This is part three of the “Get to know God” series. Here we are considering that God is spiritual – he doesn’t have a body (sometimes called incorporeal). We’ll also look at what theologians call omnipresence, that is, being present everywhere. I know it may seem like these are big words, but I promise you, it will be worth looking into it!
So let’s start by looking at what the Bible says. After that, we’ll spend some time thinking about what it means for us.
What does the Bible say?
God is everywhere
‘Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.Jeremiah 23:24
The Bible is clear that God cannot live in a house like a human being. As the quote from Jeremiah says – God “fills heaven and earth”. God is big, filling the universe itself! This doesn’t mean that God = the Universe. Some people say that – this is known as ‘pantheism’, and the church has always condemned this as a heresy. We need to be clear from the start that God is distinct from the universe as its creator.
God sustains each part of creation moment-by-moment. A Psalm such as Psalm 104 says that God feeds the animals, watches over the seas and all creatures in them, as well as all human beings. Jesus says in Matthew 10:29 that not even a sparrow can fall to the ground outside of God’s care! It is obvious that in order to do that, God cannot be limited to one place (and time). He has to be everywhere, all at once.
God is Spirit
In John 4:24, Jesus says: “God is Spirit”. What does this mean? This is what the Bible scholar Don Carson has to say about these words:
Jesus is not suggesting that God is one spirit amongst many … In this context ‘spirit’ characterizes what God is like, in the same way that flesh, location, and corporeality characterize what human beings and their world are like … ‘God is spirit’ means that God is invisible, divine as opposed to human, life-giving and unknowable to human beings unless he chooses to reveal himself.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t say God is “a” spirit – as if he’s just one of the spiritual beings. The Bible does talk about spiritual beings elsewhere, for example Ephesians 6:12 talks about “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. There are spiritual forces in the world – good and evil. Jesus is not saying that God is simply another one of these beings!
Jesus is simply making the point that God is unlike us: we human beings have bodies, we can only be in one place at a time – we are ‘corporeal’. God, on the other hand, does not have those limitations. He is present everywhere, at every place and time. We’ll come back to this a bit later on.
God is bigger than the universe
The final thing here is that God is bigger than the universe. This is similar to the point that we’ve made before, but I think it’s worth saying explicitly. The whole universe was made at God’s command. He is far above any created thing. This often comes across in the prophets, especially Isaiah:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,Isaiah 57:15 (ESV)
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy
God dwells in eternity, he is “high and lifted up”. God isn’t just everywhere – he’s far beyond that! The nations are a “drop in a bucket” to him (Isaiah 40:15). It’s important to grasp that the universe is not stretching the limits of God’s power or where God can be – he is far bigger than that!
What does that mean for us?
We’ve thought about what the Bible says about God not having a body. Let’s spend the rest of the time thinking about what difference it makes to us. How can we live differently as Christians knowing this about God?
The first thing is as an encouragement. Wherever we are, whatever situation we’re in, we know that God will be there with us. In these beautiful words from Psalm 139, King David reflects on how wonderful it is:
Where can I go from your Spirit?Psalm 139:7-10
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.
David praises God because he knows that, wherever he goes, he can never go further than God. No place – however dark – is too dark for God to see. We cannot outrun God. Even the moon! (Did you know – one of the first things that happened on the moon was Buzz Aldrin took communion?)
And God is not just with us all the time, but he guides us and we are held in his hands. God isn’t simply some kind of travelling companion – he’s a guide, a protector, and so on. The reason that God can do all of those things is that God is everywhere, he is unlimited.
Another helpful thing here is that God is able to look after those we love even when we’re miles apart. God is able to answer prayers, even for things which are on the other side of the world. We don’t have to pray for things which are local to us! I find it a great comfort when I’m away from my family to know that they are still in God’s hands, even though they can’t be in mine.
One of the most well-known stories in the Bible is that of Jonah and the whale. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can read it in the Bible (it’s very short!) or there are lots of videos around – like this one for kids. At the start of the story, God calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh. Instead, Jonah decides to go in the opposite direction! But he soon finds out that he can’t run away from God.
I think this is an important warning for us to listen to as well: for those who love and trust God, it’s a great thing not to be able to run away from him. For those who do not love and trust God, it’s a warning. In the book of Revelation, on the day of judgement we see people trying to run away from God:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, 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 withstand it?’Revelation 6:15-17
Obviously, trying to run away from God is futile! This is because we cannot run away from God – he is everywhere.
We need to worship God ‘in spirit and truth’
Earlier on, I quoted John 4:24, where Jesus says “God is spirit”. He continues on: “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth”. That means we can’t worship God as if he is some created being. The second of the Ten Commandments expressly forbids worshipping an image of God. The reason is because God is infinitely bigger than any created thing. No statue or anything created could adequately represent God. In fact, any image of God will be a false god – something we thought about in the first session.
God wants us to worship him, but God wants us to worship him in the Spirit and in truth:
In the Spirit means that we can only come to God through the Holy Spirit. We can’t draw near to God like we would a person. With humans beings, we come near to them physically. As God doesn’t have a physical body, we can’t draw near that way! The way to draw near to God is through the Holy Spirit. When we repent of our sins and turn to Christ, when we seek to love, serve and obey God, then we draw near to God. This is how James puts it: “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8).
Because God is spirit, we can only draw near to him spiritually. It’s not about being a special place e.g. a church or the like – but we draw near to him as we seek and obey him.
In truth means that we need to take on board everything God has said to us about who he is and how he wants us to worship him. Because we can’t see God, it’s all the more important to listen to him rather than simply imagine a God! In Knowing God, Jim Packer quotes the phrase: “for the Christian, the ear is the primary sense organ”. We know about God by listening to him – through his Word, the Bible. If you want to draw near to God, you need to listen to the truth about him.
Finally: this doesn’t mean the body is bad!
One of the mistakes which I think has commonly been made over the last 2,000 years is this: “God is spiritual, and to get close to him I must get more spiritual. Therefore, I should try to avoid anything physical”. A lot of Christians through the ages have decided to be more ‘spiritual’ they should renounce all physical pleasure. Sometimes they do this in quite extreme ways, for example Simeon Stylites lived for 37 years on top of a small platform on a pillar!
The fact that God is spiritual doesn’t mean that the physical is bad. After all, God made the world! God created the world, and made it good. This is something I talk about in the first session of the What is Christianity course.
Being ‘spiritual’ is not about getting away from the physical! Rather, it is learning to use our bodies in a spiritual way. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable”. So we shouldn’t avoid anything physical altogether – far from it! Rather, with God’s help we should learn to control our bodies in a spiritual way and enjoy physical things in the way that God intended.
God loves our bodies, God loves the physical world! Being spiritual doesn’t mean being less physical, it just means being physical in the right ways. In fact, I think it means being more physical, because we see the created world as something God made to be enjoyed with him.
- Session 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism looks at the second commandment – “No images”.
- Session 20 of the Heidelberg Catechism looks at the Holy Spirit, who we’ve touched on a bit here.
- You might enjoy this chapter of Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity where he talks about ‘God is spirit’ (scroll down to part II)
- Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey is a very good book about the ways in which our society goes wrong by not loving our bodies well.
Finally, just for a bit of fun, here’s a kid’s song “God is everywhere” by Colin Buchanan…