The Mysteries of God
February 2nd, 1964 @ 8:15 AM
THE MYSTERIES OF GOD
Dr. W.A. Criswell
2-2-64 8:15 a.m.
The title of the sermon today is The Mysteries of God. It is a sermon concerning our limitations in knowing God. Not as an exposition but as an illustration, I have chosen to read the conclusion of Paul as he struggled with the problem of election, predestination, the purposes of God as He works them out in human history. Now you listen how he closes these three chapters in the heart of Romans, as he has struggled with the problem of the sovereignty and the elective purpose of God:
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!
For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been His counselor?
Or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.
Which is a magnificent and superlative way of saying, “It is beyond my comprehension. I cannot enter into it.” When Paul walked through the famed university city of Athens and stood before their supreme court, the Areopagus, meeting on Mars’ Hill, the hill of Mars, he began his address to those learned Athenians with this word, “As I walk through your city, I beheld an altar on which was written this inscription,” agnosto theo, agnosto theo, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” [Acts 17:23].
With all of the learnedness of those Athenians—and there has never been a time or an era since when the intellectual probing of mankind has ever begun to reach the philosophical, metaphysical, learned heights achieved by those Athenians five hundred years before Christ—with all their affinity for knowledge, and their intuitive understanding of the world around them, they found themselves unable finally and ultimately to enter into the secrets and the mysteries of the ultimate God.
Now in a little different way but in much the same intellectual way, comprehensive way, understanding way, all of us must kneel and bow by the side of those learned Athenians and humbly admit there are vast areas of mystery, of incomprehensibleness, about God that is forever beyond what we could ever understand. Now the message this morning is why that is true.
First: because of the limitations of our finite minds, we could never contain the infinitude of God in our limited intellectual understanding. There is an incomprehensibleness about God that is forever present in whatever we say or read or write. A good example of that is found in Job chapter 11:
Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?
The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.
If He cut off, and shut up, or gather together, then who can hinder Him?
It is beyond our comprehension tracing out God’s ways and describing the mysteries of God’s being. Consequently, there is an inexplicable side to every doctrine. And consequently, even the truths that are revealed, that we can comprehend one by one, that to us is perfectly sane and sensible and reasonable when we look at them one at a time, yet those same truths have a mystery about them that baffles us when we compare them with other truths that are likewise revealed about God. And the irreconcilable nature of truths is one of the baffling mysteries of God to the human mind.
For example, this thing that Paul has just discussed in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Romans, the sovereignty of God, the election of God [Romans 11:5-7], and at the same time and in the same breath, the Holy Scriptures may reveal to us the absolute entire free agency of a man. How is it that God can elect and predestinate and at the same time a man can be free? [Romans 11:20]. There’s no philosophical mind in this earth that ever lived, or ever shall live, able to reconcile those two contradictions.
There is a side to God and to revealed truth that is incomprehensible to our minds. Again, God is love [1 John 4:8]. Yes, God is love. Then what of the violence and the riot of sin and sorrow that cuts down this world? Or a man; here is a living, breathing man, and the next moment he is a corpse. And you can go through that man with a scalpel, and you can cut every little piece and every little organ in his body, but you’ll never find what went out of that man.
Yesterday afternoon I went to see one of our fine members. He seemed so well. He seemed so alert. He had been long ill and now was much better. I had not gone home until the telephone rang, saying, “He has deceased.” What is a man? Here he is in his body and his soul. How can spirit and matter be interconnected? They seem opposite.
Or say the same thing about the coming of Christ into the world. Here is God in the flesh, there is God up there in heaven, but there is one God? How do you reconcile the humanity of Christ and the divinity of Christ? These are just illustrations of our inability to comprehend the truths that we see all around us.
Now that is because we are guilty of a mental and moral astigmatism. We see one point as though it were two. And we can comprehend one, but we can’t comprehend two. In the physical world about us an astronomer can look into the starry heavens above and in those great orbits, those vast solar systems, as they swing in the universe, he will find a centripetal force in that orbit. And a centripetal force will pull toward the center of the curve. And that same astronomer, as he follows the orbits of the spheres of the universe, will also discover a centrifugal force that pulls away from the center and seems to sling out into space in the curve as it follows around by the sphere. Now, to an astronomer, those are two opposite forces, a centripetal that pulls toward the center, a centrifugal that flings out into space away from it. Yet, if we were able fully to understand, we would finally learn they were ultimately just one force.
So it is with our minds and spiritual things. We look and see, and things seem to be opposite. They seem to be contradictory. It’s because of our mental, moral, spiritual astigmatism. The mountain of truth is so vast and so infinite that a mere man just walks around and sees a little piece of it at a time. Even the field of chemistry: no man in the earth could even begin to understand the field of chemistry. It is too great. Field of medicine: it is divided up into little segments and men are specialists in these little segments. We cannot comprehend the vast infinitude of truth.
How appropriate it is for a man to be humbled in the presence of what is irreconcilable, accept them; contradictory truths, the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, the elective purpose of God, the free moral agency of man. Like all of the other truths in the universe, it is intellectually impossible for us to reconcile them. We just see them and we accept them. It is beyond our comprehension.
All right, a second reason for our inability to understand and to know God: because of the inadequacy of human speech, human language. Language is the vehicle, the instrument, by which we formulate and mediate truth. You cannot do it any other way.
How do you know what Plato said and thought? Because of what is written. How do you know what any other man has said and thought? Because of what is written. How do you know what another man thinks? Because of what he speaks or what you can say in formulating what he does. Truth is communicated, formulated, by language, by words. And language is inaccurate. Language is never able to express exactly as a thing actually is. And that inability of language to express spiritual truth is met again consciously in the Bible time and time again.
For example, in 1 Corinthians, second chapter, “Which things we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual” [1 Corinthians 2:13]. There has to be a language of the soul, of the intuitive heart, because a dead, inner, cold word can’t say a thing exactly as it is. All right, look at it again that same thing. “Who also made us according to the ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life” [2 Corinthians 3:6]. You cannot place in cold language the spiritual reality of God. Language can’t contain it. It’s a vehicle that is inaccurate and never perfect; language, words.
I want to give you a good illustration of that here in the apostle Paul as he writes in the beautiful thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” [1 Corinthians 13:12]. Now we see, dia, by means of esoptron. It was the thirteenth century before silvering of glass was invented. And esoptron was a bronze metal that was polished, and they used it in the ancient day for a mirror. Now we see through a metallic mirror and a metallic mirror dimly, grotesquely sometimes, always without clear delineation mirrored the one who looked into it. Paul says, “Now we see through a metallic mirror, not clearly, not clearly, but then face to face” [1 Corinthians 13:12]. What he is saying is, applying it to Christ, “Now I know Christ through the language and the words that reveal Him. There’s a medium between me and Christ, words, language.”
And as you hear me preach time and time again, I’ll discuss these words here in the King James Version of the Bible, the translation of that word may be a far cry from actually what the man meant and what the man said. Words change and they have different colorings in the passing of the years and the centuries. Now we have that medium between us and Christ, language, but there no intervening medium at all; no language separating at all, we shall see face to face, an immediate presence and reality [1 Corinthians 13:12].
Now that inaccuracy of language enters into everything that is said and everything that is written. Language is a vehicle, a human vehicle, and it is always imperfect. You cannot even say exactly in another language what somebody has written in yet another one. You can never translate accurately what was in this language into this language. It is just as Paul says: we see through, we see, by means of that polished surface, inaccurately, dimly [1 Corinthians 13:12]. It’s only on the other side that we’ll ever be able to see face to face, immediate presence [1 Corinthians 13:12].
All right, a third reason for our inability to comprehend the Lord God: because of our sinful and fallen natures. For a man to know God perfectly, he must be perfect. Sin blinds, and distorts, and destroys, and contravenes. It would take a pure heart, a perfect life, clearly to understand the great Lord God. But our lives are broken, and impure, and sinful, and filled with shortcoming and iniquity [Romans 3:9-23], and all of our sins separate between us and God [Isaiah 59:2]. They cloud our minds. They dull our spiritual perception.
Over here in the life of Saul, sin entered the life of the great king [1 Samuel 22:6-19]. “And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets” [1 Samuel 28:6]. And when he called Samuel up from the dead [1 Samuel 28:7-14], “Samuel said, Why hast thou disquieted me? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed because God is departed from me, and answereth me no more” [1 Samuel 28:15]. We cannot see and understand God because of our sinful and fallen natures. Sin beclouds our vision and destroys our spiritual sensitivity. Sin mars the life and separates us and shuts us out from God [Isaiah 59:2].
In the days of the fall of our first parents [Genesis 3:1-6] they were driven out from the garden of Eden and separated from the fellowship of God [Genesis 3:22-24]. The Lord who walked with them in the garden in the cool of the day [Genesis 3:8] no longer walked with them in the garden in the cool of the day. They were driven out and separated [Genesis 3:22-24]. Sin did that [Genesis 3:1-6].
Moses, because of a burst of anger that destroyed one of God’s great spiritual types, Moses was interdicted from entering into the Promised Land [Numbers 20:8-12]. Sin did that [Numbers 20:8, 11-12].
In the Mosaic legislation, no man can be a high priest and enter into the Holy of Holies who had a physical defect [Leviticus 21:17-23]. If he had a scar on the lobe of his ear, if he had a physical defect in his body, he could not be a high priest. A defect mars. That was just a type of how sin and iniquity blunt and dull our ability to enter into the presence of God.
David, who so wanted to build a house for the Lord—God said, “No, your hands are hands of blood. You are a man of war and murder. No, no, no” [1 Chronicles 22:8, 22:3]. The rich young ruler: “Oh, I want to have eternal life!” [Luke 18:18-23] He turned and entered a world of vanity and futility because he loved its outward flash and showing the rewards of riches. Our fallen natures dull our sensibility to God.
“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” [John 3:3]. The pure in heart are those who have strength to see God. All of life is like that. Like Tennyson wrote of Sir Galahad:
My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
[from “Sir Galahad,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson]
And sin and iniquity and unrighteousness interdict our vision of God. Last of all and hurriedly: we cannot enter into the full comprehension of God because of the silences of the written revelation. There is much that God has not revealed to us. For example, in Deuteronomy, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever” [Deuteronomy 29:29]. What is revealed we can know and God can enlighten our minds to accept, but there are secret things that belong to God that we’ll never know this side of the river; never.
For example, the Lord said to His apostles, “There are many things that I have to say unto thee, but you cannot bear them now” [John 16:12]. There are some things that maybe our minds could comprehend, but for the purposes of discipline, they are hidden from our eyes.
Let me make a remark. One of the indications of the sublime inspiration of the apostle Paul was his refusal to enter into speculative things. For example, in the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul says, “Fourteen years ago,” speaking in the third person, “I know a man,” talking about himself:
fourteen years ago, (whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know,) but such a man caught up into Paradise, (whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot know: God knoweth,) whether I was taken up bodily into Paradise, or whether it was just my spirit that entered into Paradise, God knoweth, I do not know. But—now look at it—and he heard words unutterable, unspeakable, incommunicable, which it is not lawful for a man to say.
[2 Corinthians 12:1-4]
Isn’t that an amazing thing? There Paul says, “I was taken up into Paradise [2 Corinthians 12:4]. I was taken up into glory.” Why didn’t he write those things? Why didn’t he write them? Why didn’t he put them down?
I had you read the tenth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, “And I was about to write down the sayings of those seven thunders, and God said, Do it not. Write it not” [Revelation 10:4]. There are secret things that belong to the Lord God [Deuteronomy 29:29]. They are not ours; and they will never be ours this side of the great divide.
In thirteenth chapter of the Book of Luke somebody said to the Lord Jesus, “Lord, are there few that be saved?” [Luke 13:23] I’ve been asked that question a thousand times. “Preacher, is it just a little group that’s going to heaven? Preacher, how many are going to be saved?” Almost everybody going to be lost, “Are there just a few saved?” [Luke 13:23]. How did the Lord answer the question? All He said to that inquirer was “You, you strive to enter in yourself” [Luke 13:24].
That’s an amazing thing about Jesus. He was up there in heaven when the angels revolted [Revelation 12:7-9]: He never mentions it; never says anything about it. He was at the creation of the world. All things were created by Him [John 1:3; Colossians 1:16]. He was there Himself. He never mentions it. He was there in the garden of Eden [Genesis 3:8]. He never refers to it.
The Lord is the great Redeemer of the souls that were saved before He came into the world [Revelation 13:8]. He never refers to those things in heaven, never. They belong to the unrevealed silences of God.
Now I thought that I would make a separate sermon out of the mysteries of God that are all through that Bible that I can’t understand. But I’m just going to say it in two or three little words, two or three little sentences.
Things that I do not understand, one: the mystery of iniquity [2 Thessalonians 2:7]. Sin, why God allows it; where did it come from? Sin, the mystery of iniquity, as second Thessalonian letter, or the tenth chapter of Revelation that you read, “In the days of the voice of the seventh angel, the mystery of God will be finished” [Revelation 10:7], that is God’s forbearance with sin in this world.
Where did sin come from? What is this thing that has destroyed and marred God’s work? Well, I am a sinner. I know that. I got that from my parents. They were sinners. And they got it from their parents, and they inherited it from theirs, and they inherited it from theirs and go back, and back, and back, and back, and back to Adam. But sin never started in Adam [Genesis 3:1-6]. In the garden of Eden there is a sinister being [Genesis 3:1], there in the garden when God put Adam in it, and he’s called the Devil, that old serpent [Revelation 12:7].
Well, where did sin come from in him? I am one of those that believe that the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah and the twentieth-eighth chapter of Ezekiel depict the fall of Satan, Lucifer [Isaiah 14:3-17; Ezekiel 28:1-19]. But all you do, you just push it back, and back, and back through our forefathers to Adam and back of Adam to Satan, and there you’re confronted with the same inexplicable inquiry. “Lord, why, why? Why make Satan like that, that he could fall?” The mystery of iniquity [2 Thessalonians 2:7], and the hurt, and the waste, and the sorrow, and the tears, and the death, I don’t understand. I’ll never understand, not this side of the river.
The mystery of the Trinity; baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19]. “The love of God, and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you always” [2 Corinthians 13:14]. People even object when they hear me say, and I deliver it with my soul, “You’re not going to see three gods in Heaven. If you do, you are a polytheist.”
There is one God [Deuteronomy 6:4]. The only God you will ever see is the Lord Jesus [John 1:18, 14:9; Colossians 1:15]. The only God you’ll ever feel is the Holy Spirit [John 3:8; Acts 1:8]. The only God there is the Father [2 Chronicles 7:14; Matthew 6:9]. You’re not going to see three Gods, and yet every time I say that, I am accosted, I am accosted and challenged. The mind cannot comprehend the Trinity of deity, Three Persons in One [Matthew 28:19]. We cannot.
Our minds, our little minds can never comprehend the true, ultimate meaning of atonement [Romans 5:25], how the cross of Christ forgives our iniquities [Ephesians 1:7]. When I took my doctorate I took a minor in the atonement, studying the atonement. For years studying the atonement, and when I got through the course and took an examination on it, I had the feeling that every, I had the persuasion and a deep one that every theory, and every proposition, and every discussion of the atonement never reached its reality, never. I feel like Isaac Watts in his song:
Was it for crimes that I have done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown
And love beyond degree.
[from “At the Cross,” Isaac Watts]
I don’t think a man can enter into the ultimate meaning of our redemption [1 Peter 1:18-19], the cross of Jesus, our atonement [John 19:16-30].
I must stop. May I hastily mention just one more? As you know, I began preaching when I was seventeen years of age. And as a teenage pastor, I was baffled. I was baffled at the intrusion of death. A mother, and when I held the memorial service there would be a neighbor, or an aunt, or a sister hold a little baby in her arms as I buried the mother. With all of the thinking of my mind forever, and as long as I could live, the intrusion of death is still an amazing, inexplicable thing to me. God says he’s an enemy [1 Corinthians 15:26]. And that’s a part of the mystery of iniquity [2 Thessalonians 2:7]. God allows us his wanton destruction in the earth.
These sermons are introductory. Don’t ever persuade yourself that these little minds of ours will ever be able to contain the infinitude of God. We just see, and we see partially, by means of a metallic mirror, dimly [1 Corinthians 13:12]. It’s not until we cross the river that we shall ever fully and ultimately understand.
So we live by faith that God is good. And though I cannot reconcile the truths even that are revealed, yet they reflect the infinite character of God. And my part: humbly to bow, to learn, to ask; and if God gives the revelation, I can be grateful. If I cannot explain it or understand it, yet by faith I can trust Him until that day when He shall make it clear. Oh, the depth, the depth of the riches and grace of God, how unsearchable are His ways past finding out! [Romans 11:33].
Now we sing one stanza, one stanza, and while we sing this stanza, somebody today to give his heart to Jesus, somebody to put his life in the fellowship of the church, on the first note of this one stanza, you come and stand by me. Make it now, if you feel in your heart this is God’s will for you. It’s God’s will for you to trust Jesus, come [Ephesians 2:8; 2 Peter 3:9]. If God speaks to you to put your life in the framework and fellowship of this dear church, come, while we stand and while we sing.