Editor's Note: Ryan Lister expounds more deeply on these ideas in his book The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. This was initially posted on Crossway's blog.
1. God is immanent because he is transcendent.
The Lord is “God in the heavens above [transcendent] and on the earth beneath [immanent]” (Josh 2:11). But to understand God in full we must recognize that his drawing near to creation stems from his being distinct from creation. In other words, there is no deficiency in God that creation satisfies. The Lord doesn’t relate to this world because he lacks something within himself. No, God draws near out of the abundance of who he is.
God’s transcendence distinguishes him from the created order and puts things in their right perspective. God does not come to us needy and wanting, but rather he comes to “revive the spirit of the lowly and the heart of the contrite” (Isa 57:15). It is the holy and righteous One above who restores the broken and needy below.
2. The Bible emphasizes God’s manifest presence, not only his omnipresence.
There is a difference between saying “God is everywhere,” and saying “God is here.” The former is the default category for most Christians. We talk about God’s presence being inescapable and that he is “everywhere present” (Ps 139:5-12; 1 Kings 8:27).
But it seems Scripture is more concerned with his presence manifest in relationship and redemption. And though these divine realities are certainly not at odds, the biblical story does turn on God’s being manifest with his people in Eden, the tabernacle/temple, the incarnation of Christ, and the new heaven and new earth.
3. The story of Scripture begins and ends with the presence of God.
In the book of Genesis, Eden is the first couple’s home but, more importantly, it is God’s sanctuary—the garden temple where the Creator and his image-bearers relate (Gen 3:8).
Fast forward to the end of our Bibles and we see a very similar picture but on a much larger scale. All of heaven has collided with the whole earth to make a perfect sanctuary for God to dwell with man (Rev 21:1-4). In the book of Revelation, Eden has returned and expanded into new heaven and new earth where all of God’s people enjoy his presence eternally.
4. Humanity’s mission and the presence of God are inseparable.
God gave man and woman purpose. They are to “be fruitful and multiply” in order to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Gen 1:28). Adam and Eve are to do this in Eden, the epicenter of God’s relational presence in creation. As the first couple’s family expands, so too will the garden’s borders and, with it, God’s presence. Likewise, God’s presence was to spread to the rest of the earth through Adam and Eve’s exercising dominion (Num 14:21; cf. Ps 72:19; Isa 11:9).
5. Sin undermines humanity’s mission and the experience of God’s presence.
But there is a problem, isn’t there? Adam and Eve replace blessings for curses when they eat the forbidden fruit. These curses cut right to the heart of who they are and what they were made to do. For Eve, pain overwhelms the promise of a people. For Adam, perspiration and thorns will impede the promise of place.
Sin hinders everything now, especially man’s experience of God’s presence. Because of their disobedience, Adam and Eve are now exiles; their mission is in shambles as they stand outside of Eden. The presence of God they once knew freely is no longer free.
6. God covenants to bring his presence back to his people.
But in grace, God steps in to pay the price. To overcome man’s sin and ensure his purposes, the Creator becomes covenant Redeemer. Through his covenant promises, the Lord restores what Adam failed to do. God makes a people and a place through the covenant all the while keeping his promises to humanity.
God does all of this so that he can be our God and we can be his people (Gen 17:7; Ex 6:7; 29:45, Rev 21:3, etc.). At the heart of the covenant, then, is a relationship—one that is decidedly on his terms. God enters into his creation to create a people and a place for his presence. And so the covenant is as the Lord declares at Sinai: “I will dwell among the people of Israel and be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them” (Ex 29:45-46).
7. The presence of God is the means and end of redemption.
As evangelicals, we talk a lot about the presence of God but seldom look to the Bible to see what it is. When we do, we find that it is first and foremost a theme on which the story of Scripture hinges. If we read our Bibles though we begin to see a two-fold pattern.
First, the Bible makes clear that the presence of God is a central goal in God’s redemptive mission. All of God’s work ends with the Lord dwelling with man. And second, the presence of God is, not only an objective, it is also the means by which the redemptive mission is fulfilled. God writes himself into his own story to bring salvation. To understand our Bibles and how it changes us, we need to know God’s presence.
8. The presence of God finds its greatest expression in Immanuel, God with us.
God himself comes to save. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, entered human history to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45). In his grace, God buys us back in the most unimaginable way possible: God in Christ became a man, walked among humanity, and died for his people.
In this merciful act, Christ reconciles us to himself and re-opens access to the Father so that those who were once exiled from his presence might again draw near to God (Heb 4:16; 7:19).
9. The purposes of the church are tied to the presence of God.
The presence of God has massive implications for the way we understand the church (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1; Eph 2:13-22). The New Testament calls the church a temple for a reason. Through this image, we see that the community of Christ is—in this time of waiting on Christ’s return—the instrument the Lord uses to disseminate his presence to a lost and sinful world.
Accordingly, the church has two clear purposes: 1) the church works within itself for the sanctification of its members to prepare God’s people for God’s present and future presence; and 2) the church works externally to share the gospel so that the lost may enjoy God’s presence now and forever as well.
10. To be a joyful Christian is to know God’s presence.
If we are honest, many of us can think of God as our “magic genie” from time to time. We keep him on the shelf until troubles arise or there is something our neighbor has that we really want. The problem is, real relationships don’t work this way—especially with the triune God. The Lord over all will not be left on the shelf of anyone’s life.
Instead, Scripture is clear that all of life—and, principally, the gospel life—is about being in God’s relational presence. This is why David proclaims, “in your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11). When we push all our peripheral issues to the periphery, this is all that is left and all that really matters.
Ryan Lister is a husband, father, blogger, author, and professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. Follow him on Twitter!