In John 4:24, while speaking with the woman at the well, Jesus made a clear and definite statement that "God is a Spirit". In this lesson we will tackle one of the most difficult to comprehend attributes of God: the attribute of being Spiritual. It is a study of the very essence or nature of God. Emory Bancroft gives the following concise definition:
God as Spirit is incorporeal, invisible, without material substance, without physical parts or passions and therefore free from all temporal limitations.
This is a simple and yet a very deep definition, so we will explore this attribute a little more in detail using God's own words.
All that we see and that with which we interact in this world, including our own selves, consists of material substance. What about God?
When the Bible says that God is a Spirit, we must understand that the essence of His being is spirit rather than matter. This is wonderfully illustrated in the sudden appearance of Jesus in Luke 24:36-43. In this passage Jesus plainly tells His disciples that "spirit hath not flesh and bones". There is no material element in the being of God. He is not matter nor is He dependent upon matter.
To reinforce this deep thought, consider this question - how was it that Jesus was able to suddenly appear in the midst of His disciples? From a parallel passage, we know that the doors were shut and probably locked, yet Jesus suddenly appeared before them. This may have been why they thought they were seeing his spirit. Jesus, as God, whose very essence is spirit and not matter would not be limited by any material objects. Thus He could freely appear wherever He chose.
As a spirit, God does not have a physical body. At the incarnation, God was united with a physical body (John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 2:14). Is there such a thing as a spiritual body though? According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44, there is such a thing as a spiritual body. This would seem to indicate that all spirits have bodies, but we can really only speculate on this matter.
What about the verses of Scripture that talk about God having an arm or describe Him as sitting on a throne? Don't these verses indicate that God has a physical body and therefore must consist of matter? If this were the case, then we would have a contradiction in God's revelation about Himself. The truth is that we would have a difficult, if not impossible, time understanding God unless He were to reveal details about Himself using concepts with which we are familiar.
An anthropomorphism is a figure of speech where God is given attributes of human form or character. God uses anthropomorphic expressions in order for us to be able understand the truths about His nature. For example, Psalm 89:13 reads "Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand". Rather than thinking about God having a literal arm or hand, we must realize that God is using this in order for us to visualize Him as being powerful. In Psalm 57:1, David says "in the shadow of thy wings will I make my refuge". Think about the safety and security that a baby bird would find under the wings of its mother.
The famous astronomer La Place swept the heavens with his telescope looking for God, but was not able to find Him. Would it be possible to see God? Are spirits visible?
Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17, and Hebrews 11:27 all state explicitly that God is invisible (consider John 1:18 also). God as a spirit cannot be seen with our physical eyes. The word translated "spirit" in the New Testament actually means "breath" or "wind", neither of which can be seen. This is similarly illustrated in the invisible operation of the Holy Spirit when a person is born again. In John 3:8, Jesus explained that this is like the wind whose presence can be felt but the wind itself cannot be seen. So it is that we cannot see God - we can only see the results of His presence.
What about the verses of Scripture where someone saw or believed they saw a spirit? For example, in Matthew 14:26, when Jesus came walking across the Sea of Galilee, the disciples thought they were seeing a spirit. Can a spirit be invisible if Bible characters thought that they could be seen? We should note that in the few instances in which people thought they were seeing a spirit, it turns out that they were really seeing flesh and bones (Matthew 14:26, Mark 6:49, Luke 24:37). Some visible appearances of spirits were seen during visions (Job 4:15, Ezekiel 1:1-28), but a dream is quite different than physical sight. Since there are no examples where a spirit was actually seen by physical sight, we can rest on the conclusion that God, as a spirit, is invisible.
What about those verses of Scripture where God clearly appeared to man? Scholars call the visible appearance of God a theophany (a Christophany is a visible appearance of Christ before the incarnation). These appearances can be found throughout the Bible in two basic categories: material symbols and manifestations in human form. In each of these cases, God took on a material form in order to help man to understand Him.
After the fall of man, Adam and Eve hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God (Genesis 3:8). The word translated "presence" literally means "face". Adam and Eve must have seen some material manifestation of God. Moses saw God in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), and it was this sight that caused Moses to turn aside. Later God spoke face to face with Moses in the cloudy pillar (Exodus 33:10-11). It was this same cloudy pillar that the Israelites followed in order to know when to march and when to stop (Exodus 40:36-37). These are just a few examples where God must have known that man needed a physical manifestation of God.
Joshua, Gideon, and Samson's parents, are among those in the Old Testament who saw a being, who acted in the name of Jehovah, commonly referred to as the angel of the LORD (Joshua 5:13-15; Judges 6:12-24; 13:1-23). In each of these examples, there is no doubt that this being had the appearance of a man because He at first was mistaken for that. Also, there is no doubt that this being was God because He allowed those that saw Him to worship Him. Consider also Exodus 24:10.
III. SuperiorityWhich is the superior - matter or spirit?
When Israel put their trust in the strength of Egypt, the prophet Isaiah reminded them that "the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit "(Isaiah 31:3). Isaiah believed that spirit was mightier than flesh. Also, matter can be destroyed, but spirit seems to be indestructible (Luke 12:4-5). Lastly, it is not flesh and blood that we wrestle against, but rather, it is spiritual warfare in which we are involved (Ephesians 6:12). It would therefore seem that spirit is superior to matter.
How many of us, by our actions, show our objection to this? Who is it that we fear the most? Where do we put our trust? The truth is that we only practice what we really believe. Do we really believe that spirit is superior to matter?
Though we have attempted to outline some details about the spirituality of God, our human mind can only grope in the darkness when it comes to fully comprehending what a spirit is. Our feeble understanding of the essence of God should therefore help us to realize how awesome God is. Despite the ego of modern humanistic thinking, it should be clear that God is far superior to man. In addition, we should conclude that God cannot be compared to anything on this earth, but this is a subject all by itself and will be covered more fully in the next lesson.