The Self-Giving Triune God, The Imago Dei And The Nature Of The Local Church: An Ontology Of MissionRelated Media
For many years in Western society, the concept of a Holy Trinity has been one of those doctrines which we affirm to be Christian yet which for many has seemed largely irrelevant. German philosopher Immanuel Kant complained that, “Taken literally, absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity.”2
Today, however, many Christian thinkers are reaffirming the central importance of trinitarian theology for our daily lives. Stimulated in part by Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Catholic and Protestant theologians have produced in the last forty years a significant corpus on the subject. Especially notable are works by Karl Rahner, Eberhard Jüngel, Bernard Lonergan, Bertrand de Margerie, Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Colin Gunton, T. F. Torrance, Catherine LaCugna and Millard Erickson.3 Nearly every theological movement has recently sought in some sense to reflect upon and to reapply the doctrine of Nicea, and this has produced a harvest of literature in biblical, historical and contemporary trinitarian studies. By the early 1990’s, many concurred with Wolfhart Pannenberg’s judgment that the Trinity had become the most important of subjects in current theological discussion.4
As in any faith, one’s understanding of God should significantly define his worldview. It is my belief that the doctrine of the Three-in-One provides a macro-structure of reality that makes sense of life, one that gives a remarkable basis for our perception of ourselves as persons, for our relationships in marriage, family, the local church and community and, in point, the role of the local church in mission.
Nevertheless, many still feel what Kant expressed. At an ordination council in a large evangelical church in So Paulo, Brazil, after a pastoral candidate had floundered completely in trying to answer questions concerning the Godhead, a veteran denominational leader proffered in the young man’s defense that the doctrine of the Trinity did not really matter: “Most Evangelicals believe in three Gods anyway.” Apparently for this pastor, as for Kant, the concept of the Triune God was irrelevant. When Christian leadership assumes indifference toward trinitarian theology, it is hardly surprising that many people in the church feel the same.
In this article, I wish to develop three points:
1. The self-giving nature of the tri-personal God.
2. The implications of a self-giving God for man as the image of God.
3. How understanding the self-giving God should effect our concept of the local church and its role in the world.
In short, I will argue that the ontology of the Godhead is the foundation for personal and communitarian mission in the world.
Trinity As The Eternally Self-Giving God
Is the God of the Bible Selfish?
Tensions between Divine Glory and Love. Many suspect that God is selfish. Most would never say that of course. But we understand that the purpose of all existence is to glorify God. Even the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre is said to have commented that, if there is a God, the purpose of the universe would be to glorify him. Christian creeds and catechisms such as the Westminster Confession are equally clear: God created the universe and man for his glory. And that is true. As Creator, the entire universe was created centripetal to his character and to his purposes. Everything finally exists for his glory.
But can the God of Scripture truly be love yet also desire his own glory? Interestingly, the Holy Spirit through Paul defines love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: love “is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, … is not self-seeking … it keeps no record of wrongs.” Elsewhere we read “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). Yet the God of the Bible does indeed declare his own glory and does call upon all creation to worship him. At first glance the God of the Bible does not turn the other cheek but declares “vengeance is mine,” judging the living and the dead and condemning some to everlasting punishment. Whether such passages such as 1 Corinthians 13 can be directly related to God or not is, for many, somewhat beside the point. According to skeptic John Stuart Mill, God does every day that for which he regularly condemns man. For many others, whether Charles Baudelaire, Mark Twain or Pablo Picasso, God is the paradigm of selfishness.
Of course, the Almighty Creator of the Universe would have every right to be selfish, for he is God. This is essentially how the Moslem defends Allah. And many Christians inadvertently do the same. Yet for the Christian there is a fundamental contradiction: while the Creator may deserve all glory, how can the God of love covet his own glory? If Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit had not revealed the true nature of the Godhead, and if God were only one person, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in some sense, while we are not to be selfish, God himself is absolutely selfish.
The God of the Bible as Trinity. In the Old Testament, already we see implications of a tri-personal God: (1) the passages where God seems to speak of himself as plural (“let us make man in our own image” Ge 1:26; etc.). (2) The plural terms for God Elohim and Adonai — two of the three main terms for God in the Hebrew Scriptures — are topics of considerable scholarship and debate, not to mention numerous other plural titles of God with their singular modifiers. (3) In Isaiah the Lord God insists that he alone is God, there is no god either before or after him, yet in the same book the promised Messiah, Son of David, would be called El Gibbor “Mighty God”. Again, while insisting I will not give my glory to another, it is the Ancient of Days who calls upon all humankind to glorify and to worship “the Son of Man” (Da 7:14). (4) Many have noted, as well, the ambiguous plurality in the Hebrew God. The dabar or the word of God is seen sometimes as God speaking, but other times as a dynamic creative power distinct from God. The Holy Spirit is often identified as Almighty God, yet other times appears as a separate entity. The angel of the Lord appears both different from and yet sometimes identified as the Living God, one who speaks as God, is worshipped as God, and yet is many times distinct from God. Again, the Wisdom of God is personified as one “appointed from eternity,” present before the creation of the universe, a craftsman at Yahweh’s side (Pr 8:23-31) — not incidentally Paul speaks of Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1Co 1:24; cf. 1:30; Col 2:3). Intertestamental Jews were well aware of the mysterious diversity expressing the one true God.5
When coming into the New Testament we find Jesus Christ, one who is presented as the Son of God — one who is God, yet God distinct from God — and again God the Holy Spirit who, like the Savior, is personal and manifests all the attributes of deity. In more than 40 passages of the New Testament, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are spoken of together, yet each with distinctive roles in their personal relationships.6 As the Athanasian Creed later clarifies, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God. Nor are there three Fathers but one Father, not three Sons but one Son, not three Holy Spirits but only one Holy Spirit.
Even more extraordinary, in the New Testament we see the Father delighting in and glorifying the Son, giving all things to the beloved One. Yet the Son appears delighting in and glorifying the Father. After conquering all things and reigning over his kingdom, the Son lays all things at the feet of the Father. And we find that the Holy Spirit delights in glorifying not himself but the Son and again in revealing the glory of the Father. As Gruenler remarks in his thematic commentary on John:
In Jesus’ disclosure of the divine Family the theme that runs repeatedly through his discourses is the generosity of the social God. The manner of Jesus’ speech indicates his conviction that the persons of the divine Community inwardly enjoy one another’s love, hospitality, generosity, and interpersonal communion, so much so that they are one God, and being one God, express such love to one another.7
In God’s own revelation, we encounter a Father, Son and Holy Spirit each loving the other, giving to the other, honoring the other, glorifying the other — this without confusing the high order of the Godhead, the roles that each divine person has fulfilled from eternity past.8
Which returns us to the question: Is the God of the Bible selfish? Quite the contrary. We discover that the three-personed God of Scripture is profoundly and infinitely self-giving. The God of Love in calling for glory is not necessarily selfish at all. His glory is a shared glory, each delighting in the other.
Beyond Self-Centeredness: Divine Inter-Relatedness as Primary
Placed before pagan and cultic concepts of deity, God’s own revelation as Holy Trinity is remarkably unique: a holy and perfect God who in three centers of consciousness manifests the deepest realities of personhood, each member thinking, feeling and choosing in relationship to one another in terms that far surpass our deepest understanding of intimacy.
Unfortunately, in much of Roman Catholic and later Protestant theological development, the New Testament personal dynamism of the Godhead was largely ignored. Western Fathers, beginning especially with Augustine and developing through Scholasticism, emphasized the unity of the divine substance of God, at times implicitly reducing God to a list of attributes or to an abstract Immovable Mover or to Pure Act. If Colin Gunton is correct, Western notions of God — owing to this emphasis on the oneness of the divine essence — became increasingly philosophic and remote, leading to a deism and finally an agnosticism in which God became completely unknowable.9
On the other hand, the Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century — Basil of Caesaria, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa (the formulators of Eastern trinitarianism) — envisioned God not so much as some divine essence in three subsistencies, but rather as a divine family that could be spoken of as Adam, Eve and Seth, or Peter, James and John. Whereas each member of the Godhead was understood as possessing the same nature, the Eastern Church has continually stressed the primacy of the relationships between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.10 It was believed that if Christ and the New Testament are God’s culminating revelation, then our understanding of the Trinity must center on the personal inter-relatedness witnessed so clearly in such texts as John 14-17.
But if one stresses the three divine persons, how then is the unity of the Godhead to be defined? For much of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as for an increasing number of scholars in the West, the unity of the Trinity is to be found in perichoresis, the inner habitation (or coinherence) of each divine person in the other.11 That is, each member of the Godhead in some sense indwells the other, without diminishing the full personhood of each. The essential unity of the Godhead, then, is found both in their intrinsic equality of divine characteristics and also in the intensely personal unity that comes from mutual indwelling.
Whereas Western theology tended to begin with the unity and nature of God and then sought to explain the three persons, the East began with the three persons and then sought to resolve the nature of their unity. From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, therefore, it is out of the Godhead’s personal relatedness that all else flows: the creation of angels, man in the imago dei, and the great plan of redemption — all in order that finite beings might enter into the joyous fellowship of the Holy Trinity. Put another way, creation and salvation begin and end with God’s self-givingness, both internally (each to the other within the Godhead) and externally (the Triune God to all creation). And so, in the most profound sense as Trinity — and finally only as Trinity — God is love.
The Self-Giving God And Man In The Imago Dei
If God exists as Holy Trinity, what are the implications for man having been created in the divine image? And what might this mean for the nature of the Christian life? While scholars have debated the meaning of the imago dei for centuries, certainly the fact that even the Holy Spirit is revealed with real personhood — that he demonstrates intellect, chooses and guides the church and manifests profound emotions — is instructive.12
A Word of Testimony (or Why Theology Is Meaningful). At a point of crisis in my life I found it difficult to sense any basis for my own personhood. There were no anchors for my (or any other) human significance. The why was gone for simple personal actions like laughing or even talking. When I looked within to “find myself” — as so often suggested by psychologists — all the more I plunged into a bottomless pit with nothing to grasp or to secure the fall. The abyss left nothing to call me and nothing to call man.
Not surprisingly, the Bible does not present a single psychology or even a well-defined set of words for inner man. Terms such as soul, heart, spirit and inward parts, for example, neither carry technical definitions nor are necessarily used with the same definitions among the biblical authors.13 The implication is that it is not in “finding ourselves” that we discover what it means to be human. Scripture repeatedly points us to our Creator, the living God. When we focus upon him — looking upward not inward — then we begin to recover our humanity. As Barth put it, person means primarily what it signifies in relation to God14; that is, our definition of person must be finally situated in God himself. Although significant differences exist between the infinite and the finite, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit provide the ontological framework for our own personhood as human beings.15
Ontology vs. Straw men. The world has a caricature of the Christian. For many a secular observer, the believer is a human disaster. To become a Christian is to abnegate life. No more laughter, no more days of raucous shouting around a football game at a tavern with a good beer. The gusto is gone. The Christian convert has died. Too often, we must admit, this caricature is true. Many Christians have died, not just to sin — which is right — but somehow they have also died to their own humanity, which is wrong. Some have been bound by guilt and legalism, owing to religious inhibitions of every kind. As believers we can become forced, defensive, angry, afraid, isolated, morose, mechanical or spiritually artificial.
Yet if our God is truly three persons in infinitely meaningful relationship, then those who are redeemed and brought into relationship with this God have every reason be the most fulfilled and authentic of all the human race. When inhabited by the Holy Spirit, as we walk with the Son, as we take our place as sons and daughters of the Father, our humanness should come alive. Indeed, the Christian’s humanity should luster and glow. Our personhood should radiate because we are in loving relationship with the fount of all personal life. Christians should be the most powerful, sensitive, transparent and truly human of all the people on earth.
One might ask, who was the most extraordinary man that ever walked this earth? Even many atheists will declare that it was Jesus of Nazareth. Our Savior’s humanity was not erased or diminished by his submission to the Father. Rather, our Lord’s humanity appears densified, made more profound and real. Whether Anselm, Luther or Barth, the Christian faith affirms that Jesus Christ did not only reveal true God to man, he also revealed true man to man.16 He taught us how to become true human beings fulfilled in relationship with God.
In contrast to all atheism where human personeity exists as an arbitrary, meaningless instant in time and space, and in contrast to all pantheism where human distinctives separate man from the all-inclusive, apersonal One (and thus it must be extinguished), Christianity affirms that personhood is directly grounded in the three-personed God. It is in God himself that we find a basis for human reason and language, for our capacity to choose, for our profound diversity of emotions, for appreciation of beauty, for our propensity for creativity, for our sense of morality and eternality, for our social nature desiring relationship with others — all virtual enigmas for modern man who experiences these realities but has no adequate final explanation. Thus mission and missions begins with understanding who the God of the Bible is and what it means to be created in the divine image.
Perichoresis and the Imago Dei
When reconciled with God, man and woman are infused with his personal presence. In some sense, the capacity of each person of the Godhead to be indwelt (perichoresis) by the other while remaining fully an individual is reflected in man as created in the image of God (cf. Jn 14:8-11,20,23; 15:4-7; 17:20-23,26). Similar to how the Father indwells the Son and the Son indwells the Father, and to how the Holy Spirit is also literally “the Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit of the Father,” so God has structured the human being so that he or she can be indwelled by God himself, notably the Holy Spirit. While indwelled by the divine Other, human beings are both conformed to the divine character and simultaneously strengthened in their unique individuality. Man’s capacity for a kind of perichoresis is why also, on the negative side, the human being can be inhabited by demonic spirits. In such cases, of course, malignant spirits typically enslave and depersonalize their human abode. Conversely, the Holy Spirit liberates the sinner, capacitates him to obey and conforms him to the image of Christ.
The Church Fathers nearly unanimously spoke of God’s habitation in man in terms of theosis, that is, of being divinized (God-infused) in character and person (cf. 2Pe 1:4). Unlike pantheism, spiritism and New Age thought, it is not that man becomes God, who is infinite and immutable in nature. Rather man becomes godly in character, resplendent with the divine presence and in this sense God-like.17 Thus, the divinization of man is directly related to his innate capacity for perichoresis through which God indwells his human creation. As such, the individual becomes alive, elevated and completed as a unique human individual through fellowship with the God of Life.
C. S. Lewis’ captures something of this reality in The Great Divorce,18 his parable of the afterlife in heaven and hell. Lewis takes the reader on a fictitious bus to visit the musty grayness of hell, where people are not so much suffering as simply going about their normal business. Yet the appearance of the residents of hell, depending on when they arrived, is increasingly translucent and ghostlike. Preoccupied with their selfish lives, they become utterly light of substance and less and less persons at all. In contrast, when the bus travels up to the outskirts of heaven, we discover the grass, flowers and trees vibrant with color and bigger and weightier than in earthly life. The residents of heaven, called the “Solid People,” are massive, magnificent human beings. They reflect the grandeur and presence of their Sovereign. In their devotion and obedience to the King, they are innocent and free to care for others, and therefore free to be themselves.
Exactly the opposite of the caricature the world portrays of the Christian, it is only in saving relationship to the God of the Bible that we can truly become “solid people” in the satisfying sense that we are designed to be. In short, through man’s design for perichoresis, those who experience God’s literal indwelling will be the most personal, resplendent and godly of all human beings.
The Self-Giving Nature of the Imago Dei
If right relationship with God is the foundation for true personhood, how is the divine image increasingly formed in the Christian’s life? What is the key to becoming man like Jesus Christ? We are not three persons, but one person. We are not infinite or self-sufficient, but finite and creaturely. Given that we are structured as persons in the imago dei, how does the Lord God make alive and perfect his image in us?
Christian Selfishness. From an historical and international perspective, it has often been said that Western Christianity has become increasingly self-serving. We offer Christianity because it will help set us free from our problems, make us feel good about ourselves, give us emotional ecstacy, nurture better marriages and happy families, lead us to physical health, psychological well-being and even success in business. Biblical principles do indeed bring a practical (albeit partial) salvation to our daily lives. But for all the helps available for bettering the life of the believer, too often the quality of his Christian devotion actually deteriorates. He becomes less interested in the Gospel and less still in sharing Christ with others. Too often we inadvertently present a Christian faith without its center.
Primary Themes of Jesus. It hardly needs to be said that Jesus repeatedly set forth in one form or another two great commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self (Mk 12:29-33). The Savior further clarified that the distinguishing activity of the Christian disciple and of the true believing community would be love for one another. The admonition or reference to love one another appears some 24 times in the New Testament. As Richard of St. Victor (d.1173) articulated in De Trinitate, true love always necessitates another who can receive that love.19 While we might enjoy chocolate cake or value our family pet, in its highest and biblical form, love is given by one person to another person. Whatever is given for one’s own benefit ultimately is little other than selfishness. We are to love the Lord God and our neighbor as ourselves.
A second most repeated theme of Jesus is that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life [yuchv, soul] for me will save it.” The statement is found in various contexts in each Gospel (Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; 14:27; Jn 12:24-25). In Beasley-Murray’s words, this is “the law of the kingdom of God: life is given through death,”20 exemplified powerfully by Jesus giving his own life for the sins of the world. The Savior emphasizes the principle of daily sacrifice of oneself in love and obedience to God — a continual letting go of life that daily refills the believer with the life of God. Cuban evangelist B. G. Lavastida put it this way: “There are three paradoxes of the Christian life: You must give in order to receive, you must let go in order to possess, and you must die in order to live.” Together with the commands to love wholeheartedly the Lord God, our brothers in Christ and our fellow human beings, the command to let go of self is one the most repeated of all the Savior’s admonitions.
The Divine Example. The self-giving nature of each person of the Trinity suggests that Jesus’ teaching on love and self-sacrifice relates to more than our simply being good. It seems to speak to the very nature of the imago dei of man. Self-sacrifice is not just an ethical extra for the pious. Rather, part of our human constitution is that we must give of ourselves in order to fulfill the way we are designed. One rightly supposes that members of the Godhead freely give of themselves and are not under obligation by design. However, the human being seems to be by very ontology under a kind of free obligation to give of himself to others. It may be that he can only enter more fully into the divine image, into full personhood, by giving himself away. By placing others first — God and then fellow man — he is completed as a human being and made truly “Christ-like” and “God-like” as a person. Thus, in understanding the self-givingness of the Triune God, we discover that what Christ asks us to do in taking up our cross is what the Holy Trinity exemplifies repeatedly in its own self-revelation. Indeed, in a sense, Jesus asks nothing of us that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not practice a million times over — without contradicting divine transcendence, sovereignty and glory.
Summarily, then, the key to human ontology is the imago dei within a trinitarian framework: (1) in man’s personal nature which, although fallen, reflects the personal aspects of the divine nature; (2) in his capacity for divine indwelling, paralleling the intra-trinitarian perichoresis; and (3) in his design for fulfullment through self-giving, mirroring the disposition of the Godhead itself.
If vestiges and potentialities of the divine image are found in the individual, then what might the imago dei indicate for the local church?
The Local Church In The Self-Giving Image
We have seen that (1), as Trinity, the Christian God is the eternally self-giving God and that (2) God created man in his self-giving image. This brings us to a final suggestion: God created not only the individual person but also the local church in the trinitarian self-giving image.21
A Collective Image of God
Tertullian once remarked, “Where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, there too is the Church which is the body of the Three.”22 Put a little differently, the expression of the Triune God is best reflected in the local church, the community of believers.
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you … I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. [Jn 17:20-23]
Among the many lessons of this prayer, Jesus asks that the unity he has with the Father be experienced in the unity of Christians — a unity with himself (and through him with the Father) and again with one another.
But what is the nature of the Godhead’s unity? On the one hand, as we have seen earlier, divine unity is not to be conceived as simply the fellowship of three independent deities — an idea made popular in the Social Theory of the Trinity. The unity of the Triune God is unique and beyond what can be said of finite personal union. In the words of Colin Gunton:
[divine unity’s] central concept is that of shared being: the persons do not simply enter into relations with one another, but are constituted by one another in the relations. Father, Son and Spirit are eternally what they are by virtue of what they are from and to one another. Being and relation can be distinguished in thought but in no way separated ontologically; they are rather part of the one ontological dynamic … not a blank unity, but a being in communion.23
Gunton is not denying a divine essence. He is arguing that God’s being is best understood not in classical Western terms of abstract substance (or essence) but of eternal personal relatedness. That is, God is being in relationship, or personally shared being. Therefore, in an ultimate sense, the unity of God is unique to the Godhead. Both trinitarian unity and inter-relatedness exist on a transcendent level outside human understanding.
On the other hand, although divine oneness surpasses human understanding, believers are called to be “a finite echo or bodying forth of the divine personal dynamics.”24
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God … because God is love … This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No-one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. [1 Jn 4:7-13]
Those elect and redeemed by the Lord are called in a limited way to be a communal expression of the Trinity. First, even though divine perichoresis goes beyond human categories, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers mirrors a similar reality. As the Spirit inhabits a Christian community, he unites believers to the Son and to the Father through the Godhead’s own coinherence in him. There is fellowship with and the presence of the entire Trinity through the mediation of the Spirit. Second, the responsive love that believers share toward God is reflective of the reciprocal love experienced in the Godhead. In Eastern Orthodoxy’s thinking, such love allows the believer to enter into the beatific fellowship of the Trinity itself. Third, the love of God shown by members toward one another reveals the nature of God and so serves as a collective image of the Trinity. It might be suggested that, as man and woman become one flesh in marriage, the act of sexuality becomes the closest creaturely approachment to indwelling the other. So in a spiritual sense, believers in the local church who love and care for one another reflect a presence of the others in their hearts. In any case, the personal unity and diversity of the Triune God is reflected in the unity and plurality of the local church bound together in the Holy Spirit and in the love of God.
Rarely in Christian history, however, has there been effort to conceive of the church as a community reflective of the trinitarian relationship. Instead, ecclesiology has been more patterned by the socio-political structures predominant in cultures where church organizations were formed. James Houston comments, “the tendency of ecclesial structures has been legal and essentially interpreted as political institutions.”25 Church forms of government typically have been little more than variations of monarchical (episcopal), federal (representative) and democratic (congregational) systems. Interestingly, Jürgen Moltmann suggests the opposite, that Western political (and ecclesiastical) systems from dictatorships to socialism simply have reflected poor theology — specifically an inadequate trinitarian theology, thus the loss of the freedom of the individual.26
Both organizationally and functionally, churches have fallen considerably short of reflecting trinitarian community. In Latin America, Evangelicalism has been characterized by coronelismo where a single pastor rules a church with an iron hand — continuance of both the spirit of the conquistadores and a papal religious heritage. Likewise, the African tribal structure led by chieftains and shamans is often carried directly into the pastoral roles of Christendom on that continent. And in North America, the sometimes fierce individualism of pioneers, cowboys and farmers is even yet occasionally passed into the working of the local church, where pastors assume unyielding authority or where individual members distrust anyone but themselves. More likely today, however, is the opposite extreme mirroring the ambiguities of postmodernism, in which churches tolerate such extreme plurality of doctrine, ethics and authority that there is hardly a unifying center. A reevaluation of ecclesial forms in the light of the New Testament and the Triune Lord of the church can only help us.
How might the local church reflect the triune divine image? I would like to the initiate discussion with several directives:
(1) Mutuality. Just as each member of the Holy Trinity is equally and completely God, so each believer in the local church is equally a son and daughter of God, coheir of the promises of the cross. Against the preacher-centered programs of many churches, local church functions (including the “worship service”) can better manifest the triune nature of God by involving, as much as possible, each member with spiritual activities.27 Believers are to be given real value and dignity by the local church, not left as anonymous spectators amidst professional performances. Creative biblical and cultural ways to include members should be encouraged, remembering that every believer is important and necessary in the Body of Christ. All members should be conscious of their responsibility of reciprocal submission and of giving of themselves to the other.
(2) Order. On the other hand, just as there is a functional or economic order in all the Godhead does (each divine person having distinct roles), so the New Testament defines a necessary order in the local church with pastor/presbyters, deacons, etc. Whether in the church, family or society, submission to another does not admit inferiority any more than the Son, by his obedience, is inferior to the Father (cf. 1 Pe 2:13-3:7; 5:1-5). Whereas reciprocal love and sensitivity on the part of the leader to those under his authority are important, these do not exempt him from leading, making difficult decisions and disciplining errant members. His love for God must outweigh his love of his brothers. Yet if one’s gift and role as leader has been given by God, then he should reflect the self-giving nature of God, even in the difficult task of discipline. Leadership itself would do well always to function in its own interdependency with order before the Lord.
(3) Deep friendships. If God exists as community, then real community is to be reflected in all the life of the church. In the words of Gordon Fee, “God is not just saving individuals and preparing them for heaven; rather, he is creating a people among whom he can live and who in their life together will reproduce God’s life and character.”28 Just as the Holy Trinity lives and functions not on the basis of rules, regulations or dogma but primarily on the basis of loving interdependency, so the church while standing for biblical truth is to nurture caring relationships among its members. Not surprisingly, the largest percentage of imperatives in the New Testament do not address the believer’s relationship directly to God, nor his relationship to the world, but his relationship to others in the local church. To imitate God, the local church must seek to cultivate deep friendships.29 Although doctrine is important, for it defines the nature and the will of the God we worship, the Christian life is primarily relational. It is learning to love and to respond to one another, in our limited ways, as do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to one another. By encouraging a relational ecclesiology around love for the Lord, the local church prefigures the blessed communion of heaven and of the Godhead itself.
(4) Biblical ecumenicity. The same mutual caring is not limited to believers in the local church or single denomination. Sensitivity to the unity and diversity of the Body of Christ should extend our care to other Christian churches as well — seen not as religious competition or as “errant brethren” but as fellow congregations in the universal Church of our Lord. The triune nature of the Godhead reminds one of the value and beauty of traditional, cultural and ethnic diversity manifest in sometimes radically diverse styles of worship and service. Often local churches and denominations have failed to appreciate the pluralism of God’s people, a people nevertheless united by “one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:4-5).
Self-Giving to the World
The Question of Creation. Returning to a larger perspective, one of the greatest of all questions is, Why is there something instead of nothing? Or why does anything exist at all? If God were selfish, it would be hard to understand why he would create something outside himself. Perhaps a God who is only one person would create in order to satisfy his own desire (or need) for glory, for relationship or so that he might exercise his sovereignty. But in an eternal Trinity where each member glorifies the other, where profound interpersonal relationships already exist and where God is completely self-sufficient, what would be the motive for the creation? As has been alluded to earlier, various scholars conclude that the Triune God created the vast realm of heaven — with its diversity of angelic beings — and our immense universe and tiny earth — with its vast diversity of plants, animals and people — as a overflow of the life and creative love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This divine overflow is not in pantheistic or deterministic senses, but rather God’s creative artistry that gives being to the other while maintaining God’s own freedom and independence. If such a deduction is true, then all creation exists as the result of God’s own self-giving beyond the internal personal relations of the Godhead. As Luther said, creation is grace.
If earth’s very existence owes itself to divine self-giving, then the local church created in the divine image would seem called to give itself to the world as well. Believers are called to manifest the saving presence of Jesus Christ through their own collective sacrifice among a hurting and hopeless humanity.
Selfish Churches. Just as an individual Christian focused upon himself becomes less Christ-like (and so less human), so a local church when it becomes centered on its own well-being will become a hollow shell of what it is intended to be. Too often churches, whether traditional or contemporary, have become content to orient nearly everything to their own members: programs, finances and even prayer concentrate repeatedly on themselves, their own preferences, patterns and goals. Not that members of a church should not nurture and care for one another. As we have seen, the imperative to love one another in the church — as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love one another — is very important. Yet the local church cannot remain absorbed in itself. Just as the persons of the Trinity did not confine themselves to loving themselves but rather created the worlds and entered redemptively into our existence, so the local church is called to give of itself to an alienated world.
A Missionary Image. In a sense, we might think of God the Father as the Sender, and both God the Son and God the Spirit as the divine missionaries. In Ireneaus’ well-worn terms, both are the ministering hands of God to bring mankind to salvation and into the family of God.30 In this sense, then, the Holy Trinity is the archetype of the local church and mission.31 As the Triune God came to a lost world in both the Son and the Holy Spirit, so this same God has structured the local body of Christians in such a way that in order to be fulfilled it too must collectively give of itself.
Among multiple examples of unselfish sacrifice, the Assembly of God in Brazil has mushroomed in relatively few years to over 12 million members. One of the extraordinary characteristics of the movement is the emphasis on lay-member church planting. Nearly any mechanic, salesman or teacher who senses a call from God and proves himself faithful in the local church might be commissioned to start a new congregation. Often at considerable personal cost, the “layman” will begin to preach and to teach evangelistic Bible studies while also working to sustain his family. A new congregation will be built around him, gradually rise to provide financially for him, and then strive to send out its own members to do the same again. A vibrant mother church will lose many of its strongest participants. Yet it is precisely by “giving itself away” that the Assembly of God has grown in large proportions. And they are not alone. Among various evangelical denominations in Latin America, a church is not considered a church until it has given birth to daughter churches. While appearing to lose its most devout members, the local church that imitates the Godhead in sacrificial love for the world is the one which multiplies.
In the words of Alistair McGrath, “Evangelism is something intrinsic to the identity of the Church — not an optional extra, but something part and parcel of its very being.”32 We know this to be true experientially, but often we fail to ask why it is so? It is because, as the individual, so the local church is created in the imago dei. Self-giving to a lost world is intrinsic not only for its own reflection of God, but also for its ontological fulfillment. The local community is divinely designed to give itself away. There is no other way. As Emil Brunner observes, “The church lives by mission as a fire lives by burning.”33 Our Lord’s imperative is to, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Because of our right relationship with the Godhead, reasons Paul, “We are therefore ambassadors” with the message “Be reconciled to God” (2 Co 5:20). To truly reflect the character of the tri-personal God, believers in the local church must take such New Testament imperatives seriously, giving themselves not only to one another but to a needy, sometimes hostile world. In so doing, we discover that in imitating the Triune Self-Giving God, we have unlocked the very ontology of ourselves, our churches and mission.
We have seen that, first, far from being selfish, the tri-personal God of the Bible reveals the most profound depths of self-giving. Each member of the Godhead freely gives of himself to the other, delighting in glorifying the other. God is love. Second, the key to human ontology is the imago dei within a trinitarian framework. The divine image is reflected not only in man’s innate personal nature but also through divine indwelling (a finite perichoresis) and the ontological obligation to give of oneself to God and to others. Thirdly, it is suggested that the local church also should reflect the trinitarian image, both in its internal and external relationships.
How unfortunate that the doctrine of the Trinity, with its implications for all of life, has lost its centrality in defining our worldview. Not only have we often not adequately understood the doctrine of the Godhead but, when understanding it, our tendency has been to separate theology from practice. We have done little to consciously express trinitarian belief in our daily lives and in the community and mission of the church.
Yet, as James Houston puts it, “God’s very being is expressive of our own being.”34 The Triune God is committed to us by his own self-giving nature. The Christian is created and redeemed to respond in like manner, giving himself to God and to fellow human beings. And so is the local church.
In the end, is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity irrelevant, Immanuel Kant? To the contrary, the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the center and absolute of all human reality. And, therefore, rather than a barrier to belief for non-Christians around the world, the truth of the Triune God becomes our greatest apologetic.
1 J. Scott Horrell, Th.D., is professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is formerly the graduate chairman of Systematics at the Faculdade Teolgica Batista de So Paulo and editor of Vox Scripturae: Revista Teolgica Latino-Americana.
2 Immanuel Kant, Der Streit der Fakultten, PhB 252, in Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., eds., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1989) 4.
3 Along with Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, primary works include: Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. J. Donceel (Grm. ed. 1967; New York: Herder & Herder, 1970); Eberhard Jüngel, The Doctrine of the Trinity. God’s Being Is in Becoming, trans. H. Harris (2d Grm. ed., 1966; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1976); Bernard Lonergan, The Way to Nicea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology, trans. C. O’Donovan (Rome ed., 1964; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976); Bertrand de Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History, trans. E. J. Fortman (Fr. ed. 1975; Still River MA: St. Bede’s, 1982); Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, trans. M. Kohl (Grm. ed. 1980; London: SCM Press, 1981); Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. P. Burns (Port. ed. 1985; Wellwood, Kent: Burns & Oates, 1988); Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991); Catherine Mowery LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991); Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993); Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994); Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Recent overviews include Christoph Schwbel, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995); John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1994); and Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
4 In Millard J. Erickson, Where Is Theology Going? Issues and Perspectives on the Future of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 122.
5 See Aubrey R. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God (2d ed., Cardiff: Univ. of Wales, 1961) 1-37; Larry Hurtado, One God One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London: SCM Press, 1988); Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (London: SPCK, 1992); Felix Christ, Jesus Sophia. Die Sophia-Christologie bei den Synoptikern (Zürich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1970); and Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Pre-Existence, Wisdom and the Son of Man (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1973).
6 Biblical studies include: A. W. Wainwright, The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1962) 237-247; G. A. F. Knight, A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1953); Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton: BridgePoint/Victor, 1996); Royce Gordon Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986); Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996) 9-46; and Erickson, God in Three Persons, 159-210.
7 Gruenler, The Trinity in the Gospel of John 121, cf. 89-140.
8 Two qualifying remarks are in order. First, it must be admitted that there is not full biblical evidence of trinitarian mutuality in every respect — particularly regarding the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father; the deduction is partially implicit and therefore made with caution. Second, concerning the accusation that the NT and early church were not explicitly trinitarianism, Fee observes, “We tend to think that a person is not a true trinitarian unless that person has a working formula in response to this question [of how God exists as Trinity]. To put the question this way, however, is to get ahead of Paul [and all the NT authors], not to mention to define trinitarianism by later standards … Paul affirms, asserts, and presupposes the Trinity in every way; and those affirmations — that the one God known and experienced as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each distinct from the other, is yet only one God — are precisely the reason the later church took up the question of how.” Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God 38.
9 Colin Gunton, “Augustine, the Trinity and the Theological Crisis of the West,” Scottish Journal of Theology 43:1 (1990) 33-58; The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 31-57; and The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1993).
10 See G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (2d ed., London: SPCK, 1952) 219-301; T. R. Martland, “A Study of Cappadocian and Augustinian Trinitarian Methodology,” Anglican Theological Review 47:3 (1965) 252-263; William G. Rusch, The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980)149-179; and Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church, trans. M. Westerhoff, ed. A. Louth (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993) 139-153. Eastern Orthodoxy defends the apophatic nature of God, i.e., that divine essence transcends human understanding and can only be spoken of as to what it is not. See Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, eds. J. H. Erickson and T. E. Bird (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1974) 13-29;
11 Cf. Jn 17:21. The Greek term perichoresis is often referred to as circumincession (Latin). See Michael O’Carroll, “Circumincession,” in Trinitas: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1987) 68-69; and Brian Hebblethwaite, “Perichoresis — Reflections on the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Theology 80:676 (1977) 255-261.
12 See, Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994) 829-845.
13 Walter F. Taylor, Jr., “Humanity, NT View of” in ABD III:321: “there is no independent reflection on anthropology in the NT dealing with humanity’s qualities, constituent parts, or nature, and therefore little definition of terms and no standardization of their usage. Rather, the anthropos is always understood in terms of the relationship with God.” Cf. 321-325.
14 Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 272.
15 See Alistair I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theology of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1990); John Zizioulas, Being As Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985); David Brown, “Trinitarian Personhood and Individuality,” in Feenstra and Plantinga, eds., Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement 48-78.
16 Cf. Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. T. Wieser and J. N. Thomas (Grm. ed. 1956; Richmond: John Knox, 1960).
17 See Petro B. T. Bilaniuk, “The Mystery of Theosis or Divinization,” in The Heritage of the Early Church, eds. David Neiman and Margaret Schatkin (Rome: Pontificus Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1973) 337-359; Vladmir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, trans. Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius (London: James Clarke, 1957) 67-134; Lossky, The Image and Likeness of God 97-140; and Dumitri Staniloae, “Image, Likeness and Deification in the Human Person,”Communio 13:1 (1986) 64-83. Not all church fathers (nor all moderns) are clear on the fundamental distinction between the divine nature and the nature of the believer. But, in time, Eastern theologians clarified that the believer partakes of (2Pe 1:4) what they termed divine energies, but not the divine essence which, as we have noted, was seen as mysteriously unique to God alone.
18 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946).
19 J. Ribaillier, Richard de Saint-Victor, De Trinitate. Texte critique (Paris, 1958) I.20.
20 George R. Beasley-Murray, John (Waco: Word, 1987) 211, WBC; he notes “hates his life” sometimes carries the meaning of “love less” in Hebrew idiom (Ge 29:30-31; Mt 10:37; Lk 14:26). It seems our Lord, rather than encourage a masochistic view of life — life which itself is a gift from God — insists that our obedience to God far surpass any thought of self-preservation and well-being.
21 Heinz Schutte documents that the trinitarian nature of the local church was a fairly common conception among patristic writers, as seen in Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and even Cyprian of Carthage, in spite of his argument for a hierarchical catholicism, who commented that the church is a “people made one in the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In Schutte, Im Gesprch mit dem Dreieinen Gott. Elemente einer Trinitrischer Theologie. Festscrift für Wilhelm Breuning, eds. Michael Bohnke and Hans-Peter Heinz (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1985) 361-362.Implications of the tri-personal God for marital and familial relations have been developed by Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History; Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “The Perfect Family,” Christianity Today (March 4, 1988) 24-27; Larry R. Thornton, “A Biblical Approach to Establishing Marital Intimacy. Part 1: Intimacy and Trinity,” Calvary Baptist Theological Journal 4:2(1988) 43-72.
22 Tertullian De baptismo VI,1; see Boff, Trinity and Society 106. See also Schutte, Im Gesprch mit dem Dreieinen Gott, 361-363, and Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives, 80, 92. While Luther and Calvin made oblique references to the church and the Trinity, they never drew out the implications.
23 Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many 214. See also Boff, Trinity and Society 123-154.
24 Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 74.
25 James Houston “Community and the Nature of God” (Chapel lecture no. 2526 (tape), Regent College, Vancouver BC).
26 Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom 191-222; see also Charles Sherrard MacKenzie, The Trinity and Culture (New York: P. Lang, 1987); Douglas M. Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989); John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives 106-123; and Daniel L. Migliore, “The Trinity and Human Liberty,” Theology Today 36:4 (1980) 488-497. On the other hand, one could hardly argue that Eastern trinitarianism has contributed to ecclesial and political balance in Eastern history.
27 Moltmann rightly argues that the traditional ecclesial forms of the church have typically usurped the primacy of function, “so that it is hardly possible for the community which is charismatic in itself to develop, because the community remains passive …” J. Moltmann, “The Reconciling Power of the Trinity in the Life of the Church and the World,” in The Reconciling Power of the Trinity. Conference of European Churches. C. E. C. Occasional Papers, No. 15 (Geneva: C. E. C., 1983) 53-54, cited in Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives 82-83, 92. See also J. S. Horrell, “A Essncia da Igreja,” in Ultrapassando Barreiras, ed. J. S. Horrell, 2 vols. (So Paulo: Vida Nova, 1994-95) 1:7-28.
28 Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God 66.
29 Houston, “Community and the Nature of God” (tape). See also Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology 81-85; John J. O’Donnell, “The Trinity as Divine Community,” Gregorianum 69:1 (1988) 5-34; and Plantinga, “The Perfect Family” 24-27.
30 Irineaus, Adversus Haereses 5.6.1.
31 For this reason the term missio Dei was coined at the Willingen missionary conference in 1952 to express that mission is based on and reflective of the Triune God’s nature, will and action. In the words of Irish theologian John Thompson, “What he does in and for the world corresponds to who he is in himself.” (68) Thus, “The ultimate basis of mission is the triune God — the Father who created the world and sent his Son by the Holy Spirit to be our salvation. The proximate basis of mission is the redemption of the Son by his life, death and resurrection, and the immediate power of mission is the Holy Spirit. It is, in trinitarian terms, a missio Dei.” Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives, 72.
32 Alistair McGrath, Christianity Today (June 19, 1995) 21.
33 Emil Brunner, cited in op. cit.
34 Houston, “Community and the Nature of God” (tape).
2. Show Me Thy Glory
Some people thoroughly fascinate me. Soon after I meet them I sense that there is something extraordinary about them. They think deeply and profoundly about things. Their ideas are creative and interesting. Their suggestions are practical and profitable. They exude an unusual radiance and concern for others. I find myself asking them questions and listening intently to the answers because I want to get to know them better, find out what they think, how they feel, and what makes them the people they are. Getting to know them is immeasurably helpful to me.
One day it occurred to me that God is the most fascinating person alive and that getting to know Him could well be the most helpful thing that ever happened to me. The more I probed His nature the more convinced I became that knowing Him is the solution to most of my problems. And as I listened to others share their burdens with me as their pastor, I became convinced that knowing God better was the answer to many of their problems as well. I decided that I want to get to know God intimately, and that I want to help others get to know Him as well, if I possibly can.
Many Bible students believe as a result of their examination of Scripture that the Christian’s most important occupation is getting to know God. Would you say that you know God personally? If so, how well? Barely? Casually? Intimately? Polls reveal that, in spite of the increased secularization of our society, the great majority of Americans still believe in the existence of God. Nearly everyone has had doubts about it at some time or other, but when the average person considers the evidence thoughtfully, he comes to the convinced persuasion that there is no other logical explanation for things as they are or life as we know it. There must be a personal God.
But if those same people were asked, “Do you know God personally?” many would admit that they had never actually thought about it. Having a personal and intimate relationship with God is something that has never occurred to them. In fact, they are not even sure that God is knowable, or that they would want to know Him if they thought they could.
All of us have our own mental image of what God is like. Psychologists tell us that it is formed largely through our relationships with our earthly fathers. For some, God is an angry tyrant who is upset with them most of the time. Who wants to know a god like that? For others, God is a strict disciplinarian who is always watching over their shoulders, ready to rap them on the knuckles if they step out of line. They want to get as far as they can from a god like that. For still others, God is an absentee father who is too busy or too aloof to care about them. He created them but now He has more important things to do. There isn’t much sense in trying to get to know a god like that. And for yet others, God is like an old fashioned great-grandfather who might be nice to know, but who really wouldn’t understand them or have much in common with them if they did know Him. So why bother to make the effort?
Most people would like to feel that God is on their side rather than against them, or that He will be there when they need Him. But know Him personally? That concept is foreign to them. I have often wondered what God thinks about all this. He is a person, you know. He does think. And He does have feelings. How would you feel if you kept sharing yourself with others in overtures of friendship, but most everybody to whom you reached out refused to accept you or refused to believe what you had to say about yourself? They insisted instead on perpetuating their own preconceived notions about you and went on ignoring you. That may be how God feels about the situation.
God is knowable, and He does want to be known. As a matter of fact, He tells us that our eternal state depends upon knowing Him. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Knowing God and His Son Jesus is the heart of the whole matter of eternal life. The word know in this verse does not refer to a casual acquaintance either. It is the kind of knowledge that comes through living contact and personal relationship. If knowing God is that important, maybe we ought to talk about how we can get to know Him.
The One To Be Known Must Reveal Himself
What does it mean to know somebody? Obviously, we must first know something about him, what he is like, how he thinks, and how he is likely to act under certain circumstances. And that can only happen when he reveals himself to us.
If I want to get to know you, I need to make myself available to you, reach out to you in a friendly way, and show an interest in you. But that will accomplish very little unless you are willing to reveal yourself to me. You are the key. You decide whether or not I will ever get to know you. If you want me to know you, you will open up and tell me about yourself—what you are thinking, what you really believe, what you are feeling. You will be yourself in my presence, that is, act in a normal manner consistent with your true personality. You won’t put on airs, wear a facade, mask your true self, or always put your best foot forward.
One reason some Christians enjoy so few genuine friendships is that they are afraid to let people know them, afraid they wouldn’t be liked or trusted if anybody knew the real person inside. So they play the old game of cover-up. God is not like that. He wants to be known. He is confident that the better we know Him, the more we will love Him, trust Him, worship Him, and serve Him. So He takes the initiative and opens up. He tells us about Himself. He reveals Himself to us. It has to be that way. There can be no personal knowledge of God unless He makes Himself known.
How does God reveal Himself? One way is in nature. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). He also reveals Himself in history. As King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon learned, “the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind” (Daniel 4:17). The Apostle Paul taught us that God reveals something about His holy standards through man’s conscience (Romans 2:14-16). But none of these give us very many particulars about God’s personality or nature. We need something more. We need to have Him talk with us. And He does that, not through spooky voices or mystical experiences, but through Scripture. They are God’s words to us. They were given by the breath of His mouth (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 4:4). In the Bible God tells us what He is like. We learn how He thinks, how He feels, and how we can expect Him to act. If we want to know God, we must begin by opening the Bible and reading what He has to say about Himself.
But God is infinite, and we are finite human beings. How can the finite ever really understand the infinite? How can the human ever truly know the divine? It seems that God must reveal Himself to us in some way more personal than mere written words if we are ever to know Him genuinely. And that is exactly what He did. “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 upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Jesus Christ is the out-shining of God’s glory and the perfect expression of God’s essential being. To know Him is to know God. Jesus Himself made that claim when He said, “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him” (John 14:7).
While Jesus has returned bodily to Heaven, God has given us both the inspired record of His life as well as the spiritual faculties we need to know Him personally. We can know Christ just as intimately as if we walked with Him on earth as His first disciples did. And to know Him is to know God.
Of course, the spiritual faculties we need are not operative when we are born. Scripture says they are dead. They need to be made alive toward God (cf. Ephesians 2:1). God does that for us when we acknowledge our guilt and put our trust in Christ’s payment for our sins at Calvary. In a second birth, a spiritual birth, a birth from above, He gives us eternal, spiritual life (cf. John 3:3, 16). He enters our being in the person of His Spirit and brings us into a personal relationship with Himself. Then we can confidently say, “I know the Lord.” The knowledge of God begins at the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the knowledge He was referring to when He claimed that eternal life was a matter of knowing His Father and Himself. Knowing God in this sense means becoming a true Christian.
From that point on we have the spiritual resources to get to know Him better. And that is what He wants us to do. He encourages us to grow in His knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). But how is that going to happen? He has taken the initiative and has revealed Himself. The next step is ours.
The One Who Wants To Know Must Respond
Cultivate a Desire. Let’s go back to our human illustration for a moment. If I want to know you, first you must open up to me and share yourself with me. But I am still not going to know you very well unless I respond to your self revelation. The quality of my response will depend to a large degree on the intensity of my desire. Has my first insight into your personality whet my appetite to know more? Do I wish to pursue the relationship and carry it to a deeper level? While you were the key originally, now I am the key. I decide whether or not I will ever know you better.
Some Christians have not made much of a response in their relationship with God. They have learned enough about Him to acknowledge their need for salvation, and they have met Him personally and experientially in a saving relationship, but they have never moved on from there. Unfortunately they have gotten lousily entangled in too many other pursuits, and their time for getting to know God better has been crowded out. Though they know Him, it is not a very intimate and thorough knowledge. That could explain some of the problems in their lives, things such as nagging worries, endless fears, stifling guilt, a sour disposition, a gloomy outlook, and spiritual or emotional depression, since an inadequate knowledge of God will affect all these areas of life. And things will probably not change very much until they do develop a burning desire to know God more intimately.
Getting to know God better could well be the single most important issue in the Christian’s life. It affects so many aspects of our spiritual walk. For example, most believers who desire to please God want to know His will. They are asking, “What does God want me to do?” Knowing Him better will provide the answer to that question. As our knowledge grows, we will begin to think as He thinks, see things as He sees them, be burdened about the same things that burden Him. We will not need to ask what He wants us to do. We will know. And that is a good reason to begin cultivating a desire to know Him.
Moses had that desire. We read about it shortly after Israel’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf. Moses had pitched a tent outside the camp and was meeting there with God regularly. God was speaking to him face to face as a man speaks to his friend, and Moses was getting to know Him. But he wanted to know Him much better. “Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found favor in Thy sight, let me know Thy ways, that I may know Thee” (Exodus 33:13). That was the desire of his heart—to truly know God. His request resulted in a great promise from God: “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). It was a beautiful assurance of God’s perpetual guidance and care.
But even that was not enough for Moses. Every new revelation of God stirred a hunger in his heart for more. With a longing in his soul he cried, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” (Exodus 33:18) God’s glory is the sum total of all his attributes. Moses yearned to know all that a human being can possibly absorb about an infinite God. His soul thirsted for a knowledge of God. That is how a person gets to know Him. He realizes that life in this world is empty and meaningless apart from an intimate and thorough knowledge of the living God who made the world and controls it, who made him and gave him life. He longs to know God and he cries out from the depths of his soul, “Show me Thy glory.” That person is ready for an earthshaking, life changing, experiential knowledge of God.
David had the same desire. We see it repeated throughout the Psalms:
One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to meditate in His temple (Psalm 27:4).
To dwell in the house of the Lord was to live in intimate fellowship with the Lord. That was David’s passion:
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So my soul pants for Thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God;
Where shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1-2)
O GOD, Thou art my God; I shall seek Thee earnestly;
My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee,
In a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63:1).
Paul had the desire as well: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8). All the position, praise, power, prestige, and possessions of earth were like trash compared to the excellency of knowing Christ because those things have no eternal value. They were not worth occupying his mind.
Why would anyone want to sit around and long after trash? Yet that is exactly what some believers are doing. They crave the things of the world instead of the knowledge of God; they long for the debris at the city dump when they can have the best life has to offer—an intimate relationship with the living God. The overpowering passion of Paul’s life was to know Christ (Philippians 3:10). That may have been one of the prime reasons God used him so powerfully. The desire was there. Ask God to give you that same desire, to help you cultivate a thirst for Him. Then begin reading His Word with an eye open to what He says about Himself. Each new revelation will create a desire to know more.
Accept What God Reveals. After cultivating the desire, the next step in our response to God’s self revelation is to accept what He makes known about Himself. That is the body of information we call the attributes of God. An attribute is an inherent characteristic, whatever God reveals as being true of Himself. It is not so much a part of God or a quality that He possesses as how He is or what He is—the essence of His being, His nature, His character. God and His attributes are actually one. As we study these attributes we are going to learn not only what God is like, but who God is.
Some theologians draw a sharp distinction between God’s essence and His attributes, but that seems to be unnecessary. The sum of His attributes constitutes who He is, His essential being. If you described all the properties of something you would be describing what it is, its essence. Just so, if you could describe all of God’s attributes you would be describing His essence, who He is.
Obviously, we do not know everything there is to know about God. We are limited to what He has revealed about Himself in His Word. And with our finite minds we cannot even comprehend all of that. But what we do grasp of what He has revealed can enrich our existence on earth immeasurably and provide us greater pleasure than any other pursuit in life. It brings us into personal touch with the living God.
There is also a debate among theologians concerning how the attributes of God are to be classified and cataloged. Some distinguish His natural attributes from His moral attributes, that is, those that belong to his constitutional nature in contrast to those that qualify him as a personal, moral being. Others separate the communicable attributes from the incommunicable, that is, those that can be understood by comparing them to something in human life in contrast to those that have no human counterpart. Others insist there are immanent attributes that relate to God as He is, and transitive attributes by which He reveals Himself to His creation. Why do we need to classify God’s attributes? He is who He is. I would prefer simply to know Him as He is and not try to pigeonhole each attribute.
As we see God reveal Himself in His Word we may say at times, “That is not the way I have always thought about God.” But what we have always thought is not particularly important. Concentrating on that may only confuse us. We need to focus on what God has told us about Himself. For example, if I have preconceived ideas about you that are inaccurate, yet I continue to hold on to those ideas after you tell me the truth about yourself, I will obviously never get to know you. I must accept what you tell me about yourself. Just so, when God tells us who He is and how He acts we need to believe Him. That is essential to knowing Him. But there is still something more that we need to understand.
Involve Your Entire Being. After the desire has been cultivated, and the decision to accept what He reveals has been made, there must be a definite commitment to Him that involves our total being. In our human illustration, I cannot get to know you intimately unless I commit myself to spend time with you, take an interest in what interests you, get concerned about what concerns you, and rejoice in what brings joy to you. I must become totally involved in your life. Unfortunately, many of us have stopped short of that point in our knowledge of God.
If we really want to know Him, it is going to involve our total person—intellect, emotions, and will. Unfortunately, we live in a day of extremes. On one hand are the superintellectuals who know all the doctrines about God, yet feel nothing in their relationship with Him. On the other hand are the supersentimentalists who can drum up a great emotional religious experience, but do not know the facts about God. In between are all kinds of people who say they know God yet do not exercise their wills to obey Him.
All three parts of our personality are involved in knowing God. First, we learn about Him with our intellects. We study the Word, absorb the information He reveals about Himself, meditate on it, then think through its implications and applications to our way of living. That is all the function of the mind. The mind must be involved in knowing God. If we do not have accurate information about Him, we cannot say we know Him.
But we must not stop with the mind. As we learn more about Him we become more emotionally involved with Him. And that is nothing to be afraid of. There is no reason to back away from the emotional expression of our faith. When we see the depths of His love for us it might well bring tears to our eyes or shouts of joy to our lips. It will certainly inspire greater love for Him. When we understand the far reaching implications of His goodness and grace toward unworthy sinners such as we are, we may burst into song, even if we cannot carry a tune. When we realize how deeply we have hurt Him by our sin we will feel grief. When we experience the reality of His forgiveness we will feel relief, and love, and joy, and a sense of security. When we see people spurn Him our hearts will be saddened. These are all emotions, and a true knowledge of God cannot eliminate them.
But we do not stop with an intellectual knowledge of the facts and some exciting emotional experiences. We must do something about what we have discovered. We must choose by an act of our wills to live in a manner consistent with the information we have received and the feelings we have encountered. Not everyone does that. Paul told us about people who professed to know God but denied Him by their deeds (Titus 1:16). John went so far as to say that the person who says he knows God but refuses to obey Him is a liar (1 John 2:4).
Let’s go back to the human illustration again. If I have gotten to know you intimately, you will expect certain things from me, things such as loyalty, faithfulness, trust, fellowship, an open sharing of myself with you, and a desire to please you. Those are things I must choose to do by an act of my will.
We cannot really say we know God just because we have accumulated some facts about Him or had an emotional experience with Him. If we truly know Him we will choose to do what He wants us to do. We will talk with Him, freely tell Him what is going on inside us, honestly admit where we fall short of His expectations, implicitly trust what He tells us, depend on Him, submit ourselves to Him, obey Him, and worship Him all because of who we have discovered Him to be. As we relate to Him in that way our personal knowledge of Him will grow even more meaningful and fulfilling.
Our willingness to obey God can increase our understanding of Him immensely. For example, if I express my willingness to obey your instructions, I am going to learn a great deal about you from the things you ask me to do. The more I obey, the more you will instruct me, and the more I will learn. When I stop listening to what you want me to do I will stop growing in my knowledge.
Anne Sullivan, who tutored the blind and deaf Helen Keller, recognized that it was useless to try to teach her anything until the young girl learned to obey her. She became convinced that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind of a child. The same is true for the child of God. Obedience is the gateway to our knowledge of Him. Some of us have reached a roadblock in our relationship with God. Knowing Him better will first require yielding our wills to Him fully and deciding to obey Him unreservedly.
If that issue is settled and you want to go on growing in your knowledge of God, I would like to help by bringing together some of the information He has revealed about Himself in His Word. I feel most inadequate to do that, but I want to try. The rest is up to you. You will need to believe what God says, then commit yourself to total involvement with Him. It may mean some changes in the way you live, but the benefits will be enormous. Maybe it would be profitable to review a few of those benefits before we go on to explore God’s attributes. That is the purpose of the next chapter.
Action To Take
Determine first that you will ask God daily to show you something about Himself, and secondly that you will read some portion of Scripture daily, looking for some truth about Him. Begin right now.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
3. The People Who Know Their God
“What’s wrong with my spiritual life? Why don’t I have the peace and joy that other Christians have?” I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who have asked questions like those through the years of my pastoral ministry. They have read in the Bible that Christians are supposed to have “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8), but they cannot even begin to imagine what that kind of a Christian experience must be like. If they were writing a treatise on the Christian life it would be more like “gloom irrepressible and full of worry.”
No Magic Formula
I do not have any magic formula to put the sparkle into your Christian life. There are many factors in Scripture that affect our spiritual well-being, but one thing is certain—our personal, intimate, experiential knowledge of God is one major factor. The spiritual benefits of knowing God are literally exciting. We shall be talking more about them in conjunction with each individual attribute, but let us consider a few general advantages as we get started, in order that we might sharpen our spiritual appetite and arouse our thirst for God. Here are some of the good things we will enjoy as our knowledge of God grows.
Scripture declares that “the people who know their God will display strength and take action” (Daniel 11:32). That is a great promise. But in order to understand it we need to know a little Jewish history. The Jewish people have experienced some fierce persecutions through the centuries, but none worse than under Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian king who reigned from 175 to 164 B.C. He assumed the name Theos Epiphanes which means “the manifest God,” but the Jews changed one letter in his name (in their language) and called him Epimanes, which means “mad man.” And mad he was! His hatred for the Jews was literally insane.
Daniel anticipated his reign prophetically in this eleventh chapter of the book. And he did exactly what Daniel predicted. He ordered the Jewish sacrifices to cease and polluted the temple of God by offering swine’s flesh on the altar. In addition to that, he prohibited the observance of the sabbath and the circumcision of children, ordered all copies of Scripture destroyed, set up idolatrous altars, commanded the Jews to offer unclean sacrifices, and insisted that they eat swine’s flesh. Anyone who disobeyed his edicts was sentenced to death. It was an ancient holocaust. As Daniel anticipated this atrocity he asked himself how these people would ever be able to survive. The answer was not long in coming: “the people who know their God will display strength and take action” (11:32).
And that is exactly what they did. A group of courageous men called the Maccabees led a heroic revolt against Antiochus. Their exploits, against insuperable odds, were nothing short of phenomenal. They knew their God, laid hold of His sovereign power and might, took action, and broke the grip of Antiochus on Israel. Their story is a saga of strength, the mighty power of people who know God. People today who truly know God have the same degree of courage and strength. They stand for righteousness, oppose wickedness, endure persecution when necessary, triumph through suffering, and accomplish great things for God’s glory. There is no other way to have spiritual power except through the knowledge of God.
Daniel himself was a man who knew God. When the presidents and princes of the Medo Persian Empire prevailed upon King Darius to issue a decree prohibiting anybody from making petitions to any god or man except the king, or be cast into the lion’s den, Daniel went right on praying to the God of Heaven (Daniel 6:4-15). Not even the threat of death could keep him from it. He knew his God, and people who know God have the courage and strength to do His will even though the whole world be against them and everybody around them be giving in to sin. We too can have the spiritual power to do God’s will and to make a significant impact on the godless world in which we live. As our knowledge of Him increases and our friendship with Him grows more intimate, He makes His power more readily available to us.
Peter tells us something about people who know God. He says, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2). His statement reveals that both grace and peace are increased in the believer’s life by the full or thorough knowledge of God. Grace is God’s favor, His gracious care, faithful assistance, and help. We enjoy God’s help to the extent that we know Him. That should be easy to understand. If we do not know Him very well, we will not know what help He has available, or even that He is offering us any help. We must know Him in order to be able to accept the benefits He extends to us.
But it is the peace that I want to address here—an inner tranquillity, a quiet confidence, a stability and control in the face of difficult circumstances. It multiples in us through the knowledge of God who controls our circumstances. How desperately we need peace in our uptight world! When we have peace, we realize that there is no reason to worry over every new problem. The all-powerful God who loves us and cares about every detail in our lives is going to see that it turns out best. The better we get to know Him, the more we rest in His wise plans for our future.
There is a great illustration in the book of Daniel of the peace that comes from knowing God. King Nebuchadnezzar had erected a ninety-foot statue of himself before which all his subjects were commanded to bow. To refuse meant death in the fiery furnace. But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were men who knew God. They could not bow before that golden image. When it became obvious that they had refused, they were brought before the king and given one last chance. Nebuchadnezzar proudly announced, “if you will not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:15)
The answer of those three men of God is one of the classic Biblical expressions of faith. They began by saying, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this” (verse 16). There was no disrespect in their words. They were merely admitting that the accusation was correct and that they had no defense. They did what they had to do. But they continued, “If it be so, [that is, if we are thrown into the fire] 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. 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” (verses 17-18).
They knew an all-powerful God who was able to deliver them. He who created fire and who made their bodies could certainly keep them from being burned. And they believed He would. But even if they did not fully understand God’s plan and purpose for them at that time and He did not deliver them, it really did not matter! They would be better off in His presence anyway. In either case, they would not disobey Him by bowing before the image. They had perfect peace and tranquillity in the face of a torturous death because they knew God.
Wouldn’t you like to have peace like that? Wouldn’t you like to stand up to any trial, any problem, any danger, or any threat, and be able to say confidently, “It really doesn’t matter what happens to me. I know that God will work it together for good. I want only to do His will and glorify Him.” That degree of peace depends on an intimate knowledge of God. As we learn to know Him better and begin to sense His unlimited power coupled with His undying love, we will learn to relax in Him—just as a little child relaxes peacefully in his father’s arms while a storm rages outside.
Paul was a man who enjoyed the benefits of knowing God, and he longed for his converts to share those same blessings. He often prayed to that end, and in those prayers we learn more about the advantages of knowing God. For the Ephesians he prayed, “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” (Ephesians 1:17). The word spirit is not a reference to the Holy Spirit. The Ephesians already had Him dwelling in their lives. Paul was referring to a mental attitude or disposition of true spiritual understanding which the Holy Spirit alone could produce in them, that is, the ability to comprehend God’s truth and appropriate it. He wanted them to be able to grasp spiritual realities and the application of those truths to their lives.
Some of us have a deficiency in spiritual understanding. We read the Word of God without comprehending what it says, and we totally miss its implications for us. We would like to have what Paul prayed for, a spirit of wisdom and revelation, the ability to discern divine truth, but we never seem to attain it. Where is it to be found? How can we get it? Does it require a degree in theology? Paul tells us where it is located—in the knowledge of Him. The people who intimately know their God have spiritual understanding that far surpasses their formal education. The time they have spent with Him has given them more insight into the purpose of life than any of the world’s great universities could ever provide.
Peter and John were men like that. They were preaching Christ in the temple courtyard and the Jewish religious leaders were furious. They took the two disciples into custody and questioned them about their activities, insisting that they reveal by what power they performed their miracles. Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, delivered a powerful testimony to the person of Christ that demonstrated not only his familiarity with recent events in Jerusalem, but also his grasp of Old Testament Scripture (Acts 4:8-12). It was an amazingly articulate expression of faith from an uneducated fisherman. Where did he get that kind of wisdom? The record goes on to tell us: the Jews “began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). They had come into a personal and intimate knowledge of the living God through His Son Jesus Christ. They had walked with Him and talked with Him for three and one-half years. As a result they had an understanding of spiritual truth that those religious rulers could not begin to match with all their theological training and sanctimonious religiosity. People who know God have wisdom.
Your Real Purpose
Isn’t that what you really want? Not so you can amaze your friends with your knowledge of Scripture or your grasp of theological truth. But so that you can know what life is all about, and make an impact on their lives for the glory of God as they observe the reality of Christ in you. It will happen when you get to know Him intimately.
Paul’s prayer for the Colossians describes another advantage of knowing God: “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” (Colossians 1:9-10). There is some difference of opinion as to how this should be translated. While most of our popular translations render it as a prayer for the Colossians to increase in the knowledge of God, most commentators understand it to mean that the knowledge of God is the means by which we bear fruit and increase in every good work. They would translate it something like this: “bearing fruit and increasing in every good work by the knowledge of God.”
Now that is a thought for believers to mull over. Some are asking, “Why can’t I do what is right? Why don’t I have the love and joy and peace that I crave?” Here is one reason. Our fruitfulness and our growth depend on our knowledge of God. We ought to be able to understand that since it works the same way in the human realm. As I grow in my knowledge of my friends I enjoy being with them more and I have a greater desire to please them. That is what occurs in our relationship with the Lord. The more we know of His love for us the more we love Him in return (1 John 4:19). And the more we love Him the more we want to please Him (1 John 5:3; John 14:15).
There is another human analogy that will help us understand this truth. Psychologists tell us that we acquire similarities to the people we get to know intimately and with whom we spend much time. As we spend time with our Lord and grow in our knowledge of Him we begin to develop Christ-like traits, the very things which the New Testament refers to as fruit. In other words, we will bear fruit and increase in every good work by the knowledge of God. Try getting to know Him better. You will enjoy it.
A Psalm writer named Asaph did. He was in bad shape spiritually. He says he came close to stumbling; his steps had almost slipped (Psalm 73:2). He was on the verge of a serious spiritual defeat, angry with God because ungodly people were doing better than he was. He certainly was not growing until, he says,
I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end (verse 17).
Being in the sanctuary of God was an Old Testament way of expressing fellowship with Him. Asaph got to know God—His love, His care, His guidance, and His all-sufficiency. Then he went on to say,
Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (verses 23-26).
His knowledge of God changed his life and gave him a growing delight in walking with Him. He could say, “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good” (verse 28). The closer he got to God the more he grew and the better he enjoyed his spiritual experience. It can be our good too. We will experience new growth and fruitfulness when we get to know Him.
There is one more general blessing of knowing God that I would like to point out. It is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Those Galatians had a problem with legalism. Their Christian lives were a grind: “I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that, I can’t go here, I can’t say that.” They lived in constant fear that they had not done enough to please God and that led to overwhelming feelings of guilt. The only way to compensate for their guilt was to try harder. They were probably saying, “I must grit my teeth and give it all I’ve got. But I really don’t feel like it. I wish God would get off my back.” So along with the fear and guilt there was probably resentment against God for the pressure they were feeling. One word sums up that kind of Christian life—bondage!
God never intended us to live like that. Knowing Him truly, personally, and intimately delivers us from bondage. Paul wrote to them, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Galatians 4:9) They came to know God and their knowledge had delivered them from bondage. But as sad as it was, they had willfully chosen to put themselves back under the very bondage from which they had been delivered. Why? What was their problem?
Trying to please God without growing in our knowledge of Him will put us under bondage every time. We think we have to perform to be accepted. So we struggle and strive to please Him, never sure we have succeeded, frustrated over the pressure we think He is putting on us, and yet afraid to stop trying. That kind of life is sheer misery.
When we understand His love, His grace, His forgiveness, and His unconditional acceptance of us in Christ, obedience is no longer a struggle or a grind. It is free, natural, and joyful. In fact, it is actually fun. We obey Him not because we think we must do it in order to gain His approval, but because we want to. We consider it a delightful privilege. We love the one who has already accepted us, undeserving though we are, and we enjoy pleasing Him. Paul pleads with the Galatians and with us, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1 KJV). The only way we can do that is to get to know Him better.
There is actually no end to the blessings of knowing God. As Peter put it, “His divine power has granted to us every thing pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). Everything we need to assure us of eternity in God’s presence is found in our knowledge of Him. Everything we need to help us live godly lives here and now is found in our knowledge of Him. Everything! It sounds again as though getting to know God could be the most important aspect of our Christian lives. What are we waiting for? Let’s begin to grow in our knowledge of Him.
Action To Take
Begin to think about God at frequent intervals throughout the day. In each new situation ask yourself, “What difference would it make if I knew God’s perspective on this? How would I respond if I really knew God?”
4. Three in One
It is essential for us to understand from the outset that our one great God exists in three persons. Admittedly, the typical nonbeliever views the doctrine of the trinity as one of the most ridiculous things he has ever heard. He is convinced that Christians must be out of their minds to accept it. God is one yet God is three? That’s absurd! One plus one plus one equals one? That’s nonsense—a blatant contradiction of simple, self-evident arithmetic. It stretches the credulity of reasonable people. “Three-in-One” may be a good name for sewing machine oil, but as a description of God the unbeliever sees it as sheer, unmitigated gibberish.
Where did such an idea ever come from? It is so utterly outlandish by human standards, it would seem unlikely that any man would have ever thought it up. That leads us to suspect that God Himself might have revealed it, and that is exactly what we find in Scripture. While the word trinity nowhere appears in the Bible, the idea is found there from beginning to end. There is no question about it—the doctrine of the trinity is divinely revealed Biblical truth. Our one God exists in three persons.
That is not to say that the authors of Scripture understood it clearly at first. When Peter, John, and the other disciples first saw Jesus they did not say, “Oh look, there goes God in flesh, the second person of the holy trinity.” Yet as they heard Him claim to be the revelation of the Father with the prerogatives of deity, and as they watched Him perform the supernatural works of deity, they came to the convinced persuasion that He was God the Son.
Likewise, they probably gave very little thought at first to the Holy Spirit being the third person of the eternal Godhead. But when the events of the day of Pentecost had ended, it was obvious to them that the power they had witnessed working in them and through them was not their own. It was the power of God. The Spirit who indwelled them was none other than God Himself. So then, led by that same divine Spirit they revealed to us in their writings the triunity of the eternal God.
Men may object to it, but their objections arise primarily because they seek to understand the Creator in terms of the creature, to see God as merely a bigger and better version of man when in reality He is a totally different kind of being, an infinite being whom our finite minds cannot fully comprehend. We believe the doctrine of the trinity not because we understand it, but because God has revealed it. It is not incidental or unimportant. It is the very essence of His being, the way He is. And it is necessary for us to know it if we hope to grow in our understanding of His nature and perfections. What then does it mean that God exists in triunity?
An Explanation of the Triune God
It is a basic tenet of our Biblical faith that there is but one God. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The unity of the Godhead cannot be questioned. God does not consist of parts so He cannot be divided into parts. He is one. Polytheism is sinful man’s feeble attempt to break God down into lesser gods and so weaken Him, to get rid of that one supreme, sovereign ruler whose will is absolute and who demands our total allegiance. But it cannot be done. There is one God, undivided and indivisible, who has one mind, one plan, one purpose, and one ultimate goal. We can be thankful for that. Trying to please many gods would only lead to mental confusion and turmoil. Missionaries testify to the utter relief expressed by animistic and polytheistic peoples when they discover that there is but one God. Submitting to the will of one God brings wholeness and unity of purpose to life.
But Scripture reveals that there are, in that one divine essence, three eternal distinctions. Those distinctions seem best described as persons, known as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All three have identical attributes, however, and therefore they are one—not merely one in purpose, but one in substance. To possess all the exact same attributes is to be one in essential nature. Three persons with identical sovereignty, for example, would be one sovereign. Three persons with identical omnipotence would be one omnipotent being. We humans may have characteristics similar to others, but not identical to them. If we were absolutely identical to another person in every way, the two of us would actually be one. The three persons of the Godhead possess identical attributes. They are one in substance and one in essence, and therefore they are one God.
Many attempts have been made to illustrate the doctrine of the trinity: a three-leaf clover; an egg with its yolk, white, and shell; H2O which can be either water, ice, or steam; the sun which embodies heat, light, and time; a man who is at one time a father, a son, and a brother; the space in a cube which is one entity, yet composed of length, breadth, and heighth, each equal to the other and part of the other. But in the final analysis every illustration breaks down somehow. We cannot find any finite analogy which fully explains the doctrine of the trinity. We simply believe it because God has revealed it. Our one God exists in three persons.
It seems to have been a man named Theophilus of Antioch who first applied the term trinity to this Biblical concept as early as 181 A.D. But it was the Anathasian Creed, completed some time in the fifth century, which stated it most clearly: “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance.”
Some Evidence for the Triune God
It is one thing to say that God is three in one, but something altogether different to prove it. What is the Biblical testimony to the doctrine of the trinity? While the primary emphasis of the Old Testament is on the unity of God, the indications of His triunity are clearly seen even there. We need not read very far to find the first one: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). While the verb create is singular and thus should have a singular subject, Elohim, the Hebrew name for God in this verse, is plural. That may not prove the Trinity, but it definitely points to plurality of persons in the Godhead. There was no other logical reason to choose a plural name. Some have maintained that it is a plural of majesty, but that projects something to ancient Hebrew minds that they never considered. They addressed their kings in the singular. So, as startling as it may seem, the first time we meet God in the Old Testament there is evidence of plural personal distinctions in Him.
We are not surprised, then, to hear Him say a short time later, “Let Us make man in Our image” (Genesis 1:26). The plural pronouns could not refer to angels because they were never associated with God in His creative activity. Consequently, more than one divine person was evidently involved. The plural pronouns make no sense otherwise (cf. Genesis 3:22; 11:7).
There are other Old Testament indications of plurality in the Godhead, such as references to the Angel of Jehovah, who is sometimes identified with Jehovah and yet at other times distinguished from Him. But one of the clearest statements was recorded by the prophet Isaiah. The Lord is speaking, the one who calls Himself the first and the last, the one who created the heavens and the earth (Isaiah 48:12-13). Here is what He says:
Come near to Me, listen to this: From the first I have not spoken in secret, From the time it took place, I was there. And now the Lord GOD has sent Me, and His Spirit (verse 16).
Do you see the implication of that? The Lord said that the Lord God and His Spirit sent Him. It looks very much like our one God exists in three persons.
But the unanswerable Biblical testimony to the Trinity is simply that all three persons are referred to as divine. First, the Father is called God. For instance, He is referred to as “God the Father” (Galatians 1:1), or “God our Father” (Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2), or “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). His deity is unquestioned.
But the Son is likewise referred to as God. He possesses the attributes of deity such as eternity, immutability, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. He bears the names of deity such as Jehovah, Lord, Immanuel, and the Word. He even permitted Thomas to call Him “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). He exercises the prerogatives of deity such as forgiving sins, raising the dead, and judging all men. And He accepts worship reserved only for God.
Nobody can deny that He was claiming equality with the Father when He said, “In order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23). He insisted that He deserved the very same reverence that was reserved for God the Father. He did not seem to be the kind of man who was a lunatic. He must have been who He claimed to be—God the Son, equal with the Father and worthy of the same honor as the Father. The Father Himself addressed His Son as God: “But of the Son He says, THY THRONE, O GOD, IS FOREVER AND EVER” (Hebrews 1:8).
The prologue to John’s Gospel tells us one reason Christ came to earth: to make the Father known, to reveal God to men (John 1:18). We can know more of what God is like by examining the person of Jesus Christ. He was God in flesh. As we explore Scripture and seek to discover who God is, we cannot neglect the earthly life of Jesus Christ. He is God the Son.
But the Holy Spirit is also called God. His name is “the Spirit of God” (Genesis 1:2). He too possesses the attributes of deity and performs the works of deity. While He is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father (John 15:26), He is at the same time called “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). He is coequal with both the Father and the Son. The Apostle Peter clearly viewed Him as God when he said to Ananias, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit? . . . You have not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).
If the Father, the Son, and the Spirit all bear the names of God, possess the attributes of God, and perform the works of God, then there is no alternative but to acknowledge that our one God exists in three persons.
The Ministry of the Triune God
Scripture links these three persons of the Godhead together so closely in so many divine activities that it would be foolish to deny that any one of them is God. Observe some of those activities.
Creating the World. All three were involved in creation: the Father (Genesis 1:1); the Son (John 1:3,10; Colossians 1:16); and the Spirit (Genesis 1:2, Psalm 104:30). If all three created, then God the Creator must exist in three persons.
Sending the Son. All three members of the Trinity were active in the incarnation. When Mary questioned the angel about the possibility of a virgin birth, the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The power of the Father, ministered through the agency of the Spirit, resulted in the birth of the Son into the world. This close association in the birth of the Saviour is further indication of their oneness.
Identifying the Messiah. At precisely the proper moment, Jesus Christ was revealed to Israel as her Messiah. John the Baptist was the chosen instrument and the act of baptism was the chosen means. “After being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17). As the Spirit came upon the Son, the Father’s voice was heard from Heaven expressing His approval. It was another powerful testimony to the eternal triune Godhead.
Providing Redemption. Two central passages bring the three members of the Godhead together in providing for man’s eternal salvation. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14) It was the offering of the Son to the Father by the power of the Spirit. The Apostle Peter taught, furthermore, that God the Father chose us to salvation, God the Son paid for it by shedding His blood, and God the Spirit set us apart unto the obedience of faith (1 Peter 1:1-2). Without each person of the Trinity doing His part we would yet be in our sins.
Proclaiming Salvation. In the early years of the Church God did some spectacular things to verify the gospel message which the apostles were preaching. The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the 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” (Hebrews 2:3-4). It was the same message that was first spoken by the Son Himself. When the apostles proclaimed it, the Father bore witness to its truthfulness by bestowing miraculous gifts through the Spirit. It was not only a powerful witness to the truth of the message, but another demonstration of the triune God at work.
Sending the Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity are so interwoven in sending the Spirit into the world that it is difficult to distinguish between them. In one passage it is stated that the Father would send Him in Christ’s name and that He would testify concerning Christ (John 14:26). In another it is said that the Son would send Him from the Father (John 15:26). In yet another the Father sends Him and calls Him the Spirit of His Son (Galatians 4:6). What a picture of unity—such perfect unity that the actions of one are considered to be the actions of the other. Orthodox Christian doctrine has long taught that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. But all three are vitally involved in His coming.
Indwelling Believers. Jesus taught His disciples that both He and His Father would make Their abode with them (John 14:23). But their indwelling would be in the person of the Comforter, the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17). As the Spirit of both the Father and the Son His indwelling is the indwelling of the triune God. That would not be possible unless the three were one.
Baptizing Believers. In our Lord’s commission to His disciples He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The unity of the Godhead is declared by combining them in one name (singular). Yet the distinctiveness of the persons is maintained by listing them separately. It is another link in the long chain of evidence that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one God.
Entering God’s Presence. All three members of the Godhead are intimately involved in the believer’s access into the presence of God. Speaking of Christ, the Apostle Paul taught, “For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Both Jews and Gentiles can approach the Father through the merits of the Son with the help of the Spirit.
Blessing Believers. In Paul’s final remarks to the Corinthian Christians he linked the three members of the Godhead together in a beautiful 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 Corinthians 13:14). Unless the three are one, eternally and equally supreme, there would be little reason to put them together on an equal basis like this in a divine blessing. The apostle certainly considered them to be one.
The Bible Proclaims the Trinity
People who oppose the doctrine of the trinity like to say that it is nowhere found in the Bible. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth. How thankful we can be that it is there. We have a loving Father who has given us His eternal life, who provides our needs, and trains us in productive and satisfying living. We have a gracious Saviour who became a man like us, who paid the eternal debt of our sin, who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses, who feels with us in our sorrows, and who intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand. We have the Holy Spirit who indwells us, who binds us together in one body, who comforts us, teaches us, guides us, and makes available to us all the resources of the eternal, omnipotent Godhead.
How could we live the Christian life if any one of them were less than God? We would be far poorer, and our lives would be less than complete. As it is, He is all that we need—an almighty triune God in the heavens, who rules and controls all things; a gracious triune God in our hearts, who loves us, cares for us, and ministers to our needs. What more can we ask?
Action To Take
Express to God your desire to get to know Him in the fullness of His triunity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Remind yourself regularly through the day that the triune God dwells in your body in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Related Topics: Trinity
5. God is Spirit
The Lord Jesus was on His way to Galilee with His disciples. He had not taken the usual route for a Jew of His day—across the Jordan at Jericho, north along the east side of the river, then back into Galilee. Instead, He said that He had to go through Samaria (John 4:4). The disciples did not understand that but they went along without grumbling. They would soon learn why it was necessary to go that way. There were thirsty souls who were ready to receive Him.
It was during that trip through Samaria that Jesus taught one of the most basic truths about God found anywhere in the Bible. Picture yourself at a well by the side of the road near the little village of Sychar and listen to our Lord’s conversation with a Samaritan woman, a rather unsavory character, to say the least. She had been married five times, and was at that moment living with a man to whom she was not married.
Jesus had worked the conversation around to spiritual things and was responding to the woman’s comment about where people ought to worship: “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:21-23). It was at that point in the conversation that Jesus said something about God which had never been clearly stated before. The truth was apparent from what had been revealed in the Old Testament, but it had never been put into plain words. “God is spirit,” He declared, “and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
God is spirit. There is no article in the Greek text before the word spirit, and that emphasizes the quality or essence of the word. Furthermore, the word spirit occurs first in the sentence for emphasis. The literal idea would be something like, “Absolutely spirit in His essence is God.” Jesus did not leave any doubt about this truth. God is spirit!
But what does that mean? Some have a strange idea about what a spirit is. That is particularly true of children. To them spirits mean ghosts. When two of my sons were small we overhead them talking about ghosts. The five-year-old said, “Did you know that God is a ghost? He’s the Holy Ghost.” His four-year-old brother answered with great theological insight, “Yes, but he’s like Casper, the friendly ghost” (a popular television cartoon character of the day). Is that really what it means for God to be spirit? Let us examine what it does mean, as well as how it applies to our lives.
He Is a Living Person
We can know Him
It is quite obvious that a spirit is alive. Our God is not an inanimate object, like a pagan idol with a mouth that cannot speak, eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, and hands that cannot accomplish anything (cf. Psalm 115:4-7). He is alive. The very word spirit also means “breath,” and breath is the evidence of life. Throughout Scripture He is called the living God (e.g. Joshua 3:10; Psalm 84:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:9).
But a spirit is also a person, not an impersonal force which acts without purpose or reason. I read in the newspaper that the British Columbia Appeal Court has ruled God to be a nonperson. A suspect was observed by hidden camera praying, and in his prayer he admitted that he was guilty. The court ruled that privileged communication, which would be inadmissible in court, must take place between two people, but that since God is not a person, comments made to Him are considered to be admissible evidence.
The judges who rendered that decision would seem to be rather unfamiliar with God’s revelation of Himself. The essential nature of personality is self-consciousness and self-determination, and God has both. He is conscious of His own being. He told Moses that His name was, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Only a person who is aware of Himself could make that statement. He also has the freedom to choose His own course of action according to what He considers best. He demonstrated it when He subsequently told Moses to return to Egypt, gather the elders together, and inform them that the nation was about to be delivered from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:15-17). An impersonal force does not speak and give logical directions like that.
God also has the basic characteristics of personality—intellect, emotions, and will. He thinks, He feels, and He acts. And that is good news. Because He is a living person we can get to know Him personally and communicate with Him freely. If He were an inanimate object or an impersonal force there would be no hope of a personal relationship with Him.
He Is Invisible
We can know Him apart from our physical senses
Just about everybody knows that a spirit cannot be seen. We cannot even see a human spirit. The most intimate of friends cannot see each other’s spirit and none of us can see God. Paul called Him “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “the King eternal, immortal, invisible” (1 Timothy 1:17).
John assured us that “no man has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). Mortal men have seen visible manifestations which God used to reveal Himself to them and to communicate with them, as when God the Son took human form in a Bethlehem manger. But they have never seen Him fully in His spiritual being. There is no way they could. Spirits are invisible.
Rather than spooking us out, that can be a very comforting truth. Because God is invisible, not only can we know Him, but we can know Him apart from our physical senses. We do not have to see Him or feel Him to know Him. We have spirits too, you see. God is spirit, but we have spirits housed within our physical bodies. And when our spirits are made alive toward God through the new birth, we have the capacity to commune with Him in our spirits, anytime, anywhere, and under any circumstances.
Communion with God does not depend on external things because it takes place internally in the spiritual part of our being. That was the point of Jesus’ comment to the woman at the well. Since God is spirit we must worship Him in spirit. Worship is not primarily a matter of physical location, surroundings, form, ritual, liturgy, or ceremony. It is not a matter of creating a certain kind of mood or atmosphere. It is a matter of spirit. Worship is the response of our spirits to God’s revelation of Himself.
It is difficult for us to grasp this truth since our spirits live in physical bodies and our physical bodies inhabit a physical universe. Our occupation with the physical makes us try to put our relationship with God into that same realm. We want to be inspired to worship Him by lavish cathedrals, great art, pleasant sounds, lovely aromas, and beautifully worded liturgies. Our human natures cry out for religious symbols, images, and pictures to help us create a mood for worship. We think we have to be in a church building and follow certain prescribed procedures. God says, “You cannot reduce me to physical things that can be experienced with your senses. I dwell in the realm of spirit and that is where I want to meet with you.” Physical things may direct our attention to God, particularly things He has made. But we meet with Him in our spirits. We can enjoy Him riding to work in the car, pushing the vacuum cleaner through the living room, walking from one class to another, or anywhere else. We know Him and enjoy Him in the spiritual realm, apart from the physical senses.
He Is Immaterial
Knowing Him delivers us from bondage to material things
The major thing we learn about God as spirit is that He is immaterial. By that we do not mean He is insignificant or unimportant, but rather, incorporeal. He does not have a body. Jesus reaffirmed that fact to His frightened disciples shortly after the resurrection. When He entered the room in His glorified body they thought they had seen a spirit. He calmed them by saying, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Spirits do not have bodies.
This seems to present a problem, however, since Scripture does refer to God at times as though He has a body. For example, it mentions His hand and His ear (Isaiah 59:1), His eye (2 Chronicles 16:9), and His mouth (Matthew 4:4). Theologians call these anthropomorphisms, a word meaning “human form.” They are symbolic representations used to make God’s actions more understandable to our finite minds. But God has no material substance and He is not dependent on any material thing. He dwells in the realm of spirit.
That has some pertinent implications for our lives. If we know, love, and serve a God who does not have material substance, that should diminish our interest in material things. And that would make us different from the people around us, wouldn’t it? We live in a culture that continually tries to feed our desire for the things money can buy and the security money can provide. It is nearly impossible to escape that influence. Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities. And the more we get, the less it satisfies. If we ever get everything we want, we will find that none of it brings any real contentment.
I have a close friend who established as his goal in life to be a millionaire by the time he was forty-five years of age. He made it two years early, but it did not satisfy. His business had crowded out his time for God and left him empty and unfulfilled. I got to know him as the result of a funeral. His oldest son had been killed in an automobile accident, and it had left him despondent and disheartened. He had decided to let God have a place in his life again, but as he drove to church one Sunday after the tragedy, he admitted to himself that he really didn’t want to go to church. But he didn’t want to stay home either. In fact there was only one thing he could think of that he wanted in life, and that was to know God better. To his amazement, I announced that morning that I was beginning a series of messages on the attributes of God. His growing knowledge of God has brought him gratification that his money could never provide.
We hear stories like that, yet because our knowledge of God is so inadequate we find it difficult to believe that material things cannot satisfy. We keep trying to acquire more and more simply because that has become our way of life. We continually ask ourselves, “How can I invest this money so it will make me more money?” There are literally hundreds of thousands of millionaires in our country, many of whom are Christians. Their Christian friends sometimes invite them to meetings to tell folks how God has blessed them. They seem to be equating God’s blessing with net worth. But that does not seem to be consistent with a God who is spirit.
God is not opposed to money. He allows us to earn the money we have. He gives us the health, the strength, the brains, and the opportunities to acquire it. But a God whose being is spirit cannot measure blessing in terms of bank accounts, investment portfolios, or land holdings. He measures it in terms of inner peace, contentment, satisfaction, meaning, purpose, loving and joyful relationships with other people who have eternal souls, as well as a meaningful relationship with Himself. Money cannot buy those things.
There are people talking about how much God has blessed them who know very little of what true blessing really is. Unfortunately, they confuse many of God’s people who are not wealthy and leave them feeling as though God doesn’t love them or care about them. It would be more helpful to testify about how little satisfaction money and material things can bring compared to the satisfaction which a personal relationship with God brings. Some unbelievers make lots of money too, but that does not necessarily mean that God’s blessing is on their lives. If money is the measure of blessing, then the crime syndicates and drug traffickers must be blessed above all. A God whose being is spirit does not measure blessing by the amount of material things we possess.
Neither does He measure security in terms of how much we have stored up for the future. He can wipe out million dollar reserves as quickly as hundred dollar reserves (or ten dollar reserves, if that is closer to your financial situation). He wants us to find our security in Him, not in money or material things. He wants everything we have to be available to Him. He may not ask for all of it, but He has the right to do so if He so desires. He asked everything of a rich, young ruler, and that misguided man gave up the opportunity to receive eternal life because he was afraid of what discipleship would cost him (Luke 18:18-27). God would like us to be willing to give up any possession, any investment, anything he asks, and to trust Him fully with our future. We will be able to do that as we get to know the God who is spirit.
The most important question we should be asking is not, “How can I invest my money to make more money?” or even, “How can I provide greater financial security for myself and my family?” A better question might be, “How can I use my spendable income and my available capital to glorify the Lord, to advance His cause, and to help others in need?” God gives us our money. To some He gives more than others. Nothing in Scripture would forbid modest savings or investments. But the clear emphasis of God’s Word is that money is not primarily to store up or spend for our own comforts. It is to use for God’s glory.
That is the emphasis of Christ’s parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21). That man hoarded riches for himself, but God never let him live to enjoy them. God said he was a fool, and his soul was required of him that very night. After telling the story Jesus added, “So is the man who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). To be rich toward God is to invest what we have over and above our needs for the salvation of souls, for the spiritual strengthening of God’s people, and for the alleviation of human suffering. That is real blessing and real security.
The Lord Jesus summed up this subject beautifully in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). We can read that, nod our agreement, then go right on laying up treasures on earth. Do you know why that is? It’s because we have not gotten to know God very intimately. We have not fully learned that, while He is interested in material things and while He can provide all that we need, He Himself is spirit, and the things on the top of His priority list relate to the spirit. Are you giving as much attention to developing your spiritual life as you are to increasing your net worth?
Shortly after the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus gave His disciples an opportunity to put His instruction into practice. He sent them out to minister two by two without money or extra supplies (Matthew 10:9-10). They learned that when they put His work first He takes care of their physical needs. We have opportunities to put His instructions into practice as well. There are needs all around us. How will we respond? Those who intimately know the God who is spirit will give more and more of their attention to the spiritual realm and, consequently, demonstrate a growing willingness to share their material substance with spiritual ministries and people in need. In that, the God who is spirit will be glorified.
Action To Take
Since God is a living person, begin to talk with Him throughout the day. Share every detail of living with Him—joys, sorrows, victories, defeats, problems, pleasures, fears, frustrations, etc.
In view of God’s spiritual nature, what changes do you think you should make in your priorities? In the use of your money?
Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)
6. From Everlasting to Everlasting
A bus trip through modern Israel will transport you back more than four thousand years and give you a glimpse of an unusual ancient phenomenon—the black goatskin tents of Arab desert dwellers known as Bedouins. Except for a periodic pickup truck, tractor, or television antenna, what you see has remained largely unchanged through the centuries. It is the same basic lifestyle as that of a godly old nomad named Abraham.
Uprooted from his ancestral home in Ur near the shores of the Persian Gulf, he wandered from one place to another, dwelling in tents, facing one adversity after another, never sure of what the next day would bring. His life was filled with uncertainty and insecurity, and he longed for something permanent (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). It was near a well in the town of Beersheba that he found what he was looking for. There God revealed Himself by the name of El Olam, which means “the eternal God,” the first time that name is mentioned in Scripture (Genesis 21:33). What an encouragement it was for Abraham to learn that in spite of the unsettled, unstable, and transitory character of his life, the God whom he knew and loved, who controlled every circumstance of life, had been around from eternity past and would be around for eternity to come.
Another godly Old Testament person named Moses lived to the ripe old age of 120, considerably more than the insurance tables would predict for him if he were alive today. But as he neared the end of his life, he became deeply impressed with the impermanence and brevity of life on this earth. He found his mind turning more and more to the same truth God had revealed to Abraham years before. He wrote a psalm about it, probably the clearest statement of God’s eternity found in the Bible.
LORD, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God (Psalm 90:1-2).
Other Biblical writers picked up the same theme and we find it repeated throughout the pages of Scripture. Isaiah called God “the high and exalted One who lives forever” (Isaiah 57:15). Paul referred to Him as “the King eternal” (1 Timothy 1:17). What does that mean? What are the implications of God’s eternity? What difference should it make to us that our God is eternal?
We shall learn as we progress through the study of God’s attributes that everything God is, He is to a perfect and ultimate degree. In other words, he is infinite—without limitation and without termination. Some consider eternity to be simply infinity in relation to time. That is true, but it seems to involve more than that. An eternal God is not only without beginning or end, but is also free from the succession of events and is totally sufficient in and of Himself. If we really want to know God and enjoy His fellowship it would be helpful for us to understand these truths which He has revealed about Himself.
He Is Without Beginning or End
Moses said, “. . . from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.” Let us examine the first part of that statement, “from everlasting.” Periodically, children will come to me and ask, “Where did God come from?” We have all been taught to believe that everything comes from someplace. Every physical object has a maker. Every effect has a cause. Somebody made my watch. Somebody built my house. Humanly speaking, somebody was even responsible for bringing me into existence, a man and a woman I call my father and mother. We teach our children from their earliest days of understanding that the ultimate builder and maker of all things is God. He created the universe, of which every other tangible thing we know about is a part. The next question is a natural one. We set them up for it. They are surely going to ask it. They really cannot help themselves. “Who made God?”
The answer is difficult for them to accept. They have no frame of reference to which they can relate it. They have never heard an answer like this before. It may leave them puzzled and confused at first, but there is no other possible explanation. Nobody made God. He always was. The Bible never tries to prove His existence or explain where He came from. It merely assumes that He is there and that He has always been there. He had no beginning.
When we open the first page of the Bible, we read simply, “In the beginning God.” He is just there! And look at what He is doing—creating the heavens and the earth. He existed before all things and He Himself brought everything else into existence. If anybody existed before God and was responsible for making God, then He would be God, and we would have to begin our questioning all over again. Who made Him?
What we are really saying is that because God is eternal He is self existent, the only being there is who does not owe His existence to somebody else. He is independent of any other being or cause. He is over and above the whole chain of causes and effects. He is uncreated, unoriginated, without beginning, owing His existence to no one outside Himself. He has life in and of Himself. As Jesus put it, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5:26). Were it any other way He would not be God. An eternal being must be self-existent.
Even our common sense tells us that ultimately, behind every other cause and effect, there has to be One who Himself is uncaused and self-existent. The Israelites in their Egyptian bondage, feeling oppressed, forgotten, and hopeless, knew that in spite of their distress it had to be so, that behind all their caused circumstances, somewhere, somehow, there had to be a God who Himself was uncaused, who could make sense out of what seemed to be senseless suffering. When God told Moses to go back to Egypt and deliver them from their bondage, Moses hedged. “Who shall I say sent me?” he asked. “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” (Exodus 3:14). When the children of Israel would hear that the One who sent Moses was the self-existent God who simply is, they would recognize Him and follow Moses’ leadership. That would make sense to them.
Not everyone is that sensible, however. Some philosophers and scientists reject an eternal, self-existent God because they cannot put Him in a test tube and examine Him or explain all His ways. But that is just subterfuge. If they could examine Him scientifically or explain Him fully, then He would not be God, and they know that full well. Their major problem is pride. To believe in an eternal, self-existent, uncaused cause, we must admit that everything else owes its existence to Him. And that would include us. We too are then totally dependent on Him for everything right down to life and breath itself. Egotistical, self-sufficient, self-made men are not willing to admit that. They like to believe they need nobody but themselves.
Maybe they need to be reminded that the God who has no beginning also has no end. He is not only “from everlasting” but also “to everlasting” (cf. Psalm 102:25-27). He has brought some other things into existence as well that will have no end, such as angels and human souls. That is great news for believers. We shall someday enter fully into the eternal life we already possess in Christ. All time pressures will be gone and we shall be able to relax with total joy and delight in the presence of the eternal God who made us for Himself. People who are rightly related to an eternal God will obviously enjoy Him eternally. As the Psalmist put it, “For this God is our God for ever and ever” (Psalm 48:14 KJV).
But eternity is not such good news for the unbeliever. The eternal God who made people with no end also made places with no end. One of them was prepared especially for the devil and his angels, a place of “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), a place of “torment day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). While God did not make this place for people, unbelieving people who reject His gracious offer of salvation will spend eternity there. “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). There is no way to escape it other than by bowing before the eternal, self-existent God, admitting that we are unworthy of His favor, acknowledging our sin and our need for His forgiveness, and accepting the salvation He provided when He sent His Son to the cross. We are totally dependent on Him, totally at His mercy. It cannot be otherwise with a God who has no beginning or end.
He Is Free From the Succession of Events
One of the basic characteristics of time is the sequence of events: past, present, and future; yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We are bound to the fleeting succession of present moments. The moments before are but a memory with lingering results, and the moments to come are still an expectation which we cannot fully predict. We measure these succeeding moments by the rotation of heavenly bodies. We use clocks to help us and on some occasions, such as a hundred meter dash in the Olympic games, we break the succession of moments down into hundredths of a second. But we cannot escape the limitations of time, our bondage to the succession of moments, and the events that fill them.
We need to understand that eternity is more than the endless extension of time backward and forward. For convenience, we speak of eternity past and eternity future, but in actuality eternity supersedes time. It is a mode of existence that is not bound by this succession. There are no such things as past, present, and future with God. He created time and He can work within its framework, but He Himself is over and above it. He lives in one eternal now. Our tomorrows are just as real and present to Him as our yesterdays and todays because He has already experienced them.
Any human illustration of this truth will break down somewhere, but it might be helpful to try one. Imagine yourself watching the Rose Parade on a street corner in Pasadena. You view the parade one float and one band at a time—a succession of events. When it is finished you can look back on your experience and say, “I saw the parade.” Now imagine yourself in the Goodyear blimp, viewing the parade from start to finish. You are aware of the sequence, but you can see the end from the beginning. It is all part of your consciousness at once rather than merely a succession of events. That is the way God views our lives and, in fact, all of human history from the beginning to the end of time.
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, Declaring the end from the beginning And from ancient times things which have not been done (Isaiah 46:9-10a).
He does not acquire His knowledge from a succession of events as we do, (float by float, band by band). He knows the end as thoroughly as the beginning because He has already lived it. It is eternally present with Him.
This is a truth for believers to rest in. God knows all our tomorrows. There are no surprises with Him. We may experience a great many surprises in life, but there are none with God. He already knows the pleasures that are in store for us. He knows the tragedies we shall face. He even knows the sins we shall commit and He is already grieved over them. But He has a plan that will work them all together for good. Knowing a God like that not only helps us want to please Him, but it helps us face our future with confidence and courage. God is going to be there tomorrow, whatever it holds, with the next page of our lives open, ready to reveal the next step He wants us to take in the perfect plan He has arranged for us.
He Is Sufficient In Himself
There is at least one more element of an eternal being that we need to discuss. Since He existed before time and space, before any created thing or created being, then obviously He can exist without anything or anybody outside of Himself. We know He can do it because He did it. He existed when there was nothing else in existence. God does not need anything or anybody. He is totally self-sufficient. He is in Himself and has within His own being all that He needs.
That is not true of any other living organism. For example, we need things outside ourselves, things such as air, food, and water. Not God! If He needed anybody or anything outside Himself then He would not be complete, and if He were not complete He could hardly be God. But He is complete and He needs absolutely nothing. When Paul preached to the philosophers in Athens he declared, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:24-25). God needs nothing outside of Himself.
It came as somewhat of a shock to me when I first realized that God did not need me. And you might as well face it too. God does not need you. He does not need our worship, our fellowship, or even our witness. He loves us and He wants us. In His grace He desires to use us and allow us to experience the satisfaction and excitement of being part of His eternal plan. But He does not need us. He did not create us because He needed us, but rather because He decided in His sovereign wisdom and good pleasure that creating us would be the best way to demonstrate His glory and grace (cf. Isaiah 43:7). That is no affront to our worth. Loving us and wanting us gives us more significance and security than needing us could ever provide. Rather than God needing us, we need Him. We are incomplete and unfulfilled apart from a personal relationship with Him. We can find true meaning only when we allow Him to have His proper place in our lives. We need God, but only God is complete in Himself.
God’s self-sufficiency has practical application to our lives. If He possesses everything needful, and He has offered to come into our lives and share Himself with us, then obviously we can find all that we need in Him. That is exactly what the Apostle Paul stated about Him. Speaking of God the Son, he said, “For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:9-10). Jesus Christ is the God-man, and thus is eternal as well. The prophet Micah declared,
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity (Micah 5:2).
The child who was born in a Bethlehem stable was the Son who existed from all eternity complete and self-sufficient. And we can find our completeness in Him. How foolish we are to scrape, claw, fret, stew, cry, flatter, and manipulate a thousand different ways to get other people to meet our needs when the God who dwells within us in the person of His Son is all that we need. We are complete in Him.
Well, there He is—our eternal God without beginning or end, free from the succession of events, and sufficient in Himself. The eternal life He possesses is far more than an endless extension of life in time as we know it. It is a different quality of life, boundless life, all-encompassing life, life marked by infinite richness, completeness, and satisfaction. And it is ours to enjoy, now and forever, through the person of His Son. “And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11-12).
Does God’s Son live in us? It is a matter of admitting our sin and placing our trust in Jesus Christ as the only one who can pay sin’s penalty. If we have done that, then we know an eternal God and we possess eternal life. We have something far bigger and better to live for than the temporal things in this world. We can live in the light of eternity’s values.
Mankind is striving for immortality. Politicians want to etch their names in the history books, athletes want to memorialize their feats in the record books, and businessmen want to build a financial empire that will endure for generations. But it seldom works that way. Politicians are forgotten, records are broken, and money has a strange way of evaporating. It is futile to live for the things of earth. Only what we build into people’s souls, our own and others, will endure for eternity.
Some people have higher ideals and nobler goals than mere fame or fortune. They want to make the world a better place in which to live, to improve the quality of life on earth. That is commendable. But God has warned us that this entire world will eventually be consumed by fire (cf. 2 Peter 3:10). It seems futile to live for the things of earth when someday they will all be destroyed. It bears repeating: only what we build into people’s souls, our own and others, will endure for eternity. If God is eternal then no endeavor on earth has higher priority than knowing Him, loving Him, worshiping Him, serving Him, and sharing Him with others. That would be the most profitable way to spend our fleeting moments on earth. That has eternal value.
Action To Take
Sit down right now, while it is fresh on your mind, and write out some goals for your life that reflect your knowledge of God’s eternality.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
7. I Change Not
Change is one of the most threatening things many of us face in life, and yet we encounter it every day. The universe itself is changing. Scientists tell us that all observed systems are continually changing from order to disorder, and that every transformation of energy is accompanied by a loss in the availability of energy for future use. In other words, our universe is running down.
Besides that, the world we live in is changing. Highly sophisticated technical developments have radically altered our lifestyle, and now they threaten our very existence. Ideological developments have changed the balance of world power and threaten our freedom as a nation. Governments are toppled and new ones established overnight, and sometimes it seems as though revolutions are as common as eating and sleeping. Every day the news reports focus on some new changes occurring in our world.
People change. One day we may be in a good mood, the next day in an ugly mood. And it is disconcerting if we never know what to expect from our wives, our husbands, our parents, or our bosses. Nice people sometimes get irritable and touchy. Fortunately, grouchy people sometimes get nicer. But we all change. That is the nature of creaturehood, and that is the nature of life. We find it unpleasant and intimidating at times. We would rather keep things the way they always were because the old and the familiar are more secure and comfortable, like an old shoe. But shoes wear out and need to be replaced, as does most everything else in life. So we struggle to adjust to change.
We grow and we strive to better ourselves, and that is change. Sometimes our sense of well-being collapses around us; we lose our health, our loved ones, our money, or our material possessions, and that is change. Our bodies begin to wear out; we can no longer do the things we used to do, and that is change. It is all unsettling and unnerving, but it is inevitable. What can we do about it? Is there anything unchanging that we can hold on to in a world where everything is so tenuous and transitory?
The Revelation of God’s Immutability
An unnamed psalmist asked that question in a moment of great trial. The inspired title of Psalm 102 says, “A Prayer of the Afflicted, when he is faint, and pours out his complaint before the LORD.” This man is in trouble. He is facing some devastating changes in his life. Listen to his lament.
Do not hide Thy face from me in the day of my distress; Incline Thine ear to me; In the day when I call answer me quickly. For my days have been consumed in smoke, And my bones have been scorched like a hearth. My heart has been smitten like grass and withered away, Indeed, I forget to eat my bread. Because of the loudness of my groaning My bones cling to my flesh (verses 2-5).
My enemies have reproached me all day long; Those who deride me have used my name as a curse (verse 8).
My days are like a lengthened shadow; And I wither away like grass (verse 11).
Is there some kind of life preserver a person can hang on to when, like this psalmist, he feels as though he is about to go under? Is there something solid, stable, and unchanging? There is, and he is going to tell us about it.
But Thou, O LORD, dost abide forever; And Thy name to all generations (verse 12).
There is a God who will never cease to exist. But He is more than eternal. He is absolutely unchanging.
Of old Thou didst found the earth; And the heavens are the work of Thy hands. Even they will perish, but Thou dost endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing Thou wilt change them, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, And Thy years will not come to an end (verses 25-27).
This is one of the first great Biblical statements of God’s immutability. Simply stated, that means God is unchangeable. He is neither capable of nor susceptible to change. And that makes sense. Any change would probably be for the better or for the worse. God cannot change for the better because He is already perfect. And He cannot change for the worse, for then He would be imperfect and would therefore no longer be God. Created things change; they run down or wear out. It is part of their constitutional nature. But God has no beginning or end. Therefore He cannot change.
People sometimes think He changes, especially when they experience trying circumstances. The people of Israel felt that way. Their prophets warned them that God would chasten them for their rebelliousness and sin, and they assumed that such discipline would indicate that He was changing, that He was getting more harsh and less fair. For example, Malachi predicted that Messiah would come suddenly like a refiner’s fire and a purifier of silver and judge the sinners among them (Malachi 3:15). The people were probably wondering when God began to develop such a concern about their sin. Malachi reminded them that He always has been concerned. That is His nature. He is unchangeably holy and righteous and just. God Himself declared, “For I, the LORD, do not change” (verse 6).
God’s immutability not only brought Israel discipline. It also guaranteed her continued national existence. After establishing His immutability God goes on to say, “Therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (verse 6). He is unchangeably holy and righteous but He is also unchangeably merciful and faithful. He promised Abraham that his seed would endure forever (Genesis 13:15), and He cannot go back on His Word because He is immutable. The existence of the nation Israel to this day is a testimony to God’s immutability.
We may begin to think God has changed when trials invade our lives. We say to ourselves, “God used to be good to me, but this surely doesn’t seem very good.” The Apostle James had some penetrating observations for a group of persecuted people who were beginning to think like that. Listen to James encourage them: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1:16-17).
The “Father of lights” is the God who created the heavenly bodies. They move and turn and cast shadows on the earth and on each other. They are created things, so they change. But the God who made them does not change. There is absolutely no variation with Him, no eclipse of His loving kindness and care. His gifts always turn out to be good, even when, for the present, we cannot figure out how. He will give nothing but what is best. We can count on that. It is the promise of an unchanging God.
If Jesus Christ is God in flesh, then we would expect Him likewise to be unchanging. That truth was revealed to another group of people who were suffering for their faith. The writer to the Hebrews said, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever” (Hebrews 12:7-8). He wanted them to know that the unchanging Saviour who was at work in the lives of the men who taught them the Word of God could do a supernatural work in their lives as well. He is the same Saviour that He always was, and what He has done for others He can do for you.
Some will protest, “But He seems to do more for my Christian friends than He does for me. They seem to be so spiritually stable, and I’m so up and down, so hot and cold. You say God is consistent. I say He’s different in the way He deals with me.” Things may never be any better for us until we believe that He truly is unchangeable, and acknowledge that the problem lies with us rather than with Him. That is why the writer to the Hebrews exhorted us to imitate the faith of our spiritual leaders. As we learn to believe that God is what He claims to be, we shall begin to enjoy the stability and steadiness which His immutability can minister to our lives. Most of us find it easier to be calm and steady in turbulent circumstances when we believe that those around us, particularly those in charge, are calm and steady. Well, God is in charge; He has complete control of every situation, and His hand never gets shaky. Trust Him, and enjoy a consistency and a constancy you may not have known before.
The Ramifications of God’s Immutability
We have seen the doctrine clearly revealed, but what does it involve? Obviously, it includes everything about God of which we can possibly conceive. All that God ever was, He always will be. But look at a few Biblical examples:
The Word of God Is Unchanging. “Forever, O LORD, Thy word is settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89). That is not true of our word. We often change our minds about things and find that we can no longer honor what we said in the past. Sometimes we say things we do not mean or we say things which later prove to be wrong and which must be retracted. But when God speaks it is always true. He never speaks in error. He never changes His mind. He never said anything He was sorry for or had to take back. His Word is settled and unchanging.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8).
The Plans of God are Unchanging. “But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of His heart through all generations” (Psalm 33:11 NIV). God’s plans are firm. His purposes will always be carried out. Our plans and purposes change. Sometimes they are not very realistic and we must alter them. On other occasions somebody frustrates them. But God’s plans are perfect and nobody can thwart them. So there is no reason to change them.
The writer to the Hebrews had something to say about this aspect of God’s immutability: “In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:17-18). God’s purpose and His oath are both unchangeable. It is comforting to know that God’s plan for this world will never change, and that He will carry it out right on schedule according to His own good pleasure. As He said through Isaiah,
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, 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” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
What God established before the foundation of the earth as the goal of human history will inevitably come to pass. What a comforting thing it is to know that no amount of satanic opposition can change that!
The Knowledge of God Is Unchanging. There are other applications of God’s immutability in Scripture, but look at one more: “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18 KJV). We could have figured that out even if the Apostle James had not said it at the Jerusalem council. If God is unchanging and nothing about Him varies, then obviously His knowledge never increases or decreases. He knows everything and always has known everything. Anything less would make Him less than God. For example, if there ever was a time when God did not know what I would write on this page of this book, then He was not complete at that time and, therefore, He was not God. But you can be sure He did know. His knowledge is unchanging.
That is surely different from my knowledge. It has grown (hopefully). Yet I still know only a minute fraction of what there is to know. Quite frankly, I have forgotten more than I have remembered. So my knowledge also decreases. But it is a consolation to know a God who possesses complete and unchanging knowledge of everything. He can never lose anything. He will never forget to do anything He wants to do. And He has our lives in His unchanging care.
The Resistance To God’s Immutability
Not everybody believes what you are reading right now. They point to Scriptures that tell us God repents and they say, “You see, God is mutable. He does change His mind. Therefore, He may not keep His Word. He may not carry out His purposes. He may not know everything.” We need not read more than a few pages in our Bibles before coming to a passage that raises that question. “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (Genesis 6:5-6).
But there are other passages, however, assuring us that God will not change His mind:
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Numbers 23:19)
“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). Is that a contradiction in the Bible? I do not think so.
We need to understand that, while God’s character never changes, His methods of dealing with men and administering His program on earth may vary. Whatever He does will be consistent with His eternal nature and will have been known to Him from eternity past. But He does do things differently at different times. The same writer who reminded us of God’s immutable counsel and oath (Hebrews 6:17-18) also told us that God changed the priesthood and the law (Hebrews 7:12), and that He took the old covenant away that He might establish the new (Hebrews 10:9).
God sometimes acts on the basis of what man does, and Scripture may picture that as God changing His mind in order to help us understand what is happening. But man’s actions did not take God by surprise. He knew what man would do from eternity past, and He knew how He would respond. His actions, which appear to be a change of mind and are so described for our help, are fully consistent with His unchanging nature (Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 15:11). Sometimes Scripture portrays God as changing His mind when He threatens some punishment in order to demonstrate how strongly He feels about sin, then withholds that punishment as an act of mercy (Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10). Sometimes He reduces His sentence because His good purposes have been accomplished (2 Samuel 24:16). That hardly destroys the doctrine of immutability. God’s immutability simply requires that He always act in accord with His eternal nature.
The Rewards of God’s Immutability
The obvious question is, “So God is immutable. What does that mean to me?” If we really want to know Him, then it means everything, for a God who changes would not be worth knowing. We would not be able to trust Him. Do you trust a friend who changes his attitudes or actions toward you from one day to the next? Of course not. You are not going to open your heart to him, share your feelings with him, or tell him your weaknesses and your needs. If he is sympathetic and helpful on some occasions but disinterested or judgmental on others, you probably will not take the chance. If he keeps your intimate secrets to himself sometimes but spreads them around on other occasions, you are not going to confide in him anymore. Human friends sometimes act that way but God never changes. We can trust Him.
And He is never in a bad mood. That is different from us. We get disagreeable periodically. We growl at our spouses, snap at our children, criticize our fellow workers. Not God! His mood never changes. What a pleasure to know that whenever we approach Him through the merits of His Son He receives us warmly and lovingly.
That is one thing that makes prayer such a pleasure. We know that He is always open to our requests. He never gets tired of our coming to Him. In fact, He keeps inviting us to come. “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3). “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive that your joy may be made full” (John 16:24). “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
We would have little interest in praying to a God who might be listening, but who, on the other hand, might be out for a walk or taking a nap. Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal with the possibility that their god might be doing one of those very things (1 Kings 18:27). But we have the assurance that the Lord’s ear is always open to our prayers.
The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous,
And His ears are open to their cry (Psalm 84:15).
Some will object, “What sense is there in praying to an unchangeable God? Hasn’t He already made up His mind what He is going to do? How can our prayers change anything?” We know that prayer changes things because God told us that it does. He decided in eternity past that He would take certain actions, provide certain benefits, and bestow certain blessings when we come to Him in prayer. So we come because He asked us to come and we make our requests known because He promised us that it would make a difference. We have the assurance that if we ask anything according to His will He hears and answers us (1 John 5:14-15). We can count on Him to be faithful to His promise.
Maybe we can understand what difference prayer makes by visualizing a mother caring for her sick child. Before she tucks him in bed for the night she gives him his medicine and quietly reassures him of her presence. She knows he will cry out to her during the night, and when the cry comes it does not change her mind about anything. She responds exactly as she planned to respond and does precisely what she knew would be best for him. But her help comes in answer to his request. That is the way she planned it. God has some good things prepared for us, but His plan is to give them to us in answer to our prayers. So ask and you will receive.
Since God is immutable we can always count on Him. We cannot consistently count on our human friends. They let us down at times. Their actions are sometimes affected by how they feel or how we have treated them. Their love is conditioned on our performance. But not God’s. His love is everlasting and therefore unchanging (Jeremiah 31:3). He always acts on the basis of love. Likewise, His kindness is everlasting and therefore unchanging (Isaiah 54:10). He always acts on the basis of kindness. We can count on it. The better we know Him as the immutable God, the more we shall be able to trust Him and hold on to Him for stability and strength when everything around us is changing.
This is a great doctrine, and it would be beneficial for us to keep it in mind. But unfortunately one of our most glaring defects as mortal human beings is our inability to remember what we have learned about God when we need it most. Did you know that God has given us a visible sign to help us remember His immutability? It is the rainbow. When Noah and his family emerged from the ark God promised them that He would never again destroy the whole earth with a flood. He said, “I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13). He has not destroyed the whole earth by water again. He is a God of His Word. He always does what He says He will do. He never changes.
Action To Take:
Every time you see a rainbow remind yourself that you know the immutable God. And remind yourself that a God who is unchanging in His love and kindness to you deserves your unchanging love, loyalty, devotion, and service.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
8. God Is Able
We live in an age of unprecedented power. Mighty engines power race cars hundreds of miles per hour, pull freight trains that are literally miles in length, lift mammoth airplanes off the ground carrying hundreds of passengers with all their cargo, and hurtle tons of sophisticated scientific equipment into space. By harnessing the power of the atom we have created enough energy to light entire cities and enough weaponry to annihilate them many times over. Power is something we are just beginning to understand.
Throughout human history mankind has stood in awe before the mighty power of the natural elements—light so powerful it can blind us, water so powerful it can wash away whole civilizations, wind so powerful it can topple brick and steel buildings, fire so powerful it can melt rock. We know what power is.
Athletes are power conscious. Baseball has its power hitters, football its power runners, basketball its power forwards. Weight lifters may be billed as the most powerful men in the world. Athletes in nearly every sport are striving for greater power to establish new world records. Power is something with which we are all familiar. We can grasp its significance.
At least we think we can, until we come to God. Then suddenly our minds are boggled. He claims to be all-powerful, and that defies our imagination. Add the power of the world’s greatest athletes to the power of the world’s natural elements to the incredible power man has developed through science and technology, and the total does not even begin to approach God’s power. In fact He himself is the source of all power, not only in the physical realm about which we have been talking, but in the spiritual realm as well, where the true nature and extent of power eludes our understanding. God is omnipotent! What does that mean? It means that God possesses infinite, complete, and perfect power. He can do anything He wants to do, absolutely anything. None of us can make that claim. Our capabilities are limited. But God is able to do everything He wills.
We sometimes use the term power to refer to God’s authority or His prerogative to do what He pleases. But that is more accurately His sovereignty. Power refers to His strength to act, His ability to perform, and that is the kind of power in God’s omnipotence. He is able to do anything He wants to do.
Meet the God Who Is Able
One of God’s names tells us that He is able to do whatever He pleases, a name He first revealed to Abraham. He had promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, and naturally Abraham needed a son in order for that promise to come true. He thought Hagar’s child, Ishmael, was to be that son, but God told him that Sarah would bear a son named Isaac through whom the promise would be fulfilled. The whole idea was preposterous. Abraham was ninety nine years old and Sarah was ninety, and humanly speaking there was no possible way they could have a son. But God helped them to believe it by the way He introduced Himself that day. “Now when Abram was ninety nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless’” (Genesis 17:1).
El Shaddai is God Almighty, the God who can do anything He wants to do, even rejuvenate dead wombs and give babies to couples in their nineties! He is almighty, all-powerful. That name is used forty-seven more times in the Old Testament and never of anyone but God. It has a New Testament equivalent, used ten times, which means literally “to hold all things in one’s power.” Scripture is punctuated with references to God’s omnipotence from beginning to end. He is the Lord strong and mighty (Psalm 24:8). Power belongs to Him (Psalm 62:11). “Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength” (Psalm 147:5). He wants us to know Him as the God who is able to do anything.
It is interesting to watch Biblical characters discover Him in that light. Abraham was one of the first who did. Sometime after that initial revelation of Himself as the Almighty, God again promised Abraham a son, this time in Sarah’s hearing, and she laughed to herself (Genesis 18:12). “Why did Sarah laugh?” God asked with convicting insight. Then He added, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14) When Abraham and Sarah learned the answer to that question they would be able to believe that God would keep His Word. And they finally did, “being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform” (Romans 4:21). In other words, they grasped the truth of God’s omnipotence.
Most of us have had disillusioning experiences with people who have promised more than they have been able to deliver, and we have a tendency to transfer our skepticism to God. Does He really care? Is He really in control? Does He really have the power to bring good out of adversity? Our doubts do nothing but raise our anxiety level and cause us grief. Believe it, Christian, just as Abraham and Sarah finally believed it. God is able to do whatever needs to be done in your life. No other being is all-powerful. No problem is all-powerful. Only God is all powerful, and He is on our side. His omnipotence is pitted against our problem. The odds in our favor are infinite.
Jeremiah was another great saint who learned this lesson. God had been telling him that Judah would be invaded by the Babylonians and taken into captivity, but then He directed him to go out and buy his cousin’s field. That made no sense at all to Jeremiah. Why own a field if the Babylonians are going to destroy everything and take everybody into captivity? Could it be that God would bring them back from captivity? That was almost too good to believe. But he wanted to believe it and he was trying to believe it when he prayed, “Ah Lord GOD! Behold, Thou hast made the heavens and the earth by Thy great power and by Thine outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for Thee” (Jeremiah 32:17).
Jeremiah was acknowledging that God’s power is displayed nowhere more dramatically than in creation. Everything we make requires existing materials but God made the worlds out of nothing. He merely spoke and it was done (Psalm 33:6, 9). That is power! The writer to the Hebrews assures us that He continues to sustain all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). A God who is able to create everything out of nothing by a word, then continues to hold it all together by a word, is certainly able to do anything else He wants to do, including restore the nation Israel to her land. As if to strengthen Jeremiah’s struggling faith God Himself speaks: “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jeremiah 32:27) No, Lord. Absolutely nothing! Jeremiah saw it. God is able to do anything.
The virgin Mary questioned God’s spectacular revelation to her. How could she possibly bear a son when she had never had relations with a man? It would be by the very same means her elderly cousin Elizabeth would bear a son when she was past the age of child-bearing, by the supernatural power of God. “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). That verse literally says, “For no word from God shall be without power.” That puts the whole matter right where it belongs, in the realm of God’s omnipotence. He has the power to do whatever He says He is going to do. If He wants to plant a child in the womb of a virgin He can do it. And He did do it, giving the world a divine Saviour.
The disciples were disturbed when Jesus told them how difficult it would be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. “Then who can be saved?” they asked rather hopelessly. That was when they got a decisive lesson on God’s omnipotence. Looking upon them, Jesus said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). He is able to do anything He pleases, and He longs for us to know Him as the omnipotent God.
Know What He Is Able To Do
If we really want to know the omnipotent God intimately and experientially, we ought to think through some of the things He is able to do. The New Testament word “to be able” means essentially “to have power” (dunamai the verb form of that familiar Greek noun, dunamis). When we read that God is able to do something it means He has the power to do it. It is a concept related to His omnipotence. The Old Testament word has somewhat the same connotation. While we know God can do anything He wants to do, look at a few of the specific things the Bible says He is able to do.
He Is Able to Save Us Completely. “Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). The writer to the Hebrews is assuring us that God is able to save us perfectly for all time and eternity. Once we have trusted Christ as Saviour from sin and been born again, we never need to fear for our eternal destiny. Our omnipotent God has the power to keep us. Peter put it in those very words. He said we are “kept by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:5 KJV). And it is a good thing that we are. None of us would feel very secure if our salvation depended on our power.
He Is Able to Keep Us from Sin. “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy” (Jude 24). That great benediction assures us that God has the power to keep us from falling into sin. We know how He does it: “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Our omnipotent Saviour has conquered temptation Himself, and now He is right there for us to lean on when we are tempted. When we learn to lay hold of His power we will conquer those stubborn sins that disrupt our lives.
He Is Able to Supply Our Needs. “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (2 Corinthians 9:8). That promise was addressed to faithful and cheerful givers. They can count on God to take care of everything they need, in every circumstance of life, all the time. Only an omnipotent God could make a promise like that. My wife and I have experienced that power. There were days, early in our marriage, when we acted as though God could not really take care of our needs, as though providing for a seminary student with a wife and child were more than He could handle. Sometimes we got anxious and irritable over finances. But we tried to be faithful in sharing our meager resources with Him, and He kept showing us, sometimes in miraculous ways, that He was able to supply our needs.
He Is Able to Heal Our Diseases. Jesus taught this lesson to two blind men right after He emerged from the house where He had raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, the supreme demonstration of His power. The two men cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 9:27) Jesus turned and asked, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28) When they answered, “Yes, Lord,” Jesus touched their eyes and made them to see. He may be asking you the same question: “Do you believe I have the power to heal you?” He does not always heal, because He knows that sickness is sometimes the best way to accomplish His perfect purposes in our lives. But He is able, and He wants us to believe that. Believing it could be the very thing that starts us on the road to recovery.
He Is Able to Deliver Us from Death. Daniel’s three friends taught us this lesson when they were standing beside the door of a blazing fiery furnace heated seven times hotter than normal. They boldly declared to King Nebuchadnezzar, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire” (Daniel 3:17). He does not always deliver us from death. Many have laid down their lives for their faith through the centuries. But He is able to deliver us if He so chooses.
Jesus knew that. The writer to the Hebrews said, “He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death” (Hebrews 5:7). As He prayed in the garden to His Father, He said, “All things are possible for Thee; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt” (Mark 14:36). While all things were possible, He submitted to His Father’s will and trusted Him to do what was best. That is exactly what He wants us to do. It has been said that we are invincible and immortal until God’s time to take us home. There is no reason for the child of God ever to fear, for God is able to deliver him from any danger.
After Daniel had spent an entire night in a den of lions, King Darius hurried to the den in the morning and called out to him, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you constantly serve, been able to deliver you from the lions?” (Daniel 6:20) That kind of question would be asked only by someone who does not know God. He most certainly was able to deliver him. Hungry lions are no more of a problem to an omnipotent God than fiery furnaces, or terminal illnesses, or scary noises in the dark, or barking dogs, or poisonous snakes, or earthquakes, or floods, or anything else. He has power over creation, power over nature, power over animals, power over the nations, power over rulers, and power over demons. And He is able to deliver us.
There are other references in Scripture to what God is able to do, but none more exciting than the one in 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.” That is real power, the very same power that raised Christ from the dead and is operating in us right now (Ephesians 1:19-21). The Holy Spirit of God, the Omnipotent One Himself, actually lives in us and makes His power available to us. He is willing to give strength to all (1 Chronicles 29:12). Whoever you are and whatever your need, God’s strength is available to help you. From the little crisis, like a stubborn jar lid you cannot unscrew when there is no one there to help, to the major crisis like an extended illness of a loved one that has put superhuman demands on you physically, God’s strength is available to help.
With the promise of that kind of power at our disposal why do we feel so weak, fearful, and powerless so much of the time? Maybe we have not yet learned to appropriate God’s power.
Learn How To Enjoy His Power
The secret of releasing God’s power lies in three basic principles. The first was revealed to King Asa of Judah during a time when he was displeasing the Lord by relying on human treaties rather than on the power of the living God. A prophet said to him, “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9 KJV). God is actually looking for people He can help, people for whom and through whom He can release His power. But there is a condition: He wants our hearts to be wholly His, our allegiance to Him to be undivided. In other words, He wants us to be yielded to Him, to desire His will more than our own will. If he is going to supply us with His power, He wants to be sure we will use it for His glory. Some of us may be so weak and fearful and powerless because God cannot trust us with His power. We would take the credit for ourselves. When we yield our wills to Him we are ready to experience His power.
The second key to enjoying God’s power was revealed by the prophet Isaiah to a nation that desperately needed it. Israel was a midget surrounded by giants who were ready to pounce on her. Isaiah sought to encourage the nation by devoting an entire chapter of his book to the greatness of God in contrast to the weakness of men (Isaiah 40). But the nation was saying, just as we often say, “If God is so great and powerful, why doesn’t He help us?” That is exactly what He wants to do.
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. He gives strength to the weary, And to him who lacks might He increases power (Isaiah 40:28-29).
Well then, how can we get His power? Isaiah is careful to tell us.
Though youths grow weary and tired, And vigorous young men stumble badly, Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary (Isaiah 40:30-31).
To wait for God is to keep on prayerfully and patiently looking to Him. Some of us may be so weak and fearful and powerless because we are not consistently looking to God for His power. We connive, scheme, pull strings, and manipulate people to work out our problems and meet our needs rather than look to the Lord. He says, “I want to use my omnipotence on your behalf. Just ask Me, just look to Me rather than to yourself or to others.” When we focus our attention on the Lord, rather than on our circumstances or on human solutions, we are ready to experience His power.
But there is a third key. God’s power is always released on our behalf through faith, an unmistakable principle found throughout Scripture. There is little hope of enjoying God’s power when we do not expect Him to release it, or if we are not sure that He can or will release it, or if we are not trusting Him to release it.
A needy man in Jesus’ day had to learn that lesson. His son was hopelessly possessed by a vile demon which had nearly destroyed him. He brought the boy to Jesus’ disciples to be delivered, but it turned out to be another frustrating dead-end for him. He was about to give up when Jesus arrived on the scene. This was his last ray of hope. He pleaded, “But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Listen to Jesus’ answer; it is the pivotal issue to enjoying God’s power: “If You can? All things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23). The man cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (verse 24). It was an honest admission that his faith was weak but a sincere request for the Saviour to strengthen it. That was all Christ asked. He spoke a word and the omnipotence of God was released, delivering the boy from demonic power.
God is able! There is no deficiency in His power. The deficiency may be in our faith. Believe that He can do what needs to be done in your life. Expect Him to answer, then watch for Him to do it. He may work in totally unexpected ways, but He will work with supernatural power. At this very moment He is looking for people through whom He can demonstrate that power. Why not let it be you?
Action To Take
List some problems in your life that seem to be impossible to solve. Now meet the conditions for enjoying God’s power: Yield your will fully to Him; Commit the problems to Him in prayer regularly; Believe that He will solve them in His own perfect way.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
9. Perfect in Knowledge
Frequently in our years of married life, my wife has turned to me and asked, “What are you thinking?” Quite frankly, there have been times when I did not want to tell her, and I even resented her asking. My thoughts may have been selfish and sinful and I didn’t want to admit them, or I may have been enjoying my own private fantasy and I was too embarrassed to tell her about it. Can you imagine the pressure you would feel if you lived with someone who knew everything you were thinking all the time?
Suppose you had an acquaintance who knew the future with perfect accuracy. He would know what the stock market is going to do tomorrow, what food prices will be next week, what crisis you are going to face in the near future. Can you imagine what a disadvantage that would put you under and how he could capitalize on his knowledge at your expense?
Did you ever have a friend who thought he knew everything? Whatever subject was being discussed, he could give you the straight scoop on it. It made you feel pretty dumb, didn’t it? He probably did not know nearly as much as he thought he knew, but can you imagine the frustration you would feel if you lived with someone who really did know everything?
There is such a person. He knows what we are thinking; He knows what our future holds; in fact, He knows everything about everything. And surprise of all surprises, when we get to know Him, we find that it does not put pressure on us or make us feel frustrated, stupid, or taken advantage of. Instead it brings confidence and consolation to our lives. Let’s meet Him—the God who knows everything.
The Reality of God’s Omniscience
The Apostle Paul tells us about God’s knowledge: “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him, in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:18-20). All of us have moments when our hearts condemn us, but God knows that we belong to Him even when we are having doubts about it due to guilt feelings. He knows it, John assures us, because He knows everything. That is the doctrine of omniscience, which simply means “all knowing” (omni = all; science = knowledge). God has perfect knowledge of everything—past, present, and future—both of what is actual and what is possible. As a godly woman named Hannah said in a famous Old Testament prayer, “For the LORD is a God of knowledge” (1 Samuel 2:8).
We already understand a few things about God’s knowledge from our study of other attributes. For instance, because God is eternal He must know everything immediately and simultaneously. He never learns anything new by observing the succession of events that occur in time. Because He is immutable His knowledge never varies. It does not increase or decrease. God never has to say, as I have often said, “I remember studying that once, but it has slipped my mind. Let me check my notes.” God’s knowledge is constant and unchanging.
But it would be good for us to grasp a few more facts about God’s knowledge. For one thing, it is perfect and complete. The Psalmist said, “His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5). That was a lesson Job learned in the course of his suffering. His misery was so intense that he was beginning to wonder whether God really knew all the details of what was going on in his life. We can understand that. We would be wondering the same thing if we had the trouble he experienced. But Elihu helped him see it by asking, “Do you know about . . . the one perfect in knowledge?” (Job 37:16) God’s knowledge is perfect-comprehensive and all-encompassing. There is nothing that lies outside its scope. Nothing can possibly happen to us that God does not already know and has not known eternally. And that includes every trial we face in the course of a lifetime.
The Bible is filled with details of God’s knowledge. For example, He knows the number and names of all the stars (Psalm 147:4). He knows every sparrow (Matthew 10:29). He knows every bird of the mountains and every wild beast in the fields (Psalm 50:11). But most important of all, He knows us and everything about us.
The classic passage on that subject is Psalm 139. David assured us that God knows when we sit down and when we stand up (verse 2). He knows our thoughts before we think them, while they are far away from us (verse 2; cf. also Ezekiel 11:5). He knows all our ways (Psalm 139:3), a word referring to the whole course and conduct of our lives. In other words, He knows everything that we do (cf. also Job 23:10; Proverbs 5:21; Jeremiah 16:7). He knows every word we speak while it is still on our tongues, before it ever comes out of our mouths (Psalm 139:4). In absolute awe David exclaimed,
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high. I cannot attain to it (verse 6).
Jesus told us that the Father even knows how many hairs we have on our head (Matthew 10:30). We don’t know that. Even the fellow who has very few hairs left, who would desperately like to know that they are all still there, has no way of keeping track of how many he has. But the Father knows. He doesn’t need to count them. He just knows.
As you can well imagine, it would be impossible to give God a surprise party. There is no way that we can possibly keep any secrets from Him (Psalm 44:21). We can keep secrets from other people. We may succeed in living a whole lifetime without exposing some of our hidden thoughts to anybody. But God knows everything that goes on in our hearts and minds.
He gave us a demonstration of his mind-reading, heart-searching techniques one day in Bethlehem. The prophet Samuel had arrived in town to choose Israel’s future king. One by one Jesse paraded seven of his sons before Samuel, but God rejected them all. He was looking at something Samuel could not see. As he explained it to Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God wanted a man whose heart was wholly His, one with a desire to do His will. He knows whether or not we have that desire. We can make others believe that we do when in reality we want our own will. But God knows.
God knew that there was something missing from the lives of those seven sons of Jesse. But when the youngest was brought in from keeping his father’s sheep, God’s spiritual X-ray vision perceived a heart that dearly loved Him and longed to please Him. “Arise, anoint him; for this is he” (1 Samuel 16:12). David had his moments of spiritual failure, as we all do, but few people in Scripture could rival his wholehearted devotion to God. God saw that devotion while David was still a youth.
One of the last things David did before he died was to give this charge to his son Solomon: “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts” (1 Chronicles 28:9). It was a reminder of a truth David knew well, that God knows the secrets of the heart, a good reason to serve Him willingly and keep our thought lives pure and pleasing to Him.
Since there are no secrets with God we might as well face the fact that there is no such thing as a secret sin. We like to think there are some things in our lives that nobody else knows about, but Moses exploded that misconception:
Thou hast placed our iniquities before Thee,
Our secret sins in the light of Thy presence (Psalm 90:8).
The writer to the Hebrews agreed with him. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13). We play little games to keep other people from knowing what we are really like on the inside, and we get pretty good at it. We learn how to fool most of the people most of the time. We even begin to fool ourselves. But God is not susceptible to our games. He never gets fooled. He knows everything about us.
If God knows everything then He obviously knows our future, and Scripture bears that out. He knows “what is to come” (John 16:13), and “the things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1). He knows “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), that is, He has known how things will turn out since before time began. That includes a personal knowledge of our lives. For instance, He knew before Jeremiah was formed in his mother’s womb that he would be a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). He knew before Paul was born that he would preach Christ among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16).
That poses a problem to some. If God knows all of our future actions then it would seem as though they are fixed, settled, and unalterable. If nothing can happen apart from God’s knowledge then the very fact that He knows it will happen makes it certain to happen. Where then is human freedom? For example, if God knows that I am going to cut my grass tomorrow then I am certainly going to cut it, am I not? But suppose I don’t want to cut my grass tomorrow! Do I have a choice?
The Bible teaches that God created us with volition. We make choices every day. We even have the privilege of choosing to obey God or disobey Him (cf. Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15). So we certainly have the ability to act contrary to what God knows we will do. But we won’t, because if we did, then that new act would have been the one known from eternity past. He knows everything because everything that happens is part of His perfect plan (Ephesians 1:11). He has included in that plan from eternity past all the choices He knew we would make of our own volition.
There is one more thing we should know about God’s knowledge before we explore its application to our lives. It is innate and inherent. Nobody taught God what He knows. He never had to go to school to learn. He knows simply because of who He is.
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has informed Him? 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? (Isaiah 40:13-14)
The obvious answer to those questions is “no one!” He knows everything by the very essence of His being. An infinite God must possess infinite knowledge as a necessary part of His nature. When Paul thought about that, it caused him to exclaim, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR?” (Romans 11:33-34) What a magnificent God we know!
The Relevance of God’s Omniscience
Are you agreed that the fact is indisputably established in the Bible? God really does know everything! Unbelievers do not like that one bit.
They mock, and wickedly speak of oppression; They speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, And their tongue parades through the earth. And they say, “How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?” (Psalm 73:8-9,11)
It bothers them to think that there is a God who knows what goes on in their minds. At first they will try to hide their thoughts and deeds from Him and pretend that He doesn’t really know (Isaiah 29:15). But when they realize how futile that is they usually deny that there is a God (Psalm 14:1). That is the only way they can rid themselves of the pressure and frustration of a God who knows everything.
The growing Christian does not view God’s omniscience as a threat, however. It does provide him with a challenge to grow, just as my wife’s question about what I am thinking motivates me to grow. I want to be able to share my mind with her freely and without embarrassment. The more I mature in my relationship with her and with the Lord, the more comfortable I am about telling her what I am thinking, and the more comfortable I am with the realization that God knows what I am thinking. So the challenge is there. But the omniscience of God is more than a challenge. It is also the source of great encouragement. We can discover some reasons why that should be true, particularly from the life of our Lord Jesus, the omniscient God in human flesh.
It was two days after John the Baptist had identified Him as the Messiah that Jesus called Philip to be His disciple, and Philip in turn found his friend Nathanael. The first time Jesus laid eyes on Nathanael He said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47) Jesus saw into his innermost being before He had even met him, and He perceived a man whose motives were pure, one who was honest, trustworthy, and free from deceit. It did not matter what anyone else thought. The Lord knew Nathanael’s heart.
Have people ever accused you of being crafty, underhanded, devious, or mercenary when you knew your intentions were pure? As hard as you tried to explain they refused to believe you. Have they made other unjust judgments about your character and your motives? What an encouragement it is to realize that God knows our hearts and that He evaluates us on the basis of what is actually there. All of us are subject to unfair and unkind criticism at times. There is no reason to become defensive. God knows the truth about us and that is all that really matters.
Shortly after Christ’s earthly ministry began He was teaching and healing in a crowded house in Capernaum when, suddenly, He was interrupted by four men tearing the tiles off the roof and lowering a paralytic friend into His presence. When He saw their faith He said, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). The scribes and Pharisees did not appreciate Jesus’ assuming that He could forgive sins, a prerogative of deity, and they were fuming on the inside. “And immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, ‘Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts?’” (Mark 2:8) He knew the thoughts of those critical unbelievers and He went on to handle the situation beautifully, demonstrating conclusively that He had the power to forgive sins.
We sometimes encounter people who, like the scribes and Pharisees, are rigidly opposed to the person and word of Christ. We do not know what they are thinking nor are we sure what we should say to them or how we should deal with them. But God knows what is going on in their minds and He knows exactly how to approach the situation. He can give us the right words to say, or He can deal with them through somebody else at some later time if He so chooses. But whatever He does, we can be assured that He knows what is in the heart of man, and He has every situation in perfect control.
Not long ago a man came to tell me about his salvation. “You said something that really got me thinking,” he related. Naturally I asked him what it was so I could use it again in dealing with other unbelievers. But when he told me what I had said, it didn’t sound very impressive to me at all. In fact, I didn’t even remember saying it. Quite frankly, I can’t remember now what it was I said. But God knew what that man needed to hear at that precise moment and He obviously led me to say it. He knows the heart of every person and He knows what they need to hear.
Jesus made a rather startling observation about God’s knowledge when He predicted judgment on the Israelite cities where He had performed most of His miracles. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21). “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day” (verse 23).
He knew what the people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have done if they had enjoyed the same spiritual benefits which those Israelite cities received. God’s omniscience includes the potentialities and possibilities as well as the actualities. God knows the “what-ifs” and the “what might have beens,” and His judgment will be based on those facts as well. It will be less severe on those who had less advantages when God knows they would have responded with more (verses 22,24). The reason why He did not give them more is locked in the stronghold of His sovereign and unsearchable wisdom. But one thing we know for sure—His evaluation will be based on absolute and perfect knowledge.
God knows what we could have been if we had enjoyed the same spiritual advantages which others have had. That can be a source of great encouragement, particularly to people who have been saved late in life, who never had the benefit of a Christian home or Sunday school training. There is no need to compare ourselves with others. God merely wants us to use what we are now and what we have now for His glory.
There are other indications of omniscience in the life of our Lord Jesus, for instance, in Jerusalem during the last week of His ministry on earth. He was eating with His disciples in a second-story room when He said, “But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Me on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:21-22) Some theologians insist that God does not know what we are going to do until we do it. That is hardly the case here. Jesus had just informed His disciples that He knew which one of them would betray Him.
But that is not all He knew on that occasion. A little later He said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). When Peter affirmed his faithfulness, Jesus said, “I say to you, Peter, the cock will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34). Jesus knew that Satan was going to tempt Peter, that Peter’s faith would falter but not fail, that later he would repent and come back stronger than he was before, able to strengthen his brethren. Although He knew all that, it did not diminish His love for Peter at all. He promised to use His power of intercessory prayer to sustain Peter through the entire ordeal.
What a wonderful application of our Lord’s omniscience! He knows all of our faults and failures. Not one shortcoming will ever surface unexpectedly to disillusion Him. He sees the whole of our lives, including the temptations we shall face and the sins we shall commit, yet He never stops loving us (Jeremiah 31:3) and He never stops interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25). Somebody asked, “Isn’t it odd that a being like God, though He sees the facade, still loves the clod that He made out of sod? Isn’t it odd?” It’s not only odd; it’s absolutely incredible! He knows me yet He still loves me.
Look at the sequel to the story. It was after Christ’s death and resurrection and He was with His disciples again, this time by the Sea of Galilee. “So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Tend My lambs.’ He said to him again a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ He said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.’ He said to him, ‘Shepherd My sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me?’ Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, ‘Do you love Me?’ And he said to Him, ‘Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend My sheep’” (John 21:15-17).
Why did Jesus ask Peter those questions if He knew everything? We must conclude that He was not seeking information. He knew that Peter loved Him. Peter himself attested to that when he said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love you.” That is another clear statement of divine omniscience. Jesus did not ask those questions in order to find out whether Peter loved Him; He asked them for Peter’s sake. Peter had recently denied His Lord and did not understand why he had done it. He probably doubted his own love for Christ and wondered whether he could ever again be used effectively. But the Lord lovingly drew him out, helped him understand his own heart, helped him reaffirm his love, then reassured him of future usefulness. The Lord understood him when he did not understand himself, and He had just the right words of encouragement for the occasion.
The same thing is true of us. God understands us better than we understand ourselves and He is right there to minister to us with the appropriate encouragement and the perfect provision. He does that today through His Word. Do you have a need that you yourself may not fully understand? Turn to the Scriptures and allow the omniscient Lord who inspired them and who revealed Himself through them to minister to your need just as He did to Peter’s.
There is only one thing that God blots out of His knowledge, and that is our sins. He said, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). That is a blessed promise for every true child of God. God knows whether or not we are truly His children. On several occasions the Lord Jesus demonstrated His penetrating knowledge of people who had professed to believe on Him but whose commitment was not sincere (John 2:23-25; 6:64). He knows the same thing about us. If you have never genuinely acknowledged your sin and trusted Him for forgiveness, do it now. He will blot every sin you ever committed forever from His memory.
Action To Take
List some of the things you are glad that God knows about you that other people may not know. Try to remember that He knows them when you are feeling misunderstood or falsely judged.
List some of the things you wish God did not know about. Determine now that by His grace you are going to change them.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
10. The Lord Is With Us
Have you ever felt as if you wanted to run away from God? Maybe you thought the responsibilities of the Christian life were too heavy for you, or you just could not be the person you were supposed to be and do the things God was asking you to do. If you could just get away, things would be better. Or maybe the model of a Christian husband or wife was too overwhelming and you could not live up to it. Or you knew how a Christian parent was supposed to treat his children but you seemed to fall short several times a day. Or you knew you ought to talk to those unsaved neighbors about Christ but you could not bring yourself to do it, and now they are gone and you are embarrassed and ashamed. Maybe you committed yourself to teach a class of children for a year but you just did not want to face them another Sunday. Or you knew God expected you to flee temptation but you could not seem to resist it, and now you feel as though God is on your back. If you could just get away from Him for awhile, go someplace where He could not see you, then everything would be all right.
That is exactly what the prophet Jonah thought. God told him to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against its wickedness, but that was the last thing in the world Jonah wanted to do. Nineveh was the capital of a proud and powerful nation, and he was sure the people there would reject him, maybe even try to kill him for pointing out their sin. If they did repent God would probably hold back the punishment He had predicted and Jonah would become the laughingstock of the whole city. As far as he was concerned there was no way he would ever go to Nineveh.
“But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:3). It is mentioned twice in that verse that Jonah wanted to get away from God’s presence. Somehow he had developed the ridiculous notion that God did not live in Tarshish (a city which some scholars believe was located on the Atlantic coast of Spain). Do you share his sentiments? Do you think there might be some place on this earth where you can hide from God?
The Explanation of God’s Omnipresence
Jonah should have known better. As a prophet in Israel he was certainly familiar with the inspired Psalms of Israel’s greatest king. David had written a powerful message about trying to run away from God’s presence:
Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee (Psalm 139:7-12).
If God is an infinite spirit then He is not only free from the limitations of time, but He is free also from the limitations of space. He is omnipresent, that is, present everywhere all the time. No other living being has that attribute. Every other being is restricted to a particular place at a particular time. I cannot be in Los Angeles and New York City at the same time. Angels cannot even do that. Satan cannot do it. But God is wholly present in every part of His domain at the same instant. He is not partly present in one place and partly present in another, but He is as fully present in every particular place as if He were in no other place. God cannot be split into little pieces. Wherever He is, He is in the fullness of His being.
This attribute of God is one of the most difficult for us to grasp with our finite minds. We can understand to some degree that God has infinite power and that He knows everything. But how can He be everywhere at once? The inability of the human mind to comprehend this doctrine may be one reason why so many people choose to worship some lesser being. They suspect that to be everywhere may really mean He is nowhere, and they want to worship a god who is somewhere, so they turn to a finite being or to an idol.
While I do not fully understand it, there is no question but that God claims omnipresence for Himself in His Word. David assured us that there was absolutely no place he could go to escape the presence of God, even if he wanted to. Not even pitch-blackness could screen him from God’s presence, because God sees in the dark as well as in the light. Daniel confirmed that:
It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, And the light dwells with Him (Daniel 2:22).
Jeremiah proclaimed the same truth to the people of his day. The land was filled with dishonesty, profanity, and immorality, and the false prophets of the day were not only condoning it but actually participating in it (Jeremiah 23:11,14). They assured the people that God would not judge them for their sin (verse 17). That is when God spoke through Jeremiah:
Am I a God who is near, declares the LORD, And not a God far off? (verse 23)
Those false prophets thought God did not know what they were doing and saying, that He was limited to one place at a time, that if He were near somebody else He could not be near them. Not so!
Can a man hide himself in hiding places, So I do not see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill the heavens and the earth? declares the LORD (verse 24).
He fills Heaven and earth, just as fully present in one place as another. There is no conceivable place where God is not completely present in the totality of His essence. If there were any place where God was not present He could hardly have said that he fills Heaven and earth. But He said it and He meant it. Just as light, or air, or sound, or odor fill a room so God fills His universe. Through Isaiah He said, “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). There is no place to hide from His presence.
Solomon mentioned God’s omnipresence on the day that the temple was dedicated. It was a beautiful building where God would place His name, where He would personally dwell, and where He would meet with His people. But in Solomon’s majestic prayer of dedication he revealed a truth that we still misunderstand today. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27) God would dwell in that temple but He would not be restricted to it. We cannot limit God to a building. We cannot even limit Him to a universe. God is everywhere.
He is immanent, that is, right here, inhabiting and pervading His universe. But at the same time He is transcendent, that is, rising above and exalted supreme over His universe. Many people would rather not hear that. They would prefer to lock God in a building where they can visit Him when it suits them and get away from Him the rest of the time.
The Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem didn’t like it. They killed Stephen for quoting Solomon and Isaiah on this subject, along with a few other thoughts from the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 7:48-49). The Athenian intelligentsia ridiculed Paul on Mars Hill for daring to suggest the same thing. He had said, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). He cannot be locked in a building. Since He is everywhere, He is not far from any one of us (verse 27). In fact, we live and move and exist in Him (verse 28). Incredible! Just as a bird lives in the air and a fish lives in the water, so we actually live in God. Each of us, believer and unbeliever alike, lives in God’s sphere and in God’s presence every minute.
Philosophers since Paul’s day have not liked this doctrine any more than those on Mars Hill. They have devised interesting ways to pervert the truth. The pantheists have overemphasized God’s immanence. To them God is merely the impersonal forces and laws of nature. He is to be identified with the material universe, and consequently ends up being the trees, mountains, rivers, and sky rather than a personal, omnipresent being. The deists on the other hand, overemphasize God’s transcendence. For them, God is present in His creation only by His power, not in His being and nature. While He made the world He is not actively involved in governing it. He has left it to itself. English literature is filled with both distortions. The truth is that God is both immanent and transcendent. He is distinct from His creation yet present in every part of it, both in His power and in His essential being. God is everywhere!
Yet the Bible will not let us suppose that God is present in exactly the same sense everywhere. For example, He does not dwell on earth in the same sense that He dwells in Heaven (Matthew 6:9). He did not dwell in Gentile nations in the same sense He dwelled with His ancient people Israel (Exodus 25:8; 40:34). He did not dwell with the Old Testament Jew in the same sense that He dwells with the New Testament Christian (John 14:17). He does not dwell with the unbeliever in the same sense He dwells with the believer (John 14:23). And He does not dwell with the believer now in the same sense He will dwell with him in eternity (Revelation 21:3).
I am not sure how God can dwell with different people in different ways at different times, yet be fully present everywhere in His total being. Maybe He simply makes His presence known in a different measure. But He does claim to be everywhere and I, for one, believe it. I read somewhere about a little boy who believed it too:
He was just a little lad, and on a fine Lord’s day,
was wandering home from Sunday School and dawdling on the way.
He scuffed his shoes into the grass; he found a caterpillar,
he found a fluffy milkweed pod and blew out all the filler.
A bird’s nest in the tree o’erhead, so wisely placed and high,
was just another wonder that caught his eager eye.
A neighbor watched his zigzag course and hailed him from the lawn,
asked him where he’d been that day, and what was going on.
“Oh, I’ve been to Sunday school,” (he carefully turned the sod,
and found a snail beneath it). “I’ve learned a lot ’bout God.”
“M’m, a very fine way,” the neighbor said, “for a boy to spend his time.
“If you’ll tell me where God is, I’ll give you a brand new dime.”
Quick as a flash his answer came, nor were his accents faint,
“I’ll give you a dollar, Mister, if you’ll tell me where God ain’t.”
The Application of God’s Omnipresence
Jonah soon found out that David, the psalmist, was right all along. God is everywhere, and there is no way that we can hide from His presence. He went down into the hold of the ship, and God was there. He was thrown into the raging sea, and God was there. He was swallowed by a great fish, and he discovered that along with the tangled seaweed, stifling heat, and burning acids, God was there. Then he was vomited out on dry land and found that God was there. He finally decided that the smartest thing would be to obey a God who was everywhere. He would have saved himself a great deal of grief had he remembered that truth from the very beginning.
That seems to be one of our great weaknesses too. We hear these truths and believe them, but we tend to forget them when we need them. We become oblivious to God’s presence and begin to live our lives as though He were nowhere around. Jacob had that problem. He was running from his brother’s wrath when he stopped for a night’s rest at Bethel. During the night he had a dream about a ladder. The Lord stood above it and said, “And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you” (Genesis 28:15). God was with Jacob and would not leave him, but he did not realize it. The record states, “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it’” (verse 16).
Isn’t that just like us? The eternal, changeless, all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign God of the universe is with us and we are not even aware of it. We ignore Him. I doubt that He is very happy about that—probably no happier than a wife whose husband pays no attention to her. So many lonely, grieving wives have sat in counselors’ offices and moaned, “He acts as if I weren’t even there.” God must feel that same grief.
Let’s remind ourselves of some of the places God specifically promised to go with us, then begin to acknowledge His presence in those situations, and learn to share them with Him. He will be pleased, and at the same time things will go better for us.
He Is With Us in Temptation. The Apostle Paul taught us that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit lives within us and goes everywhere we go. That should provide an added incentive for us to flee from sin. As Paul put it, “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:18-19). The believer’s body is a mini-temple, a sacred dwelling place for the omnipresent God, and we must treat it as such. Sexual relations outside of marriage defile the temple of God. They dirty up God’s dwelling place. To be conscious of God’s presence is to guard the purity of His home.
But respect for God’s home is not the only deterring power of this doctrine. If we love our Lord and want to please Him, the knowledge that He is with us is going to have an influence on where we take Him and what we do in His presence. We usually try not to offend someone we truly love. While we may be tempted to do something of which they disapprove when we are separated from their watchful eye, we seldom entertain the thought of doing it when they are standing right there looking at us. The next time you are tempted to disobey God’s Word and disregard His will, visualize Him standing there watching the whole scene. He is there, you know, so we might as well think about it. Sometimes we act like ostriches with our heads in the sand. We think that because we cannot see God, He cannot see us. But He does.
The eyes of the LORD are in every place,
Watching the evil and the good (Proverbs 15:3).
He Is With Us in Need. The writer to the Hebrews had something to say about God’s presence. Some of the folks to whom he was writing had lost their jobs because of their faith in Jesus Christ, and they were facing desperate needs. They were probably worrying about how their needs would be met and, worse still, they were envying people who had everything they needed. They would benefit from this pertinent exhortation: “Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
We may not have everything in life we want, but we do have the Lord. He is right there with us all the time. He sees all our needs and He will meet every one of them in His own time and in His own way. Some may be saying, like those Hebrew Christians of old, “But I have this bill due tomorrow that I can’t pay.” That situation could be God’s way of encouraging you to reevaluate your lifestyle. He wants us to be diligent, to work hard, to seek His wisdom about every penny we spend, and to stay out of debt. Unpaid bills sometimes reveal that we have been overly enthusiastic about gratifying our desires rather than merely meeting our needs. The next time you are tempted to spend money on something you do not need, remember that the omnipresent Lord of the universe is right there with you. Ask His advice before you move ahead. Then trust Him faithfully to supply every need. That is what He promised to do (Philippians 4:19).
He Is With Us in Loneliness. I want you to meet a lonely woman. Hagar was a slave, uprooted from her home in Egypt and taken to be the handmaid of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. She had gotten pregnant by Abraham at Sarah’s suggestion, and the resultant situation had brought such tension and turmoil to their household that she finally ran away to the wilderness—unloved, unwanted, pregnant, and absolutely alone in a strange land, the victim of someone else’s sin.
That was when the Lord appeared to her with tender words of encouragement and advice, and she called His name El Roi, the God who sees (Genesis 16:13). She had come to the comforting realization that God was right there with her, that He saw her in her loneliness, and that He cared. Ezekiel called Him Jehovah-Shammah, the Lord who is there (Ezekiel 48:35).
He is the same God today. He sees us in our loneliness and offers us words of encouragement and advice. He is the God who is there, and He still cares. Most of us prefer a warm body near us when we are lonely, a hand we can touch, and a voice we can hear. God may provide that for us in His perfect time. But meanwhile, He is with us, and the very fact that we are physically alone can make His presence more precious than it would be if there were people around us. To believe that He is with us can help to dispel the aching loneliness.
He Is With Us Through Difficult Service. Many godly people in Scripture faced tasks which they believed were beyond them, but the confidence to carry on came through the assurance of God’s presence. For example, when Moses was called by God to return to Egypt and deliver the people from bondage, he shuddered at the enormity of the task. When he tried to beg off, God said, “Certainly I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). That was just the encouragement he needed to go on.
Again, after the nation’s sin with the golden calf, God told Moses to lead the people on to their promised land. But he was afraid to go until the promise was reaffirmed. Finally it was: “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14). The promise of God’s presence was the inspiration he needed to do the job he was called to do.
When Joshua took over the leadership of the nation after Moses’ death, he struggled with the same lack of confidence. But God was right there to encourage him: “No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (verse 9). If God would be with him, he could conquer the land against insuperable odds.
When our Lord’s disciples heard His commission to make disciples of all nations, they must have trembled at the vastness of what they were being asked to do until the Lord added, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). That would make all the difference in the world.
I can testify to you quite honestly that I would not be in the Lord’s service today were it not for the promise of God’s presence. The job is too big, the responsibilities too great, and my abilities much too weak and inadequate. But I have that promise—God is with me. And you have it too. God never asks us to do anything by ourselves. When he gives us a job to do He promises to be with us as we do it. Whether it is teaching a class, witnessing to a friend, sharing our testimony with a group of unbelievers, lovingly confronting another Christian with his sin, or anything else He might want us to do, He is right there with us, directing, assisting, and enabling us as we do His will.
He Is With Us in Danger. The Apostle Paul faced many dangerous situations in the course of his apostolic ministry, one of which was in Corinth. The Jews there were disturbed at the great numbers of people turning to Christ and the situation seemed to be as potentially explosive as a barrel of TNT beside a campfire. Paul seriously considered leaving. “And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city’” (Acts 18:9-10). The key to Paul’s courage was in those words, “I am with you.”
God said much the same thing to the tiny nation Israel when she was surrounded by giant world powers which threatened to destroy her.
Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).
That is also His promise to us. There is nothing to fear for the child of God. He is present in all the places people sometimes fear. He is on that airplane, in that elevator, in that cramped room, on those high places, in that wild animal infested jungle, in that new and strange situation with people we do not know, in that operating room during delicate surgery, in the recovery room where the pain and discomfort are fierce. He was even in the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished to see four people in the furnace instead of only the three he had cast in (Daniel 3:24-25). It was a fulfillment of God’s promise to His people.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you (Isaiah 43:2).
Why should we fear anything when God is there? The Psalmist put it so beautifully.
God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea (Psalm 46:1-2).
The LORD of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold (verse 7).
He Is With Us in Death. Death is the ultimate source of fear and anxiety for many people. But again, God is right there with us.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).
When we face the death of a loved one, this thought brings greater consolation than all the well intentioned words of our human friends put together: God is with us. And when we face our own departure from this earthly scene there is no reason for alarm. God will accompany us right into Heaven’s glory.
Sometime ago someone handed me this interesting account:
I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord and across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to me, the other to the Lord. When the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that many times along the path of my life there was only one set of footprints. I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in my life.
I questioned the Lord about it. “Lord, You said that once I decided to follow You, You would walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why in times when I needed You most, You would leave.” The Lord replied, “My precious child, I would never leave you during your times of trial and suffering. When you see only one set of footprints, it was then I carried you.”
What more can we ask? Wherever we go, whatever we face, our omnipresent Lord is with us. Ignore Him no longer. Let Him be part of every situation and circumstance. The awareness of His presence will add an exciting new dimension to the quality of your life and to the confidence you enjoy in living.
Action To Take
Begin to cultivate a consciousness of God’s presence. Greet Him at the beginning of each new day. Remember often through the day that He is right there with you. At bedtime rehearse the events of the day and think about how you could have allowed Him to be more a part of them, and what difference it would have made if you had. Say “goodnight” to Him before you drop off to sleep, remembering that He will be with you all night long.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)