(the following transcript may contain errors)
What is the most important question of theology? Surely, it’s the question, who is God? Who is the God who has revealed himself in the Bible and in Jesus? Who is he? What is he like? What has he done and what is he doing? Those are the questions of what is often called theology proper. The part of theology that looks at the person of God.
Knowing God is the most important thing that we can ever do. Knowing God is not arbitrary or irrelevant. It’s not a point of academic interest. We want to know God because he made us and sustains us. We want to know God because God wants us to know him. We want to know God because he loves us. And we want to know God because knowing God helps us to love God, relate to God and enjoy God.
In season 1 of Thinking Theology we looked at what theology is and then we looked at the foundation of theology which is the Bible. In season 2 of Thinking Theology we’re beginning by going to the very heart of theology which is God himself. In the next few episodes will be examining who God is, what he’s like, what he does, and the three persons of the trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But today we’re beginning with the core facts of the God who is.
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I’m a pastor, theologian, writer, and Bible college lecturer. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
The God Who Is
As Don Carson points out in his book, The God Who Is There, one of the most assumptions of the Bible is that God simply is. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God…”. In the beginning, before anything else was made, God simply was.
God is what we call, self-existent. Or as Jesus says, God has “life in himself” (John 5:26). He depends on no one else or nothing else to exist. In the beginning, God simply was. He describes himself to Moses as “I am” (Exod 3:14). He just is. He always was and he always will be.
But although God just is, everything else that exists has been made and has been made by God. So Paul writes in Colossians of how God the Father created everything that is through God the Son. Paul writes,The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15–17 NIV)
Everything, whether we can see it or not, was made by God the Father through the Son, Jesus. Although Jesus is described as the firstborn over all creation, that doesn’t mean that the Father created Jesus first. Rather it’s about inheritance. Everything that is, belongs to Jesus. He has the inheritance rights for everything as God’s eternal Son. “Firstborn” is really another way of saying “heir”.
We see too in Isaiah 40 that God is the maker of everything and he rules over everything. It says in verse 25,“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:25–26 NIV)
God is not just another part of the creation. He is not simply another thing that was made. God simply is. He existed before everything else and he made everything that we see, hear and touch.
That counters a common idea that some people have of God. Some people think that didn’t make everything but God is in everything, or, in fact, that everything is God. That idea is called “pantheism”. It’s a bit like the force in Star Wars. The force is part of everything. In that view, everything is part of the one divine reality. It’s the same idea which undergirds Hinduism.
In pantheism, everything is a little bit god. The chair would be a little bit god, your cat would be a little bit god. You and I would be a little bit god.
But the God we meet in the pages of the Bible is not like that. God says in Isaiah 40, not that he is part of everything, but that he made everything. And he’s distinct from everything. No one can compare to him. No one is like him. No one is equal to him. He’s separate. He’s exalted above the highest heavens. He doesn’t need anything in our world or from us. No, instead, people are like grasshoppers to him, like tiny insects. And he brings the great and powerful rulers of the world to nothing.
But if one error is to see God as part of everything, another sort of opposite error is to see God as totally distant and disconnected from the world. That view of God is called “deism”. In deism, God made the world but then left the world to get on with its own business.
The classic illustration is of a watchmaker and a watch. The God of deism made the world like a watchmaker makes a watch, and then he sort of wound it up and let it go. So in deism, God is the maker of the world, but having made the world, he then has nothing more to do with the world. In deism, God is for all intents and purposes irrelevant to our daily lives.
But again, the God we meet in the Bible is not like that. Again in Isaiah 40:27, it says,Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. (Isaiah 40:27–28 NIV)
God says he’s not ignorant of what is going on in his world. We might sometimes feel as though God has no idea what’s going on in our life.” But God says, “That’s not true.” God knows everything and is involved in everything.
And not only is God not ignorant of our individual lives and individual circumstances, he is intimately involved in his world and with his people. He gives strength to the weak and comforts the afflicted. So verse 29 of Isaiah 40 continues,He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:29–31 NIV)
The Bible is full of accounts of God intervening in the world. He hasn’t left the world to run its course. He is guiding and shepherding everything to achieve his appointed purpose. The most obvious example of God’s intimate love and care for the world in the incarnation—in God coming into our world in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God entered the daily grind of our world, to rescue people. God did that because he loves and cares for his world.
The God of the Bible, the God who is there, is both high and lifted up, far above everything, in control of everything. But he is also intimately and personally involved in everything as well.
He Alone is God
But God is not only a god. He is not one of many competing gods. The Bible shows us that God is the God. He is the only God.
Later in 45:18, God says,“I am the Lord, and there is no other.… Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.… And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. (Isaiah 45:18b–21 NIV)
God says that he is God alone, and there is no other God apart from him.
That idea lies at the heart of the first of the Ten Commandments, too:“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3 NIV)
God says there is no other God besides him. There is no other Saviour, no other rescuer.
And there is no one else to whom we owe our allegiance. God says in Isaiah 45:22,“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.’” All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But all the descendants of Israel will find deliverance in the Lord and will make their boast in him. (Isaiah 45:22–25 NIV)
Every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, eventually, that God is God and there is no other. Everyone will do that either willingly or unwillingly.
Because God is God, he will not let his glory or authority be taken by anyone else.
Part of the very definition of what it means to be God is that we owe him our allegiance.
But the problem is that as human beings we seem to be incurably drawn to putting other things in the place of God.
John Calvin famously said that our hearts are idol factories. That is, we constantly invent and seek out things other than God to serve and trust.
In Isaiah 45, God talks about people making idols of wood. And people would pray to those bits of timber as if those dead bits of wood could save them. Or people would bow down to those bits of wood and venerate them as gods when they’re nothing more than inanimate objects.
Of course, we may not be so stupid these days as to pray to and bow down to bits of timber, but we can easily install other things in the place of God. Things we think will save us and so we trust them rather than trust God. Things like money or people. It can also be things that we end up worshipping and giving our lives to. Things like our careers or dreams or aspirations. We worship and serve those rather than God.
But no one else deserves our allegiance and nothing else deserves our worship except God alone.
God is God, and there is no God but him.
He Is God and We Are Not
Yet perhaps the greatest competitor for the position of God is us. We ourselves are the greatest competitor to God, not in the sense that we give God a run for his money, but in the sense that we are most prone to try and make ourselves god. But that is plainly ridiculous as the Bible points out.
We see that in Isaiah 40, in verses 12–14,Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding? (Isaiah 40:12–14 NIV)
God’s point is: who of you can claim to do what I’ve done? Who can compete with God’s power? What human being has measured the water in the sea or the expanse of the universe? Who of us has put the mountains on our kitchen scales to see how much they weighed or counted the grains of sands on the beach, even just on one beach? Or who of us has such insight into the world that we could give God advice on what to do? Who of us has ever helped out God with maths problem or helped him solve a scientific equation? None of us.
And yet we so easily put ourselves in the place of God. We trust in our own power rather than God’s power. We take our own advice rather than God’s advice.
We so easily try to assume for ourselves the prerogatives of God; even when we know that it’s profoundly stupid to do that. That was the great sin of Adam and Eve which plunged the rest of us into the same misery—they tried to be like God.
But God is God and there is no one like him. That, almost by definition, is part of what it means for God to be God.
He is Who He is, and Not Who We Want Him to Be
The final thing that we need to understand as we begin to think about God, is that God is who he is, rather than who we want him to be.
That might seem like an obvious point, but it’s actually crucial to grasp in coming to understand who God is.
At the heart of idolatry, often, is not simply putting something in the place of God, but often it can be refashioning God into an image that we like or prefer.
We see that in verse 18 of Isaiah 40,With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him? As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple. (Isaiah 40:18–20 NIV)
Here in these verses the issue is not replacing God, but people looking for some image to which they can compare God. They think that God is like an idol, overlaid with gold. They think that the idol represents and displays what God is like.
In the history of God’s people, we see that attitude time and again. The most famous example is after God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. In response, the people gathered up all their gold and turned it into a golden calf. And when they’d done that, the high priest Aaron said to the people “Here is your god who brought you out of Egypt.” He didn’t say, “Here is a different god to add to the collection.” But “Here is your god who brought you out of Egypt.” In other words, “Here he is, this is what he looks like.”
Aaron wanted the people to think that the golden calf told the people what God was like: who he was, and how they could know him. But it was a complete lie. God isn’t an inanimate calf made out of gold. It was a foolish attempt to make God more accessible and maybe even more relatable, but like so often it actually robbed people of the true God who is.
And while most people are not be melting down their jewellery to remake God, it’s still possible for us to remake god in our minds as how we want him to be rather than as he really is. People re-imagine God as a God who is all love without judgement. Or they imagine God as a God who wants us to have our best like now, rather than the God who calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Others re-imagine God as a god who is happy for us to stay in our sin, rather than being the God who came to rescue us from the grip of sin.
People often say, “I could never believe in a God like that.” Which is another way of saying, “God must fit what I think he should be rather than what he actually is.”
But the God Who is, isn’t a god that we can just make up or refashion according to our latest desire.
Of course, the good news is that we don’t need to make up who we think God is because he’s made himself known to us in the Bible and most especially in the person and work the Son, Jesus, whom we meet in the Bible.
So John writes at the beginning of his Gospel:The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.… No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:14–18 NIV)
God hasn’t left us to work out who he is or to invent who he is from our imaginations or from our observations of the world. He has made himself known through the Bible and most especially through Jesus. And he has made himself known so that we can know him and have relationship with him.
As Jesus says to his disciples in John 14,“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:23 NIV)
As we think more about who God is over the next few episodes of Thinking Theology, it’s important to remember that the aim is not simply to know about God but to know God through Jesus.
Who is God? God just is. He’s always been and he always will be. He made everything, he rules over everything and he is intimately involved in everything. He alone is God and we are not, and he has made himself known to us through the Bible and especially through the Son, Jesus, so that we can know him.
That’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology.
Join me next time as we think about the nature of God. That is, what is he like?
Please join me then.
 D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 18.