What does God look like?

Essential truths about the attributes of God

How often have we heard people describe a church building as the ‘house of God’? Most people would consider a church to be so. But does God really live in church buildings?

God is not confined to a place

Preaching to Greek philosophers on Mars Hill, the apostle Paul said, ‘God that made the world … dwelleth not in temples made with hands’, Acts 17. 24. The Samaritans believed that the worship of God was confined to one place, ‘Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye (the Jews) say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship’, John 4. 20. The Lord, however, taught that God, being spirit, can be worshipped anywhere and everywhere. Solomon, who built the first temple dedicated to the worship of the one true God, admitted this to God. ‘Will God indeed dwell upon the earth? behold, the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?’, 1 Kgs. 8. 27. The Bible quite clearly teaches, therefore, that God does not dwell in temples or churches. They may be places for divine worship, but they are not places of divine residence.

Objection 1: The Temple was called the House of God

But surely the tabernacle and the temple were known as the house of God? God told Moses to ‘make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among’ the people. When at last the tabernacle was finished a cloud, the shekinah glory, covered it symbolizing God’s presence in the midst of His people. That same shekinah cloud filled Solomon’s temple, God showing His acceptance of it, too, as the place where He was to put His name forever – the place where His people were to worship Him and that would be identified with Him. The cloud ‘filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord’. Yet that did not mean God’s presence was confined there. But didn’t God say, ‘Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all peoples’, Isa. 56. 7? Yes, it was His house. Yet Ezekiel the prophet saw the shekinah glory lift from Solomon’s temple and disappear into heaven. God had withdrawn the symbol of His presence from His sinful people. The temple was no longer the house of God. The Lord referred to it in Matthew 23. 38 as ‘your house’ (the Jews’). Today the ‘house of God’ is ‘the church of the living God’, but that church is not the building; it is the assembly of His people, 1 Tim. 3. 15.

God is not confined to a territory

One of the pagan ideas is that gods are territorial. The gods of the Egyptians had power in Egypt, the gods of the Philistines were believed to hold sway in Philistia and so on. Naaman had this belief, which is why he asked for two measures of Israelite earth to take back to Assyria so that he could worship the God of the Israelites on His soil, 2 Kgs. 5. 17-19. Yet God set out to prove to His people and the heathen that He had power anywhere and everywhere. Were His people in slavery in Egypt, a foreign land whose people worshipped heathen gods? God would take on those heathen gods in their very own territory and prove their power was imaginary. Did the Egyptians worship Ra, the god of the sun? Then God would bring darkness over the whole land. Did they worship the Nile god? Then He would turn the waters of the Nile into blood. One by one as the plagues advanced upon the Egyptians they began to realize that the God of these Hebrews was more powerful than their own gods in their own land. When the people of God came out of Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years, was God able to look after them in a land that belonged to no one? Yes. He gave them manna to eat every day, quails for meat and water gushing out from a rock. In fact, during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness as a punishment for their disbelief, God still ensured that their shoes did not wear out and their clothes did not get old. Would the Philistines capture the symbol of God’s presence with His people, and place it before a statue of their god Dagon, as a trophy of his victory over the God of the Hebrews? Then He would ensure that they would find the statue of their god Dagon flat on the floor before the ark in an act of worship to God. Eventually, many years later, when they were punished again for constant disobedience to His word and rejection of His prophets, He sent many of His people into captivity in Babylon. Was He able to look after them there, in the land of the all-powerful Babylonians and their gods? Of course He was. He would shut the lions’ mouths when His servants were thrown into the lions’ den, and then He would open those mouths so that His people’s enemies were eaten before they even touched the bottom of the pit. He would make sure that three young men who were thrown into a furnace so that they would be burned alive would come out unsinged and without even the smell of smoke on them. He is the Most High, who rules in the kingdom of men, Dan. 4. 25. He is the God of the whole earth, dwelling nowhere in particular, yet being everywhere at all times. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein’, Psalm 24. 1.

God is everywhere

So God is neither confined to a temple nor to a territory. God rebuked His Old Testament people through his prophet Jeremiah. They seemed to think He did not see them. ‘Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ Jer. 23. 23.God is spirit, and being spirit He is everywhere. David wrote, ‘whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell (the place of the dead), behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’, Ps. 139. 7. God, then, is omnipresent (present everywhere). He fills heaven and earth. Being omnipresent, God is immanent, or near to us all. He is ‘not far from any one of us’, Acts 17. 17. He has not, as someone once said, made a watch, wound it up, left it ticking and walked away from it. God is in His creation. Yet, although He is in His creation (immanent) He is not part of His creation. He is, in other words, transcendent, or separate from His creation. Although He is everywhere He is not anywhere in particular. He is in His world but He is separate from His world. He is in His creation but He is not His creation. God is not a tree, neither is He in a tree. He is not a stone nor is He in a stone. The Bible does not teach animism. God is in His world but He is not His world. He is separate from it. The Bible would also teach us that the whole of God is present everywhere at the same time. In other words, it is not true to say that God is everywhere, filling heaven and earth, but only part of Him is here and another part of Him is there. The whole of God is present everywhere at the same time. Our Lord said to us, ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations … and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the earth’. He says, ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee’. To a local assembly, the Lord says, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’. The Lord is with all His people and with every assembly gathered in His name. He does not say that only a part of Him is there, but He Himself is present.

Objection 2: People left God’s presence

But some will say, This is all very well. Yet didn’t Cain ‘go out from the presence of the Lord’? Gen. 4. 16. And surely we read of Jonah that ‘he rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’, Jonah 1. 3. How then can it be said that God is everywhere if it is possible to go out from His presence? The phrase, ‘the presence of the Lord’ used in such a way as this can mean the place where He was being worshipped or where He was speaking to someone. It could have been that God sought Cain out to speak to him and Cain then left that place in a state of rebellion and defiance of God. Jonah may well have been meditating when the command of God came to him and he left the place of communion with the Lord, refusing in his heart to obey. Yet the phrase also implies that both Cain and Jonah turned their backs on God, and went out from the felt presence of the Lord. They were not going to do what God had expected or commanded them to do. There is a difference between the actual presence of the Lord and the felt presence of the Lord. Listen to Jacob, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and, I knew it not’, Gen. 28. 16. It is possible so to be taken up with one thing and another, or so to be occupied with sin, that though God is present we are not aware of it. It happened to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus whose eyes were ‘holden’ so that they did not know the Lord was with them. In another sense as we can withdraw ourselves from the consciousness of God’s presence, He also can withdraw the consciousness of His presence from us. When God withdraws or withholds the consciousness of His presence it is usually in discipline because of our sin. Eternal punishment, for instance, is ‘everlasting destruction [away] from the presence of the Lord’, 2 Thess. 1. 9. Conversely, the conscious presence of the Lord brings blessing.Moses longed to know God was with the people to bless them, which is why he pleaded with God, ‘If Thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence’, Exod. 33. 15. God’s word had been, ‘My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest’, Gen. 33.14. Surely God was already there where they were going? Yes, but it is His felt presence Moses longed for, His presence to bless. It is the consciousness of His presence that we long for in our everyday living and as assemblies of God’s people when we meet together. We should not, therefore, pray, ‘Lord be with so and so’. He is with them. We ought rather to pray, ‘Lord, make Thy presence real to them’.

God’s glory and holiness is concentrated in heaven

Yet surely the Lord Himself taught that God’s home is in heaven? Yes, He did. He taught His disciples to pray, ‘Our Father which art in heaven’, Matt. 6. 9 He himself referred to God as ‘my Father which is in heaven’, Matt. 10. 32. God Himself says, ‘The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool’, Isa. 66. 1. Psalm 8 says He has ‘set [his] glory above the heavens’. Solomon asked God to ‘hear in heaven thy dwelling place and forgive’, 1 Kgs. 8. 30. This implies that God dwells in heaven. It is there that His glory shines in all its undimmed brightness. However, the truth that God’s dwelling place is in heaven should not be held to mean God is not also in the earth. He is omnipresent.

God lives in the hearts of His children

Yet there is another residence that God has that is not in heaven but down here on earth. He said, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place with him that is of a contrite and a humble spirit’, Isa. 57.15. Our Lord said He and His Father would make their abode with the one who loves and is obedient to God, John 14. 23. Now that’s grace! To think that God will dwell with us. But there is even more. In Colossians 1 we read of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’. In Ephesians 3. 17 it is Paul’s prayer ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith’. Christ in us, not just with us? Even so. 1 Corinthians 6. 19 tells us ‘your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit’. ‘Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world’, 1 John 4. 4. Will God condescend to live in the hearts of repentant, believing, regenerated sinners? He will, and does. So what should that lead us to do? Be proud? No. Live holy lives. ‘Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s,’1 Cor. 6. 19.Do the things that please God, and do not live according to the lusts and pleasures of the body. ‘They that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you … and if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin’, Rom 8. 9-11. In other words, God dwelling in us is such a precious truth that we ought to do with our bodies what will please Him rather than what will please us and grieve Him. Where does God live? He is everywhere, filling heaven and earth. His throne is in heaven, His home, where no sin can dim the brightness of His glory. Yet He condescends to dwell not just with, but in the hearts of all who love, serve and seek to please Him. What great grace!