The God who is near
Isaiah 66:1 says that heaven is God’s throne, but that does not mean that God is contained there. Thomas Brooks wrote: “Though heaven be God’s palace, yet it is not his prison.” God is everywhere. We call this attribute God’s “omnipresence”.
What is omnipresence? Omnipresence is often misunderstood or misrepresented. People often fall into one of three traps. The first is pantheism, which believes that God is everything and that everything is God. Budism, Hinduism and “mother nature” cults all hold to some form of pantheism. According to the Bible, however, God is unique and distinct from his creation.
The second trap is panentheism. This is more subtle. Panentheism doesn’t believe that everything is God or that God is everything, but that God is in everything and that everything is in God. Some theologians believe that this is what Paul had in mind when he said: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The problem with panentheism is that God and creation are seen as “interdependent”. As the philosopher Alfred Whitehead said: “It is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God.” In panentheism God could not exist apart from creation. In subtle ways it denies that God is truly distinct from his creation and it denies that God made the world out of nothing. According to the Bible, however, God does not need the world; we need God.
The third trap is deism. Deism views God as so transcendent, so exalted, and so distinct from his creation that he is not actively involved in it. Deists believe that God created the world, but that God then withdrew from it. Deism pictures God as a divine clockmaker, who assembles the clock, winds it up, but then leaves it alone as it winds down. This view denies any form of divine intervention, does not believe in the power of prayer or miracles. God is completely aloof from creation.
Is that how the Bible portrays God? It is true that God is transcendent. Psalm 113:4-6 proclaims: “The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” God is transcendent. But it is equally true that God is immanent, involved, near. Omnipresence means that God is everywhere all the time. God does not have size or dimensions, which means that he can be present at every point of space with his whole being.
Psalm 139:7-10 reveals a God who is near: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” For this Psalmist this was a great comfort, because there was nowhere he could go where God could not keep him. In Jer. 23:23-24 the Lord says: “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” God is everywhere.
How does this truth affect us? It should encourage us as we pray. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a praying contest: they each had to call upon their god and the one who answered with fire would be declared the winner. The prophets of Baal spent most of the morning and the early afternoon calling out to Baal, but there was no answer. Elijah mocked them, saying: “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (v. 27). Maybe Baal was out of town. But when Elijah prayed, he did not pray to a God who was aloof, far away or uninterested. He prayed to the God who is near: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (v. 36-37). God answered with consuming fire. God is close enough to hear us pray.
God’s omnipresence should also encourage us as we wrestle with sin. Yes, the thought that God is there when we commit our most heinous sins is frightening, as it should be. God knows our sinful thoughts, words and deeds. Psalm 139:11-12: “If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” How should we respond to God’s omnipresence when we’ve sinned? By running to him, not from him. It would be pointless to try and hide form God, like Adam and Eve did. We should rather confess and repent, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isa. 57:15). God is near repentant sinners.
Finally, God’s omnipresence should encourage us as we go through trials. Before his ascension Jesus assured his disciples: “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20). God will never lead you where his grace cannot keep you.
What a joy to serve the God who is near.
Because of Christ,
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