The presence of God is both a widely misused and misunderstood term in theology. Many attribute God’s presence to some sort of warm fuzzy one gets if they do the right series of things or if they are perhaps somehow spiritual enough to warrant finding their way into the presence of God almighty. Biblically speaking, the presence of God is far more than either of the aforementioned incorrect notions. J. Ryan Lister, in his excellent book The Presence of God: It’s Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of our Lives, examines from the pages of Scripture how this important topic relates to the scarlet thread of redemption, what God’ presence looked like in the Old and New Testaments, and how we as believers today should view our place in God’s grand story of redemption.
As noted in the foreword to this timely book, the movement of salvation history is the goal of a return to that which was lost, namely the restoration and redemption of all things, the removal of the damage sin and death have caused, and perhaps most importantly, God’s people once again delighting in eternity spent in the presence of God. These principal truths of Scripture are what Lister so rightly focuses his efforts on in his book.
Lister aptly notes the phrase of the presence of God is used quite frequently in books, sermons, and conversation within the church. With that said, do we really grasp what the presence of God is all about, both in relation to salvation history or in our daily lives? Lister rests his discussion of the presence of God on two vastly important truths: 1) “the presence of God is a central goal in God’s redemptive mission”, and 2) “the presence of God is the agent by which the Lord accomplishes his redemption mission”. Thus, this entire concept of the presence of God is at the same time both “eschatological (it is the end-of-time aim of the Lord’s mission) and instrumental (it is ultimately what fulfills the Lord’s mission)”. This statement aptly captures the repeated already and not yet principle found throughout Scripture on a number of topics. In relation to the presence of God, we experience it in part now as God works in history to move history towards that future state of redemption, when sin, the wicked, and death are forever dealt with and His people will again see Him face to face.
Building on those two foundational elements, Lister presses forward to explore the presence of God as it is outlined in the Old and New Testaments. To properly understand the movement of history, one has to grasp the beginning of the Book and the end of the Book, namely that which was, that which was lost, and that which will be regained. Lister correctly begins his book by looking at those vital elements. He saliently comments, “Eden is the pattern of the better Eden to come. From an eschatological point of view, the garden of God was to be the seat of the worldwide expansion of God’s dwelling place.” This movement of gaining that which was lost is reflected in the entire biblical drama and Lister spends the vast majority of his book exploring how the presence of God is revealed in Scripture in relation to salvation history.
While this entire book is quite excellent and I truly appreciated the in-depth nature in which Lister digs into the topic of the presence of God, in particular his exegesis and analysis of the Old Testament, the section I found most helpful was his concluding comments on the practical application of the doctrine. It is one thing to take a look at what God has been up to and quite another to begin to grasp how you as a member of the household of faith are currently playing a part in God’s divine plan to include how His presence works in our lives daily. Lister correctly notes, “The Spirit – the presence of God in this new act of the redemptive drama – now dwells within us to culminate the objectives of the Lord for his glory and our resultant joy.” The giving of the Holy Spirit as the first fruits promise of that future eternity in the presence of God is what “makes the Christian life possible.” Furthermore, Lister rightly avers “The power of the Spirit is the power of redemption and regeneration, for it is by his work of applying Christ’s atonement to us that we are born again and reconciled to the Lord.”
Those desiring an excellent biblical and practical theology of the presence of God should make Lister’s book a must read. Full of sound exegesis and theological insight, this is a book that will provide the reader with a greater understanding of what the presence of God is all about and most importantly, the glorious future that awaits those who are the bride of Christ, the sons of God, those who have been called by God to spend eternity in His holy and wonderful presence.