THE GOD OF THE CHRISTIANS
Not to everyone, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God,
not to everyone; the subject is not so cheap and low.1
The revelation God gave as a guide for our thinking spends far more time talking about His character and behavior than it does talking about His "essence." From that, one may conclude, correctly, that God thinks "knowing" Him consists more in trusting, fearing and loving Him than in knowing the right answers to questions about His inner being. However, both kinds of "God talk" are found in the Scriptures, and both are therefore necessary in order to "know" Him. Let us first explore what He has revealed about His "essential" being.
I. GOD'S INITIAL REVELATION OF HIMSELF
God chose to reveal Himself in two stages, as the author of Hebrews states: "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in Thessalonians last days has spoken to us in His Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2). In the initial revelation, we may say that He revealed Himself as He relates to His creation; in the final stage, he revealed Himself as He is within Himself. In relation to His creation, He is shown to be personal, one, enthroned in glory (transcendent), omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and eternal.
God is personal
The Scriptures show us that it is a person whom we are to know as our God: not a philosophical "first principle," not a divine primary "substance" (as in Hinduism's Brahman), not a physical energy capable of serving both good and evil (as in the "Force" of Star Wars), but a person. The highest and central reality is personal: a Being who is conscious, purposeful, creative and good-willed, one who possesses a distinctive personality. The unbelieving anthropologist says that such a belief amounts to creating a God in the image of man. But God reveals that man can, in truth, look to himself (at his best) to find out something about God, because man was created in the "image and likeness" of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7). This means that man's highest experience is not knowledge (a solitary experience), nor the escape from ego-consciousness in meditation, but a personal relationship with another Being that is characterized by conversation (i.e., prayer), emotion (e.g., love and fear), and mutual indwelling (John 14:17, 17:26).
God is one
Man encounters the true God as one Being, not as a society of independent divine personalities, such as is found in polytheism. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!" (Deuteronomy 6:4). It is in this aspect of Himself that God will expand knowledge about Himself, through the ministries of Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But even after they expand the revelation, God still shows Himself to be one. He is one in being, in purpose, in motivation, in character and personality. Man does not have to feel helplessly tossed between the contradictory claims and commands of the gods of polytheism. There is only One for us to please, to worship and to obey (see also Deuteronomy 4:35, 39, Mark 12:28-29).
God is transcendent, enthroned in glory
This Being who is one and personal is not to be found in the dimension natural to our senses. He "dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see" (1 Timothy 6:16). "O Lord my God, Thou art very great; Thou art clothed with splendor and majesty, covering Thyself with light as with a cloak" (Psalm 104:1-2). When a person of this dimension is granted a revelation of God he is always overwhelmed by the awesome and blinding "glory" that radiates from God (e.g., Daniel 7:9f; Revelation 1:14f; Isaiah 6:1f; Matthew 17:1f). A direct encounter with God and His kingdom always involves an encounter with glory. God is on the other side of a veil that separates Him and His dimension from our dimension; consequently, He is invisible with respect to this dimension. But that invisibility is not an absolutely necessary quality in God. He can and will be seen "face to face" when man is prepared; without such preparation, however, the vision of God must kill him (see Exodus 33:20, John 5:37, Genesis 3:8, 1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2).
God is omnipotent
God reveals Himself to be without any inherent limitations to His power. "Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps" (Psalm 135:6). "Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases" (Psalm 115:3). God can subject and use any spiritual or natural power; He may limit Himself, but He cannot be limited by anyone. "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
The Scriptures show that He chooses to use His power far more against the human race than most of us like to hear, and far more on our behalf than most of us dare to hope. We may not like to hear it, but God reveals that it is He who afflicts the human race with its present burdens, even if it happens through some other way than by His direct action (see Exodus 4:11, Job 1:6-2:10).2 On the other hand, He also teaches disciples to expect Him to exercise His infinite power on our behalf, even to the extent of truly miraculous intervention. "With God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26). "Have faith in God... all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you" (Mark 11:22-24).
It is because God is omnipotent that such comforting words are spoken about those who are His:
...no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to me is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand (John 10:28-29; see also Romans 8:38-39).
The God of the Scriptures reveals that one of the ways He exercises His omnipotence is as the Lord over human history: "...He made from one, every nation of mankind, to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation..." (Acts 17:26). "He makes the nations great, then destroys them; He enlarges the nations, then leads them away" (Job 12:23). This is why the Lord can say, "...there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, 'My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'" (Isaiah 46:9-10). That God exercises His lordship does not mean that Satan and mankind are not able to struggle against His power and try to accomplish their own ends. It does, however, mean that, despite anything man or Satan may do against His purpose, God will create the perfect countermove, one that brings the flow of history back to His plan.
As omnipotent Lord, He also intervenes in personal destinies according to His wisdom and in a way that does no violence to any free will He chooses to extend to man. To the prophet Jeremiah He declared, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5; see also: Psalm 139:16; Isaiah. 49:1, 5; Job 14:5).
This exercise of His omnipotence may well create philosophical problems for men, as we try to understand what that means with respect to human freedom, human responsibility and the origin of evil. But no Christian has the right to tamper with God's revelation and make it say anything less than it does; and it says that He is Almighty God.
God is omniscient
God reveals that He knows everything there is to know. "Great is our God, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite" (Psalm 147:5). His mind penetrates all things, whether spirits or matter or the human heart (see Psalms 139:1-6, 147:4-5; Proverbs 15:3,11).
But God's knowledge breaks even the barrier of time. "I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done" (Isaiah 46:9-10). Whether we can or cannot understand how that can be, such is what God reveals about Himself. His infinite power and knowledge are the bases for the Biblical doctrines of predestination and election, about which more will be said later.3
God is omnipresent
There is no "place" in which God is not to be found:
"'Am I a God who is near', declares the Lord, 'and not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in hiding places, so I do not see him?', declares the Lord. 'Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?', declares the Lord?" (Jeremiah 23:23-24; see also Psalm 139:7f).
This does not mean what is called "pantheism": "all the earth's divine, and every common bush afire with God," as Emily Dickinson wrote in error. Rather, it indicates that at every place God is at work, keeping all things in existence; it also indicates that God's "senses" (as it were) are everywhere, keeping Him informed about everything that is going on everywhere. God is not some "super-smart gas," diffused throughout the universe; He Isaiah as the Scriptures describe Him, "in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). He is not, as the Mormons supposedly say, composed of flesh and blood, but He does have a "form" (John 5:37), whatever that term may mean in Jesus' thinking. His omnipresence must not be conceived at the expense of His individuality, lest we lose the Biblical perspective. The little child whose image of God is that of an awe-inspiring man sitting on a throne in heaven, but who can somehow also see into men's hearts is perhaps nearer to the truth than the "impassable, inconceivable, uncompounded..." abstraction proclaimed as God by learned men who reject her imagery as being too primitive.
God is eternal
God has revealed Himself to be eternal. Unlike all created beings, He has never come into being and will never pass out of being. "Before the mountains were born, or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God" (Psalm 90:2; see also Psalm 9:7, 93:2, 102:24-27). Whatever God Isaiah He always has been and always will be. This aspect of God's being was very important in resolving the most significant struggle with heresy in the early Church. The "Arians" (so named after their founder, Arius) taught that Jesus was the first of all the creatures of God. It was this created being, Arians taught, who was incarnated in the Virgin Mary, and it had been He who had created the world; but He was still a creature, even though He was called "God" by them, and was given worship. The Church resisted this doctrine, however, because if, in his pre-incarnate existence, Jesus ever came into being -- if ever "there was a time when He was not" (the Arian battle cry) -- then in no legitimate sense could He be called God (cf. Titus 2:13), for God is eternal. Incidentally, as has often been observed, the Jehovah's Witnesses in our day maintain this Arian doctrine in their Christology.
The significance of Thessalonians attributes
Much of what has been described above concerning the being of God seems self-evident to many of us who have been surrounded by Christianity from our youth. But those who have been raised in many other religions can find this combination of attributes quite revolutionary. For them it is important to have such fundamental understandings of our God carefully described.
But they are not the only ones for whom it is important. If "primitive" man has not grown up to Thessalonians understandings of God, modernistic Christians believe that they have grown out of them. Many intellectual leaders within Christian denominations believe that we can no longer think of God in the "outworn" categories of "person," "omnipotent," "transcendent" and the like. Think, for example, of John A.T. Robinson, a bishop of the Anglican Church, whose book Honest to God created such a stir a few decades ago.4 He actually contended that the God he was describing was superior to the "anthropomorphic" being described in the Scriptures. But it is the God we have been describing above who is the God of the Christians, the living God, the One before whom all men will stand to receive either welcome or condemnation. For a "Christian" to depart from Scriptural conceptions of Him is to have abandoned belief that He has truly revealed Himself, and to demonstrate that one has no first-hand knowledge of God. So make sure, pilgrim, that it is the Biblical God you wrestle with and yield to, or you'll really have no God at all.
II. GOD REVEALS HIMSELF MORE FULLY
The triune God in the Old Testament
What has been described above is God as He revealed His being before the coming of His Son, Jesus. As we have stated, that initial revelation was of God as He is related to this dimension. In Christ we are shown something of the nature of God as He exists within Himself. The old covenant seer was allowed to look into that blinding light with which God covers Himself, and he saw the One whom we have described above. It would have been no more possible for him to have seen more than this than for you to stare at the sun and see its sunspots. That was all that God had revealed of Himself. But even under this former dispensation God gave some hints of a greater mystery concerning Himself. Why, for example, would God say, "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness" (Genesis 1:26), but then say, "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him" (1:27). Obviously, "God" was talking to someone else who shares His image: whence comes this plurality in the one God? A common reply is that God was either speaking to the angels, or else speaking in the "plurality of majesty," in the way that the popes and kings of this world speak. Regarding the angels, there is no place else in the Scriptures where God groups Himself with angels ("in our image, according to our likeness"), nor where the angels are described as co-creators. And regarding the so-called plurality of majesty, if that were so then God must have lost His etiquette, for only three verses later in speaking to man He said, "Behold I have given you every plant..." (1:29)
Moving on, we might ask just what is the relationship between the God who walks in the garden (Genesis 3:8) and His Spirit who hovers over the creation (Genesis 1:2) and then creates life (Job 33:4, Psalm 104:30)?
And who is this "Son," the "Anointed One"?
The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed: "Let us...cast away their cords from us!" ...He said to me: "You art My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as your possession...." Take warning, O judges of the earth. Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling. Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry... How blessed are all who take refuge in Him! (Psalm 2)
This cannot be referring to Israel's king, who in the covenant was given no partnership in the exercise of divine authority over all the earthly kings, who was never promised the very ends of the earth as a possession, and who was not established as a source of refuge for all people. Such prerogatives belong, of course, only to God.
And Zechariah also was shown something of this mystery:
Thus declares the Lord who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him: ...I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication so that they will look on me whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son... (Zecheriah 12:1,10).
Clearly, it is God who is speaking, and yet the Lord of heaven, whom no man can see and live, shall be both seen and pierced. And how can God say, "they shall look on Me," and then immediately shift persons to "mourn for Him," though still referring to Himself? Whence this plurality?
The mystery made clear
What was hinted at in the Old Testament was made clear through the ministry of Christ while on earth and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit working through Christ's apostles: The Messiah Jesus is the Lord of Israel, just as His Father Isaiah and so also is the Holy Spirit!
He is the image of the invisible God... By Him all things were created... All things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians. 1:16-17; Jesus is the Creator).
...although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2:5; Jesus is as "divine" as the Father).
God... in Thessalonians last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1f; He is the full manifestation of the Father).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.5 He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being... And the Word became flesh (John 1:1-3, 14; He is God Incarnate).
...the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (John 5:18; to be Son of God is to be equal with God).
And now glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was... (John 17:5; He shares the same glory as the Father).
...our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus (Titus 2:13).6
And regarding the Holy Spirit:
...baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; the Spirit shares the same "name" as the Father and Son).
But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit... You have not lied to men, but to God" (Acts 5:3-4; to lie to the Spirit is to lie to God).7
...The Spirit said to him [i.e., Peter], "...I have sent them Myself (Acts 10:20; the Spirit speaks like any self-conscious person." See also Acts 13:2).
For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God... the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11; the Spirit must be personal, intelligent and divine to be described thus).
But whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit... (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; the Spirit is identified as "the Lord" mentioned just before).
...Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself (Hebrews 9:14; only God is eternal).
It took several centuries before Christian thinkers began to attempt a systematic arrangement of Thessalonians Scriptures above into one comprehensive doctrine about God, what is now called the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine defines the uniqueness of each of the Three as well as their substantial unity.
What other information about Thessalonians three divine persons is found in the New Testament? For one thing we see some kind of subordination of the Son and the Spirit to the Father. Even though the titles "God" and/or "Lord" are given to Christ and the Spirit, it is very obvious to the reader of the New Testament that for Jesus and His apostles the word "God," unless specifically qualified, refers to the Father (e.g., John 8:42, Acts 5:31, John 20:23 -- Jesus is God's "son"). And it is not merely a matter of titles, either; it has to do with the very nature of the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus considered the Father to be "My God and your God" (John 20:17); He said, "I proceeded forth and have come from God" (John 8:42); He taught that even though He was one with the Father (John 10:30), the Father was nevertheless greater than He (John 14:28). Paul implied some kind of parallel between our relationship to Jesus and His to the Father: "For you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God" (1 Corinthians 3:23).8
We also are taught that after Jesus returns and subjects the universe to Himself, the Father will Himself descend, after which: "then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28, Revelation 21:1-3).9 The Holy Spirit is similarly described as "proceeding" from the Father, and as being "sent" to us through the intercessory ministry of Jesus (John 14:16,26, 15:26). So, we have the eternity and divinity of the Three, coupled with what early Greek theologians called the "monarchy" of the Father. All three are apparently involved in anything any one of them does: whether creating, revealing, saving, indwelling or judging. God has always known a most intimate and loving community relationship, and never would create man (as is sometimes supposed) because of a lonely person's desire for relationship. The exact way in which the Son and the Spirit derive their being from the Father (or ground their being in Him) has not been revealed. Classical theology says that the Spirit "proceeds" from the Father, whereas the Son comes forth by "generation," but such language really says nothing more than that they both somehow are grounded in the Father's being, since the early inventors of the terminology admitted that they did not know the difference between the two relationships:
You ask what is the procession of the Holy Spirit? Do you tell me what is the unbegottenness of the Father, and I will then explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both be stricken with madness for prying into the mystery of God.10
How can we avoid a charge that Christians are polytheists, worshipping three Gods? For one thing we refer to the eternal grounding of the Son and the Spirit in the being of the Father. And for another, we refer to the absoluteness of the unity between them, not only unity of "being," but of love, of purpose, of wisdom, of glory, of motivation, of perspective. It is quite impossible for the Father, the Son and the Spirit to have three different outlooks on anything or to make three different decisions about anyone, quite unlike any three humans or any three demon-gods of the Greek pantheon. They not only indwell each other as one, but they think and act as one, and this has been eternally true. The problem of how the Father, the Son and the Spirit can be three and yet one at the same time springs out of a natural limitation imposed by our physical existence: we have no natural experience of two persons sharing the same space and consciousness, so the mind has no natural images with which to grasp such a diversity and unity. However, this natural limitation has been at least partially overcome for the disciple of Christ who has begun to actually experience the indwelling of God through the Holy Spirit (in the manner of Romans 8). Such a person is actually experiencing himself in permanent union with God: his spirit and God's Spirit are one, and yet the individuality of neither is compromised. Spirits are not subject to the same problem of unity and individuality that carnal natures are. Apart from this experience-based analogy, however, I do not believe there is any way of grasping the unity and plurality within God.
We are not "monotheists" in the way Jews and Moslems are. Nor are we "polytheists." We do not have to accept being squeezed into such theological "boxes." We are simply children of God, and we know God as He wants to be known, as He has revealed Himself.
Among the major Christian theological traditions, the most balanced teaching about the Trinity and unity of God Isaiah I believe, found among the Eastern Orthodox.11 The western traditions, Protestant as well as Catholic, tend to minimize the "monarchy" of the Father that we have described above.
A note of caution: all that has been said above, as terribly important as it Isaiah will prove to be quite valueless if one does not move beyond analytical thinking, and enter into personal relationship with the Triune God. Many are the Christians who hold to a Trinitarian theology and yet do not know the Triune God. Trinitarian thinking is no substitute for Trinitarian encounter: a full and rich experience of the true God requires a Trinitarian relationship with Him. Thessalonians three relationships reflect the "threefoldness" in the very being of God: they are three kinds of relationship, yet they all come together to be one relationship with the one God. You may not "know" how that can be true, but you can experience that relationship that is both threefold and united at the same time. By entering into His covenant, you can know the Father as your personal Father and Provider, experience the salvation in the Son and know the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit: all three are essential elements of knowing and experiencing the presence of the true God. How blessed are you if you know what has been said in this paragraph!
III. THE CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY OF GOD
What has been said to this point about our God is very important indeed. But, as we noted at the beginning of this chapter, there is another aspect to our God, the aspect of His character and personality. God not only has revealed the fact that He is personal; He has revealed that very personality. There Isaiah of course, no difference in character or personality between Father, Son and Spirit, and so we encounter God as one character and personality, who has revealed His character as follows.12
God is absolutely trustworthy and faithful
What this means is that you can trust God to be faithful to every promise and to every threat that He has ever made. He will not -- indeed, He cannot -- break His word. "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Timothy 2:13; see also Numbers 23:19).
This trait is what makes God so very careful and concerned about words; it is the foundation for our proper attitude toward the Scriptures. He does not let His words go forth hastily, and once He speaks them He cannot forget them (see Proverbs 30:5-6, Isaiah. 55:10-11). Every single Scriptural promise or prophecy, without exception, either has been or will be fulfilled. He may delay its fulfillment for some reason (e.g., Psalm 105:19; 2 Peter 3:8-9), but he will most certainly fulfill it, because He is faithful. Furthermore, He expects men to have this same high regard for their words:
And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37; see also Ecclesiastes. 5:2-6, Matthew 5:33-37. For an illustration of this high regard, see Joshua 9).
God is always righteous and just
God can never sacrifice justice for the sake of expediency, not even for the sake of love. "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne" (Psalm 97:2; also, Deuteronomy 32:4-5). This trait is a source of the "fear of God," mentioned so often in the Scriptures.
And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth (1 Peter 1:17).
...they (the unbelieving Jews) were broken off for their unbelief, and you stand only by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:20-22; also, 2 Corinthians 5:9-11, Ezekiel 33:12-14).
It is this trait in God's character that accounts for His choice of the mode of our redemption: Jesus had to "fulfill all righteousness" because God could not forget justice in creating the forgiveness of sins. He could not, for example, simply declare man forgiven in an act of compassionate forgetfulness of sins.
One consequence of this trait in God's character is that He will not forget our deeds that proceed from love (Proverbs 19:17, Matthew 10:42, Hebrews 6:10). "God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him" (Acts 11:34-35).
Another consequence of this trait is that He will never let unrepented rebellion against His word or ignored promptings of His Spirit go unpunished.
God is compassionate and merciful
Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon Thee... Thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth (Psalm 86:5,15).
While the true God does indeed get angry, He does so slowly and sinlessly because He has tremendous love and good will toward all. He seeks for opportunity to bless, not to condemn. To forgive is what delights Him; that is why He would give us His Son for a sacrifice before bringing the condemnation He must someday bring to the unyielding and unrepentant. He is compassionate and merciful, even to sinners who are full of hate, selfishness and lust (Ezekiel 33:11; Matthew 5:43-45; Romans 5:8,10). He pours out His cup of grace before He pours out His cup of wrath: praise His holy name! Despite His capacity for angry judgment, His heart is not really into judgment, but into blessing. He truly delights in the well-being of His creatures. He made us in order to bless us; He would rule over us uncontested because that is the most happy and blessed condition we can be in.
God is patient and long-suffering
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger..." (Exodus 34:6).
Love is patient, love... bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4,7; "God is love" -- 1 John 4:8).
This quality in God's heart is the reason why swift judgments do not strike you down as soon as you sin. And, more amazingly still, He is patient with us even though He knows that patience is regularly abused by us: "Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil" (Ecclesiastes. 8:11). He is determined to give us time to repent of evil; this is why He is so patient (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
God hates evil and is holy
The God of some philosophers and theologians is much more "mature" (in their evaluation) than our God. Their God is not capable of emotion and extreme reactions, because such a trait is supposedly beneath the dignity of deity. But such a concept of deity is not shared by the Deity Himself. He "hates" what is evil (Proverbs 6:16-19; Zecheriah 8:17), even to the point of destroying a beautiful creation that He Himself had made (Genesis 6:5f). Such an awesome destruction and slaughter is indeed a violent reaction. The fact that we cannot visualize divine hate must not blind us to its reality. "Hate" is the strongest word for rejection in a language, and God chose to use it for a reason.
"Holiness," as most of us know, means "separation," and seems to imply the existence of evil (i.e., if you are separated, you must be separate from something evil). But this is not necessarily so. God's holiness initially would have referred to His "separation" -- being uncreated -- from all that is created; and any "holiness" in man would have initially referred to his separation from all the rest of creation (due to being created in God's image). But with the entrance of evil into the creation, "holiness" would necessarily take on an added notion of "recoiling" and "revulsion," which it does indeed have in the Scriptures. A "holy" personality recoils strongly from evil, just like we recoil when ammonia is placed under our nose. And our God is one who is too pure to "look at evil" or to "look on wickedness" (Habakkuk 1:13): when He sees it, His heart must react against it, and He must separate Himself from the sinner. Why do you think God is not to be seen in this dimension?
This motion of hate against evil is commanded of us as well (Psalm 97:10, Proverbs 8:13, Amos 5:15). Indeed, one measure of our actual love of God (as opposed to our imagined love) is the strength of this holy hatred of evil. We dare not imagine that we understand God's love of sinners if we don't know His hatred of sin. Holiness is the source of all the forms of excommunication practiced in the Scriptural period. It is a purging of evil from our midst, for we have been called to be separate from its midst (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; Matthew 18:15-17). Compassion ought to slow down the procedures of separation, but never to stop them.
Throughout Christendom today, there are two themes that have fallen into profound neglect (at least, within the traditions I have come to know): God's hatred of evil and our fear of God. Can it be that we ignore the former so as to avoid having to learn the latter?
... God called to him from the midst of the bush, and said, "...Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5).
Should a man or a church dare to stand before the true God with their shoes on? Pick any denomination you can think of, or any congregation. Regardless of whether it is growing or not, it is very likely that it has, from a Scriptural perspective, very serious problems. You could look at those problems from various perspectives:
Now Thessalonians are all serious problems, indeed. But at the heart of each of them is another, much deeper problem: that, unlike Moses, they keep their shoes on in the presence of a holy God. They have not entered into that combination of godly fear and surrendered will that make it possible for the rebellious flesh to become ignited by the fire from God, turning a formerly sin-sickened creature into a burning bush of God. God is holy, not some easy-going buddy who can only "accept you as you are" because he has no power to transform you into his likeness. God is holy and His Word is holy. Those who have been burned by that holiness -- in Godly discipline and chastisement -- and have developed the instinct to "take of their shoes" in the presence of His burning bushes (e.g., His written Word), will tremble at the thought of setting aside the natural sense of the texts because of denominational or cultural pressures.
IV. KNOWING GOD
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). So God warned; the knowledge spoken of by Hosea is the kind of knowledge about which we are speaking in this section.
We have spent so much time on the topic of knowing our God because of its critical importance. If we are not rooted properly here, all else is wasted effort, "dead works." And, sadly to say, the God that so many of us Christians relate to and carry about in our imaginations is not like the God described in the previous sections. To distort the true picture of God in our minds is the most destructive and poisonous heresy of all.
Make sure, dear pilgrim, that the God you respond to and serve is this God we have described. Many Christians may in fact be carrying about in their minds the god of this world, who is disguising himself as "God." And, disguised as God, he may be tormenting them so as to create too severe an image of God and too fearful a relationship with Him. Or he may be lulling them into a careless and unconsecrated response to some "sugar daddy" God (the latter tactic seeming to be far more successfully employed in our day). But in neither case do they really "know" God.
To "know" God as He really Isaiah is not only to know His "essence," but also to know His character and the deeds which proceed from His character, and to struggle to live consistently with that knowledge. It means to relate properly toward Him: to know His teachings, to trust His promises, to trust His good will, to yearn for face-to-face encounter with Him, and to fear His punishments (until such time as we are perfect in love -- 1 John 4:18). Only that kind of knowledge is the knowledge of God that saves, sanctifies and heals, and that saves us from the kind of destruction mentioned by Hosea above.
If there is a distinction between character and personality it may be this: character consists of the attitudes within one's heart, and personality consists of the internal actions and reactions of that character. We have been describing God's character, but we see His personality in the countless number of incidents recorded in the Scriptures which demonstrate His actions and reactions. The way He acts in those incidents shows us how He defines the qualities of character that we have been studying. We see how carefully He intends us to regard His word when we see Him killing Uzzah for touching the ark (2 Samuel 6:7) and killing Ananias and Sapphira for lying (Acts 5:1-11). But then we can see His willingness to "wink at times of ignorance," when approached rightly, in an incident such as described in 2 Chronicles 30:18f, or in God's patience toward Paul in the face of his hostility (1 Timothy 1:13). By meditating carefully upon Thessalonians actions and reactions of God and of godly men and women, we will come to know God's personality in the way a wife comes to know her husband's personality over the years. Such knowledge is what God offers to us and expects from us:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).
They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).
He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know me?" declares the Lord (Jeremiah 22:16).
V. TESTIMONY FROM THE EARLY CHURCH
Selections from Tertullian
(c.155 - c.240; famous and controversial North African theologian; theme: Trinity)
Keep always in mind the rule of faith which I profess and by which I bear witness that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and then you will understand what is meant by it. Observe, now, that I say the Father is other, and the Son is other, and the Spirit is other. This statement is wrongly understood by every uneducated or perversely disposed individual, as if it meant diversity and implied by that diversity a separation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I say this, however, out of necessity, since they contend that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are the selfsame Person, thus extolling the monarchy at the expense of the "oikonomia"13 ... The Father is the whole substance, while the Son, indeed, is a derivation and portion of the whole... Thus the Father is other than the Son, because He is greater than the Son; because He that begets is other than Him that is begotten; because He that sends is other than Him that is sent; because He that makes something is other than Him through whom He makes it.14
Even when a ray is shot forth from the sun it is a part of the whole; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun, not separated from its substance but extended therefrom, as light is enkindled from light. The parent material remains whole and unimpaired even though you derive from it numerous shoots possessed of its qualities. So also, that which proceeds from God is God and Son of God, and both are one... Therefore, that Ray of God, as was ever foretold in the past, descended into a certain Virgin and was formed flesh in her womb, and was born God and man combined.15
The creed of Gregory the Wonder-worker16
(Famous Bishop in Asia Minor, 244-270; Theme: Trinity)
There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is his subsisting Wisdom and Power and eternal Image; perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son.
There is one Lord, Only of Only, God of God, the Image and Likeness of the Godhead, the efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the system of all things, and Power productive of the whole creation; true Son of the true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal, and Eternal of Eternal.
And there is one Holy Ghost, having his existence from God, and being manifested (namely, to mankind) by the Son; the perfect Likeness of the perfect Son; Life, the cause of the living; sacred Fount; Holiness, the bestower of sanctification; in whom is revealed God the Father, who is over all things and in all things, and God the Son, who is through all things: a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and dominion, neither divided nor alien.
There is therefore nothing created or subservient in the Trinity, nor superinduced, as though not before existing, but introduced afterward. Nor has the Son ever been wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son, but there is unvarying and unchangeable the same Trinity forever.
The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed17
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all ages. Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made... And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father,18 Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.
Selections from Gregory of Nazianzus19
(Famous theologian and bishop of Asia Minor, 330-389; Theme: Trinity)
For us there is but one God, because there is but one kind of godhead. The Beings that issue from a single source are referred back to that source, although we believe in them as being three: For it is not the case that one is more, another less, of a god than the other; nor is one prior, another secondary. There is no severance of will, no division of power; nor are any of the distinctive marks of separate individuals to be seen in the godhead (Oration 31.14).
The Father is the begetter and the emitter; but this does not mean that He undergoes a change, and that there is any temporal succession, or any physical relation. The Son and the Spirit are respectively offspring and emission; for I know no other terms which could be applied, such as to avoid completely any material suggestions... "When did this happen?" Those acts are above and beyond time. But, if one must speak childishly, they are simultaneous with the being of the Father. "When did the Father come to be?" There was not when he was not. The same applies to the Son and the Holy Spirit (Oration 29.2).
From Gregory of Nyssa20
(Famous theologian and bishop of Asia Minor, 330-395; Theme: Trinity)
There is one and the same Person of the Father, from whom the Son is begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds. He is the cause of those Persons who are caused by Him; and therefore we rightly assert One God, since He co-exists with them.
5 Perhaps more accurately, "divine": "God" is without the definite article, making the word a predicate and placing Jesus in the same "category" as "God" (i.e., the Father). Jehovah's Witnesses try to support their Arian heresy because of the absence of the definite article, but fail. See Maximillian Zerwick's Biblical Greek (Rome: Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1963), paragraphs 171-172. <back>
7 One must concede here, however, that the raw grammar of the passage could be interpreted so as to denigrate the Spirit to the status of an angel or an apostle: that Isaiah to lie to a representative of God is to lie to God. <back>
10 Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390 AD), "Theological Orations," V. viii., P.G. XXXVI, 141B. A.J. Mason, ed., The Five Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus (Cambridge: University Press, 1899). See also selection "V" at the end of this chapter. <back>
Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), pp. 218-222.
Philip Sherrard, The Greek East and the Latin West (London: Oxford Press, 1959), pp. 61-72.
Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Cambridge: James Clarke Ltd.,1957), pp. 44-66. <back>
18 The divisive "filioque" clause ("and the Son," in Latin) was added at this point in the creed in Toledo, Spain, in 589 AD, but was not adopted in Rome until early in the eleventh century. Eastern Christians protest its addition, saying (correctly, I believe) that it compromises the "monarchy" of the Father, mentioned above. <back>