Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Transcendence, Is God Flesh or Spirit?

This is what the Lord says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?”

“God is spirit,” said Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:24). Though fully personal, God does not live in and through a body as we do, and so is not anchored in a spatio-temporal frame. From this fact, plus the further fact that he is self-existent and not marked as we are by the personal disintegration (lack of concentration and control) that sin has produced in us, several things follow.

First, God is limited neither by space (he is everywhere in his fullness continually) nor by time (there is no “present moment” into which he is locked as we are). Theologians refer to God’s freedom from limits and bounds as his infinity, his immensity, and his transcendence (1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 40:12-26; 66:1). As he upholds everything in being, so he has everything everywhere always before his mind, in its own relation to his all-inclusive plan and purpose for every item and every person in his world (Dan. 4:34-35; Eph. 1:11).

Second, God is immutable. This means that he is totally consistent: because he is necessarily perfect, he cannot change either for the better or for the worse; and because he is not in time he is not subject to change as creatures are (2 Pet. 3:8). Far from being detached and immobile, he is always active in his world, constantly making new things spring forth (Isa. 42:9; 2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5); but in all this he expresses his perfect character with perfect consistency. It is precisely the immutability of his character that guarantees his adherence to the words he has spoken and the plans he has made (Num. 23:19; Ps. 33:11; Mal. 3:6; James 1:16-18); and it is this immutability that explains why, when people change their attitude to him, he changes his attitude to them (Gen. 6:5-7; Exod. 32:9-14; 1 Sam. 15:11; Jon. 3:10). The idea that the changelessness of God involves unresponsive indifference to what goes on in his world is the precise opposite of the truth.

Third, God’s feelings are not beyond his control, as ours often are. Theologians express this by saying that God is impassible. They mean not that he is impassive and unfeeling but that what he feels, like what he does, is a matter of his own deliberate, voluntary choice and is included in the unity of his infinite being. God is never our victim in the sense that we make him suffer where he had not first chosen to suffer. Scriptures expressing the reality of God’s emotions (joy, sorrow, anger, delight, love, hate, etc.) abound, however, and it is a great mistake to forget that God feels—though in a way of necessity that transcends a finite being’s experience of emotion.
Fourth, all God’s thoughts and actions involve the whole of him. This is his integration, sometimes called his simplicity. It stands in stark contrast to the complexity and lack of integration of our own personal existence, in which, as a result of sin, we are scarcely ever, perhaps never, able to concentrate the whole of our being and all our powers on anything. One aspect of the marvel of God, however, is that he simultaneously gives total and undivided attention not just to one thing at a time but to everything and everyone everywhere in his world past, present, and future (cf. Matt. 10:29-30).

Fifth, the God who is spirit must be worshiped in spirit and in truth, as Jesus said (John 4:24). “In spirit” means “from a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit.” No rituals, body movements, or devotional formalities constitute worship without involvement of the heart, which the Holy Spirit alone can induce. “In truth” means “on the basis of God’s revelation of reality, which culminates in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.” First and foremost, this is the revelation of what we are as lost sinners and of what God is to us as Creator-Redeemer through Jesus’ mediatorial ministry.
No one place on earth is now prescribed as the only center for worship. God’s symbolic dwelling in earthly Jerusalem was replaced when the time came (John 4:23) by his dwelling in heavenly Jerusalem, whence Jesus now ministers (Heb. 12:22-24). In the Spirit, “the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth,” wherever they may be (Ps. 145:18; cf. Heb. 4:14-16). This worldwide availability of God is part of the good news of the gospel; it is a precious benefit, and should not simply be taken for granted.

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