God’s Christmas Name

This is from John Frame and is originally entitled, “God in Time.”

On Christmas, we celebrate something quite wonderful: God entering our time and space. The eternal becomes temporal; the infinite becomes finite; the Word that created all things becomes flesh.

Incarnation

Oh, the mystery of it all! The one who knows all things (John 16:30, 21:17) must “grow in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). The all-sufficient one (Acts 17:25) must hunger and thirst (Matt. 4:2, John 19:28). The creator of all must be homeless (Matt. 8:20). The Lord of life must suffer and die. God in the flesh must endure estrangement from God the Father (Matt. 27:46).

In Jesus, God the Son, who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), must watch his eternal plan unfold bit by bit, moment by moment. He grows from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood, responding to events as they happen. One time he rejoices; another time he weeps. From day to day, from hour to hour, the changeless God endures change. But God the Son incarnate is still God, still transcendent. As he responds to events in time, he also looks down on the world from above time and space, ruling all the events of nature and history.

Why did God enter time in Christ? Joseph named his baby Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). It was the Father’s love (John 3:16) that sent his Son, “that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The Son of God took on the limitations of time, even death, so that we who deserve death can have life without limit, forever with God. He died in our place, that we might never die.

At the incarnation of Jesus, the angels stand amazed (Luke 2:14, Eph. 3:10, 1 Pet. 1:11-12). And at this event, non-Christian philosophers and religious teachers look on in bewilderment. In non-Christian systems of thought, it is impossible for ultimate reality to enter time and space. For the eastern religions, and for Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Gnostics, the supreme being is impersonal, and it would lose its absoluteness if it came in contact with temporal reality. For other religions and philosophies, the supreme being, if it exists at all, is the temporal world itself, or an aspect of it. For them, “god incarnate” could be at most indistinguishable from the rest of the finite world.

Only in biblical religion is there a clear affirmation of a personal God distinct from the world he has made, who is able to come into that world without compromising himself and without losing himself in the world. As incarnate, he remains fully God, and he reveals his full deity, clearly, to his creatures, even amid all the mysteries I mentioned earlier. But this means that only in Scripture do we learn of a God who loves us so much, so wonderfully, so powerfully, that he enters time on our behalf and stands strong to win God’s battle in history against Satan and sin.

Theophany

The incarnation is wonderful, and absolutely unique. Only once did God become a man. He remains God and man forever (Col. 2:9, Heb. 7:24). He became man once, that we might be saved from sin once for all.

But the incarnation was not the first occasion on which God entered time. Scripture records other times when God met human beings in history: with Adam and Eve in the Garden, with Noah, with the patriarchs and Moses, with Isaiah in the temple, and so on. He appeared to Israel in the wilderness, in the cloud and the fire, for over forty years. His glory descended upon the tabernacle and the temple.

These events, that theologians call “theophanies” (“appearances” of God), are not incarnations. In them, God does not become flesh forever, to die for sins and rise to glory. But they are similar to the incarnation of Jesus in some ways. Certainly, they are mysterious. As in Jesus, God in theophany enters a historical process, a series of events. He becomes an actor in his own historical drama.

In Isaiah 6, God watches and listens to the angels sing his praises. He waits until they are done. Then he hears Isaiah’s repentance, observes his symbolic cleansing (6-7), speaks to Isaiah, hears his reply (8) and continues the conversation (9-13). God acts in time, responding to each event as it comes, doing what is appropriate at each moment. He changes, in a way: for at one time he listens; at another he speaks. He changes, though he is unchangeable (James 1:17).

In Ex. 32, Israel rebels against God by worshipping a golden calf. God threatens to destroy them and replace them with a new nation, made up of Moses himself and his descendants (verse 10). But Moses intercedes: Lord, remember your promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God “relents” (verse 14). He does not destroy Israel, though he they do feel his wrath. Here we see how God in theophany accomplishes his eternal plan: through dialogue with a man. He first states an initial intention (a statement of what Israel actually deserves), but then, in response to Moses’ intercession, promises mercy instead. Mercy was always his eternal plan; but he also planned to bring that mercy through human prayer, not without it. Before Moses’ prayer, only judgment was in order. Through a give-and-take between God and Moses, the Lord works out his eternal intention.

In theophany, God, whose eternal plan brings all things to pass (Eph. 1:11), awaits events that he has foreordained. He accomplishes his will, not instantaneously, but by a process. He accomplishes his will in time by becoming an actor in the historical drama of which he himself is the author. He does not hasten to bring it to an end, as he well might. As in the incarnation, he responds to events as they happen. Once he speaks of grace and blessing, another time of judgment. He speaks and acts appropriately as he responds to each situation. In these ways, the mysteries of theophany are similar to those of incarnation.

Temporal Omnipresence

But even incarnation and theophany together do not exhaust the mysterious ways in which God comes into time. For in a sense, God is always in time, in history. We do not hesitate to speak of God’s omnipresence in space: God is everywhere. We can never escape from his presence in blessing and judgment (Psm. 139:7-12, Jonah 1-2, Acts 17:28).  But if God is present in space, he is also present in time. If he is always here, then he is always now as well.

Israel in Egypt knew that God was God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Ex. 3:6); but, groaning under their bondage, they may well have wondered if God was still their God, still able to fulfill his promises after 400 years of silence. I believe that the mysterious name “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) is in part a response to this concern. God says to Moses, “I will be with you” (3:12), not only in the burning bush theophany, but also when Moses stands before Pharaoh to demand his people’s freedom.

He is still with us, now. Jesus said that he would be with us always (Matt. 28:20) in the Spirit (John 14:15-18). That means that God is still an actor in history, as well as transcending history. He is with me as I write, watching one moment pass into the next, responding appropriately to each event, bringing his sovereign Lordship to bear on every situation as it comes, hearing and responding to my prayers. But he is also looking down on the world from his transcendent, timelessly eternal viewpoint. He is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, he brings all things to pass according to his eternal plan. As immanent, he works in and with all things, moment by moment, to accomplish his sovereign will.

So Immanuel, God’s Christmas name, is still appropriate. Jesus’ incarnation, unique as it is, is in some respects like the way God relates to his world at all times, in all generations (Psm. 90:1). God is still an actor in our history, acting, responding, grieving, rejoicing. But he acts in history as the sovereign Lord of history.

The “open theist” movement of writers such as Gregory Boyd, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, and John Sanders, believes that if we are to do justice to the give-and-take between God and his creatures in history, we must reject God’s sovereign control over history, even his exhaustive knowledge of the future. Those conclusions do not follow logically, and they are not biblical. (I shall explore open theism in greater depth in myDoctrine of God, forthcoming from P&R Publishers.) Rather, these biblical pictures of God’s actions in time should lead us to a heightened view of God’s sovereignty. Our God is one who can and does accomplish his sovereign will, not only “from above,” by his eternal decrees, but also “from below,” by making all things work together for his good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Even God’s apparent defeats in history are the outworkings of his eternal plan. In the very death of Jesus for our sins, God was acting in time to bring his sovereign purpose to pass (Acts 2:23).

So Christmas reveals in a wonderful way that God acts in time as well as above it. It shows us wonderfully how God relates to us, not only as a mysterious being from another realm, but as a person in our own time and place: interacting with us, hearing our prayers, guiding us step by step, chastising us with fatherly discipline, comforting us with the wonderful promises of the blessings of Christ. Truly he is Immanuel, the God who is really with us, who is nonetheless eternally the sovereign Lord of all.

Surrounded by Insanity

This weekend I listened to Tim Conway teach from Hebrews 11:6 which reads as follows: 

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

While my wife and I listened to the sermon, I commented that the very first sermon I ever preached over 30 years ago was from this passage.  I look back on that now and cannot believe how badly I mangled the text.  Isn’t God gracious? 

I’ve heard it said over the years that the 3 laws of real estate are “Location, Location, Location.”  If you get the right location, you end up with a valuable piece of real estate.  Similar, but much more important, are what I call the 3 laws of the Bible, “Context, Context, Context!”  My mangling of the text 30 years ago was mainly due to the fact that I took the text out of the context it is in.  Now, my sermon didn’t go down the road of what is called the “Prosperity Gospel” that was so prevalent in the early 1980’s, because even then, I knew something was wrong with that, but it was not what it should have been.

Look back in verse 4 and you will read that:

By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.”

Men have been giving offerings since the fall in the garden.  Some have been accepted of God, most have not and the question is why.  Let’s go back to Genesis 4 where we read:

Cain-AbleSo it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
  Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” So the LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.
  Then Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

According to this narrative, Cain and Able brought their offerings “at the appointed time:  Abel brought ‘fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock’, for he was a shepherd, and Cain, who was an agriculturist, brought ‘some of the fruits of the soil’.  While each offering was appropriate to their respective vocations, the biblical text states that ‘The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor’”.[1]   John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis 4 says:  “God is said to have respect unto the man to whom he vouchsafes his favor. We must, however, notice the order here observed by Moses; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him. And no wonder; for man sees things which are apparent, but God looks into the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7) therefore, he estimates works no otherwise than as they proceed from the fountain of the heart. Whence also it happens, that he not only rejects but abhors the sacrifices of the wicked, however splendid they may appear in the eyes of men. For if he, who is polluted in his soul, by his mere touch contaminates, with his own impurities, things otherwise pure and clean, how can that but be impure which proceeds from himself?” So what was it that caused God to look on in favor of Able and disfavor of Cain?  While I have heard time and again that the reason was because Cain didn’t bring an animal sacrifice, scripture does not explicitly state that.  If we turn back to Hebrews 11 and look at the context, I think we could come to a different conclusion.

Hebrews 11:6b states: “for he who comes to God must believe that He is.”  According to F. F. Bruce, “Belief in the invisible spiritual order involves, first and foremost, belief in him who is ‘King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God’ (1 Tim 1:17); and belief in God carries with it necessarily belief in his word.  It is not belief in the existence of a God that is meant, but belief in the existence of the God who once declared his will to the fathers through the prophets and in these last days has spoken in his Son.” Basically, we have to have a correct view of God.  This is where Cain failed.  He, just like many today, invented God in his own image, which is why his offering was rejected.

What is amazing is that Cain had a discourse with God.  He actually talked with God.  But Cain did not believe what God had revealed Himself to be.  Paul makes this same indictment in Romans 1:18-31.  God’s wrath is revealed to man because men suppress the truth of God’s righteousness.  God’s righteousness is evident because God made it evident!  But because man refuses to see God as He is, Paul says 3 times that “God gave them over.” 

Abraham SacrificeIn Hebrews 11:8, we start reading about Abraham and his faith.  Think about it for a moment; God told Abraham to take his son, his only son, the son who was to be the heir of Abraham that would be a blessing to the nations, and sacrifice him.  The next day, according to Genesis 22:3, Abraham set off to obey the command of the Lord.  As Abraham and Isaac walked alone up Mount Moriah, Isaac asked where the offering was and Abraham said, by faith, “God will provide for Himself the lamb.”  Abraham, even with all his faults and sins, had a proper perspective of who God is and that God is faithful to what He had revealed about himself.  Even to the point of believing that God would resurrect Isaac if need be to fulfill His promise to Abraham.

I say all of this to say that our perspective of God needs to be faithful and true to what God has revealed about Himself in His Word.  If we major on just one attribute to the detriment of all that are revealed in Scripture, we will have a flawed view of God.  There are those that say God is a God of love, and He is.  But love requires justice.  There are those who say that God is a God of blessings, and again, He is.  But He is also a God who is ruthless in His desire to be glorified and honored and He will strip everything away if that is what needs to be done so that one might acknowledge Him properly. Nebuchadnezzar, learned this by spending 7 years living like a beast of the field only to finally acknowledge and bless the “Most High” (Dan 4:34-35).

God is sovereign and He will share his glory with no other.  We who call upon his name must realize this and the implications that come along with it.  We must study the attributes of God!  We must acknowledge that at times the attributes of God are not easy to accept and cause us to chafe.  But, to ignore them is to our peril.  So many times we think ignorance is bliss and sometimes that is true.  But when it comes to eternity, ignorance will lead you straight into hell.  God has revealed himself to man and for man to remain willfully ignorant is insanity, which, by definition, is what most people in this world are.


[1] O’Brien, P. T. The Letter To The Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. 403. Print.

A special thanks goes out to Pastor Kent Harding of Sovereign Grace Reformed Church for graciously proofing this for me!