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Intimacy with God

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 “Those who receive and bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son. But the Son takes them up and presents them to the Father, and the Father bestows incorruptibility. Therefore one cannot see the Word of God without the Spirit, nor can anyone approach the Father without the Son. For the Son is the knowledge of the Father, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit. But the Son, in accord with the Father’s good pleasure, graciously dispenses the Spirit to those to whom the Father wills it, and as the Father wills it.” (Irenaeus of Lyon)[1]

Participation in the life of God! The thought is cherished by some as the very goal of the gospel. It's also mistrusted by others as an unbiblical mysticism. What is the truth?

Here we will lay out a biblical case for the strongest possible intimacy with God: divine participation. We will examine the precious doctrine of union with Christ that brings us such participation; we will highlight the work of Christ as Mediator, guaranteeing and grounding this relationship and we will consider how this intimacy is enjoyed corporately in church but also provisionally since only at the end will we be 'face to face.'

Through it all we will see that intimacy with God is not an optional extra for the more emotional among us. To ‘know’ the Father through the Son is eternal life (John 17:3). When we understand 'knowing' in the biblical sense we must admit that profound intimacy with God is the essence of our Christian lives. It is not a carrot to be held out for the pious, nor a bonus given to the ‘successful’ worshipper. Intimacy is guaranteed to the Christian in Christ. It is therefore the indispensable starting point of the Christian life – not an optimistic goal.

The God of Intimacy

Any talk of intimacy with God must begin with the intimacy that God is. As a community of Persons united in love, the Triune God enjoys eternal communion. Before the foundation of the world the Father delighted in the Son in the bond of the Spirit. Virtually every verse regarding the pre-creation life of God describes the Father focussing his affections and purposes on the Son.[2] Likewise the Son, in the power of the Spirit, commits himself utterly to the Father.[3] This is the intimacy that both pre-dated and produced the universe.

We have come from divine intimacy and are intended for divine intimacy. The Father has created through and for his Son (Colossians 1:16) and he has created in order that there might be billions more 'sons', filled with the same Spirit, sharing in this eternal love (Romans 8:15f, 29).

If we know nothing of divine intimacy we haven't simply got Christianity wrong, we've got creature-hood wrong. We exist to belong to this intimate communion. The importance of intimacy must be stressed. But we must also stress the way of intimacy.

Consider

Do you see God as enjoyable; as worth knowing?

Does it help to know God as a Father pouring infinite Spiritual blessings onto his Son?

The Way of Intimacy

True Christian intimacy is not about imitating the Trinity, or gazing admiringly upon the Trinity, or even 'linking arms' with their great dance of love. Christianity is not about our journey up to God's intimacy. It's about God, in Christ, descending. The way of intimacy is an arrow coming down. We do not spiritualize our humanity into God. In Christ, God incarnates his intimacy into humanity.

At Christmas, he enters our life. At the cross, he puts our cold, hateful humanity to death. In the resurrection, he rises as the true Man of God. In the ascension, he carries us up with him to the Father's right hand. At Pentecost, he pours out his Spirit to seal the believer into himself (Ephesians 1:13).

In the gospel, we are caught up into God's own intimacy. Again we must stress, this is nothing of our own doing. We have not decided to 'join the party'. Instead we have been seized, carried and now seated in Christ at the Father's right hand. The way of intimacy has not been our way made with God, but his way made with us.

Nevertheless, this is where the believer really stands: in Christ, filled with the Spirit of adoption and calling on our dear Abba (Galatians 4:4-6). True Christianity is not about obtaining favour from God. It's about sharing by the Spirit in the eternal intimacy of Father and Son. No wonder Peter can say we "participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

Consider

Is intimacy something you’re trying to achieve or receive?

How would your pursuit of intimacy change to know it’s a gift that is yours in Christ?

The Basis of Intimacy

From all this it should be obvious that Jesus is the basis for our divine participation. As John Owen says in his classic book “Communion with God”:

‘Scripture shows us that we hold communion with the Lord Jesus in grace by a marriage relationship…  This spiritual relationship is accompanied with mutual love, and so in this fellowship with Christ we experience and enjoy all the excellent things which are in Him.’ [4]

Christ is the Bridegroom, we (the church) are his bride. In this union we enjoy all his benefits as though they were ours by right. Marriage is one way of describing our union but the Bible has many different angles on this one truth.

Sometimes it is said that we share in Jesus’ benefits as co-beneficiaries:

As Christ is the Son, we can be called sons (Galatians 4:4-7)

While Jesus is the Anointed One, we also are anointed ones (1 John 2:20)

While Christ is Heir, we are co-heirs (Romans 8:17)

With these descriptions we are graciously allowed to come alongside Jesus, to be treated to his blessings on the same level.

At points we read of another level of identification. Sometimes we are said, in the plural, to be exactly what Jesus is in the singular:

While Christ is the Living Stone, we are living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5)

While Christ is the Seed, we are the seed (Galatians 3:16 <=> 3:29)

While Christ is the Light of the world, we are the light of the world (John 8:12 <=> Matthew 5:14)

While He is the Vine, we are the branches (John 15:5)

Note that, with this last example, it is not that Christ is the root structure and we are the branches. Rather we form part of the Vine! The Vine is One, we are others, but in this organic relationship we become part of him.

This leads to a third category by which the Bible speaks of our union: mutual relationship.

Thus, Christ is the Head, we are the Body (Colossians 1:18)

Christ is the Groom, we are the Bride (Isaiah 54:5; Ezekiel 16; Ephesians 5:21-33; Revelation 19:6-9)

Here is something beyond identification. Here is reciprocity – back and forth, give and take. This union is not impersonal, it is an unbreakable bond of love.

Our union with Christ could not be closer. The Apostle Paul can speak of our history and identity as entirely bound up in Jesus: We are hidden with Christ in God... He is our life. (Col. 3:1-4) In this way, we are more united to Jesus than we are to ourselves. Certainly it is his identity, not our own, that determines our standing in God’s eyes both now and in eternity.

How does this affect our pursuit of intimacy? Let me make an analogy. Imagine a film set in medieval times. There is a snooty Lord sitting on his throne (think Alan Rickman). There's a servant girl in the throne room, she has done something menial for the Lord and, in return, he flings a pouch of silver towards her. She grabs the money and scurries out of the Lord's presence to enjoy her reward.

Now imagine a different scenario. A loving Lord who climbs off his throne and marries the servant girl. Now everything that is his belongs to her and she is brought instantly into the royal family. This is our standing with God. We are not merely given things by God. We have are now "in Christ", filled with his Spirit and brought before the Father.

Let me tease out one aspect of this illustration: intimacy with God is not something we have worked for – a pouch of silver flung our way because we have prayed or worshipped correctly. Intimacy with God is the gift of Christ who offers himself for free.

It would be so easy to prize “spiritual feelings” as the great benefit of the gospel. Yet actually Christ himself is the gift we are given – the Lord who marries us. All our talk of intimacy must never make an idol out of subjective experience. We must never want intimacy more than Christ. Intimacy is only our desire because Christ is the One we want to be near. But, thank God, we are near. You cannot get closer than "in".

Consider

Meditate on the various portraits of one-ness listed above – which speak to you most strongly?

Is it possible you’ve ever sought “intimacy” instead of Christ? What’s the difference?

The Purchase of Intimacy

“But now in Christ, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13)

As we speak about intimacy with God we must never forget the way into divine fellowship. We should not think of the trinity as a "group hug in the sky." It would be awful to imagine a saccharine “marriage union” to Christ without acknowledging the “blood of Christ” which underwrites it. If our conception of divine intimacy is a kind of spiritual candy floss we will have great difficulty making sense of Scripture and of Jesus himself. In fact we have a relationship with God that is dripping in blood. Let's explore the costly way in to divine friendship.

Ever since humanity rejected the LORD Christ and trusted Satan instead, the way back to fellowship has been blocked by fiery judgement (Genesis 3:24). This fallen flesh and blood cannot participate in the life of God (1 Cor. 15:50). Only ‘the Man out of the Heavens’ could ever belong in the inner circle of God’s life (1 Cor. 15:15:47-49).

Yet, with infinite grace and condescension, this Man came out of the heavens. He took the very flesh and blood of our humanity and redeemed it. Where we had failed, he conquered; where we had sinned, he obeyed; where we had fled, he stood tall; where we had hated, he loved; where we had erred, he taught; where we were enslaved, he liberated; where we were ashamed, he gave dignity; where we grasped at glory, he gave freely; where we clung to life, he poured it out.

On the cross, God’s Man took on himself all the sin, guilt and shame of this fallen humanity. He endured the divine fury at sin, passing through that fiery judgement which bars the way into God. And now, in his glorious resurrection body, Christ, the True Man, stands beyond death and judgement. Our Brother has gone up to the Father’s right hand, ascending to the inner circle of God’s life, and he goes there for us. We, in ourselves, would be swept away by God’s righteous anger at sin. Yet Christ is the Way to the Father and in him who “quenched the wrath of hostile heaven”[5] we have obtained access.

Consider

Is Christ’s blood atonement at the heart of your idea of divine intimacy?

How is your approach to God changed, knowing that it comes through the death of Jesus?

The Shape of Intimacy

Above I have retold the truths of the gospel once more. Why? Firstly, because intimacy with God is enjoyed, in large part, when the gospel is recounted. But secondly, I recount the story of the cross because sometimes people speak of "union with Christ" as a tranquil nicety. At times the Fatherhood of God, adoption into his family, one-ness with Jesus, etc are articulated without the blood and fire of the Bible’s presentation. But we desperately need the grit and grime – the sweat and tears – of Christ’s atonement if we’re going to experience true intimacy with God.

A toothless, bloodless message about a heavenly Father-figure does not connect with people who live in the midst of suffering and sin. It cannot connect, because the only real point of connection is a bleeding Sacrifice. Yet, if we want intimacy with God, he is the One we really need. Jesus actually meets us in the godforsakeness of life as we know it.

If all our talk of intimacy with God is not dripping in the blood of Christ we are simply preaching “a fine idea” to people who are burdened by shame and guilt. People with real sins – which is all of us – will never connect with words of “divine participation” unless they are words from a godforsaken Saviour to a godforsaken people.

It is no coincidence that the chapter which most loudly trumpets our unbreakable possession of "the love of God in Christ Jesus" is also so full of suffering. In Romans chapter 8 it is precisely to those who "are considered as sheep to be slaughtered" that Paul proclaims God's unconquerable love (Romans 8:36-39). Intimacy with God is not the opposite of suffering or a flight from it. It is ours in the midst of the valley of the shadow. When our union is with "the Lamb that was slain" we cannot be shocked when we are "sheep to be slaughtered."

No wonder the testimony of the saints through the ages has been the same: the sweetest times of divine intimacy come at the times of greatest suffering. Think of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace – and the Son of God there with them (Daniel 3). Think of Paul’s prayer in Philippians 3: “I want to know Christ... and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.” Or think of Corrie Ten Boom’s famous saying “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” Suffering is not a diversion from divine intimacy, it’s actually the way.

There's another reason we need to remember the cruciformity of our relationship with God. If our talk of divine intimacy is not completely cross-shaped then it will be too easy to play off intimacy with God against “taking up our cross”. That, of course, would be absurd, but it is commonly done. Too often people think of divine intimacy as a "cup of tea and a nice sit down", on the other hand discipleship is the arduous task of dying daily to our selves. Yet, when we realise to whom we are united then we see that "all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death." (Romans 6:3)

A life of cross-shaped, self-giving sacrifice is not the price of divine intimacy, it is the very nature of it. If Jesus is the Man in true fellowship with God then we know what intimacy looks like. It looks like a cross.

Therefore, as Bonhoeffer famously said, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."[6] This is not the arduous downside of Christian experience, it's the shape of it. We are united to a crucified Christ and our own lives will therefore bear the marks of death as well as resurrection.

Consider

Have you known “fellowship in suffering”?

What might the God of intimacy be up to in the midst of your current sins, suffering and service?

The High Priest of our Intimacy

At this point, many Christians will baulk. Can we really know intimacy in the midst of suffering and sacrifice? Sometimes our pain, our despair or our sense of guilt can be so overwhelming that we feel we can’t pray. Is there really any intimacy to be spoken of at these times? Yes, and it’s all because of Jesus our Great High Priest.

The priesthood of Christ means he does not simply bring God’s life down to us. He also offers our life up to God. He is not just God for us, he is also Man for God. This priestly ministry of Christ is such good news for sluggish, sinful sufferers like ourselves. If divine intimacy was simply about our attempts to “get close to God” we would have no hope. The good news is that Jesus has gotten close to God, and He has done it for us.

The letter to the Hebrews speaks about this constantly. Here is a selection of verses:

Our forerunner, Jesus, has entered [heaven] on our behalf. He has become a high priest for ever. (Heb. 6:20)

Therefore Jesus is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. (Heb. 7:25-26)

We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary. (Heb. 8:1-2)

Jesus has a vital, ongoing ministry at the Father's right hand. He is our Brother and Priest who "serves" in heaven. The word in Hebrews 8:2 is Leitourgos (the word liturgy is derived from it). He is, literally, our worship leader (let all church musicians take note!) Calvin, following Psalm 22:22, called Christ ‘the great Choirmaster’, tuning our hearts to sing the Father’s praises. Now we are invited to join in with our Choirmaster.

Just as Christ is the Righteous One and yet invites us to share in his holy life, just as Christ is the Great Sufferer and yet allows us to share in his sufferings, so Christ is the Great High Priest, but now we participate too. We get to add our own 'Amen' to the perfect prayers of Jesus.

As James Torrance says,

 “Christian worship is therefore our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father.”[7]

This means we are always late to worship. Worship already exists – the Son is already singing the Father’s praises, we just join in. If you are ever in church and hear someone pray: “Lord, we welcome you in this place”;  remember, Jesus is not the late-comer, we are. Jesus is the one who says "Welcome", and he says it from the very throne room of God: “My brothers and sisters: we welcome you to this place! You’re all late but you’re very welcome!”

Understanding this priesthood of Christ is vital for our intimacy with God. We need to know that our fellowship with God is not as good as our spiritual feelings – those feelings will fluctuate. It is not as good as our moral performance this week. It is not as good as our worship. Our intimacy with God is as good as our High Priest.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.[8]

There’s a popular saying: “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?” It expects the answer “You did” and it puts the onus on you to, somehow, move back into God’s presence. I like to respond to the question differently. “Who moved? Christ did, right into God’s presence, and he went there on your behalf.” When we feel far from God – and we will all feel distant at times – our restoration does not depend on our “getting back into God’s presence.” What is decisive is Christ’s movement into God’s presence, having taken us with Him.

Certainly there is much to repent of when we sin and grieve the Spirit; when we neglect our fellowship with Christ; when we pursue other loves and not our Father’s. But we both sin and repent from within the embrace of God. In our stupidity, our sluggishness, our suffering and our sin we can impair our sense of communion with God. But our union remains unshakeable. And it is this union that is foundational for the restoration of our communion.

Consider

If you knew Christ was praying for you in the next room, how would it change your experience of intimacy?

What difference does it make to know that, in heaven, Jesus prays for you now?

The Experience of Intimacy

When we think of “intimacy with God”, what do we picture? Perhaps we imagine a private experience. Yet most often in Scripture, our intimacy is expressed and enjoyed corporately. In community we reflect the Triune life to which we have been called. As a community we are Christ’s Body and Bride. It’s a community that Christ leads in worship. A merely private intimacy with God misses the fullness of what we are offered.

It is certainly true that worship of God is 24/7 (Romans 12:1ff). And it is true that I am continually ‘one with Christ’, whether by myself or with others. But consider the marriage analogy. I am always ‘one with my wife’ even when we’re separated by oceans. Yet our experience of intimacy comes with setting aside times and places. So it is with our experience of intimacy – there can be special times and places, and together is best.

Acts 2:42 gives four characteristic marks of the post-Pentecost church: the Apostle’s teaching, the fellowship (koinonia), the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Firstly, ‘the Apostle’s teaching.’ The word is set forth. This is essential. The Spirit brings us Christ through the word.[9] There is no unmediated or self-generated approach to God. It is of the essence of grace that God approaches us at his initiative and by his appointed means. In Scripture, Christ is offered to us freely in words of promise. God has ordained that ‘faith comes by hearing’ (Romans 10:17), thus the Bible must be at the absolute centre. Bonhoeffer, in his brilliant little book Life Together, said that one of the chief reasons for Christian community is the weakness of our own hearts and the strength of God's word.

The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged... The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother.[10]

This is why we gather – to hear the strong word of God from our brothers and sisters. This is what reassures our feeble hearts.

The fellowship’ referred to in Acts 2 is an objective, Spirit-created, community to which believers ‘devote’ themselves. In this body – the body of Christ – we are given various gifts and roles for our mutual edification and mission to the world (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14). To be devoted to this involves the exercise of gifts so that we minister to one another in practical and costly service (Romans 12:4-8; 1 John 3:17-18). Once again, intimacy (or “fellowship”) is not a spiritual novocaine – it involves embodied, sacrificial service of one another. It is a communal and cross-shaped reality. If we’re not feeling particularly intimate with God, a good question to ask is, “How are we serving our brothers and sisters in church?”

The breaking of bread’ in Acts 2:42 seems to be a sacramental reference (hence “the”). Along with the preached word, the dispensing of the sacraments was taken by reformers as the other defining mark of a true Church. Christ has given us himself in this supper through ‘visible words’ (Augustine’s phrase). Via these, we ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’ (Thomas Cranmer’s phrase). Luther used to say that the great benefit of communion was the fact you had to receive it. You can hear the word and imagine it’s for someone else but you cannot take communion without taking it in. When Christ feels miles away, communion is a wonderful opportunity for him to nourish us personally and to connect us to our church family.

Finally, ‘the prayers’ are an essential part of worship. The prayer Jesus taught his disciples was corporate – ‘Our Father’. The Spirit equips the bride to call on her Husband: ‘Come’ (Rev. 22:17). Prayer is an activity of the church and one that expresses our complete dependence on, and devotion to, the Lord. Corporate prayer is a wonderful school-master for our personal prayer lives and it also helps us to carry one another in prayer when individuals may be finding it a struggle.

In addition to this foundational practice of corporate worship, we also enjoy a personal devotional life. Our prayer lives are, essentially, the living out of our intimacy with God. Every struggle we have with prayer is, at the same time, a struggle to believe the good news. We forget that God is our Father and approach him (or not) as a disinterested Line Manager. We forget that Christ is our High Priest and so feel far from God. We forget that the Spirit of adoption dwells in us and so imagine that prayer is beyond us. This is why the word must come to us again and again to tell us afresh the gospel. Our sense of intimacy – and therefore our prayer life – must be restored continually by the word.

Consider

What place does church have in your relationship with God?

How can you enjoy God and serve others in your local church family?;

The Promise of Intimacy

As we consider our experience of intimacy, we must remember we're in a wilderness. Certainly Jesus taught us to pray a wilderness prayer. “Give us today our daily bread” makes us think of the manna of Exodus 16. Jesus paints the Christian life as something like the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites: we too need daily bread. No longer do we slave in the Egypt of sin but neither have we entered the promised land. There’s a sense in which we live in a dry place. We exist in an in-between time – saved from sin, heading for glory, but right now we are needy beggars, desperate each day for the Bread of life.

Christians have everything in Christ, yet 99% of the blessings we will experience are for the life to come. What’s more, all that we experience now is a sheer gift. Therefore life in this age is not so much about having as receiving. As we walk with Christ through this in-between time we are not self-sufficient, we are dependent on God for everything. As we pray “lead us not into temptation” we are reminding ourselves that wilderness times are times of trial and testing. This will be the nature of our Christian lives until we reach the ‘promised land’ of the new creation. Right now we will feel tempted, oppressed and, to a degree, spiritually hungry. We have not yet arrived.

We live in the overlap of the ages – battling the flesh we’ve inherited from Adam, but enjoying the Spirit we’ve received from Christ. From the midst of this daily battle we look in hope to the fulfilment of all that Christ has achieved. We long for the promise of “face to face” with Jesus (Psalm 17:15; 1 Cor. 13:12). Like an engaged lover, our experience of intimacy will be coloured by longing and waiting. By the Spirit we are "in Christ", in our flesh we experience it as "a long-distance relationship"! Therefore our prayer is Maranatha, meaning “Come O Lord!” (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20).

In the meantime we live by faith and not by sight. This should shape our expectations for intimacy; not to say that we settle for less – not at all. “Joy inexpressible and full of glory” is on offer, even now (1 Peter 1:8). But we should not be surprised at our sense of lack, at our dryness, at our spiritual sloth. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we wake hungry and every day we need bread to nourish us. The good news is that every day the living Bread is offered and every day – until we see Him at last – we can feed on Christ anew:

‘Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
    listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
    my faithful love promised to David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

 

Endnotes

[1] Irenaeus, Demonstrations of the Apostolic Preaching. 7

[2] Prov 8:22-30; John 3:35; 5:20; 17:5, 24; 1 Pet 1:20; Eph 1:4-6; Col 1:15-17; Romans 8:29

[3] John 17:4-5; 5:17; 12:27f; 14:31; 17:24; Hebrews 10:5-7; Revelation 13:8

[4]  John Owen, Communion with God, Banner of Truth, 1991, p54

[5] And Can It Be, Charles Wesley

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 1948/2001), p44.

[7] James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, Paternoster, 1996, p3

[8] Charitie L. Bancroft

[9] John 5:39; 2 Timothy 3:15f

[10] Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, SCM Press, 1954, p11-12

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is an evangelist with Speak Life and the Lead Mentor for Union Eastbourne. He is the author of 321 and The King's English.

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