The Blessed and Only God: Part Three
In our previous post, we began considering Paul’s doctrine of God in his first letter to Timothy, a teaching that erupts in two great doxologies in 1 Tim. 1:17 and 6:15. These doxologies draw us up into the rarified atmosphere of God’s transcendence. Yet mountains, like God’s transcendence, don’t float in the air. They are connected to a landscape, an ecosystem. So it is with these twin doxologies. As lofty as these mountains are, they do eventually slope down to meet us where we are, where we normally live. Alongside these doxologies of God’s infinite glory is Paul’s doctrine of Christ which is spread out and diffused through this letter like a watershed. We cannot speak of Paul’s doctrine of God in this letter without speaking also of his doctrine of Christ. At the end of the day, they are one and the same.
The Blessed God who Came Below
To begin with, the “king of the ages,” spoken of in 1:17 and the “blessed and only sovereign” brought up in 6:15 are not references to God in the abstract. In each case, Paul is talking about Jesus himself. If you start reading from 1:11 , it becomes quickly evident that Jesus Christ is the one directing and saving Paul and the one to whom Paul dedicates his first doxology. The same is true in 6:13ff. In v. 4, Paul speaks of “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time.” Who will display it at the proper time? Jesus Christ of course. And this “he” is the same “he” Paul goes on to describe as “the blessed and only sovereign, king of kings and lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light.” Paul moves seamlessly from talking about Jesus to talking about the transcendent God of infinite glory.
There are other features of Paul’s letter that reveal an incredibly exalted view of Christ Jesus. We encounter one of these in the very first verse of the letter where Paul refers to “God our Savior and Christ Jesus our hope.” Paul will refer to God as “our savior” several times in this letter, in 2:3 and 4:10, to be specific. This is actually a rather unusual paring of words in the NT, and it is a pairing that doesn’t come naturally to us because of our doctrinal assumptions. 1 John 4:14 gives us a typical example that makes logical sense to us, “we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” God sent Jesus and Jesus is the savior. After all, it is Jesus that does all the saving, all the suffering, all the atoning, all the dying. And this is the usual pattern for how the word “savior” is used in the NT. It is usually attached to Jesus, not to “God.” But here in 1 Timothy, and in a few other places as well, the term is attached to “God” without qualification or explanation—“God is our Savior.” God’s transcendence never compromises or limits his ability to also draw near. Click To Tweet
If we are not careful, language of God sending and Jesus saving might suggest that God is two-steps removed from the plan of redemption. He merely signs off on Jesus’ venture. Not so. God plans, executes, and completes our deliverance and salvation; and, as far as Paul is concerned, when we look at the man “Christ Jesus,” we are gazing at the “image of the invisible God.” In 2:3-6, God and Jesus are clearly in perfect union. What God wants, Jesus wants. There is one God and savior, and there is one mediator who saves. All of this adds up to the picture that Jesus is fully God and fully man. The two gospel summaries of 1 Timothy, found in 1:15 and 3:16 assume that the person of Jesus didn’t appear for the first time in history. No, God the Son “came into the world to save sinners,” he was “manifested in the flesh.” That language assumes he had a life before he took on flesh, that he came from somewhere else.
What does this all mean for Paul’s doctrine of God? It means that Paul’s lofty doxologies of God from atop a snow capped peak, gazing out into the deep blue of an endless, cloudless sky, also includes the view of variegated woods, meadows, and lakes below. It means that God’s transcendence also includes his nearness. God’s transcendence never compromises or limits his ability to also draw near. This transcendent God, who inhabits eternity, immortal, invisible, and unapproachable, has also come to dwell and inhabit our spaces and places. God’s transcendence shouldn’t just boggle the mind like trying to comprehend the distances of the universe. We shouldn’t just equate transcendence with infinite distance; we should also equate it with infinite nearness. What should equally boggle the mind and beggar the imagination is that the same God who cannot be contained, confined himself to the womb of Mary, to the dusty streets of Galilee, to the spars of a roman Cross, to the cloying shrouds of death in a cold dark tomb. And yet such is his power, that he can wear it all on his sleeve. Such confinement for such a God is no confinement at all. He is just as home in the flesh as he is in the expanse of eternity. We shouldn’t just equate transcendence with infinite distance; we should also equate it with infinite nearness. Click To Tweet
Other religions will speak of God as a being transcendent, remote, unapproachable, and unknowable. God is the One, a being beyond name, beyond description, beyond comprehension. Only Christianity dares to say that “the One” is able to take on a familiar name. Invariably in those other traditions, God cannot commune and relate to us in any meaningful way because the world is ultimately something “the One” doesn’t have control over or doesn’t really “like” to begin with. In our faith, precisely because God is so far above us, he can come nearest. He is not inhibited by physical laws—laws, by the way, that he himself spoke into existence and maintains. He can as easily write himself into the script as Shakespeare could write himself into one of his plays. And by writing himself in, by coming, living, and dying among us; we know he must truly, deeply, love the play he’s written. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”