Here, There and Everywhere: The Doctrine of God's Omnipresence
Psalm 139:7-12The scene: A young boy and his mother are having a serious discussion over lunch one day. “Where is God?” he asks innocently. “He’s in heaven,” his mother replies. “Does He live there?” “Yes.” “Where’s Jesus?” “He’s in your heart.” “But I thought Jesus and God were the same Person.” “They are.”
“How can he be in heaven and in my heart at the same time?” “Sweetheart, it’s hard to explain.” A short pause. “Where does the Holy Spirit live?” Another short pause. “I think it’s time to take a nap.”
Thus we are introduced to one of the more difficult doctrines of the Bible—the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. “Where is God?” This is a very important question. The seeker wants to know … and so does the skeptic … and so does the guilty sinner so he can run the other way. And so does every hurting person who feels abandoned by the Almighty. “Where is God when I need Him?”
The “Omni” Attributes
There are three attributes of God that should always be kept together in your mind. They naturally go together since each begins with the four-letter prefix “omni": Omniscience/ Omnipotence/ Omnipresence. The first means that God is all-knowing, the second that he is all-powerful, the third that he is present everywhere.
Tony Evans comments that these three attributes work in tandem:
He knows what needs to be done—that’s omniscience.
He has the power to do it—that’s omnipotence.
He’s always wherever he needs to be to do whatever needs to be done— that’s omnipresence.
Omnipresence is the hardest for us to grasp. We can only be one place at one time, but God is everywhere at the same time. Our problem is that we have nothing to compare to it. Is God all powerful? Yes, and we can slightly grasp that concept because we have power and strength. Is God all wise? Yes, and we can conceive of that on some level because we have wisdom and knowledge.
But there is no sense in which we are can be present everywhere! We can’t even be two places at once—a fact that we sometimes forget. For that reason omnipresence is mysterious to us.
Satan is Not Omnipresent
But we’re not alone in this. Only God is omnipresent. All other beings are restricted to a given place at a given time. When I preached this sermon, I comment that the angels and demons can only be one place at one time. I also pointed out that Satan is also limited. He is not omnipresent. That thought apparently was new to many people. They had somehow conceived of Satan as being like a “junior God” who could do everything God could do, only at a lower level. But a moment’s thought will show the impossibility of that notion. Either you are omnipotent or you are not. There is no such thing as being 90% omnipotent, or 60% omniscient for that matter. By the same token—and even more obviously—either you are present everywhere all the time or you are not. There is no such thing as “partial omnipresence.” Because Satan is a created being, he is limited and localized in the spirit realm, as are all the angels and demons. This should give comfort to those who feel overwhelmed by attacks they believe to be Satanic in nature. While we would surely agree that Satan works today through a vast array of spirit beings who work his infernal will, he himself is no more omnipresent than you or I.
Not a 99% God!
In his classic seven-volume Systematic Theology, Lewis Sperry Chafer advanced the following argument for omnipresence. He said in essence that God’s perfection demands it. If we could conceive of even a tiny portion of the universe where God is not present, then we might conceive of a being in that locality who is greater than God himself. Some years ago a certain brand of soap advertised itself as “99 and 44/100th pure.” But God knows no such sliding scale with regard to himself. A 99% God is no God at all! If your God is not present everywhere in the universe, then he is not the God of the Bible.
That leads me to offer this simple definition of omnipresence (courtesy of John Bisagno): “The Lord Our God is everywhere at once.” He is everywhere present all the time. That is a truly awesome thought.
Most people are not comfortable with an omnipresent God. That’s why they have idols. They want a god they can see and feel and touch. A god they can understand. A god they can control. A god made by their own hands.
But you can’t fully understand the God of the Bible. And you certainly can’t control him.
God is Not Limited by time or space
Perhaps the greatest statement of omnipresence is found in the inspiring words of Psalm 139:7-12.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
As David contemplates how God knows him inside and out, he wonders where he might go to hide from the Lord. Heaven, hell, east, west, the far side of the ocean—it doesn’t matter for the Lord is already there. What about the darkness of the night? The darkness will not deter God, for “darkness is as light to you.”
There are several important implications of this truth. First, God cannot be contained in a building. Solomon said as much in the dedication of the First Temple in Jerusalem. Sometimes I hear well-meaning people call the church the “house of God,” as if his presence somehow specially dwells in a building made by the hands of man. But a church is not a holy place in the sense that the temple was a holy place. Today God dwells among his people and in his people wherever they are and wherever they go.
Second,God cannot be localized in a city or a nation. This truth should keep us from boasting too much in our supposed moral superiority. God is not an American nor does he exist to defend and perpetuate our form of government.
Third, God cannot be reduced to an image or a statue. This is why the Second Commandment warns against making “graven images.” It is also why the Jews refused to make any pictures, drawings or statutes of God. The danger of idolatry is so great that J. I. Packer in Knowing God warns against the danger of religious pictures, even innocent drawings of Jesus. The truth is, we don’t know what he looked like and any picture or statues meant as an “aid to devotion” may somehow lead to superstitious worship.
Fourth, he is always present whether we believe it or not. In the early days of space travel, one of the Russian cosmonauts returned from orbiting the earth to announce that he had looked out his space capsule and had not seen God anywhere. To which Dr. W. A. Criswell of the First Baptist Church of Dallas replied, “Let him take off his space suit for just one second and he’ll see God quick enough.”
Fifth, he is present even in the worst moments of life. God’s omnipresence means that he is there in the midst of suffering, pain, sickness, sorrow, anger, grief, bitterness, divorce, betrayal, murder, rape, sexual abuse, cancer, AIDS, abortion, warfare, famine, earthquakes, fires, floods, every natural disaster, accidents, personal loss, and at the moment of death.
Sixth, he is always available to us wherever we go, 24 hours a day. We always have his full attention, we don’t have to make an appointment, he’s never too busy to hear us when we pray, he’s never preoccupied with other problems. Can you imagine what it would be like if we prayed only to have a angel tell us, “I’m sorry, but God is busy handling a major crisis in the Middle East. Leave your name and number and someone will get back to you as soon as possible.” That will never happen because all of God is completely available to you no matter where you are. Though there be a thousand wars in a thousand places, our God hears you as if you were the only one praying.
Seventh, we may rely fully on him no matter how desperate our situation may be. This week I spoke with two of our senior adults. One has just been diagnosed with cancer. When I talked with her, she said, “Pastor, don’t worry about me. The Lord has been so good to me.” She’s 80 years old. Later I spoke with a woman who is 90, very weak and frail and eager to go to heaven. Her voice quivered, but her faith was strong. “I’m just trusting in the Lord,” she told me. These dear saints have learned through a lifetime of walking with God that he will never leave them for he is always present with his people.
God is always present everywhere in the universe
Most of us struggle to understand omnipresence because it is so foreign to our experience. The doctrine teaches us that God is wholly present everywhere. “God is not like a substance spread out in a thin layer all over the earth—all of Him is in Chicago, in Calcutta, in Cairo, and in Caracas, at one and the same time” (Paul Little). God’s presence is not like a layer of peanut butter on a piece of bread. All of God is completely present at every point in the universe all the time. He is present as fully as though He were nowhere else. Furthermore, his presence extends to all three Persons of the Godhead. That’s a relief because what if I needed to talk to Jesus and found out that he was over in Indonesia and wouldn’t be back in Oak Park for a month? Or what if the Spirit were in South Dakota when someone needed him in Turkey? Thank God, all three Persons of the Trinity are everlastingly available to all the children of God.
I have already commented that he is present even though we do not realize it. One writer said that God’s presence is like the air we breathe. Air is odorless, tasteless, invisible (when it’s not polluted). Most of the time we don’t even think about the air we breathe, yet we depend on it for our very existence. Even so God’s presence is everywhere with us, and if it were withdrawn, none of us could survive for even one moment.
Or consider radio waves. They are invisible yet everywhere. We don’t realize that in this room there are thousands of signals floating through the air. Microwave, short wave, AM-FM, TV, cellular phone, CB, police, fire, ultra-low frequency and ultra-high frequency. Tens of thousands of signals float through the ether all around us. They are there all the time. We aren’t aware of them because we don’t have a receiver tuned in to the right frequency. Likewise, God is always there, but we’re not tuned in to his frequency so we don’t sense his presence all the time.
God can be ignored but he cannot be avoided
You can ignore God but you can’t avoid him. This should be a serious warning to the unconverted. That’s why Genesis 16:13 calls him (in Hebrew) El Roi, which means The God Who Sees. At the end of this age, in those terrible days leading up to the return of Christ, the unconverted will suddenly realize the error of their ways. But then it will be too late. Revelation 6:15-17 describes the scene:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?
Think of it! Every sin you commit is committed in the presence of God. He hears every white lie, he knows when you cheat on your taxes, he listens when you swear under your breath, he takes note of every broken promise, he records the evil men do under cover of darkness.
Jesus Makes People Nervous
You can’t avoid him even if you try. This week I heard from a couple in our church whose children attend the local public schools. One of their sons had to write an essay about a person in the past who changed the world for the better. When he chose Jesus, the teacher said he had to pick another person because to write about Jesus you have to use the Bible and she said it wasn’t a trustworthy historical document. Now, before I say anything else, let me remark that the teacher was simply showing her ignorance. Her comments were pure prejudice—nothing more. I seriously doubt she has ever read the Bible. Even the secular experts agree that it is the most trustworthy ancient book in the world.
So the parents protested, called the principal, played phone tag with the principal, and then earlier this week the teacher relented under pressure. In fact, the principal said she thought it was marvelous that a young boy should know so much about his faith. When I discussed it with the mother, I asked what would have happened if one of the students had volunteered to write about Mohammed? Or Buddha? That would be okay, but not Jesus. “Jesus makes people nervous,” she said. Yes, he does.
You can ignore him but you can’t avoid him! Every time you write 1997 you are giving testimony to his power. All history is divided by his birth.
God promises to draw near to anyone who will draw near to him
God is always near his people. This promise is repeated many places in scripture. Hebrews 13:5b says, ‘‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” In Matthew 28:20b Jesus promised, “I am with you always."And in Deuteronomy 31:6, as he was nearing the end of his long life, Moses reminded his people, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
In our worship services we sometimes have a prayer called an “invocation,” which means we pray and invite God’s presence in our midst. Now I know what is meant by that. We are praying for God’s manifest or powerful presence in our midst. However, I do think it’s good to remember that we don’t have to ask God to be with us because he is always with us. We don’t have to “invoke” God’s presence. He’s already here!
The Bible also tells us that he draws near to us in times of pain and suffering. Psalm 34:18 tells us that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Many of God’s choicest servants have experienced God’s powerful, uplifting presence in the midst of unspeakable sorrow. Often they look back later and marvel at how God brought them through when their own resources completely failed.
“Open His Eyes, Lord”
He is also near when we least expect him. In this regard I often think of Elisha and his scared servant at Dothan. Second Kings 6:8-18 tells how the mighty armies of Aram had completely surrounded the people of God at Dothan. When his servant saw the enemy drawn up on every side, he cried out in fear, “What will we do?” Elisha told him not to fear because, “those that are with us are more than those who are with them” (v. 16). Then Elisha prayed that the servant’s eyes might be supernaturally opened. They were, and as he looked up, he “saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17).
Something like that needs to happen to many of us. We need a glimpse of God’s presence all around us—even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Maybe you don’t need a new neighborhood or a new job or a new school. You need to see the angels of God surrounding you right now!
We also know that he draws near to those who approach him in humble faith. In Psalm 145:18 we read that “the Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” James 4:8 challenges us to “come near to God and He will come near to you.” To quote Tony Evans once again, “God is with you if you are with God! If you are far from God today, who moved? He’s right where he always said he would be. If you aren’t conscious of his presence, perhaps it’s because you have moved away from him.”
“When John Comes Home”
There is one final promise we need to remember. This is the most important promise of all. He promises to walk with us in the hour of death.
You will not pass across the threshold of death alone. In one of his sermons Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrated that truth this way. Think about a mother with son serving in the military. She doesn’t know when he’ll be home, so she constantly speaks of him this way: “When John comes home, he’ll fix the window shade.” “When John comes home, he’ll plant the garden,” “When John comes home, he’ll sit in his favorite chair and eat dinner with the whole family.” Why the third person? Why does she say “he” and not “you"? Because John isn’t home yet!
But when he finally comes home and she sees him for the first time, she cries, “John, you’re home.” Why the change from “he” to “you"? Because John has come through the door.
Now listen to these familiar words: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:1-4). Why the change from “he” to “you"? Because even though the Lord is with us every day, we don’t always feel his presence right beside us. But in the moment of death, we are not left alone. The Lord Jesus comes for us and walks with us across the Great Divide. Thank God, I do not have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone. For he comes, he enters the room, the stands by the bedside, he reaches down and takes my trembling hand, and he walks with me from this life into life eternal.
The Best Part of the 23rd Psalm
The best two words in Psalm 23 are two little words in verse 4: “You are with me.” The shepherd is no longer up ahead leading the flock. The valley is too dark for that. Now he is walking with us, step by step, walking side by side reassuring his sheep by his calm presence.
If God is with us, we have nothing to fear.
Death casts a frightening shadow over all of life. Visit any hospital or nursing home and you will see the fear on the faces of the patients. Go to a funeral and watch the faces of the mourners. One reason we hate funerals is because we don’t want to face the truth of our own mortality.
We can struggle with many other enemies but we can’t struggle with death. The grim reaper wins every time.
We’ll all eventually go through the valley of the shadow of death. We need a guide to help us find our way through that land of darkness to the light on the other side. Where will we find a guide who can take us through that valley? We’ve got to find someone who’s been there before, who’s gone through himself, who can take us by the hand and lead us where he’s already been.
The Guide We Need
Who can we get? Where can we find a guide like that? His name is Jesus! He’s been there before. He knows the way through. He’s been to the light on the other side and he’ll come for us.
But thank God, we don’t walk through that valley alone. Jesus will walk with us. He’ll lead us through to the other side.
Deep in my soul, I believe that the saints of God have nothing to fear in the moment of death. Though it may not be pleasant or painless, though it comes after long suffering or in a fiery crash, the moment itself will be filled with joy as the Lord himself escorts God’s children through the darkest valley of all. At that moment, all other guides must turn back. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can help us through. And he does.
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