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The Character of God Is Important
- The character of God is an important topic that encompasses many different things.
- The character of God affects every area of our lives. It has an impact on how we pray, how we worship, how we make decisions about truth, how we set priorities, how we approach ethics, how we respond to world issues, how we suffer, how we engage in apologetics and how we think about eschatology.
“The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can engage the attention of a child of God is the name, the nature, the person, the doings, and the existence of the great God which he calls Father.” (C.H. Spurgeon)
How Much Can We Know About God?
- God is incomprehensible. This doesn’t mean that he is unable to be known at all, but rather that he cannot be known fully (see Psalms 139, 145, 147 and Romans 11).
“Because God is infinite and we are finite or limited, we can never fully understand God. In this sense, God is said to be incomprehensible, where the the term incomprehensible is used with an older and less common sense, “unable to be fully understood”. This sense must be clearly distinguished from the more common meaning, “unable to be understood”. It is not true to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is true to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively. (Wayne Grudem)
- Though we cannot know God exhaustively, we can know him truly.
- Every statement that the Bible makes about God is 100% true, even if that statement alone is not all that there is to be said about God.
“God’s incomprehensibility does not deny his knowability. It requires and affirms it. The unsearchable riches of the divine being form a necessary and important part of our knowledge of God.” (Herman Bavinck)
The Character of God Revealed in Exodus 33 and 34
- This passage comes after the people sinning by making the golden calf. One of the things that the golden calf shows is that the people had a desire to look upon God, even if the way they went about attempting to do so was wrong.
- In verse 13 (of chapter 33), Moses says to God, “show me now your ways, that I may know you”. This suggests that one way of knowing God is by looking at his activity (this is also why the psalmists frequently recounted the things that God has done).
- In verse 18, Moses asks God to show him his glory, and God says that he will make all of his ‘goodness’ pass before him and will proclaim to him his ‘name’. There is an interplay between God’s glory, his goodness, and his name.
- God seems to equate intimacy with knowledge of a name. Knowing somebody’s name is about knowing the essence of who they are at the core.
- God wants to show Moses something of his person and woking. He is saying, ‘I want you to know me like I know you’. He is a self-revealing God.
- God reveals his name as ‘The LORD’. When the see ‘The LORD’ printed in capitals in our Bibles, it is a reference to YHWH, the tetragrammaton, that is the precious, personal name of God that sums up a lot of his character. Often this name is though of as too precious to use, so it is sometimes replaced with another word (adonai). Sometimes vowels of adonai are written with the consonants of YHWH, which is where we get the name ‘Jehovah’ from.
- God is saying that he will reveal his name to Moses, even though he has already told him what it is. He is promising to show him something deeper of who he is.
- In verses 20-23 God tells Moses that he will show him a part of who he is, but that he cannot look on God’s face and live. This is another way of saying that God can be known truly but not fully. God adjusts his self-presentation without altering his character.
- In verse 1 (of chapter 34), God says to Moses that he will write on the tablets (even though he later tells Moses to write on them). God doesn’t have a problem with the juxtaposition of human and divine authorship. Something may be written by a human that truly reflectes the character and revelation of God.
- Verses 6 and 7 are key statement of God’s character.
- The LORD, the LORD– God proclaims his name, as he promised to do. He is now revealing something of his character. By the repetition, he heightens the prestige of the moment. YHWH literally means I am, and by repeating it, it is as though he is saying ‘I am, and this is how I am…’
- What God reveals of himself is beautifully rounded. He doesn’t just share one thing about himself, but every element holds together perfectly.
- A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands– We can tend to think of the love of God individualistically, but here it is expressed as ‘for thousands’. In our culture, the phrase ‘Old Testament’ has become synonymous with violence, but this passage is a beautiful expression of God’s love (and many of the clearest statements of God’s love in the Bible are found in the Old Testament. There is no discontinuity between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament.
- Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty– This combination is vital. The mistakes that we make when it comes to the character of God often happen when we play his characteristics off against each other. For example, we could read that God is love (and of course, love wins…) so we play that off against his justice. God will uphold justice, and is gracious and merciful at the same time.
The Character of God Revealed in John 1
- This is the prologue to the gospel of John. In it we find lots of allusions to the Old Testament.
- Verse 1 echoes (and expands on) the beginning of Genesis 1.
- The five main ways that God was talked about in the Old Testament were in terms of wisdom, law, word, glory and spirit. All of these are mentioned or alluded to in this passage.
- Verse 14 tells us that at a particular point in time, the word (who is God, and is with God, and is linked with the activity of God) became flesh. It also says that we have seen his glory, which reminds us of the presence of God in the tabernacle (for more on this see the ‘Enjoying God’s Presence‘ hangout). The word becoming flesh can literally be translated as ‘he pitched his tabernacle among us’.
- God’s glory is no longer obscured but can now be enjoyed by everybody. In Exodus, God allowed Moses to see his glory but nobody else. Now, according to John, ‘we’ have seen his glory. The experience that once limited to Moses is now available to all Christians.
- In Exodus, the glory of God was tied up with his goodness and his name. John is saying something similar hear (notice the reference to ‘believing in his name’ in verse 12).
- John’s references to ‘grace and truth’ parallel the ‘steadfast love and faithfulness’ of Exodus.
- It is the same glory that passed before Moses that John (and others) saw when the word became flesh. God was revealing himself through his activity in bodily form, so that people may believe in his name.
- In verses 17 and 18, we see that there is something different about the revelation that came in Jesus compared to the revelation that came through Moses. It wouldn’t be right to say that the law that came through Moses is negative (we are told that it was given), but rather that the law was a grace gift, but in Jesus we have a greater degree of grace (‘grace upon grace’).
“God’s glory that used to dwell in a Tabernacle is now here in the person of Jesus. God previously revealed his grace and his truth to Moses, but now he has made his grace and his truth known through Jesus.” (Liam Thatcher)
- In verse, 18 it says ‘He has made him known’, the Greek word used is ‘exegestato’, which is where the English word ‘exegesis’ comes from. D.A. Carson described Jesus as the ‘exegesis of God’. He shows us God’s character.
- God has always revealed himself in many ways – through his activity, through his names, through Scripture, but the ultimate revelation of his character is found in Jesus.
- It is possible to know some things about God apart from Jesus (the common grace referred to in Romans 1), but we can’t fully or truly know God until we look at Jesus, and any understanding of God must be rooted in the person, life, work, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Jesus doesn’t alter the character of God, but he does reveal it. There is no contradiction between the Old Testament and New Testament, but as we look through the lens of Jesus we can see God and we can know him truly.
There is Still More to Know
- In Revelation 22:4, we are told that in the new creation we will see his face.
- 2 Corinthians 4:6 says, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
- 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Do you think we need a shift in our thinking regarding the importance of names today?
- A lot of it is cultural, and we don’t need to hark back to old cultures for the sake of it.
- In scripture, people would often introduce themselves according to their lineage.
- The importance of names in the Bible is in trying to understand what God is communicating to us through them and why.
In Hebrews, it says that Jesus learned through obedience. Without questioning immutability, is God enriched somehow through the incarnation?
- If you are asking whether the Trinity was lacking something up to that point, the answer is no.
- Philippians 2 teaches that Jesus made himself nothing and ’emptied himself’. The learning is in the context of having already limited himself in the incarnation.
Apart from Scripture, in what other ways does God reveal himself, and how do we know if such revelations are genuine?
- Hebrews 1 says that in the past, God revealed himself in many ways, including through the Prophets, but now in the last day, he reveals himself through the Son. This doesn’t invalidate the other forms of revelation but it does supersede them.
- Jesus himself spoke of the prophets as indisputable revelations of God’s character.
- Prophecy still happens today. but we should check that it is consistent with what God has revealed through his Son, and through the scripture that the Son trusted in.
- God can also reveal himself through creation.
- Tradition can be another helpful thing because none of us has a totally clear interpretive lens to bring to the scripture. The way that the church has come to reflect on the scriptures through the ages can help us, but again, it must be consistent with scripture.
What is the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the character of God?
- The Holy Spirit is God. The shares the same essential characteristics as the Father and the Son.
- The fruit of the Spirit is an expression of the character of God that the Spirit also conforms our character to.
- Without the work of the Spirit in our life, we may know things about God in our head, but they will never affect our heart or our life.
- The Spirit shows us things of the character of God, such as his gentleness or his fire. As we look at the activity of the Spirit, we see the character of God.
If people couldn’t see the face of God and live, how could people see Jesus, given that he was fully God?
- John 1 is unequivocal that Jesus is perfectly God (and many other passages also affirm this).
- Because we are finite, and God is infinite, any revelation that he gives is limited to our capacity. He limits his revelation without limiting himself.
- We see God as he truly is, he we don’t see him as he fully is. Jesus is fully God, but in the incarnation God has chosen to reveal himself in a way that is appropriate for our cognitive capacity.
- In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the guards are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he says ‘I am he’. This is another ‘I am’ statement that refers to the name of God, and everyone fell to the ground. As he revealed a bit more of his glory, they were unable to handle it. Imagine if he had shown us absolutely everything of who he is…