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The Essence and Substance of God

by | Updated May 13th, 2015 | Posted in Theology, Apologetics and Biblical Studies

It’s very difficult for the finite mind to adequately comprehend the infinite God. Job said, “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty” (Job 11:7 NKJV)? Trying to understand the infinite God with the finite mind is like trying to put the Atlantic ocean in glass. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Let’s explore Him with all that is in us.

Let’s begin by comparing essence and substance, then distinguishing between the two and God’s attributes. Essence and substance are basically synonymous when used of God. Thiessen defines them as “that which underlies all outward manifestation; the reality itself whether material or immaterial, the substratum of anything (substance lying beneath a thing). That in which the qualities or attributes inhere” (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology; page 119).

Webster defines essence as: 1. An entity. 2. That which makes something what it is. Both essence and attribute refer to the nature of God, though there is a difference between the two, but that difference is hard to distinguish.

Spirituality.“God is a spirit” (John 4:24 NASB). Four things are involved in God’s spirituality:

  1. God is immaterial or incorporeal. After His resurrection Jesus said, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39 NASB). Someone may say, what about all the passages where God is described as having body parts? For example, “stretched out arm” (Jeremiah 32:17 KJV); “the Ancient of Days took His seat; His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool” (Daniel 7:9 NASB). These are metaphors which serve to bring the infinite within the comprehension of the finite. The Bible also uses wings to describe God, “He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge” (Psalm 91:4 NASB). Therefore, to use the above scriptures to say God has a human body, you would also have to say He is a bird (Psalm 91:4). Anyone would say that is absurd. So God is immaterial or without material substance.
  2. God is invisible. Let me reference a couple of scriptures with this. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NASB); “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17 NASB). The scriptures state that no man can see God (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16). How do we reconcile this with the fact that Moses looked on God (Exodus 33)? As you read the passage, Moses merely got a glimpse of God’s glory. No man can see God in His full essence. There are other scripture which refer to men seeing God. “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake” (Psalms 17:15 NASB). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification (holiness) without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 NASB). “They will see His face” (Revelation 22:4 NASB). R.A. Torrey in What the Bible Teaches says, “A man may see a reflection of his face in a glass (mirror). It’d be true for him to say, I saw my face and also I never saw my face” (Thieson, Lectures in Systematic Theology; page 120). These, however, seem to refer to our seeing God in eternity after we have been glorified (1 Corinthians 15:50-57). Mortal flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God nor see God (1 Corinthians 15:50). “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). It will be at that point, when we are glorified that we look upon Him in all of His glory. Praise the Lord!
  3. God is alive. The idea of spirit also implies this. “By this you shall know that the living God is among you” (Joshua 3:10 NASB). “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should taunt the armies of the living God” (1 Samuel 17:26 NASB)? “Peter answered,You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 NASB). “For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). “My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalms 84:2 NASB). Our God is alive! We glean from this:
    • Victory in battle – Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26; Matthew 16:16.
    • Worship of the true God – 1 Thessalonians 1:9; Psalms 84:2.
    • The soul longs for such a God – Psalms 84:2.
    • Who Jesus is – Matthew 16:16.
    • Our foundation is built on the solid Rock – Matthew 16:16-19; Matthew 7:24-27.
    • The Church is built upon a sure foundation – Matthew 16:16-19.
    • This living God appoints authority to His trusted followers – Matthew 16:16-19.
  4. God is a person. This also is implied in spirit. Take the analogy of ourself in His image (Genesis 1:27). If He were not a person He’d be on a lower lever than us. Personality denotes we can have a relationship with Him which is the essence of Christianity. God manifests all the characteristics of personality. To name just a few:
    • Self-consciousness – 1 Corinthians 2:11.
    • Determination – Hebrews 6:11-12.
    • Intellect – Romans 11:34.
    • Feelings – Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 3:17.
    • Speaking – Acts 13:2; Hebrews 12:25.
    • Anger – Hebrews 3:10; 12:25-28.
    • Jealousy – Exodus 20:5; 2 Corinthians 11:2.

God is self-existent. “God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM; and He said, Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14 NASB). This is hard for the finite mind to grasp. The ground of God’s existence is in Himself. Ours is outside of ourself. God’s is in Himself alone. His existence is not dependent on anything outside of Himself. (This is implied in Exodus 3:14). Wow, that’s mind boggling. He is the self existent one. Thomas Aquinas said, “He is the first cause, Himself uncaused” (Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology; page 122, paragraph 1).

The immensity of God. This has to do with His infinity in relation to time and space. He is not confined or limited by space. He is here and at the same time He is somewhere else.

Solomon said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built” (1 Kings 8:27 NASB)!

God asked Jeremiah, “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” (Jeremiah 23:24 KJV).

The Psalmist asked. “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there” (Psalms 139:7-8 NASB).

Paul said, “that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27 NASB). Here Paul declares that, because of the immensity of God, we should seek Him and when we do we’ll be able to find Him. Jeremiah echoes the same, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13 NASB). Let’s seek Him with all that is within us. When we do He will be made known (manifest or revealed) to us.

God is eternal. God is free from all succession of time. Time for God is one big eternal now. He sees the eternity past, present and future all at once. Peter said, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8 NASB). This does not mean that when God refers to a day it is really a thousand years. God is not stupid nor does He try and make things hard for us to understand. It simply means, He is timeless and sees all time as one big eternal now. He is the cause of time (Hebrews 1:2 and 13; Colossians 1:16). One day time itself will merge into eternity. God is the eternal one!

“Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalms 90:2 NASB).

“Your throne is established from of old; You are from everlasting” (Psalms 93:2 NASB).

“For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15 KJV).

“The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them” (Deuteronomy 33:27 KJV).

This applies to Jesus as being God as well. “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2 KJV).

God is one. There is only one God. The scriptures make it clear there is but one God. There are not many gods, but only one true and living God. The following scriptures make this abundantly clear.

“To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35 NASB also 4:39).

“Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4 NASB).

“There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2 NASB).

“So that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no one else” (1 Kings 8:60 NASB).

“So that you may know and believe Me And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me” (Isaiah 43:10 NASB).

(See also Isaiah 44:6; 45:22; 44:6-8; 2 Samuel 7:22; Nehemiah 9:6; 1 Timothy 2:5; 1:17; 1 Corinthians 8:4)

God is an absolute and compound unity. Man is an absolute unity whereas a man and his wife becoming one is a compound unity. Compare Ezra 3:1 and Ezekiel 37:17 for compound unity and Genesis 22:2, 12; Jeremiah 6:26 and Zechariah 12:10 for absolute unity. See also “The Unity and Oneness of God”.

God is transcendent. He is above and beyond His creation. In pantheism God is all and in all. The scriptures are clear that God can be seen in nature but nature is not God. “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20 KJV). God is above and beyond His creation.

“For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place, And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit In order to revive the spirit of the lowly And to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15 NASB)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NASB).

God is immanent. God’s presence and power pervade His entire creation. Though He is above and beyond creation, He is not separated from it. God is clearly involved in and with His creation. One cannot read God’s Word without seeing His involvement with His creation. He is not so totally transcendent that He set the universe in motion and left it to take care of itself, as deists would have you think. He didn’t create us just to leave us to fin for ourselves. He wants His presence and power to pervade every aspect of our lives.

The Bible says He not only created everything but He actually holds all things together, “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3 KJV); “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:17 KJV). If we think things are bad now, think of what everything would be like if He ever withheld His hand.

He is, however, a gentlemen and doesn’t typically get involved where he is not wanted. There are exceptions to this. He does get involved in response to His people’s prayer. Prayer moves the hand of God to mess in situations and the lives of people. He will, at that point, get involved in people’s lives who are actually running from Him. If you are running from God, He will let you go if you so choose. On the other hand, if you have a godly person praying for you – lookout!

We, as a nation and world in general, have moved God to gentlemen status. We, overall, no longer want God involved in our lives. As a result, we see God pulling back more and more. This is a scary place to be. The more God removes His hand, the more we are left to fin for ourselves. The further God withdraws, the more evil is unleashed in the world and man is left to his own devices. God help us if He ever completely removes His hand from our lives.

Our only hope is, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14 KJV). We, as the people of God, need to seek His face like never before.