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Recently I corresponded about God with a college classmate, who is an avid sailor. His view of God seemed to rest on Exodus 3:14, in which God told Moses, “I am who I am.” My friend seemed to think that all we can or should know about God is that he exists, and that even to give God a name would limit him. Evidently that was all that he was comfortable in knowing about God.
I replied, first, that if all God wanted us to know about him was contained in this one verse of Scripture, then why did God give us the rest of Scripture, which says a great deal more about him? Then I commented that, as a sailor, my friend needs to know more about winds and ocean currents than just that they exist. He needs to know when it will be high tide at a particular location, what currents to expect at various points in the harbor at various tides, when an off-shore or on-shore breeze is likely to arise, what various markings and wave formations in the water mean, what various cloud formations mean, what the signs are of an impending squall, what a rising and falling barometer mean, how much wind his sails can safely handle before they should be reefed or taken down, and much more. If he does not know and understand these things, he may lose his boat and even his life. Similarly, if we are to function effectively in the universe God has created, we need to know as much about God as we can.
There are many people today who say that they believe in God. If you ask, you find that some of them have a very vague idea of who or what God is. They may speak of “something bigger than I,” or “a universal force or energy.” Some say that everything is God. Some say, “I am God.” Some say that “all gods are the same.” All of these views of God are demonstrably contrary to what Scripture says about him. Scripture is a direct revelation from God. (See Chapter 2.) Therefore, we had better base our ideas about God on what Scripture says and not on human speculation.
God is too big for us to understand fully. He is beyond any words we can use to describe him. Our limited human minds and vocabularies are too small to comprehend him fully. There is nothing to which we can compare him (Isaiah 40:18). But in his Scripture, God has told us a great deal about himself, and we need to understand clearly what he has told us.
One of our essential tasks as Christians is to know God, to know what his will is for us, to know what pleases him, and to live a life that is pleasing to him. There are many ideas about God that may seem appealing but that rest on a false concept of God. In order not to be deceived by them, we need to have a clear and true concept of who God is. Our life, as Christians, should be centered on God. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We had better be sure that we are focussed on the true God.
If we do not have a correct concept of God, all our other thinking is apt to be skewed.
There is also a view that is current that there is no such thing as truth. All truth is said to be relative (i.e., what is true for me may not be true for you). Such a view is totally contrary to Scripture. Scripture asserts that there is truth that applies to all people at all times, and that it is to be found in Scripture. God’s word is truth (John 17:17). All God’s words are true (Psalm 119:160). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). If we follow Jesus’ words, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32). God’s truth is eternal; it is true for all time. “The word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8). (Also see Psalm 119:89; Matthew 24:35.)
In this chapter, I want to identify briefly some of the essential things Scripture tells us about God, and contrast them with some false conceptions that are current. Other chapters in this book will reveal more of God’s character and attributes. As always, I urge you to read the Scripture passages in context, reflect on them, pray about them, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. The study of God is a lifetime activity. I can only give a few basic ideas.
There is so much that could be said about God that I hesitate even to undertake the task of writing about him. The God of Scripture is endlessly fascinating. We can never begin to know all about him. But perhaps I can be helpful by dispelling some fairly common misconceptions about God.
God Is a Person
Scripture always refers to God as a person. God speaks in the first person singular, “I.” He identified himself as “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus referred to him as “Abba,” the term a child would use for his Daddy. Jesus told us to pray to God as “Our Father.” Paul wrote, “I know whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1:12). Whom, not what. Paul’s belief is in a person. Our belief should be in a person.
God teaches us and guides us. He acts in our lives, and in history. He raises up nations and brings them down. He created the nation of Israel, brought them out of captivity in Egypt, and enabled them to conquer Canaan. When they persistently refused to obey him, God raised up the Assyrians and Babylonians to conquer them, and then brought some of his people back from Babylon. When the time was fulfilled, he sent his only Son to earth for our salvation. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
God is not a force, an energy, an intelligence. He is not a “something bigger.” He is a very definite, clearly delineated, person. God is not an IT. God is a HE.
We see this all through Scripture. God has emotions; he feels. He loves. He has mercy. He has compassion. He longs. He seeks our company. He can be pleased and take delight. He is grieved. He is angry. He has great wrath.
God has repeatedly entered into covenant, into a formal agreement, with his people. A typical covenant is, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33). One of the essential truths of both the Old and the New Testaments is that we are a covenant people. A covenant is a contractual relationship between persons. A thing cannot enter into a covenant.
God loves us. His greatest commandment is that we love him, with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. A thing cannot love or be loved. Love is a personal relationship between persons. You cannot love, and be loved by, an IT.
An IT cannot give us words which have the power to change our lives.
Why is it important to understand all this?
Christianity is about a relationship. It is not primarily about doctrines, or rituals, or intellectual beliefs. It is about a personal relationship with a personal God. You can have a relationship with a personal God. You can’t have a relationship with an impersonal energy or force. We are responsible, accountable, to a personal God.
God is a person. Any view of God that denies or ignores that fact is unscriptural. It denies the very essence of God.
God Is Creator
Scripture tells us that God created the physical universe.
There may be room for differences of opinion as to how God created, or the time schedule on which he created, but the fact that he is the Creator is stated all through Scripture.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). “He commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148:5). (Also see Psalms 24:1-2, 33:6-9, 102:25, 121:2, 146:6; Isaiah 40:28, 42:5, 45:12, 51:13.) “All things were made through Him” (John 1:3). (Also see Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; 2 Peter 3:5.) Throughout Scripture, we see the theme that God is to be praised because he is the Creator. “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:11).
There are some who say that God created everything and then went off and left it to run by itself. This is not Scriptural. God not only created all things, he sustains everything by his word (Hebrews 1:3). He holds it all together (Colossians 1:17). Scripture shows a God who is constantly active in men’s lives. “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). “He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:3-4 NIV). Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day…” (John 5:17 NIV). (Some of these passages refer to Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ is also God. See Chapters 6 and 7.)
Because God is the Creator, everything on earth belongs to him. “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1 NIV). We are his. “Know that the LORD, He is God. It is He who made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Psalm 100:3). “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and to him and through him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:35-36 NIV).
God Is Separate From
A common idea about God, today, is that he is in everything. Some would say that God is everything and everything is God. This is called pantheism.
This is contrary to Scripture. God is separate from his creation. His presence is everywhere, but he is still separate from his creation. God existed before anything was created, and he will exist even if everything physical is destroyed.
We find this beautifully expressed in Psalm 102:25-27 (NIV): “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same and your years will never end.” To God, the earth, the sun, and all the millions of stars, which scientists say extend over millions of light years, are like a garment. God wears them for a time, but then he discards them and puts on a new garment.
An episode in the life of the prophet Elijah is also suggestive. When Elijah had gone to Mt. Sinai to escape the wrath of Jezebel, God spoke to him. The Scripture says that there was a powerful wind, “but the LORD was not in the wind.” Then there was an earthquake, “but the LORD was not in the earthquake.” Then there was a fire, “but the LORD was not in the fire.” Finally there came a gentle whisper, and that was the voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:11-13).
One of God’s essential attributes (characteristics) is that he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). To be holy is to be separated, set apart. There is evil and sin in the world. “Through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). God cannot be part of evil or sin.
God Is Unique
Another common assertion, today, is that all gods are the same and all religions the same. From this it is argued that (1) it does not matter what god you say you serve, or what concept of god you have, and (2) it should be possible to develop a single one-world religion into which all existing religions can be blended. Even some people who call themselves Christians have been attracted by this idea of a one-world religion.
Scripture denies this. Jesus declared that his Father is “the only true God” (John 17:3). He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Paul said that there is no God but one (1 Corinthians 8:4). God declared, “I am the LORD and there is no other; there is no God besides Me” (Isaiah 45:5).
God warned his people over and over not to serve other gods, and to worship him alone. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 11:16, 13:1-18.) Jesus said that no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). Paul spoke of the pagan gods of his day as “demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20-21), and warned Christians to have nothing to do with them (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). He warned us not to follow “…a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all…” (Galatians 1:6-7 NIV).
Paul repeatedly warned Christians not to try to combine the gospel of Jesus Christ with other beliefs. In Galatians he warned against adding to the Christian gospel many requirements of the Jewish law. In Colossians he warned against combining the Christian gospel with a number of gnostic (or pre-gnostic) beliefs and practices. He insisted that Christ is all we need.
These warnings are just as applicable today as they ever were. We must not water down the power of our Christian faith in an effort to blend it with other religions that do not come from the one true God.
God Does Not Change
Some people say that the God of the Old Testament is a harsh, vengeful God, and the God of the New Testament is a loving God. This is not true. God has not changed. “I am the LORD, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). In God “there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). (Also see Hebrews 6:17.) Jesus Christ (who is God, see Chapter 6) “is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Actually the Old Testament is full of the love of God. One of the great Old Testament words is chesed, variously translated as “love, lovingkindness, mercy.” Chesed appears 240 times in the Old Testament. God is “abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8 NIV). Every verse of Psalm 136 ends, “His mercy endureth forever” (KJV). “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:22 NIV). Many more examples could be given.
On the other hand, the New Testament speaks often of God’s wrath. (See, for example, Romans 1:18, Ephesians 5:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; Revelation 6:16.) It also speaks of judgment and eternal punishment. (See, for example, Matthew 13:42, 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-48; John 5:29.)
God Acts in Our Lives
Some have a conception of God as a remote, distant figure who plays no part in our daily lives. Such a conception is contrary to Scripture. It is contrary to the God I have experienced in my life as a Christian.
God has said to us, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye” (Psalm 32:8). (Also see Proverbs 3:5-6.) God is like a voice behind us saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21). To those who commit themselves fully to him, Scripture says, “He shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). God’s power is always at work in us (Ephesians 3:20). (Also see Ephesians 1:19; Philippians 2:13.) It is because he is constantly at work in the lives of believers that he is “able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24).
As I look back over my own life, and that of many others, I am amazed to see how God has worked in each of us to develop the character qualities he wants, and to use us for his purposes. My experience is that God is continually acting in our lives, whether we recognize it or not.
We Are Not God
There are some New Agers today who declare, “I am God.” They seek the “god within” or the “goddess within” as their source of guidance and strength. This is contrary to Scripture. Anyone who thinks he is God either is incredibly arrogant, or totally fails to comprehend the greatness of God, or both. Scripture clearly condemns anyone who would exalt himself against the true God and claim to be God. That was the source of Adam’s fall; the serpent (satan) told him that he would be like God (Genesis 3:5) and Adam believed the serpent. Aiming to be equal to God was the source of satan’s downfall. (See Isaiah 14:12-15, Ezekiel 28:13-19.)
We need to be very clear here, because, without careful understanding, there is room for confusion.
When anyone receives Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell in him (John 14:17). The Holy Spirit teaches him, guides him and empowers him. In this sense, we who believe in Jesus can partake in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). We believers can have God in us. (See Chapter 11.) But Jesus said, “Remain in me and I will remain in you… apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4, 5 NIV). Of ourselves we can do nothing. Whatever of God’s character and power we may possess is ours only because we have submitted ourselves to, and continue to submit ourselves to, Jesus Christ.
The important thing to remember about God’s character is that it has many aspects. God is loving, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and kind. He is amazingly patient with us. He also disciplines those he loves. He is holy, righteous, and just. He cannot tolerate evil. He can be a God of terrible wrath. He is a God of judgment.
God has all wisdom and all knowledge. He is faithful; he keeps his promises. He reaches out to us and desires our companionship. He wants us to know him personally. But he is also a great and powerful God. He is awesome in the original and true meaning of that word.
I could go on and list many more aspects of God’s character. It would take a whole book to begin to deal with them adequately. But the point I want to emphasize is that we need to deal with every aspect of God’s character. One of the great sources of error in our thinking about God is that we sometimes put so much emphasis on certain aspects of his character that we neglect the others and arrive at a distorted picture. We need to know and follow the whole teaching of Scripture about God, and not just parts of it. Let me illustrate this by just one example.
The Kindness and Severity of God
Paul wrote, “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22). (The NIV says “…kindness and sternness…”)
God is a loving God. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God is merciful and patient with us. “The LORD longs to be gracious to you…” (Isaiah 30:18 NIV). He lavishes his grace—his unmerited favor—on those who love him.
But he is also a just God and a holy God. He will not forever tolerate evil and sin. He is capable of great wrath. He is a God of judgment. “…we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10 NIV). (Also see John 5:28-29.)
Scripture tells us to love God, and also to fear God. I believe that word “fear” means “fear,” and not just awe or reverence. The Greek word can mean “fear exceedingly.” Some of the Old Testament texts speak of “dread.” Hebrews 10:31 (NIV) says, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” I think we need to take the word “fear” in its original meaning as “fear,” whether we like to deal with that meaning or not.
How can we do both? How can we both love God and fear him? A simple example may help. A young child loves his daddy. But he also fears him, especially when his daddy finds it necessary to discipline him physically.
We need always to be aware of these two aspects of God.
In the past, there have been those who put such emphasis on God’s severity—on his wrath and judgment—that we tended to lose sight of his love and mercy. Today there are some who put such emphasis on God’s love and mercy that we tend to lose sight of his wrath and judgment. Either view is incomplete. Either view, without the other, is a distortion of God’s character.
THE GREATNESS OF GOD
God is “the great God, mighty and awesome” (Deuteronomy 10:17). (Also see Deuteronomy 7:21; 2 Samuel 7:22; Nehemiah 1:5, 9:32; Daniel 9:4; Titus 2:13.) “O LORD my God, You are very great: You are clothed with honor and majesty” (Psalm 104:1). (Also see Psalms 48:1, 95:3.) “Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3 NIV). To get some sense of God’s greatness, I suggest reading Isaiah, chapter 40, and Revelation, chapters 4 and 5. Even they do not give the whole picture.
God created the earth, the sun, the moon, our solar system, and millions upon millions of stars, most of which are larger than our sun. He created a physical universe that extends, so our scientists tell us, for a huge number of light years—distances that most of us cannot begin to grasp. And he is greater than his creation!
We cannot begin to conceive the full measure of God’s greatness, his splendor, his majesty, his power. He has given us, in his Scriptures, some remarkable visions of him; but they are incomplete and partial. God lives “in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).
Part of God’s greatness is that he is all-powerful. God is the Almighty. That is his nature. That is what it is to be God. God’s power is incomparably great (Ephesians 1:19). He can do all things. Nothing is impossible for him (Job 42:2; Matthew 19:26; Luke 1:37; Genesis 18:14). God’s purpose and plans will prevail; nothing can thwart or defeat them (Psalm 33:1; Isaiah 14:24; 37:9; 46:10; Job 42:2).
My daughter’s poem expresses God’s greatness in a different way.
I think that a major problem with the Christian church today is that, as a whole, we are not sufficiently aware of God’s greatness. We need constantly to be aware of God’s greatness.
The Fear of the Lord
Because God is so great, we should fear him. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). (Also see, for example, Psalms 19:9, 34:9; 90:11, Proverbs 1:7; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Philippians 2:12.)
What does it mean, to fear God? I think it means that we recognize God’s tremendous power, and his potential for wrath against things that are ungodly. God is not mocked. There is no such thing as cheap grace. We need constantly to keep watch over how we live.
It means that we do not presume on God. “Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins…and I shall be innocent of great transgressions” (Psalm 19:13). What are presumptuous sins? We presume on God when we take him for granted, or seek to manipulate him. We presume on God when we put him to the test. (See Matthew 4:7.) Jesus would have presumed on God if he had thrown himself from the Temple when God did not tell him to do so. We presume on God whenever we think we can obligate him to give us something or to do something on our behalf. God does not owe anything to anybody; he is not obligated to anybody. (See Romans 11:35.) God is not a heavenly vending machine in which you put in a prayer and get whatever you have asked for. God is sovereign. And note that the Psalmist refers to presumptuous sins as “great transgression.”
It means that we recognize that we cannot hide anything from God. God knows us completely (Psalm 139:1-6). He knows our every thought and action. And we cannot escape from him (Psalm 139:7-12). Even those who deny the existence of God will ultimately have to deal with him.
It means that we are serious about our faith. God wants a total commitment of our lives to him. (See Chapter 16.)
It means that we take his Scriptures seriously. We don’t just ignore them, or give them lip service, or construe them in a way that waters down their clear meaning. It means that we act on them and live by them.
Some do not like to consider God’s greatness because it makes them feel small. That is where God wants us. Scripture tells us to humble ourselves before God (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10). This is part of the fear of God, that we recognize how much greater he is than we are.
Again, my daughter has put it well.
Confidence in God
God’s greatness also means that, by his incomparably great power working within us, we can conquer whatever problems and difficulties we may have to face. God is bigger. He is bigger than anything we have to deal with. Nothing is impossible for him. In him we can overcome trials and difficulties. (See Chapter 11.) It is wonderful to be able to trust in such a great God.
Freedom From Fear
To put it another way, if we fear God, we do not need to fear anything else. If we do not fear God, then we will fear everything else.
I have said a few things about who God is and who he is not. Much more could be said. But I want to emphasize one thing, that applies to much of what I have written in this book.
When we think of God we can make two kinds of errors. One is to think that we know nothing about God. The other is to think that we know everything about God.
Scripture tells us a great deal about God and his ways of dealing with men. It tells us many very specific, definite things. The created universe also tells us about him (Psalm 19:1). (Also see Isaiah 40:21; Romans 1:19-20.) Our own experience of God tells us about him. “His [God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness, through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3 NIV). God has given us all that we need to know about him.
But we must also remember that, while here on earth, we perceive everything imperfectly and incompletely (1 Corinthians 13:12). Paul, the most learned and intellectual of the New Testament writers, wrote, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out” (Romans 11:33). Isaiah, the greatest of the Old Testament writing prophets, said that no one can fathom God’s understanding (Isaiah 40:28). God has told us, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9). With God there is always an element of mystery. There is always much more than we think we see or understand. I think we can see several aspects to this, which I shall try to sketch.
In everything I have written, I have used prosaic words because they are the means of communication I am familiar with. But such words are quite inadequate to express the truth about God. I hope that somehow those who read this will be able at least to glimpse the reality that lies behind the words. We need not only to read about God, but to experience him in our lives. I hope also that you will keep aware of the sense of mystery that surrounds everything we may try to say about God. And I hope that you will recognize that one of the most important and necessary things a Christian can do is to come to know God better. This is a lifetime occupation.
My words are inadequate to convey the greatness and majesty of God. Hopefully my wife’s poem will give another perspective.