Here is the person who argues and says “I have examined all the facts as to the existence of God and I deny them as proving His existence.”

(2) The Providential Atheist. This is the person who simply doubts the existence of God, but firmly denies His providential dealings and the care of God for the things of this world. However, this person in effect denies the being of God for he strips Him of His omnipotence, wisdom, mercy, justice and righteousness. Why? Because of their desire to be uncontrolled in their lust patterns. This kind of atheist is sometimes called a Deist. In every atheist there is a moral twist (see Ps. 14:1f). He denies God because he wants freedom from any responsibility for his sin. He is like the person who does not want to come to the light because his deeds are evil (John 3:19-20).

(3) The Practical Atheist. By this we refer to a secret or partial atheism which is present in the majority of the world. These do not actually deny the being of God, but by their actions and lifestyle, by their evil and neglect of God, or by the denial of certain aspects and rights of His divine and sovereign Being over them, they deny Him and act as though there were no God.

Titus 1:16 They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed.

    Agnosticism:

This word comes from a + gnosis which means “not knowing.” This school of thought does not deny the existence of God, only that there are no sufficient grounds (i.e., rational proof or empirical proof) that God exists—or that if God does exist He can be known. In reality it is an unwillingness to accept any of the sources of the knowledge of God (innate, tradition, nature, revelation), and an unwillingness to act in faith. Instead, it says I cannot know.

    Materialism:

This is the system which tries to explain everything by physical causes which can be observed and understood. It denies and excludes any spiritual causes. Materialism is closely related to empiricism.

    Polytheism:

Polytheism is a system of theology which believes in many gods. It has been claimed by unbelievers and by many evolutionists that all men were first polytheists and then evolved to monotheism. But the Bible shows that polytheism is a product not of evolution but devolution and degeneration. The idea found in evolution that monotheism, or the belief in one God, is a refinement of polytheism is contrary to the record of the Bible and even recent discoveries archaeologically. Scripture shows that polytheism is the product of man turning away from God and is specifically related to the deceptions of Satan as it is found in the false religions of the world. Polytheism is in no way similar to the biblical doctrine of the trinity which teaches that God is three in personality, but one in essence.

    Pantheism:

This is the belief that God is in everything and that everything is God. This system confuses God with nature, matter with Spirit, and the creation with the Creator. Also, pantheism must not be confused with the omnipresence of God. The Bible teaches that God is everywhere, but not in everything. God as Creator is independent of, distinct, and separate from the creation.

    Deism:

The term “deism” is from the Latin word deus, meaning God, and is closely allied to the Greek word theos. This system acknowledges that there is a God, that He is personal, infinite, holy, and the Creator of all things, but denies that He sustains the universe. The Deist says that God just put things into motion. He is the Creator but not the Sustainer. Deism rejects the Scriptures, anything supernatural, and the idea that God is providentially working in this world.

    Tritheism:

This is the doctrine that the Godhead consists of three independent Gods. This is a false view of the doctrine of the trinity, or better, triunity. Tritheism misses the oneness of the triunity of God.

There are many other false systems such as Positivism, Monism, Dualism, and Pluralism, but the plethora of these false systems simply show the futility of what the soulish mind can come up with when it tries to operate apart from the divine revelation of God. It is inconceivable, then, that God would leave man without a revelation of Himself.

    Conclusion

The naturalistic arguments which debate the existence of God engender various philosophies. From these inconclusive and questionable theories the spiritual mind turns with relief to the complete, satisfying, and authoritative revelation of God set forth in the Bible.5

The Revelation of the Existence of God
(Opposed to Atheism)

Can a person prove that God exists? No, not really, but if we believe in the existence of God, we should be able to give reasonable evidences for why we believe what we believe. This section is designed to help us do that as well as aid in thinking about some of the ramifications of believing in the existence of God.

The message of the Bible, or the gospel, is always equated with truth and it is presented as the opposite of error. Further, the Bible teaches us that man can know the truth and that God holds man responsible to know it. God plainly holds men responsible for not receiving and believing the truth (Rom. 1:18; 2:8; 2 Thess 2:10-12). Such verses would be meaningless unless there was some kind of clear and objective evidence by which men could come to a knowledge and conviction of the truth. If such were not the case, God would not hold man responsible for there would be no way to tell truth from error.

Many like to make the claim there is no absolute truth or that you cannot know the truth. They claim you really cannot know truth unless it can be verified by observable scientific testing and data. Morally, philosophically, and theologically, everything is simply relative. This is agnosticism, but the agnostic’s position is really unsupported by the evidence.

Pilate’s reaction to Jesus’ statement when He was on trial may be an illustration of this not just because of what Pilate said, but because of what Christ first said to Pilate. Christ said, “everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate then replied, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38) Like all atheists, practical, intellectual, or philosophical, or like an agnostic, Pilate thought he could excuse himself from moral responsibility to God and humanity, or to truth itself by claiming truth cannot be known.

But in this statement, Christ shows us that knowing truth is ultimately a moral issue. Those who are of the truth, those who really want to know, can and will listen to the evidence that God has given us so that men may know the truth. The apostle Paul teaches us the exact same thing in Romans 1:18f. The fact is there is tremendous and bonafide evidence that there is a God out there, He exists. The problem is not one of evidence, but of rebellion and negative volition to God (Ps. 14:1; Rom. 1:21, 23, 25, 28; 3:9-18). It is a moral problem. The moral issue always overshadows the intellectual or evidential issues. As Paul Little writes,

It is not that man cannot believe—it is that he “will not believe.” Jesus pointed the Pharisees to this as the root of the problem. “You refuse to come to me,” he told them, “that you may have life” (John 5:40). He makes it abundantly clear that moral commitment leads to a solution of the intellectual problem. “If any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17). Alleged intellectual problems are often a smoke screen covering moral rebellion.

A student once told me I had satisfactorily answered all his questions, “Are you going to become a Christian?” I asked. “No,” he replied. Puzzled, I asked, “Why not?” He admitted, “Frankly, because it would mess up the way I’m living.” He realized that the real issue for him was not intellectual but moral.

The question is often asked, “If Christianity is rational and true, why is it that most educated people don’t believe it?” The answer is simple. They don’t believe it for the very same reason that most uneducated don’t believe it. They don’t want to believe it. It’s not a matter of brain power, for there are outstanding Christians in every field of the arts and sciences. It is primarily a matter of will.6

Then why do we bother with giving answers and evidence for the existence of God or any other area that is questioned? First, because the Bible tells us to be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). The reason for this is because people do have genuine doubts and questions and they deserve solid evidence.

John Stott struck a balance when he said, “We cannot pander to a man’s intellectual arrogance, but we must cater to his intellectual integrity.”7

Can we prove, then, that God exists? No! Not in the same way that you can prove something by scientific method in the laboratory by observable and repeatable experiments. However, observable data for the existence of God does exist. It exists in such degree and clarity that to deny it, one must deny his rational processes because of a bias against the supernatural and the issue of the moral twist spoken of earlier.

We must be clear from the outset that it is not possible to “prove” God in the scientific method sense of the word. But it can be said with equal emphasis that you can’t “prove” Napoleon by the scientific method. The reason lies in the nature of history itself and in the limitations of the scientific method, it must be repeatable … But history in its very nature is non-repeatable. No one can “rerun” the beginning of the universe or bring Napoleon back or repeat the assassination of Lincoln or the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But the fact that these events can’t be “proved” by repetition does not disprove their reality as events.

There are many real things outside the scope of the scientific method as a means of verification … To insist that God be “proved” by the scientific method is like insisting that a telephone be used to measure radioactivity. It simply wasn’t made for that.8

So what is the evidence for the existence of God? The evidence falls into two categories: (1) General or naturalistic evidence—reasonable evidence from the world around us, and (2) special or revealed evidence—the evidence from the Bible. Though the evidence for the supernatural character of the Bible is a subject that comes under the doctrine of bibliology (the study of the Bible), there is tremendous evidence that the Bible is truly unique and the inerrant and infallible Word of God. It is not a book that man would write if he could or could write if he would (Lewis Sperry Chafer). Ryrie writes:

General revelation includes all that God has revealed in the world around us, including man, while special revelation includes various means He used to communicate His message in what was codified in the Bible. General revelation is sometimes called natural theology and special revelation is called revealed theology. But, of course, what is revealed in nature is also revealed in theology. Some writers use the labels prelapsarian for general revelation and postlapsarian or soteric for special revelation. However, both general and special revelation are (a) from God and (b) about God.9

Characteristics of General (Naturalistic) Revelation

As Ryrie points out, General Revelation, as the title suggests, is simply general and broad in the following ways:10

(1) It is general in its scope in that it witnesses to all people as the following passages suggest:

Matthew 5:45 in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Acts 14:17 and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.

It is general geographically in that it encompasses the entire globe.

Psalm 19:1-4 The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard. 4 Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun. (Emphasis mine.)

(3) It is general in its methodology since it uses a universal means, the varied elements of God’s creation like the heat of the sun and the human conscience, to declare the reality and glory of God (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 2:14-15).

Simply because it is a revelation that thus affects all people wherever they are and whenever they have lived it can bring light and truth to all, or, if rejected, brings condemnation.11

General or Naturalistic Arguments

The following arguments are drawn from natural revelation, from the world around us, in contrast to the revealed or supernatural revelation of the Scripture. This is bonafide evidence for God-consciousness as the Apostle Paul shows in Romans 1:19-20. The basic idea of these arguments is that as we study the world in which we live one can reasonably conclude that there must be a God. In the final analysis, however, one only comes to this conclusion by the perception of faith. Why? Because in spite of the evidence, one does not see God; one sees only the evidence of God, but not God Himself.

Illustration: When a man walking through the woods finds the tracks of a deer that has passed there only hours before, he knows that a deer was there because of the evidence of the tracks even though he does not see the deer. So (as with the tracks of the deer) we may know that God exists by the tracks He has left everywhere in the world.

    The Moral Argument

Man has an intellectual and moral nature which demands God as his Creator. Man’s conscience, which is a law to man, necessitates a Law-Giver. Man’s free will implies a Great Will. Without God as the basis for right and wrong, no government would be possible except on the principle, “might makes right.”

Though it becomes defiled and seared by sin (1 Tim. 4:2; Tit. 1:15), to some degree all men have that faculty called conscience with its constant impulse to choose the right and leave the wrong. Society and government are based on this recognition of virtue and truth, but where does that come from? The only logical explanation is the existence of a God whose ways are holy, just, and good. A material universe without God as Supreme Governor would of necessity lack moral values and distinctions.

    The Argument From Design (Teleological, telos, “end”)

The universe is a cosmos not a chaos. “Adaptation of means to an end imply a Designer.” Paley, the philosopher, used the illustration of a man finding a watch in the woods. If you found a watch and then found it also kept good time, you are forced to conclude that it had a designer (Isa. 45:18). How much more is this not true with the universe and its infinite complexity.

The earth itself is evidence of design. “If it were much smaller an atmosphere would be impossible (e.g. Mercury and the moon); if much larger the atmosphere would contain free hydrogen (e.g. Jupiter and Saturn). Its distance from the sun is correct—even a small change would make it too hot or too cold. Our moon, probably responsible for the continents and ocean basins, is unique in our solar system and seems to have originated in a way quite different from the other relatively much smaller moons. The tilt of the [earth’s] axis insures the seasons, and so on.”12

Another illustration is a stone wall. Rocks falling in a landslide never form a properly placed, neat, uniform stone wall. Rather, such a stone wall proves design and a designer. So the world, in all its perfection and design, must have had a Designer. Stated in the form of syllogism the argument is as follows:

  • Major Premise: Design presupposes an intelligent architect.
  • Minor Premise: The world shows evidence of design in every part.
  • Therefore: The world has a designer or intelligent architect, who is God.
    The Cosmological Argument

The Greek word cosmos means “an orderly arrangement.” Every effect must have its adequate cause. The universe is an adequate cause, and the only sufficient cause is God. Where did the universe come from if not from God the Creator? Reason and probability are on the side of creation, not chance or mere force (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17:28-29). Stated in the form of syllogism the argument is as follows:

  • Major Premise: Every effect has an adequate cause.
  • Minor Premise: The world is an effect.
  • Therefore: The world has an adequate cause outside itself which produced it, namely God.
    The Esthetic Argument

There is beauty in the universe and human beings have a unique ability to appreciate it. From whence comes this correspondence between the beauty in creation and the ability of man to appreciate it? This indicates design, intelligence, personality, and so, God.

    The Ontological Argument (The idea of a supreme being)

Man not only has an idea of a God, but he pictures that God is a supreme being, one who is perfect, independent, and infinite. Where does this idea come from if there is no such being?

This argument is generally considered the most profound and Keyser in his book, A System of Christian Evidences, has an excellent statement:

We can not think of the relative without also thinking of an absolute. We can not think of the derived without also thinking of the underived. We can not think of the dependent without also thinking of the independent. We can not think of the imperfect without also thinking of the perfect. We can not think of the finite without also thinking of the infinite.

Now, if these concepts are not true, and there is no perfect, absolute, infinite Being, then man’s thinking, in its deepest constitution is null and void. If that were true, all our thinking would be insane and futile. Can we believe that?13

Sometimes this argument is called, The Religious or General Argument with the argument going something like this: Since the belief in God and supernatural beings is universal even among the most backward tribes, it must therefore come from within man, it is something innate. The question is, could it have come from civilization or even from education when people all over the world possess it whether they are civilized and educated or not? The logical answer is no.

Then, where could such an idea come from if there is no God? There is always something to satisfy the desires which are common to the whole human race. There is food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, and a God for the thirsty soul. Stated in the form of a syllogism the argument is as follows:

  • Major Premise: An intuitive and universal belief among men must be true.
  • Minor Premise: The belief that there is a God is universal and intuitive among men.
  • Therefore: The belief that there is a God is true.

There are some very interesting facts regarding the universal belief in God.

(1) More than 90 percent of the religions of the world acknowledge the existence of one supreme being and some even anticipate God’s redeeming concern.

(2) In every case, this monotheistic belief predated other forms of worship or beliefs and heathenistic practices. This is true the world over on every continent.

(3) These other forms of heathenistic and polytheistic practices were invariably the result of failing to pursue the knowledge of God. Failure to pursue belief in the one Supreme Being created a vacuum into which false and demonic beliefs quickly rushed. As an illustration, ancient Chinese and Koreans had believed in a Supreme God who created all things. In China his name was Shang Ti and in Korea it was Hananim, The Great One. This belief predated Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. It goes back 2600 years before Christ and worshippers throughout China and Korea seem to have understood from the beginning that Shang Ti/Hananim must never be represented by idols.14

Little writes:

It is very significant that recent anthropological research has indicated that among the farthest and most remote primitive peoples, today, there is a universal belief in God. And in the earliest histories and legends of peoples all around the world the original concept was of one God, who was the Creator. An original high God seems once to have been in their consciousness even in those societies which are today polytheistic. This research, in the last fifty years, has challenged the evolutionary concept of the development of religion, which had suggested that monotheism—the concept of one God—was the apex of a gradual development that began with polytheistic concepts. It is increasingly clear that the oldest traditions everywhere were of one supreme God.15

Biblical Evidence for the Existence of God

    The Existence of God Is Assumed by Scripture

Perhaps because it is so evident everywhere, no writer of Scripture, Old or New Testament, attempts to set down arguments for the existence of God. It is a fact taken for granted. The Bible simply begins with “In the beginning God” (Gen. 1:1), and nowhere is His existence argued. Why? Because of the abundant evidence in the universe for the existence of God (Psalm 19:1-4), and because they that come to God must believe that He is. God is perceived primarily by faith as a result of positive volition (see John 18:37; 7:17; Jer. 29:13).

Heb. 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

    Biblical Theism

Biblical theism refers to what the Bible has to say about the reality, essence, and works of God, and it draws upon the marvelous revelation of God as it is found in the Holy Bible.

Biblical theism confirms the legitimate conclusions of naturalistic theism and also adds to it so much that is revealed only in the Bible. Though reason and revelation combine in any systematic theology, in approaching biblical theism certain assumptions are necessary.

Problems of interpretation of the Bible are recognized in systematic theology, but within orthodoxy there is no problem of the trustworthiness of Scripture … The Bible clearly reveals the existence of God who has all the attributes properly recognized in Deity.16

Regarding biblical theism Robert Lightner writes:

Since God did not seek to prove and defend His existence in His own Word, perhaps that is not man’s task either. We have been given the Bible which, while it does not seek to defend God’s existence before the skeptic or the unbeliever, does assume God’s existence and presents irrefutable evidence that He is, that He has worked in the past and is working today. In the Old Testament, for example, God’s existence and presence in the world is established by appeal to historical evidence (i.e., Ex. 4:1ff; 14:30f; Num. 14:11; Josh. 2:8-11, etc.). Also, in the Word of God we are told of His Son who came to reveal God to men (John 1:18). Surely, no one can read God’s Word with any degree of seriousness and go on denying the reality of God’s existence. Either God is all that Scripture makes Him out to be or the Bible is the biggest and most deceptive hoax ever compiled …

No doubt the strongest evidence for God’s existence in the Bible comes from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Let it be stated clearly again here by way of introduction, to deny the existence of the God of the Bible is to repudiate the Christ of Scripture.

The Son of God was the great Revealer of God. God also revealed Himself in the words of Scripture and in the miraculous deeds recorded there. Added to these evidences of His revelation it must also be said He reveals Himself to the believing heart through the personal experience of the Holy Spirit who “beareth witness with our spirits” (Rom. 8:16).

The revelation of God in the Bible reveals His infinite love and grace. But like His revelation in nature, apart from the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit the message will not be believed or understood.17

Conclusion

The big question is what does the fact of the existence of God means to us as human beings?

First, the knowledge of the existence of God means that man is put here by design. It means that while all God’s creatures have purpose, due to man’s particular uniqueness among the creatures of God, man has special purpose and meaning. We are not merely the product of time plus chance or some impersonal force. We are each the result of a personal God who created us for Himself with meaning and purpose. But the details of this purpose are found only in the Bible, God’s special revelation of Himself. Creation of course cannot and does not reveal this. Creation’s primary role is to give man the evidence and basis for God-consciousness (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:18-20).

Second, the knowledge of God means responsibility. The fact that there is a supreme and perfect being, a divine sovereign who created us for His purposes, means that we are each responsible to Him for the way we live and for what we do with the life He has given us.

Third, the knowledge of God’s existence means that we have the responsibility to search and seek to know God personally and intimately, to be thankful, and to worship Him accordingly (Rom. 1:18-23). The facts are, however, that man in his fallen state does not search for God, at least not on his own (Rom. 3:11). But in His grace, God constantly works to draw men to Himself (see John 1:9; 6:44; 7:17; 12:32; Acts 17:27-28; Rom. 2:4; Jer. 29:13; 2 Chron. 15:2, 4).

Sadly, most people, even with the conviction that God exists, live like practical atheists, as though God does not exist or as though He is indifferent to man. One of the reasons for this is the principle found in two passages: the principle of God’s patience and slowness to act against man’s sin.

Psalm 50:21 These things you have done, and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you, and state the case in order before your eyes.

Ecclesiastes 8:11-12 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. 12 Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly.

People think they are getting by or that God is just an old man sitting in the heavens who smiles on the indiscretions of His children. This can be illustrated by the hymns we so often sing. We sing hymns indicating our faith, but then live so differently.

  • We sing Sweet Hour of Prayer, but are content with 5 or 10 minutes a day.
  • We sing Onward Christian Soldiers, but a lot of Christians are AWOL.
  • We sing O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, but often use the one we have in complaining.
  • We sing There Shall Be Showers of Blessings, but are ready to miss church when it rains.
  • We sing Blest Be the Tie the Binds, and let the least little thing sever it.
  • We sing Serve the Lord with Gladness, and gripe, gripe, gripe.
  • We sing I Love to Tell the Story, but are often embarrassed to mention it.

May we live and serve the Lord knowing that He truly is and lives as the sovereign and loving God of the universe.


1 Frances A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? Fleming H. Revell, Old Tappan, NJ, 1976, pp. 19-22.

2 Gary E. Vincelette, Basic Theology: Applied, Wesley & Elaine Willis, John & Janet Masters, editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, p. 15.

3 Robert P. Lightner, The God of the Bible, An Introduction to the Doctrine of God, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1973, p. 9.

4 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1973, pp. 14-15.

5 Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Abridged Edition, John F. Walvoord, Editor, Donald K. Campbell, Roy B. Zuck, Consulting Editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1988, p. 131.

6 Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, revised edition 1968, p. 4.

7 Ibid., p. 5.

8 Ibid., p. 8.

9 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1987, p. 28.

10 Ibid., p. 28

11 Ibid., p. 28.

12 Little, p. 11, quoting R.E.D. Clark, Creation, London: Tyndale Press, p. 10.

13 Keyser, A System of Christian Evidences, pp. 196-197.

14 Richardson, Eternity In Their Hearts, Regal Books, pp. 63f.

15 Little, p. 8, citing Samuel Zwemer, The Origin of Religion, New York, Loizeaux Brothers as the source of this information.

16 Chafer, p. 135.

17 Lightner, pp. 23-24.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)

2. What God Is Like

(The Essence and Nature of God)
Opposed to Agnosticism

Introduction

Just who is God? What is God like? Can He be defined? Can He be described? If we are to know God personally as the Scriptures declare we can and must, and if we are to avoid the perversions about God that we find in a satanically-deceived world, we must learn what God is like and who God is from His God-breathed revelation to us in the Bible. This is essential and it is the foundation to an intimate walk with God by which we can learn to personally relate to the who and what of God.

But it is so important to remember that in our study of God there are two important things that we should seek to know. First, we need information, revealed facts about God. We need knowledge of who God is, how He exists, or about what God is like. But second, we desperately need to go beyond just the facts about God. We need to know God personally and intimately. The facts are the foundation, but the goal is fellowship with God as we learn about His person, plan, purposes, principles, and promises. It is this that builds faith, gives peace, comfort, courage, joy, and the energy to deal with life. I am reminded of the words of Daniel in Daniel 11:32b, “… but the people who know their God will display strength and take action.” This is not just the knowledge about God, but the knowledge of God.

Definitions of God

Can we really define God? Yes and no! To adequately and completely define God who is infinite spirit is impossible. How can the finite define the infinite? There is no way man can set forth a statement which totally sets forth all that God is. “Such a statement, were it possible, would confine God; it would restrict Him and He would no longer be God. For that very reason we must say God cannot be completely defined.”18

First, while this is true, it is possible and necessary to define something of the being and perfections of God even though God’s essence or perfections are infinite and beyond the scope of total human understanding. Some things are clearly discernible through God’s own revelation of Himself to man in the Bible. And while our definitions and descriptions of God must always be limited, they are also absolutely necessary for faith and for our spiritual well-being and hope, limited as they are.

Second, it is the perfections or qualities of God that we find in Scripture that reveal the essence or nature of God. “True as that is, it must also be said that a listing of the perfections of God must never be viewed as a final or complete definition of God.”19 Certainly, an infinite God is more than the sum total of the qualities we find assigned to Him in Scripture.

Third, the perfections of God have always been a part of His essence. He has never existed apart from them. Chafer wrote: “The whole of the divine essence is in each attribute, and the attribute belongs to the whole essence. The attributes belong eternally to the essence.”20

Fourth, people tend to focus on one of God’s attributes to the exclusion of another or to exalt one above another. We particularly like to focus on God’s attributes of love and grace rather than His holiness and divine justice, and it is true that in some biblical contexts, one attribute is often stressed more than another. For instance, the holiness of God is mentioned more than any other of God’s perfections in the Bible including the love of God. Man’s need to see how his sinfulness falls short of God’s holiness is perhaps one of the reasons for this, but there is a danger here that we must avoid. Lightner warns:

Taking the total testimony of Scripture, however, there is a harmonious presentation of the characteristics of God. It must ever be kept in mind that God always deals with man on the basis of the totality of His Being and not simply on the basis of one or even a few of His perfections.21

God is love and grace and He longs for fellowship with man. His love and grace, however, cannot bypass or ignore His perfect holiness, righteousness, and justice. These perfections must condemn man in his sin. But then neither can God’s holiness ignore His love. So in His sovereignty, omnipotence, and infinite wisdom, He provided a solution of grace through the person and work of Christ thereby satisfying the totality of His perfections.

Finally, before we look at the biblical explanations of what God is like, let’s take a brief look at some samples of the typical, pathetic, and unbiblical definitions and ideas of what God is like.

Definitions Which Portray God in Impersonal Ways

Sometimes you hear God referred to as “the Ground of All Being,” “the Force of Life,” “the Principle of Love,” “the Ultimate Reality,” “Mother Nature,” “the Cosmic Principle into which we must all get into contact,” and so forth. Such descriptions do not even come close. They are the misguided attempts of men who are not only ignorant of the truth about God, but in many cases are suppressing the knowledge of God in their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). Christian Science teaches that God is eternal, impersonal principle, law, truth, spirit, and idea. All that really is, is divine. God is spirit; there is no matter. God is good; there is no evil, sin, sickness, or death. How deeply this misses the revelation of God in the Bible!

Definitions Which Portray God as More Personal

We often hear God referred to as “the Man Upstairs,” or as “the Grand Old Man.” Many simply view God as a grandfatherly figure who sits in heaven in His rocking chair and views without too much concern the indiscretions of His children. I recently heard a man who had come through a life-threatening experience say, “I guess the Man Upstairs was looking out for me on this one.” But God is not a man. He is infinitely more. He became man in the person of His Son by the incarnation, but though His deity was veiled and though the Son voluntarily gave up the prerogatives of His deity, He never ceased to be God of very God.

The Mormons claim God is a perfect exalted man with a literal flesh and bones body. As man is, God once was, and as God is, man can be. This is also at the heart of New Age thinking, but it’s a far cry from the revelation of God in the Bible.22

A Biblical Definition

Bearing in mind our human limitations, but recognizing our need to know what God is like that we might better know and depend on Him, Robert Lightner suggest the following:

God is Spirit. He is a living and active divine person who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, truth, and love. He can enjoy fellowship with persons He created in His own image and redeemed by His grace, and He always acts in harmony with His perfect nature.23

Far more important than being able to simply quote or memorize such a definition is our need to understand each aspect of the definition and to know and walk with God in accordance with its truth. The rest of this study will be devoted to this very issue.

The definition states that God is a living and active divine person. God is personal. He has personality, but what does this mean and what does it mean to us?

The Nature of God: How God Exists

As we have seen, if one looks at the evidence with an open mind, the evidence declares that God truly does exist. But how? What’s the fundamental nature of God like? How exactly does He exist? Is He personal, or simply an impersonal force? Is He spirit, material, or a combination? In this section we are making a difference for clarity sake between the attributes or perfections of God like love, grace, sovereignty, and the fundamental nature in which God exists as personality, spirit, and triunity. Following this, we will look at the fundamental attributes or perfections of God.

The Personality of God

    The Polemic of God’s Personality—What It Protects Us Against

The truth of God’s personality stands opposed to impersonal pantheism and all the impersonal ideas of God as found in many various cults and in the mysticism of today’s world, especially as seen in the New Age Movement. New Age thinking says God is “the ground of all being,” or God is “the force,” or “the planetary consciousness” in human beings. Hunt describes New Age thinking as a “new ‘openness’ to one another, to ourselves, to nature, to a universal ‘Force’ (italics mine) pervading the whole cosmos—which produces an awakening of unimagined powers of the mind.”24

Today’s world, because of the influence of Eastern mysticism, has become pantheistic. Pantheism teaches that matter or substance is God, and hence, everything is God, and God is everything. God is simply the sum total of the universe; God is all and all is God. Thus, God is an impersonal force to which we are all connected, but not the personal, independent, self-existent Creator who created us in His own image.

God is therefore identified with nature. He is not held to be independent of or separate from nature. God is simply an unconscious and impersonal force working in the world. So, New Agers teach that by some form of mysticism man must seek to get in touch with the force through TM, yoga, or biofeedback.

Closely associated with this is the error that “God is love and love is God.” The first part is true, but not the second part which merely makes God an impersonal principle, a force, but not a personal and intelligent being who is personally guiding the affairs of the universe.

Important to all of this is the fact that God, according to the Bible, is both transcendent and immanent.

As Transcendent God is independent of, above, and distinct from this universe; He is outside, above, and before this time-space universe. This is seen from the name Yahweh by which God revealed Himself to Israel in the Old Testament. Most scholars suggest the basic meaning of this name is “I Am that I Am,” which would stress God’s transcendent independence and existence (Ex. 3:14). God’s transcendence is also expressed in the following passages:

Isaiah 46:8-10 Remember this, and be assured; Recall it to mind, you transgressors. 9 Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;

Psalm 115:3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.

As Immanent God pervades and sustains the universe, yet He is always distinct from it. He is everywhere, yet not in everything. He is personally and intimately involved, yet distinct.

Proverbs 5:21 For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, And He watches all his paths.

Psalm 33:13-14 The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; 14 From His dwelling place He looks out On all the inhabitants of the earth.

Romans 11:34-36 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Though He is the only true God and the transcendent sovereign, He is involved as the King and Redeemer, and as our derivation—“from Him,” our dynamic—“through Him,” and our destination—“to Him are all things.”

    Definition and Explanation of Personality

What is meant when we speak of the personality of God? While the definitions of personality vary, at least four elements describe personality and distinguish God, as personal, from a mere force, or a thing, from a personal entity. These are:

(1) Self-Consciousness: This is the ability to be aware of one’s self and identity. It is more than mere consciousness, but involves an objective awareness of who one is.

(2) Intelligence or Thinking Mentality: Animals have brains, but they lack the power to reason and plan and design as does man who was created in God’s image. You can teach your dog to go get the paper, but not to read it. Animals act more by intuition while man is a reasoning creature because he was created in the image of a personal God.

(3) Self-Determination or Will: This has to do with the ability to look to the future and to prepare an intelligent course of action; it means the inner power to act on one’s own reason or free will in order to determine a course of action.

(4) Sensibility or Emotion: This is the capacity to appreciate and respond with feeling or emotions like grief or joy.

    Biblical Support for the Personality of God

All the elements of personality are applied to God in the Bible.

(1) Self consciousness—Ex. 3:14, “And God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” This points to God’s self-consciousness in the strongest possible way.

(2) Mentality—Ps. 147:5, “Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” Compare also Isaiah 40:12-14; Romans 11:33.

(3) Self-determination or will—Ps. 115:3, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases;” Isaiah 46:10, “… My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure;”

(4) Sensibility or emotion—Gen. 6:6, “The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (NIV); Prov. 6:16, “There are six things which the LORD hates …”

Personal names and personal pronouns are applied to God which undeniably prove the personality of God.

(1) Names which show the actions of personality: Yahweh Yireh, “The Lord will provide,” Gen. 22:13-14; Yahweh Rapha, “The Lord that heals,” Ex. 15:26; El Shaddai, “God almighty who cares and nourishes,” Gen. 17:1; Father, God is called Father over and over in the New Testament.

(2) Personal pronouns are regularly used of God like I, you, we, my.

Actions are regularly ascribed to God which reveal His personality. Scripture teaches us that God loves, guides, teaches, delivers, helps, comforts, cares, and becomes angry and grieved. There are other arguments that we could use, but these are sufficient to show that the Bible teaches us that God is a personal God and not just an influence or a force. The big issue is, “So what?” What does this mean to us?

    The Significance of God’s Personality

(1) Without the personality of God we are left to accept some mechanistic theory for the existence of the universe and man, and the world has no purpose or real meaning. This life is all there is; it’s eat, drink, and be merry (if you can) for tomorrow you die. That’s all folks! We are left with the world’s attitude of, “You have to get all the gusto you can because you only go around once.”

(2) Without God’s personality, there would be no personal relationship or fellowship with God. Prayer would be an exercise in futility and nothing more than talking to a tree or a rock or an idol. At best, prayer would simply be an exercise in talking to oneself. Throughout Scripture, a sharp distinction is made between God and things which have no life and are impersonal as with the idols of the heathen (Jer. 10:10-16). As mere impersonal things, idols can’t move on their own, speak, do good or evil, or help and comfort.

(3) Without the fact of a personal God, there could be no reverence or fear of God. And this is precisely what we see in the world today. Unless there is a personal God by whom right and wrong can be reliably assessed, and with whom man becomes responsible, moral judgments can be no more than opinion, influenced by upbringing, training, and propaganda, but without any final responsibility beyond man himself. This is the perfect scenario for tyrants who have no respect for any opinion but their own and for the law of the jungle.

(4) Because God is a person, He can care, love, and know our deepest needs, longings, and concerns. And the Bible reveals that as a person, He does love and care for us (John 3:16; 1 Pet. 5:7). Because He is a personal God, He is called “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:4f). To Isaiah the prophet, God said, “Comfort, O comfort My people, … Speak kindly to Jerusalem;” (Isa. 40:1).

The Bible teaches us that God is a loving, sovereign, and personal God, but the important point is not only that God is a person, but that He is the kind of person He is. This is what makes the difference. Francis Schaeffer has an excellent word here:

The beginning is simply that God exists and that He is the personal-infinite God. Our generation longs for the reality of personality but it cannot find it. But Christianity says personality is valid because personality has not just appeared in the universe but rather is rooted in the personal God who has always been.

If we are unexcited Christians we should go back and see what is wrong. We are surrounded by a generation that can find “no one home” in the universe. If anything marks our generation it is this. In contrast to this, as a Christian I know who I am; and I know the personal God who is there. I speak and He hears. I am not surrounded by mere mass, nor only energy particles, but He is there. And if I have accepted Christ as my Savior, then though it will not be perfect in this life, yet moment by moment, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, this person to person relationship with the God who is there can have reality to me.25

The lovingkindness of God as a personal God is everywhere evident in Scripture, but here is a passage that drives this truth home to our hearts.

Psalm 103:13-14 Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. 14 For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.

The Spirituality of God

The most important biblical statement about the spirituality of God is John 4:24, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

As Spirit, God is without a material body or substance (incorporeal), without physical parts or passions and therefore free from all temporal limitations (Luke 24:39), invisible and incorruptible (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17), and without earthly counterpart or resemblance (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 4:15-23; Isa. 40:25).

    Questions Related to the Spirituality of God:

(1) Scripture declares that man is made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). Since God is Spirit, the image and likeness in no way implies a physical likeness. Rather, it is a reference to man’s natural and moral likeness to God. When man sinned, he lost the moral likeness, but still retains the natural likeness by way of personality—self-consciousness, intellect, emotions, and will.

(2) Scripture also uses anthropomorphic expressions, physical terms of the human body, to give finite human beings a better understanding of the character of an invisible and infinite God. God is said to have hands, feet, arms, eyes, ears, and it is said that He hears, sees, feels, walks, holds us in His hand, etc. (Isa. 51:5; 59:1; Hos. 11:3; 1 Pet. 3:12; Ps. 17:8; 36:7; 145:16; John 10:28-29). Such terms in no way contradict the fact that God is Spirit. God is also said to shelter us under His pinions (feathers) and that we may seek refuge under His wings (Ps. 91:4). Does this mean God is a bird? Of course not. It simply expresses God’s protecting love.

(3) Some passages of Scripture speak of visible manifestations of God (Ex. 24:10; 33:18-20), and some see this as a contradiction because other passages declare no man has ever seen God (John 1:18; 6:46; Deut. 4:12). This is really not a contradiction at all, only a misinterpretation of these passages. In some passages, God manifested Himself in what is called theophanies, appearances of God. As Spirit, God has manifested Himself in some kind of form. Sometimes there is no mention of a particular form (Gen. 12:7; 17:1, 22; 26:2; 35:9), sometimes there is the mention of a form such as a dove (John 1:32), as a bush on fire (Ex. 3:2), or of a cloud and a pillar of fire (Ex. 13:21-22). But at other times the appearance was in the form of a man (Gen. 18:1-3, 33 [three men, Yahweh and two angels, cf. 18:1 with 19:1]; Ezek. 1:26-28), or in the form of “the Angel of the Lord” (Gen. 16:7-14; 22:11-18; Judges 13:18-22). The answer to the apparent contradiction undoubtedly lies in the fact that in none of these appearances has man ever seen a full blown manifestation of the invisible and essential essence of God. God has been seen in various manifestation of His person, but never in His total essence.

Regarding this, Lightner makes a fitting application for us to consider if we are Christians.

The only physical body God has is the believer’s in which He dwells (1 Cor. 6:19). The believer’s body, therefore, is not to be used selfishly; it is to be presented back to God as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), and He is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).26

In John 4:20, the woman at the well made an issue over the proper place to worship God. The implication of the question was, “Where is God to be found, at Gerizim or in Jerusalem?” Christ’s answer to her in verses 21-24, based on the fact God is Spirit, showed that God is not to be confined to one place since as Spirit, no place can contain Him (Acts 7:48-49; 17:25; 1 Kings 18:27; Isa. 66:1). The worship of God is not limited to a mountain nor Jerusalem (vs. 21). Rather, because God is Spirit, He must be worshipped in two ways: (1) He must be worshipped “in spirit” as distinct from a place, or a particular form or other sensual and material limitations. Regardless of what one is doing externally, worship is a matter of the heart or the inner man (cf. Eph. 3:16). (2) He must be worshipped in “truth.” Worship must be genuine, but also according to the truth of God’s revelation as distinguished from man’s false ideas about God stemming from his own human traditions (Mark 7:3-13; Col. 2:8). Man can know that God exists from the design of the creation around him, but he cannot accurately know God as to His nature, personality, and perfections apart from God’s own revelation of Himself in the written Word and living Word, the person of Jesus Christ.

Scripture gives commands against graven images used to represent God’s being (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 4:15-23; Isa. 40:25). But why? Because God is without earthly counterpart or resemblance. No one has ever gotten a full glimpse of God’s being. No one has ever seen a picture of how He looks and nothing on earth even begins to resemble Him. Any image man could create, no matter how glorious it appeared to man, must distort the truth of God and reduce His infinite majesty and glory and bring grave dishonor to His perfections.

    An Application of the Spirituality of God:

The fact that we are physical and limited to space and one place at a time, and resort to a particular place to worship God tends to make us susceptible to erroneous ideas and attitudes about God and our worship of Him.

Our Lord’s point with the woman at the well in John 4 is that while man, being flesh, can only be present in one place at a time, God, being Spirit, is not at all limited by space and time. God is not localized to one place. God, as pure, infinite Spirit is everywhere at all times. Thus, the true condition of acceptable worship is not some particular place or time or some particular form, but that our hearts must be open, responsive, and honest to His presence and to His truth, the revelation of Himself found in the Bible.

Concerning mere religiosity versus biblical piety, Donald Bloesch warns:

Religiosity is not the same thing as biblical piety, nor is churchianity identical with Christianity. The mere practice of religion often promotes rather than alleviates guilt and anxiety. Scrupulous observance of the laws and codes of sacred tradition may grieve the Spirit. A beautiful liturgy may quench the Spirit. Scripture tells us that the only worship acceptable to God is worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24; Phil. 3:3).

True religion is not simply keeping the law, but keeping the law in a spirit of love. It is not merely going to church, but going to church with a burning desire to adore the living God.27

In an article for Moody Monthly regarding worship Erwin Lutzer wrote the following:

“To worship,” William Temple said, “is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

Worship isn’t listening to a sermon, appreciating choir music, or joining to sing hymns. In fact, it isn’t even necessarily prayer, for prayer sometimes comes from an unbroken, unyielded heart. Worship is not an external activity precipitated by the right environment. To worship in spirit is to draw near to God with an undivided heart. We must come in full agreement without hiding anything or disregarding His will.28

The Trinity (Triunity) of God

    The Nature of This Revelation About God

Another revelation of the Bible that teaches us more about the nature of God or how He exists is the truth regarding the trinity or triunity of the Godhead. The Bible teaches us that God not only exists as a personal Spirit being, but that He does so in Holy Trinity. This is a doctrine beyond the scope of man’s finite mind. If biblical evidence supports it, we can know it is true. Comprehending it is another matter. John Wesley said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the triune God.”29 God’s Word tells us that we should expect His revelation, the revelation of an infinite, omniscient, all-wise Creator, to contain an infinite depth that corresponds to His infinite mind. In the book of Isaiah, God tells us about this and says:

Isaiah 55:8-9 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Kenneth Boa has an excellent word here concerning the concept of God’s thoughts being higher than ours:

It follows from all this that we cannot and should not expect to understand the Bible exhaustively. If we could, the Bible would not be divine but limited to human intelligence. A very important idea comes out of this, something over which many non-Christians and even Christians stumble: Since the Bible is an infinite revelation, it often brings the reader beyond the limit of his intelligence. (italics his)

As simple as the Bible is in its message of sin and of free salvation in Christ, an incredible subtlety and profundity underlies all its doctrines. Even a child can receive Christ as his Savior, thereby appropriating the free gift of eternal. Yet no philosopher has more than scratched the surface regarding the things that happened at the Cross. The Bible forces any reader to crash into the ceiling of his own comprehension, beyond which he cannot go until he sees the Lord face-to-face.

Until a person recognizes that his own wisdom and intelligence are not enough, he is not ready to listen to God’s greater wisdom. Jesus alluded to this when He said to God, “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21).30

God has communicated to men truly though not exhaustively. Moses expressed this to us in Deuteronomy 29:29. He wrote, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” In the New Testament, the word mystery, the Greek musterion, refers to what was previously hidden, but is now revealed (1 Cor. 15:51; Eph. 3:3, 4, 9). Sometimes it is used simply of that which God makes known through His revelation to man and which man could not know on his own (1 Cor. 2:7). But there is a sense in which some of God’s truth, though clearly revealed in the Bible, remains a mystery. Though it is a truth revealed in Scripture, like the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God or the divine/human nature of Jesus Christ, the trinity is a kind of mystery in that it goes beyond the boundaries of human comprehension. God hasn’t explained all the mysteries of His revelation to us undoubtedly because we simply cannot yet grasp it. The Apostle Paul wrote: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Because of this, some of the revelations of God given to us in the Bible defy explanation and illustration. When working and seeking to explain those truths that fall into this category, our explanations and especially our attempts to illustrate them must of necessity fall short of our ability to clarify and comprehend them. Does this mean it cannot be true simply because it defies our human imagination or ability to comprehend it? It would be nothing but human arrogance to say yes! The truth is we must recognize our need to simply trust in God’s special revelation to us, the Bible, and submit our minds to that which is truly expressed in its pages. This does not mean we do not test the Scripture to make sure these things are truly taught, but once we are convinced that, “Yes, that’s what the Bible says,” we must lay hold of it by faith and wait on the eternal future for complete understanding (1 Cor. 13:12).

It would be the height of egotism for a person to say that because an idea in the Bible does not make sense (does not conform to his or her reasoning), it cannot be true and the Bible must be in error on this point.31

The doctrine of the trinity is part of God’s revelation of one who is infinite to those who are finite. Doesn’t it seem logical that in the study about God we are going to find things that are incomprehensible, mysterious, and super-rational to finite man’s rational thinking capacity. “God in His existence as the Three-in-One is beyond the limits of human comprehension.”32

    Definition of the Trinity (Triunity) of God

Trinity: Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition: “The union of three divine persons (or hypostases), the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one divinity, so that all the three are one God as to substance, but three persons (or hypostases as to individuality.” Synonyms sometimes used are triunity, trine, triality. The term “trinity” is formed from “tri,” three, and “nity,” unity. Triunity is a better term than “trinity” because it better expresses the idea of three in one. God is three in one.

Person: In speaking of the Triunity, the term “person” is not used in just the same way it is in ordinary usage, in which it means an identity completely distinct from other persons. Actually the word persons tends to detract from the unity of the Trinity. According to the teaching of Scripture, the three Persons are inseparable, interdependent, and eternally united in one divine Being.

It is evident that the word “person” is not ideal for the purpose. Orthodox writers have struggled over this term. Some have opted for the term subsistence, hence, “God has three substances.” Most have continued to use persons because we have not been able to find a better term.

Essence: In its theological usage, essence refers to “the intrinsic or indispensable, permanent, and inseparable qualities that characterize or identify the being of God.”

The words triunity and trinity are used to refer to the fact that the Bible speaks of one God, but attributes the characteristics of God to three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the trinity states that there is one God who is one in essence or substance, but three in personality. This does not mean three independent Gods existing as one, but three persons who are co-equal, co-eternal, inseparable, interdependent, and eternally united in one absolute divine essence and being.

The words triunity and trinity are not found in the Bible, but they are words that help us to express a doctrine that is scriptural, though replete with difficulties for the human mind. Further, it should be stated up front that this is a doctrine that is not explicitly stated either in the Old or New Testaments, but it is implicit in both. Speaking about this, Ryrie writes, “But explicit means ‘characterized by full, clear expression,’ an adjective hard to apply to this doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine grows out of the Scripture, so it is a biblical teaching.”33 Note the following points:

(1) Evangelical Christianity has believed in the doctrine of the Trinity or Triunity, or the Triune Godhead because of the teaching of the Bible as a whole (Old and New Testaments) and not because of one or two particular passages. As will be shown below, the whole of Scripture gives testimony to this doctrine.

(2) There are many specific passages which teach us that there are three distinct persons who possess deity, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the Bible also teaches us with equal emphasis that there is but one true God or one divine essence or substance and being.

(3) Taking the whole of Scripture, one can see that there is stress on (a) the unity of God, one divine being and essence, and (b) on the diversity of God in this unity, three persons identified as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It speaks of these persons in such a way that it ascribes absolute undiminished deity and personality to each while stressing that there is but one God in divine substance. Note: It is the doctrine of the trinity that harmonizes and explains these two thrusts of Scripture.

So, when we see that the Bible teaches these three things, (a) there is but one God, (b) that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each God, and (c) yet each are set forth as distinct persons, we have enunciated the doctrine of the Triunity of God. In a chart, it can be expressed as follows:

Ancient Diagram of the Holy Trinity

The three persons are the same in substance, i.e., in essence or in their essential nature, but distinct in subsistence which describes God’s mode or quality of existence in three persons. By mode of existence we do not mean one God acting in three different ways, but one divine being existing in three distinct persons within one divine substance.

This is not exactly three individuals as we think of three personal individuals, but one divine being who acts and thinks as one within a three-old personality. This is incomprehensible to our finite and limited minds, but it is the teaching of the Scripture. “In the Being of God there are not three individuals, but only three personal self distinctions within the one divine essence.”34

    Recognizable and Important Distinctions

The New Bible Dictionary has an excellent summary of this point:

In the relationship between the Persons there are recognizable distinctions.

a. Unity in diversity

In most formularies the doctrine is stated by saying that God is One in his essential being, but that in his being there are three Persons, yet so as not to form separate and distinct individuals. They are three modes or forms in which the divine essence exists. ‘Person’ is, however, an imperfect expression of the truth inasmuch as the term denotes to us a separate rational and moral individual. But in the being of God there are not three individuals, but three personal self-distinctions within the one divine essence. Then again, personality in man implies independence of will, actions and feelings leading to behaviour peculiar to the person. This cannot be thought of in connection with the Trinity. Each person is self-conscious and self-directing, yet never acting independently or in opposition. When we say that God is a Unity we mean that, though God is in himself a threefold centre of life, his life is not split into three. He is one in essence, in personality and in will. When we say that God is a Trinity in Unity, we mean that there is a unity in diversity, and that the diversity manifests itself in Persons, in characteristics and in operations.

b. Equality in dignity

There is perfect equality in nature, honour and dignity between the Persons. Fatherhood belongs to the very essence of the first Person and it was so from all eternity. It is a personal property of God ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ (Eph. 3:15).

The Son is called the ‘only begotten’ perhaps to suggest uniqueness rather than derivation. Christ always claimed for himself a unique relationship to God as Father, and the Jews who listened to him apparently had no illusions about his claims. Indeed they sought to kill him because he ‘called God his own Father, making himself equal with God’ (Jn. 5:18).

The Spirit is revealed as the One who alone knows the depths of God’s nature: ‘For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God … No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:10f.). This is saying that the Spirit is ‘just God himself in the innermost essence of his being.’

This puts the seal of NT teaching upon the doctrine of the equality of the three Persons.

c. Diversity in operation

In the functions ascribed to each of the Persons in the Godhead, especially in man’s redemption, it is clear that a certain degree of subordination is involved (in relation, though not in nature); the Father first, the Son second, the Spirit third. The Father works through the Son by the Spirit. Thus Christ can say: ‘My Father is greater than I.’ As the Son is sent by the Father, so the Spirit is sent by the Son. As it was the Son’s office to reveal the Father, so it is the Spirit’s office to reveal the Son, as Christ testified: ‘He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (Jn. 16:14).

It has to be recognized that the doctrine arose as the spontaneous expression of the Christian experience. The early Christians knew themselves to be reconciled to God the Father, and that the reconciliation was secured for them by the atoning work of the Son, and that it was mediated to them as an experience by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Trinity was to them a fact before it became a doctrine, but in order to preserve it in the credal faith of the church the doctrine had to be formulated.35

    Errors to Avoid Concerning the Trinity

Tri-theism. This is the teaching that there are three Gods who are sometimes related, but only in a loose association. Such an approach abandons the biblical oneness of God and the unity within the Trinity.

Sabellianism or Modalism. Sabellius (A.D. 200), the originator of this viewpoint, spoke of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he understood all three as no more than three manifestations of one God. This teaching came to be known as modalism because it views one God who variously manifests Himself in three modes of existence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Arianism. This doctrine had it roots in Tertullian, who made the Son subordinate to the Father. Origen took this further by teaching that the Son was subordinate to the Father “in respect to essence.” The result was ultimately Arianism which denied the deity of Christ. Arius taught that only God was the uncreated One; because Christ was begotten of the Father it meant Christ was created by the Father. Arius believed there was a time when Christ did not exist. Arius and his teaching was condemned at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.36

    Biblical Support for the Trinity

Scriptures on the Oneness of God:

(1) Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!

Verse 4 is subject to various translations, though the statement is likely stressing the uniqueness of Yahweh and should be translated, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” A secondary emphasis, His indivisibility, is apparent in most English translations … This confession does not preclude the later revelation of the Trinity, for the word God (Elohim) is a plural word, and the word one is also used of the union of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:24) to describe two persons in one flesh.37

The word for one is the Hebrew echad and means one in a collective sense, like one cluster of grapes rather than in an absolute sense.

The oneness of God is implied in those Old Testament passages that declare that there is no other God beside Yahweh, the God of Israel.

(2) Deuteronomy 4:35 To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him.

(3) Isaiah 46:9 Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me,

(4) Isaiah 43:10 “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, In order that you may know and believe Me, And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me.”

The New Testament is even more explicit:

(5) 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

(6) Ephesians 4:4-6 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

(7) James 2:19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

Scriptures Demonstrating That God, Who Is One, Is Also Three:

Old Testament Teaching:

While there is no explicit statement in the Old Testament affirming the Triunity, we can confidently say that the Old Testament not only allows for the Triunity, but also implies that God is a triune Being in a number of ways:

(1) The name Elohim, translated God, is the plural form of El. While this is what is called a plural of plenitude pointing to the power and majesty of God, it certainly allows for the New Testament revelation of the Triunity of God.

(2) There are many instances where God uses the plural pronoun to describe Himself (see Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8).

(3) In the creation account, both God the Father and the Holy Spirit are seen in the work of creation. It is stated that God created heaven and earth (Gen. 1:1), but that it was the Holy Spirit who moved over the earth to infuse it with life in the sense of protecting and participating in the work of creation (Gen. 1:2).

(4) Writing about the Messiah, Isaiah reveals Him to be equal with God, calling Him the “Mighty God” and “Eternal Father” (Isa. 9:6).

(5) Several passages reveal a distinction of persons within the Godhead. (a) In Psalm 110:1, David demonstrates there is a distinction of persons between “LORD,” the one speaking, and the one addressed called by David, “my Lord.” David was indicating the Messiah was no ordinary king, but his own Lord, Adoni (my Lord), one who was God Himself. So God the first person addresses God the second person. This is precisely Peter’s point when He quotes this Psalm to show the resurrection of the Messiah was anticipated in the Old Testament. (b) The Redeemer (who must be divine, Isa. 7:14; 9:6) is distinguished from the Lord (Isa. 59:20). (c) The Lord is distinguished from the Lord in Hosea 1:6-7. (d) The Spirit is distinguished from the Lord in a number of passages (Isa. 48:16; 59:21; 63:9-10).

(6) In the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, God made it clear that the one who would be born of the virgin would also be Immanuel, God with us.

(7) Two other passages which imply the Trinity are Isaiah 48:16 and 61:1. Here all three persons are mentioned and yet seen as distinct from each other. See also Gen. 22:15-16.

New Testament:

The case for the Triunity of God is even stronger in the New Testament. Here it can be unequivocally demonstrated the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. Furthermore, the New Testament teaches us that these three names are not synonymous, but speak of three distinct and equal persons.

(1) The Father is called God (John 6:27; 1 Pet. 1:2).

(2) Jesus Christ, the Son is declared to be God. His deity is proven by the divine names given to Him, by His works that only God could do (upholding all things, Col. 1:17; creation, Col. 1:16; John 1:3; and future judgment, John 5:27), by His divine attributes (eternality, John 17:5; omnipresence, Matt. 28:20; omnipotence, Heb. 1:3; omniscience, Matt. 9:4), and by explicit statements declaring His deity (John 1:1; 20:28; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8).

(3) The Holy Spirit is recognized as God. He is called God in Acts 5:3-4, He has the attributes which only God can possess, like omniscience (1 Cor. 2:10) and omnipresence (1 Cor. 6:19), and He regenerates people to new life (John 3:5-6, 8; Tit. 3:5) which must of necessity be a work of God for only God has the power of life. Finally, His deity is evident by the divine names used for the Spirit as “the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

Ryrie writes: “Matthew 28:19 best states both the oneness and threeness by associating equally the three Persons and uniting them in one singular name. Other passages like Matthew 3:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 13:14 associate equally the three Persons but do not contain the strong emphasis on unity as does Matthew 28:19.”38

The New Bible Dictionary adds to this the following evidence:

The evidence of the NT writings, apart from the Gospels, is sufficient to show that Christ had instructed his disciples on this doctrine to a greater extent than is recorded by any of the four Evangelists. They whole-heartedly proclaim the doctrine of the Trinity as the threefold source of redemption. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost brought the personality of the Spirit into greater prominence and at the same time shed light anew from the Spirit upon the Son. Peter, in explaining the phenomenon of Pentecost, represents it as the activity of the Trinity: ‘This Jesus … being … exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear’ (Acts 2:32-33). So the church of Pentecost was founded on the doctrine of the Trinity.

In 1 Cor. there is mention of the gifts of the Spirit, the varieties of service for the same Lord and the inspiration of the same God for the work (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

Peter traces salvation to the same triunal source: ‘destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet. 1:2). The apostolic benediction: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Cor. 13:14), not only sums up the apostolic teaching, but interprets the deeper meaning of the Trinity in Christian experience, the saving grace of the Son giving access to the love of the Father and to the communion of the Spirit.

What is amazing, however, is that this confession of God as One in Three took place without struggle and without controversy by a people indoctrinated for centuries in the faith of the one God, and that in entering the Christian church they were not conscious of any break with their ancient faith.39

Thus, the Scripture teaches us that God is one and three.

    Difficulties With the Trinity Considered and Answered

The Meaning of “Only-begotten”

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.

In John 1:18, the King James Version has huios, “Son,” in place of theos, “God,” and reads,

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

Because to our mind the words “only begotten” suggest birth or beginning, some have tried to take the use of this designation of Jesus Christ to mean that Christ had a beginning, that He only became the Son of God. Such an understanding denies His eternality and also the concept of the trinity. So what does John mean by the term “only begotten?”

“Only begotten” is the Greek monogenes, a compound of monos, used as an adjective or adverb meaning “alone, only.” Kittel writes: “In compounds with genes, adverbs describe the nature rather than the source of derivation (emphasis mine). Hence monogenes is used for the only child. More generally it means ‘unique’ or ‘incomparable.’”40 In the NT the term occurs only in Luke, John, and Hebrews, but an instructive use is found for us in Hebrews 11:17 where it is used of Isaac as the monogenes of Abraham. Isaac was not the only son of the Patriarch, but he was the unique son of the promise of God. The emphasis is not on derivation but on his uniqueness and special place in the heart of Abraham.

Vine has an excellent summary of the use of monogenes in John 1:14 and 18:

With reference to Christ, the phrase “the only begotten from the Father,” John 1:14, R.V. (see also the marg.), indicates that as the Son of God He was the sole representative of the Being and character of the One who sent Him. In the original the definite article is omitted both before “only begotten” and before “Father,” and its absence in each case serves to lay stress upon the characteristics referred to in the terms used. The Apostle’s object is to demonstrate what sort of glory it was that he and his fellow–Apostles had seen. That he is not merely making a comparison with earthly relationships is indicated by para, “from.” The glory was that of a unique relationship and the word “begotten” does not imply a beginning of His Sonship. It suggests relationship indeed, but must be distinguished from generation as applied to man.

We can only rightly understand the term “the only begotten” when used of the Son, in the sense of unoriginated relationship. “The begetting is not an event of time, however remote, but a fact irrespective of time. The Christ did not become, but necessarily and eternally is the Son. He, a Person, possesses every attribute of pure Godhood. This necessitates eternity, absolute being; in this respect He is not ‘after’ the Father” (Moule).

In John 1:18 the clause “The Only Begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father,” expresses both His eternal union with the Father in the Godhead and the ineffable intimacy and love between them, the Son sharing all the Father’s counsels and enjoying all His affections. Another reading is monogenes Theos, ‘God only–begotten.’ In John 3:16 the statement, “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son,” must not be taken to mean that Christ became the Only Begotten Son by Incarnation. The value and the greatness of the gift lay in the Sonship of Him who was given. His Sonship was not the effect of His being given. In John 3:18 the phrase “the Name of the Only Begotten Son of God” lays stress upon the full revelation of God’s character and will, His love and grace, as conveyed in the Name of One who, being in a unique relationship to Him, was provided by Him as the Object of faith. In 1 John 4:9 the statement “God hath sent His Only Begotten Son into the world” does not mean that God sent out into the world one who at His birth in Bethlehem had become His Son. Cp. the parallel statement, “God sent forth the Spirit of His Son,” Gal. 4:6, R.V., which could not mean that God sent forth One who became His Spirit when He sent Him.41

The Meaning of “First-born”

Another term that has been misinterpreted by some as it is used of Christ is the term “firstborn.” It is used of Christ in Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18; Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 1:5. Again, because of the thought of birth that this word denotes in our minds, this passage has been used to teach that Christ was not the eternal second person of the Trinity because He had a beginning as the firstborn of God. Firstborn is the Greek prototokos (from protos, first, and tikto, to beget), but this word may mean (a) first in time or (b) first in priority. The point and focus of the word must be taken from the context in which it is used.

In Colossians 1:15, as verse 16 makes clear, it refers to Christ’s sovereignty expressing His priority to and pre-eminence over creation, not in the sense of time, the first to be born, but in the sense of (a) being the sovereign creator, the one in Whom were the plans of creation as architect (“by Him all things were created” can also mean, “in Him …”), (b) by Whom all things were created as the builder (“all things were created by Him”), and (c) for Whom all things were created as the owner (“and for Him”). Colossians 1:15 is declaring Christ’s sovereignty as the Creator. We can see this meaning of prototokos to express sovereignty or priority in the Septuagint’s use of this word in Psalm 89:27 where the clause that follows explains the meaning of “firstborn” or prototokos. Psalm 89:27 reads, “I also shall make him My first-born, The highest of the kings of the earth.” Who is the firstborn? He is “the highest of the kings of the earth,” the sovereign Lord.

In the words of Colossians 1:18, “and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead,” it means first in time, the first one to rise in an immortal and glorified body. But even here, He is the first-born of the dead so that He might come to be pre-eminent in all things as the head of the body, the church (vs. 18b).

The point is that prototokos can mean either first in time or first in priority and it is the context which determines the meaning. As the second person of the Trinity, Christ is God and sovereign, but as the God-Man who died for our sins and was raised from the dead, He is the pre-eminent head of the body of Christ, the church. In Colossians 2:9, the Apostle confirmed this meaning when he wrote, “For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form.”

The word for “Deity” is theotetos, a strong word (used only here in the NT) for Christ’s essence as God. The full deity of Christ is nonetheless in bodily form—a full humanity (cf. Col. 1:22). Both Christ’s deity and humanity were challenged by this early Gnostic-like heresy. Those heretics diminished Christ to an angel whose “body” was only apparent, not real. Paul affirmed here that Christ is both fully God and truly man (cf. 1 John 4:1-6).42

    Some Practical Ramifications of the Doctrine of Triunity

All doctrine is practical and has specific ramifications to life. This is no less true of the Triunity of the Godhead which draws our attention to the concept of the tri-fold personality of God to communicate to us all the elements of personality—moral agency, intelligence, will, emotion, and communion that exists within the three persons of the Godhead. What are some of the ramifications of this doctrine not only for theology, but for Christian experience and life?

(1) It teaches us that God is a God of revelation and communion.

Scripture teaches us that God is light and one of the main functions of light is illumination. The act of revealing is as natural to God as it is for the sun. Before the creation of any being, angel or human, there was revelation and communication taking place within the persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father to the Son, the Son to the Father, and so on with the Spirit. When, in the eternal decrees of God, He willed to create a universe with angelic and human beings, it was merely the expression of this very nature of God.

So if God is a fellowship within himself he can let that fellowship go out to his creatures and communicate himself to them according to their capacity to receive. This is what happened supremely when he came to redeem men: he let his fellowship bend down to reach outcast man and lift him up. And so because God is a Trinity he has something to share: it is his own life and communion.43

(2) It means that the Trinity is the basis of all true fellowship in the world.

Since God is within himself a fellowship, it means that his moral creatures who are made in his image find fullness of life only within a fellowship. This is reflected in marriage, in the home, in society and above all in the church whose koinonia is built upon the fellowship of the three Persons. Christian fellowship is, therefore, the divinest thing on earth, the earthly counterpart of the divine life, as Christ indeed prayed for his followers: ‘That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us’ (Jn. 17:21).44

(3) It gives variety to the life of the universe.

There is … diversity in the life of God. God the Father designs, God the Son creates, God the Spirit quickens; a great diversity of life and operation and activity. For that reason we can realize that if the universe is a manifestation of God, we can expect a diversity of life within the whole of the created universe. We think that the so-called uniformity of nature is utterly untrue. All the wonders of creation, all the forms of life, all the movement in the universe, are a reflection, a mirroring, of the manifold life of God. There is no monotonous sameness, no large-scale uniformity of pattern, for nature reflects the many-sidedness of the nature and character of the living God.45

For an expanded study on the Trinity (Triunity) of God, see the study entitled, The Trinity (Triunity) of God (trinity.doc) in the Theology section on the Biblical Studies Foundation web site at www.bible.org.

The Attributes (Essence) of God

Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote:

Though wholly inadequate, man’s conception of God is measured by those characteristics which he attributes to God. The Bible represents a revelation which, though limited by the restrictions that language must ever impose, is of a Person, and this revelation attributes to Him those exalted qualities which are His. These qualities thus attributed are properly styled attributes. To declare His Person and the sum-total of His attributes, would constitute a final definition of God which man might never hope to form.46

The attributes of God present a theme so vast and complex and so beyond the range of finite faculties that any attempt to classify them must be only approximate as to accuracy or completeness. So, also, the attributes are so interrelated and interdependent that the exact placing of some of them is difficult if not wholly impossible.47

An attribute is “Something attributed as belonging; a quality, character, characteristic, or property.”48 The verb form is defined as “to consider as belonging.”49 In theology, however, God’s attributes are His perfections. An attribute, then, is a quality, or property of a thing or person. Things as well as people have attributes. Attributes are what distinguishes one person or thing from other persons or things. The attributes of a person or thing are so essential to a person or thing that without them, they would not be what they are. But attributes are not like pins in a pin cushion that can simply be removed without altering the essence of the person or thing.

Definition:

(1) The works of God are manifestations of His attributes. Therefore, to truly understand God’s works, it is important to have a greater understanding of His attributes. The study of the attributes or perfections of God allows the mind to contemplate the greatness of God and what this should mean to finite man who was created in the image of God to both glorify and enjoy God.

(2) There is harmony among the attributes, or mutual dependence. Though there are characteristics in the attributes of God and very distinct at times, they are never isolated, nor dissociated. They always work in harmony with each other as a total expression of God’s being. They are mutually dependent. Not one can be omitted. The possession of one implies necessarily the possession of all. God’s love, though infinite, cannot ignore God’s holy righteousness, nor can His holiness ignore His love, mercy, and grace, nor can God’s omnipotence act independently of His wisdom and holiness.

(3) God’s attributes were never acquired because they are essential to what He is. His attributes represent what He is, what He has always been, and what He will be forever. He is the source of all, and has never received them from any being. God is immutable and eternal and so is His essence.

(4) The Classification of God’s Attributes. In their search for a way to properly classify the attributes of God, theologians have used a number of different approaches. Due to the infinite nature of the being of the almighty God, however, they are all insufficient in one way or another. Three such classifications are listed below but others are sometimes used.

  • Natural and Moral: The natural belong to God’s existence as infinite, rational Spirit. The moral belong to Him as infinite, righteous Spirit. Natural: Infinity, self-existence, eternity, unity, omnipresence, immutability, omnipotence, omniscience. Moral: Holiness, justice, righteousness, love, mercy, grace, truth, goodness, wisdom.
  • Positive and Negative: The negatives are those which deny limitations to Him. In the positive something is affirmed, in the negative something is denied. Positive: Power, knowledge, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Negative: Simplicity, infinity, eternity, immutability.
  • Communicable and Incommunicable: The communicable (relative, personality) attributes represent those that are found in a limited degree in God’s created beings. Incommunicable (absolute, or constitutional) are those which are found only in God. Incommunicable: Self-existence, eternity, unity, immutability, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence. Communicable: wisdom, holiness, righteousness, justice, goodness, love, truth. Some would place omniscience and omnipotence in this category since men can possess knowledge and power, but since they are omni (i.e. absolute), I have included them under the incommunicable or absolute category.

The Incommunicable Attributes

    Self-Existence

This means that God exists independently of any cause. God exists from Himself, He has always existed, and will exist forever, and no one has caused His existence, nor can any one make it to cease. There is simply no cause of His existence outside of Himself. God’s existence is necessary, not contingent on something else. He exists by His own being. The basis of His existence is not in His will (to exist), but in His divine nature. God does not exist because He wants to, but because His very nature demands that He exist.

His self-existence is seen in the special name by which He revealed Himself to Israel, Yahweh, which means, “I am that I am” (Ex. 6:3; 3:14). Though the following passages do not specifically declare the self-existence of God, it is implicit in all that is said about God as the only God and the incomparable creator of all that exists (cf. Isa. 40:12-17, 21-26; 44:24; 45:5-7).

The self-existence of God is incomprehensible and a profound mystery to the human mind, but its truth should bring comfort and stability to the human heart to know that our God exists independently of all things and is always there for His people.

    Eternity

Scriptures: Genesis 21:33; Psalm 90:1-2; Isaiah 40:28; 1 Timothy 1:17; Revelation 1:8.

Eternity means much more than is commonly thought. It includes three ideas: (a) It means that the nature of God is without beginning or end, (b) that God is free from all succession of time, and (c) that God contains within Himself the cause of time.

We should not consider time and space as antecedent to God. They are among the “all things” made by Him (Ps. 90:1-2; John 1:3; Heb. 1:3 [literally, “through whom He made the ages”]). Thus we see that eternity means far more than endless time. We may speak of eternity without end, and of an eternity past without beginning, but this is not yet the eternity of God. To Him there is no past, present, or future. He does not live in time, but beyond it in eternity and, as the eternal God, He is not subject to time (Deut. 33:27; Isa. 40:28; 57:15).

God sees all events from creation to the last judgment in one glimpse. God is the eternal “now”; He is the “I AM” (Ex. 3:14). This does not mean, however, that to God there is no objective reality of time. He recognizes that time exists and that we live in it. To Him, past, present, and future are one eternal now, not in the sense in which there is no distinction between them, but only in the sense that God sees that past and future as vividly as the present.

There are two ways to view a parade: one who stands at his door by the street as it passes, and sees first the those in the lead, then others, and finally the last. But one who is at the top of a high tower sees the whole parade with one glance. Nevertheless, that person sees that in the procession there is order and progress. Thus it is with God. This is evident from Isaiah 46:10 and Acts 15:18.

Isa. 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’;

Acts 15:18 Says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.

The eternity of God, as the Eternal I AM, is a part of His self-existence. He is uncaused and must therefore be without beginning. As such, He transcends the whole chain of causes and effects and, as He is without beginning, so He can never cease to be.

How does the eternity of God affect one’s life? For all of us as human beings, life is full of surprises. We never know exactly what lies around the corner, but while we do not know what the future holds, as believers in Christ, we do know Him who holds the future and for Whom nothing is a surprise. Since nothing ever surprises God, no problem I face slips up on the Lord who sees the future as clearly as the present.

Lamentations 5:19 Thou, O LORD, dost rule forever; Thy throne is from generation to generation.

Isaiah 26:3-4 The steadfast of mind Thou wilt keep in perfect peace, Because he trusts in Thee. 4 Trust in the LORD forever, For in GOD the LORD, we have an everlasting Rock.

Psalm 90 is a psalm in which Moses reflects on man’s temporality and sinfulness (vss. 3-11) in the light of God’s eternality (vss. 1-2). As the eternal one, regardless of the generation in which we may live with all its surprises, God is our dwelling place, our place of refuge and fortress (cf. 90:1 with 91:1-2). What then is our need? To know that regardless of the brevity of life (generally maybe seventy or even eighty years, vs. ten), we must know that God has a special purpose for each of us. As believers, we are a special part of the plan and purpose of God. In that regard, our need is to pray that we might number our days to bring in a full harvest of God’s wisdom (vs. 12) and seek God’s blessing on our lives to experience His joy and the confirmation of the work He has designed for us to do (vss. 13-16; Eph. 2:10).

    Unity

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6:4; 4:35; Isaiah 44:6-8; 45:5-6, 18-22; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; 1 Timothy 1:17; 2:5; John 5:44.

The teaching of the Scripture on the unity of God directs our attention to two concepts: First, it teaches us that there is only one God numerically speaking. There is only one infinite and perfect divine Spirit. God is one and absolutely unique. But the unity of God also affirms that God’s nature is indivisible; He is not a composite and cannot be divided into parts.

The unity of God in no way contradicts the doctrine of the Triunity of God since the doctrine of the Trinity only asserts that there are personal distinctions in the divine nature, but not a division of the very essence of God’s Being; His essence is one.

Because God is the unique and only God, Scripture warns us against any and all forms of idolatry. There is only one source of salvation. All other so-called gods are helpless to save. But this also means that there is no escape: there is only one law, only one gospel, only one Savior, and only one Judge. The unity of God calls all men to come to God as He is revealed in Scripture in the person of Jesus Christ and be saved. To fail to do so is to face Him at the Great White Throne Judgment.

Isaiah 45:21-22 Declare and set forth your case; Indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, A righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me. 22 Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other.

Ephesians 4:4-6 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

    Infinity

Scriptures: 1 Kings 8:27; Acts 17:24-28; Deuteronomy 33:27.

The infinity of God means He is without limitations. He has no bounds or limits. He is not limited by the universe nor by time-space boundaries. Rather than infinity some theologians prefer to use the term, immensity. Immensity may be defined as “that perfection of the Divine Being by which He transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with His whole Being.”50 So God’s infinity or immensity “does not mean that He is somehow spread throughout the universe, one part here and another there.”51 Regarding immensity Ryrie writes:

It differs from omnipresence in that it emphasizes the transcendence of God (because He is not bound by space), while omnipresence focuses on the immanence of God (because he is everywhere present).52

The infinity of God is related to all God’s perfections. When related to time, He is called eternal. When related to His presence, theologians use the term immensity, though God’s omnipresence is also related. When related to His power, He is called omnipotent, when related to His knowledge, He is called omniscient.

    Immutability

Scriptures: Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 33:11; 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Isaiah 14:24.

Immutability means that God is not subject to change, that He is invariable. In His nature and character, God is absolutely without change. Immutability “is that perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises … and is free from all accession or diminution and from all growth or decay in His Being or perfection.”53

All God’s attributes or perfections are included in His immutability. There can be no increase nor decrease in their number, capacity, or power. God could not be more or less holy, righteous, omnipotent, etc. It would be an absurdity to suppose He could. Immutability, however, is not immobility. It does not mean that God cannot change His actions, or way of dealing with men in different situations and times. It simply means His character and attributes do not change. It means that His eternal purposes does not change, for He has even purposed all things that come to pass.

Reason teaches immutability. God must be immutable; there can be no change in Him, either for better or worse, since God is infinite and absolute perfection. If God could change for the better or the worse, it would indicate a weakness in His Being. There can be no cause for change in God who is perfect.

The immutability of God raises an important question. If God is immutable, what is meant by such statements found in the Bible that speak of God repenting or changing His mind?

Jonah 3:10 And God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them? (KJV)

Gen. 6:5-6 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (KJV)

These passages are not suggesting there was a change in the character of God, only in His actions toward man based on the actions of men. It is man who changes and due to the changeless character of God, He must change His actions or dealings with man. God must deal with men in accord with His holy character. He must eventually deal with sin in judgment as He did in Genesis 6, or He acts in mercy when men repent as He did with Nineveh. But God’s actions are always consistent with His character. For instance, the Genesis passage does not say that God changed His mind in the sense that He wished He had not made man, but only that He was grieved over man’s behavior. The translation of the NIV makes the point clear.

Genesis 6:5-6 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.6 The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (NIV)

Compare also the translation of the NIV for Jonah 3:10:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (NIV)

When used of God as in some translations, the term “repentance” is simply an anthropopathism, a term ascribing human feeling or emotion to God to show us God’s attitude toward sin.

The immutability of God is a terror to the wicked because it means that God must always deal with men in accord with His holy character and plan. God make no deals and accepts no man’s person apart from His plan of salvation in the person and work of Christ. On the other hand, God’s immutability is a constant comfort to believers because it means God is faithful, always, to His promises and the principles of His Word. For this reason, God is called “the Rock” (Deut. 32:4) for when the entire world around us seems to fluctuate and shake (especially if one lives in California) God is the one safe and faithful place of anchorage.

Deuteronomy 32:4 The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.

Psalm 18:2 and 31 The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. 31 For who is God, but the LORD? And who is a rock, except our God,

People will often let each other down. Our friends as well as we ourselves often prove fickle, but the Lord who never changes, never lets us down. He is our Rock of blessing, support, and deliverance. This is why our trust should never be in man as Jeremiah 17:5 warns, “Cursed be man that trust in mankind and makes flesh his strength.” This does not mean that God always answers our prayers and desires according to our wishes for He does not. It means, however, we can count on the fact that He is faithful to always act in accordance with His wisdom, love, and purposes. Let’s note some of the ways that God is faithful:

  • He is faithful to forgive sin when we confess it (1 John 1:9).
  • He is faithful to discipline us in love when we need it (Heb. 12:5f; Ps. 11:75).
  • He is faithful to support us in our suffering as the faithful Creator (1 Pet. 4:19).
  • He is faithful to keep His promises according to the principles of His Word (Ps. 119:86, 138; Deut. 7:9; Isa. 49:7; 55:3; 1 Cor. 1:8-9).
  • He is faithful to strengthen us in the midst of testing or temptation (1 Cor. 10:13).
  • It is out of His faithful that He answers our prayers (Ps. 143:1).

We close this attribute with these verses:

Lamentations 3:21-23 This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. 22 The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness.

Psalm 36:5 Thy lovingkindness, O LORD, extends to the heavens, Thy faithfulness reaches to the skies.

    Omnipresence

Scriptures: Psalm 139:7-12; Jeremiah 23:23-24; Acts 17:24-28.

The English word omnipresence comes from the Latin word omnis, meaning “all.” Thus, omnipresence means God is everywhere present, but not in everything (pantheism). He is present everywhere at the same time. In the fullness of God’s essence, He fills all parts of the universe. “God, in the totality of his essence, without diffusion or expansion, multiplication or division, penetrates and fills the universe in all its parts.”54 This means that God is everywhere present in the totality of His essence or divine Being.

This militates against the idea that God is in heaven and only His power is on earth. A distinction should be recognized between the immensity of God and the omnipresence of God. Immensity emphasizes the transcendence of God and stresses that He is not bound by space, whereas omnipresence emphasizes His immanence, filling all space, including earth.55

We cannot think of one part of God being here and another there, because pure spirit cannot be divided. Material things have to possess extension to fill space, but this is not true of God, who is spirit.

The omnipresence of God may seem to be a form of pantheism, but it is vastly different. Pantheism says that God is in everything. He is in the tree, in the earth, in the book in your hand, in the desk in front of you, etc. Pantheism denies the personality of God and fails to show that God is distinct from the universe. The Bible teaches that God is in all parts of the universe, but He is not the universe. He existed before the universe because He created it. He is transcendent to it. He is present in all parts of His creation and yet apart from it. He may be in the wind or the storm as its source, but the storm is not God. It is a product of His creation (Ps. 104:3).

While God is everywhere present, He may manifest Himself locally when He wishes to do so, as with Moses on the Mount, or when Christ became incarnate and dwelt among men (John 1:14). The Bible may speak of God as localized for some point of emphasis, but this never denies His omnipresence. The Father is spoken of as in heaven (Matt. 6:9) to draw our attention to His sovereignty and ability to answer our prayers, but He is also present throughout the universe. Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father (Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1), but He is also with us (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5-6). The Holy Spirit dwells (has taken up residence) in the church and in the believer (Eph. 2:22; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19), but Psalm 139:7-10 shows the Spirit is everywhere present. See also John 16:8f. The New Testament teaches that all three Persons of the Godhead dwell in believers (Eph. 4:6; Col. 1:27; 1 Cor. 6:19).

The fullness of God’s essence is in every place while His residence and the manifestation of His presence varies with the purposes of God.

There is a two-fold application to this doctrinal truth. First, the doctrine of God’s omnipresence can become a comfort to the believer if he will recognize and rest in the fact that he can experience no adversity apart from the presence and care of God. Not only is God always present, but He has promised to be at our side in a special way as our rock and strength (Josh. 1:9; Heb. 13:5-6; Matt. 28:20). Secondly, it is also a warning against disobedience and a preventive against sin. We cannot commit a single sin without God being there. We have not a thought or intent of the heart without His knowing and feeling it. No wrong desire ever escapes His presence. No matter how we may fool others, we never fool our omnipresent, omniscient God. We can never run away or escape the presence of God.

Psalm 139:7-9 Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea.

    Omniscience

(1) God knows all things perfectly (Ps. 147:5; Job 37:16; 1 John 3:20).

(2) God sees and hears everything (Ex. 3:7; 2 Chron. 16:9; Ps. 34:15; 102:19, 20; Prov. 5:21; 15:3; Jer. 16:16).

(3) God has perfect knowledge of each individual person and of all human experiences: (a) Man’s ways are known to the Lord (Ps. 33:13-15; 139:1-16; Pr. 5:21); (b) Man’s words are known to the Lord (Ps. 139:4; Matt. 12:35-37); (c) Man’s thoughts are known to the Lord (1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 94:11; 139:1-2; Matt. 9:4); (d) Man’s sorrows and trials are known to the Lord (Gen. 21:17-19; 1 Cor. 10:13; Rev. 2:9-10, 13); (e) Man’s future actions and final state are known to the Lord (Gen. 18:19; Ex. 3:19; Isa. 44:28-45:5; Matt. 25:31-34, 41; Acts 27:22-25).

(4) God knows from all eternity what shall be in all eternity, the entire plan of the ages and the part of every man in that plan (Isa. 46:9-11; 48:3-7; Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:3-12).

The English word omniscience comes from the Latin word omnis, meaning “all,” and scientia, meaning “knowledge.” Thus, omniscience means “to know all, to have perfect knowledge.” God’s omniscience is His knowledge of all things including actual and possible, past, present, and future (foreknowledge). Paul Enns calls our attention to a number of things that should be noted about God’s omniscience.

(1) God knows all things that exist in actuality (Ps. 139:1-6; 147:4; Matt. 6:8; 10:28-30). The Psalmist recognized the omniscience of God in that God knew his actions, his thoughts, his words before he even spoke them, and his entire life (Ps. 139:1-4).

(2) God knows all the variables concerning things that have not occurred. Jesus knew what Tyre and Sidon would have done had the gospel been preached to them (Matt. 11:21).

(3) God knows all future events. Because God is eternal and knows all things in one eternal act, events that are future to man are an “eternal now” to God. He knew the nations that would dominate Israel (Dan. 2:36-43; 7:4-8), and He knows the events that will yet transpire upon the earth (Matt. 24-25; Rev. 6-19).

(4) God’s knowledge is intuitive. It is immediate, not coming through the senses; it is simultaneous, not acquired through observation or reason; it is actual, complete, and according to reality.56

In addition to the statements of Scripture, God’s omniscience can be seen in three lines of evidence: (a) His omnipresence, because if He is everywhere, He must have knowledge of all things. (b) His perfect knowledge of Himself, because He planned all things, He must therefore know them. No man completely knows himself and therefore cannot always be sure of what he will do in a given situation or how well he can do in that situation, but God does. Therefore, He is the perfect planner, creator, and governor because He knows His power, character, wisdom and He knows what is best and what He will do in all circumstances. Indeed, He ordained it. (c) Prophecy expresses His omniscience. Only omniscience can truly know the future with the perfect accuracy that we find in the hundreds of fulfilled prophecies of the Bible.

Because God alone is the perfect source of information and knowledge, I need to avail myself of the wisdom that God has revealed to me in His precious Word, the Bible (Isa. 55:8; 1 Cor. 2:9-11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Since God has perfect knowledge of His creatures (which includes me), there are a number of responses I need to make: (a) Worship, awe, adoration (Ps. 139:6). (b) Submission (Ps. 139:1-6, 23-24). God tests us not to know what we will do, but to show us the true condition of our inner lives, to point out our hidden sins and weaknesses and false areas of trust. (c) Personal comfort and rest comes in the knowledge that the Lord knows the way that I take with its temptation and trials. He also knows our frame and takes into account that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). Like Hagar said in confidence of God’s love and care, “You are a God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13, NIV). (d) Confidence in prayer that my prayer will not be lost among the millions, that God knows the best answer and the real desires and needs of my heart, and that my often inability to know how to pray will not hinder God’s loving and watchful care for He knows my need before I ask (Matt. 6:31-34; Isa. 65:24).

Isaiah 65:24 It will also come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear.

For those who presume upon the Lord, God’s omniscience should remind us that nothing anyone does escapes the knowledge of God and that one day we will be called to give an account at the bar of God for God will deal with each according to the truth of his life (Rom. 2:2, 3, 6; 14:10-12). For more information on the various judgments, see The Doctrine of the Judgments.

    Omnipotence

Scriptures: Psalm 68:14; 91:1-2; 115:3; 2 Corinthians 6:18.

(1) The declaration of the fact of God’s omnipotence (Genesis 18:14; Job 42:2; Numbers 11:23; Matt. 19:26; Revelation 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 19:6).

(2) One of the names of God is “Power” (Mark 14:62).

(3) God’s power in creation: (a) An omnipotent Creator (Gen. 1:1-3; Ps. 33:6-9). (b) An omnipotent Commander (Ex. 9:3-6, 23-26, 33; Ps. 107:25-29; Jonah 1:17; 4:6-8; Dan. 3:22-28). (c) An omnipotent Sustainer (Col. 1:17b; Heb. 1:3).

(4) God’s power in relation to mankind (Gen. 45:4-8; Ex. 4:11; Dan. 4:17, 25, 32; Luke 12:20; Acts 12:21-24).

(5) In relation to the heavenly hosts (Dan. 4:35; Heb. 1:14).

(6) In relation to Satan and his hosts: Satan can only operate as God, in His infinite wisdom, permits him to do so (Job 1:12; 2:6; Luke 22:31-32). Later, Satan will be bound and will finally be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:2, 10).

Omnipotence means that God is all-powerful, that His power is unlimited, that God has the ability to do whatever He pleases with or without secondary means (directly or indirectly), but what He pleases is always in harmony with God’s perfections, nature, and Person.

In God’s power, there is both authority and ability to perform. In man, there may be authority but no ability to perform as when the rightful king of a nation is deposed, or there may be no authority but there may be power as in a rebel king who, because of the forces at his disposal, usurps the authority of the rightful king. In Matthew 28:18, Christ said “all authority (exousia, means “authority to act,” and “power, ability to act”) has been given to me in heaven and earth.” Christ, as the glorified God-Man Savior, was claiming His omnipotence to enable the body of Christ to carry out its mission in the world throughout the ages.

God’s omnipotence may be divided into two areas: absolute power and ordained power. Absolute power is God’s power or ability to do what He will or may not do, but is possible for Him to do, “power to do all things” (Mark 10:27). Ordained power is the power exercised to do what He has decreed to do, that which His will and wisdom has directed and ordered. Matthew 26:53 and 54 give an illustration of each of these.

Absolute Power: “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53)

Ordained Power: “How then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen this way?” (Matt. 26:54)

God has the absolute power to perform any miracle in a person’s life if He so chooses, but because of His wisdom, love, and purposes, He may choose not to do so. In the above illustration regarding the Savior, God could have easily destroyed Christ’s enemies and delivered Him from the cross, but in the wisdom and mercy of God, it was His will for Christ, His Son, to die on the cross for the sin of the world to provide us with eternal life and fulfill the hope and promises of Scripture.

God’s power is such that He can do whatever He pleases without difficulty and resistance. Though Satan and man may attempt to resist it, God’s power cannot be checked, restrained, or frustrated. Having reminded stubborn Israel who had resisted God’s will that Yahweh alone was God and there was none to compare with Him, the Lord made this declaration to the nation:

Isaiah 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; (emphasis mine)

Just as He can do all things possible with regard to the object, so He can do all things easily as to the manner. He can do all things without the use of any means or instrument by the simple exercise of His will and without effort.

Isaiah 40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth Does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable.

Isaiah 45:12 It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands, And I ordained all their host.

Whereas man needs matter or material to work with, God needs nothing. He can create out of nothing by the exercise of His will as He did in Genesis one, or He can create out of something as He did when He created man from the dust of the earth (cf. Heb. 11:3; 1:3). God needs no blueprint to work from, no time to work in, and no instruments to work with. However, in connection with this, it is important to remember that God has chosen to use secondary causes or means. As Hebrews 11:3 asserts, creation was accomplished without means other than the voice of God, but our salvation was accomplished through the instrumentation of the God-Man Savior’s death on the cross. Indeed, even the crucifixion was accomplished by human means.

Acts 2:23 this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.

Omnipotence does not imply the exercise of all His power. He has power over His power. Though His power is limitless, it is always under the control of His holy and wise will. Or to put this another way, God’s power is subordinate to His wisdom, will, and holy character. God can do all He wishes to do, but He will not do all He could do. All things with God are possible; God can do anything, but He will only do what His infinite wisdom, holiness, and love dictate.

God cannot do that which would contradict His own holy character or essence.

(1) He cannot annihilate Himself because He is eternal, immutable, and all wise. He cannot lie because He is absolute truth (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18).

(2) He cannot go back on His Word because He is faithful (2 Tim. 2:13).

(3) He cannot be tempted because He is absolute holiness, He is self-sufficient and needs nothing (Jam. 1:13).

(4) Sin is imperfection and it would be contradictory to say that the perfect One could be imperfect. To say that the perfect One cannot be imperfect, is not really putting a limitation of God.

The power of God gives activity and efficacy to all His other perfections. As God’s holiness is the beauty and purity of His attributes, so His power gives life, action, and validity to all His essence. For instance, His eternal counsels would be vain if His omnipotence were not there to execute them. His promises would be empty if He could not fulfill them. Without His power, the assurance of His presence would be meaningless. And His warnings of judgment would be but empty words, a mere scarecrow.

Psalm 62:11 speaks of the lovingkindness of God who recompenses men for their work, but it is the power of God that he has heard of the most, mentioned in verse 11, that gives the Psalmist the assurance of the action of God’s mercy and reward.

Once God has spoken; Twice I have heard this: That power belongs to God; And lovingkindness is Thine, O Lord, For Thou dost recompense a man according to his work.

This Psalm brings us another point concerning God’s omnipotence. God’s power, as with all His perfections, stems from the nature of God and is totally independent within Him as the eternal I Am. A king may have authority in his person to command his kingdom, but he does not contain sufficient power within himself to rule without the aid of others to enforce his will. But God’s power is not derived from anything outside of Himself. As Psalm 62:11 declares, “power belongs to God (i.e., alone).”

After the mystery of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream had been revealed to Daniel, Daniel clearly acknowledged this important fact about God as the source of all power in his praise to the God of heaven. First, he said, “… for wisdom and power belong to Him (i.e., God),” but later in his praise, he said this, “… for Thou hast given me wisdom and power; Even now Thou hast made known to me what we requested of Thee” (Dan. 2:20 and 23). All other power in the universe regardless of its nature is derived power, power derived from God who is the source of all power. Therefore, God is sovereign and I can depend on Him regardless of what powers in the world I may face. A wonderful illustration of this is found in the action of Daniel’s friends when faced with the fiery furnace when they refused to worship the image of Nebuchadnezzar. Their response to the power of the king to throw them into the fiery furnace was:

Daniel 3:16-18 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

The king’s power was a derived power and these godly Jews knew that God’s power could overrule if that was His will and purpose. They rested in God’s power according to His wisdom and purposes. Note how they did not presume upon God’s power, but rested in the wisdom of God.

The omnipotence of God is a wonderful ground of trust and confidence for the believer in the reliability of the Scriptures and its many promises, in the truth of the resurrection, in the miracles of the Bible, and in God’s provision and care for believers in every realm of life. So it was that the Apostle, knowing and experiencing the greatness of God’s power, prayed that we might know what is the surpassing greatness of His power towards us who believe.

Ephesians 1:18-23 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (NIV)

Still, with God’s powerful Word in our hands and with the experience of His power in our lives, God’s power is so great that, according to Ephesians 3:20, God is able to do beyond all we can ask or think according to the power at work in us, of course, all to the glory of God.

Ephesians 3:20 Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us,

    Sovereignty

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 2:2-8; Job 42:2; Psalm 103:19; 115:3; 135:6; Daniel 4:31-32, 35; Isaiah 46:9-10; 14:24, 27; 40:25; 43:13; Ephesians 1:11.

Sovereignty means highest, chief, supreme. God’s sovereignty means that He is the absolute and sole ruler who is independent of all other rule. When we say that God is sovereign, we are saying that He is the number one ruler in the universe with authority and power over all. Sovereignty “speaks first of position (God is the chief Being in the universe), then of power (God is supreme in power in the universe) … Ultimately God is in complete control of all things, though He may choose to let certain events happen according to natural laws which He has ordained.”57 Psalm 103:19 says it best, “The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all.”

As the small sampling of the verses above shows, the Bible is full of evidence for the absolute sovereignty of God both in direct statements like Psalm 103:19, and by the necessary implications of His divine perfections as omnipresence, omniscience, and His work in creation and providence.

(1) God’s complete control, His sovereignty over the universe, is based on His divine attributes (i.e., on His omnipotence—the power to do as He pleases, on His omniscience—His wise understanding of all things actual and possible; and on His love, goodness, and holiness. All His actions and sovereign plans are always completely consistent with His own character. God cannot act inconsistently with His character.

(2) This means that in God’s sovereignty, He always does what He deems best. There is no injustice with God and he does not act arbitrarily with man. God’s rule over man and the universe is in complete harmony with His wisdom, love, and holiness.

(3) God’s sovereignty means that nothing escapes His notice. Nothing occurs outside of His sovereign jurisdiction and control and nothing occurs by blind chance or fate. Even the laws of mathematical probability fall within the sovereign control of God and His sovereign plan. As the Bible reminds us, “the lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33).

(4) God uses various instruments and means to accomplish His purposes, but He is always in control of the means He uses either through natural causes or by divine intervention. This is true of nations, individuals, Satan and the demons, and of natural forces (see Isa. 10:5-16; Job. 1-2).

The Sovereignty of God and the Volition of Man

There is no aspect of the Person and Being of God that is unimportant. As mentioned before, all the perfections of God are essential to the very Being of God and work in harmony with each other. And while they all contribute to the comfort and security of believers, some are easier for our minds to grasp than others, but they are all important and we need to know what the Scripture teaches about each aspect of the attributes of God. As we find some aspects of the attributes of God difficult to grasp, we need to remember, in humility, that we are finite and God is infinite, that we are dealing with mystery and with that which is incomprehensible, at least to us. We must accept the fact that we are creatures who fall infinitely short of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Consequently, we need to guard against trying to subject the Bible and its revelation of God to the supposed demands of our human logic. God’s attributes, as with His sovereignty, are not a matter of human reason, but divine revelation and we should not be surprised that the revelation of an infinite God will sometimes reveal those things that go beyond the boundary of human understanding. Kenneth Boa writes:

Mysteries (as used by Boa he means that which goes past the boundary of human understanding) are forced upon us by the facts of God’s Word; we are not inventing them ourselves. Since His written revelation teaches concepts that appear to be mutually exclusive, we must realize that with God both truths are friends, not enemies. In God’s higher rationality, things that we think must be either-or can in reality be both-and.

Thus, when the biblical facts warrant them, we can embrace incomprehensibles in the Bible and relate them to the omniscience and omnipotence of God … 58

We must remember that what is quite incomprehensible to man may be totally comprehensible to God. It is a matter of revelation. If a truth is clearly taught in Scripture, then I must embrace it even if it seems beyond my comprehension or seems to contradict another element of doctrine. Three such truths that fall into this category are the Triunity of God (one God, yet three persons), the divine/human nature of Jesus Christ (undiminished deity and true humanity united in one person), and divine sovereignty versus human responsibility. As we face such mysteries of God’s Word, at least three dangers must be avoided:

(1) The danger of imposing human reason over divine revelation. If an idea in the Bible (assuming it is clearly taught) does not conform to our human reason, our reason must be subordinated to the clear revelation of God.

(2) The danger of one extreme or the other. In seeking to make difficult doctrines reasonable, our tendency is to emphasize one truth, like God’s sovereignty, and ignore or even deny another, like man’s responsibility, or vice versa. Men seek to remove the tension between the two, but in doing so, they invariably emphasize one doctrine to the exclusion of the other.

(3) The danger of a wrong attitude. Such mysteries, sometimes called antinomies, are not enemies. They are our friends, God’s truth to direct us and keep us in balance with the total revelation of God.

The way men have typically approached God’s sovereignty and human responsibility has caused no little debate and perplexity among students of the Bible. But these are parallel truths taught in Scripture, both of which must be accepted without trying to divorce one from the other or force one over the other.

The sovereignty of God is one of the somewhat inscrutable mysteries of Scripture. It is also one of the most comforting doctrines as well when properly understood and embraced alongside of the truth of man’s responsibility. Ryrie writes:

The sovereignty of God seems to contradict the freedom or actual responsibility of man. But even though it may seem to do so, the perfection of sovereignty is clearly taught in the Scriptures so must not be denied because of our inability to reconcile it with freedom or responsibility. Also, if God is sovereign, how can the creation be so filled with evil?

Man was created with genuine freedom, but the exercise of that freedom in rebellion against God introduced sin into the human race. Though God was the Designer of the plan, He was in no way involved in the commission of evil either on the part of Satan originally or of Adam subsequently. Even though God hates sin, for reasons not revealed to us, sin is present by His permission. Sin must be within God’s eternal plan (or God would not be sovereign) in some way in which He is not the author of it (or God could not be holy).

Sovereignty/freedom forms an antinomy (“a contradiction between two apparently equally valid principles or between inferences correctly drawn from such principles”). Antinomies in the Bible, however, consist only of apparent contradictions, not ultimate ones. One can accept the truths of an antinomy and live with them, accepting by faith what cannot be reconciled; or one can try to harmonize the apparent contradictions in an antinomy which inevitably leads to overemphasizing one truth to the neglect or even denial of the other. Sovereignty must not obliterate free will, and free will must never dilute sovereignty.59

The Communicable Attributes

    Holiness

Scriptures: Psalm 99:5, 8, 9; Isaiah 6:3; 57:15; 1 Peter 1:15-16; Exodus 15:11; 19:10-11; Revelation 15:4.

Holiness occupies a place second to none among the attributes of God. Scripture places a chief emphasis on God’s holiness. In fact, He is described by the word “Holy” more than any other. It is the most central, epitomizing attribute of God’s being. As an epithet to God’s Name, “Holy” is what you find most, not “His mighty name,” or “wise name.” Occasionally you read “His great name,” but most of all, it is either “My holy name,” or “His Holy Name.” It is this perfection of God’s being and none other that is celebrated by the Seraphim in Isaiah 6. Undoubtedly, because holiness gives a fuller expression of the central feature of God’s being than any other, God Himself said, “once have I sworn by my holiness” (Ps. 89:35). He could have sworn by any of His perfections, but He swore by His holiness because it is this attribute which gives the greatest meaning to all the rest. So we are exhorted to sing and give thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness (Ps. 30:4, KJV).

To be adequately grasped, the holiness of God must be described negatively and positively.

Negatively: Holiness is that perfection in God that totally separates Him from all that is evil and defiling and common. As we call gold pure when it is free from any dross or impurities, or a garment clean when free from any spot, so the nature and actions of God are free from any impurity or evil of any kind whatsoever.

Positively: Holiness refers to the absolute integrity and purity of the nature of God. It means He is always absolutely pure and so distinct from all others. God is pure light (1 John 1:5).

Holiness is an essential and necessary perfection of God. It is not maintained by an act of His will. He does not choose to be holy because He wants to be. Holiness is an essential and inherent part of His Being. Only God is absolutely holy because only God is God. “There is no one holy like the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:2). The words “there is no” represents a Hebrew word that properly means, “nothing, nought.” It may deny existence absolutely which certainly is the meaning here. Who can be holy like God? Absolutely no one. So God only is absolute holiness. Men and angels only have derived holiness from Him. Revelation 15:4 says, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou alone art holy; For all the nations will come and worship before Thee, For Thy righteous acts have been revealed.”

(1) God’s holiness means He can never approve of any evil, but perfectly, necessarily, universally, and perpetually abhors all evil. God cannot hate one sinner and indulge another. He can have no respect of persons (Rom. 2:2-8).

(2) God’s holiness means He desires holiness in all His creatures (1 Pet. 1:15-16).

(3) God’s holiness is the glory and beauty of all of God’s perfections (see Ps. 29:2 and 96:9 in the NIV or KJV). As God’s power (arm) gives strength and validity to each of His attributes, as immutability guarantees the continuance of each unchanged, so His holiness gives moral beauty and purity to each: His power is a holy power (Ps. 98:1), His word or promise is a holy promise (Ps. 105:42), His name which stands for all His attributes is a holy name (Ps. 103:1), and His throne, is a holy throne (Ps. 47:8). And so it is with each of God’s attributes, His wisdom, knowledge, mercy, grace, love, goodness, etc., all operate in concert with God’s perfect holiness.

In the outworking and manifestation of God’s holiness there are two other attributes that, though distinct, still seem to function as branches of God’s holiness. There is the legislative or executive branch—God’s righteousness, and the judicial branch—God’s justice. Holiness has to do more with the pure character of God Himself while righteous and justice express that character in God’s dealings and government in the affairs of His creatures, angels, and mankind. So think of the next two perfections of God as the outworking of God’s holiness in God’s government in the universe.

    Righteousness and Justice

Righteousness is that attribute of God which leads Him to always think and do what is right or act in perfect goodness in relation to men and angels.

Justice refers to that attribute of God which vindicates the righteousness of God, not vindictively or in vengeance, but in holy justice. Justice refers to the judgment which God, as a righteous God, must exercise against anything which falls short of His holy standards. Righteous laws and principles proceed from God’s holiness to legislate and govern the affairs of men. This is God’s righteousness at work, the legislative branch of His holiness (cf. Deut. 4:8). But from God’s holiness also comes the penalties and judgments attached to these laws. This is the judicial branch which we call justice.

In righteousness we have the manifestation of God’s love of holiness, of what is right and good. In justice, we have the manifestation of God’s hatred of sin. Habakkuk 1:13 expresses both.

The Manifestation of God’s Holiness in His Righteousness and Justice:

The following gives just a few of the ways God’s holiness is manifested in His righteous actions in His governmental dealings with man.

(1) It is manifested in His works. All that He made was good (Gen. 1:31), He created man upright and in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Even Satan was created perfect and without sin until he turned in arrogant rebellion against God (Ezek. 28:15).

(2) It is manifested in the Law (Rom. 7:12) which is holy, pure, and good.

(3) It is manifested by God’s clear statements of His hatred of sin and His love of righteousness (Gen. 6:5-6; Prov. 6:16; 15:9, 26; Zech. 8:16-17; Jer. 44:4).

(4) It is manifested in His judgments against Israel and the nations for their rebellion against God (Deut. 28-30; Isa. 1-12).

(5) It is seen in the gift of God’s own Son to die on the cross for the sin of the world (Ps. 22:1-3; Eph. 5:25-27; Col. 1:20-22; 1 John 3:5, 7-8).

(6) It is seen in the separation of God Himself from the sinner (Hab. 1:13; Isa. 59:1-3).

(7) It is seen by the continual presence and work of Christ before God on behalf of the believer (Rom. 8:34; 1 John 1:7; 2:1-2).

(8) It is seen in the eternal punishment of the unbelieving sinner (Rev. 20:12-15; Matt. 25:41-46).

(9) It is seen in God who, as a holy Father, disciplines sin in His children to train them in holiness (Heb. 12:5-10).

God’s righteousness and justice pose a dire warning for all who have never put their trust in the person and work of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for their sin. All have sinned and come short of the glory or the perfect holiness of God (Rom. 3:23). Because God is perfect righteousness, He can have no fellowship with sinful man (Hab. 1:13). Sin separates man from God, and the wages of sin is eternal death, eternal separation from God (Isa. 59:1-2; Rom. 6:23). In this we see God’s justice in action. But God’s love of righteousness and love for the world provided the solution in the gift of His Son (John 3:16). Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth, no man comes to the Father but by me” because He alone met the holy demands of God through His sinless life and substitutionary death (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). If one rejects Christ and fails to receive Him by faith, that person remains under the wrath of God’s holy justice (John 3:36).

For those who have trusted in the Savior for eternal life, God’s holiness is a call to walk by faith, in fellowship with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the light of the Word, that he might experience His holiness—Christlike character. Why? Because God has called us to be a holy people, a people separated to Him (1 Pet. 1:16-17; Gal. 5:16-26).

    Goodness (Includes Benevolence, Mercy, and Grace)

Scriptures: Exodus 34:6; Psalm 25:7-8; 33:5; 68:10; 145:7; Nehemiah 9:25; Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 4:4.

The goodness of God is the expression of both His love and righteousness to His creatures in general. It is that aspect of God’s character that promotes the happiness of His creatures. Goodness includes God’s kindness as seen in mercy and grace. God’s goodness includes His benevolence, mercy, and grace.

Benevolence: This is the desire to do good for others, the disposition to promote kindness. God’s benevolent interest in His creatures and His care for them is manifested in different ways according to the nature and circumstances of the creature. All creatures are objects of His benevolence. Even animals are recipients of His benevolence. They have what may be called “animal joy,” which is manifested in the song of the birds and the frolicking of the animals, etc. (Ps. 104:21, 26-28; 36:6c; 145:15-16; Matt. 6:26). Hodge says, “There are no devices in nature for the promotion of pain for its own sake; whereas the manifestations of design for the production of happiness are beyond computation.”60

Since man is rational, he has more capacity to enjoy the goodness of God. God manifests His benevolence to all men (Acts 14:17) even to unbelievers (Matt. 5:44-45; Luke 6:35). The sinner, by his own sin and the absence of fellowship with God, is deprived of the full manifestation of God’s benevolence. His benevolence is infinite being limited only by the capacity and characteristics of the creature.

Mercy or Lovingkindness: Mercy or lovingkindness is God’s benevolent compassion toward man as a sinner, especially in his misery as a sinner (Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 103:8; 136:1-26). It is great (1 Kings 3:6), abundant (Ps. 86:5; 1 Pet. 1:3), tender (Luke 1:78), enduring for ever (Ps. 136:1), and sovereignly given (Ex. 33:19).

Grace: Grace is close to mercy, but differs in that it has reference to man as sinful and without the ability to gain any merit with God. Mercy, on the other hand, sees man as miserable and weak without any capacity to help himself. Grace refers especially to the gifts of God which man can never deserve; mercy to man’s miserable and wretched state. With grace the emphasis is more on God’s person as being gracious, while in mercy man’s wretchedness and need are highlighted. Both terms, however, draw attention to both God’s character and man’s helplessness.

The grace of God to men in general is seen in His delay in letting judgment fall on them (2 Pet. 3:7-9). It is manifested especially to the believer (Eph. 1:4-6; 2:8-9; Tit. 2:11-14; 3:5). In the New Testament grace is seen in contrast with works done meritoriously (Rom. 11:6; Eph. 2:8-9), in contrast with debt (Rom. 4:4-5), and in contrast with sin (Rom. 5:20-21).

    Love

There are three things Scripture specifically states about God: God is Spirit (John 4:24), God is light (1 John 1:5), and God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). This does not simply state that God loves, but that He is love itself. This means that He is the epitome of what love is, that He is the sole source of real love, and that love is at the heart of the essence of God.

The absence of the article before “love” (the verse does not say, God is the love) indicates that this is the very nature of God. The presence of the article before “God” (literally, the God is love) shows that the statement is not reversible; it cannot read, “Love is God” (as Christian Science asserts).61

Love is ascribed to all three Persons of the Godhead: (a) to the Father (John 16:27), (b) to the Son (John 13:34), and (c) to the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:30).

Love is that attribute of God which always seeks the absolute and perfect well-being of the object loved, regardless of the cost to the one loving (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16). Since the well-being of man is found only in the will of God and is related to God’s holiness and moral good, God’s love always seeks to bring man into conformity with His good and perfect will (Rom. 12:1-2). Love is a great part of the energy and motivation in God’s character for His benevolence, mercy, and grace, but it cannot act against God’s holiness. In His holiness, God could not ignore man’s sin and accept sinners into His presence. This is why in God’s love, He sent His Son to die for man’s sin that the sinner might be justified, declared righteous, and become acceptable to God through Christ.

Obviously, God’s goodness, mercy, lovingkindness, long-suffering, and grace are all closely related to God’s love, and while distinctions are made, such distinctions are not exact. See the above on these elements of God’s goodness.

God’s love is commonly regarded as a kind of amiable weakness, as a sort of good-natured indulgence that overlooks and winks at the indiscretions of man. Love is reduced to a mere sickly sentiment patterned after human emotion and sentimentality. The real essence of God’s love and all that it means is too often missed because man’s ideas about love stem from man’s own thinking. Our concept of God’s love must, as in everything else, be regulated by the Word of God.

(1) God’s love is contagious, it produces love in others, but in the following ways: (a) through regeneration (1 John 4:7), (b) through the knowledge of God’s Word (1 Thess. 4:9; 1 John 2:3-5; 3:16), and (c) through the control of the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:22).

(2) God’s love is eternal and constant because it is an inherent part of His eternal essence (1 John 4:8, 16). God’s love, therefore, is without beginning or ending (Jer. 31:3; Eph. 1:4-5).

(3) This means that God’s love is also immutable; there is no variableness to His love. His love knows neither change or diminishing because it depends on who He is and not on us (John 13:1; Rom. 8:35-39).

(4) Though motivated by His mercy and grace, God’s love is uninfluenced and unconditional (1 John 4:10). By this we mean that there is nothing whatever in the objects of His love that caused or influenced His love—nothing in man to attract it. His love is given and operates on the basis of grace and on the basis of God’s person and eternal purposes (Deut. 7:7-8). We love Him because He first loved us even while we were enemies and alien from Him (1 John 4:10, 19; Rom. 5:8-10).

(5) God’s love, being eternal, is also infinite, without limits as in all other aspects of His divine essence. The words of Ephesians 2:4, “because of His great love,” express the idea. So also the words of Ephesians 3:19, “and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.”

(6) God’s love is holy. His love is not regulated by caprice, passion, or sentiment, but by moral and righteous principle. It is important to remember that the Apostle John said “God is light” (1 John 1:5), a reference to God’s holiness, before he said “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God acted in love by sending His Son to die on the cross for our sin and He is free to receive the sinner because His holiness is propitiated, satisfied, by Christ’s death. In His holiness, however, He must reject and condemn all those who fail to receive by faith His plan of love in Christ (Rom. 3:21-26).

Objects of God’s Love:

(1) God’s Son is the special object of the Father’s love (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; John 17;24).

(2) Believers in Christ are also the special objects of God’s love (John 16:27; 14:21-21; 17:23).

(3) Sinners of the world are the objects of God’s love (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 1 Tim. 2:4).

The Manifestations of God’s Love:

(1) The great sacrifice of God’s unique Son (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16; 4:9-10). In the cross we see the most awesome display of the love of God.

(2) The complete forgiveness of sin with all the attendant blessings of salvation and spiritual life (Eph. 1:7-8; 2:4-5).

(3) God’s loving care over His children in the circumstances of life, regardless of their nature (Rom. 8:35-39; Isa. 63:9; 49:15-16).

(4) God’s chastening of His children in Christ (Heb. 12:5-11). Love is not sentimental nor lax. It always seeks the true good, not just the pleasures or wants of the one loved.

Those who have never put their trust in Christ should consider the immense love manifested at Calvary in their behalf, and accept by faith God’s offer of salvation (John 1:12; 3:16). The Christian should be motivated to abide in Christ and His love (John 15:1-9), to love the brethren (John 15:12; 1 John 4:8-11), and to be constrained by Christ’s love in us to reach the lost (2 Cor. 5:14).

    Truth, Veracity

Scriptures: Exodus 34:6; Numbers 23:19; Psalm 19:9; 91:4; 100:5; 146:6; Isaiah 25:1; 65:16 (ASV margin, “Amen”); Daniel 4:37; Micah 7:20; John 17:17; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Revelation 16:7.

That God is truth means He is absolutely dependable, without falseness of any kind. God’s plan, principles, and promises are completely reliable, accurate, real, and factual.

Truth is (a) that which is real, as opposed to that which is fictitious or imaginary. The God of the Bible is the true God, while the gods of the heathen are vanity and nothing, mere imaginary beings, having neither existence nor attributes. (b) The truth is that which completely comes up to its idea, or to what it purports to be. A true man is a man in whom the idea of manhood is fully realized. The true God is He in whom is found all that deity implies. (c) The truth is that in which the reality exactly corresponds to the manifestation. God is true, because He really is what He declares Himself to be; because He is what He commands us to believe Him to be; and because all His declarations correspond to what really is. (d) “The truth is that which can be depended upon, which does not fail, or change, or disappoint. In this sense also God is true as He is immutable and faithful. His promise cannot fail; His Word never disappoints.”62 This attribute is the ground of all our assurance. (e) Some theologians adopts the term veracity, which Strong calls transitive truth. It is the truth of God in relationship to His creatures in general, and to His people in particular (Psa 138:2; John 3:33; Rom. 3:4). Veracity is that perfection of God which makes all His actions and words conform to the truth (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). All He does and all His statements are in perfect accord with His being.

In Matthew 6:16 the Lord warned, “Be not as the hypocrites,” because hypocrisy is so foreign to the very character of God that God’s people are to emulate. The external expression of God always corresponds with the internal reality of His holy character.

God’s faithfulness, then, is included in the attribute of truth (See Deut. 7:9; 32:4; 1 Cor. 1:9; 1 Thess. 5:24). God’s faithfulness as an aspect of God’s truthfulness is great (Lam. 3:23), high as the heavens (Psa. 36:5; 89:2), and throughout the generations (Psa. 119:90). It is manifested in keeping His promises and covenants (Deut. 7:8-10; Psa. 89:1-8, 20-24, 33-37; Heb. 10:23; 11:11), in the defense and keeping of His children (Lam. 3:22-26; 1 Peter 4:19), in the calling, confirming, and final perfecting of His children (1 Cor. 1:8-9; 1 Thess. 5:23, 24; 2 Thess. 3:3), in guarding His children from temptations that would be too severe, and in always providing a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13), in answering prayer (Psa. 143:1), in forgiving the confessed sins of believers (1 John 1:9), and in chastening His disobedient children (Ps. 119:75).

God’s truthfulness is a rock of assurance for the people of God. His faithfulness in fulfilling His promises is a fountain of joy (Heb. 10:23; 6:17; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:20; Josh. 23:14; 2 Tim. 2:13). Regardless how things seem in this life, because God is truth, we can count on the Lord, always. This also means that God wants His people real and true. Paul exhorts us in Romans 12:9, “Let love be without hypocrisy.”

The veracity of God also makes certain the fulfillment of His warnings, so that no sinner should presume upon God, thinking that he can “get by” with anything. The consequences of sin will follow (Job 32:22; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Heb. 3:11; Psa. 9:17).

The Names of God
(Additional Revelation About God)

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). The great purpose of man, especially the believer in Christ, is to glorify God. Essential to our ability to glorify God is the knowledge of God and knowing Him personally in view of that knowledge. The word “glory” in the Greek New Testament is doxa which means an opinion, an estimation, or reputation in which one is held. It refers to that which should accrue to God as praise, thanksgiving, obedience, reverence, and service because of who God is and what God does (past, present, and future). In other words, giving glory to God is tied in with the knowledge of God (revelation of God), and knowing God personally (response to God).

The Lord Jesus said in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” The many names in Scripture constitute additional revelation of God’s character, His works, and His relationship to us based on His character and works. The names which God chose for Himself and which are ascribed to Him in the Word of God are additional revelations of the who and what of God that we may know and relate to God.

Note David’s declarations about God’s name and word in Psalm 138:1-2. God’s name declares much about His person, but it is God’s Word that reveals God and His name.

We know what God is like, not only by His perfections and works, but also by His names. They tell us many things about God’s care and concern for his own. This is one of the fascinating studies of Scripture. The various circumstances which bring forth each of the names of God are important.63

The Significance of the Names of God in Scripture

In our twentieth century Western culture, personal names are little more than labels that distinguish one person from another. Sometimes nicknames are chosen which tell something about a person, but even this is a poor reflection of the significance of names in the Bible. Unfortunately, to many the name God or Lord conveys little more than a designation of a supreme being. It says little to them about God’s character, His ways, and what God means to each of us as human beings. But in Scripture, the names of God are like miniature portraits and promises found everywhere in the Bible. In Scripture, a person’s name identified them and stood for something specific. This is especially true of God. Naming also carried special significance. It was a sign of authority and power. This is evident in the fact that God revealed His names to His people rather than allowing them to choose their names for God. This is also seen in the fact that God often changed the names of His people: Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel. Note also how this concept of authority and power is seen when Nebuchadnezzar changed the names of Daniel and his three friends.

The Name of God in General

There are a number of instances where no name of God is employed, but where simply the term “name” in reference to God is used as the point of focus:

(1) Abraham called on the name of the Lord (Gen. 12:8; 13:4).

(2) The Lord proclaimed His own name before Moses (Ex. 33:19; 34:5).

(3) Israel was warned against profaning the name of the Lord (Lev. 13:21; 22:2, 32).

(4) The name of the Lord was not to be taken in vain (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11).

(5) The priests of Israel were to minister in the name of the Lord (Deut. 18:5; 21:5).

(6) The name of God is called “wonderful” in Judges 13:18.

(7) To call on the name of the Lord was to worship Him as God (Gen. 21:33; 26:25).

Consequently, from this we can conclude that such phrases as “the name of the LORD” or “the name of God” refer to God’s whole character. It was a summary statement embodying the entire person of God.64

When we turn to the New Testament we find the same. The name Jesus is used in a similar way to the name of God in the Old Testament:

(1) Salvation is through His name (John 1:12).

(2) Believers are to gather in His name (Matt. 18:20).

(3) Prayer is to be made in His name (John 14:13-14).

(4) The servant of the Lord who bears the name of Christ will be hated (Matt. 10:22).

(5) The book of Acts makes frequent mention of worship, service, and suffering in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:18; 5:28, 41; 10:43; 19:17).

(6) It is at the name of Jesus that every knee will one day bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).

So, just as the name of God in the Old Testament spoke of the holy character of God the Father, so the name of Jesus in the New Testament speaks of the holy character of God the Son.65

Overview of the Names of God in Scripture

(1) Elohim: The plural form of EL, meaning “strong one.” Is used of false gods, but when used of the true God, it is a plural of majesty and intimates the trinity. Is especially used of God’s sovereignty, creative work, mighty work for Israel and in relation to His sovereignty (Isa. 54:5; Jer. 32:27; Gen. 1:1; Isa. 45:18; Deut. 5:23; 8:15; Ps. 68:7).

Compounds of El:

  • El Shaddai: “God Almighty.” Derivation is uncertain: From possible derivations, some think it stresses God’s loving supply and comfort; others His power as the Almighty one standing on a mountain and who corrects and chastens (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; Ex. 6:31; Ps. 91:1, 2).
  • El Elyon: “The Most High God.” Stresses God’s strength, sovereignty, and supremacy (Gen. 14:19; Ps. 9:2; Dan. 7:18, 22, 25).
  • El Olam: “The Everlasting God.” Emphasizes God’s unchangeableness and is connected with His inexhaustibleness (Gen. 16:13).

(2) Yahweh (YHWH): Comes from a verb which means “to exist, be.” This plus its usage shows that this name stresses God as the independent and self-existent God of revelation and redemption (Gen. 4:3; Ex. 6:3 (cf. 3:14); 3:12).

Compounds of Yahweh: Strictly speaking, these compounds are designations or titles which reveal additional facts of God’s character.

  • Yahweh Jireh (Yireh): “The Lord will provide.” Stresses God’s provision for His people (Gen. 22:14).
  • Yahweh Nissi: “The Lord is my Banner.” Stresses that God is our rallying point and our means of victory, the one who fights for His people (Ex. 17:15).
  • Yahweh Shalom: “The Lord is Peace.” Points to the Lord as the means of our peace and rest (Jud. 6:24).
  • Yahweh Sabbaoth: “The Lord of Hosts.” A military figure portraying the Lord as the commander of the armies of heaven (1 Sam. 1:3; 17:45).
  • Yahweh Maccaddeshcem: “The Lord your Sanctifier.” Portrays the Lord as our means of sanctification or as the one who sets believers apart for His purposes (Ex. 31:13).
  • Yahweh Roi: “The Lord my Shepherd.” Portrays the Lord as the Shepherd who cares for His people as a shepherd the sheep of his pasture (Ps. 23:1).
  • Yahweh Tsidkenu: “The Lord our Righteousness.” Portrays the Lord as the means of our righteousness (Jer. 23:6).
  • Yahweh Shammah: “The Lord is there.” Portrays the Lord’s personal presence in the millennial kingdom (Ezek. 48:35).
  • Yahweh Elohim Israel: “The Lord, the God of Israel.” Identifies Yahweh as the God of Israel in contrast to the false gods of the nations (Jud. 5:3.; Isa. 17:6).

(3) Adonai: Like Elohim, this too is a plural of majesty. The singular form means “master, owner.” Stresses man’s relationship to God as his master, authority, and provider (Gen. 18:2; 40:1; 1 Sam. 1:15; Ex. 21:1-6; Josh. 5:14).

(4) Theos: Greek word translated “God.” Primary name for God used in the New Testament. Its use teaches: (1) He is the only true God (Matt. 23:9; Rom. 3:30); (2) He is unique (1 Tim. 1:17; John 17:3; Rev. 15:4; 16:27); (3) He is transcendent (Acts 17:24; Heb. 3:4; Rev. 10:6); (4) He is the Savior (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2:3; 4:10). This name is used of Christ as God in John 1:1, 18; 20:28; 1 John 5:20; Tit. 2:13; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1.

(5) Kurios: Greek word translated “Lord.” Stresses authority and supremacy. While it can mean sir (John 4:11), owner (Luke 19:33), master (Col. 3:22), or even refer to idols (1 Cor. 8:5) or husbands (1 Pet. 3:6), it is used mostly as the equivalent of Yahweh of the Old Testament. It too is used of Jesus Christ meaning (1) Rabbi or Sir (Matt. 8:6); (2) God or Deity (John 20:28; Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9; Phil. 2:11).

(6) Despotes: Greek word translated “Master.” Carries the idea of ownership while kurios stressed supreme authority (Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24; Rev. 6:10; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jude 4).

(7) Father: A distinctive New Testament revelation is that through faith in Christ, God becomes our personal Father. Father is used of God in the Old Testament only 15 times while it is used of God 245 times in the New Testament. As a name of God, it stresses God’s loving care, provision, discipline, and the way we are to address God in prayer (Matt. 7:11; Jam. 1:17; Heb. 12:5-11; John 15:16; 16:23; Eph. 2:18; 3:15; 1 Thess. 3:11).


18 Robert P. Lightner, The God of the Bible, An Introduction to the Doctrine of God, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1973, p. 10.

19 Ibid., p. 89.

20 Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Abridged Edition, John F. Walvoord, Editor, Donald K. Campbell, Roy B. Zuck, Consulting Editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1988, p. 191.

21 Lightner, p. 89.

22 For some of the other inadequate ideas people have about what God is like, see the chapter, “Unreal Gods,” in J. B. Phillips’ book, Your God is Too Small, Macmillan Publishing, New York, 1961, pp. 15-59.

23 Lightner, pp. 12-13.

24 Dave Hunt, Peace Prosperity and the Coming Holocaust, Harvest House, Eugene, OR, 1983, p. 62.

25 Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1968, p. 156-157.

26 Lightner, p. 92.

27 Donald Bloesch, Faith and Its Counterfeits, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, pp. 18-19.

28 Erwin Lutzer, Moody Monthly, January 1984, pp. 112f.

29 Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, Assurance Publishers, Rockville, MD, 1983, p. 504.

30 Kenneth Boa, Unraveling the Big Questions About God, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1988, p. 12.

31 Ibid., p. 16.

32 Ibid., p. 42.

33 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1987, p. 51.

34 The New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale House, Wheaton, IL, 1962, Logos Bible Software, electronic media.

35 The New Bible Dictionary, electronic media.

36 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1989, p. 199.

37 Charles C. Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, NASB, Moody Press, Chicago, 1995, pp. 285-286.

38 Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 53.

39 The New Bible Dictionary, electronic media.

40 The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, editors, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1985, electronic media.

41 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Fleming H. Revell, Grand Rapids, 1981, electronic media.

42 Norman L. Geisler, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament edition, John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1983, p. 677.

43 The New Bible Dictionary, electronic media.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Chafer, Systematic Theology, p. 187.

47 Ibid., p. 189.

48 American College Dictionary.

49 Ibid.

50 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth, London, 1968, p. 60.

51 Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 38.

52 Ibid., p. 38.

53 Berkhof, p. 58.

54 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, Judson, p. 279.

55 Enns, p. 194.

56 Ibid., pp. 194-195.

57 Ryie, Basic Theology, p. 43.

58 Boa, p. 56.

59 Ryrie, Basic Theology, pp. 43-44.

60 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, London, James Clark & Co, p. 427.

61 Ryrie, p. 39.

62 Hodge, pp. 436-437.

63 Lightner, page 107.

64 Ibid., p. 108.

65 Ibid., p. 109.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)

3. What God is Doing

(The Sovereign Decree(s) of God)

Introduction

As the sovereign, all-wise, omnipotent, and omniscient God, Scripture teaches us that God, as also immanently involved in His creation, has a sovereign plan He is accomplishing in the universe. The truth of God’s sovereign plan has many practical ramifications for us, but before we can properly relate to God’s plan, we need a right understanding of that plan generally speaking, or we may try to relate to the plan of God improperly. We need a grasp of the fundamental principles regarding His plan from the Word to form the grid needed for our thinking so we can relate responsibly to both God’s sovereignty and to His plan. So, what exactly is God’s plan? What is God’s plan like, and how does it impact our lives?

The Nature and
Characteristics of God’s Sovereign Plan

God’s Plan Is One

Theologians and Bible teachers often speak of the decrees of God in relation to God’s decisions to do certain things in history. But these are only various aspects of the one great plan of God often referred to as the decree of God. In God’s plan there are many steps and phases, yet there is only one master plan which intricately and harmoniously includes all things (Acts 2:23 [“plan” is singular]; Isa. 46:10 [“purpose” or “counsel” is singular]). The plan or decree of God is a single plan that encompasses all things. Nothing is outside the scope of this sovereign plan of God.

Ephesians 1:11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, (emphasis mine)

Let us remember that while there is one great master plan, each one of us has a part in the master plan of God. This is infinitesimally small which should be humbling, but our part is very important to God, important enough to consider us individually even as to the number of the hairs on our head (Matt. 10:30). Such should not only comfort, but it should remind us we are here for a purpose (cf. 1 Pet. 5:6-7 and Eph. 2:10).

Definition

The decree or plan of God is “God’s eternal purpose, according to the wise council of his own will, whereby, for His own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (“Shorter Catechism,” Question 7, Westminster Confession of Faith). The great purpose of this plan is the manifestation of the glory of God in all His divine perfections.

Various Designations of the Plan of God

The Scriptures refer to God’s plan by various designations. Some of these may look at some specific aspect of God’s plan, but it is still a part of the decree of God. Some of these are: “the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), “predetermined plan” (Acts 2:23), “foreknowledge” (1 Pet. 1:2; cf. vs. 20), “purpose” (Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:28), “kind intention” (Eph. 1:9), “predestined” (Rom. 8:30), “elect” (1 Thess. 1:4), and “will of God” (Eph. 1:1).

The Time of the Institution of the Plan of God

When did God form His plan? Second Timothy 1:9 declares it is “from all eternity.” First Peter 2:20 says it was from “before the foundation of the world.” God’s plan is an eternal plan that has existed from all eternity. While it is an eternal plan, it is unfolded and manifested in time or human history. However, the entire plan was formed from all eternity and it is not subject to change. God is not scrambling about trying to work out His plan or make last minute corrections. When we fumble the ball, or when things go wrong, or when tragedy strikes, according to Scripture, God’s plan has not slipped a gear. He is still on the throne and in control. The tragedy was (or is) a part of God’s plan. God includes our fumbles and allows the tragedies of life in His sovereign purpose (Isa. 43:10-13; 44:6-9, 24-28; 45:6-13, 20-22).

He has foreordained all that comes to pass and this includes the evil and the good and the permission of the evil will ultimately demonstrate His glory and bring praise to Him (Ps. 76:10).

It Is an All-Wise Plan, the Very Best Possible Plan

Since God’s plan is the plan of an omniscient and all-wise God, it must be the wisest plan possible. God’s plan accomplishes the purposes of God in the most complete and perfect way. His plan is best because He is omniscient, knows all things possible, and was eternally aware of all other possible plans. Since God is perfect in His perfections—holiness, love, grace, mercy, justice, goodness, truth, power, etc., our faith in God must rest in the fact it is the wisest possible plan and, as His finite creatures, we need to submit to God’s plan regardless of how things appear to us. We need to learn to see life from the standpoint of its overall purpose, the glory of God. Unfortunately, we tend to look at life from the finite standpoint of our very temporal and limited existence. Looking at God’s plan from an eternal perspective with its eternal weight of glory, enables us to rest in today and to accept life and use the things that happen to serve God and His eternal plan. Paul demonstrates this attitude and perspective toward the trials of life. He wrote:

2 Corinthians 4:8-18 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you. 13 But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore also we speak; 14 knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. 15 For all things are for your sakes, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us in Isaiah 55:8-9 that God’s thoughts and ways are very different from ours, as much so as the heavens are higher than the earth. This means we may often be perplexed about the way God runs the universe and about the things that He allows to go on in terms of misery, pain, and evil. Since we now see in a mirror dimly, we must simply wait for God’s illumination in the future when we will see face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Enns writes:

God’s wisdom and knowledge cannot be comprehended, and His decisions cannot be tracked as footprints in the sand. God has consulted no one and no one has advised Him. But because God knows all things He controls and guides all events for His glory and for our good (cf. Ps. 104:24; Prov. 3:19).66

Having discussed the sovereignty of God and His plan and purposes for the nation of Israel in Romans 9-11, the Apostle concludes with this praise to the infinite wisdom of God:

Romans 11:33-36 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

It Depends on God Alone

Though God often uses human instruments to accomplish His plan, it ultimately depends solely upon God both for its source and for its accomplishment.

    As to Its Source:

Isaiah 40:13-14 Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has informed Him? 14 With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge, And informed Him of the way of understanding?

    As to Its Accomplishment:

Isaiah 40:21-26 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is He who sits above the vault of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. 23 He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. 24 Scarcely have they been planted, Scarcely have they been sown, Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, But He merely blows on them, and they wither, And the storm carries them away like stubble. 25 “To whom then will you liken Me That I should be his equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power Not one of them is missing.

Ephesians 1:11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,

Things Excluded From God’s Plan

Excluded from the decree of God are all things relating to His own existence, His attributes, His subsistence in three Persons, His intimate relationships, or His responsibilities. All these proceed from the nature of God rather than from His will or decree. The decree of God relates to His acts that are not immanent and intrinsic and that are outside His own being.67

The Scope of God’s Sovereign Plan

The Totality of God’s Plan

Every year, we are bombarded with news of horrible things that occur all around the globe: serial murders, mass killings, plane crashes, devastating floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and on the list goes. There seems to be no end to it. Could all this be in God’s plan? God’s Word, though perplexing to us, gives us the answer. The Bible tells us that God is the One “… who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11) (emphasis mine). Not some things, but all things. Note how the Psalmist put it:

Psalm 103:19 The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all.

Even the evil and the good are included together in the sovereign plan of God. There are no areas, or happenings over which God is not the Supreme Ruler. Everything in creation is subject to His rule and only occurs as a part of His sovereign plan (see Isa. 46:10-11; 45:6-7, 9).

Illustrations of the Areas Included in God’s Plan

(1) The material universe (Ps. 33:6-11; 89:5-18; Deut. 32:8; Job. 14:5; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2-3a).

(2) Nations and their rulers (Isa. 10:5f; 30:1ff; 31:1f; 41:2-4; Acts 17:26; Rom. 13:1f).

(3) Man’s length of life (Deut 32:39; Ps. 68:20; 91:3f; Job 14:5, 14; 21:21).

(4) The works God has planned for one’s life (Eph. 2:10; Prov. 16:1-4, 9; Ps. 37:23).

(5) The sinful acts of men (Pr. 16:4; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; Isa. 10:5-14).

(6) The death of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:19-20; Acts 2:23).

(7) The kingdom of God (Matt. 25:34).

(8) The salvation of men (Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13).

(9) The giving of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:11).

(10) The gifts of specific individual believers to specific ministries (1 Cor. 4:5; 1 Pet. 5:3).

(11) Even the calamities of life fall within the permissive aspect of the sovereign will of God (Isa. 45:7).

Since God is infinitely holy, how do we account for the evil and the pain and allowance of sin? Not an easy question and there are no easy answers, but Scripture does give us an answer.

The fact of sin is the major problem in the doctrine of God’s decree. If sin had not entered the universe, there probably would have been no possibility of challenging the sovereignty of God. Within our limited comprehension as human beings it is perhaps difficult to see how God would sovereignly adopt a plan in which terrible acts of sin take place. Yet that is the universe in which we find ourselves and the universe to which Scripture addresses the truth of God’s sovereignty … 

It is not sufficient to assume that God was unable to prevent sin from eventuating or that He could not cause it to cease at any moment if this were His will. God, however, permitted evil to appear, and the Bible provides the only basic solution to the problem of evil in the universe which exists in all forms of human thought.

The essential nature of sin is one area that needs to be explored. Though evil is a part of God’s original plan, it is not attributed to God as an act of His will in the sense that He determined that evil would be accomplished. Scripture is clear that the presence of sin in the world cost God the death of His Son as a sacrificial Lamb on the altar when He was killed at Calvary. Permitting evil cost God the most of any possible plan.

Under the circumstances the question may be raised as to why sin is allowed in the universe. This is best explained by pointing to the ultimate purpose of God to bring men into likeness to Himself. To realize this end they must know to some degree what God knows. They must recognize the evil character of sin …

In examining the fact of sin consideration must be given to the fact of God’s grace toward the fallen and the sinful. No demonstration of grace is possible unless there are objects that need grace, objects that know the experience of sin. Sin must be brought into final judgment.

In conclusion, it must be said that God’s primary divine purpose was not to avoid the presence of sin. He could have prevented it if He had willed to do so. To achieve His purposes, which were holy, just, and good, God had to permit sin in order to demonstrate His glory—especially His righteousness, love, and grace.68

The Means God Uses to Accomplish His All-Encompassing Plan

In the outworking of God’s plan in human history, God’s decrees are often viewed in three aspects: The efficacious or overruling will of God, the permissive will of God, and directive will of God.

    The Efficacious or Overruling Will of God

The efficacious will of God is carried out by various means (directly by physical causes, Job 28:25-26; Gen. 1, and by spiritual forces, Eph. 2:8, 10; 4:24; Phil. 2:13) for which God is personally or directly responsible and for which He acknowledges responsibility as in the preceding verses.

    The Permissive Will of God

Other parts of God’s plan He permits. The permissive will of God embraces only the moral features that are evil or contrary to His desired will. Though God does not actively promote this aspect of His sovereign will, He uses them to accomplish His purposes, since He knows before hand just how every person will respond to every possible situation, and decreed to allow it or not. Regardless, God always places the responsibility for these acts and their results with men or angels, as in the case of the fall of Satan and then of man (Acts 14:16; Ps. 78:29; Isa. 10:5-14; Acts 2:23; Rom. 1:18-32). A classic example of this is perhaps the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the book of Exodus.

Ten times it is said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34; 13:15), and 10 times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). Paul uses this as an example of the inscrutable will of God and of His mercy toward men (Rom. 9:14-18). Seven times Pharaoh hardened his own heart before God first hardened it, though the prediction that God would do it preceded all.69

The fact that God permits these things does not make them less certain, nor remove them from the sovereign plan of God, but it does remove the responsibility for the sinful acts of men and fallen angels from God. Another illustration of this is the way God sovereignly uses kings, who often commit evil acts and who, though they operate by their own volition and have no intention of serving God (see Isa. 45:4-6), are accomplishing God’s sovereign purposes. Isaiah calls Cyrus, the Persian monarch, God’s anointed because he was carrying out God’s purposes in protecting the Nation of Israel. In this passage, we have this well-known verse that is directly related to this subject:

Isaiah 45:7 The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.

Regarding this verse, Ryrie writes: “Included in God’s plan are all things (Eph. 1:11), though the responsibility for committing sin rests on the creature, not the creator.”70

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 76:10, “Surely your wrath against men brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained.” (NIV)

“Wrath” refers to the evil acts of men done in rebellion against God, or His people, or against the world. God may use such rebellion or wrath in His sovereign plan to carry out His purposes, or He may restrain it. “The entrance of sin into the universe was made certain by God’s plan. God did not create sin, but in His infinite wisdom He allowed its entrance into the universe.”71

Sin is always the product of the creatures own negative volition to God. God may permit it, use it, or hinder it, but it is the creature who chooses to sin in rebellion against God. God did not create man to be a robot but a creature created in God’s image with the moral responsibility to know God, love God, and choose for God. A robot that could do only what it was programmed for would bring little glory to God; it certainly would not have the capacity for love and true fellowship.

    The Directive Will of God and Human Responsibility

By the directive will of God we mean the will of God as it may be discerned and defined by God’s specific instructions or directions as they are found in the Word and by His specific workings within a person’s individual life. God’s sovereignty not only includes the end, but the means He has chosen to attain that end. The primary means He has chosen is found in the directive will of God. This is where human responsibility comes into play. This truth moves man onto the stage with God, not as a puppet, but as a volitional and moral agent responsible for a relationship with God wherein man studies, prays, serves, and witnesses for God and the Savior.

God could act and accomplish His plan without man, but He has chosen to use human beings as earthen vessels to bring His plan to fulfillment. This means that there is a two-fold operation and responsibility.

(1) Man’s responsibility includes the various means of faith, prayer, learning and applying Scripture, giving, serving, and moral uprightness, etc.

(2) God’s responsibility includes calling, convicting, illuminating, regenerating, leading, and working in men to enable them to accomplish His directive will.

Philippians 2:12-13 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

All the imperatives and principles laid out in the Bible point us to man’s responsibility while all the promises of Scripture point us to God’s. So our human response and responsibility to God is a part of God’s plan, that which He has decreed that we might carry out His purposes. It’s like the farmer who acts on the laws of the harvest that the Creator has established. God does not clear the land, plow, disc, fertilize, and plant the crop. The farmer must do those things in cooperation with God’s creative processes. Likewise, God does not read the Word for us, haul us to Bible class or church, or spend quality time with our families, witness for us, and so on. These are things He has directed us to do in faith which He prospers and uses to His glory and for our edification and fruitfulness in the world (1 Cor. 3:5-9).

The Purpose of God’s Sovereign Plan

The ultimate purpose of God’s plan is the praise and manifestation of the glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 11, 12, 14; 3:21; Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Rev. 4:11; 5:13). It is essential to the very Being of God and by the very nature of God that His glory be manifested and appreciated because of what God’s glory is and does within the universe. This is not the action of some pompous person who wants to be seen to feel good about himself. Not for a moment. Rather, this is more like the blessing, the joy, and the awe we may experience when we see some highly-skilled acrobat, athlete, actor, musician, or some majestic part of creation. Because of the beauty, grace and skill, it needs to be seen and appreciated by others. When we view a glorious mountain in its beautiful setting or see an athlete perform in an outstanding way, we often think, how awful it would be if such talent or beauty were never seen and appreciated, not for the ego of the person, but for the joy and thrill it gives to the viewers.

So God’s plan is designed to manifest the various facets of His glory or perfections. How? By allowing sin through the creature, God’s plan brought out all aspects of God’s glory much like sparkling diamonds against the backdrop of black velvet. The presence of sin and rebellion manifests God’s love, patience, holiness, mercy, and grace to a magnificent degree.

Conclusion

Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty of the world in which we live, how assuring to know that God orders our steps! Our faith need not be in blind chance nor in circumstances, but should be in an infinitely wise God who does all things well, who knows the end from the beginning and whose every desire for us is for ultimate good and His glory.

These great truths will make the child of God humble and remove any confidence in the flesh … These are family truths and are not understood by those outside the family and in fact should not be taught to them.

God’s truth concerning Himself and His plan strengthens our faith and give us assurance, hope, and confidence in Him. But these sublime truths should also help us to see our duties within God’s plan and to see them as a part of that plan.72

The concept of God’s sovereignty and sovereign plan as seen in the Scripture is a declaration of God’s majestic rule and control over this earth and all the affairs of life. It is also an invitation to each of us to worship the Lord, to submit to His authority over every aspect of life, to rest and relax in His control over all our affairs, and to obey His Word which He has given us to direct us into His perfect will and plan. But by His mercy and grace, even in our disobedience, as with Jonah who found himself in the belly of the great fish, God is still in control either for our blessing or for our discipline, itself a form of blessing because of its design to make us like His Son.

It is a marvelous revelation of the Bible to learn (a) that God watches over all that happens, indeed, He has known it from all eternity, and (b) that He is in complete control over all situations, no matter how dark or hopeless. Amazingly, this knowledge, if rested in by faith, can free us to serve the Lord and love others unconditionally, for ultimately, nothing can stand in the way of God’s plan for our lives.


66 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1989, p. 204.

67 Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Abridged Edition, John F. Walvoord, Editor, Donald K. Campbell, Roy B. Zuck, Consulting Editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1988, p. 155.

68 Ibid., p. 157-158.

69 Charles C. Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, NASB, Moody Press, Chicago, 1995, p. 96.

70 Ibid., p. 1114.

71 Robert P. Lightner, The God of the Bible, An Introduction to the Doctrine of God, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1973, p. 83.

72 Ibid., p. 85.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)

Pages