Sermon: Selected Texts: The Nature of God

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 7:1–17

“In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’ the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.  And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it’, thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.’ Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria…’” (Isaiah 7:1–17, ESV)

New Testament Reading: Matthew 1:18-25

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18–25, ESV)

Introduction 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Many churches around the world celebrate Advent as a way of encouraging the people of God to focus upon the significance of the birth of Christ. It is a good tradition, I think, but not a mandatory one. If my memory serves me right, we did not do much in 2014 to mark the Advent season. The reason, I think, was to make the point that we are not obligated, biblically speaking, to observe such a tradition.

It should be recognized that we really do not know the date of Jesus’ birth. In fact, it is likely that Jesus was born in the spring time, and not in the winter, given what we are told about the shepherds keeping watch over the sheep at night in the open fields.

Nevertheless, I do think that the tradition of celebrating the birth of Christ is a good one. The coming of the Christ, after all, was the most significant event in human history. He came, he lived, he died, and he rose again. We set this season apart in order to give special attention to his coming.

I suppose there are many ways to preach during Advent. The most common is to move through the birth narrative of either Matthew or Luke. Mark does not contain a birth narrative; his gospel begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. And John’s “birth narrative” is really not a narrative at all, but rather a succinct statement of fact: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”,  verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1,14, ESV) All four gospels, though, emphasize the fact of the incarnation in one way or another. And this indeed is a good and proper thing for us to fix our minds upon during this Advent season – the incarnation.

The word incarnation means to embody in the flesh, or, to take on flesh. When we use the word incarnation in the context of Christian theology we are talking about this fact, that “The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who [upholds] and [governs] all things he [has] made, did, when the fullness of time [had] come, take upon [himself] man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures [the human and divine] were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.” (London Baptist Confession 8.2).

This is the doctrine of the incarnation. The person of Jesus Christ was and is God and man. He is Immanuel, which means, God with us. The doctrine of the incarnation is a most basic and fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith, wouldn’t you agree? And yet it is highly mysterious, and often misunderstood.

It is the incarnation that I would like to focus upon during this Advent season. And I would like to focus on it, not by working through the birth narrative in Matthew or Luke, but theologically. I typically preach through the Bible exegetically, moving through books of the Bible verse by verse. But here I would like to approach the doctrine of the incarnation in a topical, or theological manner.  I think it is good to take this approach from time to time, especially when clarity, or depth of understanding is needed in particular area. And I think that is the case here.

We all confess with one voice that Jesus is divine. Amen? We agree with Paul who says of Jesus, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…” (Colossians 2:9, ESV) We agree with Thomas who, after being convinced of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, spoke to Jesus, saying, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28, ESV)

Jesus is God. This is indeed true! But may I suggest to you that more needs to be said if we are speak with precision and clarity concerning God, and of the Christ whom he sent.

I want you to think about the statement, Jesus is God. It a true statement, wouldn’t you agree? But now imagine that you know nothing about the God of the Bible. Imagine being a non-believer who has had very little interaction with the church, or with Christians. You’ve heard of Jesus. You know that he was a Jewish man who lived about 2,000 years ago. But beyond that, you know little about what the Bible has to say about God. Imagine being in that position. And then imagine hearing a Christian say, Jesus is God. Period. What then would be your view of the Christian God? How would you think of him? Would you not then assume that Christians believe that God is a Jewish man with a beard?

This is, of course, not what we mean when we make the statement, “Jesus is God”. But it illustrates the point that more needs to be said concerning Jesus if we are to, first of all, speak about him with precision, and secondly, speak of the one true God, with clarity. To speak of Jesus Christ imprecisely, carelessly, and in an incomplete way will do damage in two ways: one, we will fail to communicate the truth of who Jesus was and is; and two, we will fail to communicate the the truth of who God is in his essential nature.

This is what I would like to address with you over the next few weeks. I would like for us to fix our minds upon the mystery of the incarnation. I call it a mystery because it is indeed a truth that is difficult (impossible) for our finite minds to comprehend. We can confess that the incarnation is true. We can lean to speak of it in a precise way so as not to bring error or unnecessary confusion to the conversation. But we will never fully comprehend how it is that the Eternal “Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity…did, when the fullness of time [had] come, [took] upon [himself] man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin…” This is indeed our confession. And our confession is indeed true, as it summarizes the teaching of Holy Scripture. We should learn to speak of Jesus with the same precision demonstrated here, all the while acknowledging that this is indeed a high mystery.

Only four sermons will be devoted to this topic during the 2015 Advent season. My hope is it to, Lord willing, teach on this topic in much greater depth in the Emmaus Essentials Sunday School hour after we finish our study of Eschatology. Maybe this sermon series will whet the appetite?

In this first sermon we will consider the nature of God himself. In the second we will consider the attributes of God. In third sermon we will consider the person of Jesus Christ. And in the fourth we will look upon the work of Christ. I hope that you are edified through what you hear, and are moved to worship and adore the one true God, and the Christ whom he has sent.

Now, I think you would agree that if we are to understand the incarnation – that is the Son of God, or the Word of God, come in the flesh – we had better first of all know something of God as he is in his essence.  To say it another way, it would most difficult to think clearly about God incarnate without first of thinking clearly about God as he was, is, and always will be in his essential nature.  And so that is what I am asking you to have in your mind today – God. God as he was and is and will forever be. We will come to consider the person of Christ the week after next, but for now I would ask you set your minds upon the one true God.

I have seven statements to make concerning the only living and true God. I will not be able to elaborate much at all upon each of these grand and glorious truths. My hope is that they will set our minds in the right direction, and lead us to praise.

God Is Incomprehensible

The first thing that should be said about God as we consider his essential nature is that he is incomprehensible. This means that he cannot be comprehended by us. He is beyond our ability to understand.

You may be thinking to yourself, this is a most unusual way to begin our consideration of God. It would seem that it if this is the first thing we are to say about God, it should also be the last. After all, if we cannot comprehend God then what is the point of saying another word about him?

But this would be a misunderstanding of the doctrine of incomprehensibility. It is true, our finite minds are not able to comprehend God fully. We, as creatures, cannot know the creator exhaustively. But we may know him truly. And how can it be that we are able to know the incomprehensible God truly? Well, it is because he has chosen to reveal himself to us. He has revealed himself to us through the world. Better yet, he has revealed him to us through his word. And most important of all, he has revealed himself to us through the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. It is because of revelation – it is because God has determined to make himself known to us – that we are able to know God truly.

But in the moment we say that God has revealed himself to us truly we ought to again confess that he is incomprehensible. We ought to remember that revelation in all of it’s forms is an act of condescension of God towards us. He stoops low for us that we might know something of him. He displays his power and glory through the created world. He speaks to us in words that we can understand. He came to us clothed in humanity. In all of these forms of revelation we learn something true of God – he has revealed himself truly –  but never should we make the mistake of thinking that he has revealed himself exhaustively. He speaks speaks to us by way of analogy. He reveals himself to us by telling us his names. He reveals himself through his actions in human history. All revelation reveals God truly, but never exhaustively.

In Exodus 33 Moses spoke to God saying, “Please show me your glory.” (Exodus 33:18, ESV) God responded to Moses, saying, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’” (Exodus 33:19–20, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, God does not have a face. Nor does he have a back, though that is what we are told that Moses saw after God had passed by – Moses saw the back of God. He has neither a face nor a back, but here human terminology is used to tell us something true about Moses’ experience. Did Moses see God truly? Indeed! Did God revealed himself to Moses when he passed by and showed him is “back”? Yes, this was true revelation! But did Moses see God in the fullness of his glory? Did he see God’s face, if you will? No, he saw God’s back. In other words God revealed himself to Moses in a way that Moses could handle, “For man shall not see [God in his essence] and live.”

God reminds us of the distance between he and us when he says through Isaiah the prophet, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV)

God, in his mercy and grace, has revealed himself to us so that we might know him truly, but we must never forget that he is nevertheless incomprehensible.

This is the proper place to start as we set out to talk about God as he is in his essence. It is the hight of arrogance to imagine that we creatures – and worse than that, fallen creatures as we are – have somehow managed to conquer God with our minds; as if we have wrapped our minds around him in all of his splendor and glory.

With this as our foundation we may move forward, saying things that are true of God, but only because these things have been revealed to us.

God Is Triune

The second thing to know about God as he is in his essence is that he is triune. It is a good thing that we started with the incomprehensibility of God, for this is certainly a truth beyond our ability to comprehend. We can confess it as true. We can learn to speak of it with care, so that we do not say something untrue. But our minds have trouble comprehending the triune God, as he is revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures.

We teach our children the doctrine by asking them this question: “Are there more gods than one?” And they answer us with these words: “There is but one only, the living and true God.”

This is indeed a faithful summery of what the scriptures teach. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Jeremiah 10:10  says, “But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation.”

It is hard to miss the fact that the Bible teaches that there is only one living and true God. All other gods, are not gods at all. Men always have and always will replace the worship of the one living and true God with the worship of created things. These are the other gods mentioned in the scriptures. They are created things that men and women have determined to worship. But in reality there is only one true God.

But then we ask our children another question: “How many persons are there in the Godhead?”, we ask. And they are taught to reply,  “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God, the same in essence, equal in power and glory. (1 Cor. 8:6; John 10:30; John 14:9; Acts 5:3,4; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14)

I will not take the time to demonstrate to you from the scriptures the truth of this doctrine. A simple reading of the Old Testament, but especially the New, reveals that, though there exists but one true God, this God eternally exists in three persons. The Father is God, the Son, or the Word, is God, and the Spirit is God. All are to be worshiped, all are to be prayed to, all possess the attributes of God, and are said to be of the “stuff” of divinity, and yet there is only one God.

The language of persons can actually mislead us if we are not careful. When we refer to God as existing eternally in three persons it can lead some to think of three separate people, or personalities, in the Godhead. It is wrong to think of God divided up in parts like that. Concerning the language of persons, Augustine has famously said, “When the question is asked: three what? human language labors altogether under great poverty of speech. The answer however is given ‘three persons’, not that it might be spoken but that it might not be left unspoken.” The point is that this Trinity is a great mystery. Human language is not well suited to speak of the mysteries of God.

Our confession speaks in this way: “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.” (London Baptist Confession 2.3)

This is the one true God as he is revealed to us in scripture. May we adore him forever.

God Is A Most Pure Spirit

The third thing to be known about God as he is in his essence is that he is a most pure spirit. Brothers and sisters, God does not have a body. Jesus has a body, but he is God incarnate – God with us – the Son of God who assumed humanity for us, to redeem us from our sins. God, as he is in his essence, is a most pure spirit, without body, parts, or passions.

Was Jesus not clear when he said that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24, ESV) Or listen to how Paul praises God “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, [to him] be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 1:17, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, it is wrong for us to think of God as if he were nothing more than a bigger and better version of us. He is different than us. He belongs to another order of being. He is the creator, we the creature. He is divine, we are human. We are fleshly, he is a most pure spirit for all eternity.

God Is Of Himself

The fourth thing to be said of God is that he is of himself. By this I mean that he is self existent. He depends upon no one or no thing for his existence. He is of himself.

You and I are dependent creatures. In fact all things, besides God himself, are dependent creatures. We owe our existence to God. He created us. Not only that, he also sustains us. To use Paul’s language, it is “In him [that] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28, ESV) But God is of himself. He is self existent. No one created God. No one brought him into being. No one sustains him. He is in need of no one or nothing outside of himself. He simply is. 

It is this fact that stands behind the mysterious name that God revealed to Moses in the burning bush. Moses wanted to know what name he should call God by as he spoke to the people of Israel. “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14, ESV) What is meant by this name? It is that God is. He is the self existent one.

God is Infinite

The fifth thing to be said about our God is that he is infinite. This means that he is without limit.

We may speak of God’s infinity in regard to time. When thinking in terms of time we must confess that God is eternal. He is without beginning or end. He is not bound by time, but stands outside of it as its creator. You and I had a beginning. The earth had a beginning. The universe began to exist when God spoke that original creative word. Everything that exists has limits to existence, God created all things visible and inviable. But God is infinite. He is eternal, without beginning or end.

We may also speak of God’s infinity in regard to space. God is at once in all places fully. This is not to say that he is so big that there is a piece of him in every part of the universe – his head over there, his foot there, as if God had a head or a foot. It is to say that God is fully present everywhere at once.  You and I are limited creatures. We have boundaries. If I am here, then I cannot be over there at the same time. God is omnipresent.

We may also speak of the infinity of God in regard to his power. His power is also unlimited. It is not true to say that there is nothing that God cannot do. He cannot sin, for example. He cannot not punish iniquity. He cannot do anything that is contrary to his nature. When we speak of God’s infinity in regard to his power we may say that he is omnipotent. He is all powerful. Nothing in all of creation stands outside his sovereign control. Nothing constrains him. There is no one or nothing that can thwart his power. This certainly cannot be said of you and me.

I suppose we may also speak of God’s infinity in regard to his knowledge. He knows all things. He is omniscient. God has never learned a thing. He has never grown in knowledge, for he has always known all things. He knows the beginning and the end and everything in between

God is Unchanging

The sixth thing to say about God as he is in his essence is that he is unchanging. He does not grow. He does not learn. He does not transform or evolve. He is not impacted or moved by his creatures. He does not repent. He is not given to passions as we are. He is unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Listen to James: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:16–17, ESV)

Listen to how the Psalmist speaks of God, saying, “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” (Psalm 102:25–27, ESV)

Listen to God’s word of comfort to us through Malachi the prophet:“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6, ESV)

And listen to 1 Samuel 15:29: “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Samuel 15:29, ESV)

For God to change would require one of two things: Either he was something less than the perfection of God before, and now he has grown; or through he was once the perfection of God, now he has fallen from that place.

Brothers and sisters, God does not change as you and I change. And this should be a great comfort to us. He is faithful. He is trustworthy and true.

God is Simple

The last thing to be said about God (at least as far as this sermon is concerned) is that he is simple.  You may be tempted to laugh at this last statement, thinking to yourself, this seems far from simple. But that is not what is meant by the simplicity of God. He is not simple in the sense of being easy to understand. No, he is simple in his essential nature.

You and I are composite creatures. We are made up of a body and a spirit. We possess a mind, a will, and affections. We possess certain attributes or qualities which, when combined together, make us who we are – a little of this, and a little of that.

God is God. Everything that is in God, is God. He is a most pure spirit, as has already been said. He is not a composite being consisting of body and soul. When we speak of the attributes of God we should be careful not to confuse the way that God possess attributes with the way that we possess them. You and I might be known for being somewhat loving, somewhat merciful, and rather just. But God is love – pure love. God is holy – and purely so. What may be called an attribute in us should actually be called a perfection in God.

God, in other words, is not made up of parts. He does not have body parts. He does not have certain aspects to his being which, if considered on their own, are less than God, but when considered together, add up to God. God is God. Everything that is in God is God. He is a simple being.

You and I are far from simple. We are complex creatures. We have to process things. We work things over intellectually, emotionally, volitionally. Everything is a process for us. For God, all things are simple, for he is utterly simple in his essence. More on this at another time

Conclusion 

I can hear the objections now: Pastor, I am more confused at the end of this sermon than at the beginning. I am having more difficulty picturing God, and imagining his essence now than when you started!

To that I would say, good! Mission accomplished! 

I say that partly in jest. I do not want to you to feel confused. As I said earlier, this sermon was intended to get us pointed in the right direction and to to whet the appetite for further study – there is not enough time her to give adequate attention to theses things. But in a way I am glad if God seems a bit more mysterious to you. Our tendency as creatures is to bring God low. We have this impulse to make God in our image – to bring him low – to press him into our mold, so that we might handle him, or conquer him, if you will. A god like this is more comfortable to us – less threatening.

But this is wrong, brothers and sisters. We ought not to bring God low and make him in our image. No, we ought to think of him as he is, and as he has revealed himself to us in his word. The solution to having a God that we can relate to – the solution to having a God that we can be comfortable with (approaching him as Father), is not to reimagine God as he is in his essence, but to understand all the more the significance of the incarnation.

It is Christ who has revealed the Father to us. It is Christ who has made a way for us. It is Christ who has  atoned for our sins so that we might come before God Almighty and cry out to him, saying, Abba Father.

Let God be God. Do not bring him low. But let Christ be Christ, seeing that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him.

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