Who is God?

Who is God?

The following article is adapted from a four-part sermon series from selected texts in the Gospel of John. The sermons are available to hear in the sermon audio section of this site.

Who is God? It seems like a simple question on the surface but anyone who has attempted to answer the question knows they are attempting to speak of a mystery.

Modern attempts to answer the question are complicated by several factors:

  1. In modern years the globe has become smaller in the sense that peoples who were once unknown to us are accessible to us through travel. We no longer rely on the reports of anthropologists because we are able to visit these places first hand.
  2. The globe is also larger in the sense that these foreign cultures and religions are now available to us via modern technology. We are experiencing information overload.
  3. In America, and many other Western countries, formerly ‘foreign’ people are now our neighbors. Communities have churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, healing centers and so on. We rub shoulders with these people daily. Even right here in York, PA a Pakistani Muslim woman and her daughters babysit our kids. These Muslims, Mormons, Sikhs, Baha’is, Jewish, Buddhist, New Age people are our neighbors, friends, and co-workers and are not as different as we once thought.

The search for answer to the ‘Who is God?’ question is a complex one for modern people. It would be quite normal for someone to ask, “Which God is worthy of my belief? The Christian one? Muslim? Jewish? Or no god at all?”

There is one overriding reason that complicates the question even further: most Americans have already settled on an idea of ‘God’ and don’t even question their basic assumptions.

This ‘God’ is hands-off with regard to most matters of the world. He generally wants us to be good and kind and is definitely not judgmental. In fact, this God exists to make us feel good, be happy and to insure we have a good life. It might be fair to call this ‘god’ a Genie.

So regardless of which religion and associated ‘god’ one chooses, that god is usually synchretized with the ‘Genie’ god who ultimately doesn’t care what you believe as long as you believe.

Some may object and say, “That’s not fair.” Consider though that even Christians will claim to believe in the Christian Trinitarian God. This God, Christians even claim, wants us to be good, truthful, moral, even forgiving. But when push comes to shove and the Christian is placed in a situation where there is a battle over a Christian value system and the Genie’s value system, the Genie’s value system usually wins.

A woman may say, “I know God wants me to be faithful to my husband and to work out this marriage but I want to be happy AND I know that my happiness is the most important thing to God, therefore I will leave my husband to be with this other man.”

A man may say, “I know God wants me to be truthful but if I tell the truth on my taxes our finances are going to be really tight AND I know that my happiness is the most important thing to God, therefore I will fudge the numbers a bit.”

So the 21st century pursuit of the question ‘Who is God?’ is complicated by American presuppositions about God that assume He is like a Genie as well as by a smaller and simultaneously larger globe where travel, technology and immigration have exposed us to new people groups and religions.

Can we know who the true God is? Yes. Many modern people will say “No” and will argue that any attempt to articulate a doctrine leads to division and bloodshed. Sadly there is some truth to that.

Yet, God does not want us to be in the dark about who He is. He has revealed Himself to us in various ways. Recall Acts 17 how Paul preached to the Greeks telling them that their statue to the unknown God would be declared in His proclamation of Jesus Christ. God is not unknown!

John Frame’s Doctrine of God articulates five points about the Scripture’s teaching on God.

1.   God is One Being.

Deuteronomy 6:4 says “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

Isaiah 44 says “I am the first and the last; apart from me there is no God.”

Christians are monotheists (belief in one God), not polytheists (belief in many gods).

 2.   God is Three Persons.

The One God has revealed Himself in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

At Jesus’ baptism the three persons are present: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

Matthew 28:19 instructs Christians to “Go…in the NAME of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The benedictions of the New Testament letters are Trinitarian in nature. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:14

3.   The Three Persons are each fully God.

One of the early heresies the Church combated was Arianism. Arius taught that Jesus was not the same substance as God the Father but of a similar substance thereby creating a hierarchy of being. Arianism was rejected at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the orthodox teaching enshrined in the Nicene Creed.

The Scriptures teach that all three persons are fully divine. The Old Testament has strong hints of complexity in the Godhead. Consider the bold statement from the prophet Jeremiah about the coming Messiah:

“Behold the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch…and this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD our righteousness.” Jeremiah 23:5-6. (See also Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, Daniel 7:13-14)

Jesus’ own statements were remarkably egocentric. Consider the numerous ‘I AM’ statements in John’s Gospel. The ‘I AM’ statements are clear allusions to the name of God used in Exodus 3:14.

“I AM the bread of life…the light of the world…the good Shepherd..the resurrection and the life…the way, the truth, the life…the true vine…before Abraham was I AM.” John 6:35; 8:12; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1; 8:56-58.

In addition, Jesus miraculous actions (virgin birth, turning water to wine, healing the sick, diseased, demon possessed, calming storms, raising and rising from the dead) only make sense in light of the reality of his divine nature.

The Gospel of John in chapters 14-17 is some of the most explicit Trinitarian teaching in the Scriptures. There are numerous instances where the Holy Spirit is mentioned as central to the Godhead and the divine work. John 14:16 says “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.”

 4.   Each of the Persons is distinct from the others.

The Father is not the Son or Spirit, nor is the Son the Father or Spirit, nor is the Spirit the Father or Son. The three persons are distinct from each other.

The early Church struggled in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. The eastern Church, following the Cappodocian fathers, tended to emphasize the threeness of God. The western Church, following Augustine, tended to emphasize the unity or oneness of God.

In the process of formulating the doctrine based on Scriptural teaching they identified errors. Sabellius, a western theologian, over-emphasized the unity of God out of fear of tri-theism. He taught that God is one being who takes on three forms or modes. Under the Old Testament God took the mode of Creator and Lawgiver. In the New Testament God appeared as Son and Savior and following the ascension God appeared in the mode of the Spirit.

This teaching is called modalism, monarchianism, Sabellianism, and patripassianism and is held today by Jesus Only churches or Oneness Pentecostals.

The early Church rejected both Arianism (an overemphasis on the threeness of God) AND Sabellian Modalism (an overemphasis on the unity of God).

The Scriptures teach that the persons are distinct from each other. John 1:1 says that Jesus the Word was both with God and was God. In the Matthew 3:16-17 passage cited above the three persons are present and distinctly separate in their work.

The persons are co-eternal, co-equal, con-substantial (same substance) AND yet each does work that is unique to their role within the Godhead. The Father plans and initates, the Son incarnates (comes in the flesh) and executes the plan (living, dying, rising, reigning, etc.) and the Spirit is sent by the Father and Son to apply Christ’s work to God’s people. He is the paraclete (called alongside) to be with and indwell God’s people.

This does not mean that each person is not involved in the other’s work. In some way the persons mutually indwell the others (circumincessio). The Father is in the Son and Spirit, the Son in the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit in the Father and Son. Yet it is inappropriate to say for instance that the Father died on the cross. That work is unique to the Son.

5.   The Three Persons are related to one another internally as Father, Son, Spirit.

God is eternally the Father, the Son is eternally the Son and the Spirit is eternally the Spirit. The Three are an eternal community of being.

The Three function in different eternal roles. This does not imply that there is subordination in terms of their nature as though the Father is the greatest, the Son a hair less and the Spirit a little farther down the ladder. The Three are each fully God.

However, there is a subordination of roles among the persons. Therefore, the persons subordinate themselves to one another as is appropriate to their work.

Jesus willingly submits to the Father, came to do His will and does nothing of himself (John 5:19).

Jesus is the “only begotten” Son of God the Father. His generation does not imply a ‘birth’ at some point since that would make Jesus a created being and therefore not fully divine. If Jesus is a created being, as the Arians, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, then Christians are guilty of idolatry.

In addition. If we cannot speak of the Son existing eternally then we could also not speak of the Father eternally being a ‘Father’ since fatherhood implies the possession of offspring. God the Father is eternally Father though because the Son has also existed eternally.

The Father honors the Son (Matthew 3:16-17) and together with the Son, sends the Spirit (John 16:12-15).

The Holy Spirit proceeds or processes eternally from the Father and the Son. The Spirit is regularly sent by the Father and the Son on mission into the world. (See John 14-17) The Nicene Creed states that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.”

Hierarchy in role does not erase equality. The Three mutually honor, serve and glorify the others because the eternal community of being is a community of love.

Does it matter what we believe about God?

Absolutely! God is a deep well, a community of being. We were built by God to be full of God.

Jesus said, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16:12-15)

God intends to guide us into ALL truth through the unique work of the Holy Spirit.

The Son has gained access into the Father’s inheritance because of his faithful work. “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? (Hebrews 1:3-5)

Jesus now boldly says, “All that belongs to the Father is mine!” There is much more than we can bear that the Spirit is revealing to us. God does not intend to leave us in the dark about who He is!!!

Sadly, we think the way to be happy is to treat God as though he is a Genie. “Then he can make me happy, healthy, pretty, rich, secure, popular and safe.” But that is not who God is or how God works.

What are we saying when we believe like this? That the key to happiness is a relationship, a job, good looks, a retirement. What we are saying is that happiness exists outside of God; that happiness comes in gifts and people. What do you think happens when the gifts/people don’t come? A crisis of faith, albeit an unwarranted one!

Jesus said “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) Now don’t be fooled into thinking that if you pursue God then you will get all the stuff. That is treating God like a Genie.

But if you pursue the True God by faith, revealed as Father, Son, Spirit, He comes and makes his home with you. (John 14:23) He unites Himself to us and fills us with His very life.

In the eternal life of this community of being there is no sadness, no striving, no discontent, only peace, righteousness and love. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The Father sent His Son Jesus Christ to light up the world, to give life to the dying, to give peace to the perplexed, hope to the hopeless. God the Son became a man, willingly relinquished his rights and any chance at ‘human’ happiness and chose a life that led him to a cross.

You see, on the cross, God the Son willingly gave up his life so that you could find your way back to God. He forgave the sins that had made you a runaway from your Father’s house. An ordinary man couldn’t pay that steep a price. It required divine blood and Jesus, the Faithful Son, willingly gave it. His Father willingly gave His Son for you.

And now because Christ has died, risen, ascended and is reigning together with the Father, they send the Spirit into our hearts to cause us to cry out to God as Father. The Spirit comes to bring us into community with the eternal community of being and source of all life and good.

The only proper response is faith. If our faith is grounded in the Triune saving God then we can boldly say, “If God is for us, who can be against…be at peace my soul. Jesus has overcome the world!”

No sickness, relationship, empty bank account or other source of human sadness can have the last word.

A mystery has manifested. The unknown God has been made known. Do you believe?

 

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