Over the summer I was invited to preach at a couple of churches. This was a great privilege and I pray that my words helped people in their walk with God. One worry that struck me though just before the service was what should I wear as I stand at the front?
A number of people informed me that I should be myself, whilst others suggested I should wear a suit either because I was in a ‘holy place’ or that my taste in “novelty tshirts” was embarrassing! In the end I went with the classic jeans and shirt approach – casual but smart.
Rummaging through the proverbial clothes pile of advice, I discovered an underlying question behind some of the comments and potentially behind my initial worry…
Where is God? Is He more present in one place than another? Can we escape God’s presence? Really, it’s no surprise that these questions are being asked. In recent times the idea of God’s presence has become more muddled. With songs having lyrics such as ‘As we come into your presence‘ and ‘worship leaders’ (another blog post coming…) taking us into God’s presence; it’s not surprising that our idea of God and where he is, is becoming confused.
As with any question to do with God/Christianity we need to get a proper grasp on what the Bible says. As always I’d recommend you open up the Bible and check what I’m about to say is actually factual and correct. I would be grateful for any feedback, extra comments or questions. Thanks to everyone I’ve spoken to already!
First of all, let’s dive into a Psalm. Just like modern songs, these poems/songs – written by a number of people in the Old Testament – give us a good look at how people were feeling. I want to particularly draw us to Psalm 139…
Psalm 139:7–8 Where can I go from your Spirit, or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, there you are, and if I make my bed in Sheol, look! There you are.
I think we can agree then that it teaches us that God’s presence is inescapable… The contrast between heaven (the very high) and Sheol (the very low) draws the illustration for us. In fact one of the attributes of God that the Bible constantly reminds us of is that He is everywhere. This is seen throughout the Bible. For example, we can look at the account of Jonah (Jonah 1:3), and how Jonah tried to run away from God and his plan for him. He quickly learnt however that this was impossible.
But, you may be saying, there definitely are cases in the Bible where people went to specific places and were “in God’s presence”. For example a quick look at the first five books of the Bible shows that God was in the camp of Israel. So how can this be? Since God cannot change (else we’d be in trouble) his ‘level of presence’ cannot change, so we must look at the only thing that can change in our relationship with God – ourselves.
The Hebrew word ‘panim’ found in the Old Testament, that we tend to translate as “presence”, is also translated as “face”. It would be used in a way similar to how we say ‘face-to-face’. This was, as it is now, a saying used in Hebrew (see New Bible Dictionary) similar to when we say ‘his face fell’. When we say this we do not mean that someone’s face has actually fallen off! So when we talk about the presence of God in this context, we are really talking about us personally knowing God and understanding that He is with us. You can see examples of this in many places (e.g. Genesis 28:16, Deuteronomy 4:29, James 4:8).
The idea of God having a tangible presence among His people is initially found in Genesis 3. We find in this chapter Adam, Eve and God walking in the garden (3:8), but this is lost though because of sin. If you wanted to, you could follow this theme of presence through the entire Bible, but here’s the very shortened outcome – nothing mankind can do on his own strength can restore the relationship with God. In fact, after some highs and lows it all seems pretty hopeless until right near the end of the Old Testament when we reach the book of Isaiah.
Probably the most radical way of God being with us can be found promised in Isaiah 7:14. A child will be born and his name will be Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’. This is fulfilled in the gospel of Matthew (1:23). We’re told here of a scandal that took place one Bethlehem night (which we celebrate at Christmas), the birth of a baby boy, Jesus. Through Jesus the fulfillment of God being with us was complete. This fully God, yet fully man, opened the gateway for God’s presence to be known. God is with us.
Fast forward with me to the very end of time (cue Doctor Who theme if you so wish). The book of Revelation explains what we can expect at the end of time – what we can look forward to. We find this very same Jesus standing in the middle of some candlesticks (Revelation 1:12). These candlesticks are symbolism for the church past, present and future. Jesus standing in the middle shows His presence with his church. The whole book of Revelation is packed full of the amazing promise and future in which the church can experience God’s presence forever – and not just any presence but the ‘face-to-face’ (panim) presence the Israelites had back in exodus. Take a look at Revelation 15:1-4 if you’re a Christian that’s what you can expect. How amazing is that!
Some other key Passages
So what would some other key places to look for our understanding of God’s presence?
Exodus 29:45–46 And I will dwell in the midst of the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they will know that I am Yahweh, their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt in order to dwell in their midst. I am Yahweh their God.
God’s presence with the Israelites shows us how a group of people who are close to God are able to feel his presence. What great news that is for the Israelites…
Psalm 145:18–19 Yahweh is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry for help, and saves them.
Even better, God is near to all who call on the name of the Lord…
Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”
Here Jesus promises to be with his people, even if two or three are gathered. This is then expounded even further with the following verse…
Matthew 28:20 “[Continue] teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the age.”
In fact, the Bible even tells us that God dwells in each of his followers (Christians)…
1 Corinthians 3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and the Spirit of God dwells in you?
Doesn’t that show us God’s presence in such a radical new way?
So what does this mean for us?
Firstly, knowing that God can hear us wherever we are makes prayer so much more amazing. This comes especially to light when we’re in a foreign environment. I will always remember being in Sweden on a job, being the only English person around. The sudden realisation that I could still pray was extremely encouraging.
We should also remind ourselves daily that God is always present in all places. It makes a massive difference knowing that God is always there. Take the clothing debate for example (from the beginning of this post). If we realise that God is everywhere we wouldn’t worry about taking special attention to ourselves on Sundays alone (in fact we should be thinking this all the time). It would also allow us as a church to be more open about our issues, rather than feeling we have to be perfect people within the confines of the building.
Finally, we do not need to worry about God being with His people. All too often we pray ‘God be with…’, as if we don’t believe God is present unless we specifically pray for it. In fact Matthew 28:20 teaches us that Jesus will be ‘with us until the end of the age’. Instead we can feel grateful for God’s presence – comforted that God is always with us. We can also feel safe knowing he is beside all Christians in every situation. Instead, let’s pray that the person is more aware of God being with them.
So in answer to the question at the beginning. ‘Where is God’s presence’? Well his presence is everywhere, let’s not forget that.