The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God
August 30, 2011
by Peter Amsterdam
The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God
God Is Spirit
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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)
In John chapter 4, when Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, He told her:
God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
Jesus said God is spirit. God is also uncreated, thus He is uncreated spirit. That God is uncreated makes Him different in essence or being from all created things. He’s not made of anything which was created—He’s not made of matter. He’s not just energy, air, or space, all of which are created things. He possesses a different mode of being; He exists in a manner that is distinctly different from all that has been created, including angels and human spirits. Human beings are corporeal beings with spirits, while angels are incorporeal immaterial beings; yet both are created beings, which makes them different from God.
(Note: The King James Version translated John 4:24 as “God is a Spirit,” as did a number of older translations. Due to many more older manuscripts being available for comparison today than there were in 1611 when the King James Bible was published, most translations since the 20th century, both Catholic and Protestant, translate it as “God is Spirit,” including the New King James Version.)
God has eternally existed as spirit. His existence is far superior to anything else that we know, to anything else that exists—“than which nothing greater can be thought.” It is so much so that through Him all other being was brought into existence. He is the source of all being, of all life.
As author Wayne Grudem put it, We may ask why God’s being is this way. Why is God spirit? All we can say is that this is the greatest, most excellent way to be! This is a form of existence far superior to anything we know. It is amazing to meditate on this fact.
Because God’s being is so different, so superior to ours, we cannot understand His complete essence or being.
God is invisible. We cannot see Him.
Who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
Not that anyone has seen the Father, except the One who is from God; He has seen the Father.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.
To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
A question which naturally comes up when reading the preceding verses is, “What about the Old Testament accounts of people seeing God?” For example, Moses on Mount Sinai.
Moses said, “Please show me Your glory.” And He said, “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.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock, and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
There were other times when God showed Himself to people in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert, and the elders of Israel.
The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, do not pass by Your servant.”
The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.
Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under His feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And He did not lay His hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
Clearly there were times when God showed Himself to people in a form which they could see. What they saw is what is called a theophany, which is a visible manifestation of God. Seeing a theophany is different from seeing God’s full or true essence and being.
David Berg explained it as follows:
Moses wanted to see God so God said He’d let him see His hinder parts! (Exodus 33:23) What God really meant, of course, was “the very least of Me, the very least I can show you, the very lowest part of Me that could come even close to being seen or understood or comprehended at all!”
God has means of manifesting Himself in what the theologians call a “theophany” or a “God-body,” a visible, physical, or material representation of God.
Those in the Old Testament who saw God were able to see an outward form or manifestation of God—a theophany. This was not His full being or essence; it was not as though they were seeing all that God is, as no one can see that and live.
Of course, Jesus is God, and He walked the earth and was seen by many people, and they lived. They saw God the Son incarnate, which means “enfleshed,” so they were seeing God in human flesh, which isn’t seeing the fullness of God in all His glory. Peter, James, and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, but again that wasn’t God in His fullness, which according to Scripture, no one can see and live. However, even with what they saw, they were overwhelmed.
Jesus took with Him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Because God is a personal being who loves us and wants us to know and love Him, He has revealed specific things about Himself to humanity through His Word. In order for Him to express to us what He is like, He communicated about Himself in terms which we could understand. Thus, when speaking to those such as Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, He spoke in words they understood, using descriptive language they could relate to.
One means of doing so was through using what are known as anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphism is the act of attributing human characteristics to a nonhuman entity. The word anthropomorphic comes from two Greek words, one meaning “man” and the other meaning “form.” Anthropomorphism, in relation to God, refers to the attribution of human physical and emotional characteristics, as well as human experience, to Him.
For example, even though God is spirit and has no physical body, the Bible talks about His face, eyes, hands, ears, mouth, nose, lips and tongue, arms, hands, feet, voice, etc. He is also spoken of in terms of human experience, being described as a shepherd, bridegroom, man of war, judge, king, husband, etc. He is said to participate in human actions such as seeing, hearing, sitting, walking, whistling, resting, smelling, as well as knowing, choosing, and disciplining.
Emotions that we experience as humans are attributed to Him, in that He is said to love, hate, have pleasure in, laugh, be sorry, be jealous, be angry, rejoice, and more.
There are also analogies relating God to nonhuman but created things—such as comparing Him to a lion, the sun, a lamb, a rock, a tower, a shield, etc.
Anthropomorphisms, as well as analogies, are what God inspired the Biblical writers to use to express concepts of what God is like and how we can relate to Him. While God doesn’t literally have hands, feet, ears, and eyes, such wording gives us a foundation for grasping a sense of what God is and how He relates to us.
Theologian Jack Cottrell said that this type of language is considered to be an expression of God’s condescending goodness that He would describe Himself for us in human terms so that we might better understand what He is telling us.
J. I. Packer compares the way God speaks to us as a father who has an Einstein-like mind explaining something to his two-year-old child. The language used is simple so the child can understand, while the full explanation may be much more complex. The Bible says, for example, that God is love. We know what love is from our human experience, and therefore we gain a conceptual understanding of something about God. Love originates with God, it’s one of His attributes, and we, as His creation made in His image, have the capability to love; however, it’s important to understand that God being love goes infinitely beyond what we understand love to be. Expressing something that God is, such as love, in human terms, gives us a reference point, but by no means gives a full explanation of what God being love means. The totality of God’s love is beyond any love we could ever conceive of, but the fact that we can relate to love, and have some understanding of it, helps us to get a sense of what God is like, by means of terms we can comprehend.
God is spirit, and He is also personal, along with being the living God. He has the qualities of personhood, such as self-awareness, rational consciousness, self-determination, intelligence, knowledge, and will. And since human beings, who are made in the image of God, also have personhood, one of the most relatable ways for us to conceptualize God is through anthropomorphic language. In order to express His nature and character, God used a linguistic form which reveals His personhood and which helps us to relate to Him in a way that is familiar to us.
As one author puts it: The writers of scripture know full well that God has no literal body, but they also attest that God is fully personal: He beholds human persons, He reaches out to them, and He counsels them; in these ways He has “eyes” and “hands” and “feet.” To avoid anthropomorphisms would be to fail to depict God in His living and personal reality.
God chose to reveal Himself to humanity through the words He spoke to and through the biblical writers. In doing so, He spoke in the language and manner which they, and we who would follow them, would understand. He revealed Himself as the Living God who is personal, spirit, and invisible. We will continue to cover more of what He has revealed about Himself in the next articles in this series.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions frequently cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV).
Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1, Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996.
Craig, William Lane. The Doctrine of God. Defenders Series Lecture.
Garrett, Jr., James Leo. Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1. N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
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Mueller, John Theodore. Christian Dogmatics, A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934.
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Packer, J. I. The Attributes of God 1 and 2. Lecture Series.
Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
 John 4:24.
 Anselm of Canterbury; translation by Jonathan Barnes. Anselm's Proslogium or Discourse on the Existence of God, Chapter 2.
 Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000. p. 188.
 1 Timothy 6:16.
 John 1:18 NAU.
 John 6:46 NAU.
 1 John 4:12.
 1 Timothy 1:17.
 Exodus 33:18–23.
 Genesis 18:1–3.
 Exodus 13:21.
 Exodus 24:9–11.
 Berg, David Brandt. The Talisman. January 1979. 1369:29.
 Berg, David Brandt. Spacemen! July 1970. 2977:24.
 Exodus 33:20.
 Matthew 17:1–2.
 Mark 9:5–6.
 Face: The Lord is righteous; He loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold His face. Psalm 11:7.
Eyes: The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord's throne is in heaven; His eyes see, His eyelids test the children of man. Psalm 11:4.
Hands: I know that the Lord saves His anointed; He will answer him from His holy heaven with the saving might of His right hand. Psalm 20:6.
Ears: Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or His ear dull, that it cannot hear. Isaiah 59:1.
Mouth: I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my portion of food. Job 23:12.
Nose: Smoke went up from His nostrils, and devouring fire from His mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from Him. Psalm 18:8.
Lips: Oh, that God would speak and open His lips to you. Job 11:5.
Tongue: Behold, the name of the Lord comes from afar, burning with His anger, and in thick rising smoke; His lips are full of fury, and His tongue is like a devouring fire. Isaiah 30:27.
Arms: Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of Your arm, they are still as a stone, till Your people, O Lord, pass by, till the people pass by whom You have purchased. Exodus 15:16.
Hands: The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord's hand shortened? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.” Numbers 11:23.
Feet: Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool; what is the house that you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” Isaiah 66:1.
Voice: If only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today. Deuteronomy 15:5.
 Shepherd: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Psalm 23:1.
Bridegroom:As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. Isaiah 62:5.
Man of War: The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His name. Exodus 15:3.
Judge: The Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; He will save us. Isaiah 33:22.
King: The Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. Jeremiah 10:10.
Husband: Your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is His name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth He is called. Isaiah 54:5.
 Seeing: God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together He called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:10.
Hearing: God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. Exodus 2:24.
Sitting: The Lord sits enthroned forever; He has established His throne for justice. Psalm 9:7.
Walking: I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be My people. Leviticus 26:12.
Whistling: In that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. Isaiah 7:18.
Resting: On the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done. Genesis 2:2.
Smelling: When the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” Genesis 8:21.
Knowing: I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to Me. And if not, I will know. Genesis 18:21.
Choosing: You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. Deuteronomy 7:6.
Disciplining: As a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. Deuteronomy 8:5.
 Love: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16.
Hate: You shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates. Deuteronomy 16:22.
Pleasure: The Lord takes pleasure in His people; He adorns the humble with salvation. Psalm 149:4.
Laugh: You, O Lord, laugh at them; You hold all the nations in derision. Psalm 59:8.
Sorry: The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart. Genesis 6:6.
Jealous: You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me. Exodus 20:5.
Anger: The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And He sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Judges 2:14.
Rejoice: The Lord your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the Lord will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers. Deuteronomy 30:9 NKJV.
 Lion: Thus the Lord said to me, “As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey, and when a band of shepherds is called out against him he is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise, so the Lord of hosts will come down to fight on Mount Zion and on its hill.” Isaiah 31:4.
Sun: The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. Psalm 84:11.
Lamb: He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. Isaiah 53:7.
Rock: He is the Rock, His works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He. Deuteronomy 32:4 NIV.
Tower: The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe. Proverbs 18:10.
Shield: You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Psalm 3:3.
 Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996. p. 288.
 Packer, J. I. Creation, Evolution and Problems, Lecture 15, The Attributes of God, Part 2, Lecture Series.
 Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology, Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Bk. 1. p. 51.