One of the most important lectures in our lecture series is the lesson we call “The Nature of God” or “What Is God?” The significance of this lesson is that if we correctly understand what God is we must break free of all anthropomorphic (human-like) properties and understand that God is not a human, nor does he have the limitations or properties of humans. Isaiah says it well in Isaiah 55:8 – 9, “ ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ ”
A part of our struggle involves the very nature of what the Bible calls “the Godhead” (see Acts 17:29; Romans 1:20; and Colossians 2:9). Jesus told his followers in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We are told in John 1:14 that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” and verse one of that chapter tells us that the “Word was God.”
Theologians have done all kinds of contortions trying to put this concept together in an understandable way. It is a complex subject, but denying what the Bible says is not a valid means of understanding it. Some teachers simply deny that Jesus was what John says he was. Some translations of the Bible have even changed the wording of John 1 so that Jesus can be written off as a created being, not God himself. Other denominations have embraced the idea that Jesus became divine at the baptism of John, but prior to that he was just a normal mortal — thus denying the virgin birth. Strange interpretations of the nature of the Holy Spirit have also been generated by people struggling with the nature of God. We certainly do not pretend to have all the answers here, but there are several things that may be helpful from an apologetic approach to this question.
Let us first point out that the beginning of this whole question starts in the second Hebrew word of the first verse of Genesis. “In the beginning God … .” The word translated “God” in this verse is the Hebrew word Elohim. That word carried with it the concept of the power of God, the creative capacity of God, the wisdom of God in all that he creates — and it is a plural word! There are other words in the Hebrew language for God, but they are not used in the first chapter of Genesis. For example a word often used for God, Yahweh (YHWH), is not found in the first chapter of Genesis. In Hebrew this word is used when the subject of the passage is connected with the promises of God. You will find it used in the second chapter when the thrust of the chapter is the promise of marriage (see Genesis 2:24) and how God planned marriage to bring blessings to man and woman. Another Hebrew word for God is El, the singular form of Elohim. But the first chapter of Genesis consistently uses the plural concept. (See Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … ” [emphasis mine].)
The biblical concept of God is not that there are many gods, but that God has a make-up that involves three separate entities comprising the one God. We too have different entities that allow us to be human. The Bible tells us that we have a body that is made of the “dust of the earth.” In Genesis 2:7 we are told God formed (yatshir) man from the dust of the earth. We are also told we have the breath of life — nephesh in the Hebrew (also in verse 7). Animals have these two components as do we, but we are finally told that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) referring to the spiritual component of man. This is what sets man apart, and what allows us to create, worship, and feel things like an awareness of self, guilt, compassion, etc. — which are not brain-related characteristics. We call this third component of humans our soul. These are not three persons, but three essential components of a complete human being.
When we look at God we see a similar kind of picture. It is worthy of note that when the Holy Spirit is referred to in the Bible, it is always in connection with action (with a verb). Genesis 1:2 tells us that “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Genesis 6:3 says, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man.” Matthew 4:1 tell us, “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit.” First Corinthians 2:10 tells us the Spirit reveals and searches. Like the word nephesh which refers to life or breath when used in reference to living things, the Holy Spirit is the action part of God. The Holy Spirit is distinct and separate from the other components of the Godhead while being an integral part of the Godhead.
The Father part of the Godhead involves those characteristics peculiar to God’s creative capacity. The wisdom, protection, power, energy, intelligence, and knowledge part of the divine is seen in the Father. Once again the comparison to man’s intellect is easy to see. We do not function by instinct. We have a capacity to control our environment and to reason and think through those problems that might threaten our existence.
The challenging part of this discussion is why Jesus is referred to as the Son of God, and what that actually means. In our July/August 2009 issue of this journal we reviewed an excellent book by Oliver Rogers titled The Faith of Christ. In this book Rogers shows us that passages like Galatians 2:16 have been corrupted by modern translations to read “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith IN Jesus Christ” when it should read “faith OF Jesus Christ” [emphasis mine]. Rogers’ point is that this mistranslation makes it sound as though we have to achieve a certain amount of faith to be saved, and the logical question is “how much is that?” “If we have a little doubt is that spiritually fatal?” (Other passages where this is an issue are Romans 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:20; 3:22; and Philippians 3:9.) God is the only agent by which we obtain salvation — not how much faith we have. We do not earn heaven; we rely upon Jesus to provide salvation.
Jesus Christ is God as John 1 says, but his nature and his role in all things are special. John 1:14 says that God became flesh. John the apostle alludes to this in John 3:31– 36, “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. … The Father loves the Son, and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, … .” Colossians 1:16 –17 says, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
A human is not a human unless all three parts of the human nature are present — a body, life breath, and the soul. The Elohim of Genesis 1 involves not just the wisdom, power, strength, intelligence, and energy to accomplish the creation, but also the characteristics seen in Jesus Christ. These involve love, beauty, nurturing, protecting, caring, feeding, shaping, cleansing, and guiding all that happens. Raw power and intelligence and the capacity to actively forge physical things is not all there is to our existence. In Acts 17:24 – 30 Paul describes man’s relationship to Elohim and says “ ‘in him we live and move and have our being, … ‘we are his offspring.’ ” In the incredible Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – 7 Jesus repeatedly calls to mind the mechanical, physical things of the creation and of man’s interaction with them and with his fellow man by saying, “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you … .” In each case man is called to those characteristics of God which Jesus brings to mankind.
God came to the earth in the form of flesh — a human being. That being came from the action and the power and intelligence of the Godhead, but he brought love, compassion, peace, caring, beauty, forgiveness, and all of those things that God wants us to have. It is totally appropriate that this part of the Godhead would be called “the Son of God.” Colossians 1 makes wonderful sense if we understand the role of Christ in the creation process, and what his role should be in our lives — if we will just allow it to happen.
Pictures in this article: Art Explosion by Nova Development Corporation, © 1997– 2001.