by William M. Banks, Scotland
INTRODUCTION AND DEFINITION
The title is made up of two words, “omni” meaning “in all ways and places”, and “presence”. The idea is therefore clearly expressed as God being “everywhere present”. God fills all things, He is “all in all” 1 Cor.15.28. The question might be asked, “In what way does God fill all?”
The prophet Jeremiah in chapter 23 tells of false prophets who were speaking a “vision of their own heart and not out of the mouth of the Lord” 23.16b. They were lulling the Lord’s people into a false sense of security by telling them, “Ye shall have peace: and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, no evil shall come upon you” v.17. These prophets had not been sent by the Lord: He had not spoken to them, v.21. What was the problem and what is the problem with many such today?
They imagined that God was not aware of their activity! They thought they would hide in “secret places” v.24, and that God would be unaware of their ministry. They had no sense of the Lord’s presence! They recognised the possibility of a localised presence, “Am I a God at hand” v.23a, but failed to grasp the full reality of His omnipresence, “Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord. And not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord” vv.23,24.
Thus the reality was that Divine authority and power were in evidence, “a God afar off”; Divine knowledge was in evidence, “shall I not see them”; but in particular and additionally the Divine presence is indicated, “I fill heaven and earth”! This could be said of no other. An awareness of this omnipresence by the false prophets would have changed their thinking and activity and hence their ministry. He had even heard them lying in His name in what they imagined was in secret and as a result He was “against them” v.32.
But what is meant by this ‘filling’ of heaven and earth? As indicated above it is not merely authority and power, nor is it only the understanding and will. There is much more to it. “God is essentially everywhere present in heaven and in earth … as eternity is the perfection whereby He hath neither beginning nor end; immutability is the perfection whereby He hath neither increase nor diminution; so immensity or omnipresence is that whereby He hath neither bounds nor limitation.”*
* Charnock, S. “The existence and attributes of God”, Baker Book House, 1993.
THE OMNIPRESENCE OF GOD
God’s Presence with His People Generally
Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the omnipresence of God is found in Psalm 139. David is intimately aware of the nearness of that presence as he says; “Thou hast beset me behind and before, And laid Thine hand upon me” v.5. In passing it has been noted that God takes account of the past of our lives, “behind”; the future, “before”, and the present, “laid Thine hand upon me”! There is no escape from God, no possibility of privacy, “whither shall I flee from Thy presence?” v.7.
Even going to the outmost bounds of the universe as known by him is not going to free him from the awareness of God’s presence. “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall Thy hand lead me, And Thy right hand shall hold me” vv.8-10.
The highest height; the deepest depths; the farthermost corners of the universe are no escape from the presence of God, He is “even there”! “Everywhere there is God: His being, His revelation, His sovereignty and His scrutiny. He is inescapable; and so is our consciousness of Him and our awareness of our own dependence and accountability. A creature is localised. When it is here it is not there and when it is there it is not here. Not so God. He is present simultaneously at every point in His creation. He is both here and there in the fullness of His being, attributes, functions and prerogatives, upholding all things, revealing Himself through all things and impinging on the consciousness of every rational creature.”*
* Macleod, D. “Behold your God”. Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 1990.
He is Sovereign in heaven and in hell and to the uttermost parts of the earth. The darkness doesn’t seclude Him: the light is not necessary to reveal Him, “The darkness and the light are both alike to Thee” Ps.139.12b.
The practical implication of the above should not be missed. God is aware of all the circumstances of our lives. It is a great comfort in time of pressing need but surely a continuing challenge for the controlling circumstances of life. “Thou God seest me”! Gen.16.13.
The apostle Paul further emphasises this general aspect of the Divine presence in Ephesians chapter 4. He says, “One God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in you all” v.6. He is “above all” in His supreme majesty, He is “through all” in the pervasive sovereignty of His being, and “in you all” as a result of the special grace of regeneration, providing every necessary assistance to His people in all circumstances of life.
God’s Presence with His People in Time Of Need
The Psalmist David in his Shepherd Psalm reminds us that; “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me” 23.4. We might ask the question as to what circumstance is the Psalm referring? Is it the experience of death itself? This is unlikely, since a table is prepared in the next verse, v.5, in the very presence of his enemies. Of course comfort can certainly be found from this verse in dark experiences of that nature. Is it then the normal experience of living, with the “valley of the shadow” being indicative of the character of the world through which we pass? This is unlikely as well, since there is an uncertainty expressed – “though I”. Had it been describing the common experience the language would have been “when I” or “as I”!
To what then does it refer? Perhaps it refers to a particular experience in life, which to the individual is a valley, with the source of light being obscured by mountains, thus producing a shadow. But in the valley there is an awareness of the Divine presence, “with me”, sustaining (staff), protecting (rod), and comforting. For David it was the valley of Elah, 1 Samuel chapter 17; for the remnant of the future it will be the valley of “tribulation” experience; for the believer to-day it is an awareness of comfort in times of difficulty and trial. The mountains vary in each case!
A similar sentiment is found in Isa.43.2: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; Neither shall the flame kindle upon thee; For I am the Lord Thy God, The Holy One of Israel, Thy Saviour.” The above assurance is given on the basis of redemption, v.1, and on the authority of the Divine name. Indeed, the “I am” title is a reminder of the revelation given to Moses at the burning bush and an incidental reference to the omnipresence of God. God revealed Himself as the “The I am that I am” Ex.3.14. Newberry points out in the introduction to “The Newberry Bible” that the title is literally “I will be that I will be”. He continues: “But as the so-called future or long tense expresses not simply the future, but also and especially continuance, the force is ‘I continue to be, and will be what I continue to be, and will be’.” The meaning is exegetically explained in Rev.1.4, “Him which is, and which was, and which is to come”.
The same general idea is found in Psalm 46 which has been helpfully summarised as (noting the recurrence of “Selah”)
There is a refuge – vv1-3
There is a river – vv4-7
There is a rest – vv8-11
“God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble”, is the assertion in v.1. The “trouble” is rather dire, “Though the earth be removed, And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea: Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.” Even in these circumstances, most probably reminiscent of what will happen to the nation of Israel in tribulation days, the conclusion as a result of the “present help” is “Therefore will not we fear” v.2. Indeed the further assertion of the presence of God assures that help will be forthcoming: “God shall help her and that right early” v.5.
This pervading nature of the Divine presence in relation to the individual believer is everywhere asserted with almost every preposition available in the English language being used*.
Matt.28.20 – He is with us, “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”;
Jn.14.17 – He is in us, “The Spirit of truth … ye know Him: for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you”;
Ps.139.5 – He is behind us, “Thou hast beset me behind and before, And laid Thine hand upon me”;
Deut.33.27- He is underneath us, “The eternal God is thy refuge, And underneath are the everlasting arms”;
Ps.148.14 – He is near us, “He also exalteth the horn of His people … a people near unto Him. Praise ye the Lord”;
Jn.10.4 – He is before us, “And when He putteth forth His own sheep, He goeth before them, and the sheep follow Him: for they know His voice”;
Eph.4.6. – He is above us, “One God and Father … Who is above all”.
All of the above give confidence and sustenance in the Christian life. It is something the believer can depend on absolutely. It is not based on subjective thinking but on objective reality. God is present with His people. He is there to keep, help, sustain, comfort and satisfy. There is grace to help in every time of need, Heb.4.16, and strength in times of weakness, Phil.4.13.
The Lack of Awareness of God’s Presence
While all of the above is true, there are times when there is a lack of awareness of the Divine presence. The Psalmist asks; “O God why hast Thou cast us off for ever?” 74.1. Isaiah reminds his people that separation has come in between them and their God, Isa.59.2; that there is a possibility of walking in darkness and having no light, Isa.50.10. The question arises as to how this language is consistent with the unequivocal assertion of the Hebrew writer, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee” 13.5, which is almost a direct quotation from Josh.1.5 and Deut.31.6. He is “able to keep” 2 Tim.1.12, and we are assured that we “are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” 1 Pet.1.5.
How can the above ideas be reconciled: on the one hand “cast off”, “separated” and on the other never forsaken and “kept”? Why is there a withholding of an awareness of that presence normally vouchsafed to us? The answer is not hard to find in Isaiah: “your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you” Isa.59.2.
Samson was unaware that the power was gone after his encounter with Delilah. Joshua thought Ai could be taken after the great victory at Jericho, unaware that there was sin in the camp and God’s presence was no longer with them for victory as heretofore.
There are times when God’s presence is withheld for different reasons. The prophetic words of the Psalmist, 22.1, and the experience of the Lord on the cross is very much a case in point. Darkness had enveloped the scene. It was midday but the circumstances at the Lord’s birth, when the heavens were aglow with glory “by night”, (the “glory of the Lord” shone round about the shepherds) was now reversed. Instead of the midday sun there was impenetrable darkness. Instead of the awareness of the presence of God there was a forsaking. The cry that penetrated the darkness is loud (“roaring”) and at first incomprehensible, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Matt.27.46. The details are awesome in the true sense of the word, “Why … Thou?”; “Why … Me?”
The work of accomplished atonement could be completed in no other way. It necessitated the blessed Son of God being “so far” from being helped. There was no answer! There was no other way to satisfy the throne of God and to lay the righteous basis for man’s salvation.
THE OMNIPRESENCE OF CHRIST
The deity of Christ leads to the unequivocal assertion that what is true of God is true of Him. There are, however, several passages of Scripture that make it abundantly clear that this attribute of the Godhead was true of our Lord Jesus. On the evening that He was speaking with Nicodemus, the threefold interchange was coming to an end. Having asserted that the new birth was not experienced by “doing” Jn.3.1-3, and that it was unquestionably a work of the Spirit of God, vv.4-8, and experienced only by believing, vv.9-15, the Lord is now affirming and emphasising the fundamental problem which Nicodemus had, “ye believe not” v12. To focus on the importance of the Person Who was speaking to him the Lord says an amazing thing, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” v13. Was Nicodemus not aware of the absolute authority and uniqueness of the speaker? He was in heaven and speaking to him at the same time having come down from heaven! He is in heaven and on earth at the same time – the Saviour is omnipresent!
The final word given to the worshipping disciples gathered with the Lord Jesus on the Galilean mount is a further assertion of this truth. Says the risen Christ: “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” Matt.28.18b-20. The presence of Christ is assured to His own at all times and in all places. This promise has been experienced by many throughout the centuries. The all-powerful Christ has sustained His people on their missionary endeavours and assured them of help and sustenance in evangelical witness.
Another passage that asserts this same truth is found in Hebrews. The writer is emphasising the importance and authority of Holy Scripture. As the sharpness and penetrating nature of the Word of God is being emphasised, 4.12, “piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”, he concludes; “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do” v.13.
Notice in the last verse the comprehensiveness of the knowledge, “all things” and the total awareness, “naked and opened” and final authority, it is with Him “we have to do”, or more accurately to Him we “must give account” (Nelson Study Bible margin). If one is thus totally aware and authoritative as the final Judge, He must be present to know and assess.
THE OMNIPRESENCE OF THE SPIRIT OF GOD
The fact that the Holy Spirit is one of the three Persons of the Triune God is evidence enough of His omnipresence. There is, however, ample additional evidence to prove the fact that the Holy Spirit is omnipresent.
The mission of the Comforter is particularly emphasised in the upper room ministry of the gospel of John. The fact of the going away of the Lord Jesus was the proof of the coming of the Spirit. “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you” 16.7. The present age is, in a special sense, the age of the Spirit. Christ is absent (in heaven) and the Spirit is present on earth.
This promise of the Lord Jesus to send the Spirit was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, as detailed in Acts chapter 2. Peter asserts this in his address. He says with reference to the Lord Jesus, “Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear” v.33. This giving of the Spirit led to the baptism in the Spirit and to the fact that all the disciples without exception were filled with the Spirit, Acts 2.4.
Two things at least accompanied the coming of the Spirit. The first was “a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind” Acts 2.2. The word for ‘Spirit’ and ‘wind’ in the Old Testament are the same (Strong 7307). The figure emphasises the invincible energy of God that is available to the Church in both creative and destructive aspects. That is at once to be available to change lives and at the same time pull down the strongholds of error and sin.
The other accompaniment was “cloven tongues like as of fire” Acts 2.3. Fire in this connection is a symbol of purity and integrity. At Sinai the mountain burned with fire and the people were afraid to approach. “Our God is a consuming fire” Heb.12.29. The presence of God requires an awareness of the need for holiness. “ye shall be holy; for I am holy” Lev.11.44, see also 1 Pet.1.16.
In the same passage where the Lord Jesus tells of the coming of the Comforter He outlines something of His work. He says, “And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they believe not on Me: of righteousness, because I go to My Father, and ye see Me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” Jn.16.8-11. To fulfil such a universal task there is clearly a need for omnipresence. It would be impossible to undertake such a work otherwise. This work is ongoing and effective and universal.
The word “reprove”* is sometimes also translated “convince” or “rebuke”. “The word basically means ‘to bring to light, to expose’, that is, to demonstrate something clearly beyond the fear of successful contradiction”. It has thus an objective sense rather than anticipating a subjective response. In this passage the reproving work of the Spirit is in relation to sin (not sins), righteousness and judgment (not judgment to come). The fact of sin is seen in the lack of belief on the Lord Jesus. A refusal to accept him by faith is an evidence of the reality of their sin. Righteousness is demonstrated in the return of Christ to the Father. This was evidence that His work had laid a righteous basis to meet man’s need. It was also an assertion of the righteousness of Christ as indicated in Rom.3.25, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” Judgment has been demonstrated in the victory of Christ over “the prince of this world”. If he has been successfully dealt with, then those who choose to follow him will likewise be brought into judgment.
* “Understanding Christian theology”. Eds. Swindoll, C. R. and Zuck, R. B., Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2003.
THE PROMISE AND IMPLEMENTATION OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD COLLECTIVELY
It has always been the desire of God to dwell with His people. While it is true that God “dwelleth on high” Ps.113.5, and Solomon could say, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” 1Kgs.8.27, God has always desired to presence Himself with His creature and to enjoy his company. The link between heaven and earth is emphasised in a number of places. “The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: where is the house that ye build unto Me? And where is the place of My rest?” Isa.66.1. This latter is a lovely expression: to think that His people can contribute to the rest of God, “The place of My rest”!
The implementation of this desire of God to dwell with His people has been seen in a variety of ways throughout history and awaits its consummation in the eternal state. Some of these developments will be looked at in turn.
The Garden of Eden
The first communion between heaven and earth and the first evidence of the Divine presence with man, took place in a garden. A garden was intended by God to be a place of beauty, pleasure and refreshment. God never intended that there would be a tomb in a garden! The fact that this was the case was due to man’s sin and his failure to obey God’s command and to enjoy His company. In that first garden Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” Gen.3.8. The Lord God desired communion with His creatures. He wanted to enjoy their company and He wanted them to enjoy His company! Alas, sin had come in. The intimate link had been broken: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden, Gen.3.8. What a tragedy! What a change! Henceforth a barrier would be erected; man would be driven out of the garden and direct access to the Divine presence forbidden; and “God placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” Gen.3.24.
It appeared that the Divine plan for mutual enjoyment of each other’s company was thwarted; was there no possibility of reconciliation? On the basis of the Divine initiative blood was shed, provision was made for man’s need and a way back was implemented. A picture of Calvary appearing on the first pages of our Bibles, indicating that on the basis of accomplished atonement, faith could be enacted, sins could be forgiven and communion could be restored!
The Tabernacle in the Wilderness
Many centuries have passed. An elect nation has been redeemed by blood and saved by power, Ex.14.30, and as a pilgrim people are going through the wilderness. There is no visible sign of God’s presence in the midst of His own people for the purpose of communion (the pillar of fire and the cloud are there for guidance). They have experienced evidences of His hand with them; manna from heaven, water out of the smitten rock, bitter experiences made sweet, but still no visible sign. The Law has been given to control their behaviour and to link them with a Divine Covenant, but now a fresh word comes through Moses. “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering … And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to … the pattern … even so shall ye make it” Ex.25.1,8,9. “Dwell among them”, the language must have been music to Moses’ ears. God in the midst of His people! God’s presence to be known by them! Moses had experienced it on a number of occasions, but now, a sanctuary in the midst; the visible presence of God with His people.
It did necessitate a priesthood, a sacrificial system, a legislation for bringing offerings, and much more besides, but what an honour! God in the very midst of His people; communion a possibility, sin and transgression could be taken account of and a devoted people could present their sweet savour offerings, presenting devoted worship to a God Who had done so much for them in His redeeming love.
The Temple of Solomon
Solomon desired to build a house for God. He was aware of the limitations involved. “Then spake Solomon, The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness. I have surely built Thee a house to dwell in, a settled place for Thee to abide in for ever” 1Kgs.8.12,13. In his prayer at the dedication of the house He said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” 1Kgs.8.27.
It seemed incredible to Solomon that God could thus dwell with men, but so it was and at the completion of the dedication, God in great grace “appeared to Solomon the second time” 1Kgs.9.1, and assured him his prayer was heard and that “Mine eyes and Mine heart shall be there perpetually” 1Kgs.9.36.
The Person of Christ
There was no greater evidence of the Divine presence with men than that seen in the Person of Christ. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” Jn.1.14. “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not” Jn.1.10.
He could say, “he that hath seen Me hath seen the Father” Jn.14.9. The name given to Him at His birth (prophesied in advance) was an evidence of the revelation to be given in His life; “they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” Matt.1.23. The love, joy, peace and the very atmosphere of heaven itself was seen and known in the Person of Christ. Every word He spoke, every work He undertook, every movement He made was laced with the glory of heaven. God was with man!
The Local Assembly
If God’s presence was known in the past in the tabernacle and the temple, surely the place where it is known today is in the assembly of the Lord’s people. The verse so well known to us is of no less value on that account; “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” Matt.18.20. There are conditions necessary, of course, for a full realisation of that presence. These are clearly articulated in the chapter. The subject of vv.1-19 is essentially that of humility, illustrated from a little child in the midst of them, v2, while the subject of the balance of the chapter in vv.21-35 is that of forgiveness.
Joel assured his readers that, “ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel” 2.27. What a lovely thing when we know that the Lord is in the midst. There were conditions necessary in Joel’s day and likewise there are conditions necessary today. Where humility and forgiveness are evident among the Lord’s people an awareness of His presence is assured.
There is further indication of the omnipresence of Christ in the book of Revelation and in particular chapters 2 and 3. That the Lord is intimately aware of the detailed condition of His people is evident from these chapters. He is moving “in the midst”. He observes the conditions with a priestly eye. He sees every detail. He can commend and censure. Alas, He may be outside the door seeking admission, Rev.3.20. Let us be aware of the conditions necessary for the unique honour of an awareness of His presence and act accordingly!
The presence of the Lord will pervade the millennial earth. The prophet Habakkuk anticipated that day when he wrote, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” 2.14. Compare also Isa.11.9. What a reign that will be! The omnipresence of Christ as the Sovereign will be manifested universally. There will be an evident display of His “glory” so much so that, “from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same My name shall be great among the Gentiles; And in every place incense shall be offered unto My name, and a pure offering: For My name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts” Mal.1.11.
The Eternal State
Surely the climax is now reached. Could sin possibly thwart the Divine purpose initiated in the Garden of Eden? Was God’s intention to dwell with man to be prevented because of sin? Surely not! God’s first thoughts are His final thoughts. In the eternal state when all will centre on the glory of the Triune God the words are unequivocal. They are spoken by no less than “a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold” (we do well to stop and wonder!) “the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God” Rev.21.3.
The picture portrayed in Eden, in the tabernacle, in the temple, temporarily in the Person of Christ on earth, presently in the assembly of the Lord’s people, prospectively in the Millennium is now realised in all its fullness, “God … with men”. There is no possibility now of sin spoiling; no possibility of time changing anything; God’s infallible purpose realising its goal. It is “God … with men”, and that eternally!