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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)