The Nature of God: Invisible and Incorporeal
Introduction: Many of you will remember Rod Serling and the TV show The Twilight Zone. Serling would usually begin each episode with a hypothetical scenario calling on the viewers to try and place themselves in a particular setting. Well, following suit, imagine a world in which analytical thought, logic and reasoned discourse carry little if any weight. Imagine a world where history has little significance other than to render service to some nostalgic notion of the good old days. Imagine a world where there are no absolutes, no concept of universal truth. Imagine a world where what a person prefers to believe is more important than whether or not it is true. Imagine a world where the world doesn’t make sense—and nobody cares.
Well welcome to the Twilight Zone because what I have been describing is our postmodern world. According to Gene Edward Veith, in our postmodern world the intellect is replaced by the will. Reason is replaced by emotion, and morality is replaced by relativism. Reality itself becomes a social construct.[i] A recent writer described Postmodernism as, “The default world view of our culture, is regularly played for laughs in the popular response, whatever! But beneath the silly quip lies a belief system largely defined by what it disregards, rather than what it affirms.”[ii] Is objective knowledge impossible as postmodernism claims? Should we in concert with postmodernism deny that our ideas can correspond to an external reality?
Amazingly, a growing number of professing evangelicals have joined the postmodern parade. Doug Groothuis laments, “Some church-growth advocates advise that churches tone down any emphasis on the objective truth of Christian doctrine because postmodern have short attention spans and are only interested in their own felt needs. Many counsel that Generation Xers can be reached only by a relational and largely noncognitive approach. One author counsels that since for Generation Xers “the linear method is no longer the primary method of study,” Bible studies must de-emphasize the “inductive method with its progression of observation, interpretation and application.” While this writer does not hold a postmodernist view of truth, he capitulates to the postmodern sensibilities of intellectual impatience and crass pragmatism that help contribute to truth decay in the churches. Such decay is evident in the fact that various polls have shown that high percentages of self-proclaimed evangelicals do not believe in absolute truth or the supremacy of Christ, or have a kingdom orientation to life.
A recent study claimed that over half of evangelicals agreed with this statement: “The purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment.”[iii] The evangelical church as a result has done poorly at carrying out the task of theology. Wells says, “As the nostrums of the therapeutic age supplant confession, and as preaching is psychologized, the meaning of Christian faith becomes privatized. At a single stroke, confession is eviscerated and reflection reduced mainly to thought about one’s self. The pastor seeks to pattern the pastoral office and function in terms of the two roles that the culture most admires: the manager and the therapist. This is what theology is reduced to: reflection in the academy and practice in the church.”[iv]
One area where Christians often fall prey to a postmodern mindset is in misunderstanding Biblical terms (in the sense that a decidedly unbiblical definition is applied to Biblical terms usually, this is done by impregnating the word with a meaning drawn from cultural sources). One example is the word spiritual which is often simply equated with emotional. Pentecostalism and the modern day charismatic movement have proven to be very susceptible to this particular snare. According to Jesus, God is spirit (a Spiritual Being) in His essence or nature (John 4:24) and a “spirit” by definition does not have a physical body (Luke 24:39). Thus we should not think of God as the “Man Upstairs,” Because He does not have a male human body. “God is not a man” (Num. 23:19). Since God is spirit, He is invisible (Col. 1:15; I Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27). Thus, no one has seen God the Father, for there is nothing physical to see (John 1:18). The only way to see God is to see Him in His Son, who became a real man of flesh and blood (John 1:14-18; 14:9). In John 4:24, Jesus did not say that “God is a spirit” but “God is spirit.” The distinction is crucial. If God were “a spirit” this would imply that He is only one finite spirit among many others. He would be in essence no different from the Devil and his demons. But when Jesus said that God was “spirit,” this implied that He is spirit in an infinite sense. God cannot have a body because He is infinite spirit. Those who deny God’s infinite nature are actually robbing God of His spirituality.”[v]
I. God is Spirit
What does Jesus teach about the essential nature of God when He describes God as Spirit?[vi]
A. God is Personal: He is self-conscious and self-determining, living and active. The fact that the Bible ascribes to him such attributes as wisdom, knowledge, a will, and goodness also indicates that God is personal. “The God of the Bible is anything but inert impersonalness: he is the living and active Creator and Architect of the universe, beneficent Provider of the creature’s needs, Advocate of the poor and the oppressed, Freedom-fighter, just Judge, empathetic Counselor, suffering Servant, and triumphant Deliverer.”[vii] His personalness should not be taken to mean, however, that God is one person; for while it is true that God prefers as a literary convention to speak in his revelation to people as an “I” (see the “I Am” of Ex. 3:14), only rarely speaking as a plural subject employing the first person plural “we” or “us” (see Isa. 6:8 and Jesus’ statements in John 10:30 and 14:23), yet in the “fullness” of his own being he speaks within himself as a plural subject for he is actually tripersonal (see Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8).
The word person, which comes from the Latin word persona—signifies the mask which an actor used when representing some character in a Greek drama. But when we talk of a mask we are already off the track. For we must not think of the persons in God being merely a way in which God from time to time represents himself to human beings. This particular error is known as modalism or Sabellianism, from the name of the man who first popularized it in church history (about the middle of the third century).
Actually, the word person is all right, as long as we understand what we mean by a person. In common speech the word normally denotes a human being, and therefore one who is uniquely an individual. We have that concept in mind when we speak of depersonalizing someone. But that is not the meaning of the word as used in theology. It is possible to be a person entirely apart from our bodily existence. We may, for example, lose an arm or leg in some accident, yet we will still be a person with all the marks of personality. Moreover, at least according to Christian teaching, even when we die and our bodies decay to ruin we will still be persons. What we are really talking about, then, is a sense of existence expressing itself in knowledge, feelings and a will.[viii] Accordingly, Berkhof observes: “In view of the fact that there are three persons in God, it is better to say that God is personal than to speak of Him as a Person.” [ix]
B. God’s Spiritual Nature Means He is Noncorporeal: This may be demonstrated from Luke 24:36-43, where, in response to the disciples’ assessment that he was “a spirit,” Jesus said: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (v. 39). But what does it mean for God, as spirit, to be noncorporeal? It means that no property of matter may be ascribed to him. He has no extension in space, no weight, no mass, no bulk, no parts, no form, no taste, no smell. He is invisible (I Tim. 1:17; 6:16) and, being one in essence and without parts, is indivisible (this last term denotes what some theologians refer to as his “simplicity”). It is this fact of his spiritual essence that underlies the second commandment, which prohibits every attempt to fashion an image of him. Moses reminded the nation of Israel: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape” (Deut. 4:15-16). The result of every effort to fashion such an image is a distortion and is thus an idol. God is spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Reymond warns, “So the Christian must ever be solicitous never to think of God in his spiritual essence as having any material characteristic.”[x]
Concludion: Old Bishop Ryle, in commenting on this passage declared it to be, “One of the most lofty and definite sayings about God’s nature which is to be found in the whole Bible. That such a declaration should have been made to such a person as the Samaritan woman is a wonderful instance of Christ’s condescension! To define precisely the full meaning of the expression is past man’s understanding. The leading idea is probably that “God is an immaterial being, that He dwelleth not in temples made with hands, and that He is not, like ourselves, therefore, absent from one place when He is present at another.” These things are all true, but how little we can realize them!”[xi] The great Puritan Divine Thomas Goodwin long ago wrote, “Christ’s speech, ‘God is a Spirit,” John 4:24, is as proper a definition of God as can be given (for he passeth our logic), it expressing the kind of his being, as his name Jehovah, that he is fullness of being.”[xii] Finally Packer summarizes the force of the text, “The God who is spirit must be worshiped in spirit and in truth, as Jesus said (John 4:24). “In spirit” means “from a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit.” No rituals, body movements, or devotional formalities constitute worship without involvement of the heart, which the Holy Spirit alone can induce. “In truth” means “on the basis of God’s revelation of reality, which culminates in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.” First and foremost, this is the revelation of what we are as lost sinners and of what God is to us as Creator-Redeemer through Jesus’ mediatorial ministry.”[xiii]
[i] G. E. Veith, Jr. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway, 1994), p. 28.
[ii] Rusty Benson, “Whatever!”, Journal of the American Family Association (Feb., 2001), p. 4.
[iii] D. Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (IVP, 2000), p. 21.
[iv] D. F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993), p. 101.
[v] R .A. Morey, Battle of the Gods (Crown, 1994), p. 189.
[vi] The KJV has “God is a spirit.” This is incorrect. Leon Morris notes, “Greek has no such article, and we insert it or not in English as the sense requires. Her Jesus is not saying, “God is one spirit among many”. Rather His meaning is, “God’s essential nature is spirit”. The indefinite article is no more required than it is in the similar statements, “God is light” (I John 1:5), and “God is love” (I John 4:8).” The Gospel of John (Eerdmans, 1971), p. 271.
[vii] R. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 167.
[viii] See the discussion by J. M. Boice, The Sovereign God (IVP, 1979), p. 140.
[ix] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1938), p. 85.
[x] Reymond, op. cit. p. 169.
[xi] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts On the Gospels: John 1:1-John 10:9 (rpt. Zondervan, 1956), p. 226.
[xii] The Works of Thomas Goodwin VIII (rpt. Tanski, 1996)), p. 181.
[xiii] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Tyndale, 1993), p. 30.
John Piper and Justin Taylor, General Editors
In the last few years, 9/11, a tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and many other tragedies have shown us that the vision of God in todays churches in relation to evil and suffering is often frivolous. Against the overwhelming weight and seriousness of the Bible, many Christians are choosing to become more shallow, more entertainment-oriented, and therefore irrelevant in the face of massive suffering.
In Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, contributors John Piper, Joni Eareckson Tada, Steve Saint, Carl Ellis, David Powlison, Dustin Shramek, and Mark Talbot explore the many categories of Gods sovereignty as evidenced in his Word. They urge readers to look to Christ, even in suffering, to find the greatest confidence, deepest comfort, and sweetest fellowship they have ever known.