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Prophecy by the Book
Scripture: God's Written Word
The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
In these studies on the ten major concepts of Christianity, it is natural that we should begin with God Himself. "In the beginning God" are the first words of the Bible. Let us likewise make this our starting point.
For the sake of clarity we shall proceed under three heads: the reality of God, the being of God, and finally the character of God.
I. The Reality of God
The first article of Christian faith, according to the Apostles' Creed, is "I believe in God the Father Almighty." What reasons may be given for this belief?
First, there is the witness of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation the fact of God's existence is never questioned. The Bible purports to be a record of the acts of God: it is not man's story so much as God's story. Christian faith accepts the biblical witness to the reality of God and proclaims His existence with assurance.
Could the Bible be wrong on this major point? Such is theoretically conceivable; however, since the Bible's credibility as a faithful guide to life is generally accepted, it is hard to imagine error on the belief that undergirds all other teaching. In other words, if one accepts the moral and ethical principles of the Bible as valid, the actuality of God must likewise be admitted. His existence is presupposed in every instance as their ground and basis, and furthermore, the teachings of the Bible cannot really be carried out except in His wisdom and strength.
Second, there is the evidence of God in nature. The Psalmist cries, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1), and the Apostle writes, "Ever since the beginning of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things he has made" (Romans 1:20). God's glory and handiwork, His power and deity are unmistakably revealed through His creation. That God is, is there for all to behold. Only the willfully blind can deny His existence and His vast power and wisdom.
One may note more specifically the design, the pattern, the purpose at work everywhere. The world is "on the move": the earth in its development of plant, animal, and human life from one stage to another evidences some great intelligence guiding and directing. The beauty of sunsets, mountains and valleys, skies and trees is inexplicable if there be no God who so creates and enjoys. The order of the universe, the laws of light, of gravity, the fact that all is cosmos rather than chaos, the regular movements of stars and planets, and on the earth of days and seasons, bespeak One who creates and sustains "by the word of his power" (Hebrews 1:3). Joseph Addison put it memorably-
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim:
The unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does His creator's power display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.
Third, there is the testimony of inner experience. "As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God" (Psalm 42:1). The hunger of the heart for God, the deep yearning of the soul for fulfillment in another, points toward one who has made man for Himself. Could there be this universal longing without a true answer? Man hungers and thirsts physically for food and drink, and there is food and drink to satisfy; could this be less true of the far deeper hunger and thirst of the soul for God? The answer of Christian experience is unmistakable: "O taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Psalm 34:8).
Inner experience of desire for God is also supplemented by an assurance of His presence. Who has not known moments of awe when some place-be it mountainside, star-studded heaven at night, stately cathedral, or humble room-has seemed filled with the presence of Another? Like Jacob at Bethel we may have cried, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Genesis 28:17).
Moreover, belief in God "works." Countless people testify that until they believed in His existence, life never really seemed right; but once having unquestionably affirmed God's reality and acted thereupon, life has become fuller and more abundant. "For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Such true believers, men and women of faith, have been people of destiny, their lives often changing the course of history. Fearing God, they feared no one else; believing in Him, they could believe in all things. Could this belief have been an illusion, when it made for stronger, better, wiser people?
Now let us hasten to add that none of the reasons suggested for belief in the reality of God-the witness of Scripture, the evidence in nature, the testimony of inner experience-is final proof. Nor is the total-even if one should add many other reasons. In the last analysis, the reality of God is based on faith. In this world we walk by faith and not by sight-"now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12). But for those who so walk, who so believe, God does become ever more meaningful in their lives.
One further word might be added: belief in God and action thereupon is basically no different than one's procedure in relation to the objective world. Through our physical senses we are convinced that there is a world of people and things around us, and we act accordingly. The more we act the more unshakable our conviction becomes that there is much else besides ourselves. So with God. There is indirect evidence through our physical senses-God in nature-and direct evidence through our spiritual perceptions. When we act on this evidence, the conviction of God's reality, as with the world and other persons, becomes increasingly certain.
Why then are there some people who call themselves atheists? The answer would seem to be twofold: first, there are many who willfully disbelieve in God's existence because of guilty consciences. They would prefer that He didn't exist so that they would not have to face His demands. To believe in His reality would mean a different kind of living-and that they do not want. Hence, they prefer to delude themselves into unbelief. Second, and perhaps more often, some do not believe because they become so preoccupied with the things of sense that spiritual awareness tends to die away. Little reading of the Bible and prayer, little attention to the "glory of God" in the heavens, little heed to the hunger of the soul-and making earthly substitutes for all these-lead inevitably to atrophy of soul as surely as little use of a member of the body (a hand, a foot, an eye) leads to gradual disability. If one replaces God with lesser devotions, He cannot become or remain real.
The concept of God begins with the whole-hearted affirmation of His reality.
II. The Being of God
In discussing the being of God, let us think of Him in the opening words of a catechism definition: "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being." Then we shall proceed with a later statement: "There are three persons Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and in glory" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, partial answer to Question 4: "What is God?").
1. A spirit-"God is spirit" (John 4:24). God is not flesh and blood; He has no body; He is by nature spirit. References in the Bible to God's hands, eyes, finger, etc., are accommodations to our human condition so that His reality may be more concrete. It is hard for us to think upon God without thinking of some tangible form; it is likewise difficult for God to reveal Himself to us without anthropomorphic expressions being used. The climax of this situation is realized in the Incarnation: God actually assuming human flesh ("the Word became flesh," John 1:14) that He might be known more fully.
Still God is, and remains, spirit. But what does this mean? Have we any way of comprehending such? Perhaps the best approximation to understanding is to suggest that God is most closely akin to that which is the deepest part of our nature: our spirit. Man is body, mind, and spirit-the latter is that which is our deepest and truest self. Our spirit functions through our minds and our bodies, but is to be identified with neither: it, like God, is intangible, incorporeal.
On this level of spirit God is most truly known, for here God and man may be in true communion-"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit," (John 4:24). In the beautiful words of Tennyson-
Speak to Him thou for He hears,
Spirit with Spirit can meet-
Closer is He than breathing.
And nearer than hands and feet.
2. Infinite-God is unlimited, unbounded. Human beings are finite, confined in space. With God there is no confinement, no limitation. "Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee" (1 Kings 8:27). As infinite, God is everywhere present-
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there thy hand shall lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10)
Hence God is both infinitely far and near: He is far beyond all His creation, but also, as the Apostle says "He is not far from each one of us, for 'in him we live and move and have our being'" (Acts 17:27-28).
This understanding of God is important. On the one hand it avoids deism, which thinks of God as far removed from our world affairs; on the other, it stands against pantheism, which imagines God as in whole or part identical with His creation. The biblical view and understanding of God is neither deism nor pantheism, but theism, which views God as both far beyond and very near all things: He is both transcendent to and immanent in His total universe.
This appreciation of God provides true Christian perspective. God is to be worshiped as one whose "ways are not our ways" and therefore as the wholly other; but He is also one with whom fellowship may be had, and in whose presence there is joy and strength and fullness of life.
3. Eternal-God is the great "I AM." "God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM'.say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14). God is the eternal contemporary, the everlasting now. He is without beginning of days or end of years; He is not confined by the time order in which we live.
Past, present, and future are all equally real to Him, for time is His creation. Hence He knows the end from the beginning: it is all "spread out" before Him. As one from a high perspective, such as a mountaintop, may view far beyond what others below can see, infinitely more so God from the vantage point of eternity. He beholds all.
This does not mean that time is meaningless to God. Rather, He both lives in all time and beyond all time. He suffers "down among" our years-even in Christ being crucified at a certain point in time (which has split all time in two: b.c. and a.d.). He also in Christ is eternally "destined before the foundation of the world" (1 Peter 1:20).
Perhaps the greatest comfort afforded by the understanding of God as eternal is that we may have confidence about the future. The future is safe, for it is in the hands of one who knows it already: He knows it and is satisfied. God is eternal, everlasting-in this we may rejoice.
4. Unchangeable-"I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6). The Scriptures constantly affirm the unchanging nature of God-the rock being the symbol often used of His abiding reality.
Occasionally there are references to God's "changing" His mind ("repenting," for example-"the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people," Exodus 32:14), but the changing is never a fluctuation in God's nature; it is always some different aspect of His nature being brought to bear on man's condition. Given a certain condition of man, God invariably acts in the same manner. For example, God may seem to change from fearsome power to sacrificial love, but the seeming change is utterly dependable-He always and inevitably acts in uniform fashion. If, for example, man sins, he can expect God's punishment; if he repents, he can depend on God's forgiveness; if he seeks after God, he can count on God's presence: God changes not.
In our world of time and flux, of coming into existence and passing away, of building up and tearing down, it is good to know that God does not change. He is "the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17).
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Having considered that God is spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, let us further note that God in His inner Being is "one God in three Persons."
One God-Christian faith holds unequivocally to the belief in one God, and one God alone. In the midst of a world that worshiped many gods, Israel proclaimed its monotheism: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Deuteronomy 6:4). So, for example, the words from Isaiah: "I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god." (Isaiah 44:6). The New Testament conveys the same message-"There is no God but one" (1 Corinthians 8:4). Again, "There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5).
Many names are and may be given to God: however, He is and remains one.
In three Persons-Christian faith holds equally fast to the conviction that "there are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." This belief in the Trinity is expressed devotionally in the words of the hymn:
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
Not three gods, but one God in three persons is the Christian belief. Furthermore, by "persons" is not meant "individuals" but personal self-distinctions (sometimes called "subsistences") within the divine reality. There are three "persons," which also means three modes or operations, for although the three work as one-and are one-the Scriptures show God the Father primarily as Creator, God the Son primarily as Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit primarily as Sanctifier.
God therefore is not alone (though alone God!)-for He is within Himself the richness of personal relationship. "God is love"-and this love is eternally expressed in the love among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: again, not as three individuals but as three personal realities. The highest form of being personal on the human level is that of love in which there is an interweaving, almost a coalescing of individuality, with resultant richer personal significance. For example, of husband and wife it is said, "the two shall become one" (Mark 10:8). And it is true in a wonderful and mysterious way that, as far as the limitations of finitude permit, they do become one, and at the same are all the richer persons for it. They are one individual in spirit, and at the same time are two very real persons. Of course, the human analogy is incomplete, since husband and wife begin as two and move toward becoming one, whereas God is, from eternity, one, and eternally expresses the essence of the personal as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (For another analogy of man's "trinitarian" nature in relation to God, neighbor, and self, see the next study on "Creation").
A few other comments about belief in the Trinity:
(1) The word Trinity is never used in the Bible. However the Scriptures do speak, at various times, of God as Father and as Son and as Holy Spirit. Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, 20 includes the words "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Hence God "in three persons"-yet one God-is unmistakably biblical.
(2) Other earthly analogies-in addition to the husband-and-wife illustration-may help point to the mystery of three-in-oneness. For example, again on the human level, man as man is a combination of body, mind, and spirit; yet at the same time he is one individual. Body, mind, and spirit all have their own "operations"-yet all make up one man. Or again on the inanimate level water, H20, is a good illustration. H20 may be either ice, liquid, or steam, depending on the temperature. It is the same substance, but three "subsistences" that are quite different.
Of course, both of these analogies are only very inadequate suggestions of what lies beyond our mortal minds-but they may be helpful.
(3) The belief in God as Trinity has not only its scriptural foundation but also its grounding in Christian experience. The early disciples did not begin with this belief (as one, so to speak, "handed down from heaven" that they must accept); rather, they gradually became convinced that the one God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They knew already that He was the Creator Father; however, through the example and words of Jesus a fuller understanding slowly emerged. Then as time went on they came more and more to realize that however human Jesus Christ was (and of this they had no doubt), He could not be contained in human categories. He did for them things which only God could do. He had to be-however paradoxical, even contradictory, it seemed-both man and God. Likewise the Holy Spirit-promised by the Father and sent by the Son-who came in great power at Pentecost, was He not also God yet in another "person"?
So for us today the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine supported by Scripture but beyond all experience. Rather, God is one God "in three persons" as we experience Him in creation, redemption, and new life.
III. The Character of God
The concluding words of the catechism definition of God speak of His "wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." These affirmations, drawn from the Scripture, profile the character of God.
It is immediately to be noted that the general picture here is of a personal God. God is not some blind force or energy; rather, He is personal through and through. Those who think of God as impersonal make Him less than man. Surely He is more-and therefore is personal to the ultimate and final degree.
A personal God is also perfect in all the respects mentioned. He is all-wise, all-powerful, all-holy, all-just, all-good, all-truthful. Since most of these terms are self-explanatory, let us single out only one of them: all-holy.
The holiness of God is everywhere stressed in the Bible, but especially in the Old Testament. God is often called "the holy one" and He constantly demonstrates the holiness of His nature.
Moses at the burning bush hearing the words, "Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5); the high priest wearing on his forehead the engraving, "Holy to the Lord" (Exodus 28:36) and being allowed to enter the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle only once a year; Isaiah hearing the chorus of seraphim crying, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:3); Jesus calling God in heaven "Holy Father" (John 17:11)-such are typical of the scriptural witness to God as holy.
As holy, God is "a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29) against all impurity, all iniquity. God is "of purer eyes than to behold evil" (Habakkuk 1:13) and therefore must destroy or purge evil wherever found. Nothing in any way unrighteous can be tolerated in His awesome presence.
Yet holiness is not the final word about God's nature. What is not clearly stated in the catechism definition is finally the most important thing of all, namely, that God is also all-love. The love of God is everywhere stressed in the Bible, but especially in the New Testament. This is the profoundest theme of the Bible.
From the Old Testament saying that "It is because the Lord loves you.that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh" (Deuteronomy 7:8), to the New Testament climax-"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son" (John 3:16), the ever recurring theme is the marvelous love of Almighty God.
How great is that love? It is finally only to be measured by a cross on a lonely hill-amazing, beyond all imagination-He loved mankind so much that He died. Truly "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
God then is all-holy and all-love: He is holy love-and as such is our Father. So did Christ speak of Him; so may we likewise know Him forever.
In the Christian concept of God we have considered His reality, His being, and His character. Now it is time to stop. God is not finally to be discussed or debated or even described. He is to be worshiped and obeyed.