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Truth Project #4 - Theology: “Who is God?”

Apr.15/12 Jn.17:1-8,13-19

THE ECLIPSE OF GOD

RC Sproul was struck by the title of a book written by theologian Martin Buber; the title was, The Eclipse of God. RC asserts that ours is an era in which the knowledge of God has been eclipsed - not completely destroyed, but obscured and shadowed by lies and misconceptions. RC says, given this situation, it’s essential that we establish two main points: 1) that God exists; and 2) that the Bible, the vehicle of God’s written self-revelation, is reliable. So today we’ll try to shine some light on this ‘eclipsed’ matter so hopefully, when we’re done, people can have a better understanding of who God is.
    Maybe that’s what a little kindergartner named Johnny was trying to do. Johnny’s teacher told everyone to draw a picture of what was important to them. In the back of the room, Johnny began to labour over his drawing. Everyone else finished and handed in their picture but he didn’t. He was still drawing. The teacher graciously walked back and put her arm around Johnny’s shoulder and asked, “Johnny, what are you drawing?” He didn’t look up; he just kept on working feverishly at his picture. He answered with one word: “God.” The teacher responded gently, “But Johnny - no one knows what God looks like.” Johnny answered, “They will when I’m through.”

HOW SHOULD I KNOW?

So, let’s begin - though we may not have quite as much confidence as Johnny had! “Who is God?” That’s the question of theology, the study of God (theos in Greek). But right away, we have a problem. The teacher was right, to some degree. God is not like an apple or banana that we can pick up and see completely and cut apart to analyze. The sovereign God has both the right and the ability to conceal Himself, to withhold information about who He is, to be silent on the subject if He chooses. Deut 29:29a, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God...” The apostle Paul, a man who even had the privilege of being caught up to paradise at one point, exclaimed in Romans 11(33f): “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?"”
    Those who’ve been reading chronologically through the Bible-in-a-year program may recall Manoah the father-to-be of Samson asking the angel who brought tidings of the baby’s upcoming birth what the angel’s name was; the angel answers, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.” God reserves the right to conceal the mystery of His privacy.
    In today’s Scripture reading, one little phrase Jesus uses reminds us we have no idea of much - an infinite amount, in fact - of God’s history. Jn17:5, “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Was any mortal witness to that? Absolutely not! Much of the mystery of God’s being, who He is, must remain forever beyond the realm or scope of our experience.
    But, surprisingly, to ask the question “Who is God?” is not a hopeless task. Amazingly, God has opted to pull back the curtain: He is KNOWABLE! John 17:3, Jesus prays, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Apparently God is not a silent, aloof, remote Deist god, but a COMMUNICATING God. 17:6&8, Jesus prays to the Father, “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world...For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.” (Also 17:14a) God doesn’t remain silent but communicates to us, both in words and in the person of Jesus.
    The Bible begins with God speaking creation into existence. Genesis 1:3, “and God said, ‘Let there be light.’” John 1(1,14) records that “in the beginning was the Word”, the Word was God, and the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us” and we have SEEN His glory. 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” In Christ, God stepped out of the hidden wings onto the stage so we all could behold Him.
    What are the various SOURCES by which we discover God’s communication concerning Himself? First there’s what’s termed “General Revelation” - how God has disclosed Himself in nature. Psalm 19(1ff), “the heavens declare the glory of God...Day after day they pour forth speech...Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” The message is even amplified by the instruments of modern science - radio-telescopes, electron-microscopes, and the tools of information science - which reveal a breathtaking complexity to even the simplest molecules and forms of life that points to Intelligent Design.
    General revelation is what Paul’s talking about in Romans 1:19f, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
    God reveals Himself “out there” in nature; He also reveals truths about Himself “in here” in the inner person, man’s moral motherboard, the built-in equipment we call ‘conscience’. It’s a sort of standard-issue moral compass we find operating to some degree across all cultures. Paul observes in Romans 2:15 that Gentiles “show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” In CS Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man he has an appendix showing the “Tao” or moral code reflected universally in ancient pagan moral codes.
    Besides “General Revelation”, there’s also what’s called “Special Revelation”. The second half of Psalm 19(8,11), besides mentioning the heavens and skies, points to God’s written revelation in the Law: “The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes...By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” So the idea is that God communicates specific precepts, principles, commands for us to follow for our good.
    God is Spirit (Jn 4:24), not flesh-and-bone matter like us; yet in the prophetic tradition, God’s Spirit comes upon and shows things to people. King Saul in his early days, 1Samuel 10(6): “The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.” Back in Numbers 11(25&29), Moses longed that God would put His Spirit upon many more people, to prophesy.
    This continues with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for believers in the New Testament. Jesus predicted in John 16(13) that the Counselor would guide His followers “into all truth”. The apostle Paul describes what this is actually like in 1Corinthians 2(10,13) - they speak “in words taught by the Spirit”; “God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” So we have the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture (2Tim 3:16). God’s word is NOT like mere mortals’ speech: it’s spiritually alive, effective, invasive - Hebrews 4:12, [SLIDE 51] “For the word of God is living and active.Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
    This idea of the INFALLIBILITY or absolute RELIABILITY of Scripture is picked up by Jesus Himself, who said things like Scripture “can’t be broken” (Jn 10:35); “Your Word is truth” (17:17); and, in Matthew 5:18, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Yet the witness of the written word is ultimately to the Living Word of God; Jesus pointed out to the Jewish leaders in John 5:39, “These are the Scriptures that testify about Me...”
    Who is God? Our sources for finding the answer include General Revelation in nature and conscience, Special Revelation in the Bible, but most definitively in Jesus Himself, the “Word-made-flesh”. Jesus is God’s ultimate self-revelation! Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God...” Hebrews 1:3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being...” In John 14(9) Jesus could say to His disciples, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
    Funny thing about the enduring nature of God’s Word: the Bible keeps seeming to bury its detractors. Voltaire in 1776 [SLIDE 32] said, “100 years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curosity seeker.” Wrong there! And Robert Ingersoll [SLIDE 33] SAID, “In 15 years I will have this book (the Bible) in the morgue.” 15 years later, guess who was in the morgue? Ingersoll! A pastor purchased his desk and spent his life writing sermons on it.

GLIMPSING THE GLORIOUS

So, having established the various sources by which God graciously chooses to reveal Himself, what glimpses of Him do we catch when we look there? In the Old Testament, one of the key theophanies (or appearances of God) occurred in Exodus 34(6f) when the Lord causes all His goodness to pass in front of Moses who is shielded in a cleft in a rock. God proclaims His name saying, “The LORD, [YHWH], the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Here we see in God’s self-portrait (as it were) a beautiful balance of truth and love, justice and compassion. This is echoed in Psalm 86:15 and half a dozen other passages in the Old Testament (Num 14;18; Neh 9:17; Ps 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2): “you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”
    Such summaries form the backbone for classic Christian confessions that also sum up God’s key characteristics. A famous one from the UK reformed tradition is the Westminster Confession [SLIDE 5]: “There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory...[SLIDE 6] most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal most just and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.” Piling adjectives upon attributes - and still it falls short. God is the ‘mostest’!
    Let’s single out just a few key features here in the glimpse God shows us of His glory. There is definitely His POWER in contrast to idols: God is almighty, all-powerful. In Biblical parlance, His arm is “not too short to save” (Num 11:23; Is 50:2, 59:1). The prophet Jeremiah (32:17) exclaims, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.” This is in stark contrast to idols which are helpless to save; the Lord’s name “Yahweh” revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3 is related to the Hebrew verb ‘hayah’ “to be” - God is the One who brings things to pass, who has the power and sovereignty to make things happen. In Isaiah 44(6-20) man-made idols are mocked for their powerlessness: part of the block of wood is carved into an idol, the other part is burned for fuel. Or you may recall in 1Samuel 5(4) the showdown between the Philistine god Dagon and the captured Ark of the Covenant: quite apart from any human agency, in the morning the Philistines find their idol fallen face-down before the ark, with the head and hands broken off!
    Another major emphasis on God’s nature is that of HOLINESS. In Isaiah’s vision of the Lord in Isaiah 6:3, and John’s in Revelation 4(8), winged creatures surround God’s throne proclaiming words such as, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty...” God is entirely holy, set-apart, sacred, absolutely ‘other’ than what is common or ordinary - very special indeed. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Is 55:9). Isaiah’s reaction in his vision is to cry out, “Woe to me! I am ruined - for I am a man of unclean lips...” A true glimpse of God’s holiness makes us realize how sinful we are, how un-holy in comparison.
    YET strangely, marvelously, God desires that people might enjoy relationship with Him. So verses like John 3:16 point out how God’s love reaches over the great divide, sending His Son so that those who believe in Him might NOT perish (as we deserve) but have eternal life. What’s life for, if not eking out a living day-to-day? God invites us in John 6:27, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” God urges us through the Bible to pursue eternal life, make that our goal. And what’s Jesus’ definition of eternal life? Jn 17:3 [SLIDE 11], “Now this is eternal life...that they may KNOW YOU, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” Not just endless quantity of time, but having fellowship, friendship, intimate acquaintance with the infinite Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
    Knowing this powerful, holy, loving God is what He wants most for people. Hosea 6:6 [SLIDE 18], “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the KNOWLEDGE OF GOD rather than burnt offerings.” Jeremiah 9(23f) [SLIDE 19], “Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD.”
    But for us sinners to know or have fellowship with a perfectly holy God requires some change in us - that we become sanctified or ‘set apart’. Jesus prays in John 17:17, “Sanctify them by the truth...”; v19, “for them I sanctify Myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” Here He’s referring to His determination to go ahead with the cross: it’s only His blood that can make us holy. Hebrews 10:10, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” V29 there indicates it is “the blood of the covenant” that sanctifies believers. Paul wrote to Titus (2:14) that Jesus “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good.”

JUSTIFIABLY JEALOUS

It’s popular in the more liberal branches of Christianity to emphasize that “God is love” - and He IS love: we see that in Jn 3:16, Jer 1:3, 1Jn 4(8,16b) etc. Yet this divine love is not for us to spurn, just because God is a loving God doesn’t mean He can be cheated on, ignored, or treated with contempt. Dr Del Tackett reminds us one of God’s names is “El Qanna”, a God who has every right to be JEALOUS. Deut 4(23f) [SLIDE 21], “...do not make for yourselves an idol...for the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a JEALOUS God.” Zechariah 8:2 [SLIDE 22], “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.’” Exodus 34:14, “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
    What about YOUR affections and interests, your energies - are they all focused on lesser idols rather than on God? Are you looking for things of this earthly order to satisfy, to do that which only God can really do? Keep sampling or checking your spiritual temperature; Psalm 42(1f) [SLIDE 27], “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, O God.My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” With what counterfeit, deceitful ‘sludge’ are you trying to slake that inmost, deepest thirst? God’s designed you as a spiritual being for a relationship with Him!
    Consider the example of Paul, writing in Philippians 3(8ff) [SLIDE 16]: “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him...[SLIDE 17]...I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death...” What’s he saying? That all things are RUBBISH in comparison with knowing Jesus. For us, is everything else ‘trash’ by comparison? Do we want to know Jesus that desperately, that passionately? That’s what He wants for you! That’s how Jesus defines ‘eternal life’.

MIRROR AND MAKEOVER

Paul said he wants to ‘gain’ Christ, become like Him, know Him, be “found” in Him...Are we in a sense ‘lost’ until we’re ‘found’ in Christ? Is the secret to our own identity somehow concealed until we come to know God as He truly is? Maybe this quest to discover God has a double reward - the bonus of finding out who we were meant to be, as well as God’s true personality. The Truth Project material comments, “...we cannot truly know ourselves until we have begun to know God in the fullness and richness of His multifaceted nature and character – not only as the God of mercy and grace, but also as the God who is a consuming fire, jealous for the purity of the covenant relationship (El Qanna). When this knowledge dawns upon us, we can expect two things to happen. First, the revelation of God’s character will, like a mirror, reveal things to us about ourselves, so that we, along with the prophet Isaiah, are compelled to cry, “Woe is me, for I am undone!” (Is 6:5) But then secondly, as He raises us out of our despair and shows us who we are and who we can be in Him, we will be granted the gift of a new name - a whole new concept of our being, our identity, and our purpose in life with God.”
    I close with a poem titled “I Am” by Helen Mallicoat, which kind of bounces of God’s revelation of His personal name to Moses in Exodus 3 at the burning bush.
    I was regretting the past | And fearing the future...
    Suddenly my Lord was speaking: | “MY NAME IS I AM.” He paused.
    I waited.He continued,
    “WHEN YOU LIVE IN THE PAST, | WITH ITS MISTAKES AND REGRETS,
    IT IS HARD.I AM NOT THERE.| MY NAME IS NOT I WAS.
    “WHEN YOU LIVE IN THE FUTURE, | WITH ITS PROBLEMS AND FEARS,
    IT IS HARD.I AM NOT THERE.| MY NAME IS NOT I WILL BE.
    “WHEN YOU LIVE IN THE MOMENT, | IT’S NOT HARD.
    I AM HERE.| MY NAME IS I AM.”
Let’s pray.