By Pastor Glenn Pease
A four year old attended a prayer meeting with his parents, and that night when he knelt to say his prayers before going to bed he prayed, "Dear Lord, we had a good time at church tonight. I wish you could have been there." The child was not critical of the church as being godless, he was merely expressing a childlike literalism concerning the presence of God. To be present to a child is to be seen, touched, and heard. To be present to a child is to be available to the senses. Even an amateur theologian could quickly set the child straight and point out the reality of the presence of things unseen and unheard. Numerous verses of Scripture could be quoted to assure him that God is always present. He has promised to be with us always, and to never forsake us. Where two or three are gathered in His name Christ said He would be present in their midst. The historian could point to the experience of the saints down through the centuries who were aware of the presence of God at all times, even when they were not gathered with two or three.
Madam Guyon could set in prison and write:
My Lord, how full of sweet content,
I pass my years of banishment.
Where'er I dwell, I dwell with Thee,
In heaven, in earth, or on the sea.
David said that God is so persistently present with the believer that there is nowhere to go escape His presence. In Psa. 139:7-10 he writes, "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy 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."
What a contrast this is with the testimony of the first Russian cosmonout who ascended into the heaven's and said he saw no God. What a contrast to the dark conclusion arrived at by Jean Paul Richter the German skeptic of the last century. He wrote, "There is no God. I have traversed the worlds. I have risen to the suns, I have passed athwort the great waste places of the sky. There is no God. I have descended to the place where the very shadow casts by Being dies out and ends. I have gazed into the gulf beyond and cried "Where art thou, Father?" But no answer came, save the sound of the storm which rages uncontrolled. We are orphans, you and I-Every soul in this great corpse-trench of the universe is utterly alone."
Here was a man who experienced the real absence of God as deeply as believers experience the real presence of God. To some God is nowhere present; to others God is everywhere present. Ralph Cushman could write:
I met God in the morning
When my day was at its best,
And His presence came like sunrise,
Like a glory in my breast.
All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me,
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O'er a very troubled sea.
There is an obvious conflict of experience. The child and the skeptic experience the absence of God, whereas the saint and poet experience the presence of God. The believer recognizes that the child and the skeptic are victims of the same misconception. They are both looking for a physical and visible presence rather than a spiritual presence. They want an objective presence rather than a subjective presence. We know that as the child matures and develops a spiritual maturity he will become aware of unseen values. He will learn to appreciate the reality of God's presence in spirit. We know that if the skeptic would open his heart to Christ, the eyes of his soul would lose their scales, and he too would be enlightened as to the reality of things unseen.
What we seldom or never stop to realize is that it is the child's and the skeptic's longing for the visible presence of God that is the ideal. The experience of the mystic who is caught up into a trace and senses his oneness with God is not the ideal experience of the presence of God. The ideal is not that of being aware of the peace and power of God within your life giving you strength and guidance. As precious as these experiences are, they are temporal and fall short of the eternal experience John describes here where we will dwell with God and He with us, and we shall fellowship with Jesus in physical form.
Faith is essential but not eternal. Faith is not the ideal. We walk by faith now, but the ideal and ultimate will be to walk by sight in the new heaven and new earth. The ideal will be when all of our senses are as relevant in spiritual experiences as they now are in physical experiences. Paul said, "Now abide faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love." Why? Because love alone is eternal. Faith and hope will be no more when we reach the ideal and dwell with God and He with us. Love, however, will continue for all eternity. Love is the greatest thing in time and eternity, and it is the perfect link between the two."
It is love that longs to experience all that can be experienced of the presence of God within time. The ideal of both the Old Testament and the New Testament is to enter the presence of God to the highest degree possible. The ultimate goal being to be in His objective presence. The two fold ideal for time and eternity is illustrated in the 23rd Psalm where the Psalmist says he can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil for God is with him. The presence of the Lord as his shepherd gives full assurance under any circumstance. Augustus Toplady put it:
Lord! It is not life to live
If thy presence thou deny;
Lord! If thou thy presence give,
Tis no longer death-to die.
When the Lord is near there is no fear. This is the testimony of the Psalmist as his journey through time, but what does he say concerning the end and goal of the journey? He says that after goodness and mercy follow him all the days of his life, he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. We have no idea how much this eternal dwelling in God's house meant to the Old Testament saint, but surely it is clear that he recognized and even greater presence of God to come then the presence he experienced in the valley. The final and highest goal of man is to dwell with God. Jesus assured His disciples that His Father's house had many mansions, or rooms, and that they would be received into that dwelling with Him. The goal of Old Testament and New Testament saints is the same: To dwell in the very visible presence of God.
In the Garden of Eden God walked with Adam and talked with Him, and was visible in a form, and audible as a voice. Enoch walked with God, and Noah did also even after the fall. We do not know if God was still manifesting Himself in visible form, but it could well be, since as late as Abraham's time he appeared in the form of a man to Abraham, and later to Moses. We have so trained ourselves in spiritual thinking that the physical prsence of God seems like a childish idea, and we think it is primitive. But, as a matter of fact, it is the most advanced concept possible, and here in Revelation we are told that when paradise is regained we shall regain with it the face to face fellowship with God. John says elsewhere that we shall see Christ as He is and be like Him. Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God."
The seeing of God has a spiritual interpretation, and we tend to stress that and ignore a literal interpretation, for it seems impossible. At least this is so with Protestants. I have never read a Protestant sermon on the saints vision of God as they dwell in His very presence, but the Catholics make a great deal of this which they call the Beatific Vision. It is interesting to consider a Catholic's criticism of the Protestant view of heaven. It could very well be that we have something to learn from their emphasis. A Jesuit, P. J. Boudreaux, in his book The Happiness Of Heaven, has a chapter on errors to be avoided in meditating about heaven.
His first point is this: "The first error consists in ignoring or making little of the Beatific Vision, after the resurrection, and letting our mind pass from creature to creature, gathering exquisite pleasures from each, until practically we make man's happiness in heaven come almost exclusively from creatures. This is substancially the view which Protestants take of heaven. They have written books on the subject in which they speak eloquently and even learnedly on the joys involved in the mutual recognition of friends and kindred, on the delights we shall enjoy in our social intercourse with the saints and angels, in the music that shall ravish our very souls, and other things of that nature." He continues:
In the Protestant view of heaven, the Beatific Vision is either entirely ignored, or, if mentioned at all, it is explained so as to mean next to nothing, at least, it does not appear to add anything to the exquiste happiness already enjoyed in creatures. In their view heaven is really nothing more than a natural beatitude, such as might have been enjoyed even in this world, if Adam had not sinned. We must, therefore, be on our guard against any view of heaven which would make its principle happiness come from creatures. We must ever remember that no creature, either here or hereafter, can give perfect happiness to man.......................This, then, is the first error to be avoided, and with much care; not only because it is untrue, but because also it lowers the beatitude of heaven, which consists essentially in the vision, love and enjoyment of God Himself."
We could counter this criticism by showing him our hymn, I Want To See My Savior First Of All, but our defence would be weak. Just about every book I could find on the vision of, and presence of God was written by a Catholic. This may appear to be a minor area of theology, but it is a part of the ultimate goal of the believer, and, therefore, we ought to take the criticism of our neglect in this area seriously. If we take the ideal seriously, we will also be more diligent in seeking to experience the partial, but real, presence of God now.
Phillips Brooks, one of America's greatest preachers, said about 100 years ago, "The greatest danger facing all of us....is not that we shall make an absolute failure of life, nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness, nor that we shall be terribly unhappy, nor that we shall feel life has no meaning at all....not these things. The danger is that we may fail to perceive life's greatest meaning; fall short of its highest goal; miss its deepest and most abiding happiness; be unable to render the most needed service; be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God....and be content to have it so.....that is the danger."
I think if we are honest with ourselves we will have to admit that we not only neglect the idea of the ultimate vision and presence of God, but we also neglect to practice the presence of God in our daily lives. We do not have to reject great truths to lose their value. We need only neglect them.
In the Old Testament God dwelt in the temple, or before that, in the Tabernacle. His presence was to be found in a place. In the New Testament all this is radically changed and the physical temple in destroyed and the people themselves become the temple of the presence of God. It is not longer in a place but in persons. The presence of God takes on new dimensions in the New Testament. The Son came down and tabernacled with men. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came down and indwelt men. The final step is that revealed here by John. God the Father will dwell with men. This will be the fulfillment of the hopes of all the saints of all time. Meanwhile it is our privilege and responsibility to be persons of the Presence and temples of the Spirit.
Not in temples made with hands,
In shrine or altar there,
God hath chosen to abide
The Scriptures plain declare.
In the hearts of men who love
Their neighbors, He abides.
In His Spirit's fullness here,
Richly Christ resides.
Let our hearts, O loving God,
Thy living temples be.
May our neighbors in our love
Thy presence ever see.
Let us be determined to give more conscious thought to this whole matter of the temporal and eternal presence of God.