This book explores the importance of God’s presence in the Bible and how it relates to his plan for the world, helping readers understand what we really mean when we say God is with us.
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About the Author
Ryan Lister is professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God and serves as director of doctrine and discipleship for Humble Beast, where he also helped start the Canvas Conference. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Chase, and their four children.
Thomas R. Schreiner (MDiv and ThM, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Read an Excerpt
A Forgotten Storyline
It is everywhere. We hear about it all the time. It is alluded to in the sermon. We call for it in our prayers. We sing about it in our hymns and choruses.
For Christians, it is hard to escape. As I write this paragraph, I have just returned from a Christian college's chapel service where I counted seventeen references to it in a fifty-minute service while, of course, paying full attention to the sermon, prayers, and songs. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to leave your own sanctuary this Sunday without at least one reference to it as well.
What is this refrain we hear over and over again in our churches, small groups, and devotionals? It is the presence of God.
Take a minute to listen to the Christian-speak and, even at times, yourself. How many of us have heard or spoken a prayer that starts like this: "Lord, we come into your presence now to lay our needs before you, asking you to be here with us as we cry out to you"?
And this is only the beginning. The vocabulary of divine presence weaves its way through our hymnals and PowerPoint slides:
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
As I stand here in your presence,
Of your beauty I will always stand in awe,
I reach my hands out to the heavens,
And I will lift my voice to you alone, to you alone.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
This is the air I breathe Your holy presence living in me.
Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? ...
Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
These examples — along with our sermons and other Christian teaching — reveal that the language of God's presence is, well, omnipresent in our churches and in Christendom at large.
But there is a problem. As we constantly hear these vague references to God's presence, the concept remains just that: vague. So as our churches sing the chorus of divine presence, many of us simply do not have ears to hear what it means. So how do we tune our ears to hear the beautiful melody of God's presence?
To begin, we must understand the reasons for the theological dissonance surrounding this biblical reality. First, many of us are too busy or too overwhelmed to pick up on the overused references to God's presence in our worship. We are just happy if we can get out of church with all the kids we came with, with all their limbs intact, and with the nursery or education classrooms still standing. Between keeping our son's restless legs from kicking the seat in front of him and running to the car for a sippy cup every seven minutes, we have limited time to reflect on the sermon, much less a threadbare Christian expression touched on by the associate pastor praying between worship songs.
Second, we can easily become too passive in our worship. Granted that reading Scripture and hearing it preached is a noncontact sport, but our minds should be engaged. We should be asking questions and pursuing truth vehemently in these small windows of study and prayer. I think this is part of what Anselm was getting at with his maxim "faith seeking understanding." For some of us, we stop at the first word and forgo the last two. We talk much of faith but we must also talk about pursuing the Lord in an intellectually informed and spiritually vibrant understanding of him. In other words, we must seek God. And not only that, we must seek to understand him relationally as he discloses himself to us through his Word and revelation.
Finally, and possibly the most significant concern, we have simply grown too accustomed to the jargon. Talk of God's presence is part of the white noise of evangelicalism, a catchphrase that means as little to the one saying it as to the one hearing it. This is typical for many of us. The more we hear something, the less we tend to contemplate its meaning and significance. Unfortunately, this is quite dangerous — especially for the church.
True Christianity is by nature repetitious — and that is a good thing. It is repetitious because God knows exactly who we are and what we need. We bear God's image and Adam's sin. So while the gospel shows us that we are the image of God and can know him as he reveals himself, it also reminds us that, at one point, we rejected God and continue to struggle with neglecting him. For this reason, true Christianity points us to Christ and his work on the cross over and over and over again. Scripture tells us that we are broken cisterns, cracked and chipped, needing minute by minute to return to the well of the gospel to be refilled and refreshed.
As I hope to show in the pages ahead, the presence of God is more than a mere buzzword of evangelicalism; it is a strong, fresh current of living water that fills jars of clay like you and me. It is central to the hope-filled message of Scripture. This is what I want to make clear: beneath the cacophony we have made of this biblical theme is a deep, beautiful melody vital to God's song of salvation that is there only because of the presence of God. In short, I want to show just how intrinsic this theme is to the story of Scripture and to our story.
A King's Treasure
Part of the rationale behind this book is that it is part of my story. All the busyness, passivity, and familiarity you read about above, well, that was me. I grew up in the church, so I was well versed in Christian-speak and employed such phrases quite compellingly too — especially at church and other opportune times.
I remember the day when the games stopped and the concept of God's presence became more than just spiritual jargon; it was now the attention-arresting theme of Scripture that God intended us to see. It was the summer of 2000, and I was sitting on a pontoon boat in the middle of the Tennessee River. And though before me was a pristine view of the countryside and the beautiful girl who would soon become my wife, I was blind to it all because of King David's words:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)
Joy and pleasure were what I was looking for — things we all want, I think it safe to say — and here David was telling me exactly where I could find them. All that I sought, all this world relentlessly pursues in all the wrong places, is found in the presence of God.
Needless to say, this was a game changer. David had handed me a biblical treasure map for life.
But mixed in with the happiness of this discovery was the nagging feeling of doubt. "Okay, so the fullness of joy and eternal pleasures are found in the presence of God; but I am no closer to that goal than I was before I was hit with all of this." Where was I supposed to begin? To my chagrin, there was no "You Are Here" sticker in Psalm 16. All I had to go on was the virtually meaningless understanding of God's presence I had misused and misunderstood up to this point. But I knew the best way forward was to follow David's lead and let Scripture direct my steps.
Since that day on the Tennessee River, I have been on an expedition to understand the biblical motif of God's presence. In the past years, as I have been blessed to examine and study it in depth, the Lord has graciously directed me to a better grasp of God's presence and helped me see the way to the promises of Psalm 16:11.
This book, in a sense, is part travelogue and part key to David's treasure. My desire is that it can be simultaneously the "You are Here" and "You Want to Be Here" stickers of Psalm 16. Hopefully, then, this work can help us move beyond the stagnant notions of God's presence to the joy and everlasting delight that marks those who truly understand, biblically and experientially, the presence of God. To get us there, I hope to walk with you through the vistas and valleys of God's mighty acts in redemptive history to show where God reveals his presence and, to the best of our ability, help us understand why he does so.
The Way Ahead
Once we step out beyond the initial overgrowth of confusion and obscurities surrounding this theme, we actually find that the biblical path ahead is well worn. Yahweh is the present God, and the biblical Canon is a beautiful and creative story of how he fulfills his promise to be in the midst of his people. Scripture's narrative suggests that the past, present, and future realities of redemption are inextricably tied to God's drawing near to a people.
What I hope to help impress upon us all is that the presence of God is not about mere intuitions and platitudes. It is not a mystical feeling or emotional charge. It is first and foremost a theme of Scripture; and even more, it is a theme on which the story of Scripture hinges.
To demonstrate this, I want to make one major argument in this book that rests on two very simple but very significant biblical truths. The first truth is this: the presence of God is a central goal in God's redemptive mission. The second truth follows: the presence of God is the agent by which the Lord accomplishes his redemptive mission. God's presence, then, is both eschatological (it is the end-of-time aim of the Lord's mission) and instrumental (it is ultimately what fulfills the Lord's mission). So to put our argument in its simplest terms, the presence of God is a fundamental objective in our redemption and, simultaneously, the means by which God completes this objective.
That is a lot to take in, so to consider this further, let's think first about the eschatological (the future goal-oriented) emphasis. The restoration of God's presence — or we could say his relational nearness — once lost in the fall is one of the most pivotal acts in the story of redemption. As John shows us, the final hope of history is that "the dwelling place of God is with man" and that God "will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God" (Rev. 21:3). Seen from a redemptive-historical standpoint, this text is essentially a summary of the eschatological purposes driving God's mission of salvation.
This objective, though, is not only prevalent at the story's end, but also woven throughout Scripture's plotline. From the beginning, the goal of God's presence affects the Creator-creature relationship. In Eden, God charges the first couple to expand the garden-sanctuary, the locus of God's presence, both geographically and genealogically (Gen. 1:28–30). The temple of God's presence found in the garden is meant to cover all of creation. From this perspective, we see that the Lord, in his divine wisdom, ties Adam's role to the administration of his presence to the entire world.
However, as the familiar story goes, in his sin Adam breaks this bond in pursuit of arrogant self-idolatry. The much-deserved curses add up — each levied against the couple's role in disseminating God's presence throughout the cosmos. By God's mercy, the story does not end here. God shines the light of his promises into the darkness of Adam's sin. Where Adam has failed, God succeeds, for God pledges to complete his own purposes and spread his own presence to the world.
Outside the garden, the eschatological purposes of God's presence remain front and center in God's redemptive story. From Genesis to Revelation, God's covenant voice calls a people to relationship, a call that reverberates throughout the Scriptures until it crescendos in John's prophetic vision (e.g., Gen. 9:1–15; 12:1–3; 15:6ff.; 17:19; Ex. 19:1ff.; 24:3–8; 2 Sam. 7:12–13; Jer. 31:31–34; Matt. 26:28; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8:6; Rev. 21–22). This covenant picks up where Adam left off, with God's creating a people and place for the enjoyment of his presence. This divine purpose pervades every covenant ratified and culminates in the new covenant arrival of Christ, the new and better Adam, the one who accomplishes what Adam could not. These covenantal promises of God's presence line the story of Scripture like mileposts pointing the way to the New Jerusalem, the city where God will dwell with his people forever.
As we will see, redemption moves forward. It has an objective. God is working to establish a people and a place for his presence. This is our guarantee and our hope. But this story is also our story, and regrettably, it is a story that we often forget.
Remarkably, though, the presence of God is not only a future promise awaiting fulfillment; it is also the way God will fulfill his future promise of being with his people. Just as the waters of the rivers and tributaries flow into and fill the waters of the ocean, the presence of God is what brings humanity to the final source of God's eschatological presence. Our first point — God's goal to bring his people into his presence eternally — therefore, actuates our second point — God is present to redeem. And, of course, the reverse is true as well. They feed one another in a great collaborative act rooted in God's glory. So while the presence of God is an end of redemption, it is simultaneously the means by which the Lord reaches this end. The presence of God, then, is eschatological and instrumental: the Lord becomes present in redemption to direct his people to his eschatological presence.
As you can imagine, this theme floods the pages of Scripture. It ties together all of the major plot points found in redemptive history. As we see at the beginning, God walks with Adam in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). He stoops low to care for Adam, speak with him, and simply relate to him. He draws near to judge and discipline him as well. Likewise, God confronts Abraham and his offspring. He reveals himself to Israel. God becomes manifest to deliver his people (marked by his presence) from exile, to display his glory atop Sinai, and direct them to the Land of Promise. He is present to orchestrate Israel's history, bringing the nation to its pinnacle in David's reign and to its depths in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. Into the darkness of this dispersion God shines the light of Jesus Christ, the true Immanuel, the ultimate expression of "God with us." And now, in the time between Christ's first and second comings, the presence of God comes in the Holy Spirit to indwell and prepare his people for that treasure David heralds in Psalm 16. Even in such a brief catalog as this, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the Lord is manifest in history. He is the active agent of salvation. He is the one who brings his people to enjoy his presence in redemption now and forever in glorification.
Who Needs This Trip?
Unfortunately, many have forgotten this storyline, and this has had massive consequences. First it steals glory from God. It should be clear from the outset that the story of Scripture is first and foremost about the author of that story. God speaks a drama of suspense, intrigue, wonder, hope, tension, and anticipation all the while the main character is God himself. This is his autobiography, not ours.
Second, forgetting this storyline has given us delusions of grandeur. We are not the lead actor and certainly not the author. Instead our bit parts in this drama are about God as well. What the theme of God's presence shows us is that this is God's story, and we are simply a part of a grand narrative that surpasses anything we can imagine on our own. In his grace he includes us in his story through his drawing near. Because divine presence is integral to the theological message of Scripture, the presence of God helps us understand our world, our own lives, and our relationship with the God who draws near. Know the author, know the story. Know the story, know your place in the story.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Presence of God"
Copyright © 2015 J. Ryan Lister.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Introduction: A Forgotten Storyline 19
2 Of Storyboards and Location Scouts: A Biblical and Theological Foundation for the Presence of God 35
Part 1 Fade to Light: The Presence of God and the Goal of Redemption
3 Beginning at the End: Creating and Redeeming a People and a Place for God's Presence 61
4 Conflict and Covenant: The Story's Turn and the Presence of God 87
5 The Promise of a Hero: The New Covenant, the New Adam, and the Presence of God 119
Part 2 Enter Stage Left: The Presence of God and the Means of Redemption in the Old Testament
6 The Curtain Rises: Paradise to Patriarchs 145
7 On Center Stage: Out of Egypt 173
8 The Curtain Falls (on Act 1): Back to the Brink 201
Part 3 Standing in the Spotlight: The Presence of God and the Means of Redemption in the New Testament
9 A Hero Emerges from the Ruins: God Present to Redeem in the Person of Christ 251
10 The Hero Takes His Throne: God Present to Redeem through the Work of Christ 271
Part 4 Curtain Call
11 Finding Our Place in the Story: The Presence of God for the Christian Life 297
General Index 343
Scripture Index 351
What People are Saying About This
“Ryan Lister knows more about the biblical teaching concerning God’s presence in the world than anyone else I know. And there is no theme more important to our relationship with God. Lister’s book is a great antidote to the temptation to see God only as a concept, doctrine, or formula, or to regard him only as a force in the world outside ourselves. The book shows that God is our friend and Father, and that in him we live and move and have our being.”
John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
“We need more biblical theologies like this one! Ryan Lister has identified a central biblical theme that we easily take for granted. With the unity of Scripture to the fore, he has provided us with a diligently researched study of one of the golden threads that highlight the glories of Christ’s person and work. This is thematic biblical study at its best.”
Graeme Goldsworthy,Former Lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Theology, and Hermeneutics, Moore Theological College
“Ryan Lister provides a great service to the people of God by tracing the theme of God’s presence from Genesis to Revelation, showing that it is not only central to the Christian eschatological hope, but also the gracious means by which God moves fallen sinners to that glorious beatific vision.”
Steven B. Cowan,Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Lincoln Memorial University
“The whole of the Bible, from soon after the entrance of sin in Genesis 3 to Revelation 22, can be read as the story of God coming nearer. The Presence of God is filled with insight that unpacks the fullness of Scripture’s development on this theme, but also shows how precious the concept of God’s presence with his people is for our lives. Lister has been very careful to represent clearly and appropriately the development of this beautiful biblical theme, and he has done this in a way that is highly relevant for Christian identity and Christian living. Do yourself a favorread this book and rejoice that God has chosen to come near.”
Bruce A. Ware,T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“The much misunderstood notion of the presence of God is central to the Bible’s story from beginning to end. Ryan Lister explains how it is both God’s goal for us and the means by which God accomplishes his redemptive mission. This fresh approach to biblical theology is presented as an unfolding drama, with many practical and pastoral implications. In particular, it shows that a sound and scripturally mature analysis of the presence of God can help answer this world’s deep-seated spiritual desires.”
David Peterson,Former Principal, Oak Hill College; Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer in New Testament, Moore Theological College
“Ryan Lister provides an exegetically grounded theology of relational divine presence that is traced along the Christ-centered storyline of the Bible. This work is an outstanding model of evangelical scholarship, and Lister’s conclusions invade every square inch of our lives as we seek to fulfill the primary reason for our existenceknowing the holy God who mercifully draws near to his people.”
Erik Thoennes, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Chair, Biblical and Theological Studies Theology Department, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University; Pastor, Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada, California
“God’s presence is fundamental to God’s story. It is a profound reality. While we have access to this reality in part through our experience of it, the reality is even more than what we experienceit is deep theology grounded in what God has said in his Word about himself. Lister’s work examines this fertile soil of God’s self-revelation, out of which our experiences can flourish with renewed vigor.”
Mike Wilkerson, author,Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sometimes a book is conceived long before it is born. Seeds for The Presence of God were planted in the summer of 2000 with the author’s study of Psalm 16:11: You make known to me the path of life; In your presence there is fullness of joy; At your right hand are pleasures forever. Letting Scripture direct his steps, Lister began an expedition to understand the biblical motif of God’s presence and the result is an exhaustive chronicle of the presence of God throughout biblical history. His book is a theological feast which requires a slow digestion. As I was reading, it occurred to me that working through Lister’s book, section by section, alongside a trip through the Bible in a year would provide enriching backstory to each day’s reading. The Presence of God is based on several big-picture concepts: 1. Defining the “presence of God” requires two distinct delineations. Eschatological presence is the immediate and fully relational presence of God seen only in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 when the believer finally enters the dwelling place of God for all eternity. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, there is a change that occurs in the presence of God. “Adam’s sin disturbed the whole universe, hung up the great curtain in the temple, and dug the hole for the coming cross of Christ.” God’s redemptive presence comes with the goal of restoring all that sin has destroyed. From that point on, the divine presence is at work in history to bring about a New Paradise that will cover the whole earth completing what the first creation began. 2. The presence of God is a central goal in God’s redemptive mission, but at the same time, it is the agent by which God accomplishes that mission. 3. It is not contradictory for a God who is transcendent to also be immanent. In fact, it is God’s transcendence that allows for His immanence, and, the glorious truth of His immanence is based on the intimacy that has always existed among the members of the Trinity. Lister argues that each of the Old Testament covenants revolves around God’s promise of a place in which to house the divine presence and a people to revel in that presence, thus reflecting His glory. He helps us to see that “God’s commitment to be present with His people is overwhelming — strong enough to conquer sin and death.” Spotlighting the presence of God as the center of redemptive history, Lister works his way through Old Testament time until Matthew trumpets the entry of God in the flesh, when redemptive presence takes on flesh and blood, sweat and sandals. From this point in Scripture, “our Lord is pulling the common threads of all the previous covenants together to create the beautiful fabric of the New Covenant.” Following the trajectory of God’s presence across the story arc from Eden to tabernacle, from temple to exile, and from Jesus to the New Jerusalem is well worth a Christian’s reading time, but J. Ryan Lister goes the extra mile in his final chapters to answer the “so what?” question. The magnificent truth that God is with us gives deeper significance to our great salvation, to our identity as the church, and to our anticipation of the future coming of Christ when He will, once again, usher in His unmitigated presence. The fact that He has drawn near to us opens the door of relationship for us to draw near to Him. The Pentecost reversal of Babel’s alienation points to the Spirit-initiated work of reconciliation that God desires for the world. In the believer, the Spirit does the work of sanctification, empowering the miracle of killing sin and displaying righteousness. Manifesting the presence of God in this age, the Church waits for Christ’s return, not so that we can quibble over the WHEN, but so that we can rejoice over the WHY: that our story and His story may once again be one. Disclosure: This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my unbiased review.