by Bob Kauflin
1. God’s Presence In The Bible
Throughout the Bible, the corporate worship of God’s people has always been connected to God’s presence. It’s like this silver thread that runs through the whole Bible, beginning with God dwelling with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis and ending with this scene in Revelation 21:3:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”
Between Genesis and Revelation is the story of God’s desire to have a people among whom he can dwell. So, that happened first in the tabernacle, then the temple, then in Jesus himself–God with us–and now in the church through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. You could say that God’s presence is both the means by which he works out his plans for his people, and also the goal of those plans.
2. God’s Presence Today
We often connect God’s presence with singing. Is there some special power that music has to make God present? Is worship in song primarily about pursuing God’s presence? It can certainly seem that way, and some people go so far as to say worship in song is all about God’s presence. I understand why.
Who hasn’t been in a time of singing when suddenly you become much more aware of God's being with us, much more aware than we were at the start? People will often refer to that as the “manifest presence of God.”
More songs than ever are being written about things like chasing after God’s presence, pursuing God’s presence, and longing for God’s presence; but sometimes it can get confusing. There’s one song that starts:
Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come, flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Now, while filling the atmosphere may be one way to think about God’s presence, I think we can be clearer. Paul says in Ephesians 5:18 that we (God's people) are the ones to be filled with God’s Spirit. Paul’s encouraging us to allow the Spirit to fill us with a greater knowledge of God the Father and Jesus the Son.
Harold Best talks about the relationship between music and God’s presence in his book, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, and he says this:
“Christian musicians must be particularly cautious. They can create the impression that God is more present when music is being made than when it is not; that worship is more possible with music than without it; and that God might possibly depend on its presence before appearing.”
God isn’t a genie in a bottle that we summon with the right chords, songs, or arrangements. He’s not a musical butler who is at our beck and call when we ring the bell of worship.
He is God. He’s the sovereign God who makes himself known wherever and whenever he pleases. He is God! But happily, he delights in making his presence known.
And that’s why Psalm 105:4 exhorts us:
“Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually!”
How are we to do that without confusing the means with the source?
Well, we begin by acknowledging that God is everywhere. He’s omnipresent. We see that in Psalm 139:7-8:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”
So, that means before we gather on Sunday mornings, God is there. When we head home, God is with us. On Monday morning, God is still with us. But there’s more to understand about God’s presence than just acknowledging that He’s everywhere. Sometimes God seems “unusually present” and to understand what’s going on, it helps to think of God’s presence in three distinct ways.
A. Enjoy God’s Promised Presence
Here’s the first: God’s promised presence, which we’re called to enjoy. Someone asked me once how my understanding of God’s presence is different now than it was 20 years ago. Without thinking about it much, I said, “I’m more grateful for God’s promised presence now than I was then.”
In the 1980s, Robert Rayburn, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, wrote a fine book, O Come, Let us Worship, and he talked about God’s promised presence in this way:
“God’s presence is always a gift of His love. It can neither be worked up nor prevented by the efforts of men. It is not brought about by the church, nor is it dependent upon the strength of the faith of those who come together. It is the fulfillment of His own promise. When His children assemble themselves to worship Him, there is nothing more certain than his promised presence.”
- God is with us when we meet because He’s promised to be with us. Matthew 18:20 says,
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
- God has promised to be present when we sing.
"Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” - Ephesians 5:18-19
- God has promised to be present when His word is preached, so in 1 Corinthians 2:4, Paul is saying:
“And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
- God is present when we serve others through the power of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 says:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”
In these and other situations, we don’t need to do anything to make God present. He’s there and wants us to enjoy that reality by faith. And that has effects. If we know that God has promised to be with us, it will make a difference in the way we think.
The Effects Of Trusting God’s Promised Presence:
- We won’t feel pressure to make God “show up” when we gather. He has promised to be with us.
- We won’t have to wonder if our church is “big enough” for God to show up. Whether your church is 25, 250, 2500, 25k–God is just as present in every one of those churches when we gather in his name to sing, to pray, and faithfully proclaim his word and the gospel.
- And we can emphasize being faithful more than being creative. Faithfulness is the greatest adventure. We get to watch God faithfully fulfill his promise again and again.
So, that’s the first way we want to think about God’s presence. Here’s the another:
B. Pursue God’s Experienced Presence
Now, if we know God is everywhere and that he has promised his presence when we gather in his name, is there anything more to ask for? Well, yes, there is.
A number of years ago I came across a quote on the Banner of Truth website (which is not known for its continuationist leanings) and it was a quote from a man named Graham Harrison in an article called Worship and the Presence of God. Graham has gone on to be with the Lord, but I’m glad he said this before he did:
“There can be no substitute for that manifested presence of God which is always a biblical possibility for the people of God. When it is not being experienced they should humbly seek him for it, not neglecting their ongoing duties, nor denying their present blessings, but recognizing that there is always infinitely more with their God and Father who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of his Son and regenerated by the work of his Spirit.”
Did you get that? We don’t deny the present blessing of God’s promised presence, but we long for more because the Bible doesn’t just tell us things we should believe about the Holy Spirit, it teaches us to expect him to reveal God to us.
And one of primary ways he does that is through spiritual gifts. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:1 that we’re to “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” He says in 1 Corinthians 12:7,
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
So, God pours out his gifts when we meet so that we’ll be encouraged and built up and recognize that he is in our midst. We should expect it.
Sometimes our problem is that we expect God to manifest His presence only in certain ways, or in one way–when a certain person leads or when we sing a certain song or through one kind of spiritual gift.
The Bible encourages us to see all the ways God is enabling us to experience his presence every Sunday when we gather through the gifts of His Spirit. Let God open your eyes to that and you will be amazed at what you’ve missed! God is revealing His presence through gifts of administration, giving, faith, teaching, serving, gifts of prophecy, words of wisdom, and more!
The ways God chooses to reveal his experienced presence are up to him. We can’t manipulate it, we can’t make it happen, we can’t predict it. But we can long for it, we can pray for it, we can expect it, and we can rejoice in it. We want to respond to God’s experienced presence humbly, recognizing that God manifests his presence due to his mercy, not our merits.
Now, asking God to reveal his presence doesn’t mean looking for weird things, strange signs, or doing something different than what he’s promised to do in his Word. He enables us to experience his presence in line with the Word he’s always given us. Because “there is always infinitely more with our God and Father who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of his Son and regenerated by the work of his Spirit.”
C. Anticipate God’s Unveiled Presence
And that leads us to the third way to think about God’s presence, and that’s God’s unveiled presence, which we’re called to anticipate. That “infinitely more” will only be fully realized in the new heavens and the new earth.
On Sundays we don’t want people thinking we’re trying to help them reach the pinnacle of their experience with God. There is always something of the “not yet” contained in our “already.” And our meetings should cultivate in people’s hearts a desire and a hunger for what’s to come.
Now, we can try to create these extravagant, multi-sensory experiences, trying to simulate what’s to come. That’s a fruitless task. We will always be jars of clay worshiping our magnificent God. And no matter how much you polish a jar of clay, it’s never going to become a golden urn.
The more our meetings rely on production, performance, and polish, the harder it will be for people to see the treasure that dwells within us, and that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us, the harder it will be for them to see that we anticipate a glory that we can’t even conceive of that God is preparing for those who love Him.
What we experience now is just the smallest portion of what we’ll enjoy in the new heavens and the new earth. And what we experience there will be more than this vague, general euphoria. It will be the result of seeing our Savior face to face. And that thought transforms our Sunday mornings from something mundane into something miraculous, because we are getting a small foretaste of what’s to come.