Further Reflections on Psalm 139

On a recent Sunday morning, I went to one of my favorite psalms to remind myself of some truths about God’s presence.  I discovered some valuable insights that I had not previously addressed.

This topic is an important one for me personally.  I have been striving to experience God’s presence as a normal part of my Christian walk for the past 45 years.  As a freshman in college, I read Brother Lawrence’s classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.  This book opened my eyes to the concept that I could remain close to God by His grace every day – not just in church, but everywhere I went.

Some previous reflections

In my book, Immanuel Labor: God’s Presence in our Profession, I laid a biblical and theological foundation of what God’s word teaches about work and presented how to apply these eternal truths.  My focus throughout the book was to highlight the link between God’s presence and human work. 

As I unpacked the idea of God’s presence in general, this is what I stated:

The Bible passage that most believers think of with respect to this concept is Psalm 139:7-10, which says: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

Although these verses highlight God’s supernatural ability to be everywhere and anywhere, David wants us to see this aspect of God’s personality as not merely an objective reality but as something he personally feels. He says things like “you are there” (twice in verse 8), “your hand will guide me,” and “your right hand will hold me fast.” These words describe that God is there in David’s midst, which gives him (and us) peace, security, and hope. Not only that, but God has been, is now, and will continue to actively lead him every step of the way.

Later, in a section on regaining a sense of God’s presence when we have fallen from it, I wrote: “The most important thing I can say to a Christian is that God will never leave us, condemn us, or give up on us.  This is crystal clear in Scripture.  Psalm 139:7–10 says that He is always present with us.”

New observations about this passage

David, the author of this psalm, begins by declaring that God has “searched” him and knows him (v. 1).  I have often begun my own confessions of sin with the same words David uses, “You know me.”  David right away acknowledges that there is nothing that God does not know about us (about Russ).

He continues.  God perceives David’s thoughts (v. 2).  Yahweh knows his whereabouts (v. 3) and is familiar with all his ways.  God even knows what David is about to say before he utters a word (v. 4).

David concludes that knowing all this is completely overwhelming to him.  It is too wonderful (v. 6).

I find it interesting that there is no admission of guilt and shame by David, despite the fact that God knows everything about David’s thoughts and activities, both good and bad.  He is focused on God’s marvelous attributes.  It seems to give him peace to know that God has revealed Himself in this way.

David then shifts his focus to describing the length, breadth, and depth of God’s presence.  He knows that the Spirit of God is anywhere that David could possibly imagine he could go (v. 7).  He mentions the heavens and the depths (v. 8).  God is at both ends of the vertical dimension, both high and low.  In verse 9, he writes of rising on “the wings of the dawn” and settling on the “far side of the sea” – the horizontal dimension, in all directions.  Even there, God’s hand will guide him and hold him (v. 10).

Due to time and space constraints, I am going to stop there with my summary.  However, I do want to highlight one thing.  This psalm is about God’s presence.  It is also about God’s grace.  Despite David’s often sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, he can speak from the depths of his faith and his own personal experiences that God has continued to lay His hand of protection, guidance, and protection on him.  He concludes in verse 17, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!”  This is a man after God’s own heart whose heart has been changed by the grace of Yahweh, even in Old Testament times.

New Testament implications

This OT passage helps us understand how David personally understood and experienced the attribute of God’s omnipresence.  This divine characteristic is something that is always true about God the Father.  It gives Christ-followers great comfort as they focus on this aspect of God’s being.  However, we need to be reminded that the other two members of the Trinity also possess this same attribute.

The last thing that Jesus said to His disciples was this: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).  This is a promise that every disciple of Jesus Christ holds dear.

However, He had already given His disciples an idea of how His presence would be manifested.  As Jesus was preparing to go to the cross, He taught them about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and how He would counsel, teach, and remind them of His words.  He would bring the power of God’s presence to them and in them after Jesus departed to the right hand of the Father.  (See John 14:16-17, and 26.)

How can we apply these truths?

My own conclusion about this passage is two-fold.  First, God’s presence gives us much-needed comfort when we find ourselves in an uncomfortable place.  Second, it also gives us much-need discomfort when we find ourselves in a comfortable place that we know is outside of God’s will.

I encourage you to experience for yourself a life of consistently practicing the presence of God.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 60 articles posted on this blog have been published 120 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

A Few Thoughts on the Trinity

This is a tricky topic for Christians to discuss.  It is a tough topic for me to write about.  I have been developing this article off and on for quite some time.  I started it nearly three years ago.  There is something I need to say.  I feel compelled to help my brothers and sisters to better understand the idea of the Trinity, and more importantly, to be able to apply this understanding in their walk.

I am hoping that you will trust me enough to dive a little bit deeper into this challenging topic.  I want to address just a couple of ideas which may radically alter the way you think, feel, and relate to those who are the subject of the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy”: God in three persons; blessed Trinity.

An observation about contemporary Christian music

I listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music on the radio and I have sung modern praise songs in local churches or Army chapels.  I have seen a somewhat disturbing trend over the last decade or two.  At times, it seems that emotion has overshadowed Christian doctrine.  Let me explain.

Many well-meaning songwriters have not been careful to distinguish between God the Father and God the Son.  In our attempts to express our understanding of the doctrine of Jesus, or Christology (which asserts correctly that Jesus is fully man and fully divine), we often say, “Jesus is God”.  This statement, if used out of context, might cause a songwriter to use God and Jesus interchangeably in their lyrics.  I believe this is inherently confusing and is a major misunderstanding of the Trinity.

For example, notice the line from this popular worship song shown above.  This song is about the beautiful name of Jesus.  Then, without warning, this line pops up on the screen: “Now and forever God you reign.”  The first time we sang it in church I could not sing it.  It just did not seem right.

There is another popular song by a group I truly enjoy listening to.  It is about two of the names of Jesus.  It brings together the biblical imagery from the book of Revelation, where Jesus is depicted as the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world and also the Lion of Judah.  However, when we get to the chorus, I cringe every time the words come up: “Our God is the Lion . . . Our God is the Lamb . . . For who can stop the Lord Almighty.”  The Lord Almighty is a special name of God that is found in the Old Testament.  As such, I am not sure it is accurate to call Jesus by that name.

Now that I have ruined a couple of perfectly good worship songs, I had better jump to the Scriptures for a little help.

Jesus came to reveal the Father, not replace Him

I have to admit.  I do struggle a bit myself to fully understand and apply this mysterious doctrine where One is Three and the Three are One; distinct in persons, and yet unified in substance. 

However, I know that Jesus did not come to replace God the Father.  He came to reveal Him.  The reason Jesus came to us so that we could come to God the Father.  A believer who only relates to Jesus but not to the Father has an incomplete understanding of faith and the doctrine of God.

In John 14:6, after Jesus tells His disciples that He was the way, the truth, and the life, He states, “no one comes to the Father except through me.”  What Jesus meant was that believing in Him is the only way that anyone can come to the Father.  All who approach God must come by faith in Jesus alone. However, Jesus never intended for His followers to merely come to Him and then stop there.

Moreover, Paul points out in Rom. 5:1 that we have been justified through faith in Christ, which results in “peace with God”.  This is not the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7).  This refers to a radical change in status from being God’s enemy to becoming His child.  The writer of Hebrews exhorts Christians to “draw near to God” because we have “confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19-22).  We have been given a rare gift that the OT believers did not have – direct access to God.  Drawing near to God was why Jesus died for you and me.  His clear intent that we would enjoy a living, loving relationship with His Father, just as He did.

One in essence, three in Persons

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology articulates the doctrine of the Trinity quite simply: “God is one in being or essence who exists eternally in three distinct co-equal ‘persons’.”

The Apostle Paul, who is consistently Christ-centered in his theology, often refers to both Father and Son.  In 1 Cor. 8:6, he offers this balanced view of the Trinity for our consideration: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”  This statement emphasizes Paul’s understanding of the distinct roles between God the Father and Jesus the Son. 

Jesus stated in John 10:30 that He and the Father are one, meaning that they are unified and of the same essence.  He clearly could not have meant they are one and the same person.  The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father.  This was evident at the Lord’s baptism.  When Jesus is getting baptized, the voice of the Father is heard, and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove (Matt. 3:16-17).

John 5:17-23 helps us understand how Jesus saw his relationship with His Father.  Jesus stated that His Father always works, and so does He (v. 17).  The Jewish leaders understood the ramifications of this powerful statement.  They were angry to the point of wanting to kill Jesus, not only for breaking the Sabbath, but because He was “calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (v. 18).  Note the term John uses.  They said that Jesus was making Himself equal with God.  Not identical to, interchangeable with, or one and the same, but equal in terms of their divine essence.

In the next verse, Jesus describes His motivation to “do only what he sees his Father doing” (v. 19).  The Father raises people from the dead and so does the Son (v. 21).  When Jesus was declared as God’s representative on earth as the Son of God and Son of Man, God the Father assigned Jesus to be the judge of all (v. 22).  On Judgment Day, all people will honor Jesus as Lord of Lords and King of Kings, just as they have honored the Father (v. 23).  The Apostle Paul confirms this, stating that on that Day, “every knee shall bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:9-10).

How to speak of the Trinity with precision

Yes, I believe that Jesus is 100% man and 100% divine.  But I am careful not to say “Jesus is God” without qualifying my statement.  I prefer to say that He is the Word of God, the image of God the Father, or that He is the Son of God.  (See also John 1:1-3, Col. 1:15, and Heb. 1:3).  Let me explain.

It is my simple observation, with several notable exceptions of course, that most of the time that the New Testament writers use the word “God”, they are almost always referring to God the Father.

It is true that an orthodox understanding of the Trinity, based on the Scriptures and the historic creeds of the Christian faith teaches us to believe that “The Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God”.  I do believe that myself.  However, when we import this understanding into a Bible passage whenever we read the word “God”, thinking that “God” means any or all three of the members of the Godhead, we are not interpreting Scripture correctly.  This seems to be bad hermeneutics.

In closing, let me share one of several benedictions that the Apostle Paul gives at the end of his epistles, which again demonstrates his balanced understanding and careful identification of the Trinity as three distinct persons:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor. 13:14).

You see, I think Paul understood the distinctions and the roles of the three divine and equal persons of the Trinity.  He had a personal relationship with each one of the members of the Godhead in the way the Bible describes.  We would be wise to do the same.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 110 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 8)

This was the last Sunday School lesson of an eight-week series that I taught a few years ago in our former church.  (See previous session here.)  Inexplicably, I neglected to finish my notes and post it.  In this session, we discussed the age-old battle between flesh and spirit.  I invite you to explore with me who we are in Christ.  For a deeper dive into this critical topic, see the article I wrote and posted on my blog here

Summary:

What have we been studying and discussing, as we looked at a theology of our identity in Christ?:

  • With few exceptions, the Bible does not refer to believers as sinners; although we do sin
  • To fully understand who we are as believers, it is good to know who we were before Christ
  • To know who we are in Christ, we must understand the blessings of the new covenant
  • By faith in Jesus, certain things became true of us “positionally”: justified, forgiven, and righteous
  • There is an irreversible radical transformation that happens to every believer; it begins at the very moment of salvation when one is born again, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
  • Those radical changes affect everything about us: our minds, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, desires, abilities, and relationships

Introduction:

All along, we have been talking about who we are now as believers.  We are not the people we used to be, either in God’s eyes (He sees us through Christ’s finished work on the cross), or in our own experience (we are becoming Christ-like).  However, there are many times that our old sinful nature attempts to influence us and impede our progress in becoming the new creatures we already are in Christ.  What happens when old meets new?  Is there hope?  What are some of the keys to success?

Book:

1) Read Romans 7:14 – 8:17.  (Break it down by sections.) 

    a) What describes those who live in “the flesh” (the sinful nature) vs. those who live in the Spirit? 

    b) What is the answer to the problem of this constant internal spiritual battle?

    c) Discuss the penalty, the power, and the presence of sin.  When are we set free from each?

(Teacher notes: Paul is describing the internal battle between his flesh and his new nature in Christ.  All of us can identify with his frustration: “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15).  He has this sinful flesh that he cannot totally escape in this life: “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (v. 18).  The fact that he want to do what is good (vv. 18 and 21), does not want to do evil (v. 19), and delights in God’s Word (v. 22) tells me that he is indeed a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  He describes this internal battle between flesh and spirit as “waging war” (v. 23).  He exclaims, “What a wretched man I am!” (v. 24).  Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24).  The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ.  I love how he starts chapter 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Despite our constant struggles with the flesh, if we are in Christ, we have been set free from the penalty of sin, we have victory over the power of sin, and when Jesus returns and we receive our new resurrection body like His, we will finally be set free from the presence of sin forever.  Hallelujah!)

2) Read Gal. 5:13-26; 6:7-10.

    a) What actions/attitudes characterize the sinful nature vs. the actions/attitudes of those in the Spirit?

    b) What is the secret to spiritual growth?

(Teacher notes: I see this section as an expansion of what Paul described in Romans 7.  In the NIV, we read the term “sinful nature”, where other translations use the word, “flesh” (Gal. 5:13, 16, 17, and 19).  Paul exhorts the church to “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16 and 25), which is in direct contrast with living in the flesh.  Those who are in Christ should be led by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:18).  Jesus said to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us (John 14:17).  We have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:11).  We can be consistently filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).) 

3) Read 1 John 1:5 – 2:2.

    a) Paul contrasts the flesh versus the Holy Spirit.  John, however, chooses to use the analogy of darkness vs. light.  What is true of those who live (walk) in the light? 

    b) Why would those who walk in the light need to be purified from sin?

   c) What is the purpose of confession?  What is actually involved?  Are we asking, or are we accepting?

(Teacher notes: Those who humbly submit to God’s authority, are followers of Jesus, and live in the power of the Holy Spirit will live godly lives – in the light, not in darkness.  When we walk with God in holiness and truth, we not only have fellowship with Him, but with fellow believers in Jesus Christ.  His blood, which cleanses us from past sins, also cleanses us from present sin (v. 7).  When we confess our sins, it does not earn our forgiveness; it is already ours.  It does restore our fellowship with God.

Look

Where and when do we struggle most with sin?  Are you quick to confess these sins and submit yourself under the control of the Holy Spirit?  If so, over time, the supernatural becomes natural.

Took

Make an effort to remember who you are in Christ.  Focus less on what you are doing (or not doing) and more on what He has already done AND is doing in your life to make you more like Him.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 100 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.