Now we're turning in our Old Testaments to the book of Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy and chapter 29. Last Lord's Day morning we were in Exodus chapter 33, we were looking at the fact of how Moses met with God, and spoke with God as a man talks with his friend, face-to-face. And we noticed the tail-end of one of those verses that told us that Joshua the servant of Moses, his understudy - who later would become the conqueror of the promised land in conquest - was made great as he waited in the tabernacle with God, face-to-face, just as Moses, when Moses went out to deal with the children of Israel. He had not the responsibility of his forefather in the faith, but he took the time - when he had it - spending it with God and bathing in the presence of the Almighty. We looked last week at how it is so important, as we enter a study [such] as this, that we think right thoughts about God, that we learn that it is important to contemplate God. It is not left for the theologians or the 'high-browed' preachers, but it is for every child of God to come into the presence of God and learn of Him, face-to-face.
And so, as we laid the foundation last week about why we ought to contemplate God and how we contemplate God, we look at our first study on the person of God: "God Transcendent". And we are looking at chapter 29 of Deuteronomy and verse 29, and God has outlined the promises to the children of Israel in the passage that lies before us - it's the promises unto the penitent, unto those who will obey God, the children of Israel who will live by His commands and His precepts - He tells them that He will bring blessing upon them. And of course, you will know that throughout the whole of the first 5 books of the Bible that not only are the blessings of Israel outlined, but the cursings - if they do not walk in obedience and trust and obey in their God, He will curse them. And at the end of these precepts of what God will do for His people, we have in verse 29 this strange statement: "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law".
You know that the book of Deuteronomy, in its very name, is the second giving of the law to Moses. It was given there, first of all, in Exodus 20 on Mount Sinai. And what the word of God is saying here is that God has been revealed in His law - God has been revealed to men and women through the precepts that we've already read in this book, by His blessings and by His cursings. And one of the basic lessons that we learn from these words before us is that God is a holy God, that is why His law was revealed to us. He is a righteous God, His eyes cannot look upon iniquity and therefore his law portrays and conveys that truth to us. But do you see what verse 29 is saying? There are secret things that belong unto the Lord our God that we do not know. Those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children's children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. There are things that God, in His mercy and grace, has revealed unto us as His children - but there are other things, things that no man or woman, or perhaps even the angel in its height, can know.
What God has revealed to us through the word of God is staggering. It's hard even to come to grips with His revealed will, His revealed character and persons - in fact, when we read the word of God and come into a deep knowledge of who God is in all His attributes and being, we are like Isaiah, we fall at His feet and say: 'Woe is me for I am undone!'. We have that experience of Peter when he said to the Lord Jesus: 'Depart from me for I am a sinful man!'. We have the experience of the great apostle Paul: 'Who shall deliver me from this body of death?'. But to think that what has been revealed to us is very little, in comparison to what God is and the secrets that God holds within Himself about Himself. And the conclusion that we come to from a verse like this - and it seems even to be a contradiction in terms - that we, knowing God and beholding our God, enter into a journey where we begin to know the unknowable.
You remember those in Athens had, upon their temple, an altar to the 'unknown God'. And we praise God today that He is not such a God to us, for we have know Him in salvation, and - God willing - today we are knowing Him day by day in sanctification, and in a daily relationship with our Father through the Lord Jesus Christ. But yet, in a small measure, because the secret things belong unto the Lord our God - in a great measure He is still an unknown God. There are many paradoxes in scripture and this indeed is one of them: that we can know many things about God, yet there are still things that we do not know about Him. As you read these first 5 books of the Bible, you read of Jacob and Moses, and both of them are said on different occasions to have seen God face-to-face. Moses, in the tent of meeting; Jacob, as he wrestled with God. We read last week in Exodus 33 and verse 20, God said to Moses: 'Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live'. So you've a paradox right away - Jacob says that this place shall be called 'Peniel', for here where I wrestled I saw God face-to-face; Moses, in the tent of meeting, it says he saw God face-to-face and talked with Him face-to-face as a man with his friend. Yet in the same passage, you read in verse 20, that God said: 'Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live'. You remember the angel of God appearing to Samson's future mother and father, and Manoah's wife was barren. And one day an angel appeared unto them and promised them the birth of Samson, who would be a conqueror and a deliverer in the land. Manoah asked him his name and he refused to disclose his name to him, and you remember the story goes that, after the angel ascended into the flame above the altar, that Manoah despaired to his wife and turned around and cried - you read it in Judges 13:22 - 'We shall surely die because we have seen God'.
You see, to see God was death! To see God was fatal because God was such an 'other' one, so beyond us, so above us, something that we cannot understand or grasp in all of His power and being, that in the mind of Manoah, he knew - without an Old Testament or a New Testament - that to see God is to die. Indeed it's cemented for us in the New Testament - 1 John 4 and verse 12, John says: 'No man hath seen God at any time' - so you have a paradox, don't you?. Men who we read of seeing God - Jacob, Moses - talking to God, wrestling with God and perhaps in God's will in the weeks that lie ahead, we will look into that great paradox of how men could be said to see God and know God in this way, yet no man can see God and live.
The scriptures are full of paradoxes and mysteries. That is why I want to pause here for a moment and say, as Paul said to Timothy, without controversy: 'Great is the mystery of godliness'. There is a danger in the age in which we live that we bring everything down to a manageable level, where we feel that we have got God in a box, that we can understand Him, we can define Him, we can speak of all His attributes and his persons that are revealed to us - yet, in depth, we forget that the secret things belong unto our God and there is a measure of mystery and paradox in God. Let us never lose the mystery of God. Is that part of our problem today: that we have lost the awe and the reverence of the unknown? Those secret things that no man can know, that great glory of God that no man can see and live, that great person of God that no human mind can hold and sustain. Old W.P. Nicholson said that today's society spells God with a small 'G' and man with a capital 'M'. And if I can say anything to you this morning, especially to the young people, it's this: have high thoughts of God! Don't reduce God down to your level, don't push God into your understanding - and beware when contemplating and thinking about God that you do not strip God of the great mystery of His godliness.
The transcendence of God simply means that God is above us, that God is beyond us, He is unreachable in His character and in His person. It simply means that He excels us, He surpasses, He is independent of us, He is all-sustaining, self-sustaining within Himself - He needs nothing but Himself. Do you think God needs us? No, God doesn't need us, neither was God obliged to create us, was He? It was the choice of His will! He didn't have a missing part in His life, and he decided that He needed to fill it by making creation. Nor, in our sin, is God obliged to save us. Now, we must grapple with these issues: God does not need man, but man needs God - but God does not need him! Only for the fact that He chose to create him, only for the fact that He has chosen, in our sin, to save us and has promised that He will do such - but God gains nothing from us, or indeed from anyone or anything outside of the universe.
If you turn to Romans 11 you were read this of God's mind, and it's only one little attribute or part of God, yet His very mind, distinctly and accurately it says that God has no need of anyone. Verse 34 and 35: 'For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?' - God is a self-entity. God is above us! God is beyond us! God does not need us! We must have high views of God. If we are going to think of God, we must realise that, before the creation of the world and the universe, God was perfectly blessed in Himself. Father, Son and Holy Spirit - that divine fellowship of love between those three Persons of one essence - there in eternity past, if we can say it, there was perfection, perfect blessedness. God did not need man nor creation! Creation added nothing to God, for you cannot add to God - and can I go as far as to say this: even Christ and His cross added nothing to God's divine being or to His glory. Now ponder that! Christ and His cross could not add to God, for God cannot be added to - yes, it revealed Him; yes, it manifested His glory and brought great glory to God and praise to His name; but it did not add to His essential goodness and greatness and holiness and godliness! God has never been without it, neither will He ever be without it. Oh, you cannot add anything to our God.
Turn with me to Isaiah chapter 40, and we see outlined by the great prophet the transcendence of our God, and it has to be seen by us in comparison to our own situation and how small we are. Isaiah chapter 40 and verse 15, and speaking of the nation the prophet says: 'Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity. To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto him?'. Verse 22: 'It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity'. Oh, we have a great God - can we just contemplate that for one moment? We have a great God! He is God and there is none other! He is God above all gods! He is above, He is supreme, He is exalted, He is a place that none can approach to! He is a being that none can strive after or even find!
One old biblical scholar said: 'Quite truly, how vastly different is the God of scripture from the God of the average pulpit'. It is not a great God, it is not the God that we read of in 1 Timothy 6 and verse 15 and 16: 'Which in his times he shall show, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen'. There is no god like our God! Oh, that we could lift ourselves from the depths of our own human existence, our pitiful daily chores in life, the sphere of all our existence, that we could be pulled by His Spirit at this moment to see that God is transcendent!
The irony of studying God is that He is unknowable. Yet we will seek to try and know the unknowable. The first question I want to ask today is: What can be known? What can we know about God? And indeed that capitulates, perhaps, the greatest question of all the ages: what is God like? How do we define God? How can we describe God? And even though it's our purpose of studying God in these studies, and it's our intention to understand from God's divine revelation - the word of God - what He is really like, the paradox is that God is not like anything! Isaiah said: 'To whom, or to what, shall ye compare God?' - God is not exactly like anything that exists in this universe - in other words, He can't be compared to anything. The prince of preachers, no matter how eloquent he may be, is redundant in attempting to illustrate by any natural means possible what our God is like, for He is transcendent, He is above, beyond, superior to anything!
However, although that is the case, God - in revealing Himself through the word of God - has endeavored to reveal Himself to a natural world. That means, because He knows that we in our puny, finite human state could never really grasp what He is like and who He is, He has condescended Himself to describe Himself like natural things, so that our natural mind might understand. That's why within the word of God He incorporates many 'like' words, to say that God is like such-and-such, to describe Himself by comparing Himself to another thing - and, although He is not exactly like that thing, He borrows those things of nature to communicate what He is above nature, what He is beyond nature - and you could multiply all the comparisons of God within the word of God by infinity and still not come near to what God is in all His transcendence. It's amazing to think, isn't it, the lengths that God has gone to that we might understand! Can I say that He even may have stripped Himself of some of that mystery, in order that He might communicate to a natural world who He is and what He is like.
Let me give you an example, turn with me to Ezekiel chapter 1 and we were in this passage of scripture last Lord's Day morning. Ezekiel chapter 1, now I want you to notice every single word as we read them together, you remember in verse 1 it describes: 'It came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God'. He saw what no language could describe, and the point of Ezekiel was - keep that passage open because we're going to look at a few more verses - the point of what he is saying is this: he had no reference point, he had nothing to compare God with. He just says, 'I saw visions of God', he had nothing to interpret, there was no language that could describe the visions of God that he was seeing - and he saw something different from what he'd ever known in his whole existence, so what he does is he uses 'like' words. He uses comparisons, if you look at verse 13 he says: 'As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance', note that word, 'their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps'. He didn't see burning coals of fire, he didn't see lamps, but he saw something that he couldn't describe, that he didn't know what it was, but it was like burning coals of fire, it was like the appearance of lamps. And as you read down this passage, the nearer he comes to the burning throne of God, the less definite his words become, the less specific and accurate they are. Look at verse 26: 'And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord'! He couldn't see the glory of the Lord and live, so God had to convey to him the likeness, the appearance of the glory of the Lord. Do you see what a glorious God we have? In light inaccessible hid from our eyes!
We are so poor that God has to describe Himself in likeness, in appearance, in the languages of 'as it were'. And it's no slavish literalism that God wants as we read the book of Ezekiel, because God cannot be put into our pitiful language, He can't be contained into our puny minds - and we need to beware that in all our doctrines that we take from the word of God, that we do not ever try to define the indefinable! We need to beware in contemplating God that we never ever put Him into our conception, for we tend - as in everything in life - to reduce God to our manageable terms. A. W. Tozer said this: 'The God of contemporary Christianity is only slightly superior to the gods of Greece and Rome - if indeed he is not actually inferior to them, in that he is weak and helpless while they, at least, had power'. What have we reduced God to? This great transcendent, superior, the secret things that belong unto Him - we have brought Him down and stripped Him of all His power, all of His sovereignty, all of His dignity and we have made ourselves god over Him!
Idolatry is when we move from what God is said to be like, to imagine that He is that way. For instance when we read that there was an appearance of burning coals, or we read that God appeared like unto the form of a man, that we make Him into a man - that's not what the word of God says. It's 'like' the appearance, it's 'like' the thing, it's 'as it were' - and that's why we reject idols and idolatry, because we can make an idol out of God. And the awful thing about it is this: that even our thoughts can become an idol, the way we conceive God in our minds, the way we have a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ looking a certain way, or God looking a certain way - if we have any picture in our minds of God, it is idolatry! Nicholas of Cusa, in his book 'The Vision of God', prays this prayer addressing Him - and this is what he says to God: 'If anyone should set forth any concept by which Thou canst be conceived, I know that that concept is not a concept of Thee'. Have you got it? If any man or woman, or book or picture, tries to depict God, it is other than God is because God cannot be depicted! He goes on to say: 'For every concept is ended in the wall of paradise' - I think that's beautiful. Draw a picture of God if you like, and make a statue, and have a picture in your mind of who He is and what He looks like - even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself - but Nicholas is saying that when we come to the walls of paradise, and when we behold the glory of God and perhaps even then are not able to look upon His greatness, we will know then it's all ended - all our concepts, all our puny thoughts, all the ways in which we have stripped Him, and reduced Him, and brought Him down, and de-qualified Him to everything that we can understand. He goes on: 'So to if any were to tell of the understanding of Thee, wishing to supply a means whereby Thou mightest be understood, this man is yet far from Thee'. If any man comes unto you and says: 'I've a way you can see God, I've a way that you can understand God or reduce God down to manageable terms' - he is yet far from God. 'For as much as Thou art absolute above all concepts which any man can frame' - do you know that God is above the Bible? That's right! We can worship the Bible - we don't worship the Bible, we worship God! He is greater than what the Bible depicts, He is greater than any language, He is greater than any vision, He is greater than any concept imaginable, any thought that can enter into the heart or mind of any child of God. He who is invisible can never be depicted.
What can we know about Him? The paradox is: we can know that we cannot know everything. The second question I want to ask is: how can we know? If we cannot know everything and the secret things that belong to our God, how can we get a little bit of a glimpse of His great transcendence? How can we enter into the rays of His glory, at least to be as the hymn says: 'Lost in wonder, love and praise' at the greatness of our God? If He is incomprehensible, how can we get to know Him? How do we satisfy the deep that calls unto deep within our souls, to know God, to long after God, to be truly satisfied in no one but God? Well the answer to that question, strangely, is another paradox. You see, God cannot be known by the reason of the mind - please listen: many make the mistake of thinking that they can know about God, and then they know Him. But God can only be known by the soul, the spirit within us that has been made to know God - that is the only way. And as F.W. Faber put it in his poem:
'God is darkness to our intellect,
But He can be sunshine to the heart'.
If you try to reduce Him into manageable terms, intellectually speaking, and you try to reduce Him and push Him into a theological treatise - you will fail! For He is darkness to the intellect, there is no mind of man that can conceive Him or can hold Him! - but oh, to the heart, to the soul...
How can we know God? Plainly, I believe the only way to know God is through revelation. Revelation: you see, this God is so great, this God is so above us, this God is so beyond us that we cannot conceive in our mind, or in our heart, what He is like. Yes, the pagan in the jungle can look at creation, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars and realise there is a Creator, and realise that there is another in the universe - but he can never contain, from looking at creation, the greatness, the magnitude, the dignity, the almighty nature, the holiness and righteousness and powerfulness of our God - it cannot be done! Zophar the Naamathite asked Job the question: 'Canst thou, by searching, find out God?'. You cannot, He can only be known when He reveals, to the human heart, Himself. When He takes the word of God and it is preached, and that word of God is found on good ground in the heart of an unbeliever, and faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God, and a revelation has taken place through the revelation of the word of God - God has made Himself known by His Spirit to a human being.
Of course, the word of God tells us no man knoweth the things of God but the Spirit of God. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:11: 'For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man?' - you know everything about you inside you, it's only your spirit that knows everything, the person you're sitting beside doesn't know everything that's in your soul, but only your soul and spirit can tell what is in you as a man. 'Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God' - and if we are to know a God who is transcendent, a God who is above us, a God who is beyond us and unreachable, it must be His Spirit that reveals Himself unto us.
God isn't known through intellect or through reason - that's why we don't fall at the feet of the intellectuals. Why? Because John says in chapter 4 of his gospel and verse 24: 'God is a spirit'. God is a spirit! Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14: 'The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned'. And if man is dead, as Paul says and we have been learning, in his trespasses and in his sins - how can a man know God!? Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Isn't it a wonder? Except a man be born from above, the supreme knowledge of God can be found only as the Spirit of God reveals the Christ of God in the gospel of God! Matthew 11:27, the Lord Jesus said it Himself: 'No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, except the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him'.
Where is the revelation of God? How can we know this unknowable God? How has God chosen to reveal Himself to us in a form and in a way that we can understand and manage and accept? Where is this revelation found exactly? Paul tells us: for God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Isn't that wonderful? In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and:
'Where reason fails
With all her powers,
There faith prevails,
And love adores'.
It's not knowledge, it's not sight but it is faith that is the evidence of things not seen. God does not reveal Himself to the head, He does not reveal Himself to the intellect, or to the emotions. He doesn't reveal to the eyes by sight, or the mind by imagination - but to the heart by faith and by love. Christ is God's complete disclosure of Himself. Oh yes, God still is incomprehensible in His essence and in His divine nature - but imagine, oh just imagine, that He has condescended to reveal Himself in the incarnation of His own Son.
God does dwell, for us, behind a cloud at times - doesn't He? It seems that we can't understand Him, that we try to behold Him but we're grasping in the dark of unknowing - and so we feel He can never, perhaps, clearly be seen by the light of understanding, nor felt by the natural senses that we have. Yet, believer, by faith - by faith - we can reach out and we meet Him in the Incarnate Almighty Word of God, and the hand - nail-scarred - of the Lord Jesus Christ pulls us towards God and whispers in His still small voice: 'Behold your God'.
I finish with the poem I finished with last week:
'Strangely I sensed Him everywhere,
The God I ached to find.
Yet could not find Him anywhere,
Above, before, behind.
Mystery amazing, love unknown,
In human form He stands
He calls with tender human tone,
Uplifting nail-torn hands.
Yes, for in Jesus, God most high
Has come from heaven above,
To answer all my aching cry
With His redeeming love.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
My Saviour, King divine.
For in my Saviour now I see:
Lo, God and heaven are mine!'
Let us pray. And as we bow our heads together, there may be those who are broken hearted and in pain, those who are not well, those who are not saved, those who are believers living in sin - and if you would only behold the greatness of God, you would find your need.
Our Father, there is so much that we think we know, and so much that we do not know. Lord help us in this, to adorn ourselves with humility and to recognise that the secret things belong onto our God. To recognise, oh our God, that Thou art holy and separate from sinners and above us and beyond us. Yet Lord, our hearts are warmed to realise that You reached down to us in the person of Your own Son. He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, and help us through His poverty to be rich. And may we be lost today in wonder, love and praise, beholding our God. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the second tape in his 'Behold Your God' series, titled "God Transcendent" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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