Our transcendent God
What goes through your mind when you think about God? There is no better subject to which you can give your attention, and there are few questions that will reveal so much about you.
In my childhood I developed a deep and abiding interest in astronomy, and viewing the star-filled heavens continues to stir me to awe and wonder. My sense of the utter vastness of the cosmos is increased whenever I train a telescope on a distant nebula or galaxy. But however great the universe is – and no-one really knows – God is greater still, for He made it all. We are living in times when scientists make bold claims about our understanding of life, the universe and everything. And yet the questions which God put to Job are such as no mere man could ever attempt to answer. For example, ‘Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?’ (Job 38:19). No wonder that Job was so completely humbled, placing his hand over his mouth. He was given a glimpse of the greatness and the transcendence of God. What do we mean by ‘transcendence’? It is everything about God that is great and glorious, far exceeding the limits of our normal perception. Job was overwhelmed by God’s holiness. After this tremendous experience he became an even better man than he had been before.
Meeting with the Lord
Neither is Job unique. Moses’ first meeting with the Lord was when he encountered Him in the burning bush, and was told to take off his sandals, for he stood on holy ground. Subsequently Moses was afraid to look at God (Ex. 3:5-6). The calling of Isaiah demonstrates the same kind of awe, for the prophet cried out ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ (Is. 6:5).
‘This is an Old Testament concept’, some of you might be thinking. ‘Surely now that God has come to us in the person of Jesus, we can approach Him without fear.’ Of course, all who are in Christ are delivered from the fear of death and from condemnation. But we need to remember that when the Son came into the world, none of His divine glory was lost or compromised. On the contrary, He became what He had not been before – human – without ceasing to be what He had always been – mighty and eternal God. John’s vision of Jesus on the island of Patmos was pretty transcendent and awe-inspiring (Rev. 1:12-16)! It is in the context of New Testament worship that we are reminded that ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29).
Surely what the church of Jesus Christ needs to recover, for the sake of her own survival in our present society, and in order to be a blessing to that society, is the biblical view of the transcendent greatness of God. When I mentioned to the editorial board that I might write an article on this subject, one of the other members advised me, ‘please make sure it’s practical!’ This is what I am trying to do now. But we must beware of simply following a ‘do list’, because unless what we do is motivated by the fear of God then it will all become an empty charade. So here are a few suggestions:
- The transcendence of God should affect our congregational worship. It has become common to hear people say that ‘all of life is worship’. Certainly the whole earthly employment of the believer should be undertaken in a spirit of devoted service, seeking to please God rather than man. But the people of God are called upon to engage in the distinct action of worshipping God, of bowing down and giving praise and glory to their Creator and Redeemer. There are no longer any holy buildings, but the people of God continue to be a holy nation. We should take time before every Lord’s day to reflect on the solemn, yet joyful privilege that awaits us.
- The transcendence of God should affect our public reading of God’s word. We are handling the very breathed-out speech of almighty God. Considerable attention should therefore be given to our manner of reading, which should be imbued with reverence. There is a tone, a pace, a diction, that is entirely in keeping with ‘the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style’ (Westminster Confession, I.5). Paul instructed Timothy to give attention to his public reading of the scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13).
- The transcendence of God should affect our preaching. There is great comfort here for preachers as well as a solemn charge. Paul knew the great burden that was laid upon him, which was why he spoke in Corinth with ‘fear and much trembling’. And yet his confidence did not rest in any of his own natural abilities; he preached ‘in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power’ (1 Cor. 2:3-4). A solemn simplicity and earnestness should characterise our preaching.
- It then follows that the transcendence of God should affect our hearing. Some people fall asleep during sermons, others doodle because they say that it helps them to concentrate. Would they do the same if they were defendants or witnesses in a court of law, or if a medical consultant was about to deliver his diagnosis? A man who was being sentenced or pardoned by a high court judge would have his mind wonderfully concentrated on the court proceedings! Have we forgotten that the living God is with us when we meet?
- The transcendence of God should affect the way we speak about God. We need to appreciate the breadth of the third commandment (‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain’, Ex. 20:7). I once attended a church youth group where the leaders referred to the Bible message as the ‘God slot’. I felt then, and continue to feel now, that this was dishonouring to God. It is not a case of being pompous, pedantic and passé. It is recognising that the name of God is holy. We should use the name of God as it is meant to be used, with reverence, wonder, love and praise. Parents: do we speak to our children in this way about the Lord?
- The transcendence of God should affect our praying. We are brought into the most intimate relationship with God; in Christ ‘we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him’ (Eph. 3:12). But we must not make the mistake of confusing holy intimacy with easy familiarity. If the Lord Jesus Himself prayed to His Father with such reverence – witness the great prayer of John 17 – then so must we.
In a society where so much that is noble has become debased and cheapened, how necessary it is that we understand and apply the transcendent greatness of God. ‘Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness’ (Ps. 29:2).
Paul Yeulett is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.