WHAT IS GOD LIKE?
A LESSON FROM ABRAHAM, MOSES, AND JESUS FOR CHRISTMAS 2014
We know something about what a person is like by what he or she does, whether it is good or not good. We know something of what an artist is like by what he or she creates, whether it is beautiful and inspiring or not. We know what God is like by seeing what God does and what God creates.
We also know what a person is like by what he or she says. This relates to purpose and intention. We know God’s purpose and intention by what God says. According to Islam God speaks through the book that God sent, and God is present in the book. In the Bible God may personally come to visit. This happened to both Moses and Abraham.
When God comes, the appearance is often that of fire. God came to Moses in the wilderness in a burning bush, but the bush was not on fire and did not burn. The bush was a natural bush, but the fire was not a natural fire, and when Moses approached the bush, he heard God speak. We know that Moses was well versed in Egyptian mythology. According to Egyptian mythology the god, Seth, had a fight with his brother’s son, Horus, in a bush in the attempt to kill him. A supernatural fire in a bush would be recognized by an Egyptian as something divine. In order to communicate to the culture of Moses’ time, God confined himself to a bush, but God was in no way diminished by the bush. From this we can learn that God may appear in space and time without being confined to space and time
In Genesis 15, God came to Abram. Abram saw a firepot walking between pieces of meat spread on the ground. The meat was natural meat, but the fire, though just as real, was not a natural fire. Life long, irrevocable friendship covenants in Abram’s time were sealed with a ceremony during which the two friends walked together between the parts of dismembered animals and each of them prayed, “May God do the same to me as we have done to these animals if I ever fail to keep the terms of our covenant and betray my friend.” By appearing in the firepot between the dismembered animals, God performed the ceremony in Abram’s presence so that Abram would recognize the covenantal significance of the event and understand God’s firm intention. Here again, God appeared in a firepot, but was not confined to the firepot. On another occasion, God appeared as a man to Abraham (Genesis 18), and later in the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3)
In the New Testament when God confined himself to Mary’s womb and made his appearance in Jesus, God was in no way diminished by the incarnation. The 20th century story writer, C.S. Lewis (in the childrens’ story, The Last Battle) describes a mysterious building where the inside is larger than the outside. The inside was a space not confined to the limits of the external appearance. In the same way “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19).” “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out(Romans11:33)!”
God’s appearance as fire is consistent across time in the Biblical story. A fiery cloud at night led Israel through the wilderness. Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. Fire fell from heaven in response to Elijah’s prayers in his battle with the worshippers of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Fire fell on Sodom and Gomorra, and Elijah called fire from heaven to destroy two military units in King Ahaziah’s army. So what is God like based on this kind of evidence? Deuteronomy 4:24 & 9:3 (quoted in Hebrews 12:29) say that “God is a consuming fire.” It is not true that God throws fire at people. It is true that God is high energy. He lit the stars on fire. God is not mean, but God is holy and God is good.
As we get into the New Testament, it is like entering the building where the inside contains more than the outside reveals. When Moses came down from the mountain having talked with God in Exodus 34, his face shone so brightly that people were afraid to come near. When John saw the resurrected, post ascension Jesus’ face “his face was like the sun shining with all its force (Revelation 1:16).” What happens in the New Testament is that instead of God speaking out of the fire as God did at Mt. Sinai so as to frighten everyone, we see the light of the fire reflected in the face of Jesus Christ. Moses revealed that he had come from the very presence of God by the fact that the light of God’s fire was reflected in his face. For Jesus, not only was the light reflected in his face, but the fire itself was seen in his eyes. That is why Jesus could say truly, “I am the light of the world (John 8:12 & 9:5).”
In the presence of God everything impure and unworthy ignites and burns, and every person will meet the Divine Presence one day. Unless our hearts are pure of every evil thought or imagination, having been cleansed by the blood of Christ, we are not fire proof because “God Is a Consuming Fire,” as quoted above. God is not cruel or hateful; God just happens to be holy. Revelation 20:14 seems to suggest that the fire of hell itself may really be nothing other than the holy Presence of God as experienced by those who are not prepared to meet him.
When Paul met the resurrected Jesus in Acts 9, the light of Jesus holy presence blinded him so he could not see for three days. Today Jesus has been appearing again and again to Muslim people in the world of Islam, people who have desperately called upon God to make himself known, and I have personally met such people myself. Typically Jesus appears in blinding light when he comes, and in this respect the story these people tell today is consistent with the Biblical story of Jesus post ascension appearances to Paul and John. (A DVD called More than Dreams dramatizes five of these stories and is available online.) For all who are “in Christ” the fire is the light of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ who loves us with eternal love. Without Jesus Christ, the fire will be more than flawed and sinful humans can endure.
So what is God like? God is all goodness, all love, and all power—the electrifying power that lit the stars on fire, the creative power that shaped the universe, and the power of such love that is able to fit us for ruling the universe with him when we submit our wills to the man he has chosen to be in charge, the same man who gave his life for us. “Here is what love is. It is not that we loved God. It is that he loved us and sent his Son to give his life for our sins (1 John 4:10).”