My God is Always Greater
My message today is about the greatness of our God. We don’t speak today about an impersonal issue, for I am his creation; He is a personal God. He is not, however, one of many persons. He is the only one, the Almighty, the unique and incomparable one. He is my God and He is your God. Considering the implications of this should make us silent with wonder.
God is Living in an Inaccessible Light
Searching for the Image of God
My God lives in an inaccessible light. You cannot look at the sun without becoming blinded. The sun, however, is only a shadow of the light of the creation that is around Him, my God. I cannot even see that light. It would mean my death. How impossible it is for me to see Him who is living in that light, who was there right at the beginning of the creation, and who is the fountain of all other lights, including the sun.
When we gather for Bible study we speak a lot about God the Lord. Not always directly. Sometimes we argue about issues and the problems of the day. But He stands at the background in our discussions; we try to find out his will and opinion in these discussions. Directly or indirectly we are always seeking the approval of our Lord.
Therefore we study the Bible and discuss the different books and passages therein. In the books of the Bible, we hear his voice and read about his deeds. The study of the Bible forms not only the centre of our services on the Lord’s Day, but it is also of vital importance in our study meetings as men and women and younger people.
I don’t know if we are always aware of the fact that there is permanently a certain idea about God in our minds. We have certain ideas about what He is and feels and about what his opinion will be. Of course we know that our imaginations of the Almighty are not complete and sometimes very defective, but nevertheless they function in our prayers and in our discussions.
More than once we say, perhaps inadvertently, something about what we think God will think. For example: “I can’t imagine that our choice of church would be that important to the heavenly God,” or: “I can’t imagine that God would prohibit divorce when you are married to such an impossible person!” or: “I am sure that at the end of time God will be gracious to all mankind; isn’t He unconditional in his love?”
The idea that we have about God lends some decisiveness to our point of view. Doubt and uncertainty are seemingly not welcome in our study societies! We demand solutions; everything has to fit with our idea of God. The image we form of Him is often a hidden persuader. And more than once we select only those Bible passages that are best suited to our ideas about Him.
How justified, however, is it to have an idea about God that dominates our thoughts and discussions?
In God’s law we find a commandment that prohibits us from making graven images of our God. We are forbidden from exchanging the real and living God for our idea about Him and about his feelings and opinions.
One of the most typical and specific characteristics of the religion of Israel is that there were to be no statues or images of Him. And that was a very shocking law. Every religion had statues and images and temples to house the statues. What is a house without an inhabitant? Imagine how strange and peculiar the people of Israel were. They wandered through the desert with an empty tent! There was some furniture in that tabernacle, but no statue, no god. Similarly, there was a house for God in Jerusalem in which nobody – no statue – was living. In the time of Jesus thousands of people came to visit that unique, magnificent, but empty temple. How strange for a people. Didn’t they have any idea about who their god was? Their temple was like a ghost house!
Only a Voice!
Why did God make such a law, so different from other nations? Why did Israel have to have a temple without a statue? What was God’s purpose in this commandment?
Moses has given a broad explanation of this phenomenon. We can find his explanation in Deuteronomy 4. The people of Israel stood at the foot of the smoking and quaking Mount Sinai. The Lord descended from heaven and became very close to them. They heard his roaring voice and they trembled. They received the Ten Commandments. But they didn’t see a figure of God.
The empty temple is a reminder of how the history of Israel started. There was the penetrating voice and there were the mighty deeds in Egypt and in the desert. What god has ever guided his people out of the land of slavery through ten mighty public acts and what god ever guided them along a temporary path through the menacing sea? There was, however, no figure or statue that could be seen. Therefore, oh Israel, listen to the voice of the Lord but be aware at the same time that He is hidden from your eyes and that you can’t form any idea about Him. He is far beyond the reach of your imagination!
The Magnificent Stature
Is our God not a person but only an abstract voice without personality, without hands and eyes? Is our God too vague for images, like the air? You can’t make an image of the air. The air is too volatile to be represented in a statue. Is our God so elusive?
In our time many Christians are indeed living with the image of a god without any personality. He is only power and influence, no voice. To these people prayer is no longer speaking in a certain direction to a certain person, the King on his throne. Prayer becomes no more than an inward attitude, a feeling of closeness with something indefinite. In fact, to modern Christians God gets only a certain form in our spirituality.
The Bible, however, teaches us about a living God with a magnificent appearance. Moses doesn’t say that we are not allowed to make statues because God does not have a stature, but because we didn’t see that stature. Of course God has a stature, or figure. He is acting with his mighty arm and his eyes are investigating our inner being.
Three points make clear that our God has a figure or stature:
In the beginning, God created mankind according to his image. How can you make a living statue of God if He didn’t have any stature at all?
The same Moses who taught the people not to make statues was permitted to see something of the stature of the Lord. God covered Moses’ eyes at that moment, but nevertheless he was allowed to see the backside of the passing figure of the Lord.
Although God’s eyes are everywhere and nothing is hidden before Him, there are certain angels that are closer to his eyes and face than we are. So there is distance and nearness.
All this makes clear that God is not everywhere in the same way as the air is everywhere. He really has an abode in the highest heaven. The heavens are his throne and the earth is his footstool. Our God is not everywhere and nowhere.
Our God is hidden in an inaccessible light. No human being ever saw Him and therefore it is impossible that any one of us should see his hidden face. He, the eternal one, is for us the unimaginable. He is far beyond our imagination. We cannot form an idea about Him. The only thing we can do is to adore Him and praise his name!
Bowing with Empty Hands
That’s indeed the content of the second commandment in a nutshell. Don’t make statues, but bow before the living one, not visible but more real than anything in heaven and upon earth! This second commandment is very topical today. We are living in a Christianity where a certain form of meditation and vague prayer is always present, but what is missing more and more is the physical posture of kneeling. When you lower yourself on your knees, you become aware that you are praying before a personal God who is the Almighty and who is your Father in heaven. Your prayers have a destination. Therefore your body needs a posture that is fitting to that direction. You cannot kneel before air, but you can do it before a person! The second commandment teaches us that during this kneeling before his throne we are kneeling before a niche that seems to be empty. We don’t see any stature at all and we are not allowed to fill in this niche with our own imagination about God. Hands off! You have to kneel before your Creator with empty hands, bowing and listening.
So it is good symbolism when you start your Bible study praying with empty hands, palms turned up before you fold them, waiting for the Lord to fill them.
God is Always Greater!
The Deficiency of the Creation
It seems that creation and history offer enough material to form a certain image of God. Isn’t the creation mirroring his face? Aren’t we personally made according to his image? It seems possible to get a certain idea about the painter by studying his paintings.
God has forbidden this path. Our materials in creation and history are valid but not sufficient. We have a very large studio with an endless assortment of attributes. The sky with the stars at night and the birds during the morning. The earth with so many animals and the sea with all kind of creatures living there. What painter has ever had a palette with so many colours? Which creature has more forms at its disposal than mankind, not living on an empty moon but on the rich adorned planet earth! There is no end to our inspiration of paintings and pictures and films. There is neither a last frontier for sculptors nor a last minute for poets. Again and again we have to build new museums and new exposition halls on this earth! And at the same time we have to be aware that God is not in those museums. We have to realize that our materials are insufficient, because God is always greater than our greatest imaginations!
A World of Frosted Glass
The creation is pointing in God’s direction. The hurricane is an echo of his voice. The sun is the reflection of his light. In the power of the horse we see a reflection of the power of God. In the beauty of man you see a glimpse of the beauty of God. But He himself is always greater.
This was made clear to Job. God speaks with him about thunder and dragons, evidence of God’s work. But at the same time Job learns that the Almighty God is far above these creatures. Elijah also perceived this; the storm around Sinai was a sign of the Lord, but God Himself was not in that storm. Rather, He was far above that storm in the deep silence of his being.
This visible world compared to God is no more than a world seen through a pane of frosted glass.
The Carved World Picture
Mankind today chisels a world through science and the use of modern technology and then leaves it at that. People make a universal image of it, with a pedestal called evolution and an impact called progress. They don’t call this universal image God. They only stop with this image of the world: no more words, nothing is said about a Creator. But in fact this modern image becomes a statue of its own, a nameless idol. The idea is that there is no one beyond our imagination of the world in which we are living and that we are exploring.
But God invites us to gaze above this visible world into the invisible one. He is asking us to transcend created things and believe in Him who is not created and who lives in an invisible light, far beyond our imagination. You cannot find Him with a telescope or a microscope, nor can you visit Him or capture his voice with your satellites. You will only find everything that is upon the earth and in the air and in the oceans. What we find is great and far more than we can investigate. You can take pictures of creation, write books about the created world, and make documentary series about many issues. A magnificent world: you never get bored looking at creation. And this is our world! Perhaps we can feel proud.
But God is unhappy when we look no further than the library of creation. He is not honoured when we stop at creation as if there is no Creator. He rejects those who bow before nature and human rights as if these were the boundaries of everything that exists.
God forbids us to make images of Him here below, because He is far higher and beyond all our imagination. He is not merely the impersonal intelligent design or the personal intelligent designer; He is the living and unpredictable God from eternity to eternity.
Above the Peak of the Mountains
One of the most important things we have to remember whenever we begin studying the Bible or praying to God: He is far above us. We can kneel before Him, but his ways are higher than our ways. And we will never be able to guess what He will do or what His opinion will be about certain issues. We cannot think or speak in God’s place.
No, we need to kneel before Him who is the Almighty, who we are not able to see, who we cannot find, and whose image and stature we cannot even imagine in any way. You kneel because you hear his voice, a sound that makes us aware and convinces us that there is a higher Being that governs the universe. Breathlessly we observe the oceans and rivers which flood the land, so powerful that millions of people need to be evacuated. God the Creator is more powerful than the tsunami, stronger than the tornado.
We need to discover that there is someone who is wiser than the animals and humans. Our eyes and thoughts are filled to the brim, but we keep on hearing behind us: this is not Him as yet. Nevertheless, we hear his voice: “I am the Lord your God, a jealous God.” He is there for sure, but keeps his image hidden. Yet He does not wish to be forgotten in his creation. The guilty one who disappears behind the shrubs will be shocked to hear the voice: “Adam, where are you?”
Generally, people are not afraid to speak against God. Their opinions seem so convincing that they argue and dispute with Him. They say: “How can I believe in a God who allows people to murder each other?” Or: “If God should exist, why doesn’t He change my life and take away my unhappiness and sickness?” People are thinking for God, in God’s place.
The unhappiness of this world and everything that happens between people belongs to the created world. And it is impossible to create an image of God through looking into the unhappiness of mankind. Many horrible things are happening every day and we may have a lot of questions. But when we have revolutionary feelings about God, we misunderstand the creation, as if it were possible to find out who He is through what happens in mankind and in nature. The tsunami is not God Himself and deadly weapons are not his invention.
In the Bible many of the prominent leaders such as Moses, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Job become silent when the Lord responds to their rebellion. The author of Psalm 73 also recognizes his error when he creates from his experiences an image of the Lord that does not agree with God’s revelation. Don’t be too hasty with your tongue; God is always far beyond your imagination! He or she who wishes to study God’s Word and thereby increases his or her knowledge about God needs in the first place learn to be humble. In humility we may approach the Almighty Lord who is greater than we could possibly imagine.
Above Our Confessions
That’s also the case with our confessions. We try to formulate as accurately as possible what we heard through the voices of God’s prophets. But sometimes we think that God is enclosed by our confession as if we should have said everything that can be said about Him. As if we should have the whole truth in all its details. Of course we have truth in our confessions, but God didn’t become our prisoner through our formulation of the truth of the Scriptures. He stays free and far beyond our imagination and our confessions.
In the final judgment we will not take our confessions and say, “O Lord, You are exactly as we imagined it, precisely as we expressed it and formulated it.” We will only hope that He will say, “Well done, my boy, my girl, you were loyal to my words, finally come in and see the reality itself!”
Holy is His Name: Tremble, all ye Nations, Tremble!
This feeling of awe and fear, respect and reverence, for a Person who transcends all our imaginations and ideas is nearly absent in our society and culture. There are no carved statues in the streets of the western capitals. People are no longer afraid, not even of death! That is the modern, immaterial, new statue of God. He is not real. And if He should be real, you don’t have to be afraid: He is only representing a weak type of love and lacks real power and influence in our technocratic world. He is no longer dangerous. That is the weak and soft image of God in modern society.
But hear the roaring voice in the second commandment: “I will not keep those innocent who are guilty!” Listen and know that the Lion is there, menacing and mighty. Whenever we do Bible study, let us tremble and be careful. Make your soul silent. Throw away all the feelings of animosity, stubbornness, and self-assurance. Let our words about God be pious and permeated by holy awe. For how would someone see God and live? Let us never speak about Him or think about Him without first and foremost bowing our head before his majesty, that head which so often is so full of self worth, so opinionated, so stubborn and conceited. Do not misuse the Scriptures to fashion an image of your God. He is greater than we can even imagine.
The Image of the Unseen One
No Statue, Nevertheless a Temple!
In Israel there were no statues of God allowed. They didn’t need a temple to house images of God. In fact, the temple emphasized the absence of images to the surprise of all the nations. What is the meaning of a temple without a statue to worship? Such a temple makes clear that although there is no statue, there is nevertheless a direction in which to look when you come closer to God. There is a direction because you can approach Him and come nearer to Him, although you don’t see his image. The unseen Lord desires to bring his reality nearer to us. Not nearer to our eyes, but nearer to our hearts. He is really there in heaven.
The Image of the Invisible God
At a certain moment in history, in the last days, God finally decided to make his image visible and touchable. That was in Jesus Christ. Whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. He is God’s picture and statue and representation. Finally we learn what the temple was all about: He is the radiant appearance of God’s glory and He shows us the lavish light of God’s gracious face.
Who had ever imagined this statue? Ancient philosophy and science developed ideas about the wise king or the influential sage, but the idea of God becoming man and being in our midst, healing and teaching, was far beyond their imagination. Even the prophets of Israel did not realize that this would be the solution to their unsolved riddles of revelation.
Jesus: No Graven Image!
Now that we have Jesus, it becomes clear why God didn’t appreciate wooden or iron images. They were far short of the image of the real Son of God! Does this mean that since the days of Jesus’ appearance we can carve the image of God? Jesus on the cross, or a drawing of the kind healer in Galilee? In modern Christianity many people have made images of God in the form of Jesus-images. Now, they believe, they know how God is. He is always kind and human. He is your unconditional friend. Look at Jesus. Imagine what Jesus would do and you understand the thoughts of God!
But we are forgetting one important thing. In the gospels we see only the backside of the image of God. We see Jesus in his humiliation and suffering. We see him in weakness and in tears, rejected and despised. And He doesn’t raise his voice. But don’t forget that this is the specific time of his coming as Son of the King amidst the revolutionaries. After his humiliation came the time of his exaltation. We don’t see Him today in his glory. John at Patmos did and he fell as dead upon the ground. Jesus in his glory was far beyond John’s imagination! His face was as the sun, his voice as the roaring waters of the sea. Do not think that you can master the Lord through the gospels of his suffering. Don’t touch Him: He is going upwards to his almighty Father!
God forbade man to approach Him through statues. That was not because God shouldn’t have a stature or because He should be blind without eyes or no more than air without hands. The real reason is that his stature is Jesus Christ, suffering and glorified. All things will be from Him and through Him and towards Him! Don’t carve images; kneel before Jesus, the living image of God, Lord and Saviour.
Make us Your Image Bearer!
Empty Hands, Open Ears
What is the proper way to serve the Lord? Not by using our own ideas about God’s image, but by listening. Those who keep God’s commandments love Him and leave it to the Lord. For upon reflection we realize that we do not know much.
It is somewhat inherent in us to know better! Remember the Apostle Peter on the Mount of the Transfiguration (I will put up three shelters!) and at the occasion of the washing of the feet (you will not wash my feet!) and at the announcement of the Lord’s imprisonment and suffering (that will not happen!). Time and again Peter carried an image of the Lord that did not fit with reality, that was not subservient to God’s will. Peter tripped over his own ideas of God’s image.
Similar things occur throughout the church history. We cannot imagine that the Lord would not approve of these crusades, or we cannot imagine that the Lord would allow organs and hymns in the worship service, or we cannot imagine that the Lord would gather his church in any other way than what we have come to think is the right way.
Our imagination about God, beautiful as it might be at times, tends to influence our actions and our behaviour. And yet to listen and obey is better than sacrifice. Listening is very difficult. It is not one of our greatest talents. We live in a time where there is little listening and much more expressing of our opinions. We cannot understand that God’s ways in the history of the church could be different than the scheme we have in our thoughts.
Open for the Future wherein We Will See with Open Eyes
The total gracious revelation is directed towards the reconciliation, the restoration of man as God’s image. Paul reminds us of Sinai in 2 Corinthians 3. Moses’ face reflected there the radiance of the glory of God “fading though it was.” To see it was exceptional and yet it was also a sign of things to come. For this will be the direction, the future. And then Paul writes about us who have seen the glory of God through Jesus Christ, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is Spirit.” This is a difficult sentence with an inconceivable reality. God reveals Himself in Jesus Christ. We see Jesus our Redeemer. We receive the Holy Spirit. We are being transformed. A metamorphosis takes place. We will reflect the image of Jesus Christ. We become perfect mirror images, imposing and radiant.
Those are the plans of our God and He works this through his Spirit. But He is very careful and prudent. He does not tolerate interference; He is a jealous God! He rejoices with all those who submit themselves to the craftsmanship and handiwork of his Spirit and Word, who are changing from lawless citizens to holy servants. Man must learn to approach the Almighty God with empty hands, submitting himself to be sculptured into the perfect image of our God. This is an image before which angels will bow.
The Christian church does not have an image of God. For Him there is an empty niche among the images of apostles, prophets, and preachers. But God’s image will be seen, in apostles and prophets: in you and me!
We do not have Bible study to work on the complete and perfect image of the Lord. No, we study the Word of our God so that together we change from glory to glory, transformed in his likeness with ever increasing glory according to the image of Him who has called us in Jesus Christ.
I may conclude with an amazing and surprising promise for the future from our Lord and Saviour and I wish to pass this on for your reflection and encouragement as you meditate and take up the task again this fall: blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.